Popular feminism demands positive representations, aspirational role models, hopeful outcomes. This is a newish development, one totally at odds with the radical feminism of the second wave, but not without some precedence in such first wave feminist utopias as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. There is a stubborn anti-feminist streak at work in this demand for aspirational feminist stories and characters, for a demand for role models of feminist perfection, for stories that reflect desired futures rather than current or past realities, fails to grapple with the blindness of wishful thinking. There is a certain snobbery in insisting on these perfect role models, but perhaps more crucially an insistence on such role models is equally an imposition of high standards: to be a feminist is to attain perfection by feminist standards, an inversion of the perfection demanded by patriarchy. Many of the heroines most frequently cited by pop feminist writers are held, or hold themselves, to ludicrously high standards: Hermione Granger, from J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, is brilliantly gifted, but she works herself nearly to death for her perfect grades and has literal nightmares about failing her exams and disappointing her professors; Mulan is not only a monumental warrior, but she always wins, has to win, against incredible odds; Tris Prior, from Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy has an inborn talent as a fighter and leader, and she quite literally has to save the world; Mary Poppins can not only do magic and reunite the (patriarchally structured) family, but she is, and must be in her own estimation, "practically perfect in every way." These aspirational heroines must be smart, strong, quick, confident, and still, attractive to men. A heroine is not automatically a feminist role model because she's "smart," especially when she has to be beautiful (complete with relatable flaws, like being "too thin" or having freckles or bushy hair) and snag herself a love interest. These heroines may live enviable lives and reap enviable rewards, but success should not be the measure of a feminist. To stress the undesirability of such a measure, if success were the metric by which a heroine's feminist credentials were verified, the wealthiest and most privileged would be more feminist than poor and disempowered heroines.
There's little resistance to feminist novels with mentally ill or simply tortured protagonists, perhaps because these protagonists could usually still, in a sense, be role models. Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook is a brilliant novelist, someone the reader can love, someone that a smart feminist can relate to without self-hatred. Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is a promising student, capable of attaining an internship at a glamorous magazine - her descent into mental illness and the fears that characterize it, the traumatic sexual experiences, are again relatable. These breakdowns are negative in that they cause pain (and provide evidence for the oppression of women under patriarchy), but they do not make the protagonists unlikable, or defective as feminist role models. They are not so much aspirational as relational. Despite the darkness in such novels, they are not hopelessly bleak precisely because their heroines' real-life counterparts are offered a sense of solidarity through the depiction of this mental illness. These heroines are unhappy, but they also attract a certain degree of admiration, if only because they are talented and brilliant.
There is a tendency to insist on the feminism of heroines of novels in which any feminist politics is totally lacking. Frequently cited examples include Eowyn from J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Becky Sharp from William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair. This can be a valid critique and certainly a re-interpretation need not reflect the politics of the author, but I'm rather more concerned with the feminist novel that is uncompromising in its bleakness, even as it is framed within a feminist politics. The heroine of such a novel is no heroine at all - she is not only unlikable, but lacks the qualities we demand of feminist role models: inner strength, moral fortitude, an insistence on self-governance, sexual confidence, capability, intelligence, positivity. The possibility of a positive outcome for the heroine is simply nil. She is not a survivor, she is not rebelling against patriarchy. Can such a novel still be feminist?
I think so. Doris Lessing's The Grass Is Singing, her first novel, offers an example to work with. The book, originally published in 1950, is set in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. In the novel, Mary is anything but a feminist role model. She is convinced of a desperate need for a husband when she overhears the pitying conversation of friends. They believe she'll never get married because she's got "something missing somewhere" and proceed to ridicule her youthful clothes and her aging body (she is in her early thirties). This is enough to make her frantic to get married, though she has no interest in being married, and actively loathes the idea of sex. She is not especially smart, not especially capable, and gradually becomes less and less capable, less and less independent, as she sinks into the boredom of life on an isolated, unsuccessful farm. She is awkward and considered snobby by her neighbors, who grow to loathe her. She is not pretty, not confident, not kind, not positive, not intelligent. Worst of all, she is horrifically, explicitly racist. The meat of the novel is in her relationship with her black "houseboy," Moses, a bitter struggle that each engages in for dominance over the other, characterized as much by pity, reliance, and abhorrent attraction as by hatred and fear.
Even so, I would argue that The Grass Is Singing advances a feminist politics. Mary Turner isn't an aspirational role model, but she is a woman enmeshed in the oppressive conditions of patriarchy, a patriarchy rendered all the more brutal in the context of colonialism and apartheid. No utopian outcomes are posited. In a world in which women are subjugated to their husbands' rule and black men and women suffer constant brutality under white colonial rule, violence and trauma determine the fates of the Lessing's characters. She doesn't oppose reality with a rosy hued picture of what should be, but reflects everything that is wrong with the reality as it really was.
Mary is a victim of oppression and so is Moses. The violent ends that they meet, the inevitable outcome of their struggle to assert dominance over each other, to achieve a sort of gendered or racialized revenge on each other, are part and parcel of the world in which they live, a world in which neither of them is free to govern their own lives according to their aspirations and potential. Their rage against the world is turned inward, unleashed on themselves and on the nearest fellow victim - the white woman hates the black man, the black man hates the white woman. If Lessing had offered her characters impossibly happy outcomes - say, Mary leaves her husband and finds a job she loves in the city and Moses is able to complete his interrupted education and escape the tedium and drudgery of domestic and farm labor - then the novel would no longer be feminist, for to posit such fantasy in such a setting erases the obstructions that do and must exist for that setting to exist. Furthermore, these unlikable characters are unlikable precisely because they are shaped, twisted and contorted, by their frustrated desires, by the restrictive ties that bind them to miserable lives, by the injustices of being female, of being black, in a society in which femaleness and blackness have little to no value. Thus, the novel's uncompromising bleakness is essential to its success as a feminist argument against sexism and racism; its characters and plot are thorny, complicated, and discomfiting because in this way the reader is jolted out of complacency. It is not good enough to simply cheer on the rare, lucky person who beats the odds and overcomes the persecutions of misogyny and racism. Far better to remember those, the majority, who do not, who cannot, beat those odds. Only by keeping that majority in mind can we hope to take steps towards true parity of sex, gender, and race. As such, a bleak novel like The Grass Is Singing has a great deal to offer to feminism, far more than any utopia or aspirational paragon.