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July 22, 2015

Woman Crush Wednesday: Forward-Thinking Females in Fiction and Beyond

Posted by Maya

This week, our collection of #wcw features a diverse group of girls and women across history, genre and culture.  All have unique voices and stories to share. The females here dared to ask questions, to present themselves how they ached (or demanded!) to be seen as opposed to how society sees them, and to forge their own paths instead of following in the footsteps that lead to a much narrower world.  Ladies whose narratives expose crucial and fascinating perspectives we don’t always see make for quite a group of inspiring crushes! Their stories are creatively cultivated in ways that best suit each of them, and we hope they speak to you as much as they speak to us.

Maxine Hong Kingston was one of the first writers I ever read who acknowledged that women are systemically silenced and whose voice encouraged me to raise my own alongside hers. She is also one of the first Chinese-American writers who explored the unique experiences and sufferings of being torn between the homeland in your blood you can never truly understand and the adopted country that was never built for you. Kingston’s writing moved me first, though, in its style and language. THE WOMAN WARRIOR weaves history and fantasy, myth and mundane, experience and imagining, painfully clear depictions of oppression and rousing calls to work towards empowerment --- and Kingston does so with the dexterous, lyrical hand of someone who understands these intersections on a fundamental and personal level. Her images have lingered in my mind since I first read this book over a decade ago, and her language still helps me continue to navigate my own intersections of identity. Maxine Hong Kingston is undoubtedly one of my literary heroes, as her writing embodies the brilliance, fluidity and poignancy to which I aspire. Yet she is also one of the most important voices I have ever read in terms of understanding myself in relation to this country, my culture, womanhood and my own voice. 

Isabel: Marilyn Monroe, from THE BLONDE by Anna Godbersen (and the historical figure)
Icon. Bombshell. Sex symbol. Legend. Marilyn Monroe has always been an intriguing figure because, it seems to me — as to many people — that there is a lot more to her than meets the eye. I got a good dose of Marilyn recently when reading THE BLONDE by Anna Godbersen, a historical thriller that invites us into an intimate reimagining of Marilyn’s life, where the platinum-blonde starlet has actually been recruited by Russian intelligence to get close to JFK and pass along state secrets. What we get is this portrayal of a subtly brilliant Marilyn Monroe playing the fame game to get close the budding politician and soon-to-be president in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, but the real trouble arises when these two powerful figures fall in love. You may think you know how it ends but Godbersen really does keep you guessing until the last page, and the whole time I found myself hoping that it would end up differently than the way that history dictates.

Emily: Kelsea (Raleigh) Glynn, from THE QUEEN OF THE TEARLING by Erika Johansen
Erika Johansen got a lot of (well-deserved) praise last summer for creating one of the most three-dimensional female protagonists in the fantasy genre, a queen who is neither queenly nor beautiful --- qualifiers that, unfortunately, may be considered redundant. But the audacity of Kelsea --- and the radical conception of Kelsea --- goes even further. Kelsea is a 19-year-old heir to a rundown kingdom, so she understandably has very little time for typically “feminine” concerns. Indeed, early on Kelsea brushes off suggestions that she find a king and get started on her royal succession line, and by the end of the book she is adamant that she will share her kingdom with no one. And although she rejects typical gender roles, Kelsea is not a “Cool Girl” heroine, either; she is full of unladylike rage, and often makes violently impulsive decisions that serve and undermine her idealism in equal measure. She’s a jumble of inconsistencies, uniquely flawed but undeniably, deeply human. Oddly, even though the world is full of Kelseas, there are too few of them in literature. Johansen’s protagonist is not only bold for a genre-bound female, she’s bold for any character, ever, regardless of gender.

John: Rhaenys Targaryen, from the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin
In an interview, Martin was once asked why he was able to “write women really well,” to which he replied, “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.” Couched problematically or not, Martin’s point is well-taken: High fantasy writers (most often white, most often male) have long had a woman problem, and it’s nice to see a major speculative series depict not just its leading ladies as worthy of #womancrushwednesday attention, but even its obscure ancillary historical characters. Enter Rhaenys Targaryen, favorite sister-wife (the Targaryens do incest; let’s skirt around this bit, shall we?) to strong-jawed conqueror Aegon I. Yes, she’s described as “lithe” and “womanly” and wearing her long silvery-blonde all the way down and all the other clichéd brands of medieval sexy, but if you stop there, you miss the point. Queen Rhaenys represents the badass feminist side of the conquering Targaryens, who foreshadowed her ancestor Danaerys’ dedication to women and other marginalized groups. Rhaenys was a master convincer, and compelled Aegon to win the respect and devotion of the common folk, for only with their support could a good ruler hold a kingdom. She was also his primary diplomat, facilitating marriages between major houses as far-flung as Arryn and Stark (ahemhemhem --- foreshadowing, anyone?) to secure alliances. On her advice, Aegon ruled it law that the Ironborn could no longer follow their ancestral tradition of abduction and forced marriage, likely making Rhaenys Westeros’ first anti-rape advocate. She was also solely charged with the invasion of Dorne during the War of Conquest, although she came back empty-handed. What stopped her? Everywhere she went, she found only women and children, and refused to watch them burn. Pure conjecture here, but it’s likely safe to say her mercy is a good reason why the independent Dorne eventually willingly joined the Seven Kingdoms as one of the Targaryen dynasty’s most influential supporters. Oh, and she rode a dragon into battle on more than one occasion. A female dragon, which she mastered long before she married Aegon. All hail Her Grace Queen Rhaenys!

Jeanna: AFTER HELLO by Lisa Mangum
Lisa Mangum knows how to write a clever story.  AFTER HELLO depicts the inevitable goodbye in every relationship, similar to the feeling every reader must face after finishing a book --- although Mangum creates something much more complicated than hello and goodbye. She gets her readers to question and wonder what truly has to happen after hello --- can't we, for once, not have a goodbye waiting for us? There is a connection between the author and reader that lingers for a while after the last page. Also, Mangum not only cleverly weaves this gorgeous story on the page, but rather integrates it with an updated website that will have readers a part of the story. This work is genius.

Marco: Kathy Reichs, author of the Temperance Brennan series
My #wcw is the wonderful author Kathy Reichs. Not only is she a novelist, she is also an anthropologist and a TV producer. Reichs, a woman of many talents, has successfully created her Temperance Brennan novel series into the TV show known as "Bones." "Bones" has been featured on Fox since September 2005; its 11th season is set to begin October of this year. "Bones" has become a hit on TV and in return has given Reichs much fame. Even with all that fame and attention she still has time to write and continue the series that her readers love. The 18th book in the Temperance Brennan novel series, SPEAKING IN BONES, comes out September 22nd.

Hannah: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Gilman is a 19th-century female author who influenced the emerging feminist literature of her time and in the decades to follow. I love "The Yellow Wallpaper" because of its harrowing look into the oft-ignored and misunderstood world of society women suffering from a mental illness. The unreliable protagonist is wife to a physician who shrugs off her hysteria. She ends up getting crazier and crazier, scratching off her room's yellow wallpaper to free the woman she believes is trapped beneath. It's interesting, yet saddening to see how mental illness was so misdiagnosed back then, and it makes you wonder just how far our medical system has really progressed...