Female Stereotypes

Jane Austen's Persuasion contains a famous debate over whether men or women are more constant in love. On behalf of his sex, Captain Harville argues "that all histories are against [women]-all stories, prose and verse," to which Anne replies, "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands."

Through Anne Elliot – and her female protagonists in general – Austen draws attention to the huge under- / misrepresentation of women in literary history; whether helpless victims, wicked villains, or altogether absent entities, they get very few breaks prior to the modern era. In case your memory needs refreshing, let's take a look at two of the most classic female villain archetypes.

Archetype One: The Nag. She scolds, she nitpicks, and she emasculates. Before you know it, you're losing touch with old friends, questioning your manhood, and murdering a dozen or so co-workers. This is the nag of Shakespeare's Macbeth, and she ain't pretty. Okay, so she's actually probably very pretty, which is partly why her criticisms are so effective, but we'll get to that later.

How it all goes down: After receiving a prediction from three old hags – ugly, female hags, mind you – His Highness, Thane Macbeth, is convinced that he will soon become King of Scots. Which is problematic because the Scots already have one – and Macbeth seems like a fairly decent, non-regicidal fellow. Enter Lady Macbeth. Upon hearing that her husband has a shot at the big time, Lady Macbeth shamelessly insists that he murder the king and take his place. When he objects, she begins hitting below the belt, saying that only a real man stabs an old guy in his sleep. You know, after inviting him to be a guest in your home.

Seeing that Macbeth still feels hesitant, the Lady then pulls out the big guns. "I have given suck, and know / How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me." Uh oh... "I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums / And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn." Crazily enough, this motivational speech works, which explains that whole theory about Lady Macbeth being pretty.

Archetype Two: The Tease. She's beautiful, she's unattainable, and she could buy and sell you with the loose change she finds in her sofa cushions. This is the tease of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and she has ruining lives down to a beautiful, strawberry-smelling tee.

How it all goes down: Gatsby has his first encounter with Daisy Buchanan in high school, where they enjoy a passionate romance before he ships out to WWI. In his absence, Daisy marries a fabulously wealthy Harvard boy who's built like steak and practices adultery in his free time. In order to draw Daisy's attention away from the abusive man-bear and back toward the loyal worshipper, Gatsby spends years bootlegging liquor, evading the police, and saving up his money in order to impress her.

At first, Daisy smiles and bats her eyes at all the right moments, promising that they'll be together soon. However, once her husband publically reveals that Gatsby actually worked for his fortune rather than inheriting it (the horror!), she backs out of the whole thing. Then she recklessly drives Gatsby's car into another woman and kills her. Oh yeah, and then she lets him take the blame for it. Did we mention that when the dead woman's husband kills Gatsby, Daisy doesn't even wait until after the funeral before skipping town with the abusive man-bear?

Female characters like these beg the question as to why there aren't more protagonists like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. "I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me," the gender-(stereotype)-bending Scout laments. "For the second time in my life I thought of running away. Immediately."

Get in line.