Fictional Liturgy: Sarah, Plain and Tall & Feminism

The advent season is upon us and to countdown, the Keep Calm and Read On Blog will be hosting 4 weeks of Fictional Liturgy. Fiction, as discussed in a post I wrote for MuggleNet back in October, has the power to create empathy and teach the reader. It requires reflection. Good fiction contains wisdom. In these 4 blogs I plan to focus on a cultural issue and a specific work of fiction ranging from novels to films, while sprinkling in some personal notes from time to time. I wrote them as one would write a sermon…or at least how I imagine one writes a sermon. I do not claim to be a Biblical scholar nor do I claim these pieces of fiction I reference to carry more weight than the Bible. These posts will reflect my beliefs but I hope they will also reflect the message of Jesus and his vision of the Kingdom. Merry Christmas.

“Screw writing ‘strong’ women.  Write interesting women.  Write well-rounded women.  Write complicated women.  Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner.  Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband.  Write a woman who doesn’t need a man.  Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks.  THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN.  Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people.  So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong.  Write characters who are people.” – Madlori on Tumblr.com

Growing up, I always considered myself to be a tomboy. I enjoyed playing sports, drawing dinosaurs, and playing with Power Ranger figurines. But I also loved to create dance routines, play with Barbie dolls, and watch Disney Princess movies. None of this amounted to much in my eyes. As far as I was concerned, I was just being me. It became clearer and clearer the older I grew that their were social norms set aside for boys and girls. I can’t say I paid much attention to them nor did they bother me. But looking back, I can see where I was hindered and can see where I will be hindered in the future because I was born a girl.

Gender inequality was something I grew up hearing about but was blind to until late in college. I saw the inequality in the way men I dated treated me and spoke to me. I saw inequality in the workplace when a man’s word was held in high regard and mine wasn’t even considered.

What was most apparent, ironically, was the privilege I had grow up knowing. I had grown up, for the most part, not being held back by my gender. Sure there was the occasional gender shaming incidents that I recognize (girls wear dresses and makeup not sweatshirts, girls shouldn’t play Call of Duty) and while it bothered me, my go to reaction was to forget about it (whether that is a good way to handle a situation is still something I am trying to figure out). After all, what did these people know? I would do what I wanted. Rules are things we created. The way I saw it, who was actually right?

What also brought the issue of gender to the forefront of my brain was Emma Watson’s famous He for She speech. At one point in the speech Watson says,

“When I was 8, I was called bossy because I wanted to direct a play we would put on for our parents. When at 14, I started to be sexualized by certain elements of the media. At 15, my girlfriends started dropping out of sports teams because they didn’t want to appear masculine. At 18, my male friends were unable to express their feelings.”

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In some ways I could relate and in others I could empathize. Growing up with the Harry Potter films and witnessing Emma Watson’s career made me very hyper aware of the oversexualizion of girls and women in Hollywood. It’s hard to miss when you see some of things posted about her on the internet specifically in conversation about a modeling photo.

Coming to terms with this reality that we live in a gender biased world, it is important that the characters we encounter shouldn’t be limited to these constraints. Perhaps the inequality should be an obstacle for a female character but she herself shouldn’t be limited because she is a girl. She should be just as complex as a male character. The importance of well written female characters is therefore crucial to rid readers and thus the world of the learned trope that women constantly need saving and women are fragile creatures. Female archetypes are easy to swallow whether they be weak and vulnerable or strong and independent. As the quote that started this blog stated, a woman should be interesting because she is a person. She can be vulnerable and independent, at the same time. That is okay. To see my list of interesting and well written women of literature and general entertainment, stick around at the end of this blog post for a short list.

Too often female characters are used as plot devices rather than being actual characters. The guy needs to get the girl, so she is his reward. She will stand by him and argue with him and love him because that is what he needs, but she will lack the complexity given to her male counterpart. See the difference?

Or take a movie like Disney’s Frozen. Lots of people think that movie is pro-girls but it actually isn’t. The film makes Anna the main character when Elsa should have been the main character. If Elsa was the main character and we followed her toward her resolution, the themes of the film would be changed and Disney desperately wanted those themes to be in their film. Why, you ask? Because Disney has been under attack for not having credible female characters in their films and they felt they needed their theme of sisterly love vs. a guy and girl falling in love like usual. Therefore, Elsa was a plot device and not a character. She wasn’t good. She wasn’t bad. She was just there to sing Let It Go.

Another thing Disney does is try to show that their female characters aren’t perfect feminine creatures, hence they include Anna singing how she isn’t sure if she is gassy or not. Okay…fine. But this brings about a lot of flat dialogue.  In a review of the film, YouTube channel Critical Hit states,

“I think there is a stigma behind certain demographic of things. It’s easy to say ‘oh hey, it’s just a movie for little girls.’ But there’s so much problems with saying that. It’s saying that little girls only understand stupid dialogue.”

To watch their entire video, click here. Frozen is a perfect example of this issue with female characters in media.

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And for the record, I think most of the Disney princesses are good characters and role models. You can read my blog post on the issue here.

But moving away from my Frozen tangent, the female character I decided to shine light on for this blog is Sarah Wheaton, the title character of the children’s classic chapter book Sarah, Plain and Tall. I first read this book when I was in 4th grade. Our class sat together in a circle at the front of the classroom with our teacher and took turns reading out loud (something I always enjoyed as a kid). When we finished the book we watched the Hallmark adaptation. The incredible Glenn Close played Sarah who only a few years previous played Cruella DeVill in the live action 101 Dalmatians. It was very strange for me to see Close as anything but an evil puppy snatcher! But the film stayed with me for my entire life and continues to be a favorite which isn’t something I hand out to Hallmark films like…ever. It’s a big deal people.

What makes Sarah a great female character who channels what feminism is all about? As much as I would like to write up my own beautifully worded statement with profound sentences and lovely imagery, I believe Scholastic’s description does it much better in this statement which I have condensed below.

“She does not hesitate to tell him things about herself that he may not like. ‘I am strong and I work hard and I am willing to travel. But I am not mild mannered.’ When Caleb tells her that women don’t wear overalls, Sarah simply says, ‘This woman does.’ It is through direct, blunt statements that Sarah shows her independence. She wants to be able to do things on her own. Sarah insists that Jacob teach her things: ‘I want to learn how to ride a horse. And then I want to learn how to drive the wagon.’ We also learn that Sarah can be stubborn when she has her mind set on something. Sarah is the type of woman who does not like to be told what she can and can’t do, or what she is or is not capable of doing. She is willful and determined. Jacob tells her that he has to fix the roof right away before a bad storm comes. ‘We will fix the roof,’ Sarah tells him. Sarah is a free spirit. She does things that make her happy, even if other people might think her actions are unusual or silly. This is shown when she decides to teach the children to swim in the cow pond, a possibility the children had never considered before. There is also a soft, gentle side to Sarah’s personality. She likes to pick wildflowers to dry and hang up. She likes to brush Anna’s hair and pull it back with pretty ribbon. Sarah loves animals. She brings her gray cat, Seal. Sarah befriends the chickens Maggie gives her.When a lamb dies, the reader also sees that Sarah is protective of the children. Sarah does not allow Anna or Caleb near the dead animal, and she sits on the porch alone after Jacob buries it. The gentle side of Sarah’s personality is also shown in the way that she misses her home and her brother and aunts she left in Maine. ‘I miss the sea.’”

In my opinion, this character description by Scholastic perfectly encompasses why Sarah is a character we should strive to introduce to girls and boys at a young age. Sarah shows that women are more than pretty dresses, obedience, and kitchen inhabitants. And if a woman chooses to be any of those things of her own accord, that is also okay.

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Sarah is happy and sad to live in Kansas. She loves the children, Anna and Caleb, but misses the sea. She is greatly disturbed by the death of an animal and rises to the challenge to fix the roof. She is an interesting and realistic character. She is the woman from the quote that began this blog.

About now you may be asking why Sarah and feminism need to be discussed when it comes to God and the Bible. From the very beginning of Genesis, Christians begin to believe that the correct interpretation of Eve coming from Adam is that she is to serve him. From that point of interpretation onward our beliefs are fueled by the popular Bible stories we were taught in Sunday school and a disregard for the rest of scripture and the historical and literary aspects of scripture for a sanitized reality. This idea is currently being debunked by folks like Nadia Bolz-Weber (Pastrix) and Rachel Held Evans (A Year of Biblical Womanhood) but it seems the lie still exists that women are a construct created by God to appease men. Does God love us women less? Does God play favorites? I thought he loved us equally? Or is it that women, like the LGBTQ community discussed last week, are plagued with a lifelong prejudice that will disappear when society lets go of their pride?

One of my favorite passages in the Bible comes from John 20:1-15. It reads,

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance… Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “[Teacher]!”

This scene of Mary recognizing Jesus is such a poignant and beautiful representation of the humanity that exists within women. Mary is afraid but loyal; sad yet overwhelmed by grace. She is human. This passage says more about women than every single one read to me before. Mary’s actions are seemingly a passing moment rather than a teaching moment. But it is the non-teaching moments that often teach us the most.

But why else are good female characters important? They are not only important to understand the complexity of women but also the complexity of men. Going back to Emma Watson’s He for She speech, she says,

“We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are. When they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.”

Men too need to understand that no one can exist within stereotypes. They too can be vulnerable while also a standup guy. They can be afraid but also brave.

This is why we all must strive to embrace feminism. Not the belief that men are stupid but the belief that there is equality between the sexes and that a woman’s voice is as valued as a man’s.

Sarah reflects this idea of feminism. She embodies the idea that women are human and are to be just as valued as men. As Christians, it is time we learn to understand that so we can unite and enforce the love that Jesus spoke about.

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Great and Interesting Female Characters

  • Susan Sto Helit (Soul Music, Hogfather, Thief of Time by Terry Prachett)
  • Cecile (Bonjour Tristesse)
  • Lizzie Bennett (Pride and Prejudice)
  • Sansa and Arya Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)
  • Fiona Gallagher (Shameless U.S.)
  • Melina (Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson)
  • Katara (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
  • Korra (The Legend of Korra)
  • Sylvie (Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson)
  • Sam (Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobosky)
  • Hermione, Luna, Molly, Minerva (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling)
  • Belle (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)
  • Angus Towler and Ms. Martyl (ITV’s Mr. Selfridge)

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