The Trap of being a “Strong Woman”

Reading parts of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady (1748) this weekend has been surprisingly mind blowing to me in light of the #metoo movement. I’m referring not only to the allegations against Aziz Ansari that I’ve read about this weekend, but also how some people have lamented that his accuser Grace, in her account of that night, didn’t “fight back” or didn’t more clearly and, more importantly, forcefully resist any unwanted advances. Why didn’t’ she leave? Why did she proceed to engage in several sexual acts even if she initially resisted? When are we going to teach women, our sisters and daughters to fight back and to say “no means no”? How is this anything but a bad date if she engaged in sexual acts with him and continued to stay? Anecdotal as this all is, these are just a few of the responses I’ve read online, and I went from tentatively agreeing with them to being shocked at their similarities to Richardson’s 250-year-old novel.

According to these responses, there is virtue in being able to resist a man’s advances. This is an old-fashioned concept to be sure, and it is a sentiment straight out of Clarissa itself. Lovelace, betrayed by one woman, seeks to avenge his broken heart on all women by using, abusing, and assaulting and even raping them to reclaim his power over them. Though he claims to both love and admire Clarissa, he will only think of marrying her and reforming his ways if she passes his final test: his attempt at raping her. If she is unable to fight him back, she, like other women he has raped, will be ruined and will have no choice but to marry him. If on the other hand she is able to resist him, she will have proved her virtue and have redeemed her gender in general. After conspiring to deceive and confine her and ruin her reputation, he later rapes her while she is drugged, after which Lovelace realizes that, nevertheless, “her will is unviolated.” Unconscious, Clarissa is in no condition to resist him, so she is both ruined and yet still virtuous. Her continued ability to resist Lovelace’s advances and his proposals of marriage, as she even tries to kill herself to protect her honor and avoid a second rape, prove her inviolability. Her eventual death exemplifies her purity is beyond reproach.

Despite the centuries separating this plot from the world we live in now, we still judge women who don’t fit the mold of the self-possessed, virtuous, kickass heroine who clearly articulates “no means no,” and when confronted by continued unwanted advances, even the threat of rape, still somehow fights back. This ideal ignores the fact that there are countless examples of women who have fought back and have been raped and/or murdered, which shows that, when it comes to confronting unwanted advances, the choices are not black and white.

It leaves me wondering how debates around #metoo are based on the continuation and embeddedness of more supposedly antiquated ideas about women’s virtue and how we measure a woman’s power and worth by her ability to successfully resist. For many of us, the final test remains how well women can resist unwanted advances, threats of rape or other means of physical and emotional harm rather than how well men limit making these advances and threats in the first place. What options are we leaving women who are learning to articulate themselves, who struggle to assert their boundaries or are fearful about the repercussions of fighting back?


Representation and Madness in Mad Max Fury Road and Zone One

“In the new reckoning, a hundred percent of the world was mad” – Mark Spitz in Colson Whitehead, Zone One

“If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane” – Mad Max in Mad Max Fury Road

For the last few semesters I’ve been teaching Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One in my Introduction to American Literature classes.  The novel is often a bit frustrating for students to read because the plot is virtually nonexistent until the last third or quarter of the the novel.  However, Whitehead’s depiction of this post-apocalyptic world is beautiful and breathtaking, especially as he describes a human race that’s denying its own fall into madness as they try in vain to return to a time before zombies, called “stragglers” and “skels” in this novel, came to reclaim this world.

The world has ended and the novel starts during the days of its reconstruction.  Mark Spitz, the novel’s protagonist who works in Zone One with other teams to sweep resettled parts of Manhattan for remaining skels and stragglers, muses on how, “big groups were in again: the elite antsy to drop their pawns, and the pawns hungry for purpose after so long without instructions…” (88).  Although seemingly well-protected settlements survive to reestablish a society that mirrors the culture, politics, and capitalism that we once knew, humanity is devouring itself outside of those barricades.  And within, the survivors struggle to keep their PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Survivor Dysfunction) at bay.

Despite the clear differences in the setting and the conditions between Zone One and the 2015 Mad Max reboot Mad Max Fury Road, there are fascinating similarities in the stories they tell about the madness that rises, who survives, and what institutions remain and are toppled after the apocalypse.  Max, like Whitehead’s protagonist Mark Spitz, is surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, except he cannot kept his madness away.  It helps him survive.  Visions of the dead haunt and protect him against the uncontrolled villainy of the War Boys who serve King Immortan Joe, a tyrant who has his people clamoring for every drip of water he deigns to give them. Like Mark Spitz, Mad Max reflects that “As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy.  Me…or everyone else.”

Notably, despite the chaos that these worlds have fallen into and the new orders that arise, both Mad Max Fury Road and Zone One contemplate the survival of the status quo, specifically class, gender, and racial inequality as well, all of which are pose just as much threat as zombies and Immortan Joe and the War Boys.

In the face of all this, representation and agency become important in how these stories are told.  Whitehead reveals towards the end of Zone One that the protagonist and narrator of the story is black, making his madness and ability to survive, his suspicions about the institutions that will return, and his place in this new world take on a different meaning.  He begins to identify with the zombies coming to reclaim “the broken city” and to feel that for the first time in his life, this broken world is finally his for the taking…if he can continue to live.

Mad Max Fury Road is a film that’s just as much about the madness of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as it about Max’s own mental instability in a world where everyone has lost their minds.  Her madness and those of the Immortan Joe’s five wives, whom she smuggles out of his tyrannical desert compound, calls them to action and to fight every insurmountable challenge to the death.  In her wake, Max escapes his own captivity from one of the War Boys, Nicolas Holt’s Nux, and both he and Nux are inspired to help Furiosa and her fellow female road warriors fight Immortan Joe’s economic and patriarchal tyranny.  Faced with the insanity of the wasteland that surrounds them Furiosa tells Max, “You never gonna have a better chance [at] redemption.”

It seems that there’s always a ongoing, unending conversation about the threat of racialized bodies and female bodies and how to regulate, punish, and legislate those bodies to keep society safe.  In Mark Spitz, the zombies, Furiosa and her road warriors, those black and female bodies are allowed to go mad with power in these texts.  They fight, they rage, they go crazy and they kill to take back their land and liberate themselves.  They don’t destroy the world, but they try to make new places for themselves and others to own and in which they can live freely.  What a time to be alive.