This is a shorter version of my essay Women Vs. Women, using two examples I chopped out for reasons of length, not quality. The gist of the essay (and this short article) is that in the lives of women, the leading players are other women. They're the villains. They're the allies. Men generally have secondary roles. Margaret Atwood explores this theme in various novels, and Walt Disney explores it in various movies. The Disney movies in the essay are Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty. The example in this piece is the 2010 movie Tangled. The Atwood novels in the essay are Cat's Eye, The Handmaid's Tale and The Robber Bride. Here's the theme as it appears in her 1996 novel Alias Grace.
(Warning - spoilers abound)
In 1843 Upper Canada (Ontario), Grace Marks and James McDermott, two servants, were convicted of the murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Atwood explores this historical incident from Grace Marks' point of view. Dr. Jordan, a fictional character, interviews her at the prison where she's serving a life sentence. He at least purports to project a Victorian propriety onto women, which Grace is experienced enough to see for the flimsy illusion it is.
"Women should not attend such grisly spectacles [hangings]," he says. "They pose a danger to their refined natures." He’s conscious of sounding pompous.
In the course of his travels, he’s encountered many women who could scarcely be accused of refined natures. He has seen madwomen tearing off their clothes and displaying their naked bodies; he has seen prostitutes of the lowest sort do the same. He’s seen women drunk and swearing, struggling together like wrestlers, pulling the hair from each other’s heads. The streets of Paris and London swarm with them; he’s known them to make away with their own infants, and to sell their young daughters to wealthy men who hope that by raping children they will avoid disease. So he is under no illusions as to the innate refinement of women; but all the more reason to safeguard the purity of those still pure. In such a case hypocrisy is surely justified: one must present what ought to be true as if it really is.
Through Dr. Jordan's interviews we hear Grace's life story: her poverty-stricken childhood in England, her miserable steerage crossing in which her mother died, her family's destitution in Toronto, and her eventual employment as a domestic servant. She's befriended by Mary Whitney, a servant only a little older than herself, who shepherds her through this new world, explaining her duties and protecting her from her drunk, irresponsible father.
My father came round at the end of the first month, and wanted all my wages; but I could only give him a quarter, having spent the rest. And then he began to curse and swear, and seized me by the arm; but Mary set the stablehands onto him. And he came back at the end of the second month, and I gave him a quarter again, and Mary told him he wasn’t to come any more. And he called her hard names, and she called him worse, and whistled for the men; and so he was chased off.
But Grace soon loses her only friend. Mary becomes pregnant by her employer's son, whose mother cuts off the relationship and arranges for the abortion which kills her. Grace finds little security in her next job.
But Nancy [her new supervisor] was very changeable, two-faced you might call her, and it wasn’t easy to tell what she wanted from one hour to the next. One minute she would be up on her high horse and ordering me about and finding fault, and the next minute she would be my best friend, or pretend to be, and would put her arm through mine, and say I looked tired, and should sit down with her, and have a cup of tea. It is much harder to work for such a person, as just when you are curtsying and Ma’aming them, they turn around and upbraid you for being so stiff and formal, and want to confide in you, and expect the same in return. You cannot ever do the correct thing with them.
Nancy turns out to be pregnant as well, from an affair with Mr. Kinnear. The town shuns Nancy for the disgrace of a housekeeper having slept with her employer, and she vents her frustrations on Grace. Mr. Kinnear has no idea what's going on between the women of his employ, just like Dr. Jordan isn't privy to the sniping, sometimes violent jealousy Grace endures in the women's prison because of his attention.
It seems Grace has no choice when brought into the brutish stableman McDermott's plot to kill and rob Mr. Kinnear and Nancy, and the courts eventually grant her the benefit of the doubt, hanging McDermott for the crime but sentencing her to life in prison. After all, how could a woman do something so heinous? Ms. Atwood makes it clear in her telling of this true story that a woman most certainly could.
This more recent addition to Disney's fairy tale canon tells the story of Rapunzel. Her mother (an unnamed queen) had been deathly ill when carrying her, so the royal servants found a magic flower, imbued with a drop of the sun, which saves her and grants her daughter golden hair with magic of its own. Rapunzel is soon kidnapped by Gothel, a woman who'd discovered that flower centuries earlier and had been using its magic to continually renew her youth. The King and Queen are heartbroken, and send out floating lanterns once a year to try and send a message to Rapunzel. Gothel raises Rapunzel as her own daughter, keeping her confined to a tower and leaching from her magic hair. Gothel acts the loving mother but undercuts Rapunzel at every opportunity.
You can watch this sequence from the movie here, but here are some of the lyrics:
Mother knows best
Take it from your mumsy
On your own, you won't survive
Please! They'll eat you alive
Ditzy and a bit, well, hmm vague
Plus, I believe,
Gettin' kinda chubby
I'm just saying 'cause I wuv you
Mother's here to help you
All I have is one request.
Mother Gothel: Don't ever ask to leave this tower again.
Rapunzel: Yes, Mother.
Mother Gothel: I love you very much, dear.
Rapunzel: I love you more.
Mother Gothel: I love you most.
Don't forget it
You'll regret it
Mother knows best
A love interest arrives in the form Flynn Rider - not a prince, but a conceited thief (with a heart of gold). On his entrance to the tower, Rapunzel knocks him out with an iron skillet. She wields this kitchen weapon for the rest of the movie, and saves Flynn's life multiple times in a number of ways (Disney will not risk presenting a passive princess again).
On leaving the tower for the first time, even though she intends a mere three day trip, Rapunzel alternates between ecstasy at being in the outside world and crippling guilt at having disobeyed her mother.
Rapunzel: I can't believe I did this. I can't believe I did this! Mother would be so furious. That's okay though. I mean, what she doesn't know won't kill her. Oh my gosh. This would kill her. This is so fun! I am a horrible daughter. I'm going back. I am never going back! I am a despicable human being. Woo-hoo! Best. Day. Ever.
Gothel catches up with her and (using male minions) manipulates it to look like Flynn has abandoned her. She has him imprisoned and sentenced to death. He escapes and returns to rescue Rapunzel, who has pieced together her royal origin and kidnapping. As he climbs into the tower Gothel stabs him in the back with a dagger. Rapunzel, tied up, offers to live in servitude to Gothel for the rest of her life if she can use her hair to save Flynn. As his last act, he cuts off her hair with a piece of broken mirror, neutralizing her power, aging Gothel hundreds of years in an instant, and she stumbles and falls out of the tower to her death. But Rapunzel's tear heals Flynn's wound, he comes back to life, she's restored to her parents, marriage, joy in the kingdom, happy ending. So the main movers in the story are female, and the key relationship is that between a step-mother and daughter.
So something I didn't address in the essay (because I don't have an answer) is - why? Why are women more important in the lives of women? Why do women relate more to the experiences of other women? I can't claim to know this definitively, but my guess is that women more often get emotionally engaged in a novel (or a movie or a TV show or a comic book) if the main character's female. Women will more often be inspired by the accomplishments of another woman. And they'll be jealous of the successes of another woman.
As I describe in another piece, most men, if presented with a novel/movie/TV show/comic with a female lead, will avoid it like an anthrax sandwich. My guess is that this comes from men having inherited a position of privilege and dominance in the power imbalance between the sexes. So do women relate to the experience of women - whether positively or negatively - because of this same imbalance of power? Has this social dynamic made us see the differences between the sexes as being vastly greater than the similarities?
Or is there something else going on with all of this?
Are these impressions mistaken altogether?