Image: Jeanne d'Arc au siège d'Orléans / Jules Eugène Lenepveu / Wikimedia Commons
We’ve written before about the problems with depictions of women in classical literature, but while there are countless examples of disempowered women, there’s also a handful of empowered, kickass women who have their own agency and make their own way while fighting for what they think is right. You know, women who are depicted as, well, human. It’s anything but much ado about nothing.
Take Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Though branded an adulterer and forced to wear the letter “A” on her clothing as a form of shaming, she doesn’t let society hold her down, working her damnedest to make the best life for herself and her family despite the difficult time and place (physically and in terms of how society treats them) they find themselves in.
Some of Mark Twain’s works may be known for their overt racism (Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, anyone?), but he did write an entire novel called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte. First appearing as a serial in Harper’s Magazine beginning in April 1895, the story about arguably one of the most kickass women who ever lived was the novel Twain said he was most proud of. Considering he’s considered one of the most famous – if not the most famous – American novellists of all time, that’s saying something.
You can also find kickass women in Shakespeare. Viola in Twelfth Night is perhaps one of the best examples. Shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother Sebastian, she disguises herself as a man, calling herself “Cesario,” and becomes one of Duke Orsino’s most trusted advisors.
Even Greek literature has its heroines. Though a number of Greek dramas are pilloried for their misogyny (and the fact women’s roles were usually played by men), Lysistrata (in the play named after her, Lysistrata) is pretty amazing. Instead of waiting for the men to stop fighting and killing each other on their own, she convinces all the other women to withhold sex until it stops. If that’s not being bold, courageous and pushing for a positive change, then it’s hard to know what is.
The story is unquestionably surreal, but Alice in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland is nothing if not brave. Rather than waiting around for a man to save her – or get her out of the situations she finds herself in – she takes matters into her own hands, for better or worse.
Before it became the cultural phenomenon that it is today, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of the most popular books of the mid-twentieth century. Eowyn is a princess who, rather than sit back and watch while Middle-earth is threatened by evil, decides to disguise herself as a man to join the fight to defend her friends and family. When the Witch-king of Angmar declares that no man can kill him as he leads a massive army of darkness to war, Eowyn proudly reveals that she is a woman – and slays him. Badass.
It can be read a number of ways, but Lucy in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can also be seen as kickass. Often the “voice of reason” among the four children who find themselves in Narnia, she also prefers to solve conflicts by talking rather than simply fighting. She also steadfastly holds true to her values, even when others waver or are tempted by the White Witch (as Edmund is).
Alice Walker’s modern classic The Color Purple is pretty incredible in a number of ways, not the least of which is the character of Sofia. Dealing with extreme sexism, racism, and general bullshit in 1930s Georgia, she isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in, no matter how severe the consequences might be. Take, for example, what happens when Harpo beats her: she physically fights back. And when she’s asked if she’s a maid (an example of racism if there ever was one), her response is all the more amazing considering the time and place she lives: “Hell no.” Oh, and when the mayor slaps her, she hits him back and knocks him to the ground – something which she’s sentenced to 12 years in prison for, after first being beaten by the police.
Kickass women aren’t just limited to works in English, either. It’s a children’s series (or a series for the child in all of us), but Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Långstrump in Swedish) is pretty incredibly badass. Sure, her life at Villa Villekulla with her horse and monkey (Mr. Nilsson) can best be described as chaos embodied (as anyone who visits her quickly finds out), but she also manages to take care of herself, despite only being a child. Plus, she’s the strongest girl in the world – and one of the best sailors
Though they’re not considered “classics” (at least not yet), we can also all pretty much agree that Hermione in the Harry Potter series is kickass. Villainesse readers – and really any Millennials – probably don’t need any explanation of why.
The moral of this story: while women in classical literature were often portrayed as two-dimensional damsels in distress (or whores), thankfully there were also a number of women kicking ass from one page to the next long before any of us were born. In an age when “50 Shades Darker” is the most-viewed film trailer in 24 hours in the history of YouTube, that’s a relief to know.