When Rory Gilmore throws aside a thought-piece on the psychology of queues and sits down to write The Gilmore Girls, a memoir inspired by her mother, in last year’s Gilmore Girls reunion mini-series, she takes her first steps onto a well-trodden literary path. The conceit of women finding inspiration and subsequent success when telling the story of their own lives appears in some of the most enduring female-centric stories in English literature.
While she only name-checks Little Women in passing and doesn’t mention Anne of Green Gables at all, it can be safely assumed that the noted bibliophile Rory is at least familiar with the stories of Anne Shirley and Jo March. Indeed, these three fictional scribbling women have a great deal in common, and though Rory’s story is taking place around 150 years later, her narrative arc, particularly in the mini-series, is startlingly familiar.
All three women are writers from a very young age, dreamers who dream more than a role as a wife and mother. Anne and Jo start out writing for popular fiction magazines: Jo writes lurid tales of villains and murder and fantastical beasts. Anne writes melodramatic stories about aristocracy and torrid love affairs. Both have moderate success (who can forget Anne winning the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company prize for her story, ‘Averil’s Atonement’?), but neither achieve their publishing goal until they stop using their imagination and start drawing on their real life.
Rory herself has moderate success, including a piece in the New Yorker, but struggles through a long and sometimes humiliating year of attempting to secure another position, either as the co-writer of a project based on her New Yorker piece or at any other publication. She doesn’t get her writing mojo back until she sits down to write her own story. And while it’s never clarified that Rory’s book is successful, the intimation is that it leads to the television show, creating a fan-pleasing ouroboros.
As a scribbling woman myself, this plot device felt intensely familiar. The denoument of Rory’s journalistic ambitions echoed strongly of Anne Shirley and Jo March’s narrative arc. But given the time at which Little Women and Anne of Green Gables were written, it’s notable that we are still limiting these literary heroines to writing careers rooted in their own domestic life.
At first blush, women receiving recognition for their writing is universally laudable. One of the deepest literary tragedies of history is how very few women’s stories have survived, let alone transcended into the annals of school curriculums and the elusive canon. Where stories about women exist, they are most often told by men, as odes to feminine perfection or cautionary tales of female capriciousness. The authority of the female writer was so miniscule as to warrant an apology for having the audacity to pick up a pen in the first place.
Certainly, the very act of writing remains revolutionary for women writers, a power-seizing move of ownership over the telling of their own stories. It presupposes that not only is her story worthy of being told, but that it is interesting, engaging, affecting, that there are elements to her experience that will resonate with readers, and that only she has jurisdiction. It speaks to the importance of representation when women choose to write about themselves and their own experiences – providing a broader, more vibrant mosaic of the way that women live.
Jo March draws back the veil on feminine life when she writes of her childhood, her sisters, and the delicate business of growing up. Anne Shirley writes of her beloved island home, of daydreams and flights of fancy. Rory joins them in spirit, if not topic, when she chooses to write about her mother, Lorelei, and of her struggles as a single parent to raise Rory with all the privileges but none of the captivity of gilded cages.
It should be noted that while all three protagonists face financial struggles, they are all of them white, straight, abled, and in very little danger of falling into true poverty. The Cuthberts own Green Gables, a prosperous farm that gives them position and standing within their community. Though Marilla thinks it foolish, they are still able to afford an impractical dress with puffed sleeves. At one point, Lorelei is unable to secure a bank loan to help with home maintenance, but her parents are always a phone call away, though Lorelei is loathe to pay the emotional interest on such a transaction. Even the March family who are struggling through the US Civil War are able to keep a servant and the two eldest daughters work in gentile settings: a companion and a nanny. There is the understanding that the poverty they are facing is time-specific, and will retreat once the war is over and Mr March is able to come home.
This is important because it benefits these three writers in two very specific ways: first, they all have the space and time to pursue writing as a hobby and then a career, and second, they are all raised in progressive households where their ambitions are tolerated if not actively encouraged, and live in a world where women writers may not be common but not unheard of.
However revolutionary the act behind these fictional women writing their own story is, it nonetheless comes with an equal and opposite reaction about the limitations of women’s writing, about what space women are allowed to write into, and who holds the final agency to motivate them down the path.
First, the motif is inherently restrictive, and condemns women writers to a very specific, very insular form of creation. In the three example stories, this sentiment of recognising their own space is reiterated and reinforced by the love interests in their lives.
Anne writes melodramas about wild love affairs, and her strongest success in her writings is through a baking powder company – quite clearly a symbol of domesticity. Diana (a character who embodies a traditional depiction of womenhood) makes changes to Anne’s original story, inserting domesticity into the narrative, remaking Anne’s story into something understandable, something more palatable to readers. It is Gilbert who suggests later that she put aside her dramatic tales and write about Green Gables and Avonlea.
For Jo, it is her friend and future husband, Professor Baer who reads her fantasy horror story in a broadsheet and shames her into admitting that she’s not passionate about the subject matter, that she is writing what sells rather than the book of her heart. Though taken as a kindness by Jo, a redirection for her talent, it also takes away her authority and her agency: there’s no guarantee that a domestic story will sell as well as her horror story (or, indeed, at all) and Jo’s focus on writing her domestic book denies her financial independence while she does so. It also creates a false dichotomy: that is, Jo can write horror or she can write memoir, but she can’t do both, and to consider doing so is to embrace inauthenticity. Professor Baer determines Jo’s true self, and then helpfully shares it with her to direct her talents in the correct direction.
Rory finds her memoirist path through her past (and implied future) love interest, Jess, who is a novelist himself, but encourages her to write about her mum. At this point in the mini-series, Rory has failed to secure a commission or a job, contrastingly to Jo and Anne, through her own ineptitude. As a 16-year-old, she wrote a moving piece about carparks, but as a 32-year-old experienced writer, she can’t pull something together about people who stand in queues. She presents herself at an interview, but is unable to come up with any ideas. While it can be argued that she is unable to commit to anything because she is seeking her true inspiration, she’s also being drawn further and further into a domestic path: her lover is getting married, her mother and surrogate father are getting married, and, most tellingly, she herself is about to step into motherhood.
This push back from their outwardly supportive menfolk irritates further when comparing the imaginative space for women 150 years ago (about when Anne and Jo live) to now, when we look at Rory’s experience. Jo wrote under a pseudonym to disguise her femininity; more than a century later, women are still fighting for recognition within imaginative creative writing. Domestic novels are marketed to women, and while men can and do access these stories, it is women who comprise the main audience. But fantasy stories, genre fiction, are marketed and enjoyed by all genders, and the drive to keep women writing domesticity deprives them of the opportunity to not only attract a broader audience, but move with authority within broader spaces.
“However revolutionary the act behind these fictional women writing their own story is, it nonetheless comes with an equal and opposite reaction about the limitations of women’s writing, about what space women are allowed to write into, and who holds the final agency to motivate them down the path.”
That women have been shut out of imaginative work needs no further confirmation than the mire the science fiction and fantasy community finds itself in at the moment: the ongoing, virulent discussion as to what constitutes ‘real’ science fiction and who qualifies as a ‘real’ science fiction writer. Under the guise of bring SF back to its roots of rollicking adventure, the Sad Puppy campaign actively pursued nominations for the Hugo award (the longest running SFF literary award) that met with their criteria of what made good science fiction, in short, nothing that had ‘heavy handed message fic’. The resulting nominations were overwhelmingly from white, male writers.
It should be noted that this campaign in no way reflects the entire science fiction and fantasy community and there has been enormous pushback against the Sad Puppies, and their more pernicious counterparts, the Rabid Puppies.
The more fundamental question being asked (if not outwardly) is this: is there space within the confines of these genres for internal and external conflict, for the building of emotional and physical landscapes, for the inclusion of issues more Earthbound than spaceships or time travel?
To quote Brad Torgensen, one of the initiators of the Sad Puppy campaign, speaking to Slate: A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds…
…A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.
While the Sad Puppy controversy in SFF comprises race, religion, and sexuality as well as gender, it’s pointed that narratives incorporating sexism and/or the oppression of women fall into the ‘not real science fiction’. That is, women writing what they know is unacceptable in this form: their authenticity as writers is not welcome within this domain, and if they are going to bring in ‘women’s issues’ then they are going to find themselves shut out of the community.
To be barred from drawing on their experiences and lives for inspiration in different settings and across different genres creates a walled city for female writing: yes, there is a space for it, but it is here, this space, within these constraints, and as long as women write within this space then there won’t be any ramifications.
Jo, Anne, and Rory (and indeed many women writers) are restricted to writing what could be labelled emotional domesticity: their writing may transcend setting, period, and very occasionally genre, but it must always conform back to a story about a domestic life, one that relies heavily on the emotional life of family and familial relationships, one that glorifies and exemplifies a strong, conventional family bond.
“When we box women writers into a selective space that disallows exploration of themes, subjects, and topics outside of memoir, we open the door to women writers only to shut them into the foyer.”
The values bolstered in emotional domesticity are deeply conservative and deceptively traditional. The stories that are told in the memoirs uphold traditional gender roles, celebrate the freedom of thought of children tempered gradually into the realities of being an adult. Even Rory, who grows up in an unconventional family, exemplifies conservative values by the simple fact of her existence.
By tying their ambitions to their memoirs, the protagonists are tied to their domestic lives; emotionally, their personal goals are now secured into their domestic life, a loop that holds the writer in the space between her writing and her domestic experience. The authors are further infantalised through the minimalisation of her adult self to focus on her girlhood: that her adult self is not as interesting or as worthy of exploration as herself as a child.
Though Jo and Anne have husbands who love and support them, it is in the act of writing their memoir that they move beyond their writing and settle into roles as mothers (and for Jo, pseudo-mother to her students) and wives. Whether this happens to Rory or not is not as clear, though it certainly seems like she will be setting aside her writing after completing Gilmore Girls, at least temporarily to meet the necessary demands of a single parent.
The benefits of women taking and using their authentic voices to tell their stories from a place of authority are far-reaching and largely very positive. But when we box women writers into a selective space that disallows exploration of themes, subjects, and topics outside of memoir, we open the door to women writers only to shut them into the foyer.
Authenticity of women’s experience is not something that can only be explored through one style of writing, and indeed the process of exploration itself requires the re-examination that is only available by looking at ideas and issues from many different directions, taking them apart, putting them back together again, and testing their mettle from every possible angle.
Jo, Anne, and Rory are each presented as progressive, artistic, and independent within their own stories, their writing the physical embodiment of their potential and their freedom. However, when they write their stories, they don’t write tales of their adventures and achievements, but rather quiet narratives of the happiness of their domestic and family lives. Even centuries after Jo and Anne first made their debuts, and a change in medium, the character of scribbling woman represented through Rory still only achieves her ambition and fulfilment by retreating to a traditional feminine trope.
Give us more from our fictional female scribes – give them more.
Photo: Pop art by Ruth Hartnup