Female Book Characters: Breaking Sexual Ground

By Joanna Horton
Mild spoiler alert.

Books! Women! Sex! These are some things that I like. You probably like at least one thing on that list as well, am I right? If so, you’ll enjoy this piece on women in literature, and how they made readers (re)consider sex. Here are three luscious, lascivious literary ladies, for your pleasure.

Celie in The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1983)

Celie is one of the more complex and stoic characters you’re likely to come across. Repeatedly raped by her father as a teenager, she is forced into an unhappy marriage with a man she fears so much that she cannot even write his name out in full, referring to him as Mr ——–. She writes:

He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, get the belt… It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear men.
(p. 23)

Celie’s sexual awakening begins when she meets Shug Avery, a singer. Shug awakens Celie to the nuances and complexities of female sexuality, with the two eventually developing a sexual relationship. Celie recalls:

First time I got the full sight of Shug Avery long black body with it black plum nipples, look like her mouth, I thought I had turned into a man.
(p. 47)

The Color Purple is told very much in Celie’s voice, with words and sentences written exactly as she would speak them. It’s a novel that almost literally gives voice to a black woman – scary, right?! There’s also a very strong sexual relationship between two women of colour which is largely based on – wait for it! – emotional connection. Shug and Celie provide love and emotional support to each other throughout the book, and aside from being a generally awesome, positive portrayal of lesbianism, I found their friendship very endearing.

Of course, mainstream portrayals of sexy lesbian ladies tend to focus on women performing for a heterosexual male audience. Shug and Celie do not ‘perform’ for anyone  – there is no voyeuristic male gaze present. They are two strong, complex women of colour who have a relationship based on mutual love, respect and genuine desire. And that, my friends, is how you challenge a norm!

Isadora in Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

Oh, Isadora. Where do I start? While this groundbreaking novel had its heyday in the 1970s, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it changed my life when I read it at fourteen. Isadora Wing is the sex-positive heroine – funny, honest, sensual, adventurous, sexually uninhibited. She’s married to sombre psychoanalyst Bennett, but daydreams compulsively about what she terms the ‘zipless fuck’:

The zipless fuck was more than a fuck. It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion … For the true, ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never get to know the man very well.
(p. 11 – 12)

Isadora uses her obsession with the zipless fuck partly to make the (revolutionary at that time) point that women are not always happy in their marriages; that they have sexual desires that extend past monogamy. In doing so, she provided millions of 1970s women with proof that their feelings (of being trapped, lonely, unhappy, unfulfilled) were not abnormal. (Jong has said that she was astounded by the number of women readers who felt that they were just like Isadora.) At one point, Isadora wonders:

Would most women get married if they knew what it meant? I think of young women following their husbands wherever their husbands follow their jobs. I think of them suddenly finding themselves miles away from friends and family. I think of them living in places where they can’t work, where they can’t speak the language. I think of them making babies out of their loneliness and boredom and not knowing why … Not: when did it all go wrong? But: when was it ever right?
(p. 87)

Between her frank and funny honesty about women’s sexual desires and the trials of marriage, Isadora ruminates on the female body (the word ‘cunt’ is used throughout the book to refer to the vagina, with a refreshing blitheness), her intense, artistic family, her past relationships, what it means to be Jewish, what it means to be female, and what it means to be a writer (Isadora, like Jong, is a poet and novelist).

Not only is the book revolutionary, but after the first few pages you want to be Isadora’s best friend. While at points in the book she’s depressed, neurotic and self-hating, her unflinching honesty about this only makes her more endearing. She’s also funny, energetic, charming and bawdy. And unashamedly a feminist – one of my favourite scenes falls near the end of the book, when a young married couple on a train asks Isadora if she’s married:

It took all my willpower to say quite simply: “No!”

“Why isn’t a nice girl like you married?”

… “I don’t know,” I said, smiling hard enough to crack my face.

They were off to London for a vacation. The husband talked and the wife fed the baby. The husband issued policy statements and the wife kept her mouth shut. “Why isn’t a nice girl like you single?” I thought.
(p. 332)

Esther in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

When one thinks of Esther, sex isn’t the first thing that comes to mind – the crux of the book is her mental breakdown, suicide attempt and treatment. But somewhere in all of that, Esther makes a few choice points about women and sex. (This is particularly interesting as the book was set in the 1950s and published in the 1960s, when chastity and virginity were still in vogue.) Early in the book, she recounts with hilarious honesty her sexual experiences with a college boyfriend who got naked in front of her:

The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.
(p. 72)

Later, during a near-seduction with a UN interpreter, she recalls an article (‘In Defence of Chastity’) that her mother sent her.

This [author] said that the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her and start saying that if she did that with them she would do that with other man and they would end up by making her life miserable. 
… Now the one thing this article didn’t seem to consider was how a girl felt.
(p. 85 – 86)

Esther goes on to conclude that ‘pureness’ is not all it’s cracked up to be. She knows that most men will sleep with someone before they marry, thus condemning a woman to purity while leading something of a double life themselves. Towards the end of her treatment, she decides to seduce Irwin, a mathematics professor.

Ever since I’d learned about the corruption of Buddy Willard [the college boyfriend, who’d slept with someone else] my virginity weighed like a millstone around my neck. It had been of such enormous importance to me for so long that my habit was to defend it at all costs. I had been defending it for five years and I was sick of it.
(p. 240)

Esther is not the funny, uninhibited Isadora – she’s much more serious and cautious. But a book about a 1950s teenage girl who rejects the double standard around virginity and eventually acknowledges her own sexual desire is groundbreaking in its own way.

~ Joanna Horton

Walker, Alice. (1983). The Color Purple. London: The Women’s Press
Jong, Erica. (1974). Fear of Flying. London: Vintage
Plath, Sylvia. (1963). The Bell Jar. London: William Heinemann Limited.


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