Written for “The Hairpin”
As a “twenty-something” young woman in college, I am constantly on the lookout for female role models—my yoga teacher, Erin Andrews, and Kirsten Gillibrand have made the list so far. But what if our current young adult literatures offer up an unappealing image of female authority figures? We’ve spent so much time discussing whether Bella and Katniss are worthy role models for young girls that we’ve neglected to ask whether those same novels offer girls positive role models for thirty years later? Why, in young adult fiction, do we have older female authority figures that are both hyper-feminized and morally repugnant?
Take, for example, Dolores Umbridge of the Harry Potter series. Umbridge actualizes her thirst for power as she enables Voldemort’s return. Though she starts as a pesky teacher with a penchant for pink and corporeal punishment, she quickly turns into a full-fledged villain. Her over-feminized display masks a mean streak, deemed inappropriate for a female in power.
Effie Trinket of The Hunger Games plays a similar role, coating the ideology she represents with her sugary catchphrases and pink outfits. She is an indirect enabler, enforcing rules and instilling order. Even her name, “trinket,” means an ornament of little value. She is first introduced at the reaping, an event with the sole purpose of imposing social hierarchy. Katniss describes her as,” Bright and bubbly as ever…her pink hair must be a wig because her curls have shifted slightly off-center” (Collins, 20). Alarming femininity? Check. The description continues, “She goes on about what an honor it is to be here, although everyone knows she’s just aching to get bumped up to a better district where they have proper victors, not drunks who molest you in public.” Fakeness? Power mongering? Check and check. Effie performs her gender; perhaps because she knows no other way to win the power she wants.
Umbridge and Effie are antagonistic because their “pseudo-niceness” enables a greater antagonistic force to exert its power. One obvious similarity is their appearances. Both are disgustingly obsessed with the color pink. Pink clothing, pink hair, pink make-up. Both are part of an elite upper class. Each gains power, but at great cost to their character. They must perform their gender to gain status in ways that are unnecessary for male villains. This performative aspect of their femininity at an older age vilifies them. President Snow and Voldemort are “strong, silent types,” men who evoke fear in the reader. By contrast, the hyper-feminization of powerful females elicits contempt, not fear.
Effie and Umbridge’s loyalty-at-all-costs to their respective bosses reflect a need to appease a higher male authority. Despite being formidable in their own right, both women are subservient to more powerful male figures, merely enforcing their rules. They are hyper aware of how their actions appear to the men above them because that will determine their upward mobility. In “Ways of Seeing,” John Berger sums up this phenomenon. “Men act and women appear,” he notes. “A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. The promised power…is always exterior to the man.” President Snow and Lord Voldemort possess political, social, and sometimes physical power over their subjects. Their power is exterior to their physical appearances.
Conversely, female power lies directly in physical appearance. Berger holds that, “a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude toward herself and defines what can and cannot be done to her.” Given that, it is safe to assume Effie and Umbridge feel that by playing up their femininity, they stand to gain more. They think they must perform for power, which makes it a reality. Berger also tells us that women must constantly watch themselves because how they appear to men determine how they will be treated, not just by men, but by society. Effie and Dolores can earn trust from their male superiors by performing as feminine and docile. Their cutthroat personalities are too threatening to a society in which the male gaze determines social power and privilege while older women are supposed to die off quietly.
The vilified older female is by no means a purely 21st century phenomenon. Powerful women have always been villains. The romanticized “ideal woman” of the 19th century simply never was. Take, for example, Mademoiselle La Rue of the novel Charlotte Temple. La Rue is yet another hyper-feminized older female villain. She wields power over the young protagonist, Charlotte, while simultaneously manipulating the men around her. She differs from modern examples because she does not answer to a specific higher male authority. She does, however, navigate her way between Charlotte and the men in her world. While Umbridge and Effie are hyper aware of how their male employers view them, La Rue is hyper aware of how her appearance and behavior appear to men more broadly. She uses that knowledge to tailor her appearance to appeal to men as non-threatening. She influences and manipulates men by masking her cutthroat nature, just as Effie and Umbridge do. La Rue determines her destiny in ways that Effie and Umbridge cannot because she has no individual male superior. However, her persona is still defined by how men see her. She too, cannot escape the male gaze.
So what does this mean for women? In a culture obsessed with commodifying beauty, we also hold people in contempt who go great lengths to achieve that beauty. A woman is either an Ice Queen or the Perfect Mother-Wife. This paradox is being reflected in our young adult literature and fortunately, I think we’re beginning to recognize the problems it poses. The public scrutiny of women like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin has made us aware of our own troublesome prejudices. We are uncomfortable with powerful women who aren’t willing to put on a show for us because we don’t know what those women should or could look like. We want to live in a world where power and responsibility are privileges to be respected, not vilified, no matter what the person in power looks like. And that’s the world we want young girls reading about— a world where Bella and Katniss can grow into women who are respected and revered for ideas, not appearance.