October 13, 2019

Heroines with no heart

Do biblical babes still make the best heroines?

Take Queen Esther, for example — a noted beauty, savvy survivalist and the savior of her people.

She underwent a year of compulsory primping before ascending the throne; surely such resolve is worthy of admiration. Or what about Deborah, the multihyphenate hero who was at once judge, warrior and prophetess? She helped defeat a Canaanite army, aided by her blood-lusty foil, Jael, who speared the commander Sisera with a tent peg and a mallet.

Who says women can’t do it all?

And yet, a legacy of biblical female complexity has barely made a dent in contemporary cultural archetypes. Today, young girls are screaming for Katniss Everdeen, the kid-killing heroine of “The Hunger Games,” a film adapted from the best-selling trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Were Queen Esther alive today, no doubt she’d be competing with movie stars to swell the circle of her influence.

During a recent event at a New York City Barnes & Noble, hundreds of teenage girls waited in line to meet actress Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss in the blockbuster film (it scored the third-largest box office opening ever, earning $152.5 million its inaugural weekend). “I’m just going to cry,” one girl reportedly said to The New York Times.

The inspiration for this nauseating star worship is a character carved from unsentimental survivalism. In her review of the movie, The Times’ Manohla Dargis champions this rare bird, calling Katniss “[a] brilliant, possibly historic creation — stripped of sentimentality and psychosexual ornamentation, armed with Diana’s bow and a ferocious will.” Although the story does have romance, it is hardly the heroine’s main focus; the fierce Katniss prefers to fight, not flirt. And she does not, a gratified Dargis notes, need a man to save her.

But this invented heroine has no worldly peer. Even while venerating her, Dargis can’t seem to couch her squarely in reality: She is most like “an American Eve, battered, bruised and deeply knowing, [who] scrambles through a garden not of her making on her way to a new world.”

Looking to the Bible for a modern heroine, though, is slightly odd. Women of the ancient world did not possess the same rights to self-determination as do modern women. And in the texts that define them, their voices are often disguised, if not unheard, an inequity that has provided impetus for biblical reclamation and reinterpretation. Contemporary authors and scholars have tried to right the wrong: From Anita Diamant, we got “The Red Tent,” a novel that reimagines early Bible tales from the perspective of the matriarchs; and from Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a distinct brand of Torah scholarship once hailed in this newspaper as “shining a light on biblical silences.” Zornberg even describes herself in the words of writer Maurice Blanchot, as one tasked “to keep watch over absent meaning.”

At commercial movies, meaning can be so absent, a biblical comparison serves. But something is amiss with Katniss’ single-minded survival. She is sometimes so strong, so invulnerable, it is a wonder she has any human needs at all.

“I like to write about women who are total women,” Valerie Weiss, the writer and director of the upcoming film “Losing Control” (in theaters April 13) said recently from her office on The Lot. For her debut feature, about a Harvard scientist who jilts her live-in boyfriend when he proposes, “I really wanted to create a character that was smart and driven professionally, but equally concerned about her personal life, knowing it was her personal life that gave her the energy to be ambitious. If you’re all about your career, it just drains you.”

Weiss could be speaking of herself, having studied molecular biology at Princeton, then biophysics at Harvard Medical School, before finally giving in to her artistic side and becoming a filmmaker. “My mom still says, when I’m feeling frustrated with Hollywood, ‘Maybe you could go back [to medicine] and be in your sister’s practice.’ ”   

Weiss’ husband, Rob, whom she met in graduate school, earned a degree from Harvard Law before deciding to become an actor. They have two daughters, 4 and 8 months. Weiss said she struggled with whether a woman’s achievement should precede having a family, another coincidental mirror of her protagonist, who struggles with the either/or conundrum. 

“In the beginning, she’s thinking, ‘Holy s—-! I haven’t achieved my goals, and I’ve been with this one guy and maybe he’s the problem,” Weiss said. “That’s what this feminist message is: ‘Be on your own; you don’t need a man.’ In the end, she learns that she can absolutely be independent and achieve professionally, but her heart wants love, too, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

In the “The Deep Blue Sea,” based on the play by British playwright Terence Rattigan, Rachel Weisz plays a woman whose sole ambition is love. “She is at once a sensible, capable, intelligent Englishwoman and a mad, keening martyr for love,” critic A.O. Scott wrote in The Times. Is she a less worthy heroine because her deep, primal need for attachment is so deluded and desperate she tries to take her own life? Watching her despair unravel, one vacillates between suggesting a good, brisk walk and wanting to join her for a cigarette.

Is she weak because her torment is internal and not externalized in some deadly dystopian wilderness? (As if physical strength is the only kind required for survival.) What to do with a woman who is no careerist, no Olympic champion, but rather, a woman you know.