Where did female stories go wrong?

I just watched Avatar 3D. Once again, the male master narrative rears its ugly head. Although there were moments when I thought that James Cameron might take us toward peace or eco-responsibility, he didn’t. I bring this up because we can trace the failings of most American mainstream female coming-of-age stories to the likes ofAvatar 3D, that is, to the Bildungsroman. That said, it behooves us to reclaim a bit of literary history so that Read and Exceed can demonstrate what went wrong—not only with female master narratives, but also, with male master narratives.

Simply put, the romance is the female version of the Bildungsroman, a genre, which proscribes self-actualization. In many later blogs, I’m going to pursue my interests in and commitment to female self-actualization novels. So I’m postponing a thorough treatment of Abraham Maslow’s work on self-actualizing and mine on the self-actualization novel until then. However, for comparison’s sake, I’ll hit the highlights now. People self-actualize by fulfilling three requirements:

1. pursuing self-knowledge and acceptance;
2. resisting forced and debilitating cultural assimilation; and
3. cultivating a better world.

For an historical perspective on this problem of botched male and female master narratives, we revisit the Enlightenment when the Germans espoused the bourgeois agenda of coming of age through the genesis of the Bildung (Sammons 41). If you’re really interested in this subject you must read Wilhelm Dilthey’s work. Unlike Read and Exceed’s derision of the Bildungsroman, Dilthey believes that Bildung implies “a total growth process”—not a checklist of lessons learned. However, Dilthey also contends thatBildung reflects the “bourgeois humanism” that controls the “German imagination” (in Swales 14-15). Therein lies the rub! How can humanism ethically thrive if limited to bourgeois agendas and suffer the controls of a nationalistic imagination (which seems like an oxymoron to me)?

Doesn’t a bourgeoisie agenda automatically promote an imbalance of power along class lines, excluding the proletariat and the subaltern? In relation to the bourgeois protagonist, all other characters in a Bildungsroman, connect and disconnect “in a remarkably providential way” (Swales 30). This means that, like Manifest Destiny, males are providentially destined to affix themselves to a nationalistic bourgeois worldview. Rightly so, Paul Gilroy objects to this agenda as fascism. We can certainly add sexism to that complaint. Becuase R&E acknowledges the class and national constraints of the Bildungsroman, it rejects any perception that such constraints can foster “a total growth process.” Let’s stand back for a moment and ask ourselves a few illustrative questions. As an accepted 21st century American, can I reject spirituality, capitalism, and individualism and still abide by nationalist ideologies and bourgeois agendas? I don’t think so. Why not? Because those qualities, and others, are the touchstones of the “free” USA today. If you don’t think so, try getting a promotion while touting atheism, Communism, or Socialism. This is exactly why Hollywood doesn’t produce anti-spiritual, anti-capitalistic, and anti-individualistic movies that simultaneously wave the flag and foster self-expression. Basta. Let’s move on from Dilthey and back to our historical review.

The Biludungsroman’s hero matures only if he adopts the cultural norms.  Deceptively, this coming-of-age genre’s initially individualistic focus ultimately metastasizes into an “intensely bourgeois” (Sammons 42) agenda for the male protagonist’s destiny.  According to Edward Stewart and Milton J. Bennett, “Germans, valuing history, conflate personal identity with German ideals” (130). As such, the Bildung perpetuates acculturation—annihilating individualism. Esther Kleinbord Labovitz notes that the Bildungsroman’smale protagonist is “groomed for a ‘calling’” (53) by his culture. In relation to the protagonist, all other characters connect and disconnect “in a remarkably providential way” (Swales 30). Again, this recalls misguided mandates like Manifest Destiny. In Against Race, Paul Gilroy connects nationalism to fascism and the “New Racism”—all of which are reductionist and essentializing agendas. Like Gilroy’s “camps,” the traditional Bildungsromanstratifies society’s members outside the bourgeoisie. Applying Gilroy’s theory to this study, we see that the Bildungsroman fails to fulfill the second requirement for self-actualizing: resisting acculturation. Specifically, the Bildungsroman terminates an adolescent’s coming of age with a blind acceptance of a socially-approved adult role.  All hail the status quo.

Exactly, how does a good coming-of-age story work? Arnold van Genepp details the plot of the typical coming-of-age story in his three-stage cycle: 1) societal separation triggered by physical and emotional turmoil; 2) transition with obstacles, mentors, successes, and failures; and 3) aggregation into the adult world. Like the hero quest tale that eventually leads to a return to the original culture, as outlined by Joseph Campbell, the typical coming-of-age story should question and possibly, reject some status quo values and practices. Unfortunately, the Bildungsroman, although often filled with tasks and trials, doesn’t waver from nationalist ideals and practices. Unfortunately, this idea of “cultivation (Bildung) through a harmony of aesthetic, moral, rational, and scientific education” has flourished since the Enlightenment (Martini 5). Today, competing with only other males (Endicott 42), the bourgeois male is told to come of age through aggressive and competitive.

This brings us to another problem with theBildungsroman: its exclusive treatment of male competition ignores the value of women and female-male relationships. Women are expendable, peripheral characters. According to Bonnie Hoover Braendlin, theBildungsroman’s protagonist positions himself against his “sexual other, the woman” (5), who contributes to his development through her foreignness. Then when he comes of age, she is gone. This agenda outlaws women from the typically male “pissing contests” and ignores more important struggles like those against prejudices. Further, female characters’ auxiliary positions reveal the typical masculinist artistic and literary image of “woman as devil or angel, hindrance or helpmate,” valuing females only in relationship to the male protagonist without a meaningful future of their own (Braendlin 5). Watching most male coming-of-age movies, there comes a point when I feel Dido.  So this disappointing genre spawned an even more disappointing genre–the romance.

For when authors positioned the female coming-of-age story of the romance against the Bildungsroman,  they began with Dido-like characters–weak, dependent, and waiting for male rescue.  They utterly ruined their female characters’ chances for self-actualization. In short, they began with compost and turned it into manure.

My final complaint is that theBildungsroman gyps its adult readers. It depicts an adolescent coming-of-age process that stagnates in adulthood. The rest of life merely plays out upon that “true” culturally-determined self as “individuals” try desperately to understand who that would be and remain true to that image—truncating any future maturation. This is even more problematic for Americans because they have no clearly defined national parameters and rituals for the end of childhood and the advent of adulthood. After all, in America, exactly when are you considered to be an adult? When you can drive? Are drafted? Can legally drink alcohol? Become a parent? Vote? It’s a bit of a mess, isn’t it? And it has an effect on adolescents who, beginning at age 15 with their learner’s permit, start screaming, “But I’m an adult!” Frustrated and without a coming-of-age manual, American adolescents depend upon narratives—written, spoken, and viewed—for guidance to become adults and flourish throughout adulthood. Female adolescents are doubly frustrated as the stories they hear, tell, and view are pathetic mimics of the exclusionary, aggressive, capitalistic American male master narratives, like Fight Club. Dependent on the Bildungsromanagenda that mandates a one-time, male acculturation while excluding women (and other marginalized citizens) from important social roles, the American female romance likewise fails to promote self-actualization. No wonder that the romance—the female off-shoot of the Bildungsroman—is doomed. And, more importantly, is dooming us.

Thank you for your patience, trudging through this historical rant with me. I hope that it will help us rethink the problems of the romance genre. Also, I hope that this historical perspective with help us reevaluate our participation in reading, viewing, and telling the romance’s response toBildungsromane’s promotion of aggression; enculturation into capitalism; and bourgeois ethnic, class, gender, and sexual orientation prejudices.

Avatar 3D. Dir. James Cameron. 20th Century Fox, 2009. Film.
Braendlin, Bonnie Hoover. Diss. Bildung and the Role of Woman in the Edwardian 
   Bildungsroman: Maugham, Bennett, and Wells. Florida State University.
Campbell, Joseph. Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, 1949.
Dilthey, Wilhelm Dilthey. Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung Leipzig and Bern: B. G.
Teubner, 1913.
Endicott, Alba Quinones. “Females Also Come of Age.” English Journal (Apr. 1992): 42-
Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago
Press, 1960.
Gilroy, Paul. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001.
Labovitz, Esther K. “The Female ‘Bildungsroman’ in the Twentieth Century, A
Comparative Study: Dorothy Richardson, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Shrista
Wolf.” Ph.D. Dissertation. 1982. Department of Comparative Literature. New
Martini, Fritz. “Bildungsroman—Term and Theory.” James Hardin, Ed. Reflection and 
   Action: Essays on the Bildungsroman.Columbia: University of South Carolina. 1991.
Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: The Viking
Press, 1971.
—–. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1954.
—–. Toward a Psychology of Being. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company,
Sammons, Jeffrey L. “The Bildungsroman for Nonspecialists: An Attempt at a
Clarification.” James Hardin, Ed.Reflection and Action: Essays on the              
   Bildungsroman. Columbia: University of South Carolina. 1991. 26-45.
Stewart, Edward and Milton J. Bennett.American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural 
   Perspective. Rev. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, 1991.
Swales, Martin. The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1978.


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