Literary Ladies Cage Fight: American Gladiators -The Toast

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Welcome back, mortals, Artemis here. I see that my last ruling provoked spirited debate. That is good. I approve of spirited debate. My foolish sister, Aphrodite, says that the fighting part is “icky” and she wishes that we could just “like, be totally happy about two awesome characters!” and while I abhor her moronic tone, I must concede that she has a point. It is important to recall that each woman I profile is a hero, and that on a different day, a match could go very differently. My goal is not to denigrate either woman or either book, but to celebrate both in the best way I, the goddess of the hunt, know how: a good fight. Enough feelings. Let’s get on with it. I give you…AMERICAN GLADIATORS.

ColorPurpleThese two women are highlights of the American pantheon. Both authors are activists and heroes in their own right, and their most beloved characters reflect that. Each book has been adapted into not only critically-acclaimed movies (or several, in one book’s case) but also the most wretched of all art forms, the Broadway musical — so no doubt my sister will find it necessary to chime in at some point. These stories, both about women searching for meaning and purposes amidst heartbreak and hardship, continue to engage and inspire readers long after their publications. Despite their deceptively simple tone, these books have much to teach us about forgiveness, grace, and, ugh, even the power of sisterhood. I present your challengers: Celie of The Color Purple and Jo March of Little Women.

Same rules as last time: each bout will last for five rounds. I will declare a winner after each round, and the girl who wins the most rounds will be the victor! Of course, should any fighter knock out her opponent, rendering her unable to continue, then the fight is won.


Round One: Harry Potter House

Celie is the kind of woman you want to invent a new House for. She is loyal like a Hufflepuff and brave like a Gryffindor, but neither House seems to capture the greatness that is Celie. Raped by her stepfather as a teenager, her babies are taken away and she is essentially sold to an old man, whom she calls Mister, as a wife and mother to his children. Her perseverance in the face of her terrible circumstances is awe-inspiring, and even I found myself close to tears several times at her deep well of kindness for the people who’ve wronged her. For her never-ending patience as she waits for her sister to come home, Celie is a HUFFLEPUFF, but it’s a close call.

littlewomenJo March is a little more straightforward. She’s very smart and headstrong, chafing at her quiet life at home. She loves her family desperately and will do anything for them, but she still feels like she doesn’t fit in—she’s too angry, not ladylike enough. She wants to write great books, but she only scribbles bloody penny-dreadfuls that shame her mentor Professor Bhaer. For nearly all the book, Jo is an unexploded firecracker, waiting to go off and make her mark on the world. This will ruffle some feathers, but honestly, I think this House gets a bad rap and one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, so I am going to reclaim SLYTHERIN for Jo.

WINNER: Celie, because, to borrow a tagline from a popular film, “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”


Round Two: Sidekick

Celie, despite her large family (both biological and by marriage) is often incredibly alone. When Celie’s mother dies when she is a little girl, she starts a pattern of Celie losing people she loves just when she needs them most. Her two children are taken from her, as well as her beloved sister Nettie, her stepdaughter-in-law Sofia, and the love of her life Shug all disappear from Celie’s life during periods of turmoil. Although they eventually return to her, Celie suffers the scars of their abandonment, devastated each time she is left alone again. Some might claim that God, the addressee of Celie’s letters, is her sidekick; as a pre-Christian deity myself I do not recognize this God figure. Accordingly, poor Celie come up woefully short in the sidekick department.

Jo also has a large family, which is also increased by marriage, but only her sister Beth leaves her. Despite a fairly antagonistic relationship with her vain and frivolous sister Amy (and boy, can I relate!), Jo is genuinely supported and loved by her gaggle of relatives. Her biggest advocate is her mother, Marmee, who tells her that writing about her sister’s death might ease her pain. Marmee is the kind of woman any literary lady would be lucky to have in her corner, and sometimes when I reflect on her wonderful nature and her stern yet kind parenting style, the room I am in gets very dusty and the dust gets in my eye.

WINNER: Jo, for having a family who helps her grow and change, and does so for the most part without abandonment and pain.


Round Three: Love Interest

What’s shakin’, ladies? Artie was totally crying just now, and when I called her on it, she ran from the room so I’m going to do the next category!! Maybe someday she’ll realize how awesome and helpful I am and she’ll let me do a column all by myself. But probably not since she’s a complete hag sometimes J JK Artie, you know I love you…anywayz—love interest!

So Celie has this awful husband but fortunately Danny Glover’s got an old flame, the fabulous Shug Avery, who starts out loving him but ends up loving Celie! Sappho was one of my fave Greek poets and I think this romance is totally swoonworthy. Besides being GORGEOUS, Shug is a strong, independent woman who takes no crap from nobody. She teaches Celie all about the art of self-love, which as the Goddess of Love I don’t have to tell you I am super pumped about. Shug gets Mister to stop beating Celie, which is on its own enough to make me <3 her, but she also helps Celie get her groove, so to speak, and shows her how to start a business. Celie’s true transformation comes from herself alone (I’ve been reading this self-help book ‘kay? And I’m learning a lot) but if Celie’s journey to self-worth is like baking a cake, then Shug is the sugar (see what I did there? YOU’RE NOT THE FUNNY ONE ARTIE): because without her, cake would just be bread. And bread is good, but not as good as cake.

Stupid Jo, who resists every attempt her sweet sisters make to help her be more girly and pretty and normal, totally messes up in the love category. She turns down the ADORABLE, rich, and lovelorn Christian Bale and marries old boring German Fritz, who’s some actor I don’t even know because of how not cute he is. Because FINALLY going to Europe and being supported while writing and having all the nice things she never had before sounds so much worse than living in a drafty old house with grumpy German Mc Grandpa-pants, right? WRONG. So, so wrong. Jo March, I loved you in “Reality Bites” but I will never understand you.

WINNER: I don’t even have to say it, do I? Celie. Without a doubt. Oh, hey Artie, glad you’re back! I was just helping out and I — HEY! Don’t take the laptop—–

Sorry, ever so sorry…I have returned. And I was not crying. I do not cry. Sometimes things irritate my eye, that’s all. I have very sensitive eyes, which makes sense, as I am the goddess of the hunt and need to be able to track my prey. Speaking of prey…


Round Four: Tragic Flaw

Celie is, in a gross oversimplification, too nice. Horrible things happen to her, over and over, and she just calmly accepts that as her fate. None of what happens is her fault in any way, and fighting back, according to the novel, doesn’t net you much (look at what happens to Sofia: thrown in jail for sassing the Mayor, then forced to be a maid in the mayor’s household). It’s very hard to fault Celie for her resigned demeanor in the face of so much oppression. Still, she does not complain when her husband beats her, not even after Sonia, her stepson’s wife, tells her that she doesn’t have to take the abuse. Eventually Celie finds her courage, and when she threatens to slit her husband’s throat for keeping Nettie’s letters from her, I wanted to cheer. However, it takes a long, long time for Celie to be able to stand up for herself. Again, this is not much of a flaw, but I had to come up with something.

Jo, as far as I can discern, is flawless. She prefers boxing to dancing, trousers to skirts, and the sensible Prof. Bhaer to the foppish Laurie. She is quick to anger and slow to forgive. While my sister and other fools might claim that Jo lacks certain social graces and is too headstrong, I submit Jo is the feminine ideal: smart, tough, and completely uninterested in what society expects of her. In fact, she reminds me a little bit of myself. I suppose her preternatural fondness for her weaker sisters is a bit strange, but nobody’s perfect.


What an exciting match! Right now, our competitors are neck and neck with two points apiece. As we head into the last round, it’s anybody’s game! I do love a good fight, don’t you?


Round Five: Happy Ending?

Celie, at the close of the story, is at last reunited with her sister, who has been raising Celie’s children in Africa. The awful stepdad died (and not slowly and painfully but during sex with his child-bride and that is more information than we needed and much better than the wretch deserved) and Celie inherited the house and the land around it, as well as a small store. Shug is home, hopefully to stay. If it were anyone other than Celie, I would be tempted to decry this ending as saccharine and too-convenient, but the woman definitely deserved it. After the untold trials she’d been through and all the pain she suffered, nothing less than this ending could satisfy readers, who have fallen in love with Celie and her quiet strength. It doesn’t even seem that happy, as far as endings go, it just feels right. Like, here we are at last, at the place we were always meant to be. My biggest regret on the last page is that the reader is not given much of a chance to savor Celie’s hard-won happiness: her sister is home, and boom! It ends.

Jo, after a not-quite-as-sad and not-quite-as-hard life, ends the book in the place she loves best—at home, with her mother and sisters around her. While they prattle on about how happy their men have made them, I am pleased to report that both Jo and even vile Amy maintain they still harbor artistic pursuits outside of motherhood. Jo says she may still write a decent book someday. The 1994 film adaptation posits that this book Jo will write is “Little Women” itself, and given the myriad parallels between Jo and author Louisa May Alcott, it’s not a stretch to imagine. Jo has also inherited a large house, and she plans to run a boy’s school there with her husband. Everything is joyful and bright as the March women survey their lives and their families.

WINNER: Both women end up happy, living life on their own terms, but Celie just plain worked harder for her happy ending (and did so without the benefit of Marmee).

Congratulations to our winner, Celie, and our still-honored loser, Jo. Excellent fight, ladies! I hope you will all join us next time for another scintillating matchup. Maybe I can even keep my sister out of it this time…

Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virgina with her husband and a mutt named Indiana Bones, Jr. Musical theater, pirates, and Sherlock Holmes are a few of her favorite things. Her work can be found on the Toast, the Hairpin, Jezebel, and at her blog.

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