As a single arguably independent single woman, I must admit I get pretty steamed when I read yet another story purportedly lifting up a “liberated heroine” main character which ends up ultimately being about the girl…getting the guy.
There are very very few “women tales” that aren’t ultimately about finding - even when not seeking - romance (usually with a man) and somehow acquiring (especially if in the qualifying fertility age-range) children.
Name one off the top of your head. I bet you can’t.
From my experience, Barbara Streisand’s film version of Yentl is one. She is someone who wants more than anything to study the Torah, and she dresses up as a boy to do so at the Yeshiva. Even though she falls in love with a guy while studying there, the end of the story has her finding her heart’s true delight as she sets sail to America to become a rabbi.
As much as we may assume Judeo-Christian faith and tradition are primarily about narratives that are patriarchal and sexist, the truth, I think, is that they’re filled with stories that are often surprisingly matriarchal and feminist.
For one thing, and this is for another blog, if you look at the Bible and ask which characters in just about every story are moving the action along, it’s the women. The men are often silent and reactive, the beneficiaries of women’s cleverness and chutzpah.
In addition, Jesus is often described as a “feminized” man: his most notable characteristics are humility, mercifulness, loving kindness, peacefulness — “softer” traits often associated with women. This is one of the big reasons this Messiah was considered so radical.
Scripture’s surprising reversals of status, coupled with happy endings (which Bible stories almost always ultimately have), are some of the big reasons the Good Book, imho, is comic in nature, intended to make us laugh and experience great joy. God’s ways of engendering life are never relegated to the conventional! Or dull!!
Especially when it comes to women.
As a single, arguably independent woman - now with a nerdy biblical bent - my favorite “woman tale” is one found in “almost-scripture.” It’s a first century AD "apcocraphyl" story that circulated and was very popular and experienced as sacred by many in the ancient world even if it didn’t ultimately make it into the biblical canon. It’s a lot like the rollickingly adventurous Acts of the Apostles (aka in our Bible as Acts), but it’s all about a rollickingly adventurous woman. It’s a volume called The Acts of Paul and Thecla, and here it is in its entirety. It’s not that long. Do enjoy!
As you will notice, Paul and Thecla is, for all intents and purposes, a feminist “anti-romance” that does everything it can to put marriage and family as far from our heroine’s heart’s desires as possible.
At the beginning of the story, we meet Thecla as a beautiful, wealthy virgin engaged to be married. However, when she meets St. Paul, her world is turned upside down.
It’s not because she’s attracted to Paul - in fact, the text goes out of its way to depict him as ugly. He’s short and stocky, with bowed knees and black, bushy eyebrows that form a single unsightly line. Eeewe!
But once Thecla hears Paul sharing the gospel, she can’t get enough of his words. She sits by her window, listening with all her heart mind and soul for days upon end, neither eating or drinking.
Thecla then decides to leave everything behind - especially her impending marriage and her fella - to follow Paul and learn more.
This of course is not received well by her fiancé and her mother, who go on a tear to find her and have her thrown to the lions in the arena.
Starting to sound a bit like the ultimate version of Runaway Bride, eh?
And it’s not just her dreamy fiancé that Thecla summarily dumps. Her fervor for the Lord also gives her the strength to pummel - er, publicly humiliate - the nonviolent (and, hence, Christian) equivalent of pummeling - another strapping suitor who is so taken by her beauty he wants to steal her away for himself as she journeys through town. Too bad, she wants to hear the sweet everythings of scripture, and that’s it. He gets one big non-violent POW!
The Spirit turns Thecla into a real badass! Hear her roar!
And hers will be the only roaring available. That's because when a ferocious lioness is released into the arena along with a naked, defenseless Thecla, the former can’t do anything but trot up and lick the latter’s feet!
There are other wacky (both "ha-ha wacky" and "outrageous wacky") adventures that Thecla has in her pursuit to follow Paul and receive the power of the Spirit.
And, in the end, Thecla’s mom and fella give up. They return to the world of marriage, children, and girl-gets-boy (and vice versa) while Thecla moves to a cave where she lives for the rest of her good, long life. She heals and teaches and administers Christ’s Spirit in all sorts of significant, sacred ways.
How’s that for a feminist heroine?? Stickin' it to the man both literally and figuratively!!
And Thecla is, I think, a “comic heroine” at that. I find it both inspiringly powerful and quirkily delightful to witness a woman blast every female stereotype in such over-the-top-to-the-point-of almost-being-ridiculous manner. Each and every stereotype. Check.
As I noted earlier, one of the main strategies of scripture is to present narratives that shock and surprise. It’s one way the Bible tells us that when we let ourselves fly on the wings of the Spirit, the only thing that remains “conventional” is an oven.
And who operates that oven is anyone’s guess. Most likely it’s that grrrly Jesus!