By Arundhati Ghosh

CW: mentions of suicide, self-harm, nymphomania, substance abuse

Depictions of inward, self-effacing feminine emotion have evolved through time and mediums, but their themes remain universal. Society’s inherent overarching patriarchal nature has generated an ever-lasting debate over whether women have autonomy or if they are at the mercy of the situations and circumstances they find themselves in because of their womanhood. This condition has been called different things, indicative of varying degrees of consequence: fear, anger, hysteria. All of them are ascribed the descriptionr ‘feminine.’

There are two main approaches to writing an overly self-aware female protagonist: She will either stumble and trip through life on cracks and pebbles of her own creation until she meets her downfall, or she will ultimately realize that her her downfall was there all along, around her and inside of her, regardless of the extent to which she she attempted to run from fate. Autonomism and situationism are not new schools of thought when it comes to literature or analysis. The former, though typically considered a Marxist doctrine, can be applied to media when characters are capable of choosing their own paths and, therefore, and fully in control of their fates. Situationism, on the other hand, is the idea that one can never escape the course they are on in life. Characters — and, reflectively, people — are byproducts of their situations. 

Men are subjected to these opposing ideas as well, but never in the way women are — the patriarchy has its claws in media just as much as it does reality. There is an inherent over-sincerity and lack of external understanding when it comes to how female characters cope with the school of thought they find affecting them: If she fucks away her sorrows she’s a whore, and if she tries to kill herself she’s just seeking attention. She is unfixable rather than relatable, worthy of disgust disguised as hyper-scrutiny rather than of love. It is rare that female characters get the Kendall Roy treatment, where they’re regarded with sympathy rather than annoyance. 

Because of this, women often take up the task of representing themselves on paper and on screens. Who better to represent a group than members of the group itself? In the following examples, female authors implicitly make arguments for autonomism or situationism, and which is more apt in depicting the desperations that come with the challenges of womanhood. 

Fear Within Autonomism


“And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. Most people pass over incrementally, making a series of perforations in the membrane between here and there until an opening exists. And who can resist an opening?”

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Susanna Kaysen’s memoir is filled with the kind of dry humor one would expect of a young woman at the first of many crossroads of her life. Her story is an unconventional one: As a teenager, she is admitted to McLean Hospital, a well-known psychiatric in-patient care facility in Massachusetts. Girl, Interrupted chronicles her mental health journey, from the suicide attempts that led to her hospitalization to her analytical reminiscence of her time at McLean once she’s an adult. Much of the book is centered around one seemingly straightforward question: Is she really in charge of herself?

Despite appearing, at face value, as the type of story that would champion situationism over autonomism, the memoir relies on the fact that Kaysen is writing it in retrospect from a healthier perspective. She successfully reaches adulthood. This ending is unclear at the beginning of the story, however — prior to introducing the other girls Susanna meets at McLean, she asks herself a deceptively simple multiple choice question about herself: “This person is (pick one).” 

“… on a perilous journey from which we can learn much when he or she returns.”


“… on a perilous journey from which he or she may never return.”

Though it is apparent to readers that the former is what actually happens, Kaysen, in the moment, seems convinced of the latter. Situationism — an ideology based heavily in the idea that you cannot outpace your problems and are more at their whims than they are at yours — would imply that, regardless of treatment, Kaysen would end the book back at McLean (or in a more tolling situation) in a never-ending negative feedback loop. 

Even when looking at Kaysen as a character, rather than the successful author she has become in actuality, this is not the case. She actively chooses to stay it out at McLean even when offered escape, and even while watching other girls, such as Lisa, continuously make attempts to free themselves from treatment. Kaysen does, ultimately learn much: she goes into care at the behest of others, but stays within much of it of her own volition in order to subvert the expectations of her mental illnesses set upon her. She outpaces the idea of fate and of returning to one’s negative traits as the Ouroboros returns to his tail, though she emphasizes her necessary choice of constant vigilance to do so as an adult. Kaysen elucidates the sort of desperation that comes from feeling lonelier or duller or less than throughout the book; the feeling of emptiness in a way that can’t be filled. She ends her memoir attesting to this by way of comparing these concepts to Vermeer’s paintings, with the undercurrent of understanding that, although she knows what it’s like to feel this way, she also knows how to move through it, if not past it:

“And the wall is made of light—that entirely credible yet unreal Vermeer light. Light like this does not exist, but we wish it did. We wish the sun could make us young and beautiful, we wish our clothes could glisten and ripple against our skins, most of all, we wish that everyone we knew could be brightened simply by our looking at them, as are the maid with the letter and the soldier with the hat.”

The fear of not returning from the perilous journey remains even once the journey itself has been taken. This revelation, centered around a portrait of a girl who is interrupted in the way Kaysen’s youth was, her autonomy paused and placed in limbo forever, has Kaysen’s boyfriend telling her she knows nothing about art. Her emotions transcend the page as she feels kinship with a girl in a painting, fearful of what has happened and what is to come, and not knowing if and when she is on pause. It is this same desperation, this near-agony that Phoebe Waller-Bridge draws on in capturing the essence of her character, Fleabag. 


“I want someone to tell me what to believe in.”

“Fleabag” on Amazon Prime

Much of the show’s first season finds Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s endearingly messy titular character falling over herself as she attempts to deal with her best friend Boo’s — allegedly accidental — suicide, a tragic occurrence spurred by Boo realizing that her boyfriend was cheating on her with some unknown woman. Despite Fleabag’s insistence throughout the season that she loves Boo, even and especially posthumously, viewers ultimately come to the understanding that the unknown woman was, in actuality, Fleabag. While Fleabag deals with Boo’s death, she is simultaneously coming to terms with that of her late mother’s, all while attempting to juggle her job (running the Guinea Pig Cafe she once co-owned with Boo), her nymphomania, and her relationships with her remaining family. Viewers experience Fleabag’s thought process quite clearly, as she repeatedly breaks the fourth wall to inject pithy, humorous comments into what would otherwise either be painfully awkward or wholly heart-breaking scenes. 

The second season is milder in nature, with less shocking twists; the main conflict is Fleabag’s budding shared feelings for a priest, seemingly the only person in her life who truly understands her to a point where he’s even capable of seeing her fourth wall breaks. With someone finally recognizing that Fleabag is buckling under the weight of her feelings, we hear the otherwise nervously stoic protagonist finally speak on what’s bothering her during an emotional confessional scene:

“I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love, and how to tell them. I think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far, I think I’m getting it wrong.”

She goes on to liken her desire to the reason many people subscribe to religion; they want to know that what they’re doing is right. The burden of autonomy is lifted from their shoulders. Her previously muted desperation towards finding herself is released upon finding who she considers as a kindred soul. Fleabag says and does things but can’t always articulate why she says or does them. In a society where it is often so difficult for women to find their autonomy, whether it be due to years of subjugation or a more personal lack of thorough introspection — or, conversely, over-introspection — or reticence, Fleabag’s pain is thoroughly relatable. She has the autonomy so many women before her must have craved, but, even then, she is at the mercy of her own emotions, something a patriarchal society considers weak due to its association with femininity. The cyclical nature of gaining autonomy typically not granted to one’s sex and then being unable to reconcile with it due to women being lambasted for being emotional — to a point where even controlling one’s emotions is over-emotional, as doing so is likely to lead to the eruption Fleabag has in her confessional — is specific to autonomism as applied to womanhood.

In the same way Kaysen, at the end of her memoir, finds herself unable to verbalize how she feels about seeing another interrupted girl, Fleabag holds this desperate, agonizing fear of making every choice of her own only for it to not matter at all inside of her until she physically cannot do so anymore. 

Anger Within Situationism


“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar’s protagonist Esther Greenwood attempts to end her life several times in several different ways, ultimately thwarted by her fate as tied to the necessity of forward movement within the plot. She is not meant to die — she is not allowed to by her circumstances. There is a set path for her to exist within, and she is well-aware of this by the end of the book. Although Esther’s journey is similar to that of Susanna’s in Girl, Interrupted, where Susanna laments her paused years and acknowledges that, though her mental illnesses could adversely affect her again someday, she is vigilant about them not doing so, Esther finishes the book only by acknowledging that her grasp on her sanity is tenuous at best without implying that she has a method by which to maintain her existence. 

She is stuck, at the very least within the confines of her own mind, forever flitting from agonized to desperately attempting to belay her pain in the only ways she knows to facing external attempts at subduing her self-destructive tendencies to being technically healed but forever fearful of falling back into a cycle she knows all too well. 

Another, possibly greater influence on Esther’s life’s cyclical implications is the ways in which her mother’s beliefs pervade her own thought process. Much of her character’s turning point and foray into true healing lies in her ability to blame her own mother for many of her sorrows, yet Esther still subconsciously places importance on her mother’s views. Mrs. Greenwood spends much of her speaking time mentioning that Esther should take up shorthand for employability’s sake, just like she did. Although she sees no necessity in it, Esther attempts to do so at one point even while lamenting it. Ultimately, through speaking on her mother’s inability to show “unladylike” emotions and contrasting herself with Mrs. Greenwood in every possible way, Esther finds herself coming full circle by beginning to conform to a new, burgeoning society in a way that her mother felt during her own time. She becomes a subversion of herself. 

Esther puts it the best way, in her own way:

“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”

Unlike characters bound to their self-determination, Esther, though aware of her wants, struggles with making one decision or the other in a manner that causes her to truly rarely decide anything at all. Because of this, her healing wavers but her rage at the world doesn’t, even at the end of her story. She is desperate to become the self she idealizes; the self she knows she wants to be. This is diametrically opposed to Kaysen and Fleabag, who, though entrenched in their autonomy, want to exist in any other possible way.

In the overarching relationship between a character and their real-world identity, much of Esther’s person is tied to her womanhood, and, as an extension, that of the women that came before her. She is her mother’s daughter. It is difficult to imagine a world where women are not widely disregarded, or are not assumed as prey to their feelings. Considering that situationism dictates individuals being at the mercy of the building blocks of their past, which come together to create one’s identity, Esther is cursed to seek autonomy when the tenets of her existence are already determined. 


“I don’t know what I’m doing. I was gonna go home and fuck this guy, but now I just feel so profoundly empty.”

“Russian Doll” on Netflix

“Russian Doll”’s Nadia Vulvokov is brash, bold, and unafraid… of anything but the cyclical nature of life, and the idea that it may lead to her becoming her mother. She spends the majority of the first season re-living the same day over and over again as she attempts to thwart her own death for good, ultimately succeeding in saving both herself and her new friend — a friendship born of circumstance — Alan. Though her first season is hellish enough considering the implications of existing within the malaise that comes with living the same day over, and over, and over again, “Russian Doll” has an even more horrifying premise during its second season: Nadia and Alan, whenever they catch a specific train on the metro, go back in time and become their mother and grandmother, respectively. 

Nadia, like many other female protagonists, has quite a few issues with her mother, Lenora. The latter lied, stole, and cheated throughout her life, susceptible to substance abuse in ways that ultimately traumatized Nadia as a child. Much of the first season involves Nadia dealing with her 36th birthday — her mother is implied to have committed suicidewhen she was 35 — and the fact that she is not her mother in numerous ways, including in life expectancy. It’s a real shock when she, in her mother’s body, inadvertently commits one of the most pivotal and most major mistakes Lenora ever made: She helped a scummy ex-boyfriend steal her family’s fortune. This is hinted at as a major issue within the first season, one that colors how Nadia views her mother, but, when put in the same situation, Nadia, as her mother, accidentally causes the theft once again. 

No matter what she does, Nadia is, quite literally, unable to escape being her mother. Her rage and desperation mount throughout the story as she attempts to turn back time for the second time in her life. The situations surrounding her very existence mold her rather than her being able to choose to mold them. She is desperate to change, and yet, even before she is given the chance to fully do so, she is entrenched within a situation that affects her first. As she says:

“Yeah. Well, you don’t get to choose your genetics.”

She craves the ability to make her own decisions and choose her own path once and for all, but, throughout her story, fate refuses to permit her to do so. She will always be her mother’s child, to the point where she is her mother. Just like Esther in The Bell Jar, the circumstances in which Nadia finds herself are tied to her mother’s life cycle. Kaysen and Fleabag find their personal curses in undergoing the opposite experience, in which they feel as if their fate is entirely in their own hands. Helplessness — ascribed to womanhood when discussing the perceptions of one sex as weaker — is inherent in either situation. 

Ultimately, women are either written as desperate to find themselves, or desperate to become themselves. You are either befuddled by the nature of your own autonomy, or agonized by the situations that lead to your life being a cycle of your — and, as is custom when it comes to writing desperate female characters, your mother’s — most painful memories and least savory traits. Accidental autonomists crave absolution via situationism, and those marked by the situations they find themselves in crave their own autonomy.

Posted by:hothouselitjournal

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