When It Comes to Femininity, Jane Eyre Beats Barbie Any Day

When It Comes to Femininity, Jane Eyre Beats Barbie Any Day
Mia Wasikowska in 2011's "Jane Eyre." (moviestillsdb)

The release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie spawned much discussion, with media commentators spilling tons of ink or waxing eloquent on the alleged messages of the film. Was the movie another feminist screed seeking to bash masculinity, people wondered, or was it really a knock on the extremes of both feminism and the patriarchy? And perhaps more important, what does real femininity look like?

I think it’s safe to say that true femininity doesn’t look anything like strong, feminist Barbie, or even ditsy, blonde Barbie. Yet because these examples of femininity are the ones placed before us continually, today’s women naturally tend to drift toward one of them.

Recognizing this, I began to ponder some of the other fictitious characters that I know, looking for glimpses of positive femininity that today’s women can glean insight from. I found several, not the least of which is one of my more recent literary favorites, Jane Eyre.
For those who have read Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel—or perhaps watched some movie version of the story—Jane Eyre’s life as an orphan-turned-teacher who experiences many difficulties along the way can seem dark and dreary. But those who take time to read the book will find a picture of an ordinary woman who combines inner strength with grace and dignity to weather challenging circumstances. Here are several feminine traits that Jane Eyre challenges us to incorporate into our own lives:

Principled Womanhood

Let’s be honest: It’s Jane’s principles that make her one of my favorite literary characters. Upon finding out that the love of her life is already married, an anguished Jane leaves him and all of her belongings both to flee temptation in her own life and to remove it from her lover’s life. She refuses to take anything with her when she flees, feeling that the gifts from her lover aren’t rightfully hers, thus causing herself to almost die of starvation as she seeks a new home.
Here, we have a woman who has inculcated principles of morality into her life at a young age and then has the guts to stick to them even when the going gets unimaginably tough. Although it would be easy to cave and follow her heart, Jane recognizes that she “need not sell [her] soul to buy bliss.”

Welcoming to Children

Jane first comes to Mr. Rochester’s house as a governess for his ward, Adèle. Likely seeking to give Adèle a happier childhood than she herself had, Jane sees her little charge blossom under her care. Later, when Jane legitimately could be consumed by her engagement and coming marriage to Mr. Rochester, she still extends kind regard toward the little girl, welcoming and encouraging her intrusion into the daily events of life.

Interactions With the Opposite Sex

As the story unfolds, Jane watches as her employer, Mr. Rochester, opens his home for a house party that includes several single female guests. Observing the flirtation that one of the women practices on Mr. Rochester, Jane wonders why this woman doesn’t seek to influence him in a more positive direction, noting that true loving conversation and interaction would soften him and make him a better man.
Indeed, in Jane’s own interactions with Mr. Rochester, she practices lending a listening ear to him, making sure that the things he tells her in confidence stay with her rather than being revealed to others as juicy gossip.

Modesty Over Extravagance

As Jane and Mr. Rochester prepare for their wedding, the latter seeks to bedeck his bride with all kinds of expensive clothes and jewelry. Although Jane allows some of these, she’s also very modest and practical in her trousseau selections and is content with items that don’t seek to draw attention to her character or appearance.

Improving the Mind

After Jane removes herself from Mr. Rochester’s home and employment, she finds a teaching job in another town far away. But work isn’t the only thing that occupies her mind. She seeks to continue learning, studying the German language on her own and then agreeing to join one of her new friends in learning “Hindostanee.” She doesn’t let her mind dwell on miseries; instead, she fills her mind and time with worthwhile endeavors.

Rejecting Victimhood

If anyone has a right to play the victim, it’s Jane Eyre. A poor, friendless orphan raised by abusive relatives, Jane again encounters abuse at the hands of a cruel headmaster when she is later sent to school. When her hopes for love, marriage, and a happy home are suddenly dashed by the realization that her lover is already married—albeit to an insane woman—she endures flight and starvation in her escape.
Yet after all of these trials, Jane doesn’t turn bitter. Instead, she embraces the challenges that life gives her, diligently doing the work placed in front of her while also returning good for evil when she later has a chance to care for the very relatives who have been so cruel to her.

Taking Jane Eyre as a Model of Femininity

Although Jane’s story is unique in many ways, it isn’t unlike many of the challenges that women in the 21st century face. Some have been horribly abused, both as children and adults. Others have been greatly disappointed in love, facing rejection or even temptation toward forbidden fruit. And then there are always the little feminine sins—the jealousies, coquetries, or gossip—that beckon.

Today’s culture encourages women to give in to these things—to live an unprincipled life that wallows in misery and victimhood, that seeks to further our own beauty and position instead of seeking to help and encourage others before ourselves.

Jane Eyre challenges us to move to a higher form of femininity—one that embraces children, exhibits a modest and principled character, and improves the mind rather than dwelling on victimhood or petty indulgences. Let’s not waste time trying to pattern ourselves after any form of femininity that does otherwise.

Annie Holmquist is a cultural commentator hailing from America's heartland who loves classic books, architecture, music, and values. Her writings can be found at Annie's Attic on Substack.
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