Friday, 13 May 2011

The long and the short of it (version 2.0)

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I posted on this a few days ago, and then changed my mind and removed it. The ex-academic in me wasn’t happy with what I had written about Shakespeare - it seemed a bit disjointed and not very well argued and explained. I liked the premise of the post though, so I have been thinking about it since. Then, this morning, I had an idea while in the shower.

I started thinking about this post because I am listening to the audiobook of “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness, and reading “The Anatomy of Ghosts” by Andrew Taylor. Both of these books have strong, interesting heroines. And, in both of these cases, the male love interest is described as taller than average height, and the heroine is described as only a little shorter. When I read a book or a play I like to fix myself to one character in particular, but in these cases the stress the author has placed on the height of the character has alienated me from the character in terms of their physicality.

Below is the revised version of my post. For anyone who has already read this, it is substantially the same with only changes and additions made to the few paragraphs about Shakespeare. It is still meant flippantly, but has become a touch more analytical.


I have tweeted and commented on Facebook about heightism in literature as a throwaway joke, but I started thinking a bit more about this. I’m being flippant in this post and I’m not making a serious accusation of heightism. I know literature contains characters of all shapes and sizes. But some of my favourites are described as tall and, at 4ft 11 ish, I'm pretty much excluded from fantasy casting myself in these roles.

I am a huge fan of Edward Albee's plays. But he pretty much wrote me out of a possible part when he called one of his plays "Three Tall Women."

My main complaint is against Shakespeare. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Helena is "a tall personage" while Hermia is "dwarfish” and “low." Now, to my mind, Helena has by far the more interesting character arc. She is witty, passionate, devoted to Demetrius despite the fact that he acts like a bit of an arse - she has the persistence to fight for what she wants, and she gets her man in the end (albeit with magical intervention). I spent most of my teenage and early adult years in various phases of unrequited love, so I can sympathise with this aspect of her character and revel in her happy ending. By contrast, I find Hermia less interesting. She seems more like a spoilt child, who reacts more with petulance than passion when spurned by the enchanted Lysander. Her lack of height seems to correlate with a shortness of emotional stature and a meanness of spirit.

Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing" might be my favourite female character in Shakespeare: she, too is witty, passionate, fiery and gets most of the best lines. Yet Shakespeare distinguishes that she is taller than the less interesting Hero, who is "Leonato's short daughter" and is "too low for a high praise." Hero - the short one according to Shakespeare's description - is wet and drippy, collapsing in hysteria when accused by Claudio. If she had Beatrice's passion she should tell him to bugger off if he doesn't trust her, and find someone better: show some anger instead of acting like a simpering sap.

Of course I know I’m ignoring Elizabethan gender relations and condemning Hero by today’s more feminist standards. But rationalizing it doesn’t alter the fact that my emotional reaction to the moment when Hero is denounced is stronger than my analytical one. I’d quite like to slap her and tell her to get a grip.

Maybe there is a causal link in this heightism. Perhaps it is easier fictional shorthand to portray a character as being dominant if their physical presence also towers above everyone else. It’s hard to play Beatrice as an equal with Benedick if the audience is aware that you are delivering your speeches to his navel or nipples. Or maybe - and this might be more likely - my own preconceptions are getting in the way. I'm just seeing what I don't want to see so that I can have a jolly good rant about it.

It has also just occurred to me that maybe there is a reason for the short jokes, which might stem from performance practice in Shakespeare’s time. This paragraph is speculation, but it was an idea that intrigued me. I think it is fairly common knowledge that women weren’t allowed on the stage in Shakespeare’s time, and that female characters were played by boys. I don’t know enough about how this worked in practice - maybe this might be an interesting area to read more about - but I wonder if Hero might have been played by a slightly younger boy than Beatrice? As Beatrice is a more complex character, perhaps she would have been played by a slightly older boy who might be able to portray her with more emotional maturity; whereas Hero, who seems to me to be a less developed character, could be played by someone less mature with less emotional range. Therefore a height joke about a character played by a younger boy might also act as a collusion with the audience who would be in on the joke. I’m less sure of this argument applied to Hermia and Helena, but it intrigues me.

In the course of my reading now I will be on the look out for characters who demonstrate or repudiate this theory. I will keep you updated on any results from my research ... and I welcome any suggestions of female characters who are diminutive but dominant, or tall and timorous to wreck my theory - or short and suggestible, asthenic and assertive to support it.

If I ever write my novel, my heroine will be quite short. She will prove to the world that short people don't have little voices that go peep, peep, peep - and nor do they have grubby little fingers and dirty little minds. Well, my mind is a little bit dirty, but life is more fun that way. And she will be fiercely independent - apart from when she has to ask tall people to pass things down from the top shelves in supermarkets.


  1. Well sais ma'am! I'm not a short or a tall person really, but was very tall as a child, and believe me there are all sorts of pre-conceptions that go with the other ened of the spectrum too! Always being assumed to be the bully in any contretemps and being expected to be more mature than an equally intelligent person of the same age but shorter stature. I like all your Shakespearean examples, and would love to know if there is mileage in your theory about the heights and ages of the boys.

  2. I know being tall can't be much fun - although I have no experience of that! I used to work in a shop, and remember serving a very tall customer. He told me that he hates going to pubs, because drunk men always wanted to prove their masculinity by picking a fight with him.

  3. As an addendum, a friend yesterday - who wasn't able to post a comment herself - suggested Lisbeth Salander as a short, strong heroine. I've not read Steig Larsson's books yet, but I do have the 1st on my bookshelf to read and someone has loaned me the 2nd...