I was thinking about Cosette this morning because of an essay, Disliking Cosette, which postulated that people dislike Cosette and love Eponine because Cosette is a flimsy cipher with little to her beyond sympathetic trappings. But even when I read that at the time, it occurred to me that Eponine is not actually more deeply characterized than Cosette, and Cosette actually has more to her than much of the fandom/audience thinks. It made me think of something I wrote recently wrt Sansa and Arya:
In general, I think readers have been somewhat brainwashed, through an overwhelming amount of fiction, with the idea that a girl who wants to fight rather than be a lady is inherently “acting good”, and that a girl who has no interest in physical pursuits is denying nature (because traditional masculine attributes = natural, what people want to do/have unless they’re socialized otherwise or are making an effort). Liking to sew and dance and play an instrument and be “useless” (although sewing is an incredibly useful skill in a time and place where people need to make their own clothing) actually tends to be seen as a negative trait, even though it sounds silly when you think about it – but in historical fiction, how often is the heroine bad at these things, how often is her mother portrayed as unfair for forcing her to learn them, how often is the rival good at them or content to do them? So Arya’s violent tendencies and lack of courtesy/people skills are not looked at in a critical light, even though they are big problems in the setting, and a “girly girl” gets immediate suspicion until she performs some especially good deed, maybe a boyish one, to prove that she’s worth it despite what we’re trained to take as hints to badness. Oh, and Heroines don’t care about romance for its own sake, they have adventures and then whatever guy they’re adventuring with ends up in a relationship with them – while Non-heroines sigh over boys and dream about getting married. It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. But when you read enough books and reader reactions while keeping the idea of these rather ridiculous good/bad traits in mind, it really becomes striking, regardless of whether or not individual readers are sexist.
There is so much wrong in this one post, I don’t even know where to start, but lest I desire persecution, I’ll preface my response by saying this. I detest the hatred Cosette suffers at the hands of both fandom and established critics, who disparage her as spoiled, boring, arrogant, and bereft of characterization. (There is a feasible argument to be made for Cosette being underdeveloped, but in a novel and musical with such a vast array of characters, that argument can be applied to Enjolras, Les Amis, Fantine, and other fan favorites who don’t suffer as much hate as Cosette.) I do believe that the hate against her comes from a deep-rooted societal prejudice against femininity and women who are expressive of their womanhood in a more traditional manner, as Cosette does given the time and place she lives in. I find it disgusting that fandom so often ignores and dismisses her childhood abuse and orphanhood. I hate that they dichotomize Eponine and Cosette in a manner of interpretation that doesn’t even align with their respective characters.
And in regards to that last point—OP is doing the very same now, I’m afraid.
First of all, compartmentalizing Eponine and Cosette in a dichotomy that they don’t even belong to is fallacious. Their roles in a story about sociopolitical oppression that makes some commentary on the status of women doesn’t fit into your neat, cardboard tomboy versus lady cut-outs. Eponine is not like Arya. Eponine does not perform a traditional, socially upheld role of femininity because she is poor. She cannot afford the flouncy dresses Cosette wears and is thus ascribed to scant garb. Her attire is nonetheless tailored to a female, establishing her femininity as a homeless or working class woman. Even so, Eponine cannot afford the dignity and privileges accompanying upper class femininity. She and Cosette are foils to each other as the working class woman versus the bourgeois woman. To prioritize the latter over the former and overlook the intrinsic womanhood of the impoverished woman is both sexist and classist.
Eponine moreover does not dress like a boy and when she does, it isn’t because she wants to fight but because she wants to die with the boy she loves. Unlike Arya, she wants to wear dresses and be rescued by a prince and fall in love with him. While Cosette is born into poverty and lifted from it, Eponine is born into fortunate circumstances and falls into wretchedness. Hmm, sounds a lot like Sansa, doesn’t it?
Moreover, Eponine is degraded for her gender in a way that Cosette is thankfully exempt from. Eponine sells her body to make money. She’s seen as extraordinarily ugly by whosoever she meets. She is thoroughly robbed of her femininity even as she yearns for it; and for OP to do the same in the name of feminism is incredibly gross.
Adult!Eponine really doesn’t have much going on other than her intense love for Marius, but because he’s not in love with her she’s instinctively seen as more of a “real person”, having more depth and worth, according to the fandom.
Adult!Eponine is mentally ill. This may not be readily apparent in the musical, but the lyrics of “On My Own” invoke the nature of her mental illness. She isn’t merely unloved by her parents. The Thenardiers use her as a tool in their schemes, their daughter’s safety be damned. Her own father coerces her into prostitution. She is textured and complex in the book; a willing thief who goes to jail, a character rich with moral ambiguity. And yet, in spite of being old and dark and sinister, she is still a girl with dreams that steadily turn into delusions. It’s indeed the wretchedness of her life that drives her to intense love for Marius; he unwittingly offers her an imaginary escape. She dies for her love for Marius in an act of redemptive force. And yet, the only aspect to Eponine’s character is her love for Marius. Ok.
OP’s claim that blondes are discriminated against made me laugh. If anything, Cosette is so often portrayed by blonde actresses because blondness and whiteness in general hold connotations of purity, transcendence, forgiveness etc. all of which Cosette textually represents for Jean Valjean. As a matter of fact, Cosette is a brunette in the novel. The preference of directors to cast blondes for Cosette reveals that blondness is still exalted in spite of the fact that it doesn’t even exist in many races and cultures. (Namely mine.) No, I don’t think blondes suffer special sexist discrimination.
To quote your post
In general, I think readers have been somewhat brainwashed, through an overwhelming amount of fiction, with the idea that a girl who wants to fight rather than be a lady is inherently “acting good”, and that a girl who has no interest in physical pursuits is denying nature (because traditional masculine attributes = natural, what people want to do/have unless they’re socialized otherwise or are making an effort)
I don’t disagree with this; the Strong Female Character dominates fiction and impairs the judgment of readers. Does that mean well-developed female characters that fandom has so grossly dichotomized with ingenues should be bastardized to support feminine characters? Should one female character be trashed in support of another? No. That is unacceptable. You are reinforcing the very dichotomies you claim to oppose. I don’t subscribe to a feminism that oppresses peoples and individuals already marginalized by society, and other women who call themselves feminists should not either.