AS A GIRL of 6 or 8 or 10, I spent the long Midwestern summers and longer winters reading the sort of books one typically gave to American girls in the mid-1980s, many of which featured trios of female characters: the frontier Ingalls sisters of “Little House on the Prairie” (1935); Nancy Drew and her two sidekicks; the triumvirate of friends in turn-of-the-20th-century Minnesota in Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books of the 1940s and ’50s. In time, I would acquaint myself with the Civil War-era sisters growing up in genteel poverty in Louisa May Alcott’s 1868-69 “Little Women” (after Beth dies, there are three); and after that, the many geometries of women, sisters and friends, as well as meddling aunts and ineffectual mothers, in the 19th-century novels of Jane Austen. In my marked-up Keds, I’d let myself into an empty suburban house after school with my own key, settling down to a package of peanut-butter crackers and a book that seemed to offer three choices of who to be — books so immersive I forgot about watching Mary, Laura and Carrie on television reruns, or those other sisters who immediately followed on channel 13, Marcia, Jan and Cindy.
In all of these books, the characters tended to be drawn with clearly designated personality traits: “Little Women”’s Jo was “boyish” and literary, for example, while her sister Amy was “spoilt,” with yellow hair. (The brunette is always the fledgeling writer in these novels featuring white women: Laura Ingalls, Betsy, Jo — though in Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation of Alcott’s classic, she’s played by a redheaded Saoirse Ronan.) Young readers were invited to make comparisons and alliances, to consider their own not-so-neatly divided personhoods in formation. (One could, it turns out, be both literary and narcissistic.) American children are told that they can be or do anything, that our fates are adventures entirely of our own choosing. Later, as the concessions of adolescence set in, we’re told to be ourselves precisely at the moment we’re doubting what little we might know about those selves. Which is to say that all of these characters, whose lives seemed more real than my own, were, to an extent that I wasn’t fully aware of, bound up in my own self-creation. One identified with Jo in her sections, with Amy in hers, and so forth: an early lesson in subjectivity. No single perspective holds the entire truth; everyone, in the end, is deserving of empathy.
Meanwhile, the books my older brother read were, by and large, structured as heroic journeys. Even his fantasy novels, with their large casts of characters, starred a lone adventurer overcoming great hardship to reach his goal. (Men also own the buddy comedy — the hero and his comedic, unthreatening sidekick: Quixote and Panza, Holmes and Watson, Bill and Ted.) It’s not that there weren’t any female heroes in my childhood reading: One standout was Karana, the Native American girl in Scott O’Dell’s 1960 “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” Left behind on one of the Channel Islands for 18 years, she teaches herself to spearfish and tames a wild dog to help her endure the solitude. (Her story is based on that of a real Native American woman found on San Nicolas Island in 1853.) These days, little girls grow up with all kinds of cartoon heroines, from Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s great “Spirited Away” (2001) to the star of the latest “feminist” Disney merchandising scheme. But at the time, Karana seemed as lonely on my bookshelf as she does on that island: From the beginning, being a girl seemed to bring with it certain compromise.
Only recently, while watching Gerwig’s film with two accomplished female friends — another threesome, entering the theatre conspiratorially with canned wine, feeling like we were confronting the ghosts of past selves — did I truly understand how little these books I read back then had to do with choosing one’s future or realising one’s aspirations out in the world. They were, rather, more about the opposite of having options, about eking out the best life possible as the fanciful imaginings of childhood end and the compromises of life as an actual adult female set in. And yet, these characters, all of them, endure precisely because they seem to want to be known not as one of a gendered group — not as emblematic little women or pioneer girls — but as individuals, solo acts, heroes of their own, however limited, destinies. They resist being seen as a symbolic feminine aggregate.
Chantal Joffe's “Me, Em and Nat” (2020), Oil on board © Chantal Joffe, Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro
To accompany this essay, T commissioned a pair of original works by female artists. Here, the oil portrait “Me, Em and Nat” (2020) that the London-based artist Chantal Joffe painted of her and her sisters as children in the 1970s.
IT’S A FREQUENTLY repeated truism of screenwriting books that much of Western narrative is governed by the rule of three. The three-act structure can be traced to that ur-text of dramatic theory, Aristotle’s “Poetics,” written in the mid-fourth century B.C., though surely it’s hard-wired in our humanity. A satisfying story, told before a campfire, traditionally has a beginning, middle and end. Repetitions of three lend coherence and satisfaction: In fairy tales, you get three guesses or three wishes, the chairs are too big, too small or just right. There’s the comic triple, the three strikes. Even the human personality is divided, or so Freud proposed in 1923, into three: the id, the ego and the superego. All of us have three characters within us: the one we display publicly, the one we actually are and the one we think we are, to paraphrase the 19th-century French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.
Less explored is the way in which characters, especially women, so often appear in threes. Triangles of women can be found in some of our most enduring stage classics — William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” (1608), with its three daughters, as well as Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” (1901) and Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” (1991) — and film and television both highbrow (Robert Altman’s 1977 “3 Women”) and not (the 1996 film “The First Wives Club,” about a threesome of scorned wives, currently a television show on BET starring Jill Scott, or Aaron Spelling’s 1976-81 “Charlie’s Angels,” that choose-your-favourite-babe evergreen, freshly rebooted yet again last year in a critically panned edition with Kristen Stewart). To this noncomprehensive list we can also add the female trios that are a hallmark of American contemporary literature, including Jane Smiley’s 1991 Lear update, “A Thousand Acres,” and Toni Morrison’s 1987 “Beloved,” which features a trinity of indelible women: mother, daughter and titular ghost. It has always seemed right and proper that the Brontës and (the original) Kardashians came in threes, and of course, there’s an entire pop-music history of female trios, going back to the Supremes. In art, feminine threesomes are, generally speaking, a Western convention with origins in the classics — the Three Graces, emblems of various “feminine” qualities like charm, beauty, joy or creativity; and their obverse, the Three Furies, who, according to some sources, sprang forth from the spilled blood of Uranus when he was castrated by his son Cronus — and yet there are a number of standout non-Western examples, too, notably Bi Feiyu’s 2010 novel, “Three Sisters,” which contrasts the fates of three defiant daughters of a provincial Communist Party secretary during the Cultural Revolution. Three possible personalities, vocal ranges, hairstyles, moral qualities and destinies — body and meaning in triplicate, too richly human to be merely symbolic. So why, one wonders, do such female triptychs persist?
Historically, many sisterly trios have been used to represent feminine power as a kind of dark, sinister antimatter in a male tragedy. Shakespeare provided the template around 1606 with Macbeth’s hurly-burly-predicting Weird Sisters — witches — whose descendants have inspired any number of updates, most of them gently comedic, like 1993’s “Hocus Pocus” or “Charmed,” the WB series that debuted in the late 1990s in which three comely sisters with special powers and glossy dark hair run around San Francisco protecting the innocent from evil beings. That one of the show’s stars, Rose McGowan, would later be demonised — becoming, in essence, a modern-day witch — after she spoke out against Harvey Weinstein struck me as having a certain gruesome symmetry to it. How banal these depictions of girl power — innocuous, young, charming — and preferably wearing a camisole; how hard-fought, and how unrewarded, the reality of women exercising their rights and bodily autonomy. And yet “Charmed” seems downright feminist compared to John Updike’s satirical 1984 take on gender politics, “The Witches of Eastwick.” The equally muddled 1987 film version stars Jack Nicholson in Weinsteinian bathrobes “seducing” a trio of women played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher, who move in together and have his babies. What our culture has to say about witches, however lightheartedly, still has a lot to do with how it feels about women and power — a power that even now, post-#MeToo, seems only to be deemed worthy of reckoning with en masse, as though a woman unallied could never be sufficiently threatening.
Chioma Ebinama's “Untitled” (2020), watercolor and sumi ink on paper
“Untitled” (2020), a watercolor-and-sumi-ink work on paper inspired by archetypal feminine forms by the Brooklyn-based artist Chioma Ebinama.
IF A SOLO male was, once upon a time, the traditional actor of narrative, female trios have often been given another task: illuminating a culture’s traps and hypocrisies. Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel, “The Hours,” contrasted the lives of three characters in different eras: a midcentury housewife in a suburb of Los Angeles, a successful book editor in 1990s Manhattan and the writer Virginia Woolf in 1923, in the midst of working on her masterpiece “Mrs. Dalloway.” The novel’s conceit is that the three are united by Woolf’s novel (the first is reading it, the second is a character inspired by it and Woolf is, of course, writing it), but they are also united by the confines of heteronormative culture; it’s unsurprising that Clarissa, an out lesbian editor who lives with her longtime partner, is the happiest and the most self-realised.
More than 20 years on, this feels too cleanly schematic, but it endures as an example of the affinity so many gay male artists have for women at the mercy of patriarchal structures. Other examples of this include, at one end of the tonal spectrum, Albee’s maternal exorcism, “Three Tall Women,” which returned to New York in 2018 in a Tony Award-winning production starring Laurie Metcalf, Glenda Jackson and Alison Pill; and, at the other, Pedro Almodóvar’s tender, three-generation tribute to female solidarity, “Volver,” his 2006 film set in small-town Spain and Madrid. Both feature trios of women, but in the end, both are really solo acts: In “Three Tall Women,” an elderly, bigoted, repressed matriarch is haunted by her own past (her caretaker and estate attorney are the other two titular women). In “Volver,” Penélope Cruz’s Raimunda is the moral centre; she’s the kind of woman who protects her teenage daughter, stashes her lecherous unemployed husband’s corpse in the freezer of the restaurant next door, and then runs the restaurant, all while contending with her mother’s flatulent ghost. It’s hard to resist this stolid vision of female heroism amid repression, all the more so when played by a hoop-earringed Cruz, who calmly wipes a smear of blood from her neck: “Women’s troubles,” she explains to a neighbour with a shrug. In the end, Albee and Almodóvar have created maternal archetypes (one tormented and weak, the other earthy and capable) that are inextricable from their authors’ own sense of alienation.
Less common is the straight man who filters his unease through the lives of women, but in one of the great American films of the 1970s, Altman’s prismatic “3 Women,” Shelley Duvall is Millie Lammoreaux, a young woman whose carefully crafted persona masks a deep and painful insecurity. She chatters incessantly, parroting advice from women’s magazines: Her prairie dresses and housecoats are colour-coordinated with her apartment; her dinner-party menu involves pigs in a blanket and spray cheese. She takes a blank-faced rube of a colleague, played by Sissy Spacek, under her wing, and an enigmatic artist (Janice Rule) becomes the third note in the chord, offering a vision of womanhood as generative, even motherly. The malleability of female identity is at the unsettling heart of the film, which is filled with reflective surfaces, windows and mirrors in which Millie is always primping. Today, as we watch her efforts to uphold the version of ideal womanhood she strives to represent fall flat, part of the cringe comes from imagining her 21st-century counterpart: her adaptogenic smoothies, blowout appointments and flawlessly curated Instagram account; her midi skirt caught in an Uber door.
Stella Rabello, Julia Bernart and Isabel Teixeira in Christiane Jatahy’s “What If They Went to Moscow?” (2019).
OF ALL OF literature’s female trios, it is Chekhov’s eponymous three sisters who seem to have inspired the most theatrical productions and adaptations, and for good reason. His overeducated yearners who dream of lives filled with love and meaning appear reconfigured in 1980s Manhattan in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), and also in 1970s Mississippi in Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” (1979) and again in 1990s London in Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig” (1992). It’s a testament to his brilliance that, whoever you are, you will find yourself somewhere in Chekhov; his characters are too human to feel like archetypes. They are trapped, or believe themselves to be, in the provincial drawing rooms of their lives, but in the vast forests of their thoughts they are free to roam, forgetting themselves, as we do, in conversation, our lapses revealing our wishful thinking.
It’s telling that all of these American reimaginings of Chekhov’s bleakest play are leavened with comedy. In the turn-of-the-20th-century Russian original, we meet Olga, the eldest, who works in a grinding job as the local school’s director and regrets not getting married; and middle sister, Masha, who was married young, to a man less intelligent than herself, and regrets that choice, too. (One remembers, as in Austen or Alcott, that a choice of husband wasn’t simply about romance but about the entire social and economic context of one’s future.) Finally, there’s young Irina, in some ways the most heartbreaking of all, who feels stymied after witnessing the consequences of both of her sisters’ choices. Not a modern problem, one might quibble, and yet these sisters endure for good reason. Who doesn’t want self-fulfilment and satisfying work? Who hasn’t felt trapped in one’s own life, marooned in a small town, metaphoric or otherwise, with no rail link to the capital? (Few playwrights have better captured the paradox of lived time, how tediously slow it seems to move, all the while catching us suddenly unawares — on a name-day celebration, as in the play, or on a birthday.) Chekhov has a way of disabusing us of our specialness, of making us realise that our problems are, in fact, just like everyone else’s. Irina, Masha and Olga are each at a different stage of life, marked by deepening regret, evaporating hope and an inertia that grows less comfortable with the passing years.
It also doesn’t seem coincidental that “Three Sisters” is newly relevant once again, with a series of productions closer in tone to Chekhov’s original fatalism. Last fall, the visionary Brazilian director Christiane Jatahy’s medium-bending version, “What if They Went to Moscow?” — half of which played out live, the other half onscreen — came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and in June, Gerwig returns to the stage as Masha opposite Oscar Isaac in a New York Theater Workshop production, directed by Sam Gold. While telegraphing their contemporary resonance in different degrees of obliqueness — in Jatahy’s version, Irina wants to go to Moscow to meet Pussy Riot — both rely on the kind of suspension that works best in theatre, the kind that keeps the audience simultaneously present in both the sisters’ time and our own. We feel their sense of precipice; we know exactly what it’s like to no longer be able to picture the future. Chekhov gets under our skin because he locates the banal emptiness and solipsism of our self-soothing rhetoric (to “be in the moment,” to “tend your own garden”). At the time the play was written, the Russian aristocracy was in twilight, the serfs had been emancipated, swaths of the taiga were being deforested. A fire is raging somewhere nearby; meanwhile, just offstage, a band plays jubilantly.
That kind of consonance is a big part of why I read novels or sit in theatres, now that the season of girlhood imaginings is well in my past and the singular experiences of women — of a lone woman, arbiter of her own plot — are being heard, in books and television, onstage and, to a lesser extent, in films. These new stories build upon those that came before — because, as Alcott must have hoped, the act of storytelling in itself grants importance to its subject. To see through the eyes of another, for the duration of a 90-minute play or a 400-page novel, is to walk an alternate course and understand another soul while listening to one’s own heartbeat. The book ends, the lights come up, and we return to ourselves enlarged. Three graces, three faces — but in the end, their fortunes, and ours, are one and the same.
Subscribe to our newsletter