Sexism in Classic Literature

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Sexism is everywhere in life, so it should come as no shock that it’s everywhere in literature.

But it does, a little. It does, every time.

It does, because I grew up believing I had inherent value as a person—that I’m smart and strong and capable, that I can express my opinions freely. And then I come across all these scenes in literature that tell me I don’t. I’m not. I can’t.

So yeah, it’s still a mild shock when I encounter sexism in books, like seeing a coin-sized black spider on a white wall or, like, shoving a finger in an electrical outlet. Books were always supposed to be my refuge—my escape. And when they dismiss me, when they belittle me, when they reject me and all women, it feels like the ultimate betrayal.

There are many ways, of course, that sexism manifests in book publishing. It is, frankly, hard to find a book without it. There’s the representation of women in fiction—or, all too often, lack thereof. (A special shout-out goes to the utterly rampant Madonna/whore complex, and the too many books both young and old that cannot pass even the bottom-barrel standards of the Bechdel test.) There’s the pervasive and insidious use of sexist language (“man up”; “cry like a girl”) that promotes toxic masculinity as the ideal, the goal, the standard—as if other gender identities were a handicap the rest of us must overcome. There’s the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, the simultaneous sexualization and slut shaming of female characters, their objectification and routine disposal, and the boiling cauldron of rape culture. There is the frilly, flowery book marketing of so-called “chick lit.” There’s the industry-wide assumption that books written by and about men represent the human experience, while books written by and about women represent only the female experience.

There’s also a seemingly willful neglect of female authors in contests, on panels, and in review publications—and, especially, in classrooms. Because in classrooms, more often than not, we teach the classics.

And many of the classics stand among the best-known examples of sexism in literature.

Like YA author Maureen Johnson, I struggle to recall high school reading assignments by or about women. There was The Scarlet Letter, boring as Puritan Heaven and written by a man. There was To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m not totally convinced a child narrator counts. There was Frankenstein, penned by Mary Shelley but highly male-centric.

And that’s it. That’s all I remember.

In my high school, in four years of English taught exclusively by female teachers, we did not read Pride and Prejudice, or Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights, or anything by Virginia Woolf—not even in Brit Lit. We didn’t read Edith Wharton, or Toni Morrison, or Margaret Mitchell. Instead, we read Shakespeare, and Dickens, and Orwell, and Steinbeck—all of whom are easily identifiable by their surnames alone because they’re just that ubiquitous.

The gender balance was equally bleak when I sought out The List in 2011. Of the supposed 100 Greatest Books of All Time, only 17 were written by women. Of course, some of those authors appear more than once, putting the grand total of female authors at a mere 14 (11 of which were white). George Eliot, the first to appear on The List with Middlemarch at #12, had to publish under a man’s name for her work to be taken seriously. And if that seems ludicrous today, when half of all authors are women, remember that J. K. Rowling’s publishers insisted she hide her gender behind her initials.

In making my way through The List, I’ve had the wind knocked out of me by sexism ranging from the benevolent to the hostile. And because screaming into my pillow is slightly less satisfying than screaming into my keyboard, I decided to take you all on a little tour of Sexism in Classic Literature.

We’ll start with Catherine Barkley in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms—a character so insubstantial that we barely notice her inclination toward self-effacement:

There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.

 …

Then there’s Dido, in Virgil’s Aeneid, who famously stabs herself on a makeshift funeral pyre after Aeneas unceremoniously dumps her—concluding her downward spiral from savvy Queen of Carthage to hysterical ex-girlfriend, all at the whim of the gods:

[…] “Must I die,” she said,
“And unreveng’d? ‘Tis doubly to be dead!
Yet ev’n this death with pleasure I receive:
On any terms, ’tis better than to live.
These flames, from far, may the false Trojan view;
These boding omens his base flight pursue!”
She said, and struck; deep enter’d in her side
The piercing steel, with reeking purple dyed:
Clogg’d in the wound the cruel weapon stands;
The spouting blood came streaming on her hands.
Her sad attendants saw the deadly stroke,
And with loud cries the sounding palace shook.

Next up is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, in which women are literally given as gifts to the men of Crusoe’s newly colonized island:

From thence I touched at the Brazils, from whence I sent a bark, which I bought there, with more people to the island; and in it, besides other supplies, I sent seven women, being such as I found proper for service, or for wives to such as would take them. As to the Englishmen, I promised to send them some women from England, with a good cargo of necessaries, if they would apply themselves to planting.

In Homer’s Iliad, women are “won” and traded as prizes and property, but we only hear Achilles complaining about it:

Now the son of Atreus, powerful Agamemnon, has dishonoured me, since he has taken away my prize and keeps it.

We can’t possibly omit Saul Bellow’s Herzog from any discussion of literary sexism; his runs the gamut from mundane to downright vile:

It was true, he couldn’t offer much. He really was useless to her. With Gersbach she could still be a wife. He came home. She cooked, ironed, shopped, signed checks. Without him, she could not exist, cook, make beds. The trance would break. Then what?

Please, Ramona, Herzog wanted to say—you’re lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch—everything. But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up.

“Get yourself a housekeeper closer to your own age. And a good lay, too. What’s wrong with that? Or we’ll find you a gorgeous brownskin housekeeper. No more Japs for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Or maybe what you need is a girl who survived the concentration camps, and would be grateful for a good home. And you and I will lead the life.”

And, speaking of vile, François Rabelais shares some interesting theories on womanhood in Gargantua and Pantagruel:

When I say woman I mean a sex so weak, so fickle, so variable, so changeable, so imperfect, that Nature — speaking with all due reverence and respect — seems to me, when she made woman, to have strayed from that good sense with which she had created and fashioned all things. I have pondered over it five hundred times yet I can reach no solution except that Nature had more regard for the social delight of man and the perpetuating of the human species than for the perfection of individual womanhood. Certainly Plato does not know into which category to put women: rational animal or irrational beast.

Not to be left out, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain regales us with the story of how the narrator’s uncle fell in love with a pair of unforgettable breasts:

Most assuredly, in matters of civilized behavior she could not have held a candle to Madame Tienappel down in the flatlands. But one Sunday evening in the salon after supper, the consul made a discovery, thanks to a black, very low-cut sequined gown: Frau Redisch had very feminine, soft, white, close-set breasts and a cleavage visible from a considerable distance. And this discovery had stirred the mature, refined man to the depths of his soul, thrilling him as if this were a totally new, unexpected, unheard-of phenomenon. He sought out and made Frau Redisch’s acquaintance, carried on a long conversation with her, first standing, then seated—and went to bed humming. The next day Frau Redisch was no longer wearing a black sequined gown, but a dress that covered almost all of her; the consul, however, knew what he knew and remained faithful to that first impression. He made a point of catching up with the lady on their walks, so that he could stroll beside her and chat with her, turning and bending toward her in a special, insistent, but charming way; he toasted his glass to her at dinner, and she responded with a smile, revealing several sparkling gold-capped teeth; and in a conversation with his nephew he declared her to be an absolutely “divine creature”—and at once began to hum again.

In USA, John Dos Passos leaves out the hostile misogyny and the overt objectification in favor of some good, old-fashioned benevolent sexism:

Women have been a great inspiration to me all my life, lovely charming delicate women. Many of my best ideas have come from women, not directly, you understand, but through the mental stimulation.

But in the infamous Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov takes us back to basics with 200 pages of male entitlement and pedophilia:

At one of these [desks], my Lolita was reading … and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk.

(For anyone unfamiliar with the book, Dolly is the middle-aged narrator’s nickname for Lolita, the twelve-year-old girl he kidnaps, coerces, and rapes repeatedly. In this scene, he pays her for sexual favors before stealing the money back so she can’t run away.)

Are we done with the tour yet? Do you want to be done?

I want to be done.

But some of the sexism in classic literature can’t be summed up in a quotation. For example, I can’t quote the women who aren’t there, or the men who don’t seem to notice their absence. Because women are conspicuously missing, or nearly so, from Don Quixote, Lord of the Flies, The Call of the Wild, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Slaughterhouse-Five, and many, many more. Sometimes this makes contextual sense (Moby-DickCatch-22). Sometimes there’s literally zero excuse (The Lord of the RingsThe Wind in the Willows).

And rape—rape written, most often, from the man’s point of view, and rape that, most often, dismisses its victims—is a fixture of the classics, appearing (and, often, reappearing) in Dangerous Liaisons, A Clockwork Orange, The Tale of Genji, Clarissa, The Canterbury Tales, Beloved, and others. Here’s a typical rape scene, from USA:

“Let’s go skating, Frank, it’s so awful to be in the house all day.”

“Everything’s horrible,” he said. Suddenly he pulled her to him and kissed her lips. She felt dizzy with the smell of bayrum and cigarettes and whiskey and cloves and armpits that came from him. She pulled away from him. “Frank, don’t, don’t.” He had tight hold of her. She could feel his hands trembling, his heart thumping under his vest. He had grabbed her to him with one arm and was pulling at her clothes with the other. His voice wasn’t like Frank’s voice at all. “I won’t hurt you. I won’t hurt you, child. Just forget. It’s nothing. I can’t stand it any more.” The voice went on and on whining in her ears. “Please. Please.”

She didn’t dare yell for fear the people in the house might come. She clenched her teeth and punched and scratched at the big wet-lipped face pressing down hers. She felt weak like in a dream. His knee was pushing her legs apart.

When it was over, she wasn’t crying. She didn’t care. He was walking up and down the room sobbing. She got up and straightened her dress.

He came over to her and shook her by the shoulders. “If you ever tell anybody I’ll kill you, you damn little brat.”

We like to think we’ve come such a long way in a single century—that we can pat ourselves on the back for women’s suffrage, for women’s independence, for women’s participation in academics and the workforce. We like to think that these books—the sexist books, along with the racist and homophobic and classist and otherwise discriminatory books—are merely “products of their time.”

But doesn’t that assumption discredit the progressive thinkers of previous eras? We know they existed. Tolerance isn’t a 21st-century invention. 

And shouldn’t it bother those of us who do believe in equality for all, who are actively writing and speaking and working for change, that if humans, 200 years from now, were to look back at 2016—at our governments, our salaries, our legal rights, our media—they would assume progressives were just as few and far between?

Because they would. They would. At the rate we’re still churning out misogynistic garbage, those future humans would have a hard time believing we existed at all. They’d look at the world population, now, the same way we look at the humans of the 19th century, or the 16th, or the 3rd—like we must not have known better, if this is what we have to show for ourselves.

Every one of the sexist frameworks we deplore in centuries-old fiction is still prevalent today. The 20th and 21st centuries have applauded and immortalized the works of openly chauvinistic male authors, including Bret Easton EllisV.S. Naipaul, T. S. Eliot, Jonathan Franzen, and Norman Mailer—the same Norman Mailer who stabbed his wife at a party and then said, to a shocked audience,

Don’t touch her. Let the bitch die.

We have made bestselling phenomena out of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey—both of which feature controlling, abusive male leads and frame their behavior as romantic. We have awarded two Pulitzer Prizes to John Updike instead of apologizing to the trees that bear his words. We have upheld an exclusionary and binary definition of gender, and an oppressive social system that hurts even those it benefits. We have raised our children on books that reinforce female invisibility and traditional gender roles, and we have raised boys in particular to ignore or ridicule books by and about girls.

And, worst of all, we have made excuses for all of the above. We have justified every point as valid, or normal, or acceptable. And in doing so, we have sent the message over and over again that marginalized groups really are inferior, for a whole world of reasons.

So how about this: How about we just stop? How about, the next time we give a book a prize, or elevate it to “classic” status, we make sure it does us a favor? How about we pick a book that makes us look good to those future generations, or at least better, like we’re actually trying? How about we pick a book that confronts, deconstructs, or subverts some of the poisonous prejudices we’re drinking every day?

I know we can do it. I know we’re starting to do it already. But until I stop feeling the wind knocked out of me every time I pick up a book, I’m going to keep asking for more.

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10 thoughts on “Sexism in Classic Literature

  1. Pingback: Quick Reviews: Part II | The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

  2. HEAR HEAR!! Amazing post. You hit the nail on the head in every way, especially in regards to how shocking it is *every time* we encounter sexism. Because we know ourselves to be valuable, we know inarguably that we as women are valid and worthwhile human beings, and we can’t fathom how anyone could believe otherwise. And yet they do.

    Ugh, and your point about how the male experience is the “human” experience while the female experience is only for women. And how girls are encouraged to read books about boys but books about girls are to be shunned or simply dismissed. UGH. UGH.

    Have you noticed that when women talk about wanting to be included in stories, we’re treated like we’re making some big annoying fuss, as if our very presence in a book or a movie is so burdensome?

    • YES. That was a theme of the articles I came across while researching this post — or, more accurately, the comments section of each article. Men are either bewildered at the notion of writing female characters — mysterious, foreign creatures that we are — OR they come up with ludicrous reasons for why there “just wasn’t space in the story” for them. I loved Chuck Wendig’s response here (in sum: “You write the story. It does not write you”).

      I also loved Delilah Dawson’s point here about how sci-fi/fantasy is one of the worst genres in terms of women’s representation (and lack thereof), even though it’s the easiest genre to include women in, especially women with agency. Like, it’s annoyingly difficult to criticize some of the classics for the absence of women, because they’re anchored in a historical context (war, whaling, etc.) that actively excluded women. But sci-fi and fantasy don’t have that problem, and still somehow men find excuses to leave women out, or add them merely for decoration. And then they whine when we call them out on it.

      • I read this comment a while ago but wanted to reply with more than just “AAARRRGH.” But sometimes I get so furious at these issues that “ARGH” fills my entire head from spinal cord to frontal lobe.

        Here’s the thing: We shouldn’t have to be making these demands. Why don’t these authors WANT to include us? What bothers them so much about us?

        I imagine a lot of this is upbringing – being unconsciously taught that women do nothing and have no personalities. That needs to end right quick. It’s 20-goddamn-16.

        I understand that not every variation of humanity can be represented in every story, and that authors will write the people they understand best. But… we’re a full half of the population. :/

        And I also understand that some books will be extremely male-centered if they’re writing about a certain kind of environment. But those should be exceptions. Predominantly male casts shouldn’t be the NORM because a predominantly male WORLD is not the norm!

        I really liked the posts you linked to, btw. I would say more but I need to go ARGH for awhile.

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