Bookish Feminism

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A few weeks ago, I brought up a topic that routinely pisses me off: sexism in books (and, especially, in the classics). The post was as depressing to research and write as the experience of daily life in a world subtly (and overtly) hostile to women.

So, this week, I decided to hunt through my Quote Collection for outstanding examples of literary push-back against sexism. The classics are far from having their fair share of feminist passages, so I tracked down empowering words from all kinds of literary sources.

Let’s start making them the rule instead of the exception, K? K.

Happy reading!

Here’s James Baldwin telling it like it is, maybe on a mountain, in Go Tell It on the Mountain:

With the birth of Gabriel, which occurred when she was five, her future was swallowed up. There was only one future in that house, and it was Gabriel’s—to which, since Gabriel was a manchild, all else must be sacrificed. Her mother did not, indeed, think of it as sacrifice, but as logic: Florence was a girl, and would by and by be married, and have children of her own, and all the duties of a woman; and this being so, her life in the cabin was the best possible preparation for her future life. But Gabriel was a man; he would go out one day into the world to do a man’s work, and he needed, therefore, meat, when there was any in the house, and clothes, whenever clothes could be bought, and the strong indulgence of his womenfolk, so that he would know how to be with women when he had a wife. And he needed the education that Florence desired far more than he, and that she might have got if he had not been born.

Here’s Margaret Mitchell calling out #WomenAgainstFeminism, and all likeminded she-idiots, in Gone With the Wind:

How closely women clutch the very chains that bind them!

Next up is a magnificent pair of feminist rants from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White:

Who cares for his causes for complaint? Are you to break your heart to set his mind at ease? No man in heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace—they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship—they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel.

If I only had the privileges of a man, I would order out Sir Percival’s best horse instantly, and tear away on a night-gallop, eastward, to meet the rising sun—a long, hard, heavy, ceaseless gallop of hours and hours, like the famous highwayman’s ride to York. Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats for life, I must respect the house-keeper’s opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way.

And then there’s this haunting passage from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!:

I waited not for light but for that doom which we call female victory which is: endure and then endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.

We also have Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook reminding us that words have the power to construct our reality:

The other day you were talking about how you fought, with your American friends, about the way language degraded sex—you described yourself as the original puritan, Saul Galahad to the defence, but you talk about getting laid, you never say a woman, you say a broad, a lay, a baby, a doll, a bird, you talk about butts and boobs, every time you mention a woman I see her either as a sort of window-dresser’s dummy or as a heap of dismembered parts, breasts, or legs or buttocks.

And we have Kate Chopin’s The Awakening deconstructing traditional notions of woman- and motherhood:

They were women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.

Next we can turn to Henry James, in The Portrait of a Lady, for an exercise in freedom:

“You are too fond of your liberty.”
“Yes, I think I am very fond of it. But I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do.”
“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.
“So as to choose,” said Isabel.

And to the peerless Toni Morrison, in Sula and Beloved, for an exercise in self-love:

“When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you.”
“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

You your best thing, Sethe. You are.

We wouldn’t dare leave out Úrsula Iguarán, the indestructible matriarch of the Buendía family in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“You have taken this horrible game very seriously and you have done well because you are doing your duty,” she told the members of the court. “But don’t forget that as long as God gives us life we will still be mothers and no matter how revolutionary you may be, we have the right to pull down your pants and give you a whipping at the first sign of disrespect.”

And, moving into the 21st century, we can give a collective cheer for Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go:

“The army your girl’s been talking about has been spotted marching down the river road,” Doctor Snow says. “One of our scouts just reported them as less than an hour away.”
“Oh, no,” I hear Viola whisper.
“She ain’t my girl,” I say, low.
“What?” Doctor Snow says.
“What?” Viola says.
“She’s her own girl,” I say. “She don’t belong to anyone.”

Before we leave off, we’re obliged to acknowledge the viscerally satisfying and, now, infamous “Cool Girl” dismantling in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men—friends, coworkers, strangers—giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much—no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version—maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.

And, by that same token, we can high-five Sheila Heti for busting out the truth in How Should a Person Be?:

I’m through with being the perfect girlfriend, just through with it. Then if he’s sore with me, let him dump my ass. That will just give me more time to be a genius.

The entirety of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists could make an appearance here. But for purposes of time and space, a summary will have to do:

But by far the worst thing we do to males—by making them feel they have to be hard—is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is. And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males.

Some men feel threatened by the idea of feminism. This comes, I think, from the insecurity triggered by how boys are brought up, how their sense of self-worth is diminished if they are not “naturally” in charge as men.

Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.

All hail Gloria E. Anzaldúa for finding her voice in Borderlands/La Frontera:

I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue—my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.

And, of course, Lindy West, for the body politics wake-up call that is Shrill:

Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time—that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.

With the very last word on bookish feminism, here’s Caitlin Moran in How to Be a Woman:

I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.

And, on that note, let’s go make the world better.

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 fat 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 from the difficult or mundane. 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. Some of those authors appear more than once, putting the grand total of female authors at a mere 14—11 of whom 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 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 jaw-dropping:

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 jaw-dropping, 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 (TW, obviously):

“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 oppressive social standards that hurt even those they benefit. 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.

The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels (The New Yorker)

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This article is long-ish, but also fascinating-ish. Adelle Waldman looks at romance and marriage in classic literature old and new and argues that male and female authors approach them differently—in a way that just might offer some insight into gendered perspectives on love IRL. In her own words:

The ideal mate, for Jane Austen’s heroines, for Charlotte Brontë’s, for George Eliot’s, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality.

Female protagonists, when authored by women, evaluate their suitors based on intellect, taste, and the potential for conversation. Male authors and characters, however, tend to characterize love as a “profound, mysterious attraction” with an emphasis on the physical.

Waldman points out that “men have been, in a sense, the real romantics,” but offers her own theory to explain why:

For centuries, men have had far more opportunities to find intellectual outlets outside the romantic sphere—they’ve been able to travel more, to meet a broader range of people, to have professions, to win the respect of peers. Women, on the other hand, were forced to lean more heavily on love and marriage, for intellectual recognition and companionship as for everything else.

Compelling stuff. Here’s hoping it comes up on your Valentine’s dinner date. And that you follow it up with 10 p.m. tickets to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.