Happy International Women’s Day… and happy reading!
First things first: I know.
I know it’s a random Wednesday at the end of October, and I know the air is chilly and the leaves are crunchy, and I know you’re probably halfway through a spreadsheet or a surgery or a stock… broking… maneuver.
But take a moment—right now if possible—and think back with me to this summer.
Remember June? June was warm, and sunny, and picnicky, depending on your chosen climate/hemisphere. June was pre-split for Brangelina, pre-Ghostbusters for those of us who saw and kind’ve liked it, pre-Olympics for the legendary Simone Biles, and pre-pussy-revelations for Trump. June was innocent, and hopeful, and naïve, like a first shot of tequila—a simpler, if not a better time, followed by an autumn that feels like a hangover.
I spent my June researching and writing an exhausted, exhausting, and (I hope) exhaustive post on Sexism in Classic Literature, something I come across all too frequently on The List. And then, because that was so depressing/distressing/discouraging, I added a post on Bookish Feminism a few weeks later.
Satisfied that I’d said my part, at least for the moment, I moved on with my summer.
So it came as a surprise when, in September, I was contacted by the founder of a new app called SpareMin. He had read my Sexism/Feminism posts and invited me to be part of a “mini-podcast” on the subject. The deal was that the SpareMin team would use the conversation to promote the app’s call-recording features, and I would get to talk about something I am
passionate fanatical maniacal about for 15 whole minutes.
And, last week, we did. Check out my talk with the lovely Abi Wurdeman here.
I’m including a transcript below—tidied up a little for clarity’s sake—to fill in any gaps in the audio, and to include all the appropriate links in all the appropriate places (huzzah!). Abi is in bold, and I am not, because I am incredibly modest and extraordinarily humble (if I do say so myself).
Hello, this is Abi. Is this Jamie Leigh?
Yes, this is Jamie.
Hi, welcome! How are you?
I’m fine, thanks. I’m glad this worked.
Me too! Me too. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
No problem. Just to warn you, someone got out a chainsaw in my neighbor’s apartment, like, ten minutes ago. So if you hear a lot of noise, that’s why.
I hope they’re doing construction.
Yeah! Yeah, I hope so, right? OK, so, just for listeners—just so they know who I’m speaking to—I’m speaking with Jamie Leigh, who is a reader and writer, and we’re speaking about the representation of women in the literary world. So, let’s start with the first general question: What attitudes do you notice in the literary world towards female authors and books with female protagonists?
Right. Well, we can start off with the fact that there’s a genre called “chick lit,” right, but no genre called, like, “dude lit.” I’m far from being the first person to point this out, but it’s like the industry’s way of saying that books written by and about men represent the sort of universal human experience, but books by and about women represent only the female experience—which, then, reinforces this idea that the male narrative is the default narrative.
And this starts really early on, right? Like, even in children’s books, there are more boys than girls in central roles. And we definitely, as a culture, you know, tolerate young boys’ contempt, I guess, for books about girls—or anything associated with girls, really. So we end up teaching boys from a really young age, without necessarily meaning to, that it’s OK to dismiss us, or to ridicule us.
So I guess the most common pattern I see is one of, you know, neglect, or of belittlement. I think a good example is Jodi Picoult. She writes these really—really, like, sober books, right? She’s written about school shootings, and mercy killings, and cancer, and suicide, and stem cell research. And still critics call her books “chick lit” and “beach reads.”
And then the opposite happens when a man starts writing in an area dominated by female authors. Like, this happened in YA, this happened in romance. You know, romance is one of the most ridiculed genres. But, of course, Nicholas Sparks comes along and he’s able to build a respected career for himself writing romance novels. I, uh, I hope—I hope he and all of his movie deals will be very happy together. But that’s bullshit.
Yeah. It’s true, it’s true. It always makes me think of—I mean, as you said, there are a gazillion examples of this happening. The one that I always think of is—and this is a movie review that I believe was in Variety, about Wild, which you know, of course, was a book first—but the reviewer, a male reviewer, actually said—was letting everyone know—this is a cool movie for guys to watch, too. And the line that he used in it was, “It’s—this isn’t—” it was something like, “This isn’t a woman’s story; this is a human story.”
Oh, for God’s sake. Thank you for, yes, defining women as human. Yeah.
Right, right. And the title of that was “Wild Is Actually Macho.” He talked about how—his focus was “It’s a macho—it’s something that guys can get, too, because the emotions she expresses aren’t just lady emotions. It’s crazy! It’s nuts!”
I actually—so, the person who did that screenplay was Nick Hornby, and I saw him speak a couple of years ago in New York. And he—someone asked him about—well, actually I think he was telling a story about someone who’d asked him how he was able to kind of “get inside the mind of a woman.” And he was like, “…She wrote a memoir. I read her book, and I adapted her book to the movie…” Yeah. Not that hard.
Yeah. It’s crazy. So then, I guess you kind of addressed this, the next question, of the differences that you notice between the ways that the publishing industry markets books written by men versus by women. Is there anything else—any other points on that you want to make before we move on?
Yeah, um, a couple things. So, I guess one of the most obvious differences is book covers. You know, women’s book covers have a lot of flowers, and horizons, and makeup, and hearts, and wedding dresses, and pink. Basically anything stereotypically feminine. You know, things that imply that they’re not worth taking seriously, in a lot of cases.
And then men’s book covers are usually darker and edgier. Less cluttered. Less domestic. Less frivolous. And this is important, right? Because a book’s cover contributes to our perception of its quality, along with other things like the blurbs, and the comparisons to other novels, and where we shelve it in a store, and that kind of thing.
So, yeah, I think book covers are a big one. Oh, I just read this article about a woman who wrote a memoir about the years that she spent working as a war photographer in Afghanistan. And her publisher—I think it was Random House—changed the title, without asking her, to Shutterbabe—
I know. Ew, right? And then their initial design for the cover was a naked cartoon torso with the camera covering the crotch, all set against a pink background. Yeah, her war photographer memoir, right?
So she had to explain to Random House that it is “usually her eye behind the camera, and not her vagina.”
Isn’t that how they work?
Yeah. Oh, she also said that almost all of the publications that reviewed her book—which wasn’t very many, even though this went on to become a bestseller and has been taught in journalism schools—almost all of those reviews called her a stay-at-home mom. Like, when is the last time a male author was called a stay-at-home dad? That never—that never happens.
So book reviews are also a problem. I’ve heard it’s getting better, so that’s good news, but still I think most of the major review publications have mostly male reviewers, and the reviewees are less likely to be women. So, basically, what ends up happening is that men are the kind of “literary gatekeepers,” and then they’re more likely to open the gates to other men.
Which doesn’t actually make a lot of sense if you look at book sales. There was an, I think it was an Atlantic article, out maybe this summer, that pointed out that women buy more books than men, and we read more fiction. And, in the U.S., there are more women than men who have degrees in literature. So, if anything, we should probably be considered the default readers. Like, we are the greater part of the literary audience. Women are not a niche market.
Yeah. So, now, let’s talk about—I guess this actually branches off on what you were saying earlier about children’s books, and what we learn about how to value female stories and male stories and female authors and male authors when we’re young. And you and I had spoken a little bit—I talked about, I mentioned to you how I, as I got older, I realized that I sort of internalized these ideas accidentally, that male literature is insightful and says powerful things, and female literature tends to be more niche. So let’s talk about the classics, and required reading in high school. Of the classics that are frequently assigned to high school students, where are overlooked instances of sexism or misogyny in those stories?
Um, yeah, like—well, everywhere, first of all. Yeah, when we talked about this before—well, on my blog I’ve talked about how rape happens all the time in the classics. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever having classroom discussions about male entitlement, and how that leads to sexual assault. Even though it’s this, like, meta-theme that ties a lot of the classics together. You know, English—English teachers love that shit, right?
I think part of the problem is how rarely we’re willing to call rape rape. Right? Anything to victim-blame, right? The example that shocked me the most, actually, was Lolita. Because it’s hailed as this, like, great love story, even though it’s, you know, it’s about a middle-aged man who kidnaps his twelve-year-old step-daughter and rapes her repeatedly over the next two years. Which is the complete opposite of a love story. And it’s not even ambiguous, even in the book. Nabokov says in the preface to the book that Humbert is a monster. He calls him a—he calls him a “moral leper.” And then I turn my book cover over—my book over to the back cover—and I see a quote from Vanity Fair that says that the book is “the only convincing love story of our century.”
Oh my God.
Isn’t that horrifying?
I just threw up a little bit.
Yeah. So rape is definitely one. But there are broader issues, too. I mean, in my experience, literary curriculum in general overlooks female authors and protagonists. I can—I can only think of three books assigned in my high school that were by or about women. I mean, out of dozens, right? Meaning I spent entire semesters—and even entire years—reading books by men about men. And that was just normal, right? But if I’d wanted to take a class that featured only female writers, I would’ve had to wait until college, and I would’ve had to sign up for some specialized class in the Women’s Studies Department. Again, as if we’re this, like, niche offering.
And while—yeah. And it is true that, historically, men have dominated literary culture, but most of the novels that exist today have been written in the last couple of centuries. So there are plenty of women to choose from.
And I’m not sure that being a man has ever been an excuse to dismiss or exclude women. I’ve criticized Tolkien on my blog before for underrepresentation of women, and some guy was like, “Well, what do you expect? He was a conservative Catholic academic born in the 19th century.” And I was like, Tolstoy. Thackeray. Flaubert. Henry James, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy… All men. Some Catholic (probably). Some conservative (probably). All born well before Tolkien, and all of whom thought women were, at least, like, minimally interesting. Interesting enough to write novels about, apparently.
And yeah, the last thing I was going to say is that there are, um, I think there are a lot of missed opportunities for discussion around intersectional feminism in the classics—like, this idea that the various forms of oppression intersect. So, for example, a poor black woman is going to experience oppression differently than a rich white woman. I just finished Native Son in September. It’s this book, set in the ’40s, about this 20-year-old black boy who accidentally kills a white girl—who’s his boss’s daughter—and then deliberately murders his black girlfriend. But when he’s captured and put on trial, it’s only for killing the white girl—and the black girl’s body is brought in as evidence.
Yeah. Evidence of his, like, inclination toward violence. And as he’s sitting there, in court, he thinks to himself that even though she’s dead, and even though he killed her, he knows that she would resent her body being used that way. You know, in a way that essentially erases her personhood.
Yeah. Yeah. So what—yeah, sounds like an intense read. I have not read that one.
Yeah, it is an intense read for sure.
So what women authors or woman-centric books do you think should be added to high school curriculum to help teenagers now get the experiences and perspectives that you and I didn’t get when we were in high school?
Well, I guess in the case of my high school, like, any would be a good start. Because there were so few. I—I looked up a list recently of the most frequently assigned books in U.S. high schools, and it was all Shakespeare and the Greeks and Steinbeck. And, you know, us ladies, we get, like, The Scarlet Letter. Which is so boring we all wish it never existed in the first place, right? And it was written by a man.
But some of my favorites—and this is definitely subjective—but I would say of the books that actually do justice to female characters, probably Jane Eyre or anything by Jane Austen. Margaret Atwood’s books. Toni Morrison’s books. Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and Zora Neale Hurston all wrote wonderful, complex women. I know some high school curriculum does include some of their books, but mine definitely didn’t. I wasn’t assigned any of those authors, at least not until college. Which is such a shame.
Yeah. My best friend from college, I always really envied. We had a few—we would have, like, maybe two female authors a year when I was in high school, so there was a little bit. But my best friend in college went to an all-girls Catholic school, and the nuns very deliberately made sure that fifty percent of the authors they read were women. And I was so jealous when I first met her—I was like, “I’ve gotta catch up to you!” Cuz there were these books I didn’t even really know existed, or had a vague sense of—but no one was saying, “You need to go out and read these,” so I didn’t prioritize them.
Right. Right. So, like, for example, why did I have to read both 1984 and Brave New World, but didn’t get to read The Handmaid’s Tale in school—you know? And why did I have to read everything Shakespeare ever wrote, but I had to find Jane Austen and Toni Morrison on my own? There’s just such a huge imbalance.
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. This was a great conversation.
Thank you so much.
Have a good day.
In listening to this after the fact, I realized I did not reciprocate Abi’s initial “How are you?”—like some kind of mannerless monster—and I did not wish her a good day in parting. Normally both are reflexes, so the evidence of this wanton incivility on my part fills me with shame. My only defense is that I was distracted by setting up the call, preparing my notes, checking the time (the call was set to cut off automatically after 15 minutes), and, of course, tuning out the roar of my neighbor’s chainsaw.
Anyway, there you have it. This probably isn’t the last you’ll hear from me on this topic, but it’s probably the last you’ll hear from me about it today. Feel free to return to your spreadsheet, or your surgery, or your stocks, as the case may be. I’ll be here, as always—reading and writing and banging my head against the wall on behalf of women everywhere.
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.
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 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.
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-Dick; Catch-22). Sometimes there’s literally zero excuse (The Lord of the Rings; The 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.”
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 Ellis, V.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.