Feminism in Classic Literature: You’re Doing It Wrong

Hello, all! This post brought to you by Japan, a country who refuses to accept Syrian refugees. Real classy, guys. You think just because Godzilla frequents your country that you can reject a bunch of refugees?

Today I want to talk about a practice that really irks me: the search for feminism in classic literature. Keep your hackles down, kids. I’m not saying anything against feminism in this post. But I don’t think that it “belongs” in the analysis of classic literature. Not because feminism isn’t a vital movement, and not because there aren’t dynamic female characters in many classic books, but because evaluating books on whether they contain “appropriate” feminism is narrow-minded. It teaches readers that a novel’s merit lies only in its depth of social equality, and that’s simply not true. Let me explain why I’m even bringing this topic up. It all starts with my AP Literature class.

We’ve just finished the epic Beowulf. If you’re unfamiliar with this text, it’s basically an epic poem about an Anglo-Saxon warrior, Beowulf, and his many deeds and exploits. The book turned out to be quite different from my expectations. For example, I believed that Grendel, the monster, was the main conflict of the book, but his plot line covered only about 1/4 of the story.  Additionally, I expected it to be written in a similar style to The Odyssey, which paints Odysseus and his fellows as complex characters, not just heroes. However, Beowulf was a very static character and didn’t follow the traditional hero cycle. I expected us to analyze the book, perhaps focusing on its use of mythology, its plot structure, or perhaps its non-traditional hero. But instead, my teacher gave us a feminist poem about the novel. And everything went downhill from there. Here’s the poem, written by Anne McKay:

On First looking into Heaney’s Beowulf

A bunch of high class thugs
returns in a golden cloud of
exhaust fumes and dust, helmets
polished bright as maseratis,
spears and chain mail clashing,
enters to a riot of cheers.The king’s daughter and
groupies serve wine,
dripping meat and beer
while they boast and yell,
unable to shut up, telling
how the blood spurted
like a chain-saw massacre,
how sword thrusts blasted
guts all over the heath.

Then the big guy shouts how,
at great cost, he hacked the
slavering homo-monster and its
disgusting mother to pieces,
brought back the slimy head and
taloned arm. Roars of laughter.

Meanwhile, the bard, who’s
no dope and knows on which
side his meat is seasoned,
commits to memory every heroic,
bloody word; great deeds to
inspire a millennium of brutal
bullet-pocked worlds to come.

I don’t like this poem. Not only do I find it uncreative, it’s also shallow and simplistic. It takes a monumental piece of literature, perhaps the first great story written by a European, and reduces it to nothing. Perhaps Anne McKay didn’t enjoy Beowulf, and that’s alright. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But to characterize the protagonists of the story as “high class thugs” who tell “how the blood spurted like a chain saw massacre” when they “hacked the slavering homo-monster to pieces” is immature and disrespectful, not to mention incorrect. It seems like she didn’t bother to read the epic and instead searched for pieces to support her theory that all men are violent, blood-thirsty thugs who kill poor little monsters for entertainment. But that’s far from the truth. Grendel is a monster. He killed the warriors of Daneland every night for 12 years. 12 YEARS! When Beowulf kills him, it’s an act of vengeance, not bloodlust. He didn’t kill him because Grendel was a “slavering homo-monster,” a pretty nasty term by the way, Anne McKay. And when Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son’s death, Beowulf doesn’t hack Grendel’s “disgusting mother to pieces” because he thinks it’s funny. He does it to protect his men. McKay chose to ignore these basic plot elements to further her point.

I bring up this specific piece of “literary analysis” because it’s a perfect example of what I want to discuss right now. I tend to stay away from discussions of feminism in the media because it’s really draining to listen to all the chitter chatter. There are “good feminists” and “bad feminists” and “white girl feminists” and “poc feminists” (which sounds pretty degrading to me. Why is it okay to call someone a “person of color” but not to call someone a “colored person?” Person of color sounds like an object to me. But it all comes down to what is “politically correct” I guess) and they all disagree on what the right type of feminists are. I’m fine with people spouting their ideas left and right, but I don’t appreciate it when it creeps into my classic literature. Take this feminist critique of George Orwell:

The exclusion of ‘common woman’ from his notion of ‘common man’ was not only a linguistic carelessness to which he was otherwise especially alert. Consequently, “many women,” says Rodden, “cannot ‘read themselves into’ Orwell very easily. They come to him with the expectation that he speaks to ‘the common reader’, only to find the dialogue virtually closed. His reader seems to be the common male reader, and the disappointment is keen” (225). In the eyes of feminists, Orwell’s blindness to women’s issues and his own emphatic masculinity calls into question, perhaps even invalidates, his commitment to social justice.

  • -“Orwell and Women’s Issues” by Ivett Császár

There is so much wrong here. First of all, I’m a girl, and I had no problem identifying with Winston or Julia for that matter. My “feminine status” does not inhibit me from identifying with universal human emotions. Secondly, Orwell is not blind to women’s issues, he just doesn’t place them front and center. In 1984, for example, Winston starts off despising Julia because of her overt sexuality. Yet Orwell doesn’t put Winston’s hatred in a rational light. Once we meet Julia, we see her as a complex character and one that Winston can respect. She’s braver than him in many ways, more reckless too, and overall a more likeable character. They use each other mainly for sex, but that is the ultimate act of freedom in Orwell’s world, and as such Julia is the ultimate rebel. Some feminist critics believe that Orwell represents Julia as a stereotypical weak female because she betrays Winston when tortured. As if no one among them would be broken by torture. I hate, hate, hate outlooks like this. When did it become so that to be a valuable “feminist” character, a woman has to be unbreakable? Women feel the same pain as man, have the same flaws, contribute to the same evil. Julia can be weak in one moment and still be a well-written female character. No person can be defined by one attribute, and no character should be either.

When I was thinking about this post, I brainstormed a list of books that I thought most feminist critics would hate. Top of that list was definitely Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. If you’ve read this novel, you know exactly why I immediately thought of this book. The novel is about pre-colonial Nigeria and follows the story of Okonkwo, a tribesman who struggles to separate himself from his “feminine” father, often resorting to violence to achieve this. It’s at times a difficult book to read, but still an important one, as it discusses themes of justice, masculinity, and the morality of tribal culture. But leave it to a certain feminist critic to ignore all of that.

Although many critics explicate upon the horrors and injustices Okonkwo inflicts upon the men in his life, (mainly his son Nwoye, his other ‘son’ Ikemefuna), most omit any discussion of the abuse suffered by Okonkwo’s wives. However, this critique reevaluates the significance of not only the pain of these women, but also their importance as individuals within their community. Therefore, “by providing a different point of departure (this feminist reading) brings into focus the identification of male critics with one character and permits the analysis of male misreadings. Hence, this work challenges these misreadings and positions the female characters at the center of the text. Instead of focusing on Okonkwo, as most critics have, this reading is focused on two major female characters, Ekwefi and Ezinma, and one minor figure, Ojiugo.

-“Reading as a Woman: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Feminist Criticism” by Linda Strong-Leek

What does “reading as a woman” even mean? Does it mean you completely rearrange the significant characters of a story so that women are at the center, even if that’s completely illogical? You can’t change the way novels were written because they don’t fit your exact feminist needs. Okonkwo is a the protagonist of the story. Not Ekwefi, not Ezinma, and certainly not Ojiugo This story is not about them. In real life, every person plays a role in how events turn out. That is NOT the case in literature. LITERATURE IS NOT REAL, okay fam? If Things Fall Apart was an exact documentary of Nigerian tribal life, there is no doubt that women would be feature prominently in the film. But this is a novel, not a documentary. Thus the story is about the protagonist, Okonkwo, who happens to be a man, and his life, which happens to involve many other men. His abusive treatment towards his  wives gives characterization to Okonkwo, but it does not affect his actions or the plot. Yes, it is terrible that women were beaten and abused and not treated as equals in Nigerian tribal society. But that is the context of this book and your outrage will not change that fact.

Imagine if the roles were reversed. Take, for instance, Jane Eyre. What if we decided that the book should be told from the relatively insignificant point of view of St. John Rivers. That would be silly, wouldn’t it? St. John plays an important role in the plot, but analyzing the entire novel from his point of view wouldn’t make sense because the story isn’t about him. This is the same as analyzing Things Fall Apart from the point of view of Ekwefi or Ezinma. They play roles in the novel, but ultimately the story is not about them. It’s like “extreme phone pinching.” Stupid and illogical.


Analyzing classic books for feminism seems so irrational to me. Of course these books, mostly written by men, are going to be about men. Feminism is a relatively recent movement, whereas some of these classics being analyzed were written hundreds of years ago. Would you criticize a novel written in 1730 for not including mentions of television and Google? Of course not because those things did not yet exist. Neither did feminism! Writers wrote what they knew and what they knew their readers wanted to buy. In most of history, the majority of literate citizens would have been male. They would have been buying these classics, not their wives. And when women did read novels, they read subgenres such as romance. The classics would have been considered too complex for them. There’s do denying that this outlook is sexist, but that’s the way it was at the time. Therefore it makes little sense to crucify someone such as Dickens for not creating stories aimed towards women when he wouldn’t have been trying to sell his novels to them in the first place. And yet, people still don’t seem to grasp this simple fact. It’s like when people forgo measles vaccinations because the disease isn’t as prevalent. You know why the disease isn’t as prevalent? BECAUSE OF VACCINATIONS! It’s the same with sexism. Just because humans are trying to change gender roles in the 21st century doesn’t mean that sexism never existed. But apparently saying that a book should be excused for sexism because it’s a product of its time isn’t valid, because, ya know, we’re all still trying to force 21st century expectations on pre-modern works of literature.

Additionally, the idea that racism and sexism were ubiquitous before we came along is a slander on our own parents, grandparents, and ancestors. Yes, there was virulent racism and sexism in the past (as there is today). But that doesn’t mean everyone, everywhere in the past was equally racist and sexist. Charles Dickens’s female protagonists are treacly and vapid, but George Eliot’s aren’t—just as Eliot’s working class characters tend to be condescending sentimental portraits, while Dickens’s are human beings. Similarly, H.P. Lovecraft’s racismwas certainly of its time in many ways—he lived in the late 19th and early 20th century, a period many historians have described as the nadir of American race relations. Yet, Langston Hughes also lived and wrote in the same period, proving that it was in fact possible to write in the early 20th century and not be a racist ass. Saying that Lovecraft was “of his time” erases all the folks (not least black people) who were not racist, or held different views. And it erases Lovecraft himself, turning him into a blank slate, devoid of free will, simply regurgitating accepted wisdom, as if he had no other choice (though the example of Langston Hughes and of, say, Stephen Crane, shows that he did.)

– “The ‘Product of Its Time’ Defense No Excuse for Sexism and Racism” by Noah Berlatsky

What the hell do you think a “product of its time” even means? It’s a god damn generalization! Of course Langston Hughes wasn’t racist, but the majority of 1920s America was! That’s why his poems are relevant! George Eliot wasn’t a sexist, but mid 19th century England certainly fit into that description. For chrissakes, she used a male pen name to make sure that people would take her seriously. Saying that racism and sexism were ubiquitous in the past isn’t an insult to our ancestors, it’s a fact. You can’t deny history because it doesn’t make you feel good. And of course there is racism and sexism in the 21st century too. We’re not distinguishing between the two to say that our modern time is morally superior, but if you think that there has been no advancement in social equality since 1850, you’re delusional.

Rather than defending them, though, this argument threatens to make these creators irrelevant. If, after all, the past was so different than the present, if we know so much more now than then, if we’re so morally superior, then what can these writers teach us? If we have progressed so far beyond Orwell in our understanding of equality and freedom and justice and humanity, then why should we read 1984, which purports to discuss issues such as equality and freedom and justice and humanity?

Who is saying this? The writer is creating a straw man argument here and clearly doesn’t understand what a “product of the time” is. I don’t know who among us has picked up 1984 and said “Well clearly we’ve progressed so far beyond Orwell in our understanding of equality and freedom and justice and humanity. We have no need to read it.” Anyone who reads 1984 knows that we HAVEN’T progressed very far from his dystopia. We’re all still worried about it becoming a reality. The only idiot who would dismiss it as irrelevant is you, Berlatsky.

Here’s the full article if you wish to read it. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/01/the-product-of-its-time-defense-no-excuse-for-sexism-and-racism/283352/#disqus_thread

You might have to do this afterwards

Next time you’re going to bash a novel because it doesn’t fit your feminist expectations, take a second and ask yourself a few questions. First, ask yourself if you’re unjustly forcing modern standards onto said book. If the answer is yes, stop immediately. Second, ask yourself whether you’re trying to rearrange the plot to make female characters more important, while completely ignoring their actual relevance. If the answer is yes, STOP! You’re reading wrong and you’re going to ruin the book for yourself. Repeat after me: not all novels must be from a female’s perspective to be valid. Not all novels must portray females as main characters to be valid. Not all novels must include feminist values to be valid. Comprende? Now read, read well, my darlings. And if you disagree with everything I’ve just said, don’t read Things Fall Apart. This will be you.


2 thoughts on “Feminism in Classic Literature: You’re Doing It Wrong”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s