Discussion: Read Like A Girl?

I have been pondering this issue for a while.  I am a feminist, I am pro-women (as well as being generally pro-human etc) but I am also an ex-English literature student and I enjoy classic literature.  While at university, I discovered that finding a good feminist rant in an essay tended to guarantee higher marks – although I also admit that generally making an argument that the book was really all about sex tended to work pretty well too.  Even better if I managed to over-lap both points in the same piece of work.  However – and I’m not looking to pick an argument, just to make a point – I do sometimes feel that feminist interpretations can sometimes subvert a book’s true meaning and on occasion miss the point to a quite staggering degree.  So my question – and this is not just directed to the women – do you ever find your interpretation of a book altered by feminism?

About six months ago, I read a commentary on Laura Ingalls’ Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.  The blog writer (who will remain nameless) was writing about the scene in which the child Laura realises that, just like herself, her mother Caroline hates sewing.  Laura learns an important lesson about not complaining about the tasks you hate but which need doing.  The blog writer posed the feminist point that it was wrong that Caroline had to do the sewing if she hated it, that this showed she was being unfairly treated by her husband Charles and that he should have hired someone to do it for her.  Given that this lady had clearly read the series in detail, I was rather flabbergasted by this response.

Caroline Ingalls – Oppressed?

The Ingalls spent a large amount of the series in the wilderness.  At one point they were living in a dug-out by a river.  At another time they were in the middle of a vast prairie.  Later on, even when the family had moved to De Smet, they were snowed in for six months during The Long Winter.  Mary and Laura Ingalls had to share a slate pencil because their parents could not afford a second one.  The one thing that was definitely not an option was to sit back and hire someone to do their sewing.  Either they all went naked or someone had to sew them clothes and Charles had most likely not had the training.  In implying that the man was being unfair, the writer seems to imply that what feminism is fighting for is the right to put our feet up.  That is not the case.  Charles worked the land, Caroline worked the home – it was a fair division of labour.  More to the point, it is quite clear that Caroline Ingalls was a woman of high standards who was ambitious for her daughters’ success – in implying that she was being ‘forced’ to sew, I felt that the blog writer undermined her real life integrity.  Caroline Ingalls even kept up with the ironing when they were living out of a wagon, she was clearly someone determined to keep up standards no matter the circumstances – a tough woman.  Later on, Laura went to teach school even though she never liked it because she too wanted to contribute to the home.  The point of Little House on the Prairie is not that women were down-trodden but rather that hard work is a wonderful thing and that you should just get on with things and not complain.  Although it may be seen as old-fashioned, the series has never bothered me in terms of gender inequality.

Yet, as a woman, I find myself increasingly angered by the Fifty Shades of Grey bonanza.  I watched the film last weekend and felt that seeing the relationship on the big screen, the abusive message was made all the clearer.  Don’t mistake me, it’s not a good film – the script is terrible, the characters absurd although it is surprisingly well-lit (I have a bug-bear about films that over-do darkness).  Still, the point that irritated me was the audacity with which Christian tried to take control of Anastasia.  We are told that she does not care about his wealth, but if a man with a 1998 Ford Polo turned up and invited her to come and check out his Red Ikea Cupboard of Pain in the one room he had in a shared house, I really don’t think she’d have been caught in the same way.  His arrogance and her lack of intelligent thought, the way that Christian gets to say that he wants to hurt her because he feels so strongly about her (er – cornerstone argument of wifebeaters, anyone?) – it’s a big pile of hooey.  I can see that this is just a weird Cinderella story, that the story is of a young girl being swept off her feet by an unconventional Prince Charming and I know that it ends with Christian being ‘tamed’ (eurrgh) but I can’t suspend my feminist indignation.

This got me to wondering – is feminist literary theory something that has to be applied wholesale?  I loved The Woman in White but was horrified by Laura Fairlie even while I adored Marian Halcombe.  But I have also read scathing reviews of Jane Eyre‘s Helen Burns and Little Women‘s Beth March, both of whom I am inclined to forgive their lack of failings because each represent the beloved sister of their respective authors, both dead long before their time.  Were I to write a fictionalised version of my Grandma or Grandpa, I would not recall any blemishes within their characters either – Beth and Helen are monuments to the loss felt by their sisters.  I am not aware of any similarly mitigating circumstances for Laura Fairlie though unless colossal stupidity can be deemed a medical condition – she is just infuriating and her enjoyment of the state of victim upsets much of my enjoyment of the book.

Helps nobody

Context, I feel, is the thing – it irritates me too when certain books are criticised for lacking women where they just don’t fit.  An example of this is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which has notoriously few female characters, but yet I was semi-nauseated by the inclusion of Tauriel in the recent Hobbit adaptation – doing little more than cause a love triangle and certainly not doing anything to help the story beat the Bechdel test.  Middle-Earth is a story about dwarves, men, hobbits and elves, all of them fighting men – Tolkien does not completely forget women, he has Galadriel and Eowyn and even the milder Arwen but attempting to crow-bar in gender equality does not fit.  I would even argue that there is an interesting feminist question of the Ent-wives who left their husbands to journey further afield.

By contrast, I read and loathed Ian Fleming’s Spectre Trilogy a few months ago which included only a bare few female characters who existed only to sate Bond’s sexual appetites.  It was the nastiest book I can remember reading.  It is the mind-set behind it which bothers me more though than the lack of autonomy – I read Game of Thrones and can accept that in a medieval world, it would be unrealistic to present women as having their own choices.  The interest comes from how they operate within the boundaries set out for them.  (Side rant – this of course refers to the books, not the television series, which glorifies violence against women in a revolting manner.)  I recognise that Spectre was also written in a time with different expectations around gender relations, but yet I find it unforgivable.

I wonder then – do I like books for which I can find mitigating circumstances, or do I find mitigating circumstances for those books which I like?  Whenever I read Dickens, I always nit-pick at how useless he is at writing women, but is this because I dislike Dickens so much as a person?  Why does the fact that he was a dreadful human being affect my enjoyment of his writing so much in the first place?  This may all sound rather fatuous but the fact that I am a feminist is part of who I am – I was brought up by a single mother, I am a Brownie leader, I aim to promote positive messages on gender equality and this feeling translates into my reading.  Do other readers ever have the same feeling?  Does gender bias ever bother other people?  In short, what are other people’s experiences of reading like a girl?


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18 thoughts on “Discussion: Read Like A Girl?

  1. This is a really interesting discussion about a very important issue. As a literature student, I share your concern with paying close attention to what I read and what kinds of issues the text is engaging with.

    I also tend to read with a strong focus on the way that gender is constructed in texts. It’s always been something I’ve found fascinating and relevant to my everyday experience. That being said, I’ve often heard criticisms about applying feminist theory to texts that were written pre-feminism. And I do agree that it’s not really possible to call writers who worked before the twentieth century ‘feminists’, but I do still think it’s valid to read texts through the perspective of feminism, to interrogate the book’s gender norms and the way that sexuality is represented. Readers of Dickens or Ingalls may have found the depictions of gender in their books absolutely normal – but although it’s important to be aware of the original readership of the books and the context in which they were written, in my opinion what’s ultimately most important is our twenty-first century experience as individual readers, and the experiences and understandings that we bring to the books. From that point of view, I think it’s perfectly valid to read books from a feminist perspective (or a Marxist perspective, or a Freudian one, if that happens to float your boat :D).

    1. I agree with you, particularly about ‘… the context in which they were written, …’

      One point, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1792 which did have some influence on male writers at the time (though it has to be admitted only a few.) So the roots of such thinking had been published well before the twentieth century.

      (Sorry if this sounds pedantic!)

    2. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment! I agree that you have to be careful about claiming pre-feminist books as feminist but then at the same time, who’s to know about whether or not the writers truly were attempting to further the rights of women? I think that for me, I find it harder to relate to a character whose values are opposed to my own, or who I cannot at least empathise with and so characters like Laura Fairlie in the Woman in White baffle me in their willing lack of autonomy.
      I think (as Mike points out) that pro-woman thinking has been a round a long time, but it has been an issue of controversy for equally long – think about prominent medieval thinking women (Anne Boleyn – beheaded, Catherine Parr – nearly arrested/beheaded). I guess that because it has long been such a contentious issue, it is worth considering but I think that as you say, there are many literary theories with which to approach a text. So glad this post got people thinking!

      1. These are very interesting points you both raised – I think you’re right, there definitely were pro-woman thinkers in the past, and although it might perhaps be a little anachronistic to call them straight-out ‘feminists’, their work clearly exhibits (what we would today call) feminist ideas/tendencies/concerns. As far as I remember from my undergraduate degree, Wollstonecraft is considered a borderline case; some call her the first proper ‘feminist’, while others refer to her as a proto-feminist. As you noted, Mike, she did have an impact on contemporary thinking, which is an important point. I personally think the history of feminist thinking has a long history (and is undoubtedly influenced by early modern debates about the nature of humanity, the ‘Rights of Man’, etc.).

        Your comment about claiming pre-feminist books as feminist is also intriguing, because I think it’s probably a thorny issue for a lot of people. I personally agree with you that it’s tricky to call these kinds of texts ‘feminist’, especially because, as you noted, it’s difficult to tell whether the author was deliberately trying to make a feminist comment or not.

        I think there’s clearly a difference in calling a text ‘feminist’ – saying it deliberately (or even inadvertently) makes a comment about gender and/or confronts contemporary gender norms with the aim of highlighting inequalities based on gender – and doing a feminist ‘reading’ of a text, which involves reading the text with the aim of discovering how gender functions within the text, but without claiming that the author was consciously writing a political text. I always think of Austen whenever I think about this issue, because it’s doubtful that she was writing with an aim of overthrowing the entire social system of Regency England, but when read in a feminist light, you could see the humour in her novels as deeply subversive. Then you can argue till the break of day about whether Austen is conscious of the subversiveness of the ironic tone she employs throughout her novels (although you can also argue that it doesn’t matter what she thought, only how we as readers interpret it; I’m a bit of postmodernist, so I tend to prefer to ‘reader is always right’ approach :D).

        You’re definitely right – there are so many ways of approaching a text that it can become quite baffling! But I think that’s also the wonderful thing about reading – you can choose how to approach a text, and you may decide to choose a different approach every time you read and reread something.

  2. An interesting post that raises so many questions, given some time and much thought I could probably respond in similar length.

    To me, the bottom line for all gender equality issues, whatever arguments are put forward on both sides, is that females and males are equal and capable of everything except in one respect – giving birth (and even then it is unfortunate that some women are denied this by nature.) All other hindrances are the result of cultural practices and interference. It is sad state of affairs that such difficulties continue, even when humans have had centuries to deal with it. I am sometime forced to conclude that there has to be a genetic element to this, but the that would be just getting back to the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate that even in these days of genetic research never seems to be resolved (and perhaps never will be.)

    There’s a background issue too, whether there are books for women and books for men, particularly with novels. If I was able to look back over all the books I’ve read over the last forty odd years I would guess the majority would be women writers over nearly all genres of fiction (from literature to trash just read for the escapism of it.) Why? I don’t know, the way women tend to write (and that in itself is a generalisation that doesn’t help the debate!) is different in, for me, a positive way.

    Sara’s point above regarding context is also important, as you and regular followers here know I am a great fan of the children’s books by Arthur Ransome. Two of them in particular raise issues of racism which have debated quite strongly on related forums. To me, the books represent a moment in time in British society and reflects its values. Ransome was not trying to make deep social points in his work so the context argument works. But how far do we let this work?

    As you also know, I agree with your view on Dickens, his works have the added problem of his private life which seems to be reflected in his novels. He, of course, is not the only writer that can give us such problems.

    In a sense, we read everything from a perspective, one or many, which for personal reading is not an issue if we are aware of it. The problems start, as you began your piece, when it influences the way education assessments are judged or how the next generation brought up whether it be their parents or their Brownie leader.

    If you read like a woman why not? You are able to see this and assess the work involved, which must have some importance.

    1. Thank you for the considered comment – as you say, context is indeed key.

      I was asked to provide a ‘recommended reads’ list for the work newsletter a few weeks ago and then had to resubmit as my list was not inclusive enough; I had not included books by any male authors. I do read books by men, I know I do, but I have a feeling that in general more of the books that I treasure are those written by women. Do I perhaps just have a greater feeling of affinity with a book by a female author? Oddly, I then redrafted my list and included a Robert Galbraith book, but then sheepishly had to admit that he didn’t really count as a male author. David Sedaris and Jon Ronson got me over the hump.

      I agree too about Arthur Ransome – in certain ways he was quite liberal in that Nancy and to a certain extent Titty were able to escape perceived gender roles. His characters up in the Norfolk Broads, who I admit were never my favourites, do show that he was ready to move slightly beyond the class divides. My issue with Dickens is, I think, the hypocrisy – but even if I knew nothing about any of that, I would probably still be troubled by his slightly unsettling attitudes towards women and children. His descriptions of Oliver Twist are downright creepy and yes, he can’t write a convincing woman to save his life.

      I think it was interesting for me at university that as a prim and proper eighteen year-old, I had to relax a bit to feel confident to call on literary theory, or even to insinuate that the text was all about sex – I suppose that my reading has changed as I myself have matured. It really is true that you never read the same book twice.

      PS – Thank you for your email about this post, it was much appreciated! 🙂

  3. I’m the nameless blog writer (Jillian), & I’d first like to say that that entry at my place (since deleted, because I was embarrassed by your response in my comment box) was part of a scrap book of unrefined thoughts on literature. I hadn’t even begun reading literature until around the time I first read the series. I am an undergrad who has never taken a feminist criticism course, hasn’t read the books since 2010, and was merely doing a passing bit of journaling at my place.

    There are all sorts of book blogs out there. Yours (appears) to be a review blog, which I read pretty faithfully. I am an emotional reader and love your ability to evenly assess a book. I also think your project here is lovely. You review books by new writers — something I rarely get a chance to do. I find your perspective on books interesting in an Elinor vs. Marianne kind of way. (I’m quite like Marianne, so a reasoned look at literature interests me, as it is my polar opposite perspective, often.)

    My blog isn’t like this. Mine is a journal. I began reading literature in 2010. I hadn’t read much before that. My blog is not intended to critique literature as if my remarks are the final word on books. My blog is intended to capture my unrefined thoughts as I journey through literature for the first time. Sometimes I spend a couple hours on a post. Sometimes I capture only questions. Sometimes I say things in the heat of a passionate moment — merely to capture them. I do this because one day I’ll no longer be someone new to literature. I want to remember who I was in books. The absolutely unrefined scribblings. The times I leapt to a conclusions, and then returned to a book and reconsidered.

    I hated Pride and Prejudice the first time I read it. I didn’t get it at all. It’s now one of my favorite books. I blog to remember that — and to see the footprints.

    That post you cite was written in about two seconds in response to a dream I had had recently, which had prompted me to contemplate the role of women in Little House on the Prairie, which I did at a very surface level, as a means to jot down my thoughts in that moment for future analysis.

    I stated quite clearly in the entry that I adore (adore, as in, it’s one of my favorite series) Little House on the Prairie), and was merely curious why I’d dreamt the dream, which I was sharing as a part of my literary scrap book. I often lack the time to capture impenetrable analysis there, as I am almost always either at school, at work, or buried in my homework pile. I don’t have the experience to write impenetrable analysis. I’m an undergrad student who is still learning.

    I’ll quote the dream I shared on that post below, which you have already read. (I simply will not defend this dream. It was A DREAM.)

    February 2015: I was analyzing the Little House books through a feminist lens in my sleep last night: Caroline is dragged through western frontiers where she has none of the benefits middle class women of the 1870s would have had in the east: ability to gather with other women, petition government on issues, speak out about temperance in a fairly social setting, appeal for women’s suffrage, take part in the church in a role of moral superiority (women were considered superior to men in that area and could lecture them on moral points — one of their few power roles), and feel she belongs somewhere beyond her “proper sphere” (the house.) She’s left for long periods all alone with the children — stranded, with no power, no ability to communicate beyond her own home — while Charles gallivants in “Independence” (the actual city name) carefree and loving the freedom he feels he’s achieved in the west. Caroline loses freedom by going west, and he gains freedom by losing government intervention in his point of view (they are far from civilization) and taking the land of the Native Americans. Dream Me also notes that the early books based on Laura are named after the home (the woman’s sphere) – Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie — while the book based on Almanzo (a boy) is named after what he does and who he wants to become: Farmer Boy. I have no idea why I dreamed this.

    My very cursory thoughts on the series after I dreamt this dream (in the entry you cite) were merely my own contemplation of the novel(s) which were prompted by this odd dream of mine. It seemed pretty wise to take a second glance at the series after such a dream? I think I was remarking on a comment I’d seen at another blog, about how impressed another blogger was by her realization that Caroline hated sewing, and never once complained. Laura didn’t realize she hated the task and that appeared (to the author) to reflect Caroline’s strong character. (This other blogger is a friend of mine whose remarks on literature I highly value.)

    My point was not (NOT) that Caroline should throw a tantrum? (You commented at my place, “I think that there is courage and valour to her working through a task she disliked and it makes me sad that people now question this and imply that she is a weaker woman because she didn’t throw a tantrum and refused to sew.”) I found such an assessment of my passing remark wholly illogical?

    Caroline Ingalls was a fictional woman. I know she was based on a real woman, but she isn’t an actual woman in the books. She is a fictional character fashioned, molded, and made into a sort of myth by a writer of the 1950s (Laura.) Laura decided which parts of the fictional character to feature, what tone to lend the facets she showed her readers, and what conclusion she (appeared) to hope readers would draw about that character. In the sewing needle scene, her point is clearly that it’s part of good character to say nothing and soldier on.

    My point in that entry was not that feminism is fought to give women the right to put their feet up. I find such a logical leap to be appalling in the extreme? My point was that LAURA created this woman in the 1950s, and I wondered what her agenda was as a writer publishing books for children. I didn’t say her agenda was either bad or good; I merely noted that she likely had one, as every work of literature has some sort of agenda, and that I found it (personally) difficult to imagine ever despising a task and simply doing it without protest. I believe my response that day edges toward an elementary version of reader response criticism? As in I honed in on Caroline’s response to the sewing needle based on my own inability to imagine reacting as she did, and that spotlights a place where I might eventually do some actual criticism.

    To take the book (series) seriously is to test its agenda. I didn’t test it at my place. I didn’t have the time or experience to test it, and I hadn’t recently read the books. I simply put it out there for myself, as a question mark in my immense pile of question marks about the books I’m reading.

    You wrote at my place: “Caroline did what she had to do as her contribution to the family – just as Laura would later teach school even though she hated it because she wanted to help Mary to go to college.”

    I hear that. I truly do! But then, teaching was the only real option available to Laura. Was there personal strength in her choice? Sure! I get that, yet I also sense how much Laura HATED the fact that teaching was her only option. I’m thinking of the historical context that forced women to smile and endure when they ought to have had more choices. I’m wondering why Laura (the writer) is promoting this endurance (through her fictional characters) as if it’s a personal gift when I imagine her own daughter hauling up a picket sign and saying “WE DON’T WANT TO ENDURE! WE WANT TO LIVE.”

    What was the agenda in that moment in the books? It could be absolutely lovely (the human spirit will press on & not complain), or it could be a continuation of the historical precedence to keep your mouth shut & do your work — that’s a female quality the world can admire. I’m wondering about Laura’s motivation with the sewing needle scene. (I can’t say I agree that to open her mouth and express a personal opinion puts Caroline on the same plane as one who would throw a tantrum?)

    You suggested in your comment that “shirking one’s share is shameful behaviour.” I don’t disagree? Nor did I ever suggest that Caroline should shirk her share. I questioned the author’s framing of a fictional character’s resilience as a woman within a fictional novel written for children. I didn’t assess it as right or wrong. I questioned it. A thought in progress.

    I have only read the series once, and that was six years ago. The serious analysis missing in my entry can be attributed to my extremely hazy memory of the books as a whole, as well as lack of time. I go to school full-time and have a job. The rest of my time is generally spent doing homework. I blog in the moments I have between all of that, because I love having the space to write my own way, without a professor grading my every word. (Or, frankly, a visitor.)

    With deepest respect, you might consider the profile of the author when you visit blogs? Certainly you make excellent points! I hear those and thank you for them. I think you’re right that one can lose sight of the heart of a work by too strenuously applying a feminist lens. I agree whole-heartedly and am learning it as I go. But please, if you’re going to visit blogs in the future, go gently, and ask the author for clarification rather than assigning her the role of angry feminist who believes women should sit around and let the men work. Such an accusation bewildered, angered, and finally mortified me.

    I have no idea if I’ll ever even get around to reading these books through a feminist lens? I love the books and might just read them for cozy next time. I respect your great love of them, as well as your suggestion that they have depth beyond the feminist angle, and I will continue to read your blog as one I respect, and enjoy. Cheers.

    1. Hi,

      I’m afraid I’ve been away this weekend and this was a scheduled post so I haven’t had time to respond to recent comments – I still don’t have a great deal of time but I wanted to respond to this comment promptly.

      1) I would like to fully apologise for any offence or hurt which was caused by the comment I made on your website all those months ago. Clearly, it was not properly thought out and lacked tact – to be honest, it is this kind of issue that is the reason why I rarely comment on websites – it’s really hard to judge for tone. In real life, I’m a fairly mild person so although I do have opinions, I can generally put them across without causing difficulty, something which is harder to do on the internet. This is not an excuse – and I don’t want to say sorry ‘if’ I offended you, because that’s weaselly and clearly you were upset and I feel really, really sad about that. I hope, if you are indeed a regular reader, that you aware that I am not a cruel person.

      As I explained in the pre-amble, I am interested in how attitudes over time shift – I find it really fascinating how historical figures are ‘reinvented’ over time, the Richard III society even said that in our disability friendly age, people are ‘ready’ to embrace the scoliosis sufferer Richard III as a medieval hero. Clearly, Richard III has not changed as a person, but images of him have altered. Similarly, Anne Boleyn’s brother is now always gay in historical dramas even though there is no real evidence that he actually was. We are a race of story-tellers and we can’t resist tweaking the tale.
      I think that Little House on the Prairie is a story about hard-working values – no doubt it resonates to American citizens about the values which built your nation. I am British, it’s different for me – it does have significance though because a) I read all the books as a child with my mother and then repeatedly every five years or so ever since but also b) because my maternal grandparents grew up in farming Northern Ireland in the 1930s which frankly had a similar level of basic amenities to those which Laura had – less of a risk of Indian attack perhaps but that was about all. It made me understand their work ethic better. I would agree that choices were limited for Caroline and her daughters, but I would also say that choices in general were just limited – the final instalment The First Four Years further illustrates Almanzo’s difficulties setting up the farm. When the objective of your life is survival, I think that there is less room for reflection.

      My point though should not be taken as being directed at your writing specifically – as I noted below, feminist critics tear their hair over Beth March’s apparently self-destructive virtue as she apparently wimps her way into the grave. I am just interested in how, as a feminist woman, I appear to diverge from this when it comes to the books that I love. Do I make excuses for the books I love or can I only love the books for which I make excuses? Is it appropriate to apply feminist literary theory in all contexts?

      I would also say though – your website is yours. Don’t let anyone (visitors, readers, whoever) spoil your fun. Last week, I had a guy posting on one of my Austen posts about how Jane Austen never wrote her books, her cousin did and Cassandra Austen bumped them all off to cover the scandal. This was all to promote his book on the process. I just delete the odd comments when they come and I would say that if something similar were to happen to you in the future, feel free to do likewise. But yes, I am aware that I can be opinionated – I started this website without ever really believing that other people would read it and am grateful for each and every site visit. The last thing that I would wish for is that anybody felt unwelcome. I thank you for your considered ad respectful comment and wish you all the best and a wonderful week 🙂

      1. Hi to Jillian and this blog! This is the first time I’ve visited. As a retired English literature tutor I’d like to say – what a great discussion you two are having. You’re both raising such interesting points about home, home making, attitudes to work, suppression of self etc. Both of you! I’m reminded of something the late Carol Shields said in her biography of Jane Austen – that her (CS) and Austen’s novels all have at their core the central character’s search for a true home… She goes on to say (I think) that perhaps that’s what most novels are about. It’s a very interesting point in relation to the Prairie novels: both Ma and Pa want that but their conceptions work against each other… Laura also has to find hers…

        1. Hi – welcome to the site, please do feel free to have a good look round 🙂

          It’s funny though – because I read the Little House books when I was so young, I was so surprised to discover articles written about them when I got to university. As if surely these books which I had loved so much were not the same as these ones that I ‘had’ to read. It’s interesting to see how many different ways there are of looking at any kind of story – and what they reveal about the people who wrote them.

          I agree about the journey towards a home – or even a more comfortable relationship with the self is at the core of so many stories. I do feel that what I admire about Caroline Ingalls are her high standards. My own mother still remembers her astonishment at how Caroline ironed her daughters’ dresses even while they lived out of a wagon. It does put into context moaning about doing the ironing in the comfort of your own home! And Caroline was also determined that her girls would get an education. That is something that Charles promises her before they get married – they have made their bargain. I always liked how even though it was a society where women did not have suffrage, there was still a sense of respect within partnerships. When Almanzo asks Laura to marry him, she specifies that she does not want to promise to obey him and he agrees that he never knew a woman who would do it, nor a man who would hold her to it. It is these conversations that make these people seem so much more real to me.

          And I really need to read more Jane Austen biographies – but am going on a Bronte kick at the moment to fit in with my upcoming Brooding about the Brontes 🙂 Please feel free to join in too!

      2. Communicating without voices or faces can be very difficult. I do see what you’re saying here, & wish you a very good week too. 🙂 Cheers!

  4. I nearly always think the “they just don’t fit in this context” argument is a specious one, particularly in cases like Tolkien where he made up the entire world out of whole cloth. That isn’t to say that any efforts to add women into an existing story will be successful — I’d argue actually that tossing a lady character into The Hobbit movies just to make her part of a love triangle is a symptom of, not a corrective to, the marginalization of women in a lot of our movies and literature — but just that writers get to choose what stories they want to tell. When Tolkien made a world with very women in it, it shows that he didn’t think of women very much in hero/adventurer roles. And sure, it was part of the society that formed him, but it doesn’t stop me from being critical of him.

    I think the thing that MOST bothers me (as I read like a girl) is texts that seem to exclude the possibility of me as a reader. I feel this way about Ernest Hemingway — when I read his books, it’s so clear that his ideas about women don’t include me and never could, that I really struggle to find any reason why I should keep reading.

    Love this post!

    1. You’re probably right – it’s not the greatest argument but I still hate Tauriel. I had some friends who were into fan-fiction as a teenager and the ‘tomboy elf maiden’ who Legolas falls madly in love with was a fairly common Mary-Sue trope. It helps nobody. Of course, there may have been a few ladies amongst the dwarves but due to the beards, it’s impossible to say for certain.

      I agree about some authors not making me welcome – I think that’s why I hated James Bond so much – it felt like hearing directly from the mind of a creepy old man. I guess maybe I am making excuses for the Lord of the Rings just because I enjoyed it – thank you for challenging me, that’s why I wanted to discuss this in the first place 🙂

  5. I always give classic books a lot more leeway with feminist issues – we do have to consider the context they’re written in. I agree with you that the Little House on the Prairie books show life at that time and applaud the women for hard work and strong spirits – both qualities that were very necessary for their lifestyle!

    1. It’s interesting though because Pamela (first novel ever written) is a book that I loathe almost more than any other because although it is essentially a conduct story, the reward for the heroine is marriage to her abuser. And she’s thrilled. I think that’s an awful message no matter what the era. It’s similar to the horror I feel at Fifty Shades. I think that it is the message behind the book that decides whether or not I can give it leeway. When I think about Little House, I think of how the family worked to provide opportunities even though few were available – they worked so hard to send Mary to the school for the blind, they wanted a better life and they valued education and although gender boundaries were strict, it was never stated that the girls were any less because they weren’t sons. I guess that’s why I don’t perceive an anti-feminist agenda … maybe I am unfairly biased.

  6. I think it’s possible to both enjoy a work and simultaneously critique it for its portrayal of women. I love Tolkien’s books, for instance, but he was enormously sexist. In a letter to one of his sons he wrote that he found his female students were good at understanding concepts put forth to them by their lecturers, but not actual critical thinking. This is the kind of observation he thought worthy of imparting to his son.

    There are few women in his books, and there are issues with the portrayal of some of them. Rosie, for instance, has no character development and essentially serves as a reward for Sam. Goldberry, again, doesn’t get nearly as much development as Tom Bombadil and seems to be essentially a domestic goddess – although, in her case, she may be a manifestation of a literal domestic goddess, with her husband being the manifestation of the woods (which would still be gender essentialist, but without necessarily valuing Tom more than Goldberry). The beauty of Galadriel and Arwen is almost fetishized, and Arwen’s own personal journey is very much in the background.

    And then there’s Lúthien, whom I’m not shy about saying is one of my feminist heroes. If you haven’t read The Silmarillion yet, well, okay, you probably shouldn’t, because most of it is boring, but read The Lay of Beren and Lúthien. Lúthien starts by defying her father, escapes her prison through magical hair braiding, and then – wait for it – SINGS at Melkor to rescue Beren. Her entire story is basically a thesis on how feminine does not mean weak. Which is probably not what Tolkien intended, but, well, it’s how I interpret it (although I do think at times she’s too ‘perfect’, kind of like Arwen. Do any of these women have flaws?!). And I think it’s entirely possible to hold both this personal interpretation of Lúthien in my mind and also Tolkien’s stated views about women without cognitive dissonance, because I can acknowledge the wider problems with the portrayal of women in the books while also appreciating the feminist undertones of this particular female character.

    Which brings me to Tauriel. I was actually really excited when I found out about her character. While she’s not in the books, her introduction ‘fits’ with both Elven culture and the Hobbit films’ wider attempts to integrate the story more closely with LOTR. In the book, there is no captain of Thranduil’s guard (I think, even, he’s just ‘the Elf King’), because the Elves as characters are not important. Tolkien hadn’t yet written – or even conceived of – LOTR when he wrote the Hobbit, after all. However, when LOTR features the son of that same Elf King, and as a result the filmmakers gave greater weight to the Elven court and guards during the Mirkwood sequence, it made sense to introduce the captain of the guard as an actual person. And it’s entirely in keeping with Elven culture for that person to be an unmarried woman. Elven women can fight as well as Elven men, and many do serve as warriors in their youth, but it’s *mothers* who cannot. It’s not clear if this is a cultural distinction or an actual magical effect on their ‘Art’, but what is clear is that for Elves there’s a very clear dichotomy between creating (or sustaining) life and destroying it, so someone who has created life can heal but cannot be a soldier. For all these reasons, it made just as much sense for Tauriel to be introduced as it did a male Elf or no captain at all.

    And then there was the love triangle. I was *gutted*. I felt betrayed, like Tauriel had been created to appease THE FEMINISTS, but then the filmmakers still tried to fit her into an ‘acceptable’ female role. Why couldn’t Tauriel just be one more badass Elf warrior? Why couldn’t she and Legolas have had a platonic bond, akin to his relationship with Gimli?

    Apologies for the wall o’ text; I actually took a course on Tolkien when I was an undergrad, so clearly I have a lot of thoughts 🙂 Anyway, all this just to say that I think it is possible to both enjoy a work and find its treatment of women problematic, especially with stories that are nostalgic.

    1. Thank you for this comment – as a side-note, I can’t tell you how happy I am that this post has inspired so much thought for so many people!

      Your comment has given me a lot to consider – you are right, I actually used to work in the college where Tolkien taught (Merton) and I have very little trouble imagining him holding those views. Alas that opinions have not moved on there a great deal!

      I think it is entirely possible that I am more forgiving about anti-feminist views when I enjoy the story – I loved Lord of the Rings. A course on Tolkien sounds fascinating. I would agree that neither Rosie nor Goldberry are 3D characters. Arwen never interested me a great deal but I did think Galadriel was intriguing because she has a scary moment where she is tempted to take the ring (I have read the books so I know this didn’t just happen in the film). Eowyn is a positive character – I never really picked up on her attraction to Aragorn while I was reading it to be fair although I was only twelve. I have yet to get to the Silmarillion.

      I wasn’t aware of the finer points on who could serve in the Elf-guard either – that is interesting. I agree completely about Tauriel just feeling like a box-ticking exercise – she in no way helps the series to beat the Bechdel test and her storyline sent me to sleep. I just hated the idea of the film-makers deciding that women would not sit through a film without a female character but to keep everyone else happy, her only function was to create tension/romantic interest. Ugh. I think that what I was trying to get at (no doubt without any great articulacy) is that just jamming a female character in without clear thought does not magically make a book pro-woman. It’s the same reason why simply putting Zombies in the title is not going to make my boyfriend want to watch the new Pride and Prejudice.

      I think you are right – the point is to just enjoy the books that you enjoy – but I guess I was partly a) interested to see if I was the only one who ever found this an issue and b) trying to work out if I am biased/inclined to be more forgiving of the books I like – and yes, yes I am. I don’t think it’s something worth guilt tripping myself over, but it is an issue to bear in mind.

      Btw – walls of text are always welcome, thank you again for contributing 🙂

      1. I LOVED studying Tolkien’s work. One of the most valuable things I got out of it was learning to hold both a deep and abiding love for a book and the ability to critique it simultaneously in my head, whether that’s feminist critique or stylistic critique (Tolkien’s an excellent worldbuilder but could use a few pointers on pacing 😉 ). It helped me understand that a story can be enjoyable and problematic, and that loving it for the former doesn’t have to mean being ignorant of the latter. Like you, I do still tend to be more forgiving of the books I enjoy, but since doing an academic study of a longtime favourite I’ve become much more aware that it’s something I do. I don’t think it’s something worth beating myself up over, but I do think an increased awareness of it is a good thing.

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