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.
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.
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?