Sexism and Literature

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Payal relooks at classics and comics to find how sexist in content these are, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

Recently, I decided to recycle through all the old books that I loved as a girl. I was in for a big shock. It wasn’t that plots weren’t exciting, or the writing style was cluttered, or the story was old fashioned. Re-reading them, made me realise how much the world had changed, because my old favorites seemed impossibly sexist.

As a young teenager, I raced through Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason Series. He started writing these in the 1930’s. I loved them then, the fast thinking fast talking Perry Mason, Drake, the laconic detective, lantern-jawed police officer Lt. Tragg and Della Smith. I was shocked that I was unable to enjoy a single book. Here was my problem: Drake and Perry routinely eyed women as ‘babes’ and , referring quite casually their statistics. Della, as secretary not only took dictation from her boss but also ‘orders’, was treated as a trophy, performed several non-professional duties like lighting his cigarette, and quietly preened as her boss placed his arms around her shoulder or took her to dinner and dancing. Even though she is reportedly ‘smart’ – and that is said with insidious surprise by Mason, she is treated somewhere between decoration and dogsbody.

The second one to bite the dust was my old hero Jack Kerouc. His classic, On the Road, read from the lens of today reveals not just a book about two young men and their , but also attitudes of those time. Yes, Kerouc in his time was a modernist, propounding American counter culture and a break away from the system. But even here, women are for fun, good times and adventuring, not for serious discussion, wives are discarded quite easily and multiple girlfriends provide nothing more than entertainment. In on the road, his hero leaves the young Latina girl to handle the mess he’s created. No responsibility, no compunctions. His books show women to be mere props to the all-important male world and perspective.

Unfortunately, Mark Twain let me down too. He glorifies a ‘boys’ world, where there is courage, adventure and all sorts of manly experiences. It is sad that his women are nags and shrews (and named as such). This is what he wrote in a letter to the Missouri Gazette (newspaper):

“Women, go your ways! Seek not to beguile us of our privileges. Content yourself with your little feminine trifles – your babies, your benevolent societies and your knitting – and let your natural bosses do the voting. Stand back – you will be wanting to go to war next. We will let you teach school as much as you want to, and we will pay you half wages for it, too, but beware! We don’t want you to crowd us too much.”

However, it seems that he did change his mind later on and supported the Suffragette Movement so long as it was preferably nonviolent. In Huckleberry Finn, he writes about a very backward rural society, and mentions tarring and feathering of women, which probably was just referential rather than intentional and true to type for the society he was writing about. But his narratives do seem to lean towards helpless, innocent, feminine soft women being portrayed as positive prototypes.

But even these characters lack depth and it seems that he could only write from a very male perspective.

And then there is the ultimate Man’s man, Ernest Hemingway. In real life, Hemingway married four times. Hard-drinking gritty men, and needy, idealistic, unfailingly beautiful women. Perhaps of all the writers in his time, Hemingway gave the most importance to women and they did play a crucial role in many of his stories. But here is the rub – the men are hard drinking, strong, heroic, fighting for principles, paying the price for war, suffering stoically. And the women remain in a separate world, removed from the world of men, even though they suffer as much from the consequences. The problem here is an ‘idealism’ of women. Just as bad when women are stuck on a pedestal, that prevents them from being real. Reportedly, boxer, boozer and bullfighter Hemingway, wrote sugary sweet and mushy letters to his women. This perhaps was the ‘ideal’ perspective on women for him, reflected in his books too.

Catcher in the RyeLolitaLittle WomenJo’s Boys, even Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe’s hero thought nothing of counting women as ‘gifts’:

“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 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.”

Even as I go through the top 100 best books list, I realise these are all chosen by men. It’s telling how few and what kind of women authors feature in this list.

Then there are the comics. The loved Archie comics which I devoured as a girl seem so shocking. Because comics are so visual it is easy to see the beautiful versus Midge who is flat chested. The vie for Archie’s attention and the whole comic is based on an interplay of Betty and Veronica as competitors for Archie’s love and attention. Veronica is beautiful but spoilt. Betty reinforces social expectations of womanhood – caring, soft-hearted, self-effacing.

Sexism flows through other comics as well. Batman is openly misogynistic – all male, broody with women running after him. He thinks nothing of the way he treats Cat woman – who of course has to be depicted with curves. Notice the controlled ‘sexiness’ of all comic women. Superman oozes charm and is not shy of spanking women. For that matter, none of the superheroes were worried about a little spanking thrown in to tame the women. All the women superheroes were costumed to please men. And not surprisingly they were strewn with casual sexism – ‘just like a woman! You can never be on time’. ‘Like all girls, Batswoman stops to settle her hair’.

So am I suggesting all these books be relegated to the dustbin of history? Nope. They serve as a mirror to what society was and how far we have come from the days of casual everyday sexism and ‘boys will be boys’. They remind us of all the wrongs that were considered right. They are the best possible proof that we need to change.

Well, perhaps ‘boys will be boys’ until the unflinching hand of history shows them their ugly face, and we collectively as a society evolve into our better selves.

©Payal Talreja

Photos from the Internet

#SexismInLiterature #History #BoyWillBeBoys #LikeAWoman #JustLikeAGirl #Women #Men #ErnestHemingway #MarkTwain

Payal Talreja

Payal Talreja

Businesswoman, curator of handlooms, poet, writer, and erstwhile doctor. Payal Talreja practices everything except her involuntary ‘profession’. She claims that words chose her and are now her weapon of choice because an activist born will stay silent for no man. A wanderer, a voyager, she’s happy to slum it or luxuriate in any life experience. She crafts poems and fiercely feminist essays and will assume her ‘Chandi’ avatar to ‘write’ any wrong.
Payal Talreja
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