Sexism in Literature

A week or so ago I read this piece about sexism in Prince Caspian. While I wasn’t fond of the author’s editing out things she was reading to her children, she does go on to say in the comments section that she does deconstruct what she reads with her children. Whether you agree or disagree with her beliefs, the fact that she sits down with her children and discusses what she reads with them is a plus. But I digress. 

Shortly after reading that blog, I read a piece from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. Her point is not the same as Deborah’s, but she is talking about sexist language in literature. She says,

I am a female, of the species man. Genesis is very explicit that it takes both male and female to make the image of God, and that the generic word, man, includes both.…

That is scripture, therefore I refuse to be timid about being a part of mankind. We of the female sex are half of mankind, and it is pusillanimous to resort to he/she, him/her, or even worse, android words. I have a hunch that those who would do so have forgotten their rightful heritage. 

I know that I am fortunate in having grown up in a household where no sexist roles were imposed on me. I lived in an atmosphere which assumed equality with all its differences. When mankind was referred to it never occurred to me that I was not part of it, or that I was in some way being excluded.

I don’t know what Deborah would think of this statement by L’Engle, and I won’t assume, but I do know it would not sit well in lots of places. And yet I wonder if girls were raised in the type of home as L’Engle, would the generic he be such an issue? I don’t know. The real issue of sexism in my mind deals with the way we treat one another.

Is a woman inferior to a man? That is a loaded question, and the follow up question should be: In what way? No black and white answer to that question exists. For every “in general,” an exception to the rule can surely be found. In general, though, men’s physical and emotional make up is different than a woman’s. This leads, unfortunately to stereotypes. Stereotypes are based upon some truth, however hidden. 

So men are generally stronger than women physically. Women, in general, are more empathetic. I am sure picking those examples will get me in trouble. But the pendulum has swung too far. Instead of seeking balance and righting clear wrongs, some have dug in their heels to avoid any and all hints at differences. This is plain silly, for differences exist that cannot be denied. The problem, then, rears its ugly head when someone takes a difference and makes it an issue of better or worse, right and wrong, can or can’t.

We are not the same, and we should rejoice in the fact that together we can complement one another as we fulfill the functions that we were created to fulfill instead of fighting against those and trying to do what we were not created to do.

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A Paw in Each World

My middle daughter was reading to my youngest yesterday as we traveled in the car to a wedding yesterday. She was reading the first in a series of books by Erin Hunter about cats that my two oldest have been reading for quite some time. In this book, Rusty, a house cat, had wondered into the woods and met some wild cats. They ask him to join them as they need more warriors to fight off some other cat clans. When explaining the decision, the wildcat named Lionheart says, “You must either live with us and respect our ways, or return to your Twolegplace and never come back. You cannot live with a paw in each world.”

Lionheart’s speech sounds almost Christian doesn’t it? Or does it? Certainly this idea of not going back reminds me of Jesus’ words in Luke 9 where he says that one who looks back after putting his hand to the plow is not fit for the kingdom. So in this sense, Lionheart is correct. We are Christian, or we are not—no playing both sides against the middle. Yet in another sense, Lionheart is wrong. For Jesus also said in John 17 that we are not of the world but that he doesn’t want the Father to take the disciples out of the world. 

So while becoming a Christian does require a changed mindset about allegiances, it does not mean divorcing oneself from any involvement with the world. We are called to be God’s representatives to the world, and that can’t happen apart from daily interaction with the world. Make no mistake, though. We who call ourselves Christian have changed sides. Like Rusty, no longer should the warm bed and plentiful food call us back to our old way of life, no matter how difficult the road that follows Christ seems to become. What about you? Do you try to live with a paw in both in each world?

 

The Conscience in Us All

When Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son, realizes that someone has been killed in Things Fall Apart, Achebe describes his reaction this way, “…something seemed to give way inside him, like the snapping of a tightened bow. He did not cry. He just hung limp. He had the same kind of feeling not long ago…They were returning home…when they heard the voice of an infant crying in the thick forest.… Nwoye had heard that twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest.…a vague chill had descended on him and his head seemed to swell….”

Why would Nwoye possibly have had this reaction? If tribal tradition had stated this for all of Nwoye’s life, and if he had no opportunity to learn anything different, why would he feel this way about these types of deaths. What’s the big deal about the babies being left in the forest to die?

What Achebe describes so well is what all humans possess: conscience. We know right from wrong. Especially at an early age, we experience the fundamental truth that somewhere a morality exists. As we grow older, we can suppress that truth, but Achebe has thrust it in front of us here for all to see. 

But where does this come from? Why would Nwoye feel this way? He feels this way because God created humankind in His image. Paul describes this truth in Romans when he says that even people who do not know God or His laws have a conscience that bears witness to the truth. Nwoye’s conscience was bearing witness to him about the truth that rose above tribal tradition. 

I don’t know if Nwoye will suppress this truth, fight against it, or embrace it. I do know that he does not experience these things in a vacuum. People from all over the world join him in their knowledge of the inhumanity of killing innocents. And we turn our heads and keep walking. 

The humanists would have us think that morality is based upon majority rules, but morality abides in our hearts, placed there by a loving God. We can choose to ignore that if we wish, but that doesn’t make it go away.

Just one more…

Steinbeck writes in The Pearl, “It is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.”

My cat is eating right now, basically the same thing she always eats. She never complains, always excited about what is dropped in her bowl. Her only dissatisfaction comes from not being let outside early enough for her liking in the mornings. But she can’t do anything about it. While she may want more, she has no ability to open doors, and even if we never let her out, she would never figure out how to open doors. She may want more, but she can’t have it. 

People are different. They can work themselves out of a jam sometimes. They can figure out how to get more. And that is a curse and a blessing. It is a blessing because we have the capability to feed so many people (and their animals), to heal so many diseases, and to find new ways to love our neighbors. Yet it is a curse. We spend unknown millions frivolously because we are not satisfied. We want the latest gadget, the newest this, and the upgraded that. Once the barrier is broken, and we see beyond what we know, the horizon of want stretches on forever. And this dulls our love for others. The drone of commercialism drowns out contentment’s sighs. 

How do you handle the “just one more thing” of life? Do you feel the need to keep up with your neighbor or co-worker or classmate in the latest gadget or fad or style? What would it take for you to be content? Are you sure? Where does true contentment come from?

Can you see?

At the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout has fallen asleep while Atticus is reading to her. While he is taking her to bed, she is recounting to him in broken sentences what has happened in the story to “prove” to him that she “heard every word.” The name of the book was The Gray Ghost. In the story people are after this boy because they think he’s messing with their clubhouse, but they couldn’t catch him because no one knew what he looked like.

Scout finished her drowsy rendition with these words, “…when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice…”

Atticus replied, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Now, one might cry foul, having Atticus read a story that paralleled the kids’ experience with Boo Radley just so Atticus could make a point. (Of course, I’m not convinced that Scout isn’t mixing her stories here.) The point had to be made, though. The whole book is about perceptions: the kids’ of Boo, the town folks’ of Tom, the Ewell’s of Atticus, …

With the exception of Boo, everyone else could be seen clearly enough, I suppose, or could they? You see Boo is an anomaly. He wasn’t seen, but we see folks every day, and because we can see flesh, we think we know people. Atticus wasn’t talking about that at all. He was talking about standing in their shoes. That is why he could let Mr. Ewell spit in his face and wipe it off and go about his business. That is why he could defend Tom in the face of so much opposition. That is why he made Jem read to Mrs. DuBose. Atticus had the ability, no, the desire to stand in others’ shoes so that he could find the niceness in them. So he could love them. 

The church is shamed by people like Atticus. We can’t afford not to walk in people’s shoes. For if we don’t we can’t love them, and we are called to love people. Scout had a special privilege to overcome her misconceptions about Boo, and she took advantage of it. How often do we take advantage of the opportunities that we have to walk in someone else’s shoes? When was the last time you took that opportunity? What difference did it make?

Hemingway’s Style

I have finished The Sun Also Rises. Good book? Yes and no. From a literary point of view, I loved it. Hemingway’s style and craft and command of the language humble me as I seek to become a better writer. He can do things with words and dialogue that most can’t. He can speed and slow the pace at will, and he tells a great story of a man alone among the crowd. He brings out Jake’s character well. I feel like I knew what he would do on more than one occasion. I don’t think this was because the writing was predictable, but it was because the reader knew Jake well after a time. 

Now, the book was depressing. I have heard it said that it glorifies drinking and sex. I am not sure “glorify” is the word I would use. I think it clearly shows the ugly side of heavy drinking and the loneliness that comes from a promiscuous lifestyle. In that sense, it might be a corrective to how drink and sex are often portrayed in today’s media. But it is a depressing read. Will I read it again? Probably, but maybe just bits and pieces to see how Hemingway does what he does. Would I recommend it? Depends upon what you are looking for. If you love good literature, and by that I mean good craft, then yes, by all means. If you are looking to be uplifted or encouraged, skip it and hug your kid instead.

Blog etiquette

I have been reading Losing My Religion for about a week now. I had made a comment on this post (read part I of the post here.) to offer another thought on the issue. I did so without bothering to read too deeply into Jeff’s blog. Had I done so, I could have crafted my words better to make sure he and those reading his blog knew I was not referring to him in regards to heretical content but was making a point that the specific language in his post has been used by others who have wandered away from orthodoxy.

All that to say: Jeff responded to my comments with a post that made his position clear and at the same time was polite and in no way demeaning to me. I greatly appreciate not only the grace he showed to me after my less than careful response, but also the way he relates to others on his blog. I have read far too many blogs where the first hurt feeling turns into name calling, bullying, and general dishonoring of the Savior. So thank you, Jeff, for caring about people as you seek to follow Christ.