Having read two “classic” books recently, I was struck by the sheer quality of both of them, but also by where they drastically differed–their relationship to their female characters.
People have been telling me to read Bridge of Birds for years. Extolling its virtues, singing its praises, going so far as to lend me a copy. And it is a very good book, delightful and funny and it even involves one of my favorite Japanese festivals/folktales in its Chinese iteration. But no one, in telling me how much I’d love this book said: just try to overlook the gender issues. It was written twenty-five years ago. No one even brought it up.
See, the whole time I was nodding along and thinking, wow, this is really pretty great, I was also waiting. Waiting for a female character who was not a horrendous villain or a perfect, virtuous ghost. A non-grotesque, non-dead woman with any agency at all. A girl or woman allowed to speak for herself or act on her own behalf. I thought, toward the end, that a certain princess might be it, but no, she’s really not much more than a McGuffin, and waits around for the very clever boys to rescue her, while having been presented throughout the book as really pretty awful, just like all the other living women.
I mean, at one point, “Henpecked Ho” (charming) is roundly praised for brutally murdering his wife and “seven fat sisters” with an axe. We never saw the wife or sisters or heard their side of anything, only that some of them were fat and Henpecked Ho didn’t like them. He apparently did well by chopping them all to pieces. He then murders another (this time villainous) woman with the same axe and the mess of her entrails are played for comedy. Wow. Go team? And then there’s the scene where our hero is locked in a room with a concubine and told to have sex with her–her desires are not in question. But it’s ok because even though she starts out terrified of the guy whose nickname is Number Ten Ox looming over her, by the end she likes it! Yay!
I can’t help it. This bothers me. And one might say well, ancient China yes? Not so many actualized women back then. Totes fair to ignore them unless you want to faceplant your hero in some titties (actual scene). Not only is this not true, (and a sad thing people somehow keep saying about every single historical period even though I am hard pressed to think of one entirely unpeopled by powerful women, not to mention just women, living their lives, having brains and thoughts and struggles of their own–history seems to be a place where writers feel “safe” perpetuating the worst misogyny) but seeing as it’s a “Novel of a China that Never Was” I fail to see why that favorite bit of social history has to be set in stone. All the women in the story–and there are several–are relegated to beautiful tragic robots (ghosts behave remarkably like robots in this setup) or monsters of the first kind. And even the monsters don’t get any real personality. She’s awful and greedy. That’s enough. Miser Shen joins the party for awhile and is totally redeemed–can you imagine the Ancestress or Fainting Maid allowed to do the same? I can’t. Why could not the handmaidens or Bright Star or Lotus Cloud not be given some stake, some point of view, some voice? They are classic NPCs, but I guess they don’t end up on the business end of an axe.
It’s a good book, as I said. It really is. It’s just awfully tough for me to give it the adulation so many of my friends do. I kept waiting, and in the end, I was served the same dish of women don’t have stories, they are setpieces for men’s stories, also they are terrible that I so often get plopped on my table. And I just don’t want to eat that shit anymore. And 1984 really isn’t so long ago that I can say it’s of its time, on account of the book I read right afterward.
Which was The Haunting of Hill House.
Holy crap! This book is so good! I know this is all I Should Have Read It By Now territory, but I hadn’t read it before and it is just so very awesome.
And lo! It has a female lead! With an internal life and thoughts and difficulties! She is not a kickass heroine, nor is she perfect or fabulous, she cares a little about shoes but in a very human way, and she has no superpowers. But look! She has a mind! She wants things! She takes action to make her life less shitty! And in less than 50 pages I loved her and felt sorry for her and wanted nothing bad to happen to her, which is of course the kiss of death in a horror book, but lo once more! Is her death played for laughs? Is it gratuitous and full of nudity and sexualized violence? Does it happen merely to further a male character’s arc? Nay, I tell you! None of these things! (That long scene of her driving to Hill House is just masterful character writing. Wow. I cared so much about her. It really blew me away. Horror films and books on this very famous template seem to so often skip the part about a fleshed out character we care deeply about.)
Now, hold on. I am going to blow your mind.
THERE IS A SECOND FEMALE CHARACTER.
Who is a lesbian! (I’m not crazy, right? Theo’s totally a lesbian? That whole “friend” she shares an apartment with thing? Boy nickname?) A lesbian who doesn’t murder anyone or molest anyone or go crazy from her lesbian-being! Just a girl in the fifties who happens to be a lesbian which is a rough fucking gig, and she isn’t always perfectly nice but you know, the house is haunted and shit gets pretty real, you’d be snappish too. And these women! They have a conversation! About their lives and wants and minds! A couple of them actually! And they become friends! FRIENDS. Subtle currents of desire that you couldn’t even entirely say are there or not there, yes, but friends. And they do not immediately vanish when the dudes come on the scene.There is even a THIRD female character, who is admittedly awful. But she is allowed to know things and take action, even if they are stupid things and stupid actions, because when women are treated as people they sometimes are idiots, just like men.
And this was written in 1959. That’s pre-Mad Men, for those of you playing along at home. A period where folks feel totally safe sidelining women of all kinds. (I think part–and only part–of where the recent filming went wrong was in updating the time period, as the narrative really needs the subtext of everything going on genderwise in 1959, that even wearing pants feels like rebellion to Eleanor, the relationship between a woman and a house, the free-radical carcinogen of a woman when she does not have a house to contain her, the repetition of home as both promise and threat, all of it. Without that it’s just a horror flick template.)
So yeah, no, I can’t give 1984 much of a pass. And I know, I know. Cat, it’s just a fun romp of a book! Why does everything have to be all srs bsns?
Well, because fun romps are where you see what people really think. What they think is funny, who they think is a good butt for a joke, which broad stereotypes they think are valid and which they think should be subverted, what they create when they think it’s just for fun, not for literature. It doesn’t escape me that one of these was written by a man and one by a woman, but I don’t really chalk much up to that. I don’t know Hughart and I sure didn’t know Jackson, and some great books that do not offend were written by men.
But Hill House was like a drink of fresh water after a long glass of wine slightly gone to vinegar. Sigh.