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Bridge of Birds and The Haunting of Hill House: Two Novels Enter, One Leaves
c is for cat

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.


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.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.

Imma go read Hill House now. BRB.

(Had the same problem with BoB. Pretty book, where are the girls? Have you read Jessica Amanda Salmonsen's Tomoe Gozen? Might be an antidote.)

Have you read Jessica Amanda Salmonsen's Tomoe Gozen? Might be an antidote.

I have, and I second the recommendation.

I’m not crazy, right? Theo’s totally a lesbian? That whole “friend” she shares an apartment with thing? Boy nickname?

Pretty sure of it, and even if I weren't, I gather that's the general critical and popular interpretation.

I liked Bridge of Birds, but I would never even think of it at the same level of accomplishment as Haunting of Hill House. I mean there's classic as in "old and I think of it fondly" and there's classic as in "blows the socks off most everything else without breaking a sweat."

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.

Brilliantly true. Just brilliant.

Theo is definitely a lesbian. All the social coding is there. Could be clipped right out of one of Lillian Faderman's histories of lesbian identity.

The 1960-something film by Robert Wise, The Haunting, while not of course perfect, is surprisingly good in that a) it keeps the not-showing-actual-monsters slow build of suspense that is so important to the book's format-- I mean, it kept the hand-holding scene, which I had considered probably unfilmable-- and b) Theo is still a lesbian and the narrative is just fine with that. It's the rare instance where the film from several decades ago is much, much better than the recent one.

One of the things that I love about the book is that it states outright that Eleanor is telekinetic and then the house pretty much starts up whenever she's upset or angry at something. There's an argument to be made that these aren't ghosts at all, just Eleanor playing out her own suicide.

I loved Haunting of Hill House because it was different than almost every horror book I had read and I think it was because Shirley Jackson brings this perspective (I hesitate to say feminine or even feminist) whereby the domestic is a trap that will kill you with responsibilities and duties. In most horror novels the destruction of families and people is just part of the fun but in Jackson, the family will remain, grinding its members to dust.

Check out We Have Always Lived in a Castle too. It's just as awesome and much stranger.

Stephen King definitely stole from the best when he wrote The Shining.

And I completely forgot Bridge of Birds until you mentioned it here. I just encountered this lately with Heinlein (the sexism gets harder to ignore now that I'm an adult instead of a teenage boy) and Fritz Leiber - particularly in ChangeWar where even the females with agency are doing things like getting tied to chairs naked or thumbing their noses like they are five years old.

I love Empress Wu, and have several books, historical fiction, about her. The best is Green Dragon, White Tiger (Onyx, 1988).

I wonder if you would like Hughart's The Story of the Stone better. I think he at least tried to address the gender issues with Grief of Dawn. Yu Lan in Eight Skilled Gentlemen is more archetypal, but, well, there are reasons for that.

I'm afraid that neither of them passes the Bechdel Test, however.

I'd agree that the sequel, Story of the Stone, has a central female character who kicks a fair amount of ass.

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.

Hereby requesting a post all about *that*.

The funny thing here is that I can think of very few characters I've identified more with in a fantasy novel than Number Ten Ox.

I grant you, I could not bench press a loaf of bread, but he is one of the very few main characters in a fantasy novel that struck me as extremely polite, desperately well-meaning, feckless, out of his depth, and never quite sure what is going on.

Fantasy being rife with people who claim to be frightened and out of their depth and then go on to display James Bond-like coolness and clarity--and even more rife with rude people!--it was really gratifying to read a book where the main character was very polite and good-natured and frequently confused, because that pretty much describes me to a T.

Which does nothing to address the gender issues, I grant you, and I make no defense of them, but sometimes it's really nice to meet a hero who has no angst and no clue.

Much love for Shirley Jackson. I second the recommendation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which also has fascinating things to say about the relationship between women and home/family.

And no, you know what? I remember 1984. I was there. I was a child, it's true, but get this: I was a feminist. You know why? You know how that happened? OK, I'm going to blow everybody's mind again, so get ready: my mother, a grown-ass woman in her mid-thirties, was a feminist. People knew about feminism in 1984! Not bothering to write even one sympathetic, complex female character in 1984 is not acceptable. And even women who have been, historically, side-lined, disempowered, and oppressed, are still capable of having complex, sympathetic, and human subjectivities that are worth representing in books.

This is exactly why I couldn't get into The Wire. A friend of mine showed me four or five episodes of the second season the other day. It was well-written, well-acted, complex, thoughtful, canny, intelligent. And I was very invested in the plot thread concerning the union leader. But after four or five episodes, I could not help but noticing that women were allowed to appear on-screen in the following ways:

1) Each episode had to have a titty shot.
2) A woman could appear for 15 seconds to express sexual attraction to some dude.
3) A woman could appear for 30 seconds in order to actually have explicit sex with some dude (often combined with #1).
4) A woman could appear for about 20 seconds in order to affect a dude's emotional state or motivation ("I'm disappointed in you," she could say. "Where's the ambitious man I fell in love with?").
5) A woman could be an honorary dude--say, the lesbian cop--as long as she interacted almost entirely with dudes and didn't have a significant storyline of her own and never indicated in any way that not being a dude might have an affect on how she views or experiences what's going on around her.

Here is what women could not do:

1) Have storylines of their own.
2) Have goals, concerns, or any other kind of inner life that did not revolve around some dude.
3) Interact with other women (two exceptions in four or five episodes: the lesbian cop had a brief argument with her partner, never again alluded to in the several episodes that followed (and the partner did not appear in any of the next several episodes, either); the lesbian cop interviewed a female source who worked at a strip club--titty shot!).
4) Have a major impact on any of the plots, except insofar as they're able to, in brief scenes, affect the minds of their dudes.

This is not acceptable. In a show that over and over again I've seen lauded for the complexity of its characters and for the complexity of its portrayal of how a variety of communities and social networks interact to form the life of a city, it is absolutely striking that none of that complexity is allotted to women, and that apparently, no communities/groups/social networks of women have any effect on the life of a city whatsoever.

True, I have not seen the entire series. But I gave it four or five episodes. That's three or four more than I generally give a television show that can't be bothered to portray women as interesting or important. If it can't get around to doing so in four or five episodes, expecting me to stick around for several seasons is a bit much (and I have run these observations by a couple of friends who have seen multiple seasons; they both found them to be accurate).

Hughart's considered an author of classics now? Man, I'll take a side of glass shards with lunch.

I'm having a weird double vision episode where this is showing up on Livejournal twice, separate groups are commenting on each version, and no one seems to have pointed it out despite 35 comments.

I keep paranoidly looking through to see if there are text changes I'm missing, as if it is some double-posting puzzle I should divine. Help?

you're not the only one.

Yes, The Haunting of Hill House is SO GOOD. (The original film of it is pretty damn good too, especially Claire Bloom as Theo.)


Ahem. Shirley Jackson was very, very . . . weird about any of her characters being regarded as lesbians. One of her earlier books, Hangsaman, also contained two female characters who for all intents and purposes appeared to be in a lesbian relationship (only, um, not, but you have to read the book to find out just why they couldn't have been), and Shirley was reportedly very shocked and upset that someone had interpreted her characters that way. She also claimed that she "didn't know very much about that [i.e. lesbianism]" and was completely incensed that her female characters couldn't be taken on their own terms without "dirty-minded" people reading things into them.

But . . . honestly? I think this might be a case of the lady protesting too much. It's interesting that even during Jackson's own time, there were some very serious scholarly interpretations of several of Jackson's novels as portraying lesbian relationships. Shirley's husband was a literary critic and a dyed-in-the-wool Freudian, and I believe even he interpreted theo as a lesbian (possibly just because he knew it bugged Shirley). As someone above me said, all the social coding's there--not just with the character of Theo (although she seems to be the most obvious), but in almost every book Jackson ever wrote. For someone who claimed not to know anything about lesbians, Shirley had the dynamic down cold and employed it frequently. It's just that knowing all I know about Shirley Jackson, I honestly don't believe she was doing it consciously.

I too love Shirley Jackson and all her works. I third the recommendation for We Have Always Lived In the Castle; I read it as a young teenager and the book has stayed with me all this time. It has all the "domesticity is a trap" stuff in spades.

Bridge of Birds was a fun read that I had great fondness for at age 15 but it doesn't stand the test of time and adulthood. I tried to reread it as an adult and actually couldn't get through it.

On the other hand Shirley Jackson is a master. I'll echo the the recommendation for We Have Always Lived in the Castle and add Just an Ordinary Day, a book of lost SJ short stories that we found and published in 1997.