Thursday, 5 March 2015

Random thoughts on fiction and gender issues

1/ Some common responses to critics of 50 Shades, refuted:
The last one is "Get over it". I never understand this kind of response to people who point out the problematic content or, in my experience, the poor quality of the book. If you can praise a book, why do you think others don't have the right to criticise it?

2/ 50 things wrong with 50 Shades:
The line between submission and abuse:
Let's talk about Lars von Trier's film Nymphomaniac. If you're unfamiliar with it, this is a bold and brilliant film with unsimulated sex scenes, which deals with sex addiction, homosexuality, bisexuality, sadism, masochism and paedophilia. The main character Joe is a nymphomaniac, who lies in blood somewhere at the beginning of the film and is rescued by a man named Seligman, then they have a conversation about Joe, sex and why she sees herself as a bad human being. Joe talks about her personal experiences, thoughts, desires and sex life, Seligman talks about sex from an intellectual point of view, sex as analogous to fishing, classical music, religion, etc. It seems that Lars von Trier's neither for nor against Joe's actions, and he's being as objective as possible. At some point in life, Joe feels unsatisfied, and goes to a sadist who warns right from the beginning that once a woman enters the room, there is no safe word. This is of course hard to stomach, especially the scenes of violence, which are raw, uncomfortably so, and the awareness that Joe leaves her little kid home alone to go to the sadist's place. As I've said, Lars von Trier's simply telling the story- Joe definitely struggles with her own desires, has a bad conscience and loathes herself. 
The key point, the "message" of the film, is in the ending. After the talk, Joe lies down to rest, Seligman goes to another room. Then suddenly he goes back and climbs on her, attempting to rape her, muttering something like she has slept with so many men after all. And she shoots him. 
That is important: Joe is a nymphomaniac, she has had sex with lots of men, but that doesn't mean that a man can rape her and say "it doesn't matter, I'm just another man". Because she has sex of her own free will. Because no matter what, she has the right to say no. 

3/ 2 dreadful websites I've just come across:
On the other side are so-called feminists like this:
This person nicknamed radfemale is ignorant and narrow-minded; worse, she's self-righteous, aggressive and incapable of seeing nuances and doubting herself. She calls herself a feminist, but to me she's more like a misandrist- you can look around and find many posts where she openly says that she hates men, and other posts where she suggests that women are only victims and men only perpetrators. And she always seems to be yelling, furiously. 
Radfemale isn't alone, there are others:
(Read the comments too). 
But that's not feminism. I understand the points raised on the womenagainstfeminism site, and agree that we shouldn't see all men as misogynists, potential abusers and rapists, etc. But feminism matters because men and women are still not equal. Slut-shaming is still a thing, for example. Or recently at the Oscars, Patricia Arquette addressed the issue of unequal pay for actors and actresses in her acceptance speech.

4/ I've expressed my thoughts on feminism. 
However, I generally don't like feminist criticism in literature. For example, the other day I read The Madwoman in the Attic, and felt irritated. Reading and analysing a work of art in the light of feminism, or any ism (homoeroticism/ homotextuality, Marxism, etc.) distorts the work. You bend it, you make it fit your system and preconceived notions, you focus on the politics of the work and go so far that you fail to recognise its literary merits, you might even misinterpret it. The chapter on Shirley is perhaps tolerable, though I have trouble with the suggestion that Shirley succumbs to Caroline's fate, or something along that line. The 2 chapters on Jane Austen hardly make sense, especially the parts on Mansfield Park and Fanny's quietness and passivity. 
By distorting, I of course don't mean things like this:
She hasn't even read Lolita, and it's clear that she knows nothing about art. 
What I'm thinking of is something else- for instance, there are people who accuse Tolstoy and Flaubert of hating women (creating weak, unlikeable, immoral female characters and punishing them) and thus condemn their works and dismiss the greatness of these works altogether. E.g:
If a reader reads a novel that way, they cannot see its merits, no, they don't even see what it's really about. Similarly, if readers of Mansfield Park think that here Jane Austen unfairly favours the quiet, passive, conservative, prudish Fanny Price over the witty, lively, active, independent, frank Mary, the book is ruined. 
On the other hand, I find A Room of One's Own excellent. Virginia Woolf discusses women and fiction indeed, but for her art still goes 1st. 

5/ 2 posts related to literature:
(and this
I'm quoting myself: <In Shirley, Charlotte Bronte wrote "If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women. They do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil. Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations—worshipping the heroine of such a poem, novel, drama—thinking it fine, divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial—false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour."
If before, female characters in fiction tended to be either angels or monsters (there were exceptions, of course), now writers tend to create only female characters that are strong, powerful, independent. That’s not any better.>
This is a good speech by Maggie Gyllenhaal at the Golden globes:
I don't want more strong female characters. I want real female characters. I want a great range. 


  1. I can understand why you don't like feminist criticism in literature, it certainly can be distorting, but then all criticism distorts to one degree or another if that is the only approach used. I like feminist criticism as part of a broader critical examination, it can be very useful.

    1. Useful, yes, definitely. I'm not against it altogether- feminist criticism has its place and purpose and significance. The other day somebody on your blog referred to the Bechdel test, for instance, that is useful.
      I just don't like to analyse literature that way (though, as I'm also female, I of course notice sexism more quickly and feel more irritated by it than some others); and I think some people carry it too far.