Finding Sexism in Fiction…A Modern Witch Hunt?

There seems to be a trend of searching through books and find reasons to label them sexist. For example, The Lord of the Rings is sexist because there aren’t enough women characters and the ones that are there aren’t doing enough important things. This leads me to ask:

What is the proper woman character quota for novelists? Is the role of someone like Eowyn fighting the Nazgul at a critical moment in the story not important? If a book or film is overwhelming centered on women, is that sexist?

See the overreach of certain critics? We also can suspect that some are looking to push an agenda by convoluting whatever book, film or television show they can. Take a recent criticism of the new show Supergirl in which it was called “sexist” because of her name (girl) and the fact she seem concerned by such things as relationships with men. The show itself smartly ridiculed the problem with the name and shouldn’t the world’s most powerful women be allowed to pick the relationship she wants? When we are oft told to be tolerant and inclusive of everything, only to be told certain relationships are not okay. Is this not a red flag for someone’s agenda? The ultimate irony is that apparently a woman who can do anything is not woman enough.

Critics have always found issue with the pulp fiction of yesteryear as in the swashbuckling epics of Edgar Rice Burroughs and many others. They often feature the “damsel in distress” so often now looked down upon. Yet the men, like John Carter of Mars, were also in constant distress. Dejah Thoris, the princess of Mars, and iconic sci-fi female, often found herself in peril, but she also could survive the dangers of her world and had a taste for adventure. Later depictions would highlight this and bring out her warrior side, never softening the qualities that made her a woman.

It is the latter that many would describe as exploitation. In a brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line, Burroughs described her clothing, or lack thereof. He didn’t dwell on it, but illustrators have had a field day every since and it influenced hundreds of pulp fiction covers every since. Sure, we can argue, with some accuracy, that these were meant to appeal to largely male audiences. On the other hand, did the mythic warrior females – strong, independent, fierce – ever hide their femininity? That was one inspiration for Wonder Woman, which made a recent article that asked if women were offended by her boots (and her outfit in general) all the bit more funny (and obviously the writer hasn’t kept up with fashion trends).

Wonder Woman is often claimed as a “feminist icon” and her creator said this was an intent, yet seemed to have her frequently appear in bondage of one form or another. He was also in a polyamorous relationship.  Neither of these are very feminist. (Not to mention these comics were nearly always marketed to boys). Aren’t contradictions a sign of problems with what one is trying to promote? Also consider that the feminism that emerged in the 1960s is very different than the feminism many say they hold to now. The former would never want its icon to look so much like a woman, though I suspect all of us can argue about where the line actually is, but when one side goes to one extreme, another tends to go to the other extreme in response. Sometimes it’s too far, sometimes it’s a message.

So what’s the point? Primarily this is to encourage thoughtful discussion rather than drive-by, vapid articles full of buzzwords and slogans. Also, watch closely as narratives change — a sign of agendas that aren’t so transparent. When the populace basically said they preferred the female superheros exactly as they were, suddenly the critics were hard to find. Then the articles began to paint them as icons and idols.

Indeed they are, but not to those who are shouting it the loudest.

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Categories: Books, Critical Thinking, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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