When a Feminist Reads Sexist Books

Sexism sucks. I think we can all agree on that one. As a feminist, I acknowledge it still exists today and want to see it eradicated. That being said, I like a lot of literature that’s also sexist. I’m not going to deny it or try to make excuses for it—I may have fun reading it, but there’s definitely some inequality going on.

I don’t like misogynist works in general, but I’ve enjoyed quite a few. My favorite book category is the Swords and Sorcery subgenre of Fantasy and it has been dominated by male authors for a long time. As a result, it has been historically a bit male-oriented. Sometimes you get some pretty sexist crap—but there are still some otherwise pretty good books.

shrug marilyn monroe oh well some like it hot whatevs

A perfect example is the original Conan the Barbarian stories written by Robert E. Howard in the 30’s. I’ve been reading through them and yes, there is some heavy objectification going on. (Misogyny in Conan? Who’d have thought, right?) As for the Bechdel test, you can just forget about it right now.

So how can I stand—much less enjoy—this sort of thing? There are other elements to the story I genuinely appreciate. The descriptions, for one. Howard had a broad and varied repertoire when it came to setting a scene. The level of emotion and sensation he puts into his imagery is astounding. Sexist or no, he had talent. As a writer, I admit I’m envious.

Then there’s the action. Conan is considered the first in my beloved Swords and Sorcery subgenre and—just as you’d expect—there’s plenty of swords and gobs of sorcery. With unique takes on magic and detailed battles, no one can accuse the series of being passive.

conan the barbarian purpose meaning of life crush your enemies what's best in life?

This is just one example, but Dracula would be another. Bram Stoker’s original is chock-full of gender roles, damsels in distress, and men keeping facts from women because they “can’t handle the truth.” That last one did get annoying—just tell the woman why she can’t move the garlic, damn it!—but I still enjoyed it.

There was a delicious darkness and creepiness to Dracula. It was intense and scary. It made me keep the lights on and wish I hadn’t read it alone during a thunderstorm. I really do understand why it’s remained a part of pop culture for so long.

sesame street counting the count one bat ah thats one one bat

There are a number of other more recent works I’ve read (and liked) that are also casually sexist. It’s not necessarily women kept as concubines by the main (male) character. I see it as more subtle things like women’s lives being dictated by the orders and/or actions of men around them.

So why not just read modern feminist Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Thriller books instead? I feel that most the time, when feminist authors tackle certain genres, they get distracted. They focus on fixing the sexist history of the genre and sideline all the things that make the genre awesome to begin with. The monsters and sorcerers and assorted murderous marauders take a backseat—at least in the ones I’ve read.

I love feminism and as a woman, I need it. But as a fan, I also need my Swords and Sorcery fix.

Lots of times, it really feels like a no-win. Either I read something that’s feminist, but I don’t feel delivers the same “wow” factor, or I go for the misogynist book that’s otherwise pretty great. It’s more of a struggle than one would think.

Sometimes I wonder if, as a feminist, I should be reading these things at all. Maybe I should go reread some Charlotte Perkins Gilman instead (whose work is totally badass, even if it’s not my favorite genre). As much as I might love certain series, I see how they’re problematic, often in more ways than one. I’ll be the first to admit it, but I’ll also be the first to point out their qualities.

In the end, I want to read stuff I enjoy. Life is short and reading is meant to be fun. Just like how me liking a character doesn’t equate agreeing with everything the character does, me liking a book doesn’t equate agreeing with everything the author does.

Truthfully, I don’t think we’re ever going to achieve universal feminism, at least not to the point where everyone agrees. Too many people have different ideas of what equality looks like for women. Other people think Fifty Shades is about a woman’s sexual liberation, I think it romanticizes abuse.

There will always be books that fall outside the boundaries of feminism, at least each individual person’s definition of it. So do I ban books for myself? Do I forbid myself reading what I enjoy because there are some issues in it?

I don’t want to regulate myself to a little corner of “approved” books. Yes, there might be some issues with a story, but who knows? Maybe it will offer some perspective on something else. For example, one sexist book I read had some pretty awesome antiwar subplots and also tackled racism. That was totally unexpected and seemed kind of out of place, but it happened. Another one I read had one of the coolest magic systems I’ve seen yet. I’m really glad I read them both.

good

I do enjoy certain books despite them being sexist. It might sound odd and some people might disagree that I should even keep those books in my home, but I say people should read what they want. So long as they are aware of what is going on and can acknowledge it’s wrong, why not? At the same time, if you’re uncomfortable with it, that’s fine, too.

Either way, if you’re not perpetuating sexism in reality by reading what you want, I see nothing wrong with it. As for what equals “perpetuating,” that’s up to every person to decide. Maybe you just don’t want to support an author who writes that way. It’s your right in the free market (yay capitalism!).

Regardless, I won’t let anything—even sexism—stop me reading what I really love. So long as I keep working to see people treated with respect and I’m not hurting anyone, I’ll go for the books I enjoy. I think everyone should do the same.

In short, read what you want and be a decent human being.