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.

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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.

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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.

Top Ten Mythological Warrior Women

We all have our favorite warrior goddess, but there are many lady fighters in mythology that slip through the cracks of pop culture. There are so many I hope come into the mainstream and these are just a few.

mouth-603274_960_720Marya Morevna

A lot of early Slavic folktales actually depicted women rescuing men and Marya was one of those. A warlike queen who goes on a quest to save her abducted husband from an ogre, Marya deserves a Disney movie.

Britomart

Some traditions say that after the death of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere became a nun. Others (which I like better) say she became the great warrior Britomart, the mythological lady knight included Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

sword-1557814_960_720Atalanta

Atalanta was a servant of Artemis, known for slaying centaurs and monster bears. She was also the only female fighter on the quest for the Golden Fleece and there seems to be a shortage of myth retellings about her.

Radigund

An Amazonian ruler who fights Britomart in The Faerie Queene. She has made me seriously question why people don’t talk about this book more.

girl-606972_960_720Melora

Also from Arthurian tradition, Melora is the only female Knight of the Round Table. When her beloved Orlando is abducted, Melora leaves England and ventures into foreign lands to save him, rescuing kings along the way.

Anat

From the Ugarit religion, Anat embodied love, fertility, and war. She was often unstable, but loyal to the sun god, Baal. There are stories about her beheading hundreds of men single-handedly because they wronged Baal. She was terrifying.

lioness-753438_960_720Sekhmet

A half-lioness, bloodthirsty deity from Egyptian lore, Sekhmet became so powerful that she had to be tricked into drinking spiked pomegranate juice. She was so dangerous, even Osiris couldn’t stop her otherwise.

Brynhilde

From the Germanic and Old Norse traditions, her name means “armored fighting woman.” Possibly based off a real person, Brynhilde swore to never marry a man unless he could surpass her in strength. She was much more fearsome before Wagner’s opera made her into a lovesick waif.

durga-727064_960_720Durga

A violent aspect of the Hindu goddess Shatki, Durga is the demon slayer who rides a tiger, carrying a different weapon in each of her eight arms. Associated with primordial power and unlimited strength, Durga is be-all, end-all of warrior woman mythology.

Medb

Although more a tactician than an actual warrior, Medb had her origins as a sovereignty deity who later became villainized in modern retellings. Powerful, shrewd, and feared, it’s easy to see how she became an “evil queen,” but she was originally a neutral figure.

As I said, there are so many out there! I have to wonder why writers and other artists keep going to Kali and Athena every time they need a warrior goddess. There are so many options!

Did I forget your favorite legendary warrior woman? Did this give you any story ideas? Let me know in the comments!

Girls that defy society for absolutely no reason

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Books helped me so much, I can’t begin to say.

I grew up in a strict religious circle. Girls didn’t wear tank tops or dresses above the knee, girls didn’t talk back, girls didn’t go to college, girls let their daddies pick their husbands, and girls certainly didn’t have their own professions.

I was something of a rebel, often getting the boys into trouble because I’d suggest “great ideas.” I would climb fences, wrestle goats, play in the mud, and hold my own in a water balloon fight. But did I challenge any of those rules shoved down my throat? You may be disappointed, but no, not really.

Ask any feminist bookworm their favorite heroine and they will probably tell you about a character who stood up to social norms. I’ll bet she went against the grain, proved herself independent, and didn’t listen when the world said “no.” Whether she ran away from marrying a man she’d never met or became a mage or assassin, she didn’t take her culture’s crap.

That’s great, but why’d she do it?

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First day of college.

As modern readers, we can see forced marriage, restrictive dress codes, and professional limitations on women are sexist. We forget that women and girls raised with these things don’t. In fact, I’ve seen misogynist ideas enforced by other women far more than men.

Most women who are victimized like this will get offended or laugh at you if you tell them—assuming they even listen. They don’t just spontaneously shed their shackles and start dancing to freedom. It takes more than one or two incidents to get them to that point, contrary to what many, especially newer writers seem to think.

And it hurts. Realizing that you’ve been manipulated by people you love and trust? Damn, it’s painful.

For me, it took years. When I was eight my family left that church, but I was still being molded into someone’s future “submissive wife.” Don’t get me wrong, marriage is a beautiful and  blessed institution, but it needs to be between two equal partners.

At fifteen, I wrote my first book and joined the online community which exposed me to a lot of new ideas—which I totally rebuffed at first. However, tank tops became a part of my wardrobe somewhere in there. Then my parents divorced which revealed a lot of hypocrisy about things I’d been taught and sort of pushed me over the edge.

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Fun fact: I have been excommunicated.

A few months later (yeah, even more time after that), I signed up for my first college class. I didn’t reject my faith, quite the opposite, but I do realize that the version I’d been presented was way off. It was being used to control me and everyone else in that organization.

So what does this have to do with literary heroines? Writers need to understand how people in this type of situation actually think. These things need patience, these things generally need hundreds of little incidents built up over time. Like someone in an abusive relationship, it can take a while.

Authors and other artists are in the unique position of being able to talk about this and they absolutely should. Reading was one of the main ways I realized that how I’d been raised wasn’t okay and I know that it has the power to do the same for others.

Girls don’t just up and flick the middle finger at oppression—no one does. There is a reason they decide what they’re living in is unacceptable. It takes a lot of time, a lot of work, and a lot of courage for a girl to stand up like that. It’s why the ones that do are so compelling.

P.S.

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Eat your heart out, Burnet Bible Church Cult

Objectification is not the answer. Who knew?

The media has objectified women since there has been media. Whether it’s Greek statuary, books, movies, video games, music, or just about anything else, you can find examples of women portrayed as idealized embodiments of erotic fantasy, treated like commodities to be valued on their physical appeal.

emancipation-156066_960_720Thanks to feminism, there has been a shift away from this. Audiences have started to demand more for female characters and publishers and production companies have responded (thank you, capitalism). It still happens and I could rattle off a list of modern franchises I gave up on mainly for this reason, but there has been some improvement. If nothing else, people are at least conscious of it now. There is enough awareness that when objectifying material comes along, it gets called what it is. There’s room for improvement, but I definitely believe we’re on the upward curve.

We’re starting to have complex female characters who aren’t “drop-dead gorgeous,” female characters who don’t have that lingering close up of their bikini thong, actually have a storyline, serve a purpose beyond a love interest, lean toward more realistic body standards, and sexual objectification of men instead—wait, what?

(Disclaimer: If you read Romance/Erotica, you will hate me by the time you get to the end of this post.)

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(Was going to put the Magic Mike poster here, but, I just can’t pollute this blog like that. Google it if you must know.)

This is one of the worst methods of attempted feminism I have seen. We can all (at least I certainly hope we can) agree that women shouldn’t be objectified, but…men should??? Consider films such as the Magic Mike franchise *tries not to vomit* or just take a look at the covers in the romance aisle at your local bookstore *vomits*, both of which are tailored to a female audience. It’s basically an exposition of abs and biceps. It is also a direct defiance of feminism. *bashes head against desk*

Feminism is the radical ideology that men and women are equally valuable human beings who should be regarded as human beings. (Crazy, I know.) How are we supposed to treat a human being? The short answer—with respect. That’s a person, not a sex toy or living fantasy. Whether that person—male or female—is willingly being objectified or not (some of them get paid very well to look like that), they still deserve to be treated and viewed like a person. 

(And if you want to talk about the whole sexual empowerment thing…that’s a whole other blog post.)

For some reason, a lot of women get upset (and rightfully so) at blatantly sexualized female characters (do I need to list examples?), but then drool over Chris Hemsworth’s latest photoshoot. That’s pretty much a textbook example of hypocrisy. This is one of the main reasons I generally disregard the entire Romance genre with very few exceptions—it’s hollow wish fulfillment and basically porn marketed to women.

tumblr_mbfgjxIRG01qg8gy8o7_r1_250Saying it’s alright to have certain expectations/treatment of one gender, but not the other is discrimination, period. The solution to female objectification is not male objectification, that is just redistributed sexism. Sadly, many people seem to take the slew of female-oriented erotic content as progress, but it’s just presenting misandry as the solution to misogyny. Basically, we’re trading smallpox for anthrax.

Objectification is wrong no matter who it is being objectified and it solves nothing.

Chivalry’s dead, but this is Fantasy, it can come back to life

There was a time when it was practically requisite for the hero of any Fantasy tale to be a gallant character who lived by a code usually reminiscent of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. These heroes were often unrealistically perfect and virtuous, embodying good to the point of being laughable. They rode around in spotless armor, rescuing damsels as a matter of course and slaying monsters to liberate their lady loves.

Then people started writing heroes with flaws—dark knights, black sheep, bad boys—whatever you would call them—and female characters stopped being the archetypical damsel in distress in need of salvation every other chapter. Female characters started being able to take care of themselves, whenever they need rescuing now it’s generally frowned upon, and the man protecting the woman simply because she’s a woman is all too often misinterpreted as misogyny. Somewhere in there, people started thinking it was always because the men thought the women too incapable to fend for themselves. In part because of this, chivalry gradually died out in stories (and society too, but that’s for a whole other discussion).

I’m not saying the whole Arthurian paradigm should be reenacted in literature, but I miss the tales with men who viewed disrespecting a woman as an act of dishonor—regardless of her status, etc. Being a gentleman is entirely underrated and it’s possible for a character to be one while still being a bad@$$, just as it’s possible for a character to wield a sword and still be a lady.

Lately, Fantasy has undergone a shift where the lines between good and evil are becoming increasingly blurred or erased altogether. I think this sucks and that people need to remember when we forget the difference between good and evil is when the world goes wrong. If there’s no longer room for chivalry in Fantasy, I say we make room.

I’m not saying they should start having all the men be perfect saints, but I think having a set of ideals—protect the weak, shield the innocent, keep your word, etc.—helps guide one on the straight and narrow. (Plus, you have to admit characters with a code of honor are just set up to be awesome.) If chivalry is dead, I think it’s time for a resurrection. Seriously, what is the matter with it?