Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sexism in Narnia

J.K. Rowling has mentioned in an interview that she dislikes how Susan Pevensie is treated in the last of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. Her reading of the final sections, in which it is revealed that Susan “is no longer a Friend of Narnia,” along with Lucy’s comment that she is “interested in nothing now-a-days except lipstick and nylons and invitations” discovers an unattractive sexism in Lewis’s dismissal of the girl.
“There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.”
When I first read of Susan’s exclusion from Narnia and the wilder lands further up and further in, I thought it harsh myself. I didn’t connect it to any ideas of budding sexuality and embracing of the pubertal experience, though. I attributed her separation to her silliness. Yes, it is certainly the type of silliness common to (some) girls becoming women, and such silliness is tied up in the social and hormonal changes which suffuse the atmosphere in those years. Yet it is clear from the immediate context that sex and womanhood are not her problem.

Lewis considers silliness a serious problem. Playfulness, humor, joy, and celebration he is much in favor of; silliness, in this sense of disparaging the important and embracing the frivolous, goes near the heart of what Lewis sees as mankind’s separation from God. Not until I read the further works of Lewis (especially God In The Dock, and The Great Divorce) did this come clear to me.

This has been part of a more general claim of sexism in the C of N. But for some reason this section about Susan gets mentioned most often. It seems to rankle. We'll see why in a bit.

This accusation of sexism is more than a little odd. Had these books been written in the last few years, a wise editor would have taken care to make the boys and girls equal in so many ways, and not breathe a whisper that a girl could be less able than a boy in anything. By those lights, there are a few – a very few – sections in the Chronicles which raise the eyebrow today: a male character’s claim that girls aren’t good with maps, for example. It is also true that girls are kept out of combat – as we still do today.

Lewis’s female characters stand out dramatically against the girls of previous children’s literature. There were books for girls and books for boys in that era, and the girls in the boy books didn’t have much in the way of adventures. We all remember how the courageous Becky Thatcher set off down the Mississippi on a raft… oh no wait, that was Huck. The King Arthur stories had Guenivere who slew, er, nothing actually; and Robin Hood had Maid Marian, who conquered…who conquered…

The Wind In The Willows, The Prince and The Pauper, and all those Kipling and EM Forster books were just chockablock full of…of boys having adventures. If you wanted to read about girls having adventures, you had to read girl books: Heidi, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, The Secret Garden. And who could forget the many quests, exotic travels, physical dangers, and battles from those books?

Lewis’s females have few parallels in books meant to be read by both sexes. Notably, Lewis does this in a time when it was not considered necessary to make the boys and girls equal in all books. He just does it. Because he believes it. One of the grander adventures for a girl in a story before that time was Wendy's in Peter Pan. She spends her time being the mother and getting captured.

But Lucy, Susan, Jill, Polly, and Aravis all have real dangers which they have to get themselves out of. Their actions are central, not secondary, to plot development. They hunt, ride, sail, and endure hardship. Even Rowling’s series has only Hermione as representative of young girls having adventures – unless you count being a chaser at Quidditch. The others are involved in going to school and having crushes.

And here we come to the subtext of Rowling’s complaint. Female authors have scattered girl-coming-of-age books across the landscape for several decades. These are regarded as sacred, by the authors at least, and presumably some of their audience. Not only has Lewis not written that type of young-womanhood narrative, he has insulted it. He has profaned sacred ground with his muddy masculine boots. When his girls come of age they become competent adults. Joanne Rowling can read as well as I can, and note that it was not Susan’s lipstick but her betrayal that casts her into the outer darkness. Susan denies Narnia exists, denies what she knows to be true. Worse, she sneers at the others as if she is the older and wiser one. It is not lipstick, but her nothing but lipstick, and nylons, and invitations that do her in.

I think J.K. Rowling is telling us more than she wants about what she thinks is important in a young girl’s life. She has fastened on the issue of sex to celebrate it, and Lewis’s mostly ignoring the issue (in Narnia – sex shows up in his adult books) she regards as an active rejection of her value. I think most of the actual girls reading The Last Battle recognised exactly what Lewis meant about Susan, and several classmates came to mind.


jw said...

I think you are quite right here: It is Susan's rejection of Narnia, not anything specific she does which causes the 'problem.' Thus, Rowling is wrong in her accusation of sexism.

I might note though, that I have never seen an author complain of sexism against boys in any book for children and there are many examples of it.

Rowling herself uses the 'myth of female purity' in her Harry Potter books (Grubbly-Plank and the unicorns for instance). This myth can and often does cause real harm to boys. The myth is one of the prime drivers behind why so few see anything wrong with women molesting boys.

bs king said...

AVI- I think you're right...I read Narnia quite early, prior to age 10 at least, and I remember crying when I found out about Susan. I was upset that she could have seen something so beautiful and turned her back on it. I do remember however, thinking that Lucy was one of the coolest girls in any book I'd read...definitely better than those Little House on the Prairie girls at least.

jw- Out of total curiosity, who doesn't see anything wrong with women molesting boys? I understand your main point, but I'm not sure I'm buying the thought that there's widespread acceptance of women molesting boys....since any case I've ever heard of involves quite a few condemnations of the woman from all sides (this goes double if she was pretty...)

Wyman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wyman said...

I ended up writing so much I ran out of room again. Whenever you write posts about books you taught me to love as a child, it's a bit of an automatic I'll jump right in, head first, on those discussions.

Here's a link to the post I ended up writing.

Lady of Shalott said...

The thing is, I've heard that Lewis had wanted to continue Susan's story, before he died so suddenly.

I've always imagined her being very distraught at the fact that she was leaving narnia, thus she blocked it out, to hide her pain.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I had not heard that, but it sounds plausible. Lewis is quite clearly fond of his characters.

trdaz said...

ok so i loved the article but just one rowling's book series (sorry I'm a little partial when it comes to Harry Potter) there are many important female characters. Hermione, Ginny, Luna (she was tortured!), lily, the twins, Fleur, Bellatrix (ok, even though she is an antagonist) and every single female student or teacher of hogwarts who took part in the Battle of Hogwarts for that.

Tora said...

girls don't necessarily have to have books of adventures to enjoy stories. I agree that the stark genre difference is silly but you seem to rather sneer at coming of age stories, romances, realistic adventures of growing up (attending college, losing loved ones, making friends, deciding what to do with your life), which, sorry, many girls happen to love. That you see more of a problem with that than boys refusing to read anything but adventures is interesting. And odd that Nancy Drew actually is an adventure series with mysteries but it's getting discounted here.

No hardships? Getting captured isn't a hardship? Losing a sister, your parents, moving to another country, getting your manuscript burned, said sister almost drowning because of your nastiness, getting tossed from foster home to foster home, suffering abuse... These are easy? And not to mention the boys got in trouble constantly (naturally, because what's an adventure without problems?). And victim blaming a little girl and implying motherhood, especially for such a young girl, is an unimportant thing doesn't sit well with me.

I get and agree with your overall point but I'm so weary of my favorite heroines (like intense Mary, ambitious Amy, conservative Meg, dreamy Sara) and books I love getting dismissed for being "too" feminine, which is very sexist. Susan does go on adventures (and not necessarily because any of kids want to anyhow) but she also refuses to fight in wars and is called The Gentle.