Monday, May 24, 2021

CS Lewis and Sexism - Second Pass

I thought this would be the last pass.  After reading the book I was thinking "there is no serious argument here.  His critics are just idiots. Let it go. Just give it a lick and a prayer, get on to the discussion of Jane Studdock, and get out." But the lick and also the prayer seem to be expanding, so I can't get out just yet. Just because people can write something, even with actual examples and on topic, does not mean they are making any sense. 

Though I should be grateful, shouldn't I?  So many people writing elsewhere are not on topic and provide no real examples that I should perhaps be more generous to those who can at least manage that.



Well I think you will need to find another Village Idiot in some other stage of training. 

Lewis takes a risk few male writers ever do, of speaking from a woman's perspective in his fiction, and does so with remarkable variety and complexity. Females are heroes, villains, and mixed. I don't think there are stock characters, even among the intentionally mythological, such as Tinidril or the White Witch. The former is innocent, which in literature is usually expressed as childishness or foolishness, yet she shocks Ransom and Watson repeatedly with her sudden insights beyond what they had considered.  She is both older and younger than they. The three sisters in Till We Have Faces are disturbingly complicated, but we want it simpler, asking if Orual is a good person or a bad one, and whether we "like" her and root for her or not.

He is unafraid to show his female characters doing weak, silly, or evil things, in about the same proportion as the male characters do. The great saint of The Great Divorce is Sarah Smith of Golders Green and it is her husband who is the weakest personality, to the point of eventually disappearing altogether. For every complaint about his portrayal of Susan there are examples of similar faults in males, or of other females doing such things in proper order without coming under criticism. Uncle Andrew is also vain. Lucy and Aravis go off to discuss clothes.

While some of the authors tried to weakly defend Lewis's sexism by suggesting that he eventually grew out of it (and there is certainly development and change over time), he portrays Reason as a young woman in his first fiction, The Pilgrim's Regress, and is clear throughout his writing that he takes the image of the Church as female quite seriously. It is we who insist that relationships must be viewed through the lens of power and dislike that he never quite says what he is supposed to.  It is Lewis who insists from the start that if we are evaluating things in terms of power we are already wrong, for that is a mark of a fallen race to even see things that way. We describe male-female relationships trying to measure higher and lower, he repeatedly describes it as a Great Dance. It is we who don't get it and are children. 

The problem is that we have a preconceived idea of what people are supposed to say about men, and especially women.  I think this has gotten worse over my years, as under the rise of Grrl Power, no complexity is allowed. And Lewis does not say these things, he says something else entirely. On to Jane Studdock.


Earl Wajenberg said...

On, someone asked, "Who else thinks the Chronicles of Narnia are very sexist?" I answered:

Let's try this by the numbers:

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe:

lead protagonist: Lucy (female)
lead antagonist: the White Witch (female)

Prince Caspian:

lead protagonist: split between Caspian and Lucy (one each)
lead antagonist: Miraz (male)

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

lead protagonist: Lucy (female)
lead antagonist: there isn't really any, but Eustace (male) is closest

The Silver Chair:

lead protagonist: split between Eustace and Jill (one of each)
lead antagonist: the Green Witch (female)

The Horse and His Boy:

lead protagonist: split between Shasta and Aravis (one of each)
lead antagonist Rabadash (male)

The Magician's Nephew:

lead protagonist: Digory (male)
lead antagonist: Jadis (female)

The Last Battle:

lead protagonist: Tirian (male)
lead antagonist: split between Shift and Rishda Tarkaan (both male)

5 female protagonists (counting Lucy twice), 5 male protagonists

3 female antagonists (counting Jadis/White Witch twice), 5 male antagonists

Now, you could change those numbers by promoting various supporting characters to co-protagonist or -antagonist, e.g. the other Pevensie children, or Jill, or Polly, but I don't think that would tilt the numbers a lot unless you tried.

It's true that the girls don't get as many action scenes as the boys, but the girls, especially Lucy, get the heavy theological scenes—attending Aslan's resurrection in Wardrobe, encountering him alone at the edge of the world at the start of Silver Chair—and they do get their licks in: Jill carries her action weight in Last Battle and out-performs Eustace in cunning in Silver Chair, Aravis has a great espionage sequence in Horse, and Lucy has the scene with the magic book in Voyage.

I think that's pretty good balance, considering I doubt Lewis was deliberately trying for any such thing, in an era when such a balance was not much of a consideration.

And if there is one mortal character that is the protagonist of the series, it’s Lucy.

As to Lewis’s other alleged crimes against social identity:

Anything other than cis het sex was criminal at the time the stories were written, and it had damned well better be married. Outside the books, Lewis’s own expressed opinions on homosexuality, though they certainly would not pass muster with modern gay activists, were very mild for the time and place.

Lewis’s position on racism is shown by the way Narnia, when running properly, is always a nation of myriads of species. Yes, there are the Calormenes, who are, yikes, brown bad guys. But there are also the Telmarines, who are white bad guys. And the white and brown protagonists of Horse end up married.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well said, and so says the tech specialist. It reminds me of Andy Kurtz saying "There was all this debate in the churches I was attending about whether you could lose your salvation or not. So I set up a spreadsheet..."

Clearly my people, and at least 50% of the audience here. Not that it will be the least persuasive for people who operate by feelz, but you have done your bit for Western Civilisation today.

Grim said...

I always think of The Silver Chair when I think of this issue, and really just this bit:

"What?" said the Knight, still laughing and patting her head in a
quite infuriating fashion. "Is our little maid a deep politician? But never
fear, sweetheart. In ruling that land, I shall do all by the counsel of my
Lady, who will then be my Queen too. Her word shall be my law, even
as my word will be law to the people we have conquered."
"Where I come from," said Jill, who was disliking him more every
minute, "they don't think much of men who are bossed about by
their wives."
"Shalt think otherwise when thou hast a man of thine own, I warrant
you," said the Knight, apparently thinking this very funny.

This is a part where the Knight is still trying to represent his lady as good, and his own mission as appropriate; Lewis intends it to be a strong hint that he's not good, and neither is his lady, that he allows himself to be bent to the will of a domineering wife.

Of course, it is Jill who expresses it; and maybe it's true, if everyone is being perfectly honest, that women look down on men who are easily led -- even, or especially, by themselves.

The point probably struck me so strongly because it is placed in the context of a knight and his lady, when assertions similar to this describing knights and ladies make up so much of the high literature of the 13th-15th centuries; yet Lewis is clearly rejecting this tradition of amoureux, both in Jill's words and in the narrative structure of the story. He is painting the opposite picture, not how knightly virtue can be perfected by loving service to a good lady, but of how it can be corrupted by a wicked one.