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Gender bias in books I’ve just read in this week

I have finished with three books this week, a pretty random selection. I thought I’d highlight the issues that each of the books had when it came to assumpions and inbuilt gender bias.  The books are: Tess of the D’urbervilles (Thomas Hardy) – a so-called classic, Nail Down the Stars (John Morressy)- science fiction, and The Deeper Meaning of Liff (Douglas Adams and John Lloyd) – humour.

My main points in this post are to show:

  • Gender bias and/or entrenched Misogyny is everywhere
  • Male is the default position,’ women the other’
  • Once you start noticing it you can’t stop
  • This is everywhere and considered normal and not even noticed
  • It’s depressing and concerning. We as humans are defined by the language we use and the ideas that we absorb subconsciously.

Tess of the D’urbervilles (1891)

I couldn’t finish this book. If you want to know the plot, read the wikipedia article. I read this because I’m in a book club and we are getting our way through this list. I disagree with this concept of ‘you must read these books because reasons’ but it’s an interesting journey to take.

I think this book makes it onto all those lists NOT because people read it and like it, but because it’s accepted as a classic – and people who compile these lists don’t bother removing it. Hardy’s writing style is excellent.

But… has he ever MET a woman? Does he know that women are people?

Ostensibly this is a book about a girl and her…adventures –  but it’s actually voyeuristic and creepy. This was one long rape fantasy an old man wrote about a pretty young girl. A  beautiful,really wet, helpless girl who is royally done over by every man she meets.  It’s really more about the men than her. She’s the vehicle for abuse, including actual rape,which she later gets blamed for. Passive and accepting, sad, trembling of cherry red lips – and everything she does is for men or in response to positions horrid men put her in.

Everyone in my book group were all WTF?

Remember, you had Jane Eyre that would have been out when this book was released.  You had strong female characters in many novels by then, women of integrity, with their own agendas.

Hardy was kidding himself. This is a terrible book.

Nail Down the Stars (1973)

I recently became the owner of a LOT of 1950s-80s science fiction. I have a stack of books higher and wider than me. I am getting through them by periodically plucking a book off the top of the pile and reading it. I have found some gems. And then there are books like this one.

So, if the main character is a man, and the first 5 characters that person meets are men, then the first woman you meet is inevitably going to be a wife or a beautiful woman who immediately wants to boff the main character, and usually does so.

You’ve got one of THOSE books.

The ones where it’s an author avatar in a fantasy land, it’s always the tale of some glorious space pirate, who has rougish charm, and uses women casually, and women are furnishing for the plot about what the men do. There is never a female in this sort of book who isn’t there for the hero to root, or who just admires him and helps him for no reason, often at their own peril or cost.

It’s TEDIOUS.

I’m TIRED of this.

I’ve picked this book as an example of the sort of tripe that is out there masquerading as a science fiction novel, its one of so many. Imagine being a kid growing up and reading this entrenched nonsense. Like I did. No wonder we have generations of  men who fundamentally consider women to be decorative and who should just be available to them to use at their whim. No wonder we have generations of women who don’t value themselves. This sort of stuff defines us when we are kids, or adults, and we have all read stuff just like it, in every genera.

I kept reading this book out of horrified fascination to see what he could possibly do with this awful character next. There was a lot of war, butchery, and men going into battle as brothers in it, too. War is good, mkay.

There is a scene where the main character (Will – he changes his name throughout the book) is hiding out on a backwards planet. Will ends up doing drudge labor for an Inn keeper, who has a, quote, ‘randy daughter’ called Bes. The innkeeper locks his daughter up at night because clearly he owns her sexuality, or something. She seems to be an adult, but the father obviously owns her body, kind of common idea really. I don’t even know any more –  there is utterly no thought or consideration given to why this is so in so many of this sort of book.

Bes gives Will a key to her room and they do a lot of sleeping together.  Will seems fine with this and gets out of it presumably what Bes gets out of it -pleasure. At some point, Will (who is an irredeemable fuckweasel), gets an offer to sneak off and leave the planet, so he naturally steals all the cash from the innkeeper before he goes. And. “He slipped the sack into his tunic, and left in it’s place the key that Bes has given him. It occurred to him, for the first time, that the key was very much worn, although it was not particularly old. It had seen frequent use, no doubt.” Then he leaves.

WHAT A SLUT! OMG BES. HOW DARE YOU. YOU DESERVE THIS.

You know, there is a type of guy who sleeps around but decides anyone who sleeps with them is a slut, and does not deserve any respect. We call this having a double standard. It is an example of male privilege.
Oh. You’ll be happy to hear that later,  Will saves an alien concubine from slavery, and he picks the third most beautiful of them (a concession, you could have had the first two), he takes her without asking, and naturally she cleaves to him for life and makes huge sacrifices for him. They even eventually live happily ever after. She doesn’t age, either, she stays young for him even when he gets old. He deserves the cookie, you know. He’s a charming, talented, good looking space pirate!

This book was published in 1973 by the way; the women’s lib movement was going strong by then. And it’s not even deliberately sexist, it’s just causally there. The author does not once question his assumptions.

I’m tired of the voices of men who write books like this. I’m tired of books like this.

The Deeper Meaning of Liff (1990)

This is a truly funny book and is actually pretty much pure brilliance. It is ‘a dictionary of words that don’t exist’. Well worth a read. It’s a study of human nature and culture (albeit very first-world white (UK) culture). The authors have taken place names and then given meanings to them of things that people do in a very amusing manner. I recommend this book for an enjoyable read.

Examples

Garrow (n): Narrow wiggly furrow left after pulling a hair off a painted surface.

Ampus (n): A lurid bruise which you can’t remember getting.

Who doesn’t know this!

Most of the examples are gender neutral and generic. Some examples refer to gendered concept. A woman’s handbag, a woman’s lipstick, a lady’s bra. Women specific things always get a gender pointed out clearly.

My quibble with this book – Man-specific things only sometimes get it pointed out that it’s man specific. The authors are male and are writing with a male POV – and often just don’t specify some things they think are natural. It just doesn’t occur to them.

The male is the default. Being a woman reading it – no, actually. I don’t get what happens when one gets an erection! That should get the same treatment the woman’s handbag did.

Ok –  an example from the same page:

Wollandilly – a woman who can’t get her lipstick on straight.

Wimbledon – The last drop which,no matter how much you shake it, always goes down your trouser leg.

If these statements were written without a gender bias on behalf of the author, it would either be

Wollandilly – not being able to get your lipstick on straight.

This would bring it in line with a Wimbledon as has been written.

Or, to bring Wimbledon in line with a Wollandilly:

Wimbledon – The last drop which,no matter how much he shakes it, always goes down a man’s trouser leg.

It’s the un-noticed, casual, gender bias that I’m calling out here, in a book that is near perfect, but which was written by two men who it’s not occurred to that they are speaking from a male position.

And that is what we mean by entrenched male privilege, gender bias, patriarchy etc. Things that default to male that scrape through un-noticed by almost everyone because we are so USED to it that we don’t even notice it. That is what I’m calling out here. Notice it. Point it out. Object to it. The language we use defines our concepts of culture. We have to change it at this level to change the bias in our culture.