The Feminine Truth About Classic Literature

Sia Balis

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not herself but as relative to him.

–          Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

All humans are capable, independent, and multi-dimensional. Regardless of aesthetic or gender we all deserve to be respected as human. In classical media, in literature, plays, movies, women are often not considered an individual. Rather women are considered an extension of the protagonist’s story and that is the full continuation of her identity.  The protagonist rarely sees the girl (whether she’s the whore, madonna, or mother) as an individual. In classic literature (except for the few by a woman’s perspective) women are not human, they are mysterious and feminine plot points. Maybe these women act dependent on their male protagonist because they are fictional and thus are only an extension of the protagonist’s vision. However, the sheer amount of written men-reliant women with pliable personalities brings to question the view of a society where women are routinely not considered full emoting individuals.  In modern literature even girls dehumanize feminine women. The girl protagonist is more masculine and thus is not female, she is human. This is unlike the other girls in her story. When half of the population is systematically put down then the whole of the humanity will not progr

Unsex me here

–          Lady Macbeth, Macbeth

In much of Shakespeare’s work, even though he was serving an independent queen, Elizabeth I, undermined the capabilities of women. Most women have no power and ones that do are manipulated or lose it.  For instance, in ‘Macbeth’ Lady Macbeth has a whole speech about how her femininity is a weakness and simply exists to further Macbeth into his violent ambitions for the throne.  She eventually kills herself the guilt she had demeaned as womanly reaching her before Macbeth’s final battle. Lady Macbeth exists only for Macbeth and his cause. Her character shifts from a merciless knife to a bundle of regretful nerves to reflect Macbeth’s character. The other women in Macbeth are the witches (aside from a quick cameo of Macduff’s wife) who exist for Macbeth’s doom. These witches are not considered human and are cruel and unattractive. In Macbeth, there are two types of women shown, ones who are not even human and ones who wish to be men (although they do not have the stomach for it).

Most of Shakespeare’s women are dependent on the men around them(Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia in Hamlet, Bianca in Taming of the Shrew), Shrews (Katherina in Taming of the Shrew, Bianca in Much Ado About Nothing), or if they want to achieve something it is somehow an extension of a man (Viola dresses as a man in the 12th Night, Helena telling Demetrius of Hermia and Lysander because of her love for him in Midsummer’s Night Dream). If a Shakespearean woman is strong, this strength is erased or ignored by the end of the play, such as Titiana in Midsummer’s Night Dream or the mortal Cordelia in King Lear. It is true that these words are three-hundred years old and thus did not hold everyone in the same regard as modern society; However, these works are still considered a blueprint for masterful writing and celebrated. These plays and their characters are referenced even though their character examples are really only applicable to men. The women presented aren’t women. They are female extensions of a male psyche who would not have reason for existence without the men in their lives. They are not human as the other men are. These women are martyrs, mothers, and mistresses but not humans.

She told me [the baby] was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.

  • Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby

One must wonder if this is the voice of Fitzgerald, Daisy’s author. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in 1924, in the 20th century, a century where women’s rights and votes would be championed and four years after women could vote in the USA. Fitzgerald wrote Daisy Buchanan not as an independent character. Daisy is Fitzgerald’s American Dream in a beautiful and unreachable package and all of her actions are Fitzgerald’s malcontents with women. He writes almost every prominent woman in The Great Gatsby as a morally compromised or basely wanton.  Daisy with her continuous betrayal of Gatsby, Myrtle with her affair, and the only woman not attached seriously cheats in her career. A book that has beautiful writing and is saluted has such obvious misogynistic undertones. These women act like types not as individuals. Fitzgerald’s women are all corrupted.

Furthermore, these duplicitous women are not even independent. Rather than fools, they are tools. Throughout the book, Daisy is not Daisy, Daisy is first projection of Jay, and then an extension of Tom Buchannan, her husband. Myrtle’s actions are also dependent on her husband and lover, and when she strays her life is promptly interrupted. Jordan Baker is described as masculine in her tastes and movement and so she is excused from ruin, although she never had any virtue described. The Great Gatsby’s women are plot points, they do not exist for themselves. They were constructed for and by men. Even as fiction, because they are not fools these women must be punished, even though their lives are immune to peace.

… Jem told me I was being a girl, that girls always imagined things, that’s why other people hated them so, and if I started behaving like one I could just go off and find some to play with,

  • Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird

Even in more modern books, femininity is portrayed as bizarre. In To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee the protagonist might be female but she is not feminine. She is more boyish and opts to run away whenever the color pink is involved.  Scout is a child and is thus exempt from women’s discouragement of character in stories. Scout is still human.  Scout is consistently renouncing femininity and all of the women who come with it. She observes that women aren’t liked or respected but she assumes that this hostility is sourced from the women themselves. The women portrayed in To Kill A Mockingbird who are usually awful are the ones who embrace their femininity. There are strong women in To Kill A Mockingbird (such as Miss Maudie, Calpurnia,Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose) but they are not written as feminine, the author touching on their humanity but still writing the fully feminine characters as inhuman (such as Aunt Alexandra, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose).  The author of To Kill A Mockingbird is a woman so she knows women have emotions. Still, in her story there is an underlying misogyny and dehumanization of feminine women.

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone

  • Mary Wollstoncraft, A Vindication of Women’s Rights

Classic literature has made a pattern of shaping fictional women as plot points rather than people. Whilst this is only literature, the media seeps into people’s minds and opinions.  When women are treated as a plot motivation for a male protagonist, this discourages women from believing that they are the protagonists to their own story. When femininity is described as weak and frivolous, it ostracizes those who were raised to be feminine or who like typically feminine things. Much of celebrated classic literature puts down women. It can be direct (such as in Catcher in the Rye, Picture of Dorian Gray). Women often are barely portrayed (consider The Hobbit) or portrayed only as a catalyst for drama or a plot point for the protagonist (think of Of Mice and Men, Fahrenheit 451). These subtle points can make the misogyny become internalized and you read literature with women’s reaction to being underestimated but still having that internalized misogyny in them (some examples are The Bell Jar, Little Women).

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.

  • Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Classical Literature is not a fair depiction of both sexes and clearly favors patriarchal values. Women have emotional and intellectual depth. Ignoring women as multi-dimensional and portraying them only for the sake of men and their story will lead to a stunted society, a society where 50% of the population does not believe in their potential. Celebrating classic literature and not acknowledging the misogynistic and dehumanizing aspects leads to an internalization of a belief in one’s’ own inferiority. Women start playing the one-line part to the world’s continuous play. Some are lucky to see through and believe in themselves. Then they believe that they are the exception to the rule and that most women, especially traditionally feminine women, are one-dimensional, inhuman, and incapable. In actuality, we are all human, we are all capable, and we are all much more than just plot points.