Accurate Portrayals of Women in Fiction

I really, really hate The Red Pony. It rubbed me the wrong way from the moment I first laid my teenaged eyes on the very first words on the very first page. It was the only novel we were compelled to read in high school that I had any trouble finishing, despite its brevity — and I was normally the read-ahead student who had to remember not to spoil my classmates. I didn’t loathe Of Mice and Men but it did traumatize me; I read it too young because I saw it on my college-aged cousin’s shelf and mistook its slimness for age-appropriateness.

Needless to say, I am not a Steinbeck fan for various reasons.

Names

Steinbeck doesn’t give an awful lot of his female characters names, let alone personalities. The pony gets a name (Gabilan). We know the name of Steinbeck’s dog who ate an early manuscript of Of Mice and Men (Max). Did women not have names before second-wave feminism?

Personalities

I’ll let the man speak for himself.

The novel [Of Mice And Men] received a warm reception when it was published, but the character called Curley’s wife (who is never given a name) remains somewhat abstract and undefined. Except for her low breeding, reflected in her speech patterns, she is largely unrealized. Elaine Steinbeck, the writer’s widow, recalls: “I asked John once, ‘Why didn’t you name Curley’s wife?’ And he said, ‘For one good reason. She’s not a person, she’s a symbol. She has no function, except to be a foil — and a danger to Lennie.”

I guess it’s too much to asked for a named, human female character. Instead we get a half-realized pseudo-femme fatale who gets a man with mental disabilities killed. The other women in his books don’t fare much better. The pony kid’s unnamed mom doesn’t have much to her. Heck, even the non-human female characters don’t do so well; the red pony is only exists because his unnamed mare mother died to bring him into the world.

I’m fairly sure that not only did women have personalities in Steinbeck’s time, but also that there were authors, female and male, who wrote compelling and interesting male and female characters.

Though I’m using this particular conversation about a particular author, this is hardly the worst conversation I’ve had about such matters (far from it, actually) and Steinbeck is hardly the most sexist author out there in the Western canon. My point is that “accuracy” is not a legitimate defense of every sexist and misogynistic issues in literature. History is not linear and neither is the trajectory of literature. As long as there have been people, there have always been women with names and personalities. There have long been been female characters with names and personalities, some of whom were written by female authors. Steinbeck was a 20th-century author, not from some imaginary distant time where women didn’t exist as people despite the best gate-keeping efforts of society.

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Accurate Portrayals of Women in Fiction
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13 thoughts on “Accurate Portrayals of Women in Fiction

  1. 1

    Ugh, can I just say that I loathe Steinbeck, and that I can trace that loathing back to the absolutely joyous experience of getting to read The Red Pony not once, but twice in school between the ages of ten and thirteen (in the same school system, no less). I ended up having to read Steinbeck more than any other author I read for school, excepting Shakespeare.

    I actually dropped AP English Lit in part because a Steinbeck novel (I think East of Eden? Could’ve been Grapes of Wrath, though…) was part of the summer reading requirement.

    I do not understand the great American obsession with Steinbeck, at all. His works were the bane of my English classes; they’re boring, there are no interesting women, and did I mention that they’re hellishly boring? At least Shakespeare’s got jokes.

    English lit classes need a serious shakeup when it comes to authors; they’re vastly white American/British men, and it really skews our view of our culture to keep it so focused on that narrow viewpoint. I honestly can’t think of a single novel we read in high school that was written by a woman, and few written by POC. Even in World Literature, which was meant to be focused on other cultures, the long works I remember reading were Alas, Babylon; The Hobbit; The Odyssey; Romeo & Juliet; and Things Fall Apart. Great job, World Lit, 1/5 not your standard Old White Dude stuff.

  2. 2

    Naming is power. The ability to give a name signifies power over them. A boss who can come up with nicknames for employees has much more personal power over them than a boss who gets asked to show up at the HR department for that sort of behaviour. And the long tradition of underlings naming their masters is contingent on the master never hearing you say it (and it’s an act of resistance). Excalibur has a name, your kitchen knife doesn’t. So to deny names to women basically means you’re relegating them to the position of the kitchen knife. Yes, I’m pretty sure that women had names and personalities “back then”. And yes they were treated worse than nowadays. Which means that as an author you have a great chance of portraying people in a very difficult situation which means a huge potential for writing interesting stories about conflict and struggles.
    If you choose to simply ignore them as people with internal lives, motivations, hopes fears and pain and decide to use them as nameless 2 dimensional plot devices instead we do get to judge you by that choice.
    I’m sick and tired about the “those times” argument, especially since fiction is never “those times” but a product of a creative process.

  3. 3

    I haven’t read Steinbeck but it does sound like he was a symptom of sexism rather than attempting an exploration, or even a representation of real gender roles in his time. You get a similar thing in the art of certain places and times – I’ve just been studying the art of a building where real men are memorialized, very often flanked by feminized ‘symbols’ such as Justice, Victory, and err… War (which was almost entirely fought by them, for them).

  4. 4

    The only one I loathe more than Steinbeck is William Golding. The Pearl was tedious, with precisely zero sympathetic characters, and again the woman (I don’t recall if she is named) is merely a foil. Lord of the Flies is actively appalling; the only female character I recall is the pig, and there is more than a little rapeyness to the way the boys kill her. I have NO CLUE why this is considered great to have children read.

    1. 4.1

      I don’t know that I would put Lord of the Flies into this category. There are a few different ways that women get erased in fiction, and I think it’s worth distinguishing between them. There are the works that erase their humanity (as discussed in the OP.) There are the works that have no women where women should be (most big-budget movies, in which men apparently make up 80-90% of the human race). And then there are the works that are simply set in all-male environments. This last category is problematic only in context – if we didn’t routinely exclude and dehumanize women, all-male stuff would be no big deal. The first two categories are the ones that are inherently sexist or misogynist.

      Lord of the Flies is category three. And yes, the pig-killing scene is very rapey. The whole thing is appalling because when you’re writing about how easily the veneer of civilization can be peeled away, you’re going to end up with some awful stuff. That’s not necessarily a sign that the book is bad, but you’re right that it’s not very kid friendly. Apparently the child actors in the movie were deeply traumatized by the experience. (I read it in middle school, I think, and it was not a fun read.)

  5. 5

    I’ve never read the Red Pony, and the Wikipedia entry just makes it seem like the books are male-centric–problematic because of that, yes, but just off of that I would have though Of Mice and Men’s very blatant misogyny would be the worse text. Can you someone familiar with the book tip me off to why it’s probably not worth my time?

  6. 6

    Heina: Sorry, I meant The Red Pony. I’ve read Mice, and can fully understand the issues with it now, even if I missed them back when I was a teenage boy in American Lit class.

  7. Ed
    7

    Of course, behavior of the boys in Lord of the Flies wasn’t intended as something positive, but a picture of what happens when society falls apart. The fact that the world is at (possibly nuclear) war at the same time the kids are stranded raises the question as to whether their elders are any better beneath the surface.

    Maybe there’s a sexist element in the author’s value system, but I’ve always assumed the characters were all boys because they went to the type of school that actually would have been segregated by sex at the time. That particular airplane was evacuating students from that school. It would have been fascinating to have the same story with both boys and girls if done well, but I’m skeptical about what Golding`s characterization of girls would have been like.

    I have mixed feelings about the book. Yes, as a person who was bullied a lot as a child, it is the ultimate dystopia of the mean kids having no limits to their power. Yes, societies sometimes break down into chaos or a tyranny of the strongest and most aggressive. But usually they don’t.

    Many people come together in an orderly, helpful manner during a disaster. The seemingly inevitable global nuclear war hasn’t happened yet. While it has historically been beloved of liberals and hated by conservatives, I’m not sure why. To me, it has a very “original sin” sort of message.

    With Steinbeck, I don’t enjoy him either and the flaws everyone has noted here are valid, but he’s traditionally admired by the left for showing the horrors of the Great Depresion with more accuracy and honesty than most writers of the time.

  8. 8

    Wow, I really liked the Grapes of Wrath when I was in high school… Ate the whole thing up in a few days. I had no idea it was stolen like that. That the mom kinda took charge of the family as the shit hit the fan seemed like a pretty cool thing to me at the time – with that being my impression (granted that was like 20 years ago), I was surprised to read this. Thanks for enlightening us 🙂

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