Sexism in Literature Transconceived
Reading past gender bias to rediscover the wit and wisdom of classic literature.
Being A Feminist Reader
I grew up watching, listening to, and reading stories about men and women who behaved the way men and women were expected to behave at the time those stories were written. But like most of us today, I also grew up in a world in which women were successfully redefining what it means to be equal members of society.
It was often difficult reconciling myself to the fact that I could receive so much entertainment, wisdom, and insight into human nature from admired writers who never managed to see past the gender stereotypes of their own era.
Similarly, it was always disconcerting to trip across the casual antisemitic sentiments in a beloved Edith Wharton novel, or to discover anti-Chinese propaganda in the writings of Jack London. In most of these cases, it’s up to readers to make the mental leap of excusing or ignoring an offensive term, and chalking up references to race and religion as awkward artifacts of the period.
But gender cuts much deeper into the language of social interaction, and the biases that delineate the roles of girls, boys, men, and women cross so many cultural barriers that they are harder to ignore.
Cultural relativism teaches us that we come to accept almost without question most of the assumptions that are prevalent among the people we live with from our early childhood. We cannot fairly judge the intentions of a writer from one culture by the unfamiliar standards of another. And when these cultures are separated not only by geography but also by time, the translation becomes all the more complex and layered.
So I won’t fault writers from the 1800s for failing to conjure up a context that shows men and women treated as equals any more than I might fault them for not giving their characters smartphones and internet access. Today’s writers can reasonably expect the unrecognized biases in our own works will be similarly distracting to future generations.
Identifying Gender Roles
As a child with my own gender identity issues, I was always keenly aware of references to the differences between boys and girls. In trying to define for myself what my role was supposed to be, and how to live a normal life, I paid careful attention to the ways that male and female characters in stories and television shows behaved.
Take, for example, one of the classics that we read to our children to teach them about how the world works: “Peter Pan and Wendy” by J. M. Barrie. This is a story about Wendy, a young girl who becomes the virtual mother to a tribe of rowdy and adventurous lost boys in a fantasy Neverland, led by the self-centered and brash Peter Pan. That’s just what girls do, given the opportunity, and that’s just what boys are like.
Of course the typical cut-throat pirates in the story are men, and the flirtatious and nurturing mermaids are women. Even the brave young princess Tiger Lily has to be led in and protected by her male guards initially, and she is ultimately rescued by Peter.
When the author slyly suggests that girls are much more clever than boys, and that’s the reason they don’t end up lost in Neverland, it’s a wink and a nod to the underdog. But it only works because it’s acceptable to take a snipe at boys due to the acknowledged social superiority they will achieve when they grow into men.
Imagining Scrooge as a Woman
Even a benign little parable such as “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens drags along a heavy chain of assumptions about the nature of men and women that is impossible to ignore. Take, for example, the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge. Here is the way he is described when we first meet him:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.
Imagine the Scrooge you grew up reading about if he had been a woman in the same role, with all the same qualities and values. The entire story would have to have taken place in an inverted Dickensian society in which women were responsible for the financial well-being of the family, and men tended to the household. How might this description have read?
Oh! But she was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within her froze her old features, nipped her pointed nose, shrivelled her cheek, stiffened her gait; made her eyes red, her thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in her grating voice.
Does this altered image, of a woman in the familiar role of Scrooge, change your perspective on the character? Imagine what the entire story would read like if all the men in the book were women, and vice versa.
When I put myself through this thought exercise, I realized that I wanted very much to read some of my favorite works transconceived entirely in this way. More than that, I wanted to be able to share and discuss these altered versions of the classics with my peers, and make them available to children of future generations.
To that end, I decided to set myself the task of transconceiving a selection of classic literature, and making it available for people to experience, as a commentary on the originals. For convenience, I decided to start with works that are now out of copyright, although there are many recent writings that would also be fascinating to read with the genders swapped.
I’ve given the project a home at www.transconceive.com along with a blog you can read to follow my progress.
One of the first books I tackled was “A Christmas Carol.” It has the advantages of being very familiar, relatively short, and full of iconic characters most people in our times can recognize and relate to immediately.
A Personal Gift
For the holidays this year, I wanted everyone who’s curious to be able to download and read “A Christmas Carol Transconceived” as a personal gift from me. If you find it interesting, I encourage you to discuss it with your friends and family, and share it with anyone you think might enjoy it. Leave feedback with your honest impressions on the sites where you prefer to find, review, and discuss books with your fellow readers. And please let me know where to find your comments, so I can benefit from your insights and participate in the discussion.
I’m looking forward to presenting more transconceived works in the near future. I’m currently working on transconceived editions of “Peter Pan and Wendy” and “Alice in Wonderland,” along with a few short stories, and some more ambitious longer novels. Check out www.transconceive.com for more information about the project.
The experience of seeing these works in the early stages of transition has already been enlightening, and has given me a new appreciation for writers I’ve always admired. Transconceived editions of these and other classics will be available soon in both print and ebook formats, if there’s any interest. I hope there will be, because I’m having too much fun not to move forward with the process, and I don’t want to be the only one.
Please let me know what you think!