Vacant-eyed Women, Mattress-Pounding, and Politics: Sexism in Historical Fiction? Do we mention it or keep quiet?*

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

What reader of historical fiction isn’t at least passingly familiar with the statement, “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too… ?” Queen Elizabeth’s 1588 speech to her troops at Tilbury is one of the most famous and recognizable of the Renaissance. It would be hard to imagine a modern female politician making a similar speech, though, and any man saying something about a feeble woman’s body would be (and should be) immediately excoriated. Reading historical fiction requires authors and readers alike to set aside modern mores and read with the understanding that times have changed, and be sensitive to the fact that none of us can judge another time period or culture by our own standards. But what happens when those standards get distorted? How do we tell the difference between historical accuracy and outright sexism? Does it even matter? 

In a nutshell, yes. It matters a great deal because authors should avoid bias, while keeping authenticity in mind, avoiding unnecessary sexism, and bringing historical fiction into the global discussion of sexual abuse in a meaningful way. 

Authors have to be careful to check their own biases at the door when writing for a variety of reasons. Naturally, their readers will include at least a few who want as accurate a depiction of the time period as possible. That can be difficult to maintain if modern sensibilities are strongly present in a book set in, for example, Victorian England. It must be difficult for authors, products themselves of more enlightened times – see my own bias coming through – to write about women as second class citizens who are not as intelligent as, or even as human as, their male counterparts. How difficult must it be to write about women as the Angel in the House if she is good, or hysterical and subhuman if she is not good. This raises the question of what makes her good? Is the character a murderer? Or does she simply have a mind of her own and isn’t afraid to voice her opinion? Is the period Ancient Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian? How would women, feisty or otherwise, typically behave in these time periods? It may be tempting to write a woman who flagrantly tells men off, disregards the dictates of her social class, or makes her own choices rather than obeying her father, but she likely wouldn’t have really done that. It probably never occurred to her that she even could do something like that in the first place, and her capacity for actually carrying it out would depend on a variety of issues.

On the flip side, writing male characters has to come with a balance as well. Women may not have had the same rights modern women arguably have now. They may have been considered second-class citizens. Plenty of men throughout history (and now, too, tragically) were misogynists. Aristotle thought women should be “obedient as a slave,” proving that just because he was a philosopher doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a pig; Martin Luther thought women could either be wives or whores, so take your pick; Shakespeare seemed pretty disgusted by the female sex, based on his rants against them in King Lear; and even the enlightened Gautama Buddha apparently thought women were too stupid to understand Buddhism (Saṃyutta Nikāya 4). But there is evidence that many men still loved and respected the women in their lives. Refer to the real life love stories of couples like John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Abelard and Heloise, or even Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer for examples. Writing men as misogynistic blowhards is a dangerous game for authors. If there is evidence to support the misogyny of an historical character, that’s one thing. But to write a character as such simply because he lived in a time when women were not seen as equal poses a number of risks.

There is also a question of authenticity. How accurate is a character’s attitude toward women if he proves himself to be sexist? Is he truly reflecting the attitudes of the time in which the book is set? How is the author determining this? Or is it really a reflection of the author’s own sexism, which is far more disturbing?

Recently, I read a traditionally published book by a well known author that was set in the 14th century. Naturally, I didn’t expect that women would be given the same rights as the men in the story. In keeping with medieval society, I anticipated that women would expect generally to be submissive to their fathers or husbands, stay home and tend to children and the house, and so forth, even if they are salty ladies who feel free to speak their minds. I did not, however, expect the rampant sexism that I found in the book. In just the first few pages, this particular novel made multiple references to women’s vacant eyes being a big turn-on. To whom? To the protagonist? Or to the author? Similarly, there were multiple juvenile references to sex, such as mattress pounding or hide-the-sausage, which seemed like something that would appeal to young boys rather than experienced, adult readers. The sheer volume of remarks in this vein makes it sound as though the author himself finds vapid, vacant-eyed women ready for some mattress galloping a turn-on rather than his revolting protagonist. Is this a fair evaluation of the author? Perhaps not. I’ve never met him. He may be a perfectly lovely man, but his writing, in this novel, makes me automatically wonder. This, in turn, makes me not want to know him, or his books, in the first place.

Another risk historically inaccurate sexism (what a strange thought!) in historical fiction poses to authors is already posed above: the loss of readers. This is the 21st century. As stated previously, experienced readers of historical fiction know how to leave modern customs and social mores behind when reading books set in different time periods. But we do still live in a time when women generally are treated as humans and movements such as #MeToo exist solely to amplify women’s voices. Of course, feminism didn’t exist in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, or in the Victorian Era. However, it exists now, and although readers today want authors to operate within the parameters of historical accuracy, they also expect authors to hold fast to acceptable attitudes towards women as much as possible. 

Do readers have a responsibility anywhere in this? Of course. We, as readers, have to be willing to adjust our expectations appropriately. If I’m reading a medieval fiction and it’s not listed as historical fantasy, I expect the characters to behave within a certain set of parameters and for the major events of the period to be accurate. If I’m reading a book, for example, in a series called Lady Sherlock, I’m definitely not going to expect rigid adherence to Victorian social customs for each and every one of the characters. Though I must say, the novels in that series are more rigorously researched and accurate than the novels in some other series I’ve read which are touted as straight historical fiction. My expectations as a reader were confounded, as were just about every gender role known to humankind, which is a good thing. Using literature to address social issues and gender relations is one thing; using it as a way to be sexist and gross is an abuse of readers’ trust and, in the 21st century, simply unacceptable.

Sexism is an issue that needs to be addressed, and literature is an ideal place for the discussion. Making accurate historical fiction part of that discussion can play an important role in the larger, modern conversation taking place globally in places such as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Don’t use your writing platform to amplify sexism. With well-researched and sensitive characters, historical fiction can provide meaningful, relevant contributions to a powerful topic. Be more than an author – use your voice to be an advocate and ally. 

It is a difficult subject, but one that is starting to cause concern for many (female) readers who are beginning to voice that if it is not necessary for the plot, or to further develop a character or situation – then why is a scene of a derogatory or disturbing sexual nature there?

*Originally published on Helen Hollick’s personal blog, Of History and Kings. If you haven’t read her blog, you should do so immediately, if not sooner.

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