Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A History of Racist Mysogynists

I sat down last weekend to watch a classic musical, Kiss Me Kate, based, of course, on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and I was frankly a bit horrified by the misogyny present in the text of the musical. Beyond the sexism that is, of course, held over from the three-hundred-plus Shakespeare play, the treatment of women in cinema has changed dramatically even since 1949. (I doubt that anyone would resolve a disagreement in a modern film by a woman slapping a man, who responds by spanking her on stage and laughing as she screams, then telling her she brought in on herself.)

I realize, however, that the times they are a-changin', and it's not quite fair to hold a sixty-year-old film to the same standards that we have now. What interests me is, instead, the way that we as a culture gloss over the misogyny and racism (I'm looking at you, Merchant of Venice) of some of our most beloved writers.

For example, I've read essays that argued that Shakespeare was actually a proto-feminist because of his portrayal of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and I thought they were ridiculous. I took a Medieval Literature class once in which a fellow student explored the feminist themes of the Book of the Duchess (which was written around 1370). She was surprised when she got a D on the paper, because there are no feminist themes in The Book of the Duchess. Feminism didn't even exist. Yes, Chaucer portrayed some "edgy" female characters in The Canterbury Tales, but they still proscribe to many stereotypes of women, including the Madonna/whore complex, the nagging wife, etc.

Of course, I'm not arguing that either Shakespeare or Chaucer were sexists--sexism was so engrained in their cultures that there was really no way for them to be otherwise. Instead, I think we should simply accept the fact that they lived in a different time and that their beliefs can therefore be rationalized.

What do we do, however, when this argument doesn't hold water, however? For example, much as I admire Flannery O'Connor's work, it's impossible to deny that she was a raging racist--beyond her use of the "n-word," her treatment of blacks is generally harsh.

Some, of course, find solace in the following argument (put forward by Anne Barbeau Gardiner in the New Oxford Review):

"None of O'Connor's friends ever accused her of being a racist, not even Maryat Lee, to whom she often wrote in an ironic, antagonistic persona on racial matters. Wood cites an important, previously unpublished letter shared by William Sessions, in which O'Connor expressed support in 1963 for the civil rights movement, especially for the gains made in her region: 'I feel very good about those changes in the South that have been long overdue -- the whole racial picture. I think it is improving by the minute, particularly in Georgia, and I don't see how anybody could feel otherwise than good about that.'"
Yes, okay, but even the argument "but I have black/female/gay friends!" has never made anyone less racist/sexist/homophobic/[insert "-ist" term here] than saying, "But none of my friends think I'm racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever!" In addition, Gardiner points out that O'Connor despised William Sessions, so we can hardly use her letters to him as proof of her real feelings on any issue.

Either way, however, I'm not entirely sure that it matters. As John Irving argues in The World According to Garp, we as a society come to rely far too heavily on biographical evidence when reading works of literature. Does it matter if O'Connor was a racist if we can still find something of value in her work, if she still has something to say that others need to hear? I think this is one situation where we need to separate a person's creation from his/her personality, though this is probably an unpopular view, considering the popularity of biographies the role they play in literary criticism.

2 comments:

Homero said...

Argh, of course you hit a topic that I love to discuss, but absolutely have not time to write a well written and thought out response to. Damnit, Lindsay!

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I know, I could talk about it all day.

I've decided that we always want writers to satisfy OUR standards of behavior, so we rationalize when they don't.

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