Sexism in Fictional Worlds

February 13, 2013

One issue that I often wonder about is what to make of stories that posit substantive sexual differences in fictional characteristics. That problem sounds confusing, so let me give you an example. My favorite story by H. P. Lovecraft is “The Thing on the Doorstep,” which is certainly worth reading if you’re not already familiar with it. (Thinking about it, it’s actually rather odd that this should be my clear favorite from among all Lovecraft’s fiction. The story is a very traditional representative of the horror genre; it lacks most of the features characteristic of the “Cthulhu mythos” that I and others admire—aliens, indifferently evil gods, and an alternate world that exists in dreams. I don’t care for most of Lovecraft’s other straight horror pieces, but for some reason this one really works for me.)

A key point in the story is that a woman’s brain doesn’t have the same kind of magical potential as a man’s. This drives a great deal of witchcraft and body-hopping, leading up to a rather exciting finale. Yet every time I read this tale, I am unsettled by the notion that women should be so decidedly inferior in their psychic capabilities (or, at least, the particularly psychic capabilities of interest to Kamog) that the villain needs to go on a killing spree to acquire a male body.

I’ve discussed this story with a number of female acquaintances who have read it, and none of them seemed to be as disturbed by this aspect of the story as I am. So perhaps I am overreacting. How sexist is it, in a substantive way, to say that males are better at some fictional activity than females? There are certainly many settings in which it’s the females with superior (or at least more prevalent) magical powers, and different folk traditions slant different ways in this respect.


9 Responses to “Sexism in Fictional Worlds”

  1. Female brains are considered to be more feeble, less smart, more hysterical — name a mental capacity, the lady’s brain is considered either severely lacking in or overflowing with the that particular characteristic, depending on whether it’s positive or negative. It would be lovely to consider this to be a historical artifact, but observation of many typical cultures belies that. Even allegedly enlightened subsets of society (oh, say, academia) are demonstrably slanted against women. So Lovecraft’s story seems to be simply taking an underlying preconception of “this brain is less worthy” and transferring it to a fictional skillset.

    The main reason it may not seem particularly disturbing to your female acquaintances is because it’s just such a fucking commonplace attitude. Oh, look, subliminal sexist bullshit again. How innovative and shocking.

    • Buzz Says:

      This reminded me of something. When I took an anthropology class on “Magic, Witchcraft, and the Spirit World,” one of the topics we dealt with in detail was nineteenth-century American spiritualism—with seances, trance mediums, and the like. We looked at the characteristics of the spiritualist religion. (It has always felt weird to me to call it a “religion,” for some reason, but I suppose that’s really what it was.) It was, in many ways, a very female-centered religion. Most mediums were female, as were most seance participants; spiritualist events were typically run using a dinner party format, showing off the hostess’s homemaking skills. It was an interesting example of women taking control of a key aspect of their own lives, as well as that of their families. Yet it was couched in a language that made it as unobjectionable as possible to the male power structure, by reinforcing sexist stereotypes. While the spiritualists did believe that female minds were generally better than male minds at magic, this was attributed to women’s greater passivity; they could be possessed, entranced, taken over more easily by outside forces.

      Almost the same exact arguments (although phrased more in terms of twentieth-century psycho-babble) returned in the 1980s, when the very similar religion of channeling had its brief heyday. Again, the most prominent practitioners were women (particularly JZ Knight, who was famous enough to be parodied in Doonesbury), although they typically channeled (typically entering trances and speaking for) male individuals or entities. The purported explanation for this was that women were better “receivers” and men better “senders”—which sounded to me like nothing more than a half-hearted redressing of old-fashioned sexist ideas.

  2. It’s an artifact of its time; nothing new here. That’s why it’s not shocking.
    PS – Lovecraft, though a man, was raised as a girl for a substantial portion of his life. Go figure how this matters.
    PPS – In humanities, at least, female grad students, and soon professors, outnumber males. The shift in the 50/50 split occurred in the 1970s.

    • Buzz Says:

      I’ve heard that story about Lovecraft before, but I don’t seem to have been able to track it down to a reliable source. (Some sources online that mention it are manifestly unreliable.) Is this covered in S. T. Joshi’s authoritative biography?

    • Re humanities: Straight counts of participants are not the only measure of fairness; a few female humanities professors I know are more than happy to point out instances of their area of focus, or hypothesis, or article, or whatever, being dismissed as “soft” or “politically correct” (or myriad other sneeringly phrased insults). The humanities HAVE come MUCH further than science or engineering, but it’s still imperfect. 30-40 years is not much time to overturn centuries of disparity.

      • I agree that 30-40 years is not much time to overturn centuries of disparity. I can’t comment intelligently on the details of your friends’ complaints, other than to say that most of us feel insulted and unappreciated in our jobs at some point. It may (or may not) be a mistake to attribute the point in question to some form of discrimination.

        There are areas of American life in which we have leaps and bounds to go, but I find it strange to have hear of complaints about things being ‘too’ politically correct in the humanities; I’ve taken at least two entire classes, the entire point of which was to foist a politically correct ideology upon the students, been told by an English professor that linear time is a male construct, and read paper after paper ignoring the nuances of some old piece of literature to focus exclusively on gender issues (for what it’s worth, I have similar complaints about other schools of criticism, i.e. new historicism and old-fashioned Harold Bloom crap), which also strike me as overfocused and myopic within a discipline that’s supposed to be about increasing our understanding of the complexities of the written word.

        • I suppose that was something of a ramble–but if you take away anything from my comment, it perhaps could be that there are more perspectives than one on the balance of ideology in the humanities, and that these things are always complicated and imperfect.

        • The phrase “politically correct” is insulting and dismissive.

          • I respectfully disagree, for the most part. That political and social norms effect a degree of control over language and discussion is something I imagine you’d agree with, no?

            It can be dismissive, when the term is used by someone who feels, rightly or wrongly, that such norms are inappropriately and shallowly controlling a discussion. To know whether the complaint is valid, you’d have to get into the details of a particular conversation. Either side may validly feel insulted and dismissed by the dynamics surrounding the concept of political correctness (note that the GOP has been winning elections since 1966 by stoking feelings of perceived persecution by Liberals/minorities/whoever). The reality all depends on the details.

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