Monday, May 14, 2007

Taking a novel out of context

Since I started reading The Hathor Legacy, I've been thinking more about male and female characters across the board - in books, movies and television. Whether or not the portrayal is stereotypical, and what time period it really belongs to. I was introduced to Hathor by my cousin chanson, who has written some thought provoking guest posts for them.

Recently I read a mystery novel from the 60s for book club. I won't name the author or title, because they are fairly popular and have a following. I see no reason to generate hate mail on my blog. Feel free to email me at and I'll tell you the name of the book and author. If you have read the series, you may recognize who I'm describing.

The main character is male (we'll call him the hero for the rest of the blog). He's a fly-by night type Robin Hood type character, unattached, in his mid-30s, he basically solves mysteries for people where the law wouldn't help. He works outside of the law. He outsmarts his enemies. He protects those less fortunate.

What I take exception to is the characterization of women in this novel. Every minor female character (except one) in this novel wants to sleep with the hero (no exaggeration). The character who is not ready to jump into bed with him is not described as physically attractive, and has three or four kids running around her. She stays at home while her sister dances at a go-go bar.

The book is written completely in a sixties mindset. It's clear that the hero feels that women who get divorced are "ruined". Women who find themselves in a precarious situation (without a man or husband) need to be protected. Women need to be guided (by men like the hero) to be a good example of fidelity to other women. A woman can be under "sway" of an evil man (the villian of the novel)- so much that they have a complete and total nervous breakdown when the villian leaves. While it's obvious that the villian was emotionally abusive, the portrayal of the situation doesn't ring true with descriptions of real abused women and situations.

To give an example, in his investigation, the hero visits a family to talk with the father of the family. He ends up walking in on the teenager daughter making out with her boyfriend. The hero separates them and chases the teenage boy off. He talks with the step-mother, who acknowledges that she needs to be a better example (the step mom was having an affair). The last scene with this family involves the attractive step-mom walking towards the teenager by their pool to try to convince her to stay more chaste. At first the daughter is confrontational, but eventually she seems submissive to the stepmom. All anyone needed was the hero there (a stranger) to set them straight!

Luckily, the hero/main character is there to jump in and save everyone. And slap the women when they develop hysterics.

Don't misunderstand me, the novel was a page turner. And I'm sure that to some extent, these were the perceptions of women at the time. Women (and men) were perceived this way by society at large. And from what I understand, the hero develops into more of an equalitarian later in the series (which isn't surprising, given the cultural changes during that time frame).

So how does this translate into the twenty-first century?

Not very well. I can read it with the understanding that the author/publisher intended it to be pulp fiction. It was part of a set of paperbacks that were directed at a male audience. When we discussed the book at my recent book club, one of the participants said it was exactly the type of novel her dad used to read when he travelled (frequently) for work in that era. He would have stacks and stacks of them. She said she wouldn't have been surprised if he hadn't read that particular author and book.

I am a fan of escapist literature. I read mysteries and historical mysteries frequently. I realize for the most part they are fluff and take them as such. Yet reading this book for book club I felt compelled to think critically about the characters. And it was painfully apparent there were no strong female characters.

There are examples of novels from that era that have stronger female characters.

And just with any genre, even a novel like Anna Karenina by Tolstoy or Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, we have to acknowledge that it was written in a different time and era. It was written for an audience who doesn't understand the current culture of political correctness.

Some novels can transcend their time period - others can't. On the other hand, I hate the idea that we would sanitize novels or remove parts of them that we dislike. While I am very supportive of political correctness, I also think it's important to be able to view past art, movie/tv/literature in the context it was written. Maybe I'm just disturbed because I didn't think 1960, 1962 was all that long ago. I guess more time has passed than I once thought.


Freckle Face Girl said...

I bet the author was a man, who hyped up the fantasy in his mind. :) I agree that the books shouldn't be altered. They show us how far things have come in a short amount of time.

Anonymous said...

It was written by a man. And it does show us how far things have come.

I hope I didn't give the impression that all male authors or all books from this era have weak female characters. I don't think that's the case. But this one seemed particularly bad - with very underdeveloped, stereotypical women.