Feminist Politics

My feminist politics is seemingly getting in the way of my enjoyment of time-honoured literature.

Yes, I’ve finally got around to reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But, just 50 pages in, I’ve found myself driven to anger, on two separate occasions, by its gross misogyny. Now, when I complain about this sort of thing, my very dear and feminist-positive husband seems to think I’m getting worked up over nothing, or that, perhaps, I’m just too easily riled.  It makes me wonder, am I overreacting?  So I thought about it and came to the conclusion that, no, I am not.  It’s a product of its time, yes I know; however, this doesn’t make its rape rhetoric any more palatable in the here-and-now, thank you very much.

I mean,

“She was a bold-looking girl, of about twenty-seven, with thick dark hair, a freckled face and swift, athletic movements. A narrow scarlet sash, emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League, was wound several times round the waist of her overalls, just tightly enough to bring out the shapeliness of her hips. Winston had disliked her from the very first moment of seeing her. He knew the reason. It was because of the atmosphere of hockey-fields and cold baths and community hikes and general clean-mindedness which she managed to carry about with her. He disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones. It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of the slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy”,

is pretty bad. The narrator, Winston, dislikes this woman because of her seeming chastity and the fact that he’s made an assumption that all women are mindless zealots and general busy-bodies?

But it gets worse. During the Three Minutes’ Hate,

“Winston succeeded in transferring his hatred from the face on the screen to the dark-haired girl behind him. Vivid, beautiful hallucinations flashed through his mind. He would flog her to death with a rubber truncheon. He would tie her naked to a stake and shoot her full of arrows like Saint Sebastian. He would ravish her and cut her throat at the moment of climax. Better than before, moreover, he realized why it was that he hated her. He hated her because she was young and pretty and sexless, because he wanted to go to bed with her and would never do so, because round her sweet supple waist, which seemed to ask you to encircle it with your arm, there was only the odious scarlet sash, aggressive symbol of chastity”.

It was at this point where the crickets started chirping in my mind, so dumbstruck it was at the words it just read.

S-E-R-I-O-U-S-L-Y, Orwell?  Not okay.

Now, I know George Orwell wasn’t dumb. I’m not dumb either. I know this is classic foreshadowing. But whatever the result of this foreshadowing is, I know that this language, these visuals, are gratuitous, excessive, unnecessary, unmerited, irresponsible.

Especially for a book that “haunts us with an ever-darker relevance” (Independent).

Yeah, it is relevant.

Loads of dick-bags like this narrator still walk our streets, thinking these things.




  1. Heather · August 10, 2010

    This is basically why I stopped reading books written by Dead White Dudes. I know there’s a lot of great books (mostly classics) that I haven’t read and need to do so before I am considered cool or cultured or something, but I just can’t get past the kind of crap you just described.

    Also: yay, you updated!

  2. Larissa · August 10, 2010

    I find it difficult to enjoy literature written by dudes, full stop, these days.

    And here I go trundling on towards radicalism; I’ll wave as I go by…

  3. Betsy · August 10, 2010

    I love you girls.

  4. michaeleriksson · August 11, 2010

    There are a number of ways to look at the above. A very notable issue is that the thoughts here are … Winston’s. Do you know that Orwell, himself, shared such thoughts? Possibly, he deliberately used such thoughts to point at the way society had twisted Winston; possibly, he had other motives.

    Neither do I share your view that “these visuals, are gratuitous, excessive, unnecessary, unmerited, irresponsible.” in a book of the character and aspirations of 1984: Context and intent are of great importance, and make the difference between art and porn, literature and smut, whatnot.

  5. Larissa · August 11, 2010

    My point is, Orwell has his narrator, Winston, ostracise his female reader so thoroughly and completely just 50 pages in (and, I should add, continues to do so) that the joy of reading, at least for me as a woman, is entirely ruined. No matter what happens, even if this female character becomes the hero, nothing can change a reader’s first impressions.

    And my first impression is that Orwell created a male narrator who is an asshat. A male narrator whom you’re not supposed to hate.

    This doesn’t really work out for me.

    Thanks for mansplaining this for me, though. Despite attaining two literature degrees, my wee, ickle female brain has such a hard time understanding all this high-art stuff…

    • michaeleriksson · August 11, 2010

      Frankly, what pisses me of to no end is this constant rubbish about “mansplaining”:

      The fact that I am a man and you are a woman has nothing to do with the issue. The fact that you write something that overlooks very basic considerations (certainly, not something someone with two degrees in literature should overlook) has everything to do with it.

      See also a previous discussion of mansplaining.

      Use arguments, not personal attacks and silly cliches like “mansplaining”.

      • Larissa · August 11, 2010

        The fact that you knew, immediately, what “mansplaining” was and that you are so quick to anger at the suggestion that you have done it here, I think, speaks for itself.

        (But, also, you clearly don’t understand what “mansplaining” is.)

      • michaeleriksson · August 11, 2010

        Indeed, it clearly says that I have spent to much time around feminists…

  6. tom · August 11, 2010

    Have you read Lolita…

    I respect and often think feminist ire is underplayed these days due to some weird zeitgeist where actually believing that feminism is a worthy movement is seen as for “out there” crazies.

    That said books like this, Lolita, Temple of the Golden Pavillion, The Idiot all deal with the inside of the mind. The craziness that haunts. Describing this craziness doesn’t mean agreement with it and can often point out the horror that lurks in the midst of society (or a man’s mind).

    That said, I am a man so I shld probably shut the hell up 🙂

  7. Larissa · August 11, 2010

    Oh, great. Lolita was next on my list of books that I was going to read that everyone seems to have read and I haven’t. I even bought it.


    I understand the moves of literature. I can even go as far as to accept that some people truly believe that there’s a complete disparity between the author and his/her characters. But that doesn’t mean that reading some of the crazy, off-the-wall shit said by characters, written by said completely emotionally separate author is any less off-putting to me as a reader.

    And that doesn’t mean that I have to like it, either. Or encourage other people to read/like it.

  8. tom · August 11, 2010

    The problem with lolita is that is fucking brilliantly written. Pure genius. The result of this genius is unarguably disgusting though – you do actively sink into the mind of a paedophile. I found it a difficult book to read to put it mildly.

    Where this leaves one I don’t know. As I get older I don’t “push” myself with literature any more. I am actually very lazy and read enjoyable unadventurous unchallenging rides. It means that I don’t get stuffed into the head of a violent quasi rapist.

    Still maybe the disturbing nature of these books is needed/ warranted as men do have rape fantasies, some people wish to destroy beauty (Golden Pavillion) etc. I won’t go down the lolita line.

    What is slightly scary is obviously how commonplace verbal violence vs women is as I don’t remember those elements of 1984 and only the contradictory horror of double talk.

    • Larissa · August 11, 2010

      “What is slightly scary is obviously how commonplace verbal violence vs women is as I don’t remember those elements of 1984 and only the contradictory horror of double talk.”

      And that, Tom, is exactly the point.

      Hence my feminist ire.

  9. Tom · August 11, 2010

    Fair – and I don’t don’t disagree (obviously).

    That said I had to pick between the negative influence of dead males or things like SATC2 on the portrayal of women and their own self image I know which has a greater impact.

    After seeing SATC2 or just seeing modern media representations of women in HK I want to cry inside and bring up my daughters (if any, eventually) in a very very different culture.

    Ps you know what the book beside my bed is that I have put off reading is – Feminine Mystique. You have pushed me to read it now.

  10. Larissa · August 11, 2010

    You’d be hard-pressed to find a feminist who finds SATC2 to be an epitome of feminist ideals.

    Or even to be unproblematic to those ideals.

    I don’t like Nineteen Eighty-Four.

    I don’t like SATC.

    I am a feminist.

  11. Tom · August 11, 2010

    Hmmm I am fairly sure that I never said or inferred you liked SATC. My point was books such as 1984 speak to mental states which do exist and have value because of that.

    Further that feminist ire is better directed at targets such as SATC. 1984 is a cultural artifact.

    I am glad you are a feminist. Me too. Hence Feminine Mystique as bedside reading material. Live white guys can have different views than dead white ones.

    Have you finished 1984?

    Anyway white

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