Today I was enchanted as I read this defense of C.S. Lewis. I was surprised to hear that anyone had ever thought The Chronicles of Narnia to be sexist. Indeed, when I was a child, The Chronicles were one of two pieces of pivotal work that showed me a steady stream of strong female characters. I remember getting frustrated only at Aslan’s comment that “women in war” was an ugly thing, but honestly given the time period I didn’t take that much offense.
As it was, I noted that Aslan only said it was ugly, not that Lucy and Susan wouldn’t be good at it. Which was a far cry from most of the crap that was out there at the time. And as an adult, my perspective on war is that it’s pretty much ugly for anyone at all.
I think that we have to be really careful about overanalyzing works of fiction. We have to be careful about looking for racism and sexism that don’t exist. I really want to celebrate authors that worked to do better, even if they didn’t do it perfectly.
I also think we should keep in mind that we’re all swimming around in this toxic cultural soup. None of us is going to get every aspect of this right. What we should be contemplating is whether or not people try. I’m not saying that we can’t offer a critical assessment of a work. That’s vital to a proper understanding of fiction, and part of a rich tradition of literary criticism.
I just think that we need to be careful about being hasty to take offense, or being hasty to assume that something sexist or racist is happening when, in fact, it isn’t.
Human beings are nuanced, and our portrayals are going to be nuanced. We have to be careful not to shove ourselves into one role where the only time we’ll accept a female as “strong” is if she does things exactly as a man would do them. In fact, we need to celebrate all of the different kinds of strength.
As I explained to my daughter very recently: “Certainly, kicking the ass of a bad guy can be a strength. So can keeping it together as you wipe the brow of a sick family member. So can choosing to be a beacon of love and light in a tough world. There is also strength in compassion, in kindness, in nurturing. And we should only ever admire an asskicker if they’re doing it in the defense of someone else, someone weaker then themselves.”
Lewis gave us many female characters who demonstrated many kinds of strength. And we can’t say that you’re failing at diversity if your female characters have negative traits. That’s loony. All of us have negative traits. When I made Peter Corbie a coward I wasn’t saying that all men are cowards. I was making a statemnet about Peter, and Peter alone. When I made Ava emotionally closed off and inaccessible I was making a statement about Ava…not about women or womanhood in general. Sometimes a character is just a character.
And we have a term for characters without flaws. We call them Mary Sue and Gary Stu!
Let’s be zealous in our attempts to use fiction to make a better and more just world, but let’s not be so zealous that we toss good literature out the window because we refuse to recognize the nuance.
BTW, thanks to Thea Van Diepen. She shared the Lewis defense article on Facebook, and gave me this little bit of food for thought today.