Before feminist criticism, It used not to be a thing to consider if female characters in the stories of men were portrayed as separate human beings, with agency and desires of their own, or whether they figured exclusively as functions of a male character’s sense of his identity or were his obscure objects of desire and hatred.
We have been thinking together about the works of art produced by people who do shitty things to women. How to encounter them, classify them, or quarantine them. Today Richard pointed out a review of Kurt Vonnegut’s short stories in the current “London Review of Books” that speaks to some of these issues. I am going to quote from it at length. It makes an argument for work that is defunct in the present cultural turn. The present cultural turn is a widespread acknowledgement that feminist criticism is a way to sift through experience and art. Is this story I am reading or film I am seeing rapey in its consciousness or its obliviousness? Does it portray female characters as creatures women feel themselves to be? Yes, I can generalize. Of course there is such a thing as “how women feel themselves to be.” That thing powers the new surge of feminism expressed in the “Me-too” and “Times’s Up” movements. It’s expressed in the anti-gun movement as well in that the central figure who has emerged as a voice people want to listen to belongs to a young woman.
Back to Vonnegut. The following, written by J. Robert Lennon, details the way, when mass consciousness shifts, some writers, artists, and works of art are left atop the trash bin of history with no hope of restoration.
“‘I can never get a woman into my stories’, he [Vonnegut] wrote to a friend; later, in a “Playboy” interview, he said that he’s given up trying ‘to do women well’.” Dan Wakefield has written the introduction to the collection. Lennon quotes Wakefield: “Every girl[!!!] in this book is either ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’, or the opposite; they are never not characterized by their degree of attractiveness. They marry, which is a happy outcome, or they don’t, which isn’t; a bad marriage is a miserable end, but it’s never an opportunity to break away into an independent life. . . . In “Shout about it from the Rooftop,” a woman writes a roman a clef about her town that becomes a surprise bestseller; her notoriety and her sudden affluence begin to destroy her marriage. Vonnegut recognizes the gender inequality that gives rise to the woman’s problems, but can’t think of anything for her to long for other than to be a ‘dumb, shy, sweet little housewife again’. . . . [T]he dystopian “Welcome to the Monkey House” . . . presents rape as a therapeutic solution to female frigidity. In 2014 . . . Kathleen Founds wrote in “Buzzfeed” that the story embraces ‘the myth that a woman who dresses provocatively shouldn’t be surprised if a man forces her to have sex. The myth that women unconsciously desire to be raped. The myth that proud, stuck-up women must be humbled through rape. The myth that rape is corrective, a cure’.”
Lennon explores other aspects of Vonnegut’s dated attitudes, including some about race. The point is not to ban any work. The point is to see that it is already dead. It has disqualified itself from our interest. The point is to allow it to be buried. By buried I mean ignored.