We Should Be Reading Critically Always, Not Just to Find Sexism

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From Josephine Donovan’s “Beyond the Net: Feminist Criticism as a Moral Criticism”:

“This does not mean that we should throw out or refuse to read these works, but that they should be read with a perspective that recognizes the sexism inherent in their moral vision” (230). 

I liked how Donovan did realize that men can sometimes create realistic female characters (the examples she uses being Shakespeare and Sophocles), I like how she incorporates film into her essay, and I like that she comments that women are not the only ones who can be portrayed as “the other” (on page 230, she says this happens to “the Jew” and also “the Negro”).  However, I do find fault in her insistence that “the net effect of good literature on the reader should be moral growth” (231).  She seems to think that this means that all women must be portrayed in a realistic way that allows them to grow as a character.  Some literature though, I would argue is powerful simply because of the lack of growth on a character’s part.  Their own inability to change or perceive their problems can speak volumes to the reader. 

Donovan faults writing which presents women as “defined solely in terms of whether they help or hinder the hero on his course” (229).  But isn’t it possible that this isn’t always sexism, but instead simply the female character is not the main character?  Paris divided characters into three types, perhaps the female just isn't the character that the author wishes to make his mimetic character.  This does not necessarily mean that he did not respect women or saw them as objects, he simply had to make some characters aesthetic, some illustrative, and some mimetic. 

Donovan also objects to the archetypical portrayal of women as either “good or evil” (228).  My question is this: aren’t men portrayed in this same way as well?  Aren’t male characters in literature for the most part either good or evil?  It kind of goes back to the idea that all stories have already been told and today we are just telling variants of this same story.  If this is the case, then all characters must be archetypical to some degree.  How can we completely escape this idea with males or females?   

Lastly, in the quote I chose at the top of this entry, Donovan suggests that we still read these works but read them with a critical eye, realizing that there will be some bias in the work.  But again, can’t this apply to all literature?  Shouldn’t we read all literature with a critical eye not just for sexism, but all types of biases?  I guess what I’m saying is that regardless of whether it is a work with “sexism inherent” or not, the reader should always be reading carefully, so it should be no special exception to read critically for sexism. 

Read what my classmates have to say on this subject. 

2 Comments

This is a very interesting blog, Greta! I particularly liked when you talked about the inablilty to change:"Some literature though, I would argue is powerful simply because of the lack of growth on a character’s part. Their own inability to change or perceive their problems can speak volumes to the reader." This is a good observation and I completely agree with you. Sometimes what makes a character worthwhile is when (s)he needs a make a change but can't because of a multitude of reasons. It is unfair to say that that should always be the goal. I think that Paris partially touches on this when he separates the "primary values of literature" into the "mimetic," "thematic," and "formal." The "mimetic" is the reflection of real life or what Paris calls the "representation." The "thematic" is what the reader/main character is meant to learn or what Paris calls the "interpretation." Lastly, there is the "formal" which is just the structure, mechanics, etc. The unchanging character can simply just be a character that contributes to the moral or be a structural plot device that moves the events along. There does not necessarily have to be depth to make that character of worth. Likewise, I believe that a static character (one that remains unchanged) can be mimetic also as long as they have a reason to be so unchanging. Those values in literature are emulated by characters as well as plot. I think that that seems to be Paris's version of the different types of characters that you mentioned which was Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg's characterization.

Anonymous said:

Your post title:

"We Should Be Reading Critically Always, Not Just to Find Sexism"

and this quote:

“This does not mean that we should throw out or refuse to read these works, but that they should be read with a perspective that recognizes the sexism inherent in their moral vision”

really sum up the whole practice of 'critical reading.'

'Critical reading' is the fine art of making yourself acutely aware of how anything you read can be construed as to offend your own ideological and political biases. That's all it is, yet you take it so seriously. Your 'critical analysis' of works is useless - and meaningless - to anyone who doesn't share your *subjective* political, ethical and moral views. That's right, your analysis is useless and meaningless. It's nothing but a circle-jerk that can't be enjoyed (or valued) by anyone not in the circle. Just because you dress your politics and ethics up in academic language doesn't validate them. Why don't you, instead of trying to pass your biases off as facts by assumption, do the hard work of actually demonstrating that your values have an *objective* basis? Then people would have to take your opinions seriously, because they wouldn't be mere opinions anymore. You don't do that because you can't, it's beyond you. You'd rather just write fluff for the consumption of other like-minded fluff writers. What a fraud.

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