essay: the elephant on the page

to laura manion and maida, who could should have been so much more.

tonight i found myself reaching that sweet spot in a book. a sense of calm washed over me as i stretched my neck (all my stress goes to my neck and shoulders. i am always cracking my neck and consciously lowering my shoulders), repositioned the large fluffy pillow supporting my lower back (target. it was a great deal), and snuggled my feet closer to my dog (black lab mix, eager to please, my very best friend) who was resting on the couch with me (she is perpetually resting from her previous rest). i folded the left side of the book back and felt satisfied by the thickness from the volume of pages that had accumulated from just two days of reading.

my eyes ran across the page like a rock skipping across water. I backtracked and re-read the paragraph slowly. my eyes rolled (I intentionally did not phrase this as “i rolled my eyes” because i have no control over this reaction. i never have. in other words, how i feel is always all over my face. for better or for worse. typically for worse). i read it again. and again. and again. i became more angry with each read, but i could not stop repeating it. i was angry that this passage had ruined my ideal reading experience. this book was getting good. why did it need to go There? why did it need to have This? it added nothing to the plot.

i put the book down and looked up at the ceiling for answers. the problem that had been a flickering irritant in the bottom of my soul was finally pushing through. i was inescapable from its grip.  i could no longer push it aside.

so i am going to address it.

how does a female who loves to read old books cope with the blatantly sexist aspects of her most cherished stories? in my experience, it is nearly impossible to pick up a novel written before i was born (1992) without encountering female characters who are treated as less-than. worse yet is the female characters who relish in their less-than status.

in this moment, i absorbed that: the books i love, that have shaped me as a person and have given me guidance, comfort, and perspective, are also dripping with the Poison of sexism in america.[1]

here is the passage that triggered this rant:

I caught my breath. Her eyes were large and a sort of luminous aquarium green. Looking into them was like peering into the depths of the sea. I had never seen anything quite like them before and I was beginning, however dimly, to understand a little what it was that might have driven Barney Quill off his rocker. The woman was breathtakingly attractive, disturbingly so, in a sort of vibrant electric way. Her femaleness was blatant to the point of flamboyance; there was something steamily tropical about her; she was there, there was no other word for it, shockingly desirable. All this was something of a trick, too, for a woman with two of the loveliest shiners I ever saw. I remembered something Parnell McCarthy had once said: “Some women radiate sex,” he had said. “All the others merely trade in it.”

anatomy of a murder, robert traver.

let’s break this down to what led me to stop reading and be forced to address the topic of this note.

for context, when traver writes, “…to understand a little what it was that might have driven Barney Quill off his rocker” refers to barney quill, a character who allegedly rapes the female character he is describing in this paragraph. he describes the act of rape as a man being driven off his rocker. and further qualifies it by saying her attractiveness and sexuality make this act understandable.

the word “femaleness” in my copy of this book is circled angrily several times. what is femaleness? in this paragraph, it appears to allude that sexuality and the mainstream idea of beauty is the quintessential female. the excerpt seems to attempt to compliment the female character’s appearance by expressing how beautiful she is, but in the same breath, it reduces her to her looks alone, and simultaneously puts down every other woman who is not as attractive as her. she is the most beautiful and therefore, the most female. because in 1958, in anatomy of a murder, mainstream attractiveness = the pinnacle for a female. the best she can be.

and then parnell mccarthy’s wisdom at the end ties this up with a nice little bow at the end: “Some women radiate sex…All the others merely trade it.” giving fictional mr. mccarthy the Benefit of the Doubt, consider how different this sentence could have been if it said “Some women radiate sex…All the others trade it.” the word “merely” demonstrates that not radiating sex is less-than. An attempt at femaleness but an utter failure. not every woman can achieve the ultimate goal of radiating sex for men’s pleasure.

i am not writing this to accuse robert traver of being a sexist. i do not know him or his philosophies about gender equality. i am commenting on how the Poison of sexism from his time has forever tainted an otherwise riveting story that has lovable characters, a fascinating and exciting plot, and is one of the most legally accurate fictional accounts of a murder trial i have read. and it is a shame. and it makes it difficult for me to fully enjoy it or recommend it to a friend. instead of enjoying this book to the fullest, i have to qualify it. then, i find myself “taking it with a grain of salt.” well, i think, that was then and this is now. that was a long time ago. that’s just how it was back then.

i consider my options. do i limit my bookshelf to works without any of such sexist themes? how is that possible? to make myself a better reader, writer, learner, and observer of this world, i consider it essential to read literature from before my time. women being second-class citizens is a fact of the history in this country. therefore, it is impossible to avoid.

that day, while resting my back on my target pillow and cracking my neck, i considered my options. i could ignore the Poison and keep reading. i could throw the book away and never speak of it again, so as to show my support for Not Tolerating That Sort Of Talk. but i refuse to ignore history. i choose to face history bravely and dissect it. i think that is the strongest, most effective way to grow and learn. i choose to enjoy the plot of my favorite stories while imagining alternative characters for the women who were suppressed and put down in them.  i choose to consider how big of a hinderance the Poison was in the past and continues to be; how much it limits so many aspects of our lives, right down to the books we read and write.

i wish desperately that i could change the stories. i wish i could change this country’s story. but all I/we can do is learn from them (which includes reading them and facing them squarely).

and do better.



[1] not to mention racism, classism, and the laundry list of inequalities that have existed and have not been cured in america. this essay, to remain organized and controlled, is focused on my experience as a female reader with sexism against women; this is not to say it is the only painful aspect of reading books from the past.


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