How to Read Sexist Texts When You’re a Feminist English Major | Discussion

Recently I had the displeasure of taking a course dedicated to Renaissance poetry, and MY OH MY were those old white men a bunch of misogynistic poets. While there were a few glimmers of hope amidst the nearly translucent pages of my weathered Norton Anthology of Poetry (as shown by my previous discussion of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2), the vast majority of the poems I read for this class made me wonder why they were even regarded as important and “great” pieces of writing in the first place, never mind why we continue to include them in poetry collections like this one. It’s safe to say that after reading dozens of these poems over the course of the semester, my patience was worn down to a precariously thin layer of frustration.

It was necessary for me to think of concrete ways of addressing this problem while still being able to do well in the class. Refusing to read the poems was obviously not an option for me, meaning that I had to get a bit creative with my reading strategy.

I must say up front that the following advice is purely based on my own personal experiences reading these works. These steps may not work for everyone and that is perfectly okay. We all have our own tips and tricks to help us confront, interpret, and challenge views that challenge our own– the following pieces of advice happen to be my own personal strategy. At any rate, I hope you find this discussion at least a bit helpful or thought-provoking in some way.

1. Actually read it.

Yes, actually read the incredibly sexist poem or story or novel that you’d desperately like to avoid at all costs (unless, of course, it contains something personally triggering– then do whatever you need to in order to practice self-care). The reason I urge you to read it is that it’s difficult (nigh impossible) to make an educated argument against something if you do not have relevant textual evidence with which to back up your claim.

2. Maintain your distance.

I’m sure there’s a better, clearer, more accurate and succinct way of saying this, but I’ll try my best.  I think it’s important to recognize that someone can acknowledge and understand another person’s opinions without believing in or agreeing with them. For instance, in my poetry class I was required to read, understand, and explicate these poems in order to receive a good grade. However, this did not stop me from challenging the ideas that these poems presented. It was vital that I read these poems with from a certain intellectual and ideological distance that allowed me to understand them without having to agree with their meaning.

3. Allow feminism to fuel your analysis.

While it’s important to understand and think about the poems according to the context in which they were written, it’s also valuable to read them through a feminist lens. Feminist literary theory exists for a reason: to be utilized. Moreover, this class forced me to become comfortable with directly pointing out the sexism in writing that is considered to be canonically “great.” I was not going to sit there and tell my professor that I support the inclusion of Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Breasts” in the Norton Anthology of Poetry over providing ample space for one of Lady Mary Wroth’s entire crown of sonnets. (Honestly, are those four lines of pure female objectification really a necessary component of this collection?) Just because something has been deemed a “classic” work of literature does not mean that it is without flaws.

4. Think about your own beliefs and values.

At the end of the day, I used this class as an opportunity to assess and spend time thinking about my own core beliefs. What about these poems did I find offensive and uncomfortable to read? Why did I feel this way about what I was reading in the first place? By using this as an opportunity for individual reflection I was able to better understand my own personal values.

Again, I hope this discussion is thought-provoking or beneficial in some way, whether that be in an academic setting or simply while reading in your daily life.

Have you ever read something that challenged your beliefs? How did you handle the situation? What do you think about the advice that I’ve offered? Do you have any advice for confronting issues like this? I would absolutely love to discuss these topics in greater detail, so please let me know what you think in the comments section down below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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15 thoughts on “How to Read Sexist Texts When You’re a Feminist English Major | Discussion

  1. This is excellent advice. I read The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis for a philosophy course and found his views on women off-putting in a particular passage. I didn’t say anything at all at the time, and no one else did either. I did find the surrounding text (the part that surrounded the sexism, I mean, which lasted only a couple pages) extremely good, so I just filed him away as a tad outdated on the point of general equality. However, I like that you say TALK ABOUT IT because this stuff still slips into books the western world views as “great” and that allows it to slip into our unconscious.

    Around the same time, my psychology professor decided to lecture the entire class on the unadulterated fact that PMS is a figment of the female imagination. Unfortunately for this professor, I was currently suffering PMS, so I asked him if he spoke from personal experience or just a stack of dusty texts. He became irritated by my interruption, and after a few minutes of refusing to admit that he might be completely uneducated on the topic (I would not let it go and continued to circle him, demanding his proof), he said, “Well, I don’t know why you’re getting so emotional about it.” (IMAGINE. IS THIS NOT THE CLASSIC SHUT-DOWN OF THE FEMINIST ARGUMENT?) So I said, “Well, perhaps I have PMS.”

    He stared at me stunned for a moment and went back to his lecture, but after class he engaged me in a discussion about the feminist psychologists in history who had made waves — and for the rest of the semester treated me with great respect, never broaching such controversial topics again. He was a quite cranky professor whom most people feared, so this was pretty ground-breaking.

    We never broached the topic of PMS again, but I hope if he ever does attempt to naturalize an entire classroom of freshmen with his outdated ideals, he remembers the time it bit him. Speak up, people. Someone has to do it.

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  2. Great post. As a feminist with an English degree I also had to take classes where I had to read some of those things. In a way I’m glad that I did. Because even though they were written a long time ago, I think that they convey ideas that some people still have but don’t express as freely. While it made me angry to read those things, it looked at it from the perspective of knowing the enemy. It made me appreciate what later female writers were up against when they started to write, and how hard they had to fight to be taken seriously. It also helped me to see that a lot of contemporary female writers aren’t given their due because of the way society sees women.

    Do I like reading those things? No. But I think that it was important to my education to read them. It gave me a lens through which to see female writers a bit differently.

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  3. YAS. I’m not an English major, but I AM a feminist (all women should be, in my opinion???) and it’s hard to deal with sexist books or text. But you have great tips — especially the last one! We should always reflect on our beliefs and values after encountering something that doesn’t match them. Love this post!

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  4. Wow, this is a really interesting post! I’m not studying English to a very high level at the moment, but I wonder how I’d approach something like this… Because sadly I do think a lot of ‘classic’ literature can be pretty misogynistic, so. But analysing texts through a feminist lens sounds excellent. *nods* (I am, like, trying to write a clever comment but to be honest I have no knowledge of English degree things. I really enjoyed reading though haha!)

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  5. I specialized in medieval literature, so I learned a long time ago not to take literature personally. It’s a struggle I’ve seen professors repeatedly take up with students, as well, because some people will simply not move beyond “This text is sexist!” and being personally aggrieved. The thing is 1) We know. So that’s not even a thoughtful contribution to the class. and 2) You can’t take it personally or you are never going to see what else the text offers.

    And I have learned that, in addition to very thoughtfully addressing a wide variety of themes, older texts can actually have incredibly complex takes on gender and sex (and other issues like race). It’s easy to say, “This is sexist!” because it doesn’t conform to today’s standards. It’s hard to say, “This text is actually really progressive for its time in the way it presents women” or “This is thoughtfully exploring the relationship of gender in regards to nature vs. nurture” or “This text is saying crazy things about women but the agenda is something beyond ‘the author hates women’.” I love old texts, and I’m not offended by them. In most cases, I think they’re fascinating.

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  6. This is a great post. (Also, I have that same copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry!) This is something that never crossed my mind while I was going through my undergrad as an English major. I’d like to see how things would be different if I were to go through the program now. College is a great time to evaluate beliefs and learn who you are as a person, and I think all of the steps you listed here are important parts of that process. Happy reading!

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  7. This is a really important discussion! I have certainly read texts I disagree with in English, and don’t get me started on all the sexism in pop songs and stuff… anyway, I think all your advice is pretty sound 🙂

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  8. I always found putting the text into the context of the time helps cool the fire of my rage. I was very fortunate that all my instructors got me well acquainted with the societal views and history of the time and that helped me understand why the work is presented as it is. And after I understood that, I would put it in context of right now and look at it from that way. That’s the beauty of literature to me is that you can always look at it from so many different directions.

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  9. I am enjoying your blog very much. Keep it up!

    On this point, I agree with Briana. A book is more than its cultural or political point of view. And although anyone is free, as a political statement, to follow their conscience and boycott or refuse to read a book, they are also equally free to read a book they or their contemporaries might object to, due to its point of view.

    The concept of being “well-read” includes reading works possibly disapproved of by others or even by yourself. A knowledge of history helps in digesting these irritating tomes, much like an antacid helps with normal digestion.

    I also find that,as i age,more points of view seem plausible given the context of the time. I find it troubling and a bit dangerous when books once considered classics are stricken from the list for not being sufficiently openminded. That way lies censorship.

    I respect your struggle but please do not dismiss these poets out of hand. Musically and otherwise they have much to teach us.

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  10. Great post! I definitely think that it’s important to engage with texts we disagree with, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on feminism. I’ll keep your post in mind next time I have to read something that challenges me! 🙂

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  11. I haven’t read anything that challenged my beliefs without getting frustrated about it. Some books agree with me and at the same time aren’t satisfactorily written because I expect it to follow my beliefs completely. It’s hard. But I’m impressed you did it! it takes a certain kind of maturity to be able to read something with an open mind and i definitely don’t have that. Super impressed Holly!

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