Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Reading in My Own Time: Outdated Bigotry in The Sot-Weed Factor, Dr. Seuss, and Disney

(Warning: There will be some rather frank discussion of the rape scenes depicted in John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor in this post).

I didn't keep count as I read, and I really can't go back and read the nearly-800-page book again to add them all up, but there are a lot of women raped in John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. Off the top of my head, here are some that have been sticking with me:

  • Pocahontas is "stript and trust with thongs of hyde" before she is violated so savagely that "for three days thereafter she hung in the balance twixt life and death."
  • A ship full of prostitutes bound for the New World is boarded by pirates. The subsequent rapes go on for several pages. It includes a row of seven women "tussed hip to hip over the Cyprian's starboard rail in classic pirate fashion" and a woman who tried to escape her rape by climbing the ship's mast getting caught in the ropes and succumbing to the violence of one of the pirates, such violence that it was possible "that she was dead, from the bite of her great black spider." Though we later find out she survives only to face further sexual harassment and deadly venereal disease.
  • A thirteen-year-old girl was so exhausted from trying to avoid being raped that she begged a parishioner to take her in. He did, and resisted the impulse to violate her for two years. Then, when  she was fifteen, he raped her while she was saying her prayers, impregnated her, and kicked her out. 

This is supposed to be a funny book and--to be sure--there are certainly funny things in it, but I couldn't read it without being completely overwhelmed by the violent rape. 

Rape in Fiction

It's not that I can't handle any depiction of rape in the media I consume. For instance, I followed the controversy surrounding Dakota Fanning's character's rape in Hounddog, but ultimately thought it was a good film. I also think Boys Don't Cry is a great film.  Rape plays a role in our society and therefore should play a role in our fiction. Fiction is often where we examine the parts of our world that confuse and enrage us. 

I'm also not someone who thinks that rape must solely be handled in somber tones. As Kate Harding does a great job of pointing out, there are rape jokes that work. Again, we use humor to deal with the parts of our world that disturb us, and rape definitely fits into that dark underside of human existence. 

However, the rape in The Sot-Weed Factor never felt like it was examining a social ill, at least not in any specific way. The novel as a whole is something of an absurdist commentary on existentialism, flirting with nihilism, but never quite committing to it. If anything, the social commentary that I took away from it was that life will be full of ups and downs, and that we should never take any one moment too seriously. We should not revel too long in a victory, for it will likely be snatched from us soon. Nor should we wallow too long in a defeat, for we will likely find a way to be back on top in due time. Sure, it may take 200 more pages and several years, but our characters--especially our protagonist, Eben Cooke--find themselves alternating between certain doom and the life of luxury, and in the end we all die. 

Among these terrible moments that we should never take too seriously are betrayal by those we love, soiling ourselves (or getting defecated upon by someone else), getting captured by pirates, and being raped. 

That rape is treated with the same kind of off-hand "shit happens" mantra as the actual shit is hard for me to accept. Rape is not scatological humor; it does not belong in the same category as fart jokes, but that's how it often seems to be treated in this novel. 

Am I Too Sensitive?

After finishing the book (which was written in 1960), I turned to some contemporary reviews of it to see if its treatment of rape was similarly received by others. 

This 2008 review says "the offhand treatment of rape was the one glaring negative aspect of the experience of reading the book; whether or not it is appropriate to the time in which the book is set and faux-written does not make one more comfortable with reading about rape, even when it’s never brought to pass on the page." But it is literally an aside, a sentence sandwiched into a pair of parentheses interrupting a generally positive reception. In fact, the final sentence concludes that "One of the best in-jokes of the book is the alleged 'true story' of John Smith and Pocahontas, after which you will never think of an eggplant in the same way again." Obviously the author wasn't really bothered by the "offhand treatment of rape" if the Pocahontas story was the "best" joke. That's the same story I was talking about above. Pocahontas is raped so violently with an eggplant that she is near death. Yes. Ha-ha-ha. How funny. 

This 2012 reviewer admits that there is "a lot, a lot, of rape" in this book, but then goes on to consider it one of the ideas "masterfully explored." Explored how? It is never questioned, never analyzed. It is an accepted fact of life that virtually every woman in the novel experiences first-hand or spends her life fearing, and we are supposed to laugh at it. "Masterfully" is not the word that I would use. 

On Good Reads, reviewer after reviewer, men and women, call the book "the funniest I've ever read" and "delightful." There are a handful of one-star reviews, but only two of them left a comment and both were about being bored, not about being subjected to page after page of violence against women. A few of the three-star reviewers mention the treatment of women generally and the rape fantasies specifically as the thing that kept them from giving it more stars, but they are by far the minority. 

That made me question if I was being too sensitive to the material. 

Reading In My Own Time

Oddly enough, the answer to my question came from The Sot-Weed Factor author himself. John Barth discusses in his essay "The Literature of Replenishment" how complicated literature can be because of its staying power. Today, we read literature that was written in completely different political, social, and cultural climates. That doesn't excuse the potential damage those works may have done to their own times (helping to support slavery, for instance) or the damage that it can do in ours, but it does shine some light on the complicated relationship between reader and text. 

Barth explains his frustration with critics who react to literature "as if the first half of the twentieth century hadn't happened." Because, as he puts it, "it did happen: Freud and Einstein and two world wars and the Russian and sexual revolutions and automobiles and airplanes and telephones and radios and movies and urbanization, and now nuclear weaponry and television and microchip technology and the new feminism and the rest, and except as readers there's no going back to Tolstoy and Dickens." The he quotes Russian writer Evgeny Zamyatin: "Euclid's world is very simple, and Einstein's world is very difficult; nevertheless, it is now impossible to return to Euclid's."

It is now impossible to return. 

It is impossible for me to be a 1960 reader. I am a 2013 reader. Here are some of the things that happened between 1960 and 2013 that I cannot ignore: birth control pills were approved for use (May 1960), The Feminine Mystique was published, the Equal Pay Act and Roe v. Wade were passed,  the Vietnam War occurred, bell hooks wrote Ain't I a Woman?, The Vagina Monologues premiered, women like Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi have broken glass ceilings in politics, Rush Limbaugh was boycotted for calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" after she testified on birth control coverage, Todd Akin claimed that "legitimate" rapes didn't result in pregnancy, the Consent is Sexy movement was formed, there have been Slutwalks and sex-positivity, a woman in India was raped to death, and in Ohio a girl's rape was covered up. (Edit: An astute reader suggested I add the 1975 publication of Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will, a work that greatly shifted the conversation on rape).

Feminism or Vandalism?

There is no way for me--an American feminist born in the 1980's--to read this book without those layers. There is no way I could react with anything but revulsion to the rape scenes that permeate the more admirable themes of the book. 

Other Readings

This question of readership comes up a lot in classic tales, especially those aimed at children. Many parents fondly remember the tales of their own childhoods without realizing that the political and cultural climate in which they were created was one that was rife for sexism, racism, and a host of other equality-shirking ills. 

Many parents remember watching Looney Tunes as a kid, but few would be comfortable letting their own children watch one of the "Censored 11," which is now possible since they were released on DVD in 2011. It's even more likely that they pop up unannounced on an otherwise innocuous YouTube playlist. 

We realize that we cannot, as readers who have lived through so much progress in terms of racial equality and face so many more obstacles to it still, read these pieces through anything other than that lens. 

It's the same reason that my daughter won't be watching Dumbo and its portrayal of Jim Crow anytime soon. It's the same reason I cringe when I'm flipping through a Dr. Seuss collection. This collection contains the wonderful story of the Sneetches, a story touted for its ability to help children learn tolerance. Imagine my surprise then, when I flipped a few pages and found these:

"It was written in a different time!" Seuss defenders will cry. And they're right. It was written in a time when the stereotypical portrayal of people was not a concern at all, a time that we're not really very far removed from (as some of the more recent entries on this list of racist Disney characters demonstrates). Likewise Barth's novel was written at a time when a man could still legally rape his wife and prior to the hard work of second-wave feminists that brought concerns over violence against women to the forefront of American culture. 

But we--the readers--don't exist in those times. While we can (and should) read work from the past, we can only do so as readers shaped by our present. We cannot return to the time when Dr. Seuss' racist stereotypes or Barth's violent comedic rape were considered acceptable, and I have no desire to do so. 

If that makes me too sensitive, then so be it.

Photo: mbf2012


  1. Your point at the end brings up, for me, questions about the new edition of Huckleberry Finn that will eliminate the offensive language ( I realize that it's possible you wrote on that at the time, and I just missed it or I'm misremembering.

    But, how to we reconcile the discussions about reading older texts critically and what you're exploring here. I feel like you're just starting with something in this post, because you end with a discussion of texts that we actively chose not to consume because of questionable/problematic/dated/offensive content. Is Huckleberry Finn one of those? [I realize the answer might be that Mark Twain is actually dealing with those issues.]

    So, I guess my question how do we balance critical engagement, censorship, and choosing not to consume something? Are these media just useful at this point as historical artifacts?

  2. I think that some media are so culturally outdated that they really can only be useful as artifacts, but I don't think that's the case with all of them.

    I don't even think that's the case with The Sot-Weed Factor, as I can definitely see reasons for reading (and even enjoying) the book. I also don't think that trying to edit the objectionable parts out of it would be worthwhile (not only because, in this case, it would destroy much of the plot but also because I don't think that's fair to the field of literature).

    Personally, I think that you hit the mark with Huckleberry Finn in that I think Twain's use of the content was to provide commentary on its existence. It's the same reason that I think Django Unchained couldn't have been made without the n-word in it.

    I can't think of any situation in which I would argue for censorship or bans, but there is a lot of material that I would not personally consume and that I would encourage others to choose to avoid as well. I guess we have to figure out those lines between consumption for enjoyment and consumption for criticism on an individual level, and it's a line that I constantly find myself moving.

    What do you think? How do you make those choices?

  3. i don't think the question here is about being sensitive. of course bigoted material (past or present) offends us in some way, right? However, we also can't read anachronistically. Accepting that racist or sexist language/representations belong to a certain time simply recognizes that a work represents, critically or not, the existence of those things at that time. As future readers, we can recognize the offensiveness but still learn about the culture of a particular time through these representations and the public's reaction to them. For example, just the existence of these repeated and supposedly comical representations of rape tells us a lot about what women were up against in the 60s, and we can compare the different reactions to Barth's text (from the 60s and now) to learn more about how far we've come (or haven't come) regarding perceptions of women and rape.

    As for choosing not to consume - of course that will vary across texts. I personally despise Disney and for a time, considered writing my dissertation about it. In the process, I learned I couldn't shield my kids entirely from that culture because it set them up as culturally illiterate. Instead, I learned to teach the kids to watch critically while also exposing them to different versions of stories (like Cinderella or Snow White) to help dislodge Disney's authority. Media savvy is such a valuable tool to teach right from the beginning.

    I don't know if I'm answering the question or not. It sounds to me like you're more offended by the current reviews of the Barth than you are by the text itself. All the more reason to read the thing and get your voice out there regarding your reaction to it. Comparing current to past reviews sounds like an interesting paper topic...

    one last thing - i just can't resist putting my two cents in on the Twain. Removing the word "nigger" is a bizarre reaction to this text. How can a book about slavery, that features a slave as a primary character, not use the language of slavery? I think the desire to remove it suggests we are less fit than Twain to face the realities of our time and our history.

  4. Great points. I don't know that I am so much offended by the contemporary reviews as just confused by them. The violence seemed so overwhelming to me that it was strange to see so many of my contemporaries not reacting to it. I felt a little like we aren't "supposed" to be upset by the rape because of the setting: a 20th century mock-epic of 18th century literature. It was just a strange and sometimes uncomfortable reading experience for me.

    As for Twain, I agree that the language and the situations surrounding racism/slavery shouldn't be removed. I do understand, though, some parents objecting to their children reading it. I think there is an age that's too young to understand historical context, and I think that age is largely determined by the child's individual personality and--as you point out--media literacy. I don't know how to handle that intersection between parental concern and the need I learn about our own past.

  5. I agree it doesn't sound like a fun read!

    As for the age - I wonder how old the youngest kids are who read Huck Finn. Kids are fair game to hear "nigger" once they go to elementary school - so I'd think the book would provide an opportunity to discuss something that kids may already be dealing with (whether their parents like it or not). I don't remember exactly, but I feel pretty sure my kids learned about slavery in 3rd or 4th grade - about the same age they might read an abridged version of Huck. So, I just don't see a legitimate objection.

  6. Hey there! I just ωanted to ask іf yοu eνer have any
    troublе with hacκers? My lаst blog (wordpress)
    was hасkеd anԁ I endeԁ
    uρ lοsing months оf hard work ԁue to no
    data backup. Do you have any methods to protect agаinst hаckers?
    My web site - vida vacations