Repost: Gender Essentialism and Female War Veterans

[Ana's Note: By popular demand, this is a re-post of an old deconstruction, partly to have content while I struggle with my ongoing disability challenges and partly so that newcomers can comment on old conversations.

The original post is here. I have not edited the content.

Narnia Recap: Edmund has slipped out of the Beavers house and has reported to the Witch's home. The other children and the Beavers have realized that they are in grave danger.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 10: The Spell Begins to Break

Earlier this year, I read a wonderful book called "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" which is sort of a half-personal, half-serious account of one woman's struggles with gendered toys while trying to raise her daughter to be strong, independent, and happy. I enjoyed the book immensely, and I recommend it highly. Today's post is also about gender essentialism and gendered toys and gender assumptions and a lot of other gendery things in the Chronicles of Narnia. And so I want to make some disclaimers first.

I know from internet experience that it is sometimes hard to parse the difference between "this passage is gender essentialist and gender essentialism is bad" and "this passage is gender essentialist and therefore the author is bad". I'm also aware that any time any piece of literature written before [insert current year] is criticized for having gender essentialist passages, someone pops up to helpfully point out that the author can't possibly be at fault because the author was born before [insert current year] and therefore was a product of a sexist society and unable to form alternate opinions. I'm sympathetic to this view, to a point, although I realize my hilarious tongue-in-cheek description sounds like I'm not. So I want to completely, 100% clarify going in that this is not meant to be a "C.S. Lewis sucks!" post, so much as a "gosh, gender essentialism sure is invasive and damaging and we're all highly susceptible to it" post.

So, with that in mind, let's talk about the Beavers.

   NOW WE MUST GO BACK TO MR. AND Mrs. Beaver and the three other children. As soon as Mr. Beaver said, "There's no time to lose," everyone began bundling themselves into coats, except Mrs. Beaver, who started picking up sacks and laying them on the table and said: "Now, Mr. Beaver, just reach down that ham. And here's a packet of tea, and there's sugar, and some matches. And if someone will get two or three loaves out of the crock over there in the corner."
   "What are you doing, Mrs. Beaver?" exclaimed Susan.
   "Packing a load for each of us, dearie," said Mrs. Beaver very coolly. "You didn't think we'd set out on a journey with nothing to eat, did you?" [...] "Get along with you all," said his wife. "Think it over, Mr. Beaver. She can't be here for quarter of an hour at least."

Now, I like sensible fantasy characters. One of the reasons I fell head-over-heels for the "His Dark Materials" trilogy was the fact that the adults were sensible, logical, and actually involved the children in key discussions with the belief that, yeah, it's a shame to ruin childhood innocence with ugly facts but when there's a very good chance their lives will depend on this information, it's up to an adult to get over the "innocent child" fantasy and start educating them. How refreshingly novel in a YA book!

So I want to like Mrs. Beaver. She's packing food and not just helping everyone run around like a chicken with their head cut off. How can I not like that? The problem is that I still somewhat feel like Mr. Beaver and Mrs. Beaver are not thoroughly characterized characters, and I additionally feel that a lot of their characterization is either heavily gendered or just a little too whimsical.

Part of the problem, of course, is Mrs. Beaver's insistence that she knows the future. Mrs. Beaver's precise predictions rub me up the wrong way entirely, from her "not if I know her" predictions of the behavior of a woman she most definitely does not know, apparently has never met, and knows precious little about, to her now perfect timing of how long it will take the Witch and the Secret Police to get to their house, considering that no one even knows precisely when Edmund left the house. But no, it'll take at least another 15 minutes for the Witch to get there, because Mrs. Beaver says so. Never mind that packing up five bundles of food, drink, and clothing would likely take more than 15 minutes plus the fact that you're shaving things pretty close even with a full 15 minute lead. 

Beyond the issue of Mrs. Beaver's self-insisted clairvoyance is the feeling that this reinforces the Sensible Working Class vibe that I get from the Beavers. Mrs. Beaver's sense strikes me as almost sense for the sake of sense, rather than being meaningful in itself. By which I mean that it might well make sense to take stock of things prior to rushing off into the snow with the Secret Police after you, but... the Stone Table isn't exactly miles and miles away. The whole party will make it there in less than 24-hours time, and that's at a leisurely stroll (and Susan gets a blister). In which case, maybe they don't need five full bundles of food, drink, and extra socks. "Sense" should serve a meaningful end, otherwise it's just a compulsion.

   "Well, I'm nearly ready now," answered Mrs. Beaver at last, allowing her husband to help her into her snow-boots. "I suppose the sewing machine's too heavy to bring?"
   "Yes. It is," said Mr. Beaver. "A great deal too heavy. And you don't think you'll be able to use it while we're on the run, I suppose?"
   "I can't abide the thought of that Witch fiddling with it," said Mrs. Beaver, "and breaking it or stealing it, as likely as not."

Then there's the gender and characterization issues packed into Mrs. Beaver Against The World. I do not consider it a coincidence that it's the woman of the group that "sensibly" insists on both the bare necessities for travel and the little luxuries in the same breath. And this is the crux: Mrs. Beaver isn't sensible at all. She's emotionally attached to her sewing machine, to the point where she wants to drag it all over the countryside with her rather than let the Witch "fiddle" with it. (This also, of course, illustrates that Mrs. Beaver doesn't know what Jadis is going to do; Jadis will bypass the Beavers' house entirely and head straight to the Stone Tablet -- the sewing machine is safe from witchly fiddling, albeit probably not from wolfy destruction.)

She is so attached to her possessions, that she will actually risk everything -- their lives, the lives of the children, and the future of Narnia -- on her material possessions. She's a silly-sensible woman, a character locked into a very strict pattern of "sensible" behavior, a person who would not be out of place in a satirical etiquette novel a la Jane Austen.

Now maybe this is realistic. There are lots of people in the Real World who allow their love of their possessions to muddle their priorities and put them in prolonged danger. Maybe there's nothing going on here at all except a quick little piece of characterization. Maybe I'm being Too Sensitive to see this as a gendered problem, or this silly-sensible characterization as something that afflicts female characters more often than males.

And yet... why is the sewing machine even here? To the best of my knowledge, this will be the first and last mention of anything so technologically advanced in Narnia. The sewing machine adds nothing whatsoever to the overall plot, does not well-characterize the characters, and creates far more confusion than it alleviates: where is it from, what is it for, how is it maintained and serviced, how can the Beavers afford it, and why will we never see its like again? I truly believe that the only reason the sewing machine exists, the only reason it was allowed to be in the story in spite of all the world-building problems it causes, is as a quick short-hand for Mrs. Beaver's personality.

Mrs. Beaver owns a sewing machine: she is hard-working and industrious. Mrs. Beaver prioritizes her sewing machine over her own safety: she is silly and cannot see the bigger picture. Mrs. Beaver will receive a new sewing machine from Father Christmas: she is a simple woman with simple needs.

And this brings up a point: while I do see Mrs. Beaver's characterization to be a gendered problem, I also fully concede that Mr. Beaver doesn't get much better treatment. He is defined with broad brush-strokes as being a working male proud of his hand-built home, he will receive his home back from Father Christmas as his present, and he too will exhibit a rather silly reluctance to see the bigger picture:

   And so at last they all got outside and Mr. Beaver locked the door ("It'll delay her a bit," he said) and they set off, all carrying their loads over their shoulders.

No, I really don't think it will, Mr. Beaver. Jadis doesn't strike me as the type that uses doorknobs.

I do think that much of Mr. Beaver's characterization is limited to male stereotypes (he works hard outside the home, he brings home the food, he builds the exterior of the living area) where Mrs. Beaver's characterization is limited to female stereotypes (she works hard inside the home, she cooks the food, she cozifies the interior of the living area). These aren't, perhaps, bad ways to characterize characters, but it's something to think about as we tackle gender assumptions within the series.

   "It's an old hiding-place for beavers in bad times," said Mr. Beaver, "and a great secret. It's not much of a place but we must get a few hours' sleep."
   "If you hadn't all been in such a plaguey fuss when we were starting, I'd have brought some pillows," said Mrs. Beaver.
   It wasn't nearly such a nice cave as Mr. Tumnus's, Lucy thought -- just a hole in the ground but dry and earthy. It was very small so that when they all lay down they were all a bundle of clothes together, and what with that and being warmed up by their long walk they were really rather snug. If only the floor of the cave had been a little smoother! Then Mrs. Beaver handed round in the dark a little flask out of which everyone drank something -- it made one cough and splutter a little and stung the throat, but it also made you feel deliciously warm after you'd swallowed it -- and everyone went straight to sleep.

It's a shame Mrs. Beaver couldn't bring the pillows, but at least she brought the booze!

   It seemed to Lucy only the next minute (though really it was hours and hours later) when she woke up feeling a little cold and dreadfully stiff and thinking how she would like a hot bath. [...] But immediately after that she was very wide awake indeed, and so was everyone else. In fact they were all sitting up with their mouths and eyes wide open listening to a sound which was the very sound they'd all been thinking of (and sometimes imagining they heard) during their walk last night. It was a sound of jingling bells.
   Mr. Beaver was out of the cave like a flash the moment he heard it. Perhaps you think, as Lucy thought for a moment, that this was a very silly thing to do? But it was really a very sensible one. He knew he could scramble to the top of the bank among bushes and brambles without being seen; and he wanted above all things to see which way the Witch's sledge went. [...] Great was their surprise when a little later, they heard Mr. Beaver's voice calling to them from just outside the cave.
   "It's all right," he was shouting. "Come out, Mrs. Beaver. Come out, Sons and Daughters of Adam. It's all right! It isn't Her!" This was bad grammar of course, but that is how beavers talk when they are excited; I mean, in Narnia -- in our world they usually don't talk at all.

Despite having an English degree, I'm not much for grammar propriety; I tend to think that the only thing that really matters is the effectiveness of communication. So I had to really chew my lip over this one before I conceded that, yes, "It isn't she" probably would have been more correct, but it seems tortured somehow.  I would feel a bit sorry for Mr. Beaver being called out publicly by the narrator, but instead I'm distracted by the statement that all beavers use bad grammar when they're excited.

   It was a sledge, and it was reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the Witch's reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the moment they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world -- the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn't find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.

And here is the scene we've all been waiting for. After pages and pages of world-building, Jolly Old Saint Nick has been plunked down into our Eternal Winter Fairy Tale and we get to find out that "always winter, but never Christmas" is actually meant to be read literally and not figuratively. Jadis the White Which has been expending huge stores of magical power in order to keep out a Catholic saint that rides a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer and distributes toys down chimneys as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ who isn't, technically, affiliated with Narnia in any way. At least not under that name.

   "I've come at last," said he. "She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch's magic is weakening."
   And Lucy felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still.

This is the second time that the narrator has told us about special shivery feelings, and I find it interesting because this one most definitely seems meant to apply to everyone, regardless of their position in or out of Narnia. Instead of a name, the trigger condition here is that of being very solemn and still, and while I have many times in my life been "solemn and still", I can honestly say that a "deep shiver of gladness" has rarely, if ever, accompanied that feeling. Perhaps I'm not doing it right.

I really cannot decide if these Special Feelings are meant to be descriptive of something the author has and does experience or prescriptive as something the child reader should try very hard to experience. 

   "And now," said Father Christmas, "for your presents. There is a new and better sewing machine for you, Mrs. Beaver. I will drop it in your house as I pass." [...] "And as for you, Mr. Beaver, when you get home you will find your dam finished and mended and all the leaks stopped and a new sluice-gate fitted."

And here are some gendered presents for you along with a big dose of disappointment. Mrs. Beaver, you will have a sewing machine to replace the one that has recently (presumably) been wrecked by the Secret Police; Mr. Beaver, your house is now finished, which is good because the Secret Police probably torched it to ashes a few hours ago. Merry Christmas! Now be off with you, there's a good lad and lass.

Mr. and Mrs. Beaver must surely be hoping at this point that the children will remember who got them on the throne when all this is over, or at least they would if they weren't good, honest, grateful working folks. But me, if I was told that my "present" after 100 years of winter was the replacement of what I'd already lost materially in the last 24 hours, I might feel like Saint Nick was stiffing me a bit, given that I'm still in the process of risking my life to get the kids to the Stone Table and clearly Nicky isn't in the mood to offer us a ride there.

   "Peter, Adam's Son," said Father Christmas. [...] "These are your presents," was the answer, "and they are tools not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well." With these words he handed to Peter a shield and a sword. The shield was the color of silver and across it there ramped a red lion, as bright as a ripe strawberry at the moment when you pick it. The hilt of the sword was of gold and it had a sheath and a sword belt and everything it needed, and it was just the right size and weight for Peter to use. Peter was silent and solemn as he received these gifts, for he felt they were a very serious kind of present.
   "Susan, Eve's Daughter," said Father Christmas. "These are for you," and he handed her a bow and a quiver full of arrows and a little ivory horn. "You must use the bow only in great need," he said, "for I do not mean you to fight in the battle. It does not easily miss. And when you put this horn to your lips and blow it, then, wherever you are, I think help of some kind will come to you."

Here's a couple of fun facts: Peter's sword and shield will have a whole scene in a couple of chapters. Susan's bow will never be mentioned again in this book. The horn will be mentioned -- it will, in fact, be used to summon Peter with his sword and shield in tow so he can be a Big Dang Hero and rescue Susan, but the bow? The bow won't see any action in any of the upcoming fight scenes.

Susan will, actually, learn how to use the bow sometime between the final chapters of this book and the starting chapters of Prince Caspian: she'll use her leet archery skills to Prove Her Worth when the kids are dumped back into Narnia. But never is it implied, to the best of my knowledge, that her skills are anything more than the archery a pampered lady might be inclined to learn: target practice and possibly animal hunts, never war. Susan, it should be remembered, followed the rules given to her. She was told not to fight because she was a girl, and as such she was implicitly told to be feminine.

Let's keep going.

   Last of all he said, "Lucy, Eve's Daughter," and Lucy came forward. He gave her a little bottle of what looked like glass (but people said afterward that it was made of diamond) and a small dagger. "In this bottle," he said, "there is a cordial made of the juice of one of the fire-flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun. If you or any of your friends is hurt, a few drops of this will restore them. And the dagger is to defend yourself at great need. For you also are not to be in the battle."
   "Why, sir?" said Lucy. "I think -- I don't know -- but I think I could be brave enough."
   "That is not the point," he said. "But battles are ugly when women fight. And now" -- here he suddenly looked less grave -- "here is something for the moment for you all!"

Lucy is the one who rebels. She asks why. She argues politely. She's young enough or plucky enough or perhaps just not beat down enough that she can say This rule? This rule you've just given me? It does not make sense to me. Justify it. Explain it. Prove it.

Why is this scene here, and why are these gifts given? Lucy's dagger won't be used in this book any more than Susan's bow will be -- not even when they have a lion conveniently tied up and needing untying. The girls will pick uselessly at the knots and give up before mice have to come along and do the job for them. Neither of them have a sharp edge on them, it would seem -- apparently they were so afraid of disobeying Saint Nick's injunction that they tossed the sharp Christmas presents (but not the horn or the healing vial, because those are in hand as needed) into a corner of one of the tents and never looked at them again. I think -- I think -- Lucy's dagger will show up briefly in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Maybe.

Mark Twain wrote in 1895 that: "The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it. " Famous Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote in 1911: "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." Kurt Vonnegut later simplified these philosophies into a single rule: "Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action."

This scene, this giving of Susan the bow and Lucy the dagger, does nothing to advance the plot. The two items will not be used again in this book, and a good case could be made that their use in later books is as sequel hooks only. Removing the items from the book entirely would have caused no damage whatsoever to the tale; the important items -- the horn that might call help (no guarantees from Santa, I note) and the healing liquid -- would still be dispensed. So why are these items here at all?

It is my theory that these items are here entirely to advance the narrator's belief that "battles are ugly when women fight" and that the girls -- Lucy and Susan -- are not to be involved in the battle. This belief is expressed doubly-forcefully; once with the giving of the bow and once with the giving of the dagger. Two chances to express the same opinion, both taken.

Why is this here? C.S. Lewis, it should be noted, fought in World War I. The Narnia books were written and published after World War II and take their time setting from that period. In both wars, both World War I and World War II, women were taking on very visible roles in the war effort, on the front lines as fighters and medics and on the home front in industrial support roles. The world was clearly no longer a patriarchal fantasy where men do all the manly fighting and women stay home and make sammiches. Lewis, as a former soldier, must have known this -- and he must have known that women in the army didn't make the world wars any uglier or worse than any other war in history that might be fantasized as being a "men only" war. And yet, here we have a scene inserted into the book apparently for the sole purpose of sending a message about womens' place in war. Here are some weapons; don't use them.

Battles may have been "ugly" to the narrator when women fought them, but there's a point here that is almost completely missed: battles are particularly "ugly" when children fight them. Edmund, hero of the war and mortally wounded to boot, is nine years old. Peter, who fights and slays Maugrim alone on Aslan's order because Aslan wants Peter to prove how tough he is, is thirteen years old. There's something "ugly" in this picture, but I'm far from convinced that the problem lies in the genitals of the participants.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is, ultimately, a children's fantasy. It's not a treatise on war, and battles will not be taken seriously in any sense of the word. Peter is a child who is forced to fight alone, with a weapon he's never used before, against an experienced and deadly opponent, and he wins handily because fighting is easy like that. Edmund is a smaller child who is mortally wounded and then when his younger sister begs a moment to be sure he recovers, she is berated for not having a stiff upper lip and tending to the other battle wounded... by herself. Because being an eight-year-old battle medic is a perfectly reasonable, non-scarring situation for a child. And two girl-children will be given weapons and then specifically told not to use them -- not because they're too young, but because they were born the wrong gender.

It's an aspect that didn't need to be in the story. It didn't advance the plot or deepen the characters. It wasn't even in-step with the world that the books were set within, a world where women were fighting and dying that very moment to keep the Pevensie children safe while they explored the inside of a magical wardrobe. Saint Nick -- by saying what he says and doing what he does -- disrespects these women, disrespects these heroes, all so he can deliver his sermon on How The World Ought To Be before chucking some food at the children and driving off. He can't be bothered to help fight the war or give the children a ride to Aslan, after all -- he's got presents to deliver. Priorities, people!

   Peter had just drawn his sword out of its sheath and was showing it to Mr. Beaver, when Mrs. Beaver said:
   "Now then, now then! Don't stand talking there till the tea's got cold. Just like men. Come and help to carry the tray down and we'll have breakfast. What a mercy I thought of bringing the bread-knife."

And, of course, Mrs. Beaver brought the bread-knife. That's alright. It's good. It's proper. It's sensible.

But she never, ever would have considered bringing a sword, or even a steak knife. That would have been quite ugly indeed.


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