Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is sexist and misogynistic

Content/trigger warning: Discussion of sexism, misogyny, and sexual violence (including mentions of rape)

I’m currently reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the first time, and the other day I put it down in the middle of a chapter to try to find out if anyone else has been as bothered by its sexism as I have. 20 minutes on Google turned up multiple blog posts that tack on a mention of the novel’s misogyny at the end, finishing with, “otherwise it’s a great book”, and even one post defending the book against accusations of misogyny. Only one result, this review, came close to expressing my feelings. This is an aspect of this book that needs to be acknowledged, so that’s what this post is going to do.

Catch-22 enters the points of view of many of its cast of characters—but never the female ones. [Edit after reading more: We actually do eventually get a female character’s point of view, but only after 350 pages, and only to tell how much she likes being with and receiving attention from men.] While there are multiple women in the book, their significance is only in relation to the men around them. As the review I found says, “[N]one of them whatsoever has any real independent life or thoughts of her own. They are only perceived through the male gaze.” Men miss them, pine for them, ogle them, lust after them, sexually harass them, sleep with them, and (I’ve heard but haven’t read this part yet) rape and murder them. Their bodies are often described in (sexual) detail, and if they’re characterized at all it’s very briefly, and often has to do with their sexuality—whether they’re sexually voracious, sexually indiscriminating, or sexually withholding. The review also points out the problematic willingness of many of the women to be reduced to sexual objects—it’s explicitly stated that several will sleep with any man who wants.

One woman, “Nately’s whore,” never gets any dialogue, and while it’s made clear that she doesn’t like Nately, his supposed love for her keeps him following her around and paying to get into her bed—even though according to him she “says that if [he] really liked her [he’d] send her away” and sleep with a different prostitute (chapter 23). But apparently he loves her too much to honor her wishes. And from an ace viewpoint, the equation of love with desiring sex is troubling, and it’s something that’s done throughout the novel—it’s often said that the main character is in love with this woman or that woman, and what it really means is that he wants her body.

Bad as all this is, the part that disturbed me the most so far and led to this whole thing is when one male character discusses participating in a gang rape with complete nonchalance. He doesn’t use the word “rape” and just mentions the women involved “complaining”, as if it wasn’t a big deal to them (and the reason he’s telling this story is to defend the idea of threatening and robbing women in the present) (chapter 23). So beyond Heller not portraying women as actual people, and the male characters not treating them as such, the men actively abuse women and have no sense that there’s anything wrong with that (I could give more examples but I feel like that one is enough…). The only thing I found online that went into that aspect, as opposed to focusing on the flatness of the female characters or just mentioning the novel’s misogyny in passing, is a blog post on homosociality in Catch-22, and there the mistreatment of women is only discussed to illustrate the male characters’ “homosocial impulses”.

I want to spell it out very clearly: this novel is sexist. This novel is misogynistic. And this is not excusable. I’ve been enjoying the parts of the book that aren’t like this and will finish it, but this is kind of ruining it for me. Women are basically only mentioned in the context of being objects of sexual desire or gratification for men, and a lot of them eagerly embrace that role. They don’t have many other traits (except sometimes stupidity, or being annoying in some way). The male characters treat them as sex objects only and have no concept that that—or outright rape—is problematic in any way. Many of the female characters are prostitutes, but as the review I found points out, there’s no attempt to portray the hardship of that life.

I could pull out so many more examples and quotes, but I won’t because writing this has been upsetting enough—but flipping through the book again has reminded me that it’s even worse than what I’ve conveyed here. I wish more people would talk about this. I don’t want to just hear that Catch-22 is a funny, brilliant, insightful classic. I want to also hear that Catch-22 is sexist; Catch-22 is misogynistic. Don’t read it if that’s going to upset you, and if you do read it, do so critically.

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7 thoughts on “Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is sexist and misogynistic

  1. Emy May 6, 2015 / 6:05 pm

    I agree with you completely, but could not finish the book. I didn’t really find it engaging, I had already watched and loved the movie EXCEPT for the way women were portrayed and treated. It was truly horrifying. I initially attributed it to perhaps the director and it having been made so long ago-but as I tried to read the book I discovered that IT WAS the source of the mysogeny.

    I mainly liked the film due to Alan Arkin’s performance and the reactions of a sane man to an insane world-he gives off a sense of intelligence, decency, and is very likeable. Also, few can compare when it comes to portraying an ordinary person dealing with insane circumstances. I doubt I would have liked the movie so much without his prescence. The movie depicts the insanity of war and of the ultimate poisonous nature of corporate greed, another insanity, and I appreciated those aspects. Strangely, it is not some kind of evil horrific man who ends up destroying everything-it is the man in charge of the food who creates his own business, in which the welfare of the troops and of human beings is swept behind in his ‘my getting rich is good for the country’ etc. philosophy.

    I loved the some of the scenes with General “Dweeble”, the name in itself is great! Orson Wells gave some of his lines a very world wearing tone. Acting was good from many involved including a very young Bob Newheart, Anthony Perkins, Richard Benggimen and more. But Paula Prentiss was treated as a sex object, it was very disgusting, the nurses uniforms in one scene objectified them, and there was one scene in which the ‘men’ are literally moaning and drooling over the General’s ‘girlfriend.’ The director was just as guilty as the writer of the book, using the camera in an extremely offensive manner.

    So I did a search to see if anyone else felt like I did. Glad I found this site.

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    • cinderace May 6, 2015 / 6:47 pm

      I haven’t seen the movie; now I kind of want to, but also kind of don’t, knowing it’s as bad as the book in this way… They could have changed this aspect, and it’s really a shame that they didn’t.

      I did find the book a bit hard to get into at first, but enjoyed it when it wasn’t horribly sexist. The narrative style was intriguing, and also a little confusing at first, but actually ended up working really well and was quite clever.

      But anyway, I’m glad I’m not the only one who was disturbed by this. I was so surprised when I Googled and didn’t really see it being talked about, so I’m glad you found this post, because that’s the exact reason why I made it.

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  2. anarchyquarterly September 15, 2015 / 5:10 am

    I’m just re-reading Catch-22 after a few years and was troubled by a lot of sexism and misogyny as well.

    Some of it is intentional, with the purpose of upsetting the reader. The character you reference in chapter 23 is probably one of the most awful characters in the book, who actually rapes and murders someone later in the book with the logic that it doesn’t matter because she was poor and he was wealthy. I think it is safe to say this is not a reflection of the author’s beliefs, anymore than the rampant authoritarianism or racism that are all throughout the book are.

    But there is a lot of other terrible stuff in the book that, as far as I can tell, serves no purpose. Women are objectified constantly. At one point Yossarian and Dunbar sexually assault a nurse in the hospital. I don’t know if this is all drawn from what the author actually saw when he served overseas, or if he made it up.

    Anyways, I guess I’m just trying to say that there is a lot of stuff we should be troubled by in the book that, sadly, is a product of the time it was written and seemed to go largely unnoticed then, and unaddressed now. But there is also a lot of stuff in the book that is upsetting because the author meant it to be upsetting. When we read chapter 23 and are disgusted, we should be disgusted not that someone wrote about that stuff in a book, but that it is an actual thing that happens in the world, and that, like in the book, it goes largely unpunished. I think that was the author’s intention.

    I was really glad to find your post, because I couldn’t find any feminist criticism of the book. All the reviews in the back of the 50th anniversary addition I’m reading are by men, and yours was the only thing I found via google search. Yes the book is clever and insightful, but it is also deeply flawed. So thank you!

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    • cinderace April 1, 2016 / 11:57 am

      Hey! I haven’t been checking my blog notifications for a long time, so I only just saw your comment. But I appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to comment! That is a good point about some of it being intentional; I guess as I was reading I just didn’t get any sense of condemnation of those actions from the narrative itself. Some of the other issues were treated in such a way that they were obviously wrong/ridiculous, but Yossarian himself participates in objectification/harassment of women (as you mentioned), so it didn’t always feel like those things were being presented as actually bad.

      Anyway, again, thanks for commenting! I’m glad other people have some of the same problems with this book as I do, because like you said, hardly anyone is talking about that aspect, which is troubling…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Washington Irving December 19, 2015 / 4:48 am

    I think this books commentary on the awfulness of objectification, and violence against women goes hand in hand with it’s commentary on the awfulnessand pointlessness of war and rampant capitalism. I don’t see why this books should be called sexist or mysoginistic any more than it should be called millitaristic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lor Con August 24, 2016 / 11:37 am

      Citizens of countries (those with a democracy,) are not directly able to begin or end a war nor are they directly responsible for the economic locomotive that exist. If a citizenry continues to vote for warmongers and purveyors of economic systems that are failing them, then, yes, by defacto they are responsible for these ill-advised social conventions. Whether or not you are for or against war, is irrelevant. War is committed against the populace at large, while rape is a solitary crime that is felt by the individual before anyone else is alerted, and often times without any forewarning.

      With that said, citizens in countries that do not engage in the buying and selling of females (and sometimes males) into marriage, etc., the rebuke of rape is echoed the world over, and victims do not gleefully consent to rape. Ever! Rather it is an outright attack or coercion, it is still rape when one party does not want the act to occur. There can never exist a legal premise from which to sanction rape in conscionable societies.

      Capitalism and military ills are not problems for the rape victim to bear. We have a plethora of social ills, but I think you would agree that you would not want the rape of your vagina or anus or mouth held liable for them. The fact is this book has no real value to society. Parading around the sexual deviances of a couple of “soldiers” is no different than parading around the sexual deviances of a couple of “soldiers” who are pedophiles. In each instance, the victims do not get a choice!

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  4. catch44 October 12, 2016 / 6:44 pm

    Catch-22 is an absolute must-read. Heller’s masterpiece is undeniably one of the best fiction novels of the 20th century. While your immediate reaction to the sexism and misogyny strewn throughout the book is (understandably) very negative, it’s important to read these books with a sense of context. This book was written throughout the 1950’s, about the 1940’s. Women were treated much differently than they are today. While the way Yossarian and the others treat and view women is very unacceptable today and should obviously not be emulated, reading with a cultural lens is a must. Though use of the n-word in today’s society is very taboo, we still are able to read and appreciate literary classics like Huckleberry Finn by viewing the work in the context in which it was written. Don’t give up on a defining piece of American literature due to ethnocentrism without giving it another chance.

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