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.