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. Continue reading

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Asexuality in Guardian of the Dead

I started seeking out novels with asexual characters once I realized there actually were some (here’s one list). I’m always excited when I start one; it’s just so unusual to see asexuality even mentioned outside of online ace communities that reading about a character who’s ace is a big deal. But I was somewhat disappointed in the way the ace character and asexuality in general were portrayed in the young adult novel Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. So this post is mostly about what I wasn’t happy with, but I do first want to start with what I liked. Mild spoilers ahead.

Pros: Kevin is not your typical cold/awkward/unfeeling asexual character (thinking of characters who aren’t explicitly ace but are widely speculated to be, like Sherlock, the Doctor in Doctor Who, and Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory). He’s the main character (Ellie)’s best friend, is quite likeable, and is an attractive, non-white guy who multiple girls are interested in. His asexuality is also accepted by the other characters, and seeing them treat it as valid and not question its legitimacy was nice. The book starts soon after Kevin has told Ellie about his orientation for the first time, and while her initial reaction is to say, “Maybe you’ll change your mind,” she stops herself, knowing that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Now, the cons: When Kevin comes out to Ellie the conversation pretty much ends there. Asexuality looks so different for each person—some are repulsed, some have a libido, some are also aromantic. But in Guardian of the Dead, what Kevin’s unique experience of asexuality is isn’t discussed or revealed at all. “I’m ace” is the beginning and end of the conversation; Ellie just makes her own assumptions about what it means and doesn’t ask Kevin any thoughtful questions.

Further assumptions are made when it comes to the relationship between Kevin and another good female friend of his, Iris. Iris has liked Kevin for a long time, but he’s never reciprocated—because he’s ace. Eventually, so that Iris won’t keep hoping in vain, Kevin tells her about his orientation, and while we don’t see this scene and thus don’t know exactly what’s said, by this point we’ve gotten the message that the reason Kevin and Iris won’t be having a romantic relationship is Kevin’s asexuality (as opposed to Kevin just not being interested in Iris in that way). However, we don’t know why exactly his asexuality is stopping them. It seems to be implied that either asexuality is always accompanied by aromanticisim, or else that an allosexual person would never want to be in a romantic relationship with an ace. Both of which are inaccurate and not ideas that should be spread.  Maybe the author didn’t intend either of these, but readers don’t know what the truth actually is (is Kevin aro? Does Iris feel the need for her relationships to include sex?), because what being ace means for Kevin is never discussed.

The last thing that bothered me is that Kevin’s character is never really developed. This is because he’s not actually around for most of the main part of the story, and when he is he’s either under a magic spell and kind of in a daze, or being lied to/kept in the dark by the Ellie. So the book starts by introducing an ace character, and then proceeds to basically remove him from the rest of the story, and not let us get to know him much more.

Some aces like the book’s portrayal of asexuality better than I did—see this and this (and here’s a review that mentions some of the same problems I saw, but also talks about other ways the book was well done). The author is also actively seeking to do representation better, and I am really glad that she’s aware of asexuality and chose to include it in her novel; at this point, I’ll take whatever ace characters I can get, and I’m sure plenty of people who might never have heard of asexuality otherwise were exposed to the concept through this book. But I do just wish that it had been represented a little better.

Reading novels as a sex-repulsed ace

I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction written for adults, preferring to stick with older works or young adult literature. I enjoy YA and just never really had a reason to abandon that section of the library, except for my age, which I’ve ignored. I’ve recently realized, though, that if I want to write adult fiction, I should be reading more of it—but there are factors that have made me wary of venturing into that section, and one of these is the possibility of encountering sex scenes.

I consider myself sex-repulsed; while I feel like the term may be a little too strong for me, as I don’t get physically ill when hearing about sex, I’ve decided it fits better than sex-averse, which seems too mild. I really would rather not see/hear/read about sex at all if I can help it. If it’s mentioned in a book, fine, I can deal, but I really do not want to read a discussion of sex or a sex scene. Sometimes, though, you’re reading along, and suddenly—sex! Right there on the page, too late to avoid, images in your mind that you can’t un-imagine. While generally you do have some warning that it’s coming, and can thus skip ahead if you like, how do you know how far to skip? You have to look ahead to know when to start reading again, and then you’re practically reading the scene anyway.

So I’ve stuck to young adult lit as a way of avoiding sex scenes. Some young adult books do have them, but often you can tell from the premise if that’s a possibility, and if it seems like it is I’ll stay away. With adult fiction, though, I feel like almost any story could have a sex scene thrown in. A few years ago I found a website that helps you discover novels that fit your preferences. I was excited to see that one of the options was “no sex”, and I tried it out, and since I liked the sound of the book that came up, I bought it. And then… there was sex. Nothing explicit, but the main character did have sex with someone multiple times during the book, and her sex life was discussed somewhat. So when even a book that is supposedly sex-free still has sex as a part of the story, I’m left feeling like I should stick with young adult forever.

I know a book rating system would be impractical, but it would be nice. Some young adult books have sexual stuff in them that I would rather not have read when I was younger, and I don’t think young teens should be able to stumble upon that kind of content when they may not be ready for it. But it’s so much harder to screen books as opposed to movies (I’ll write more about watching movies in a future post, but of course it’s super easy to tell before even renting a movie whether it has sex or not just by looking at the rating), and unlike what’s often the case with movies, there may be nothing about a book’s cover or blurb to indicate that it contains sexual content. I know there are websites out there that rate books (after a cursory look, Rated Reads seems like the best of the ones I’ve found), but so few of the books in existence are included—one site proclaims on its front page that they have 1,500 books in their database, which seems like a pitifully small number. And finding a book’s rating on one of these sites requires much more effort than checking on a movie.

So I’m basically left with two choices—avoid any book that may have sex, or be willing to put up with it. If I want to read contemporary adult novels, I think I’m going to have to do the latter.

Male-female relationships in fiction

I enjoy reading young adult books (I’ll write more about one of the reasons why in a future post), and I was listening to one recently, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, in which—spoilers—a friendship develops between a guy and the main character, a girl. It was the typical “they start out hating each other and then find out they actually enjoy being with and talking to each other and become friends” thing, which was nice if unoriginal. And then it became even more typical because the relationship turned romantic. And I was disappointed, because why couldn’t we just have a good male-female friendship story? Why couldn’t we leave it at “they actually found that they liked each other platonically and became good friends”?

That got me thinking about male-female relationships (between people who are roughly the same age and unrelated) in fiction in general, and it seems like for the most part they always do end up romantic, even if they don’t start that way (in mainstream movies even more so than in books). It’s frustrating, but it actually does kind of make sense. If a story were to end with the main male character and the main female character in a purely platonic relationship, that would be unsatisfying, because the relationship wouldn’t feel solid or lasting. There would always be the possibility that one of them would enter a romantic relationship, and if (or when) that happened, that relationship would replace or at least diminish the friendship (especially if both characters were heterosexual). And who wants to read a story where the focus is on a relationship that’s so fragile and easily dissolved? In fiction—and quite possibly in real life too, generally—to last, and thus to provide a satisfying ending to a story, a male-female relationship has to be romantic.

I found this to be true when I tried to write a story focusing on a non-romantic male-female relationship. Years ago I wrote a retelling of Cinderella in which I, typically, got around the love-at-first-sight issue by having Cinderella and the prince know each other before the fateful ball. The way my story was unusual is that their relationship never became romantic, not even after Cinderella realized that her best friend was actually the prince in disguise and he took her to the palace to live with his family. (Although when my mom read the beginning, she commented, “Ah, a romance,” and I said, “Nope! No romance here!” and she countered, “Of course it’s a romance! It’s Cinderella, and the girl is giggling at something the guy said.” I don’t know if that speaks to the flawed nature of my mom’s assumptions about male-female relationships, or the flawed nature of my portrayal of one…). I don’t remember what inspired me to keep the relationship platonic—maybe it was just a desperate attempt to bring some originality to a story that’s been told and retold so many times already. But I’m guessing that at least part of my motivation was a desire for a different kind of story—a less heteronormative, more ace-friendly one, even though I had never heard the terms “asexual” or “heteronormative” at the time—from the ones I had been told all my life.

The problem was that my ending, with Cinderella and the prince living together as best friends rather than a couple, no romance involved, was unsatisfying even to me, the author. Because yay, when the story ends they’re together and happy, but the prince at least will be getting married at some point in the future, and then what happens to Cinderella? Is the prince’s wife going to be okay with his female best friend living in the castle with them? Is the prince still going to care about Cinderella and want her around as much as he does now? Probably not. So even though the end of the story was seemingly happy, it felt wrong, because if I looked beyond the written ending things really weren’t going to be that great for Cinderella. Her happiness likely wouldn’t last; she’d probably eventually lose her friend (and her nice new life), and after he’d been the most important person to her during the story, and their relationship had been the main focus of it, that made the ending just feel sad. Maybe it was realistic, but I’d been going for a platonic happily-ever-after.

Maybe such a thing doesn’t exist, though. While I didn’t want to do the stereotypical romance thing, my platonic relationship-focused story kind of failed and would have been much more satisfying, if also more cliché, as a romance. But it’s sad that stories of platonic male-female relationships just can’t be as satisfying as romances, because it locks people into telling just one kind of story—and the fact that romantic male-female relationship stories are the only ones that get told may be part of what makes people think that men and women can only relate in a romantic way.

Right now I’m rereading The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale, which is about a friendship that forms between the two titular characters, who are both married to other people. It’s great to read a story about a non-romantic male-female relationship—but a lot of the story is about the two main characters trying to decide if they do actually have romantic feelings for each other, and people making assumptions about their relationship (that it is sexual and/or romantic in nature), and their spouses having issues with it. So when stories of platonic male-female relationships actually are told, the idea of romance is still very much a part of them—and if it’s that hard for a fictional woman and man to have a platonic relationship, think how hard it must be in real life.