Gender Bias in Literature
Men Fix ThingsGirls Have Dolls
-Shirley B. Ernst
I have thought about many different ways to organize this paper and have come to the conclusion that the best way to approach the topic is on a book-by-book basis. My perceptions of the gender biases in these books vary greatly and I did not want to begin altering my views on each so that they would fit into certain contrived connections. What interests me most in these stories is how the authors utilize certain characters within their given environment. Their instincts and reactions are a wonderful window into how the authors perceive these people would interact with their surroundings and often are either rewarded or punished by the author through consequences in the plot for their responses. Through this means we can see how the authors expect their characters to behave in relation to their post in the world. We must be very careful as readers to judge these biases based only on evidence within the text and not invent them from our own psyche due to the individual world we know.
In Louis Sachars award winning book Holes, we see gender biases in many characters. The first and most obvious bias in this book can be found in the way Sachars characters address Mr. Pendanski, one of the staff members at Camp Green Lake. Many of the boys refer to him sarcastically as mom, and it is not because of his loving nature. Mr. Pendanski is neurotic about things the boys consider trivial and he has a tendency to nag them. Because Mr. Pendanski is portrayed as the antithesis of Mr. Sir, who simply drips testosterone, others view him as a female for his weakness. The fact that Sachar allows his characters to equate weakness with femininity, or more accurately motherhood, shows a certain bias towards the supposed strength that innately accompanies masculinity. This attitude is only furthered by the fact that the rest of the book as almost totally devoid of female characters other than the witch-like caricature presented to us in the form of the warden. She comes complete with a vicious disposition and poisonous fingernails.
The most interesting part of this bias is that the boys chose to name Mr. Pendanski mom in light of their own personal family histories. I think it can safely be assumed that not many of these boys had a functional relationship with their parents or they probably would not be in Camp Green Lake to begin with. These boys chose to place Mr. Pendanski, a whiny and unrespected man in the grand scheme of things at camp, in the role of mother. They did not turn to the only woman present at the camp, nor the man who disciplines them each day, to fill their maternal needs. Instead they turn to the weakest figure in their lives and mock him by referring to him as a woman. This demonstrates to us that Sachar considers femininity a weakness in this world and has no issues showing us. As Ernst wrote, How easy is it to relegate girls to second class citizens when they are seen as second-class citizens, or not at all (Ernst 67).
This point is only furthered by the fact that the only woman present is such a fairy tale character. She is portrayed to us as all but a sorceress and it can be assumed she has taken on this persona in order to survive in a predominately male post in a totally male dominated environment. Even in our class it was evident that many readers were taken aback by the fact that Sachar chose to make his warden a female. And so it again can be seen that Sachar has imparted onto us a bias that a real woman could not function in this world so he had to invent a completely fictional and grandiose one. With all the other characters in the book appearing so human, it seems obvious he turned the warden into a beast because he felt he had to.
In What Jamie Saw, by Carolyn Coman, gender bias shows itself in a new way. In this book masculinity and evil seem to go hand in hand.