“Women are a Decorative Sex”: Literary Misogyny and its Perpetuation

By: Sabrina O’Brien


One thing that politics has reminded us in the last few months is that gender equality, even in a first-world country like the United States, still has a long way to go. Some women remain oblivious and believe they already have access to equality. This is, of course, false. The most frustrating aspect of this continued oppression is that, regardless of the rights that we currently possess, expected female gender roles have not experienced a major shift. To make my case, I have pulled these 10 quotes about women from books that are currently in my personal library. Comparing these descriptions to modern day perceptions of femininity shows how little progress the feminist movement has made:

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

“A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.” (36)

This quote states that a woman needs to sing and dance, maybe she can dabble in poetry or learn a language; but god forbid she learn anything about critical thinking, science, or mathematics. Although this may not completely apply today, since every child in school is required to learn English, Science, Math, and a second language, there is still a stigma surrounding women who go into certain fields. For example, law is still a male dominated field because of the long history of men dominating this field and the perception of men being “bosses” and women being “bossy.” Women are also expected to be happiest in care-giver or maternal roles such as nursing, teaching, being a nanny, secretary, etc. The feminine connotation of these types of careers is built upon the archaic notion that a female disposition is more well-suited for that type of work.

  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” (48)

*Gag* In this passage, Lord Henry explains the “decorative sex” to Dorian in a way that is both offensive and incorrect. Once again, the reader can observe and perhaps even connect to modern day events how society still views women as decoration. I would advise anyone who denies my claim to look at any Hooters ad ever. “Mansplaining,” a term that became popular in 2016, demonstrates how often women’s opinions are overlooked or deemed less powerful than that of men. As with Senator Elizabeth Warren trying to read the letter from Coretta Scott King in a Senate meeting on February 7th, that Republicans prevented her from reading while several of her male colleagues were able to read it in part or in its entirety without interruption.

  1. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

“Yes,” responded Abbot, “if she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that.”
“Not a great deal, to be sure,” agreed Bessie: “at any rate a beauty like Miss Georgiana would be more moving in the same condition.” (20)

Here, beauty is what determines how much sympathy the servants have for poor Jane Eyre, the protagonist of Brontë’s novel who is horribly mistreated in her uncle’s home. Georgiana, who is pretty and girly, is adored for her ability to adhere to typical feminine roles. This quote can be analyzed in relation to the previous quote about how women have no substance. We still use women as eye-candy in magic shows and TV, and sexualize women with this “decoration” idea through advertising that we feel pressure to adhere to the expectations that are often not created by “perfect” women but by Photoshop. This quote from Jane Eyre demonstrates how the value of a woman is often tied to the sexual appeal of that individual’s body.

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe

“Mrs. Shelby was a woman of high class, both intellectually and morally. To that natural magnanimity and generosity of mind which one often marks as characteristic of the women of Kentucky, she added high moral and religious sensibility and principle, carried out with great energy and ability into practical results.” (9-10)

Harriet Beecher Stowe, a great voice for the abolitionist movement, describes here what many would consider to be “the perfect woman.” This person would be someone who is morally correct, religiously devoted, and takes full control of her own household. Further down the page, Stowe describes how Mr. Shelby is in awe of his wife and lets her do what she wants because he hopes that her benevolence will allow him to also enter heaven. This status of women as upholders of morality due to their saintly demeanor is in direct opposition to men’s ability to be secular while still being worthy of eternal life. I am not arguing here that women are still expected to be the religious guardians of the home. However, I do believe that women are held to a higher moral obligation than men. For example, society sexualizes women, but simultaneously persecutes them for being “slutty” (a double standard that will baffle me until my dying breath) and are told they won’t ever get a husband if they sleep around too much; while men who sleep around are “studs” and they are given a pat on the back for getting laid.

  1. 1984 – George Orwell

“He disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones. It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents to the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy.” (12)

This character’s belief that women are more gullible and willing to follow oppressive regimes than men is a mentality that is detrimental to popular understandings of femininity. In the first chapter, Winston, the speaker, paints Julia, a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League, and other women as having no critical thinking skills and being the watchdogs of Big Brother. Supposedly, they are blind followers who are the easy to manipulate. However, Winston does not acknowledge that there are plenty of men in the story who are just as committed to their dictator’s laws. He is essentially saying that women don’t have the capacity to identify their own oppression and are naïve…which is ironic since it is then Julia who engages in a sexual relationship with Winston against the laws of Oceania.

  1. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

“George said, “She’s gonna make a mess. They’s gonna be a bad mess about her. She’s a jail bait all set on the trigger. That Curley got his work cut out for him. Ranch with a bunch of guys on it ain’t no place for a girl, specially like her.” (57)

Curley’s wife is portrayed in Of Mice and Men as a “tart” who is both a seductress and obsessed with her own looks. Curley treats her as a possession, and Steinbeck doesn’t even give this character a name outside of “Curley’s wife.” She flirts with all the farm hands to make Curley jealous… but is that really because she’s a “tart?” I don’t think so. Curley threatened those working on the ranch to stay away from his wife, forcing his wife into solitude. The men don’t treat her with respect and believe that she shouldn’t be allowed on the ranch, further ostracizing her. All of this conflict is because of Curley’s wife’s appearance. As I have mentioned previously, appearance is a very important factor in how women in these books (and society as a whole) are perceived. If they’re pretty, they matter; if they’re ugly they don’t; and if they’re trying too hard to be pretty then they just want to sleep around. This archaic understanding of female behavior and sexuality still permeates contemporary American culture.  Even today, women are constantly being told how they should present themselves in order to appeal to men. However, these standards rarely account for the preferences of individual women or consider whether they are even looking for male attention (I personally care -5 out of 10).

  1. A Doll’s House – Henrik Ibsen

“HELMER. Nora, Nora! What a woman you are!” (Act 1)

In this powerful play about female independence, Torvald, Nora’s husband, oppresses his wife and forces her into the role of housewife. Nora believes she never got a chance to be independent, moving from her father’s house into her husband’s; never going to see the world before being confined to her cage. In this scene, Nora wants to spend more money than usual on Christmas gifts for the people she cares about and Torvald exclaims that’s just like a woman. Consumerism is often tied to femininity. Many things are marketed directly to women: you need this new bag, you need these new kitchen appliances, you need to get these magic pills to lose weight, etc. However, women tend to get into less debt than men because they keep better track of their spending. Regardless of these facts, women are portrayed in television and film as being shopaholics and always running into credit card debt.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

“I was not so sure, but Jem told me I was being a girl, that girls always imagined things, that’s why other people hated them so, and if I started behaving like one I could just go off and find some to play with” (54).

This is, unfortunately, an accurate description of the way that “girly things” are often deemed less important than that of men. Scout, the novel’s protagonist, learns from her brother and other boys that girly things aren’t as good as boy things. I honestly am one of the girliest people, I like dresses, and sparkles, and I wear heels all the time; but I also love to play video games (like Assassin’s Creed type of games not Cooking Mama games), thriller movies, and don’t like shopping that much (to tie it back with number seven). When I was a kid, I hated Barbies, but every time I wanted to play with the boys that’s what they told me to do. The premium that is put on masculine versus feminine objects begins at a very young age. In this way, the conflict between Jem and Scout in this scene perpetuate a lifelong gendered view of the world.

  1. A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin

“”You,” Ned said, kissing her lightly on the brow, “will marry a king and rule his castle, and your sons will be knights and princes and lords and, yes, perhaps even a High Septon.”” (256)

Despite this book being first published in 1996, the medieval element of the story involves archaic female gender roles. The story has some ridiculously strong female characters, yet they are still confined to their societal roles. Arya hates the girly things that her sister, Sansa, does like sewing and music, and wants to learn how to wield a sword. Ned does go as far as getting Syrio to teach her how to use the sword her half-brother Jon gave her, but is not enthusiastic about her living much farther from her female role. In today’s society, there are plenty of examples of women who try to get into “man’s” world and then people try to persuade them otherwise. This is exemplified by our most recent election and the sexist rhetoric surrounding Hillary’s campaign. Her being in politics was fine, but to be at the very top of politics—the president? No. She went too far past her female boundaries.

  1. Metamorphoses – Charles Martin Ovid

“Although Peneus yielded to you, Daphne, your beauty kept your wish from coming true, your comeliness conflicting with your vow: at first sight, Phoebus loves her and desires to sleep with her; desire turns to hope, and his own prophecy deceives the god.”

Daphne simply asked to be a virgin, it was her only wish. But unfortunately, she’s too pretty for men to keep their hands off of her, so Apollo wants to sleep with her and chases her until a nice god turns her into a tree. I’m pretty sure every woman has experienced an instance where someone thought they were flirting when they were just being nice. This seems to be an issue dating back to ancient times.

Although these examples show our highly gendered world, I certainly don’t believe that all men or women perpetuate these standards. I, for one, am guilty of adhering to the old roles, but I want to fix them and reverse the stereotypes that have confined both genders in one way or another.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Puffin Classics, 1995.

Beecher Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Bantam Classics, 1981.

Blake, Heidi. “Women are better with money than men, study finds.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 11 Mar. 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Bronte, Charlotte. “Jane Eyre.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Ibsen, Henrik, and William Archer. “A Doll’s House.” 1879, Accessed 22 Mar. 2017.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. McIntosh and Otis, Inc., Inc., 1988.

Martin, Charles. “Metamorphoses.” Norton Anthology of World Literature, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2012, pp. 1079-1083.

Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. Bantam Books, 1996.

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classics, 1961.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Bantam Books, 1965.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture Of Dorian Gray. Pyramid Books, 1961.

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