Insights from The Chronicles of Narnia: Was C. S. Lewis a Male Chauvinist?
We take a break from moving through the series to consider a regular criticism made of Lewis’ Narnian stories. He portrays the characters in stereotypical gender roles that reflect the patriarchal roots of Western culture. And they can cite a number of details from the stories in support of this charge.
But Monika Hilder's has recently offered an acute, perceptive, and, in my judgment, compelling, interpretation that counters this charge. Her book Matthew and Joy Steem explain in their article in Christianity Today (http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/june/finding-feminine-theology-in-c-s-lewiss-narnia.html) from which the rest of this post comes. They write:
“. . .by pointing to the disturbing assumptions underlying the traditional model of gender criticism, Hilder makes a convincing case that Lewis was not a sexist, and instead was consciously presenting a ‘radical theological feminism’ that actually liberates us from our sexism.
“In her call to seriously consider what our culture considers characteristic of ‘successful’ women, she challenges readers to reflect on how our ideas of female equality get shaped by the very same power-exertion paradigm we try to eschew in the first place.
“In an age that worships the cult of personality and aggrandizes the ‘virtues’ of the energetic, the magnetic, the stunning, and the forceful – because these traits lead to more materialistic wealth and power – what room left is there for the fruit of the Spirit? Qualities such as self-control, meekness, patience, and peace sound quite out of vogue; ‘Let's see how far the meek, patient, and peace-loving female can succeed,’ I can hear the cynic ask. Hilder, though, suggests that our struggle for independence, power, and autonomy echo Satan's thirst for domination more than Christ's model of humble servanthood.
“If we are uncomfortable with some of the female characterizations throughout Lewis's series, perhaps we should reconsider where this discomfort stems from. While we as women are right to strive for gender equality, we are wrong to measure it according to mere chauvinistic ideas of accomplishment. As Hilder states, ‘to the extent we have not examined our own chauvinism, we demean the 'feminine' qualities and extol the 'masculine'—not noticing that Lewis does the opposite.’ And indeed, it is in doing exactly that opposite that Hilder suggests Lewis's radical theological feminism can be found.
“So what brand of feminism does Hilder see in Lewis's presentation of certain stereotypically feminine traits? And how is this applicable to my pursuit of a physically, emotionally, and spiritually integrated life?
“To be honest, at first I was a wary participant of Hilder's controversial tour of Narnia. As a Christian, I know that I have been called to community, love, and reliance on God; as a secularly educated graduate, however, female characters who embody these non-assertive characteristics frankly insult my conventional ideas of politically correct gender discourse. What I can I learn about authentic living from this late-married bachelor?
“Lewis's idea of true spiritual strength— for both men and women— rests in openness to our Father, community, submission, compassion, truth, grace, and humility. So, when Lewis has Lucy run towards Eustace-the-dragon and bestow upon him grace only expressible in a child's unrestrained kisses, or Lucy and Susan weep with Aslan while he is on the stone table, or, even Mrs. Beaver demonstrate foresight and responsibility for those in her care (or one could even dare say, community mindedness) in bringing along her domestically stigmatized sewing machine, Lewis wasn't belittling these characters. I can learn that true spiritual strength, or spiritual heroism as Hilder terms it, ‘establishes the kingdom of heaven through humility, not independence.
“Lewis had the same model for men and women: spiritual heroism ever rooted in love and mercy. Indeed Peter's or Edmund's independent thinking, physical ability in battle, or autonomous action don't earn them praise. Instead, their actions are held to the same standards as the girls. Indeed, as Hilder suggests, it may often be because of our own sexist assumptions that we accuse Lewis of sexism.
“If the Christ life serves as our model, we can't be surprised by Susan's dismissal from Narnia. Not at all because we reject all interests in heels, hair, and cosmetics, but because we know what is of lasting importance: relationship with and delight in the divine. According to Hilder's interpretation, Lewis reproves Susan not because she is growing into womanhood, but because she falls into the trap of idealizing youth and beauty at the cost of investing in fellowship and love.
“In contrast to Lucy's enlarging commitment to faith in the wondrous nature of Aslan, joy in simplicity, and childlike obedience, Susan's world is made smaller by her shrinking realm of superficial pursuits. And isn't it exactly Lucy's childlike eagerness to abandon self-interests and respond to Aslan's numinous call of love that makes her so appealing?
“If Hilder is right, as long as we measure achievement according to attributes of conquest, autonomy, and self-assertion, we have all truly fallen prey to a merely chauvinistic narrative. It is only when we grow large enough to see the beauty of dependence, the value of compassion, and the splendor of love that we, like Lucy, will learn that every year we grow, we will find God has too.”