Monika Hilder’s book The Feminine Ethos in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia challenges the claim that Lewis presented a traditional, patriarchal view of women in The Chronicles as well as the assumption that a non-patriarchal view of women presents them with more masculine traits and capacities. Instead, she makes a persuasive case that the latter is faulty and that when read properly The Chronicles present a “radical theological feminism” that is genuinely liberating.
This reflection is spurred by the wonderful film “Wonder Woman” released last weekend. It is the best superhero film I’ve ever seen. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not but a small step toward the far more profound “radical theological feminism” we find in Lewis’s stories.
Monika Hilder claims that we tend to use the same paradigm to develop ideas of female equality that we want to reject. What do we think “successful” women are? In what does such “success” consist? Is it the Type A, charismatic, magnetic, hard-driving, overwhelming personality that leads to wealth, power, and status our culture valorizes? If so, Hilder asks, where does the fruit of the Spirit fit into that profile? How can we be successful if love, joy, peace, etc. is who we are and who we are becoming. Hilder suggests the success paradigm we use is radically infected with a demonic thirst to rule and dominate than live by the lie of the suffering servant Jesus Christ.
Gender equality is a worthy, necessary goal. And for Christians, that equality cannot be measured by our culture’s “success” paradigm. As Hilder says, "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 that’s just where she sees Lewis’s “radical theological feminism lies.
Though it may ruffle our conventional ideas of politically correct gender discourse, it’s worth taking a serious look at what Hider proposes in reading Lewis. And if she persuades us, what does that mean for both women and men and the lives we are called to lead as followers of Jesus Christ?
Hilder proposes that openness to God and one another, community, mutual submission to each other, compassion, truth, grace, humility, and interdependence are what count toward spiritual maturity. The scenes where the female characters act in what we think are “typically” female ways, Lewis is actually presenting them as exhibiting spiritual maturity, acting “fittingly” as creatures of Aslan and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Peter and Edmund’s strategizing, battle-fighting, feats of strength, and so forth do not receive praise and adulation. This is because for Lewis the same model of spiritual maturity, of equality applies to men as well as women: a maturity rooted in love and mercy. It may be, as Hilder suggests, our own sexist assumptions that make us conclude that Lewis is one too.
If domination strength, and autonomous-self-assertion are our measure of the human, we have a false measure. Hilder is right, I think, to hold up the measure she finds Lewis using in The Chronicles – dependence upon God, interdependence with each other, a love for creation, compassion, self-giving love – as our norm for the kind of people we are to be and the kind of equality we share with each other. In Prince Caspian Lucy encounters Aslan one night in a forest clearing. She asks him if he is bigger. The lion tells her he is not but that each year she grows, he will appear larger to her. We grow, then, into a more capacious vision of Jesus – and ourselves as his people – the more we grow into the kind of maturity God offers us. As Wendell Berry puts it: “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”
In this light it is interesting that a careful reading of the stories finds the female characters leading the group, exhibiting strength, and wisdom. They don’t fight much, other than Susan’s gift of archery, but then fighting is not a fruit of the Spirit! The mistake is to assume Lewis is conforming them to the “success” model of the world. Rather, according to Hilder’s analysis, Lewis is rather saying from a paradigm of “radical theological feminism” as described above, that nothing inhibits women from these pursuits as well. Only they will do them differently according to the measure of their maturity.
That brings us to “Wonder Woman.” Like I said, I believe it is the best superhero movie we have yet seen. But it is still a superheroine movie, and superheroines succeed by power and strength. Diane does find her strength in love (at the end of the movie), and exercises a degree of compassion from those she sweeps out of her way, and is far more compelling figure than other superheroes we have seen (even she remains remains rather distant and aloof at the end of the film). This is a good step in the right direction. But at the end of the day, a small one that does not yet break the hold of the “success” paradigm over our cinematic and moral imaginations.