In the song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Freddy Mercury sings, “I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy.”
He’s right, you don’t.
Yet, it seems that in the literary world, poor boys are the ones who receive all the sympathy. It did not dawn on me until I took the class Working Class Women’s Literature at Goucher College that novels about impoverished women are deprecated. If there has to be a class in a liberal arts college dedicated to reading novels about destitute women, then you know it’s a marginalized genre.
In fact, if you look at the most popularized books in fiction, you’ll notice a pattern. That pattern being that novels about men in poverty are far more acclaimed and even revered, than novels about women in poverty.
I like to call this “Poor Boy Syndrome.”
The Double Standard
We’ll start with 1800s. Two of the most popular books at that time were The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The Scarlet Letter, in brief, is about a young, poor girl accused and shamed of adultery. On the other hand, Great Expectations focuses on the bildungsroman plot of an orphaned boy named Pip.
Even though Hawthorne’s novel had a ten-year head start on sales, The Scarlet Letter sold around 7,800 copies total while Hawthorne was alive while Great Expectations sold one hundred thousand copies weekly when it was first published. Furthermore, The Scarlet Letter was placed on the banned books list, vilifying the novel for dealing with topics of sexual promiscuity.
Now, while the novels had major plot differentiations, both focus on characters that are impoverished and shunned for their class. However, it indicates by the number of sales that we care a great deal more about the success of a young man than a persecuted woman.
Mix in Sex and Race
Jumping forward in time we look to the 1930’s. In 1937, Zora Neale Hurston published Their Eyes Were Watching God. In this story, the protagonist, Janie Crawford deals with poverty and racism. Two years later, John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s novel, while focusing overall Joads family, primarily hones in on the male characters and their struggles with abject poverty.
[gdlr_quote align=”center” ]Yet, in a country where 20% of women have been raped, 31% have been beaten and 94% have experienced emotional abuse, maybe we are desensitized to it in literature.”[/gdlr_quote]
Again, even though Hurston’s novel had a two-year head start, Their Eyes were Watching God sold 500,000 copies since her death in 1960, while in the past septuagennial, The Grapes of Wrath sold a total of 14 million copies and was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction.
Finally, in 1992, both Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy were published. Both novels deal with poverty, the only difference: one stars a woman and the other, a man. Can you guess which novel won The National Book Award for Fiction? Yep, All the Pretty Horses.
So, what is it then? Why is it that novels can both be dealing with poverty, yet the ones about impoverished men seem to sell more copies and win more awards? Perhaps it’s the differing themes between the novels.
Some common themes that arise more frequently in working-class women’s literature are sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Yet, in a country where 20% of women have been raped, 31% have been beaten and 94% have experienced emotional abuse, maybe we are desensitized to it in literature. Maybe it’s just not shocking enough because it happens every day.
Or perhaps women in poverty isn’t surprising at all, considering women still make 80 cents to every man’s dollar. If that’s the case then, why, of course women are poor! Who needs to read about that?
This is not the time to become desensitized to stories of female privation. These stories are real. They are present. Yet, most importantly, they require a lot more than sympathy. They require action.
Wow! Profoundly astute story that reminds us that, sadly, we still have a long way to go to create balance between the sexes.
Male protagonists in all genres, have for a very long time, been the preference of publishing houses and movie producers. We can probably attribute that mostly to the centuries of education being a male only domain. Of course misogyny and internalised misogyny had both genders reading tales about poor men making a success of themselves out of hard work and a little bit of luck. At the time these were the only believable tales, because until very recently, women were so oppressed they just could not climb out of the class they were born in of their own accord, they had to be rescued by a rich man! See Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Annie.
Thankfully things are changing and have changed since you you wrote this. I was so surprised and excited by the recently released Netflix series’ The Queens Gambit and Maid. Stories that show women fighting against suppression, and finally succeeding of their accord. The Handmaids Tale is being continued as a series, showing women actually going to war against an oppressive regime. The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, which has a gaping plot hole (a female becoming a famous comedienne after divorcing whilst also raising two small children in the late 1950s), has also been a huge hit to modern audiences mostly because both genders can now accept that women can be deliberately funny!
Women are finally capable of breaching class barriers on their own, whether it be by education, talent, hard work or even pure rage (June is out for revenge) and finally they aren’t being saved by men in every single tale! I’m looking forward to reading and watching more female characters, both fictional and real, show the world what they are capable of, and finally seeing their authors and producers actually making the money and winning the awards the deserve.
Yes, still a long way to go, but the revolution has started!