ETA: So I’ve been doing some digging and apparently a professor named Daphne Patai released a book in 1984 (because of course) that “examines all of Orwell’s major novels, essays, and journalism and argues that his reputation for moral authority is undercut by condescending attitude toward women.” Maybe I should try to pick up a copy! It’s called “The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology.” So at least I’m not alone in feeling icked out by his writing. But then, as Orwell might point out, sanity is not statistical. lol He was apparently a homophobe as well and sort of a poster boy for toxic masculinity.
So, I just read it. I had read Animal Farm before, but never 1984. And I have Thoughts™. It’s obvious why people (myself included) have been clamoring to read it right now. But can I just point out that Winston Smith (the protagonist) is a fucking gross human being? Spoilers to follow and TW: sexual violence:
So, a few little vignettes. One, he acts as if a 50-year-old woman (a prostitute he’s about to fuck) is a disgusting, withered, old crone. Fifty is NOT that old. But she’s not got teeth! EW! GROSS! WHAT A DISGUSTING ANCIENT HAG! He fucks her regardless. Like, ok, suddenly seeing that somebody has no teeth is going to throw most people for a loop. But why the fuck did the author choose 50 as the age that’s supposed to really drive home to his audience how gross this lady is?
Winston gets enraged by the fact that the pretty young woman he’s never actually met (who’s 26, he’s 39) is in the anti-sex league. Like, he’s super pissed because he wants to fuck her and she’s decided to be unfuckable and I guess that interferes with his sense of entitlement? And he hates her so much for it that he literally fantasizes about raping her and murdering her at the moment of climax.
THEN they end up in a relationship for much of the book (EVEN THOUGH HE TELLS HER HE WANTED TO RAPE AND MURDER HER BUT SHE’S APPARENTLY COOL WITH THAT?) and there’s some additional gross little bits, like when she shit talks other women (ALL women)...proving that the trope of the “cool girl” who “isn’t like the other girls” is NOT a new idea. And, again, she’s 26. He’s 39. She initiates the relationship by passing him a note (they’ve never actually met, mind you) that says “I love you.” She’s hyper sexual and totally into the unattractive man who’s 13 years her senior because she could “just tell” or some shit.
And ok, towards the end of the book, Winston does and thinks some shitty things that can be blamed on the abuse, torture, and programming of Big Brother. But before the thought police take him away? He’s still got some super fucked up views about women. And I get the REALLY icky feeling that some of those earlier attitudes are actually the author’s worldview imposed onto the character.
Especially because almost every other female character in the book is denigrated in some way (too frigid, too stupid, too old, etc.). It’s like, what? In the futuristic totalitarian regime (in which sex is doing your “duty for the party” to make more party members) the author can still only find it in himself to write female characters that are only good for fucking or reproduction? You know, you can argue that “but that’s the way it is in this world!” but at some point somebody needs to point out “yeah...BECAUSE THE AUTHOR CHOSE TO MAKE IT THAT WAY EVEN THOUGH THE STORY COULD HAVE FUNCTIONED PERFECTLY WELL WITHOUT THAT.”
I mean, seriously, if you want to use a romantic relationship as a vehicle for speculative fiction about totalitarianism, maybe write the relationship and BOTH parties better? I mean, Ray Bradbury managed to do a LOT of the same speculation in Fahrenheit 451 with a platonic relationship between an adult and a young girl. So it’s not like a romantic affair is even necessary. But I never once believed in Julia and Winston’s relationship as a LOVE affair rather than a sexual tryst. At the same time the author is trying to tell me that Winston loves her, he’s SHOWING me that Winston disdains her for the form her philosophical opposition to the Party takes. You don’t love someone, not as an equal and romantic partner, that you view as a naive child. That lack of respect and that paternalistic attitude are mutually exclusive of true, healthy love.
And there’s no in-story explanation for the lack of well-rounded female characters. The Oceania regime could very easily have had female characters in leadership positions. There was nothing in the Party principles that the author gave us to indicate that this fictional society views women as inferior and incapable. It’s like the author (clearly a product of his time) takes for granted that of course, even in a future dystopian nightmare, all the bosses will still be men and that women are useless for anything more complicated than laundry and raising babies.
Also, some of the memories Winston Smith has about his mother and the way he treated her and his baby sister, even as a twelve year old, are disturbing. This guy was fucked up BEFORE Big Brother had really cemented it’s power.
So yeah, read it, I guess? But just remember that the BB propaganda and lies are not the only scary ideas within the pages.