C.S. Lewis, Susan, and the Chauvinism of Male Critics

As Lewis well knew, mid-twentieth
century England could force adults into
molds that eschewed the jubilant, idio-
syncratic, and quirky--Susan let it happen.
It is somewhat popular to criticize C.S. Lewis for his portrayal of Susan in the last book of the Narnia series. In The Last Battle, Susan is described as having forgotten Narnia, scorning reminders of it as of a kiddie game she used to play with her brothers and sisters while at the same time blathering on about lipstick and nylons.

Some literary critics will justify this passage by pointing out that Lewis doesn't actually condemn Susan for eternity--that's why she's not in the railway accident. She's going through a "phase." Others more angrily castigate Lewis for condemning Susan for becoming sexually mature. These are the critics that buy into the Hollywood rather than the BBC version of Shadowlands (in reality, C.S. Lewis was a sexually mature, earthy man).

Among those who castigate C.S. Lewis for his treatment of Susan, male critics seem to rise to the fore. Women critics, like myself, generally seem to have a better idea what C.S. Lewis was saying.

In sum, C.S. Lewis understood women better than his male critics. 

This is not to say that part of Lewis wasn't being an old fuddy-duddy. But taking the lipstick and nylons out of context is to take them out of context, which is exactly Lewis's point.

Here's Reality 101 for women: lipstick and nylons are accoutrements to maturity, not the point of it.

Contrast Susan with the Lauren Bacall chutzpah of Aravis
As one female critic points out, unlike many female
characters in mid-twentieth century literature,
all of Lewis's make great superheroes--even Susan!
As Paglia points out with fierce truthfulness: whether a woman wants it to happen or not, her body will mature. The menarche waits in the wings with no regard for mental readiness or long-term goals. Perhaps men don't understand this since maturity for them seems to boil down to whether or not they can put out a fire at X paces. For women, the body's steady maturity towards a single aim is inevitable and real. When I taught a class of 14-to-18-year-olds (same students over 4 years), the young women become steadily more and more emotionally and psychologically mature as the years went by; at 14, they were rather silly (like Susan still is as a young adult). At 18, they had come to grips with their physical natures and were beginning to develop healthy pragmatism and empathy as well as intellectual and social goals that embraced their full personalities.

The boys were . . . all over the map is putting it mildly. One day, I felt like I was dealing with 30-year-olds; the next, I felt like I was hollering exasperatingly at 10-year-olds.

As Paglia points out, women can't hide from nature's goal (Have babies!). The mature woman learns to deal with this; Paglia also argues that the mature woman learns how to deal with men, which may involve flirting (lipstick and nylons) or clever detente or something else entirely. Whatever it is, lipstick & nylons are not the goal; they are tools--weapons perhaps--and can be useful. To mistake them for the point is to fall back into the mentality that a woman's greatest strength is her ornamental qualities. It is also to mistake byproducts for substance--a framework for understanding women that is as shallow as tissue paper.
Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis: Spouses/Partners

Maturity, as Paglia and Lewis understand it, is the ability to handle/maneuver through the world. Part of that handling process may be to put on big sister's shoes and big sister's makeup. The immature woman, however, never realizes that more is required. She dresses up, mocks her past rather than embracing her funny eager preteen self, does the equivalent--in so many words--of putting out the fire at X paces. But the hutzpah, heart and mind, is missing. And because she has no grit, when the going gets tough, she flees to Big Daddy.

Some men prefer this type of woman. Kudos to C.S. Lewis that he didn't.


Joe said...

I've never understood this criticism since it's always been really obvious to me what Lewis meant. One must also note the sarcastic nature of his point; Susan dismisses the adventures of her youth (remember she had a second life in Narnia!) as trivial while talking about things that have no consequence.

In other words, Susan dismissed the real life of her "childhood" where she actually did dress as a Queen, in favor of a shallow adulthood where she plays dress up.

The deeper, broader point is that Lewis is making a criticism of those who put aside their inner faith in favor of outer appearances and social approval.

Even without taking the clear religious angle, there is a tendency among the chattering classes to dismiss fantasy and things of a rich imagination. Playing computer games, watching TV and movies, listening to pop music and even reading are look down upon, often in favor of things I find hopelessly trivial.

(As an aside, there still exists a prejudice or distrust against things genuinely of the mind in favor of things of the body. The complaint; "stop reading/playing computer games/writing/drawing/dreaming and go out and play" is still a common refrain. Why is playing some stupid sports game still seen as superior to exercising your noggin?)

Katherine Woodbury said...

Steven Johnson argues that we give higher precedence to what came first--so if video games had preceded print, parents would be yelling, "Stop scanning those dead words on a page and do something that uses your fine motor skills!"

According to this theory, our hunter/gatherer ancestors will always win: constant motion will always be credited over thoughtful contemplation.

Although human nature having the variety that it does, I suppose that even Neanderthal Bob got yelled out for staying in the cave doing art rather than throw rocks at the fire.

C.S. Lewis--who quite enjoyed long, rigorous hikes--has some incredibly negative things to say about enforced sports: "A school day contains hardly any leisure for a boy who does not like games. For him, to pass from the form room to the playing field is simply to exchange work in which he can take some interest for work in which he can take none, in which failure is more severely punished, and in which (worst of all) he must feign an interest."

This clip with Joseph Gordon-Levitt sums it up well: Climbing the Rope

FreeLiveFree said...

Well, I'm pretty sure physical activity is not necessary better than intellectual activity, but I believe in the dictum "Strong Mind, Strong Body." Having healthy body HELPS your mind and vice versa.

That said the enforced and regimented nature of Physical Education is frankly what turns a lot of people off. To say nothing of bullying by peers and sometimes even school staff. Someone who might be more interested in hiking or say martial arts than football or baseball does not necessarily do well. Just as person who is interested in literature might not be interested in biology. I became more physically active when I took interest in what I was doing.