‘To ev’rybody’s prejudice I know a thing or two/ I can tell a woman’s age in half a minute-and I do!/ But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can/ Yet ev’rybody says I am a disagreeable man/ And I can’t think why!’–W.S. Gilbert. King Gama’s Song in Princess Ida, Act I.

As long as we’re playing the “name the literary genius with shocking prejudices” game, let’s talk about one of my favorites, Sir William S. Gilbert.

Andrew Crowther recently wrote a great piece in The Guardian, examining the oft-leveled charge that Gilbert was quite sexist.  Crowther’s opinion is more or less mine, which is: yes, Gilbert was sexist, but his female characters weren’t just caricatures–there is more nuance to them than critics realize.

One thing to note is that I don’t get the sense Gilbert was any more sexist than the society he lived in was.  (Contrast with the subject of my previous post–H.P.Lovecraft was an extreme racist even by the standards of his time.)

That doesn’t excuse Gilbert, of course, but it makes it more understandable why he thought the way he did.  Moreover, I have never gotten the sense that Gilbert hated women.  He didn’t see them as equal to men, but that’s different than flat-out misogyny.

The best way of addressing the issue of the unpleasant old spinster characters that feature in many of the Savoy operas is to play the men as shallow cads.  This isn’t that hard to do.  Frankly, I don’t think Gilbert liked romantic tenors any more than he liked spinster ladies. Want to make Ruth in Pirates sympathetic?  It’s not too much of a stretch to play Frederic as a shallow imbecile–the entire plot hinges on him being one anyway.

Also, I’ve never thought Princess Ida was just a satire on women’s education–Gilbert pokes fun at it, sure (he was a satirist, after all) but he also mocks men as being dumb, brutish oafs.

None of this is to say  Gilbert is innocent of sexism, but just that the plays must be understood in the context of their time, and sexism unfortunately comes with the territory.

Should the plays be re-written to be less offensive?  There is precedent for that, as the “N word” was removed from both The Mikado and Princess Ida. But it was an easy re-write, as it occurred only in passing in a couple of songs.  The sexism is a harder task, since it involves whole characters.  I agree with Crowther: reinterpretation is the best solution here.

Like all great writers, Gilbert wrote about human nature, and I believe that his wit was so sharp, and his insight so keen, that he sometimes unconsciously saw through the prejudices of his day to essential truths.  Take this song from Princess Ida:

Is it mocking prototypes of the so-called “man-hating feminist”, or is it mocking  anti-feminist men–“pick-up artists”, who try to cloak their misogyny but nonetheless think of women only as sexual objects?  It’s a little of both, I think.  It works perfectly well as either.

Check out this BuzzFeed article about a Scholastic Books series called Survive Anything!  The article claims that the books are “misogynistic” because there is an edition for boys and an edition for girls.  The boys’ edition teaches things like “How to Survive a Tornado”, “How to Survive a Broken Leg” and, perhaps least usefully, “How to Survive a T-Rex”. (Oughtn’t they at least teach how to survive time-travel first?)  The girls’ edition, on the other hand, teaches stuff like “How to survive a BFF Fight”, “How to Show You’re Sorry” and “Top Tips for Speechmaking”.

This, the writer at BuzzFeed says, is not right.  Why do girls get tips on emotional, domestic-type stuff when boys get tips on how to survive in the wild?

Well, I agree it’s not right, of course. But I don’t think it’s misogynistic.  It’s really just sexist. But if you must use a stronger term, it’s misandrist.  Surviving a tornado is a useful skill, although frankly, unless you already have tornado shelter built, it’s purely a matter of luck.  Most of the Indiana Jones-like scenarios the boys’ version seems to cover are situations that (a) probably will never happen and (b) would be decided mostly by chance if they did happen.

The girls edition teaches all sorts of things that might actually occur.  I’m a man, and I’ve never needed to know how to survive my parachute failing, but I have had to give speeches and say “I’m sorry” for things.  But these books merely assume that men would never be concerned with such things.  Well, enough of that prejudiced thinking, say I!  I resent the notion that we fellas are only good for feats of brute strength and endurance, and that the civilized arts of diplomacy are closed to us!