On Sexism and Susan Pevensie

One of my favourite bloggers, Jillian, drew my attention to the Classic Remarks meme over at Pages Unbound. Essentially, this meme strikes me as “essay questions for people who really miss English lessons”. I am definitely one of those. Jillian’s blog is not always up, so I can’t link to her interesting answers at the moment, but I leafed through the questions with fascination. I will probably answer some of them gradually over the course of the next few months, but for one, I have an answer pretty much ready to go (and have done for years–I’m so glad someone finally asked me).

Susan Pevensie’s fate in CS Lewis’ The Last Battle has been criticised for being sexist. Do you think it’s sexist, or is Lewis trying to say or do something else?

Oh, man. This is something I’ve pondered a lot over the years. Full disclosure: I love CS Lewis. I’ve read a lot of his works, especially his Christian non-fiction writing, and they’ve been incredibly helpful to me in terms of my own faith. I reread the Chronicles of Narnia over and over as a child, and it was one of my primary sources of comfort when I was lonely and sad. It pains me to acknowledge that Lewis might have such a glaring flaw as outrageous sexism, but it’s visible in so many of his books. For example, The Four Loves was beautiful, except for his excessively weird pontificating on a woman’s role in sexual intercourse. This I would consider to be a Red Alert Danger Danger Abort Mission LAUNCH ESCAPE PODS sort of thing if I heard it from someone I was dating. Similarly, though well-written and fascinating, Voyage to Venus literally has the plotline “women are incapable of complex thought without Clever Men as Wise Guides”. I love CS Lewis, but a pretty hefty undercurrent of sexism is present in a lot of what he writes.

Having said all that, I don’t think this is an either/or question. A lot of what I’ve read suggests that CS Lewis is effectively punishing Susan for growing into a woman, but I’m not sure it’s anywhere near as straightforward as that. For a start, I think it’s troubling to view “nylons and lipstick and invitations” as the way of characterising womanhood. The Chronicles of Narnia has several female characters, and they are fairly diverse in terms of personality. For example, Lucy becomes Queen Lucy the Valiant. In The Horse and His Boy, in which she is an adult, she leads troops into battle. It’s not even the case that women who are desirable are punished, though this is another argument I’ve heard. We learn at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that princes from all the kingdoms adjacent to Narnia wanted to marry Lucy when she was grown. It’s inaccurate to argue that Susan, in this scene, is intended to represent all adult women, or all attractive adult women, or all adult women who are interested in men.

Susan does appear to represent a particular archetype, though. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Susan’s family take her to America with them because they think she’s pretty and no good at school—so, I guess, she’ll benefit from all the parties and won’t miss her education? This is a false dichotomy that has been drawn for women for a very long time: pretty girls are good at socialising and bad at school; clever girls are plain and undesirable. In fact, you get the feeling that this has been a hang-up for both Lucy and Susan. Pretty much the only time Lucy demonstrates ordinary human flaws is when she is flipping through the Magician’s book in VotDT and considering saying the spell to make her more beautiful beyond the lot of mortals. When we spy inside her fantasy, it isn’t so much that she wants to be beautiful. Rather, she wants the attention normally given to Susan. Very clearly, Lucy and Susan have had that line drawn for them: Lucy is unnoticed and plain, and Susan is pretty and popular. It is therefore not surprising that, since they had those pressures placed on them by their parents at a relatively early age, Susan grows up to rely heavily on her appearance for currency. Susan is probably a woman who’s always being told “don’t worry your pretty little head about it”. Whether she is actively choosing to play that role, or she’s yielded to expectation placed on her by the way society functions, or it’s just a result of irresponsible parenting—that is the situation Susan is in. It’s not surprising that she’s seeking “nylons and lipstick and invitations”—it’s what she’s been told she’s good at. I don’t think that Lewis was trying to critique this particular worldview, but he managed to do so anyway.

Viewing the Chronicles of Narnia through a Christian lens, Susan’s fate takes on a particularly interesting aspect. When I was a very small child, I remember talking about this scene with my mum. I think it might have been my first ever experience with reading critically. I asked her if she thought it meant women who wear lipstick can’t go to heaven. (She was startled). After we discussed it extensively, I came to a conclusion that I still hold to, more or less. I think that the problem is not nylons and lipstick and invitations, particularly. Rather, it’s the position of importance they hold in Susan’s life. She is now dismissive of Narnia and of her own siblings because she is so keen to immerse herself in this world—to dismiss Narnia as a childhood fantasy. After all, in The Horse and his Boy, Susan’s beauty and femininity are not treated as flaws. The problems she runs into with Rabadash are never blamed on her—they’re all on him. In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered if this is an attempt by Susan to win back the power she had in Narnia. She is utterly stripped of authority as a teenage girl in 1940s England. It must have been an enormous shock after having ruled a kingdom. I think that Lewis was trying to demonstrate that it’s important to carefully consider how you prioritise things as you grow up. If it had been Peter who was no longer a Friend of Narnia, I think it could just as easily have been “books and learning and exams” that acted as a distraction. In effect, Susan is idolising her social life—it’s obscuring her relationships with her family and the Friends of Narnia. I think lipstick and nylons and invitations are meant to be code for anything that is prioritised to the point of idolatry. That, to me, seems to be what Lewis is trying to get at.

Therefore—I don’t think that Susan’s fate is, in isolation, a sexist plotline. I think that it is reasonable to portray a woman who’s been told that her beauty is her primary quality as leaning into exactly that. If you look back at the contrast between how Susan is treated in Narnia, growing up, and how she is treated growing up a second time in England, I think her character arc is earned. However, I think that this choice was absolutely informed by Lewis’ particular views on gender. Plausibly, it could also have been Peter or Professor Kirke who had lost interest in Narnia and been side-tracked by other things, but it wasn’t. It’s simplistic to say that Susan is being punished for being a woman, but it’s also inaccurate to claim that the narrative doesn’t reflect Lewis’ worldview. I think it’s far more complicated than either/or, as these things so often tend to be.

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2 thoughts on “On Sexism and Susan Pevensie

  1. This is such a great answer! I’m glad we gave you the opportunity to pull it out. 😉

    I completely agree with you. I think “nylons and lipstick and invitations” are just meant to indicate that Susan is interested in worldly things instead of spiritual things, and it’s partially just an unfortunate accident Lewis chose a character whose worldly interests seem stereotypically feminine. I agree he could have done the same with “studying too much” or something stereotypically masculine like “playing sports.” So I don’t think Lewis meant much that was sexist in this particularly scene.

    However, I agree he has undercurrents of sexism in other works. Not an abnormal amount or a rare approach to women for the period he was living in, so I don’t hold it against him too personally. In Mere Christianity he blithely says men should have the upper hand in marriages because in a partnership of two people, one person needs to be the one with tie-breaking authority when you disagree on stuff. Ok…but why should it ALWAYS be the man? Without any elaboration on this statement, there’s a clear implication of “Well obviously men are better and smarter and should always be the one making decisions, not women.”

    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment! Certainly CS Lewis was very much of his time, and I’m inclined to give him a pass on a lot of the things he said. Other than in Voyage to Venus, it’s never significantly diminished my enjoyment of any of his books.

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