(This is a companion piece to go with my review of The House at the End of Hope Street above)
Reading The House at the End of Hope Street this month made me realize something unsettling about myself. I have misogynistic tendencies and a tendency to view things in a heteronormative light. Everyone I know in meat space tends to think that I am The Ultimate Feminist, someone who takes feminism WAY too far. I roll my eyes and mutter “typical cishet white guy” under my breath like a curse. I will drop a show like a hot potato for treating women (especially queer women) poorly (hey, Moffat). I will literally start crying out of frustration when having a heated discussion about feminism.
However, while I was reading Hope Street I made an unconscious assumption about a strong willed English professor. Menna van Praag made a point to not address the English professor the main character Abla was in love with by a gendered pronoun. It was always ‘Dr.Skinner’ or ‘the professor.’ Having heard of this book from The Lesbray, I should have suspected that Dr. Skinner was in fact a women and that Alba was then in turn a queer women. However, for 75% of the novel, I was sure the professor was a man.
Is it institutionalized sexism, the way I just assumed a highly intelligent professor from Cambridge University would be a male? Probably. I’m only 20, and have only been aware of feminism for about two or three years so I haven’t quite shaken off what I was taught for the first 17-18 years of my life. Was it a shock to my system to realize this? Hell yes. It was rather scary. I feel like I should blame society and not myself for this, but I am one to always put the blame upon myself.
Is it institutionalized heteronormativity? Possibly. I read a lot of lesbian lit (although mostly YA) so it’s not that I’m not used to reading books about girls falling in love with one another. I think it was much more of a disbelief. This novel does not read like the queer lit I have read in the past. It read like a bestseller, one Oprah would put her book club stickers on. Not to mention it was written by a straight woman. I wasn’t expecting it to be an overly queer book. I didn’t dare hope that this person Alba was so, insanely infatuated with would be a women. I didn’t dare hope that the person Alba gets together with in the end would be a women, either. I’ve gotten used to just expecting not to be represented in any well written media. We get shit like Glee, we don’t get beautiful prose. I’ve gotten used to being pushed to the side and disappointed.
Is it a generalized distrust of men and a stereotypical view of women? Truthfully, probably. You see, the character of Dr. Skinner is a despicable villain. She uses Alba and screws her over in a huge way. Women are supposed to be motherly, right? That’s why Umbridge in Harry Potter is such a scary character. She’s a woman, she’s suppose to take care of these kids. Men, they are the ones with the power to make and break people. They’re the ones to be scared of. As a women, I am scared of men. I have to be. I am thankful I live in a relatively small and crime free city, but I still wouldn’t be caught dead on the streets after dark. Even in the daytime I speed up if a man is walking behind me closely. We’re told we have to be cautious of our actions and our wardrobe so men don’t do something evil to us.It seems like such a small thing but it says so much about myself and the society I have grown up in. I remember realizing I had read Lavender Brown as white and to this day I have consciously made sure that my headcanons at least have the same damn skin color as the character descriptions (if they are described as something other than white. Sometimes I change characters that are either described as white or are just defaulted to white as POCs because I firmly believe that it’s acceptable thing to do). I’m hoping this experience will enhance my reading and make me think about characters that are simply defaulted to men or women depending on the context. This topic could also be applied to characters automatically defaulted to cisgender, also, especially in terms of what context gives hints towards the character being male or female. However, I believe that that discussion will be saved until I read some more books with trans* characters and educate myself a little more.