I’m not sure Aaron Sorkin is the Feminist Messiah: On why criticisms of Surrendered Wives bother me.

I’ve just been reading a Telegraph article about a book written by one Costanza Miriano, which carries the delightful title of Get Married and Be Submissive (Cásate y Sé Sumisa). Rainey, the author of the Telegraph article, is quick to give us a snapshot, not only of the contents of this text, but also of the kind of idiots who enjoyed it:

“Some have hailed it “revolutionary”, flooding book websites with glowing five-star reviews. “It reflects a sincere, optimistic vision of the marital relationship, which today is deemed truly daring,” gushes one reader. “Full of humour and common sense,” trills another.”

You might notice that the terms Rainey uses to describe these reviews – ‘gushes’ and ‘trills’ – are not entirely innocent of gendered connotations. I’ve yet to hear a (straight) man’s voice, let alone the qualities of his written review, described as ‘trilling’.

This is an implication we’re probably meant to pick up: this is a book written by a woman, for women. You’ve probably come across similar titles – Rainey mentions the most best known, American author Laura Doyle’s much-mocked version, The Surrendered Wife. Books like these generate an enormous amount of media controversy. It is obvious to everyone that they perpetuate a particularly unpleasant form of internalized misogyny. But increasingly, I find myself having problems with the way we’re encouraged to join in gleefully with kicking these writers down.

There is a dynamic to the media criticism of this genre of women’s writing about female submission. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have seen and applauded a lot of smart leftie take-downs of these women. The author of Get Married is basing her argument on the Bible, and on what I think most of us would recognize as a peculiarly literal-and-partial interpretation of the Bible. As President Bartlett famously pointed out to Jenna Jacobs, you can’t really have it both ways. If you want to argue that the words of the Bible are literally true and wives are literally meant to submit to their husbands, then you’re going to struggle to live in a modern world where we do not, as a rule, observe the letter of Jewish law. If you want to preach female submissiveness as a Biblical tenet, then you’d better not expose yourself as someone who hasn’t read the Bible perfectly.

The classic quotation I’m pussyfooting around is from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It’s one of those quotations it’s usually assumed we all sort of ‘know,’ to the extent that the Telegraph article doesn’t actually quote it. So here we are:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them. Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”

This is a passage that is almost begging a smug, quasi-feminist comeback. As the priest who married me to my husband would argue, this passage isn’t really sexist. Right after he tackles wives, St Paul gives an equivalent (or is it?) warning to husbands – ‘love your wives and do not be bitter towards them’. The rest of the text descends reassuringly into modern parenting advice. Be nice to your kids. Don’t do that 1950s stiff-upper-lip thing. St Paul is really an attachment parenting type. A lot of responses to the submissive Christian wife genre take this tone. I find it difficult not to do it myself. In fact, when my friend posted this Telegraph article, my first response was to snipe at Miriano’s level of theological acumen.

But there’s something pretty glib about dismissing Miriano’s reading of the Bible and glossing over what the text says. St Paul continues (and this is a much less frequently-quoted bit):

“Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.”

So, um, slaves … please do try to be happy about it. After all, like women, you were probably biologically programmed and divinely destined to be submissive.

I’m not quoting the end of the passage just to prove I can out-quote all comers (though the internet does make that easy). I’m doing it because actually, I am pretty sure Miriano has the spirit of the letter correct here, depressing as it is. What’s wrong with her argument isn’t a bad reading of the Bible, or the fact that her female readers ‘trill’ or ‘gush’ when they should all be reading T. S. Eliot and thinking higher thoughts.

I think that the Telegraph piece is an example of how criticism of this particular genre of submissive-wife writing shoots itself in the foot. It doesn’t especially help that Rainey begins by setting Get Married in opposition to that great piece of feminist polemic, 50 Shades of Grey. Because, of course, modern women had never understood the true meaning of liberation until we placed our inner goddesses at the disposal of a man with bondage gear and about as much natural sex appeal as John Prescott.

The real problem begins when Rainey starts to historicize Miriano’s writing. Apparently,

“It’s more like a history lesson on the dark ages than a guide for modern brides. … Miriano’s vision is one from the Fifties, of pinny-wearing wives waiting hand-and-foot on their hard-working husbands.”

If I had a quid for every time someone mentioned ‘the Dark Ages’ or ‘the Fifties’ as a shorthand for ‘The Age of Female Oppression (long past)’, I would never have to feel down the sofa for bus fare again. These periods for history were undoubtedly bad for women, as they were for the poor, the sick, the disabled, and pretty much every currently disadvantaged group you can think of. (Apart from Northerners. Northeners were doing pretty much ok in the Dark Ages.) But these periods of history aren’t somehow special in that respect. Nor is the misogyny they’re associated with entirely something of the past. And by implying that attitudes like Miriano’s are stuck in the past, we risk failing to recognize that actually, they’re attitudes shared by millions of men and women in 2013, by whole governments and religious movements and institutions of immensely greater power than one bestselling author.

As I’m writing this, I feel bad about criticizing a journalist who draws attention to the increasing popularity of internalized misogyny. I feel bad about criticizing a female journalist. But that’s the point. Women writers, and women who internalize misogyny, aren’t above criticism, but nor should they be the primary targets. That the most enthusiastically sarcastic criticisms of women’s internalized bias come from sources like the Telegraph, and like Sorkin’s not-really-that-feminist fictional president, I’m not sure I want to join in the kicking.

About Jeanne de Montbaston

Researcher in Medieval Studies
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