So as an English major, I’ve considered (an insanely large amount of times) the narrowness of the literary canons we study. Furthermore, as a Women’s Studies minor, I’m constantly noticing the absence of multi-ethnic women (and women in general) in my literature classes. Unless you’re taking an English class that’s cross-referenced with Women’s Studies, you basically shouldn’t expect to read any women authors. Now I’m not going to sit here and preach about how women authors are omitted from general English classes and how messed up it is. That’s all pretty obvious–if you’ve taken an English class here a JMU (or pretty much anywhere) chances are you’ve noticed the lack of women authors and the abundance of dead white guy authors. What I want to point out is how, for example, this issue of the narrow American literary canon seems to snowball into more powerful patriarchal practices.
Here’s what I mean: So I’m taking the GRE subject test in literature this Saturday (I’m thrilled, by the way) and I came across an interesting statement in my study guide from the Princeton Review. This is the statement that precedes the list of “things you should study”: “You may be thinking ‘These lists are 99 percent dead white European males. Women and people of color are underrepresented!’ These omissions are not oversights, and neither are we trying to defend the ‘traditional literary canon’ […] We aren’t trying to be comprehensive and we aren’t trying to be fair. We are preparing you for the GRE Literature in English Subject Test.” Now I’m not hating on the Princeton Review for this comment, how can you? I mean they’re just being realistic about what’s on the test–it’s probably not gonna be anything about women’s writing, so don’t bother studying it. Harsh, but true.
This got me thinking, though. One patriarchal entity inevitably snowballs into another. Since the traditional literary canon excludes women and people of color, so does my study guide for the GRE. The Princeton Review is stuck following in the footsteps of the patriarchal society that leaves women and people of color out of the traditional literary canon. Another example that comes to mind is the make-up industry. Makeup companies establish a beauty ideal, and if we want to look “beautiful,” receive romantic attention, and feel confident, we have no choice but to respond to that ideal, thus fueling the existence of patriarchy. This all reminds me of how confining patriarchy can be, and of how it’s confining nature is cyclic in that it gives rise to other patriarchal imprisonments. So what can we do to break the cycle? What comes to mind (because it’s totally awesome and applicable to pretty much anything) is Audre Lorde’s idea that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Basically, we can’t adopt the mentality that we’re helpless before the power of patriarchy, and that we have no choice but to succumb to it (and therefore perpetuate it). Instead, what we need to do is not respond to the sexism, racism, and classism that contribute to patriarchal power. Rather, we should adopt new methods with which can run our society. I personally think the key is to start small. For example, stop wearing makeup (it’s a scary idea, I know) and prove to yourself and others that you can be beautiful and confident without it. This is just an example, but what do you all think? What else can we do to dismantle the master’s house?