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Holden & I, Part II: Holden & Feminism

Part II: Holden & Feminism

Welcome back, my fellow Holden-ites! I hope you've got your red hunting hats at the ready, because we're going to get right into the second installment of the Holden & I series, Holden & Feminism. In it, I'll be briefly analyzing Salinger's female characters and Holden's relationship to them, in order to further answer the pressing question I touched upon in my last post: is Holden a feminist?

But, per usual, a brief disclaimer first: I didn't write the Catcher in the Rye (oh, if only!) and I don't own any of these characters. I've tried to cite my sources as best as possible, but if you catch something that appears copied, please e-mail me at chicklitkitchen@gmail.com so I can update my citations! Finally, an MLA citation is provided for your convenience at the bottom of this page...please use it! Plagiarism is the Devil of all English classes, and trust me, you will get caught.

In my first installment of the Holden & I series, Holden & Sexuality, I argued that Holden Caulfield was, to some degree, a feminist, because of his noble crusade against date rape. Although I still stand by my word, in true Holden-esque fashion, I’m also going to become a major hypocrite. This post is dedicated to the women in the Catcher in the Rye – in other words, to why Holden Caulfield is decidedly not a feminist.

Salinger was not a fan of the strong female character; the closest we come to a heroine in this book is the precocious Phoebe, but because she’s technically a child, I don’t count her. There is no dearth of prominent women in the Catcher in the Rye: there’s Sunny, there’s Sally, and, of course, there’s Jane. But of these three principal female characters, none of them defies traditional beliefs about women, and none of them is particularly independent. Jane, for one, is portrayed as extremely vulnerable – and although we can assume that her creepy child molester of a relative is responsible, it does not change the fact that Salinger’s portrayal of her is weak.

In my opinion, the strongest female character in the book is Sunny, the prostitute. She wields considerable control over her sexuality and does not hesitate to stand up for herself when she believes she has been paid less than what she is due. However, Sunny is a prostitute, a position that is both inherently sexual and inherently shameful; this diminishes the significance of her comfortable sexuality. Not to mention, when she sticks up to Holden, she has to drag a man along with her - the piggish Maurice. Although she is the most independent of Salinger’s characters in the Catcher in the Rye, she is still far from it – and although Salinger writes plenty of female characters into the story, the men of Catcher dominate and prevail.

To be fair, the 1950s were not a good era for the feminist movement in general. During WWII, women had held jobs outside the home to compensate for the absences of their husbands. They had become the primary and often sole providers for their entire families. But when their husbands returned from war, bruised, bloody, and high on victory, they were not eager to accept this change. Women were typically fired from the jobs they had held during the war, in favor of the returning male workforce. Reversion was complete and sudden, and those women who protested were targeted with staunch advertisement from the federal government. With the spike in nationalism after the war, these women never would have risked facing the shame of keeping their jobs when the government was telling them it was their patriotic duty to stay home and take care of their husbands. The growing popularity of the suburban lifestyle only helped to further ingrain the role of women as queens of domesticity, as it entwined both familial and social life in a way it never had before: female life encompassed not just chasing the children, but also entertaining house guests at cocktail parties and brunches. (Vanessa Martins Lamb)

Despite the overall helplessness of the females in Holden’s life, Salinger’s view of women through Holden’s eyes is still somewhat positive considering the circumstances of the era. Generally speaking, Holden likes girls more than boys, and is more sympathetic toward women than toward men. When he encounters Ernst Morrow’s mother on the train to New York, his description of her reveals that he is more tolerant of some of her quirks than he might have if she were a man. For example, when Mrs. Morrow leaves her bag in the middle of the aisle, Holden cites this as a reason why he “just likes [women]”. However, if a guy like Ackley or Stradlater had acted similarly in this situation, Holden probably would have responded critically, considering his slander of Ackley’s and Stradlater’s array of habits. Holden takes pity on Mrs. Morrow, deliberately acting like what he would call a “phony” to spare her feelings about her son’s true character. Although Holden seems to take on a kinder, less defensive air toward women, his behavior also shows that he might be less honest with them.

Holden assumes that the women and girls he meets are less intelligent than him, but differently than he does with men. Holden feels himself above the guys at school because he acts in a more “civilized” manner than them. However, around girls, he is deliberately deceitful, yet he snickers at these women for believing him. On page 57, Holden says “mothers aren’t too sharp” because Mrs. Morrow so readily absorbed the false information he fed her about her son, but rather than acknowledge that he has taken advantage of her, he blames this on her intelligence, as if she should have known better. The same angle of portrayal is taken with the three girls Holden meets at the Lavender Room. Holden takes advantage of the girls’ obsession with movie stars (an interest he considers inferior, due to his abhorrence of the “phoniness” of Hollywood) and tricks them into believing that one appeared at the bar, for his own sheer amusement; then he blames the girls for being “dopes.”

The especially strange part is that Holden actually prefers spending time with less intelligent women to women who he might consider his equal (although, considering his exorbitantly high standards, is there really anyone whom Holden would consider his “equal?”). On page 73, he describes the intoxicating air of girls who are merely pretty faces, explaining how regardless of what qualities are underneath, he can fall in love with a girl almost instantly. Hypocritically, this could make Holden naive and a bit of a romantic, while also attesting to the fact that he is, duh, a teenage boy. On pages 70-71, he says that dancing with a smart girl is not as fun as dancing with an air head, because “half the time she’s trying to lead you around the dance floor.” This suggests that Holden has a bit of an inferiority complex about his intelligence; like many boys of old, he would find it embarrassing to date someone smarter than him. Compared to his attitudes about women and sex, Holden’s view of a woman’s intelligence is decidedly traditional – and decidedly misogynistic.  

The only exception to the rule of intelligence is Holden’s little sister, Phoebe. Holden idealizes Phoebe, constantly describing her with the word “pretty” and characterizing her as “smart.” He also overlooks her interest in the movies, the object of Holden’s deepest hatred. Holden idealized his brother similarly, so I think the reason why he loves and idolizes Phoebe so much has more to do with Phoebe’s similarities to Allie than with the fact that she is a girl. But, he clearly likes Phoebe - a child and a girl - a lot more than most of the guys his own age, and far more than most of the adults he meets on his adventure, attesting not only to his preference for women but to his desperation to retain his innocence.

Even though Salinger’s female characters are far from self-actualized, I still have hope for Holden as a feminist. His respect for female sexuality, particularly his respectful treatment of Jane, plant the preliminary grains of feminism in the reader's brain. Were he born in a different place and time – say, thirty years later - he might have blossomed into a fully-fledged feminist.

It is also worth noting that Holden attends an all-boys’ school, so he has been surrounded by the popular societal opinion of women as sexual objects his entire high school career. Because that is what he has been taught, it is only natural that Holden display shows clear signs of masculine bias. The fact that his brain contains even a seed of feminism is remarkably radical for both the era and for Holden’s situation.

Like Holden’s provocative preoccupation with sex, Holden and Salinger’s treatment of female characters can and should be used to spark dialogue in classrooms and at home. Treating the Catcher in the Rye as a "boys' book" that all girls are simply destined to hate is just as misogynistic as Holden's objectification of Sally's twitchy lil' butt. Believe it or not, girls can - and will - identify with a male narrator, despite his bias against their sex. To catalyze the process, Stephanie Polukis’ Teaching J.D. Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ from Multiple Critical Perspectives features the brilliant idea of asking students to rewrite a scene in the book from a female character’s perspective. Holden’s first-person narration is critical to establishing the voice and tone of the Catcher in the Rye, yes, but it also colors the story with Holden’s – and Salinger’s – male-oriented lens, one that can obstruct a female student's ability to relate with Holden's concerns. 

 As illustrated by the backlash to the feminist movement even today, it is remarkably difficult to combat the bigoted attitudes we have grown up with our whole lives – even if our mind knows we are acting wrongly, the heart can be more difficult to convince (read more about changing your heart and mind in my post "Old Habits Die Hard"...I even quoted Frozen!). However, it is also vitally important to change both hearts and minds in order to achieve true change.  In J.D. Salinger’s the Catcher in the Rye, protagonist Holden Caulfield may not have been a feminist – but he was certainly no misogynist. During the 1950s, when traditional beliefs about women prevailed, this baby-step forward, although tiny, was a notable step nonetheless. 



Can you believe that after this post, there's only one more left in my Holden & I series? Eek! Stay tuned next Sunday for the third and final edition of Holden & I, Holden & Salinger...and once the series is over, keep checking back for a special announcement of my new 30-Day Challenge! Whatever could it be? (Hint: it has nothing to do with caffeine, despite what I wrote in my "Old Habits Die Hard" post!)

Anyways, thank you all, my lovely lit geeks, for reading - and have a beautiful, magical Sunday afternoon! As for me, today is my last day on vacation, so I'll just be sulking about the house all day trying to make the most of what little time I've got left (and, okay, rushing to meet those homework deadlines...#truelife). I challenge all of you to live your last day of the weekend to the fullest, and send love and sparkles to all of you!

XOXO, Haley


To Cite This Article (in MLA format):
The Chick Lit Kitchen. Holden & I, Part II: Holden & Feminism. Blogspot, 22 Feb. 2015. Web. Date you accessed this post.

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