Is it possible to be a feminist and a fan of the Beats?
My readings of the Beat generation are mostly limited to the canonical texts of Kerouac, Burroughs and the poetry of Ginsberg, but you would not exactly have to search far and wide to notice that the Beat’s representations of women are not particularly equal or inclusive.
When I first picked up Ginsberg’s Howl as a teenager, it is no exaggeration to say that I fell in love with it more than any piece of literature I had ever read before. It was new and exciting. It was bold and brave. It was nonconformist and it was fucking liberating. It was disappointing, then, to see that this liberation did not extend to women and I remember feeling conflicted at Ginsberg’s remarks of the “one eyed shrew who does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of a craftsman loom.” I brushed it off, pretending Ginsberg had not just aligned all women with the female archetype of the ‘Housewife,’ reducing her to nothing more than a hindrance to male intelligence. I suppose I felt like a guilty feminist finding so much enjoyment in a text that so strongly reinforced the exact depictions of women that I should be criticising.
The more I read of the Beats, the more I fell in love with their writing and their way of life and yet, it was evident that there was very little place for women in their counterculture of drugs, jazz and roadtrips. Women were outsiders to their world rather than respected equivalents. Any female characters in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road served no more of a purpose than negligible, pretty accessories, and the absence or inferiority of women is consistent across texts. Even the female Beat authors are still largely ignored today, drowned out by the sound of angry, Beat men. It is certainly a bizarre contradiction that whilst the Beats confront capitalism, institutionalised social conformity, hegemonic heterosexuality and literary forms, their views on women remain entirely backward. Despite their many challenges upon American society, this is a downfall of their literature and we should pay attention to it!
Denial of the patriarchal ideologies that are present within their writing is no way to deal with this predicament, however, nor is denying ourselves the enjoyment of reading the Beats altogether. I certainly will continue to read, enjoy, and rave about, Beat brilliance and I do believe it is possible to be inspired by them whilst also recognising their shortcomings.
I love the Beats but I most assuredly do not accept everything that they have written. We should take care not to fall into the trap of simply overlooking and ignoring their harmful presentations of women. I think as long as we can remove the rose tinted glasses and, instead, apply a critical eye when reading them, then it is possible to be both a Beat fan and a feminist…