In search of ‘the defective male’ in literature

‘the defective male’


In the countless examples of sexism in literature, there is a category in which the female is depicted as missing something that the male has.  The male is first and pre-eminent, the female derivative.  In other words, she is—at best—a defective male.


Genesis 2, Bible (1450-1410 BC)

The Bible’s position is that women were created to be the helpers of men, subordinate and submissive to male leadership.  The Fall of Man is both cause and effect of the natural antagonism between male and female.  Eve, made of Adam’s rib, is naturally inferior, and therefore guiltier.  The result of sin was to worsen the condition of women from submissiveness to servitude.


Aristotle’s Biology (384-322BC)

Just a few of Aristotle’s statements:

The male is separated from the female, since it is something better and more divine in that it is the principle of movement for generated things, while the female serves as their matter.

A woman is as it were an infertile male.

The female is as it were a deformed male.

The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled.

Aristotle’s definition of a female as a mutilated male was transmitted into biological, obstetrical, and theological tracts with far-reaching cultural effects.


Commentary, Cor. 11.3, St. Thomas Aquinas (mid 13th century)

“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence . . .  This, therefore, is the reason why the woman was produced from the man, because he is more perfect than the woman, which the Apostle proves from the fact that the end is more perfect than that which is for the end; but man is the woman’s end.  And this is what he says: For man was not created for woman, but woman for the sake of man, as a helper, namely, in reproduction, as the patient is for the sake of the agent and matter for the sake of form. Man is the image and glory of God, but woman the glory of man, necessary for the propagation of the species, but impaired at conception so as to lack the physical and mental excellence of the male.”


A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen (1879)

By the 19th century, centuries of sexism had been internalized.  Even when women knew they were behaving in a superior way, it was denied by all.  In Ibsen’s play, poor Nora plays the part of the frivolous, scatter-brained child-wife for the benefit of her husband.  In a moment of crisis, she contemplates suicide to save her husband from the shame of the revelation of her crime—something she undertook to save him.  The crisis passes.  Torvald grandiosely explains to Nora that her mistake makes her all the more precious to him because it reveals an adorable helplessness, and that when a man has forgiven his wife it makes him love her all the more since she is the recipient of his generosity.


“The Psychical Consequences of the Anatomic Distinction Between the Sexes”,

Sigmund Freud (1925)

“The little girl notices the strikingly visible and well-proportioned penis of a brother or playmate, immediately recognizing it as the superior counterpart of her own small and hidden little organ and from then on she is subject to penis envy. She has seen it, knows that she does not have it, and wants it.”

Clinging to this idea throughout his career, Freud stated in 1933, “Girls hold their mother responsible for their lack of a penis and do not forgive her for their being thus put at a disadvantage”.

In 1949, in response to Karen Horney criticism of his ideas, Freud wrote, “We shall not be very greatly surprised if a woman analyst who has not been sufficiently convinced of the intensity of her own wish for a penis also fails to attach proper importance to that factor in her patients”.  According to Freud, Horney’s concept of womb envy emerged as a result of her own supposed penis envy.

(Enough said.)


The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, (1963)

Friedan identifies the problem that has no name: The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’


The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer (1970)

“The title is an indication of the problem,” Greer told The New York Times in a 1971 interview about her book. “Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”



“Dick and Jane as Victims: Sex Stereotyping in Children’s Readers”,

Women on Words and Images (1973)

According to this study, sexism infects thousands of textbooks for primary students from readers to math books.  The 57-page study analyzes 2,760 stories in 134 schoolbooks and concludes that boy-centered stories outnumber girl-centered stories 5 to 2, that positive traits are monopolized by male characters, and that the books show 147 different career possibilities for boys but only 26 for girls.


Chinese one-child policy (1979)

Not only are females missing something— they are missing altogether.  With boys being viewed as culturally preferable, the practice of female infanticide — which had been common before 1949 but was largely eradicated by the 1950s — was resumed in some areas shortly after the one-child policy went into effect.  The resulting gender imbalance widened after 1986, when ultrasound tests and abortions became easier to come by.  China banned prenatal sex screening in 1994.  Nonetheless, an April 2009 study published in the British Medical Journal found China still has 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20.




Twilight Series, Stephanie Meyer (2005-2008)

As women make strides toward equality (or at least an acknowledgement of inequality), as they become strong heroines of their own stories, there seems to be a deep cultural need to reinstate the status quo.  If human females are the equals of human males, it’s necessary to raise the males to another level of superiority, so that the idea of the ‘more perfect male’ may be retained.

The male heroes of the Twilight Series—a vampire and a werewolf—are not monsters.  Rather, they are supernatural beings possessing great powers, wisdom and self-control among them.  The very human Bella is depicted as the temptress-child, needing guidance, protection, constant watching over. Bella is chastised for being irresistible and warned that if something bad happens because the super-males around her cannot control themselves, it will be her own fault.

Where have we heard all this before?


  1. Does life imitate art or does art imitate life … either way, some things are the way they are because they always have been. And if they always have been … there is likely a legitimate reason.
    Even when it comes to human behavior, some things have strained back and forth since the inception of our species. Likely this tension and resulting serpentine wave will continue into the future as clearly as it has come from the past. All forms of life have an aspect in common … they are shaped by nature. And survival is the mechanics of nature.
    The survival of any living species is preserved by the behavior of that species.
    A change in behavior will affect a change in survival. There is no fairness about it.
    There is no right or wrong … no morality behind it. It is a cold and certain mechanical truth.
    Behavior is managed more through mathematics of reproduction than through philosophy.
    Sadly, only changes in reproductive technologies have and will continue to herald meaningful changes in gender roles or behaviors.

    • I am not completely certain what you mean. There are many species in which the female is dominant, and there are cases of matriarchal societies in human culture, both of which provide counter examples to your claims.

      In terms of the works of literature I’ve cited, my point is to show how Western culture in the past two thousand (or so) years has been overshadowed by the ‘thoughts’ of those in power, in which gender inequities have been reflected and perpetuated. While those in Aristotle’s day might have considered his ideas to be scientific, we now know they are nothing of the sort. And yet, his writings influenced later so-called ‘scientific’ writings and, even worse, decisions by the Church and other political institutions. The works I cited are most definitely not based on science; they are rather purely cultural, and in many cases they were motivated by greed, ignorance, possessiveness, the desire for power, control, expanded territory, etc.

      If Aristotle’s sister had been allowed to be educated–in fact, had she not been considered less than a dog, a mere slave, a defective male–she might have come up with a theory that ‘proved’ males to be inferior, which would have been at least as valid as what he originated.

      As to the part about behaviour being managed through “mathematics of reproduction”, if you’re referring to the fact that males produce millions of sperm and females only one egg per month for a set number of years and offer this as a reason for male infidelity or multiple wives, my answer to that is that biology is destiny only up to a point. We are not beasts. Human beings, male and female, are capable of reason, and reason governs biology. Show me a human who can’t control biological urges, and I’ll show you someone–male or female–without a completely developed cerebral cortex.

      It isn’t changes in technologies that will make the difference–it’s enlightenment.

  2. Just discovered your wonderful blog (so inspiring and introducing me to several books I must read, terrific advice on writing – then the gut-wrenching examples of sexism and how far our society has to go. So well written, so true, so sad.

    I just wanted to mention a couple of “counterculture” examples from literature that were around competing with the dominant views you quoted about women being misshapen men and so forth, just to acknowledge that there were pro equality views (maybe that’s too strong a word in some cases) going back further than many realize. Sorry about that huge sentence!

    The German medieval Dominican monk Meister Eckhart preached that when God made Eve, he did not make her from Adam’s feet (meaning she would be inferior), nor from her head (meaning she’d be superior), but from his side, signifying that they were equal partners. He also was associated with the Beguine movement, especially Margaret Porete. Granted, he was accused of writing heretical things (about how all Christians give birth to Christ, actually), so was largely erased from history till modern times.

    As for Aristotle’s “medical” writings, at least give a shout out to Hildegard von Bingen, who wrote much more accurate work on women’s health (and a zillion other things). She was excommunicated three times by the Catholic Church before becoming a saint and one of only two women to be named “Doctor of the Church” (a very high – highest? – ranking of theologians).

    There are others, but I ramble. Not that this counters your point in any way, just offers a different view that existed in the shadows of history.

    Of course, in the East, I read about a Taoist Sage who considered it a sign of his advanced stage when his penis retracted into his body so completely and permanently that he “had to squat on the ground to pee like a woman.” But that’s Taoism, not the West (and certainly not Confucianism).

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