“Why is it that women write so little satire” was a question posed in 1984 by Hilde Wackerhagen, and one that is still valid today. Even though gender theories have been informing literary scholarship since the development of feminist literary criticism in the 1970s, the theory of satire (so far) seems to have been largely untouched by them, and companions to English-language literature even now mention almost exclusively male writers, without discussing in any shape or form why this choice has been made. Paul Simpson, renowned English professor at the University of Liverpool, points out the obvious in writing “the tradition of canonical satire is overwhelmingly male-dominated.”
This is all the more surprising, since English-speaking writers such as Mary Elsner and Julie Jelinek were drawing attention in interviews early on to the discrimination taking place against satire by women. English literature departments across the world are now pointing out and calling into question the long-held presumption that satire is a “gendered” or “manly” genre. In a way, this isn’t new news.
The problematical status of women writers who dedicate themselves to satire as a mode of writing is largely due to the fact that the literary attitude inherent in satirical texts harbors a potential for aggression which, in the final analysis, is ultimately intended destructively. If we look at the history of women’s writing, we see that aggressiveness, brutality and negativity are literary gestures which have been appropriated by only a very few women writers. The more aggressive the jokes become, the less we see women involved in making them.
Even in work being written by women today, aggressive forms of humor are still the exception. While the tabooization of aggression, which to a certain extent undermines satire, also applies to male authors, the position of the female writer, already rendered precarious by its deviation from the norm, is exacerbated by her position as a satirist and as a woman. The prohibition of female aggressiveness, and even denying its existence, has a long tradition.
Since rejecting female aggressiveness involves a taboo which has been and is still propagated and upheld in part by women themselves, the role social prohibitions of female aggression play in satire is a critical blind spot even now in feminist interrogations of constructions of femininity in literature. Studies arguing from an essentialist or biological point of view, operating from the assumption of a more or less ‘natural’ inhibition of aggression in women, are still heard both at the dinner table and the seminar table. Satirical texts by women writers have been considered, if at all, in women’s literature studies and literary scholarship with a leaning towards gender theory only if they dealt explicitly with the topics of gender struggle, sexuality, or power and more or less explicitly presented women as being the victims of the patriarchal order. Satire by women beyond these narrow themes is all but unheard of.
The blocking-out of a certain female tradition of satire reveals not only the limits, but also the blind spots of feminist-leaning women’s literature studies. It means that the categories of this (counter-) canon of literature by women writers are just as questionable and seem just as exclusive as those of a traditionally ‘male’-dominated literary canon. But even the most recent studies and literary lexica are still propagating the image of a canon of satirical writing that is dominated by male writers, continuing the prejudice even now that says that satire is a “masculine genre.” This must change if something approaching equality is ever to be achieved in literature studies.
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