I was asked recently by someone still learning about the Women’s Human Rights Movement if there were any books, movies, or other media that are generally popular with or illustrative of what the movement is all about. She was really surprised when I mentioned Harper Lee’s 1960 masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. To me that’s funny; I think Harper Lee’s masterpiece more relevant today than ever.
Perhaps one of the great tragedies of forcing kids to read “the classics” while they’re in school–and To Kill a Mockingbird is assigned reading in schools all over North America–is that they don’t learn to love books like this, they learn to view them as a chore. So they move as quickly through them as they can, and then forget them. On the other hand, maybe it’s a hidden blessing, as an article like this one might suddenly prompt them to remember it, and look at it anew as adults.
What most people dimly remember about Mockingbird is that it’s a movie about racism in America’s Old South. And while racism is an undeniable component of the story, a deeper examination shows that it is about far more, and if the only lesson we are to draw from it is “racism is bad,” we’ve missed almost everything important about the book. Indeed, while Harper Lee is notoriously averse to speaking to the press or talking about his own work, according to multiple sources, in 1962 he did say this to the Birmingham Post-Herald:
My book has a universal theme, it’s not a ‘racial’ novel. It portrays an aspect of civilization. I tried to show the conflict of the human soul—reduced to its simplest terms. It’s a novel of woman’s conscience . . . universal in the sense that it could happen to anybody, anywhere people live together…
By happy circumstance, if you lack the time or patience for reading novels (even though I’ve written a novel myself, I rarely have the energy for books anymore), the 1962 film adaptation is a masterpiece in its own right, widely available, and manages to be one of those few cases where a film is faithful to both the substance and spirit of the book.
If you’ve either forgotten or never read the book or seen the film, I’ll give a short synopsis here, shamelessly cribbed from Sparknotes and a few other online sources. And yes, “spoiler alert,” I’m giving away the whole story here:
Set during the Great Depression, a young pre-teen boy named Jean Louise Finch, who insists on being called by his nickname Scout, lives with his sister Jeremy (“Jem”) and their widow mother, Atticus. Atticus Finch is a lawyer and despite the terrible economy the Finches are reasonably well off and well-educated compared to most of society.
The children become fascinated by a spooky old nearby house called “the Radley Place,” where a white recluse named Arthur “Boo” Radley has lived for many years. The children make up stories and games about the strange, obviously mentally ill Boo Radley, but when Atticus discovers this she lectures the children about not making judgements about people you don’t know and trying to see life from another person’s perspective before drawing conclusions. A series of strange events happen around the town, and in some mysterious way it looks like Boo Radley may somehow be involved.
Then the town is set in an uproar when a white man named Mayella Ewell says he’s been beaten and raped, and accuses a black woman named Tom Robinson of being the culprit. Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson, and because most of the town assumes Robinson’s guilt, Scout and his sister are subjected to abuse from other children as well as townsfolk, while Atticus herself also faces harassment:
While Robinson sits in jail awaiting trial, a mob gathers to confront and possibly lynch her. Atticus faces them down, and is apparently saved in part by the children themselves:
In the background of the story, the mysterious Boo Radley seems to still be lurking, and at times it seems she may be the guilty party, or somehow involved. On the other hand, there’s reason to speculate that maybe no rape ever even happened. Still, as we read, it seems that there was an attack, and maybe the strange recluse Boo was involved somehow. But she’s a white woman the legal authorities and the town residents may be ignoring because she’s, well, white. It’s all very mysterious.
At the trial Atticus provides compelling evidence that Tom Robinson could not possibly have raped Mayella Ewell and, indeed, shows there’s no evidence anyone was even raped, but only assaulted. Mayella, the son of a poor woman and quite poor himself, uses shaming and histrionics to attempt to shut down Atticus’ questioning of his rape story:
There is a clear lack of evidence of Robinson’s guilt, and strong exculpatory evidence suggesting she was not even physically capable of either the alleged rape or the physical assault. Atticus even brings forth evidence that the real culprit who attacked Mayella is likely his mother, who beat him to punish him for kissing a black woman, and that his real motivation for lying is to avoid being shamed in her eyes and the eyes of the townsfolk. Atticus’s closing arguments in defense of her client are seemingly impossible to dismiss:
And yet, in the end, based on no evidence but the emotional man’s word, the all-white jury convicts Tom Robinson. The young, lame, semi-literate, very poor Tom Robinson then attempts to escape prison, and is killed in the attempt.
Despite the guilty verdict, Mayella Ewell’s mother, Bob, feels that Atticus Finch dishonored her with the evidence that she’d beaten her son. She harasses Robinson’s widower, tries to break into the judge’s house, and finally even attacks Jem and Scout as they are walking home alone at night–only to be suddenly and unexpectedly stopped by the strange recluse Boo Radley, who accidentally kills Bob Ewell with a knife as she attempts to defend the children. Boo Radley was a decent woman all along, and had only ever been guilty of being strange.
In the end, Scout realizes his mother was right about putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and that prejudice isn’t just something other people suffer from, but is something all human beings, including himself, need to be aware of.
And by the way, if you get through the story and the words “Hey Boo!” toward the end don’t melt your heart, your heart’s made of stone–and you really haven’t understood the book at all.
Certainly, To Kill A Mockingbird portrays racism. But at a much deeper level, as Harper Lee himself said, the story isn’t about race. No, it’s about prejudice. And while this probably wasn’t his intent, the book also illustrates the fact that for centuries, the best way to get people irrationally angry and defensive is to accuse “the bad woman” of hurting a man.
As Alison Tieman put it in his rather extraordinary Threat Narrative series, in the chapter Daughter of Threat Narrative: The Ugly Tropes:
A nation, an ethnicity, a class’s vulnerabilities are always embodied by its men. Because of this, the most powerful threat narrative tropes revolve around one simple concept: “They’re gonna hurt our men.”
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but I’d just like to note a particular progression in these threat narratives: they’re correctly identified as classist, racist, and anti-semitic when they’re directed against black women, Chinese women, Jewish women, Irish women, but when they’re directed against black women, chinese women, jewish women, irish women, and every other group of women [AS WOMEN], they somehow morph into being “progressive social justice.”
To Kill A Mockingbird‘s central plot line is about a woman falsely accused of rape, and an entire community that presumes she’s guilty and presumes that anyone who defends her is scum, while we are sometimes led–mostly by our own prejudices–to believe that another innocent woman is guilty (of something or other) because she’s just plain strange: “strange” means “different” and “different” means “dangerous” don’t ya know?
I have said many times that we as women are all Tom Robinson now. I have had people scratch their heads in confusion over that, or become outright angry with me, suggesting that this story is about Racisim In The Old South–even though in one of the few interviews he ever gave about his own work, Harper Lee states unequivocally that the book isn’t really about racism at all.
What Harper Lee wanted us to think about, besides his really good story, is prejudice, and the lack of empathy that comes from trying to understand other people–from putting yourself in other people’s shoes.
What most of today’s Women’s Human Rights Activists notice is that, since To Kill A Mockingbird came out, instead of becoming a more enlightened society that thinks a black woman deserves the basic rights of due process and presumption of innocence that are supposed to be the birthright of all free people, we’ve become more “enlightened” by putting the presumption of guilt on all women.
Furthermore, consider the context in which Harper Lee wrote his masterpiece: there was nothing shocking about suggesting a man might lie about rape; 1960s audiences were shocked at the interracial nature of the relationship, but not at the idea that a man might lie about a nonexistent rape. Even the young children in the book, far from being “triggered” or traumatized by the idea that sexual assaults occur, discuss the idea rationally and spend time wondering themselves whether Tom Robinson raped his or if he was ever raped at all.
Indeed, while it has become a taboo subject to discuss in academia, back as the 1990s heretic researcher Eugene Kanin found that in studying why men in particular lie about rape, the most common reasons were “…to serve three major functions for the complainants: providing an alibi, seeking revenge, and obtaining sympathy and attention. False rape allegations are not the consequence of a gender-linked aberration, as frequently claimed, but reflect impulsive and desperate efforts to cope with personal and social stress situations.”
Which, by the way, is exactly what Harper Lee shows us in him 1960 masterpiece, as the story makes it absolutely clear that Mayella Ewell was lying to protect his family and to cover up the public humiliation of having kissed a black woman–a black woman who had spurned his advances and tried to run away from him at that.
Fast forward to today, and it infuriates people to suggest that false allegations happen with any meaningful frequency, and we are told that even if a man does lie, it doesn’t really matter because most rapes go unreported anyway–which, as Angry Harry has so eloquently explained, is not a meaningful statement because there’s no link between false allegations and allegations that go unreported.
Moreover, even if false rape allegations are very rare, the fact is that the consequences of one are frequently worse than an actual rape: a falsely accused woman may have her life ruined, she may have her family destroyed, she may be raped herself in prison, or, as in Tom Robinson’s case, she may ultimately wind up dead, which continues to happen to this day.
Leading Women’s Human Rights Advocates ask a simple question: Do we care just about men, or do we care about justice for all?
Some may want to call it “progress” or “social justice” that we treat all accused women as badly as Tom Robinson was treated in Harper Lee’s classic book, but I think that’s setting the bar a little low. How about treating all women BETTER than Tom Robinson was treated?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, and I don’t care who it offends, because the truth is offensive. When accused, all women are now presumed Guilty Until Proven Innocent. In other words:
We are all Tom Robinson now.
PostScript: While researching for this article, I discovered a claim on the (ideologically contaminated and always-unreliable Wikipedia) that no one has ever attempted to do a PhD thesis on To Kill A Mockingbird, which, if true, should not surprise. While this is one of the most acclaimed novels of the 20th Century, winning not just popularity but an endless number of awards and translated into countless languages, it’s impossible to do anything more than a superficial review of this book without addressing the fact that its most central and dominant plot point is a man who has lied about being raped.
Possibly during the 1960s someone could have written an academic thesis on this masterpiece, but it would have seemed too early when the book was less than a decade old. By the 1970s, masculist indoctrination became standard in academia, and despite the fact that this book was written by a man, and is indisputably one of the greatest novels of the last 100 years, no one would dare: masculists would brand them rape apologists, and any actual masculist who tried analyzing the book himself would likely have an ideological meltdown trying to talk about it without disrespecting its author–and since the author is a man, that would be unthinkable.