Paul Coelho’s anti-feminist discourse

// 20 April 2007

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Paul Coelho is a twenty-first century literary legend. With novels such as The Alchemist and The Zahir already regarded as contemporary classics, it’s fair to say that the Brazilian author has more talent than a dog that can bark the alphabet.

But Coelho has made the headlines today owing to more than his impressive skills with a quill. During the recent promotion of his forthcoming title, The Witch of Portobello, Coelho did not shy away from attacking the concept of feminism, according to a report by the BBC.

The book, subtitled A Novel of Magic, Loss and Love, follows the trials and tribulations of a woman named Sherine (also known as Athena), who has in her possession the powers of prophecy. The story is told from the perspective of the friends and family of the female protagonist, following her mysterious disappearance and the revelation that she has mystical abilities.

Coelho believes, however, that the powers he invests in his main female character are nothing more than synonymous with the traditional concept of women’s intuition. He believes that these ‘powers’ are just commonplace facets of femininity, something that has been lost owing to our plight for equality, with his opinion apparently completely valid as he is a self-confessed member of the “hippy generation.” However, considering the pride with which he makes the assertion he’s all for flower power, there is little evidence his way of thinking has been influenced by a concentration of ‘peace and love’ owing to his polemical comment that:

“Feminism was a nightmare…Women lost this feminine side by trying to be feminists. I’m totally against this. I think that we are different genders, so we have to get the best of ourselves.”

And he goes on to remark that:

“In the end, what we have to share are our opposites…If you are just one – if you think like a man or behave like a man, if you try to go for the same rights – you lose this beauty of the feminine soul.”

So, what exactly is Coelho saying? Is he saying that in our pursuit of parity we have forgotten what it means to be women? That we have lost our unique feminine identity? Or rather, has he misinterpreted the concept of feminism, regarding it more as an ideology in which women are considered worthy of a man’s world only by emulating a man’s behaviour? The latter seems the most likely.

In all fairness, ‘feminism’ is a difficult term to define, since it has a different meaning for each proponent, and so attempting to offer a few sentences to summarise something that is still developing and the subject of extensive academic debates would be as obnoxious as it would be arrogant. But what links all theories is the belief that each individual should have access to the same opportunities irrespective of their gender.

What Coelho suggests, however, is that we have to sacrifice qualities that make us unique as women in order to achieve this; that we cannot have both, despite the side issue that the feminine virtues which he prizes so highly have probably emanated from centuries of social conditioning and the validity stored in gender stereotypes. Yes, Coelho is right, “we have to get the best of ourselves,” but how is this possible if we, as women, are denied the means to achieve our full potential owing to unfair laws and a male-biased judicial system? This comment, in itself, therefore undermines his critique of feminism, and even though Coelho is complimentary about the fact he believes “women are much more open to love and intuition” than men, he does not think that we can maintain these qualities as well as wear trousers.

To say that “to go for the same rights” is to “loose this beauty of the feminine soul” is a very narrow-minded supposition, instead of appreciating that these “opposite” qualities, which he values so highly, can be developing in distinct ways unique to each gender when we are given the same opportunities. To be a feminist is not to reject our femininity, or what it means to be a woman, but instead allows us to compete with men on a political, economic and social level, allowing us to leave our unique feminine stamp on all matters worldly and otherwise.

What Coelho seems to want is a return to the days where women appropriated a facial expression not completely dissimilar to Zippy in Rainbow, letting the men make the decisions while they breezed through the kitchen, kneading pastry, batting their eyelids, whilst nursing the kids with a sweeping broom up their arse in that unique way that only us women know how to do. Is this what he means by “this beauty of the feminine soul?” The ability, developed by our predecessors, of tolerating unfair treatment? Does he know something the rest of us don’t? It’s easy for Coelho to patronisingly regard feminism as a “nightmare,” considering that he originates from a country characterised by the patriarchy and the oppression of women, something that as a man he would not have been subject to.

A great writer he may be, but Coelho needs to address his interpretation of feminism in order to understand the plight of women in the present-day, because as it stands, his comments seem like little more than the result of chauvinistic hypocrisy, and who other than John McCrick would be interested in that?

Photo by Antoine Nexon, shared under a Creative Commons License

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