Is the Exorcist a Misogynistic Novel?
The Exorcist is a novel filled with many different reactions to our society that in the 1970’s was changing rapidly with the presence of the evolving feminist movement. I found a wonderful article that easily sums up the second wave feminist movement here. It is helpful to know the issues women were advocating for at this time and the way I am connecting it to this text. The Exorcist’s main character lineup includes female protagonists, which is unusual for the books we have read this semester, so that is a promising insight. Chris, Regan’s mother, is a single, working mother that seems extremely capable and in control of her life. In class we have discussed whether or not she is a ‘good’ mother but I find this discussion problematic in a few ways.
First, this contemporary view of how a mother should feel, act, react, and handle the situations that arise in her life is holding motherhood as a whole up to a certain standard that is unrealistic to imitate. Especially in this novel where the parenting issues that arise are not due to traditional forces but a supernatural demonic possession. I doubt there is a parenting book on the shelves that addresses how a mother should handle the stages of possession! I would imagine, for satire sake, that the title would be a bit like this: “What To Expect When Your Preadolescent Daughter Is Possessed By Demons.”
Even so, I find that the parenting capabilities Chris enacts in the text to be more than satisfactory; if I were to judge such a thing. From the beginning we see that Chris is devoted to her daughter, using her spare time outside her schedule to plan bonding activities as well as often being concerned for her well-being due to the divorce and the lack of her father. It is easy to pass judgements outside of the world of motherhood but giving an insider opinion; I think Chris is doing a fantastic and realistic job under the circumstances.
That aside, it is interesting that Blatty uses such a headstrong woman such as Chris to portray Regan’s mother. If this book is a critique of feminism would not the approach of using the stereotypical helpless female be a better suited character tactic? However, during the second wave feminist movement women were proving themselves capable of being treated as equals with their male counterparts in terms of success, stability and parenthood. So if Blatty’s aim is to show the evils that feminism can bring: using a capable female character might help further his point. In the book Chris recounts the reasons for Howard’s departure being due to her success, “”Oh the whole ‘Mr. Chris MacNeil’ thing! Rags was a part of it. She was in and he was out. Always me and Rags together on the magazine covers; me and Rags in the layouts; mother and daughter, pixie twins.”” (Blatty 110) Even in the context of Chris’s description of the end of their marriage; she relates the cause being due to her success. Howard could not handle being left in the dark as his wife and daughter rose to fame and admiration. I wonder if Blatty is making a statement that men will be left behind in the rise of feminism. The women will succeed, leaving the men feeling inadequate, tearing apart the traditional nuclear family. The conclusion he is leading us to is that a capable and strong woman destroys the family and the demons will come calling due to the absence of these traditional gender roles.
Well, that is a bit extreme isn’t it? But it is hard to ignore this underlining assumption in the text because there are very crucial moments that the absence of Regan’s father is connected to the beginning and midst of her possession. For example, leading up to Regan’s possession, Chris is often internally worrying about the absence of her father. When Regan is using the Ouija board, she talks about the imaginary character (demon) named Captain Howdy. Regan’s father’s name is Howard so I find this bluntly connected as far as a literary analysis goes. This close relation to her father’s name, something that Chris herself comments on, is a deliberate link that is set up for the reader. Authors do not make coincidences, they make deliberate literary connections and I think this is true of The Exorcist. Blatty is leaving us bread crumbs, connections to the absence of Regan’s father and the way her possession increases each time these absences become more apparent. For example, the lack of paternal influence is mentioned briefly exactly when the signs of possession start, “Beginning on the day after Regan’s birthday-and following Howard’s failure to call- she had noticed a sudden and dramatic change in her daughter’s behavior and disposition. Insomnia. Quarrelsome. Fits of temper.” (Blatty 54). Again, I do not think this is merely coincidence but a deliberate attempt from the author to lead us to a conclusion wrought with misogyny and fear of female sexuality. Further on, we see this reference again and again mentioned by the various medical experts Chris takes her daughter to. There is a constant conversation being held that her father’s absence could be a cause of her ‘illness’. We continue to see this deliberate reference and an undercurrent of assigning blame being hinted at through the story.
As well, aside from criticisms of single motherhood, we also see a deep rooted fear of the female sexuality. I feel this is illustrated by the infamous scenes of masturbation when Regan is possessed. While I do admit that I find these scenes disgusting and grotesque; I wonder if Blatty’s reasoning was to address the growing acceptance of female sexuality in the 1970’s. There are many hints that Blatty might have this deep rooted fear of the female sexuality; the first one being that his idea of something so horrifying, so disturbing is the idea of a female masturbating. Granted, I find this absolutely horrifying but due to the context of loss of free will on Regan’s part, her age and the violence involved. But I wonder if Blatty found this a horrifying act in a different manner- that any act of female masturbation is something to be feared and linked to demonic possession.
This is an argument that could swing either way but when I closely analyzed these differents part of the text it was hard to ignore the deep sense of female resentment in the tone of the writing whether it is talking about the family structure (the absent father) and the horrifying sexual depictions of Regan’s possession. What motivated Blatty to put these thoughts and actions into the novel? I briefly looked into his biography and he was raised by a single mother; his father leaving home at the age of three. Was there some resentment towards his father leaving that we see played out in the novel? Resentment against his mother for succeeding without the father? These will be interesting questions to keep in mind as we finish the rest of the novel.
And just for the sake of humor in a very horrifying novel, here is a lovely .gif. Please click on the picture to see it in action.
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. New York: HarperCollins, 1971. Print.