Some of the most celebrated works of our day are penned by women: “Frankenstein,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Little Women,” are only a few. And yet, instead of highlighting these women in the English Advanced Placement (AP) and upperclassman honors curriculum, such important content is buried underneath a mountain of analogous male protagonists and books by male authors. To thoroughly teach great literature and skillful analysis, honors English courses should place more emphasis on the literary achievements of the female perspective.
The English department has recognized that this discrepancy in gender representation needs to be fixed. In 2013, changes to the required reading list in- creased the variety of authors introduced in honors lanes: the number of female authors has risen from three to 12, out of a current selection of 40 total works. This was a huge step forward. The omission of books written by women conveys the message that female authors are insignificant in the world of literature. Adding these required works to the curriculum not only does the achievements justice, but also allows students to experience a whole range of perspectives. Accelerated courses should not limit students to a necessarily narrow point of view communicated by one gender.
It must be said, however, that we study not the authors themselves, but their works. It is important to also look at pieces which feature interesting female protagonists and viable role models. Fewer than 15 of 40 total works—37.5 percent—feature female protagonists. This imbalance in the curriculum creates a redundancy of male characters, often exploring similar themes. Even AP instructors, who are not required to teach
a specific list of works, may fail to address this issue. For example, the works “‘Master Harold’…and the boys,” “Hamlet” and “Brave New World” all feature adolescent males who struggle to discern right from wrong and where they truly stand on that spectrum of morality. While this cohesiveness can enrich the learning experience—and not all instructors teach the three works together—the need for diverse perspectives is greater than any excuse. By neglecting books by or about women, we neglect the education of girls in literature classes. It is also important to note that female protagonists should be relatable and thought-provoking, not simply one-dimensional love interests. Her unique set of struggles and conflicts should not depend on male characters to prompt discussion and analytical thought.
After all, an important aspect of accelerated English classes is learning to study the character arcs throughout a book. When a reader identifies with these characters, they gain a better understanding of the novel. This benefits male students, who can at least superficially connect to 65 percent of the protagonists they study. But what about the females? It is more difficult for girls in our honors literature classes to immediately identify with characters in the required works, especially as emphasis lies on novels such as “The Scarlet Letter,” which is about the degradation of a woman caught committing adultery. Additionally, when students lack the experience to give flawed female figures the same sympathy or understanding they give to
flawed male figures, they frequently misinterpret controversial characters—Daisy in “The Great Gatsby,” for example. Students must be trained to analyze and explain all types of characters’ motives and development, or essays will continue to villainize Daisy and aggrandize characters such as Ma in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The College Board’s AP English course guide says that “in an ongoing effort to recognize the widening cultural horizons of literary works written in English, the…Committee will consider and include diverse authors in the representative reading lists.” Only guidelines, however, are provided; the texts on the AP exam are arbitrary. Students must be prepared to insightfully analyze any- thing, including works written by people of many different demographics. The changes made to the national curriculum two years ago offer more literature by women and featuring women protagonists—now, it is up to our teachers to choose to teach them.
— Lim, a senior, is a Forum Editor. Hristov, a sophomore, is a Copy Editor.