The Not-So-Casual Sexism in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #95, Ch. 1-5)

The Not-So-Casual Sexism in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #95, Ch. 1-5) June 17, 2019

Hi and welcome back! We’ve been looking lately at Frank Peretti’s terrible Christian fantasy novel This Present Darkness (TPD). Written at the height of the Satanic Panic back in the 1980s, this novel provides us a glimpse into the mindset of today’s Christian culture warriors. It captures the forces that created those culture warriors. Now, we turn our gaze to the stereotypes in the book that concern women. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a rainbow of mischaracterizations and strawmen–er, strawwomen!

creedence leonore gielgud
Creedence Leonore Gielgud. I’ve waited roughly seven years for her to become completely relevant to a R2D post. You have no idea.

(Previous LSP reviews of TPD: Marking an Era, the Stereotypes, the Persecution Fantasies, Magical Christian Jesus Powers, Magical Evil Demon Powers. All quoted material comes straight from sources; I don’t scare quote Christians.)

(Nota bene: TVTropes Walkabout Warning on some of today’s links!)

Sexism: the Culture Warrior’s Most-Cherished Value.

Sexism represents one of the most cardinal of all virtues for today’s Christian culture warriors. After all, this prejudice animates so many of their battles today. From their blithering hatred of LGBT people to their heartfelt desire to fully own and control women’s bodies, culture warriors’ sexism rules them.

As surprising as it might sound, some folks don’t know yet that the SBC represents one-stop shopping for culture warriors precisely because of its deeply-ingrained sexism. Their entire Conservative Resurgence would happily have rested upon racism, except that hatred didn’t sell quite so well to conservative Christians outside of the Deep South!

But sexism? Oh, lots of people everywhere resonated with that one. In or out of the Christian sheepfold, in or out of the conservative-Christian sheepfold, they understood and loved the message of sexism–and still do.

It turns out a lot of people, even quite a few good little skeptics, wholeheartedly embrace the right-wing culture-warrior “Good News” proclaiming that women are totally men’s inferiors. They use that sick, toxic message to rationalize showering women with hatred and contempt.

An Infant Movement:

Back in the 1980s, however, that right-wing takeover still stood in its infancy. Its success was not yet assured, much less completed.

I never even noticed any such blather when I was briefly in the SBC myself. Even afterward, when I joined Pentecostalism, women had not yet been stripped so completely of their rights and prerogatives. Nobody questioned women who worked outside the home–even in professional capacities–even if they had children. Sure, their husbands needed to okay that decision to maintain form, but I knew of no husbands who would have declined that idea. (See endnotes; I mean, it wasn’t all puppies and rainbows or nothin’.)

Thus, this novel, to me, represents this weird period of flux for conservative Christianity. A lot of their current cultural ideas and mores were shifting and coalescing into final form. The monolith we behold today came from influences like this book currently festering on my desk.

So let’s look at the major female characters we’ve seen so far in the book!

Bernice, Who Haz a Fierce:

One of the very first female characters we encounter in TPD is Bernice, a super-enthusiastic reporter for Ashton’s newspaper. She works for Marshall Hogan, its ruff-and-tuff J. Jonah Jameson-inspired editor.

The angels first encounter her (along with us) in Chapter 1 at Ashton’s big summer festival. They direct her toward a clandestine meeting of nefarious individuals occurring, for some bizarre reason, right in the middle of it. As she photographs the meeting with her Official Reporter Camera Rig, she gets arrested–for prostitution.

Oh, she is a little fireball of a character! Described as young and extremely energetic, inquisitive, quick-witted, dedicated, justice-oriented, she definitely functions as one of the boys, as the (often rather sexist) saying goes. At least, she is all of these things until Frank Peretti needs her not to be. Her quick turn-on-a-dime concessions and bursts of passivity make her sound quite flighty as well as easily distracted and discouraged.

In Chapter 3, we learn that she came to Ashton to investigate the sudden death of her sister. Alf Brummel, the crooked-as-it-gets police chief there, insists that her sister committed suicide. Bernice ain’t buying that. She knows better. After an “aggressive investigation,” however, she apparently simply dropped the whole thing and just stuck around Ashton as a reporter.

Other than these details, we know nothing much about her character. She is simply the story’s (Mostly) Fiery-Dedicated Reporter Girl. Every time she appears in the story, it feels like Peretti’s saying to himself, 

Awww, ain’t she just adorbz? It’s like she thinks she’s people!

The Prostitutes, Generally:

When Ashton’s police throw Bernice into the hoosegow, she gets some up-close-and-personal time with the sex workers frequenting Ashton. A surprising number of them operate around this town–which, again, is so small that it boasts only two churches, one of which is tiny. A friend of mine grew up in Starbuck, Washington, which is so small (how small was it?) that they had one prostitute–the mother of a friend of his. The implication was that the college students attending Ashton’s Whitmore College are so rowdy and carnal that their summer festival attracts sex workers from all around the area’s neighboring towns.

And wow, these women act worldly. Cracking jokes about sex, playfully offering themselves to any men who come close enough to hear them do it, repeatedly suggesting prostitution as a career path for Bernice, they really do seem to love their work. I really wonder if Frank Peretti got his ideas about what prostitutes are like from watching movies like 1981’s Heavy Metal and 1983’s Trading Places, both of which came out well before TPD (1986).


Super-cleaned-up edit of the scene in Heavy Metal. The sex workers appear around 1:00. (Potentially NSFW.)


Clip from Trading Places. Ophelia, a Hooker With a Heart of Gold, also shows up around 1:00. (Potentially NSFW.)

At no point whatsoever do we see the predation, victimization, and abuse that seems to dog sex workers’ heels in puritanical societies like small-town America. All in all, the worst part of the job, as presented by TPD, appears to be the threat of arrest by meaniepie cops who just hate fun.

The Prostitutes in TPD are Happy Sex Fiends who sell sex because they simply cannot be contained by rules and mores. They love what they do, oh yes they do! You’ll find no Unproblematic Prostitution here, no sirree!

The Blessed Virgin Kate:

As Marshall Hogan pays Bernice’s bail, his wife, Kate, waits for him. Frank Peretti describes Kate Hogan as practically perfect in every way, basically–a slightly-more-sexualized version of Disney’s version of Mary Poppins. Described as “a slender, dignified redhead,” and embodying the qualities of empathy, nurturing, gentleness, and patience, she represents all the best qualities of womanhood in culture-warriors’ minds.

In her scene, Kate Hogan plays the foil to the younger and more impetuous Bernice. Indeed, she takes a maternal role toward the reporter. She frets about how “furious” Bernice must feel in jail and then dispenses comfort to both Bernice and her husband. When Marshall Hogan tells Bernice she stinks from her night in jail, Kate reprimands him–only to have Bernice brush her off by saying Hogan treats her like that “all the time.”

We know nothing else about Kate Hogan.

About her only flaw is pushing Hogan into close quarters with their daughter, Sandy, when neither of them can handle that level of contact.

Mary Busche, the Giggling Doll:

Right after we meet Kate Hogan, Peretti introduces us to the other wife in the story, Mary Busche. As the wife of the town’s only TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor, she sounds exactly like Frank Peretti’s biggest dream: the Blonde Republican Sex Kitten. Just as Hank Busche represents the author’s biggest aspiration, she represents the perfect partner of complementarians’ fantasies. She’s the virgin-pure centerfold in the Girls, Giggles, and Garters magazine that resides in fundagelical men’s hearts.

Peretti characterizes her as “this playful little wife with the melodic giggle,” a “doll” who has “real grit too.” Gosh, Hank’s just so in wuv with her! He wishes he could give her the luxurious life she deserves, as “stable” and “boring” as he’s positive she’d find life as the wife of an “accountant or insurance salesman,” but for some crazy reason she seems happy to be his wife instead. Her agency in picking him as a husband rather than some other man, or eschewing marriage at all, never enters his mind.

Her beliefs and opinions echo Hank’s. She safely expresses his anger and suspicions. When she learns about the vandalism on their home, she piteously declares that they never did anything to nobody! Gosh, why would anybody ever want to bother them? Hank’s jus’ tryin’ t’be a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ leader, here! Gosh!

Mary’s cry-from-the-heart represents what culture warriors think about pushback. This attitude appears in almost all of their propaganda. Thus, Mary functions as the Greek chorus for the book’s sympathetic readers. Otherwise, we know nothing about her except that she has a giggly, girlish demeanor and a 100-and-crazy-percent affinity for the culture wars.

Remember that book we talked about last month, If Only He Knew? Mary Busche would be total #RelationshipGoalz for the fundagelical men targeted by that book. 

Sara, Alf Brummel’s Secretary:

Later, Marshall Hogan confronts Alf Brummel about Bernice’s arrest. Bernice still wants blood, understandably, and Hogan’s concerned about the injustice of the arrest as well, of course.

Before seeing Brummel, Hogan encounters the police chief’s secretary, Sara. She’s in a weirdly-vulnerable-looking position on the floor fighting with “a jammed file drawer.” She loses her fight with the file drawers, along with the structural integrity of “her pantyhose.” She’s just so ditzy! Really, she reminds me of the secretary character, Grace, from 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

HAW HAW! Ain’t it funny to see how totally impractical professional women’s clothing is and yet how they keep wearing it anyway?

WELL, AINT IT?

HAW HAW! SILLY WORKIN’  WOMEN!

The Evil Satanic Professor:

When Hogan comes to the college to fetch his daughter Sandy, he encounters the college professor. I can see no logical reason for the weird plotting in this scene. Peretti’s handling is so kludgy and weird. He couldn’t think of any other way to introduce his villainess, that’s all, than having Hogan walk into her classroom.

Now, we’ve seen already that Hogan, as the Everyman who speaks for Frank Peretti and the Satanic Panickers alike, despises higher education. College represents everything that crowd hates about liberalism and postmodernism. This antipathy toward higher education got formed and shaped during the Satanic Panic. (See endnote.) Consequently, Peretti’s college professor stands knee-deep in the horrific conspiracy contained in the book.

But wait! Peretti throws us a curveball: his Evil Satanic Professor, an integral part of the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW), is no Creedence Leonore Gielgud!


Creedence Leonore Gielgud, of Troll 2 fame. (Probably SFW if your work’s okay with metal music and cult films.) She has a hot-fantasy version and a weirdo version.

Instead, she’s gorgeous! She’s blonde and very attractive, “something right out of a lipstick or fashion commercial.” And wow, she is totally bossy and mean to poor widdle Daddy Marshall who jus’ wants ta wait for his precious little princess. Even though “his tone was courteous” in explaining why he’d entered her classroom, she totally throws him out on his ear! UGH, right? What a total MEANIEPIE!

This professor wields the same evil demonic Satan powers of persuasion that Alf Brummel does. She also shares with him an unfortunate lack of good judgment regarding their use. She really didn’t need to use them to get Hogan out of her classroom, which tells me she’s an idiot really. Unfortunately, I doubt Peretti characterized her this way on purpose.

We never learn anything else about her. She’s pretty, Satanic, and mean for noooooo reason at all.

Sandy Hogan, the Demon-Oppressed Co-Ed:

Peretti commits similar errors in characterizing Hogan’s daughter Sandy. Hogan’s deep contempt for her (and thus the author’s) shines through every line of their interactions.

Sandy leaves the classroom. Without even looking at her father, waiting for her right outside, she walks on past him. Thus, she forces him to run to catch up with her. Then they get into a really boneheaded argument and she runs off.

Did Peretti forget that he didn’t give this character a car of her own, and thus that Sandy needs Hogan to drive her back home? (How does she even get to class every day?) I didn’t have a car for a while either as a teen–in the 1980s, only wealthy kids received cars automatically at 16, so I bought my own first car around 19–and it wouldn’t even occurred to me to act like that toward my rides, nor anybody I knew then.

I guess he’s trying to make her sound totally snotty toward her father. She comes out sounding like a straw caricature of the entitled ultra-liberal kid who just doesn’t appreciate her elders.

The Businessman’s Secretary:

Our last female character is the businessman’s secretary. Described as pale and thin, with black hair, she operates with brisk efficiency. She uses shorthand to take notes, indicating skill at her job. (In the 1980s, people still used shorthand–I even learned a bit of Gregg shorthand and my mom used it. However, this old-time artifact aged even more poorly than the other 1980s-isms in the book.) However, she decides for herself what orders from her boss she will and won’t follow.

We first encounter her at the summer festival. She attends the clandestine meeting with her boss. Interestingly, Bernice (who saw her there) describes her as “a ghostly-looking black-haired shrew in sunglasses. Sunglasses at night!” (See endnote about just how weird that outburst was.) Cuz of course super-professional, efficient secretaries serving businessmen at the C-suite level always show up at sooper-sekrit public meetings looking completely out of place.

See, Frank Peretti learned characterization from the Snidely Whiplash School of Writing.

Tall, thin, pale women wearing all black = obviously demonic and evil. Peretti has color-coded the secretary for our convenience

The Rundown:

WOW. I was actually surprised by just how many female characters populate this book’s first few chapters.

Unfortunately, none of them represent anything close to actual people. Their characterizations start and end with stereotypes and they move through plots in whatever ways Frank Peretti needed at that moment. Consequently, they don’t make sense even within their own stereotypes.

And hey, it isn’t like this hack manages to make his male characters sound much better. Christian writers in general create cardboard stand-up characters who exist solely to move their excuses-for-plots from one scene to the next.

But we just about get Hank Busche’s entire dang resume in his first scene–while hearing absolutely nothing about why Mary Busche decided to marry him and not some “boring” salaryman or nobody at all. We know quite a bit about Marshall Hogan’s background, but nothing about Kate’s.

Hell, we learn more about Bernice’s dead sister than we do about Bernice herself. For that matter, we know more about the prostitutes arrested with Bernice than we do about her. Peretti just couldn’t be arsed to do more there.

Phantom Limbs in Print:

To Frank Peretti, as to the rest of the Christians who became today’s culture warriors, women function as extensions of men. They are described in terms of who they are in relation to men. He cares nothing for them as people–their hopes, dreams, backgrounds, past decisions, future hopes. Neither does his audience. They care less about such niceties in 2019 than they did in 1986.

It’s just so comical and pathetic to me that Christian culture warriors make a lot of noise about how their ideological enemies “objectify” women–when they’re generally the ones committing that error.

As we cruise into the next week, we’ll be talking about that objectification. So I thought this topic would be interesting today, to see some of the roots of that prejudice, contempt, and control-lust. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a very old hate, one that was nurtured to its current form during the Satanic Panic and displayed in its still-early form in This Present Darkness.

NEXT UP: The SBC’s treatment of Beth Moore–and why it matters.


Endnotes.

Regarding women in Pentecostalism: I do not wish to give the impression that Pentecostal women were equal to men in any sense–they still had to follow constricting rules about dress and hairstyle, as well as to cultivate a weirdly-submissive, almost-Japanese style of interacting with men. But overall, women hadn’t yet been oppressed as fully as they would be in later years. Why, nobody even expressed any curiosity about women using contraception–that was regarded as completely and entirely their own decision! Just as long as they weren’t potentially okay with abortion, right? (Back to the post!)

Regarding culture warriors’ hatred of education: It arguably came to full flower in this decade with evangelicals’ nearly-single-handed election of a completely-incompetent American president who immediately appointed a multi-level marketing conjob who solidly hates education to lead our entire Department of Education. Hooray Team Jesus! Keepin’ ’em dumb, poor, and desperate for 1900 years and counting!

Mainly, culture warriors hate higher education because so little of it supports any of their truth claims–and because the people involved in it think very poorly of their version of Christianity. So obviously, in their worldview, the forces behind higher education must literally be demonic! (Back to the post!)

About Bernice’s description: It’s such a weirdly-sexist way to describe anybody. It’s even weirder coming out of the mouth of a young female journalist who undoubtedly deals with a great deal of sexism in her own everyday life. This weird sudden show of internalized misogyny that jars against Peretti’s admittedly-poor characterization of the reporter. (Back to the post!)


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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.

 

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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