Why My High School Class Voted to Stop Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Depictions of Women

EverythingIsIlluminatedI love reading Jewish literature. Seeing my culture and experience come to life on the pages of a book can be meaningful and validating; it makes my idiosyncratic religious practices feel legitimate. The representation and recognition of Judaism in popular culture is crucial, but what do you do when the author gets it wrong? Or what if certain parts of your identity are illustrated perfectly while other facets aren’t done justice? I faced these quandaries when reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated this year in my English class. buy dnp UK

Everything Is Illuminated has comfortably rested in my family’s bookshelf for many years, accompanied by other books my family read, enjoyed, then never touched again. I was excited when it was assigned in my “Immigrant Literature” class because I recognized the novel, and vaguely recalled watching the movie with my parents a few years back. Our copy was even signed by Foer, which I excitedly told my class. However, once we began reading, I noticed a peculiar and disturbing pattern: the female characters are repeatedly gratuitously objectified.

The book alternates between the present day, wherein a Jewish man, Jonathan, travels to Ukraine to explore the place his family lived pre-Holocaust, and a story set in the past, beginning in the 1700s, about Jonathan’s heritage and ancestors. One of these family members is a young girl named Brod, who grew up in Ukraine in the 1700s, and is Jonathan’s very-great grandmother.

It bothered me (and many of my classmates) that Brod, one of the only female protagonists of the book was often sexually harassed and assaulted, as well as excessively sexualized. We especially objected to the way that her character was sexualized even when it was completely nonessential to the plot. For example, in the moment when she discovers her father lying dead on the floor of her home, she randomly gets naked. Foer describes her pubic hair and her “cold, hard” nipples. She is 12 in this scene. When discussing chapters like these, we would get into in-class disagreements that felt personal and painful.

4 comments on “Why My High School Class Voted to Stop Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Depictions of Women

  1. Erica Manfred on

    This article is very disturbing and represents the attitude of the Millenial generation that offensive speech should be deleted or not permitted in the first place. Why not read the whole book and discuss the offensive chapters and why they are demeaning to women. There is a lot of offensive material about women, Jews and others in world literature. Are students to start redacting passages that might disturb them? This is a slippery slope that can lead to a fear of free speech, which is more important than Johnathan Foer’s depiction of women.

  2. Shira Small on

    Hi Erica! I wrote this article and I can tell you that we discussed the slippery slope you mentioned at length before ultimately deciding not to read them, and it was by no means a flippant or easy decision. We were more than halfway through the book and had been trying to learn from our discomfort rather than evade it, but eventually it became clear that those chapters were not crucial to our fundamental understanding of Jonathan’s modern-day narrative, so after significant deliberation we stopped reading. By no means do I believe that all offensive media should be censored, because I don’t believe that we can fix any issues by running away from them and pretending like they don’t exist, and I hope that is not the message this article sent. Moreover, this was only my experience in one circumstance, and I don’t want it to be extended to the entire Millennial generation (of which, by the way, I am not–Gen Z’er here!).

  3. Rufus Davis on

    Depressing that an English teacher could not make the case for how to read and understand literature to his class. Whether Safran Foer’s depictions of women or characters’ objectification or abuse of women may be thought of as offensive is irrelevant to whether or not the work should be read. It is not the job of literature (or art in any form) to avoid causing discomfort (arguably it is often the opposite). What the student author describes represents an educational failure and a failure to understand the function of art. If we only read that which is guaranteed not to offend we will have nothing left worth reading (and skipping the challenging parts is a solution that causes its own harm).
    I won’t even comment on the notion that Safran Foer’s sex is to blame for the supposedly faulty depiction of women as applying that philosophy generally would mean the end of meaningful artistic expression.

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