Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, is taught in schools around the world – particularly as part of the Cambridge iGCSE Literature specification. It is most frequently framed as dystopian, outlining the dangers of authoritarian governments, and is typically associated with political control, as evidenced by the fact that Cambridge has never asked an exam question on this topic. For these reasons, I was shocked when I first read 1984 and discovered its protagonist’s – Winston’s – violent sexual attitudes towards women. In the first chapter of the book alone, Winston declares that “he hated her [Julia] … because he wanted to go to bed with her and would never do so”, following a fairly graphic sequence in which he describes the ways he wants to rape and maim her – which I have been asked not to include, for the sake of propriety.
In a world where the films and television we watch is carefully scanned and given an age rating, in which I’ve become accostomed to warnings about self harm, suicide, and – yes – rape, this lack of sensitivity about what has now become a very sensitive topic, frankly horrified me. And if anyone is wondering whether this is an accurate description of the situation, Winston admits to it himself in Part Two, Chapter Two: “I wanted to rape you and murder you afterwards”.
So now, let’s take these factors and apply them to the broad scope of the Cambridge iGCSE – a system that over 4,500 schools use. This course spans the ages of 14-16, and includes nothing to address this sexually violent and, I would argue, distressing content. What this means is that it becomes the responsibility of each individual school to decide how to frame this content, and whether to even address it. Which causes a problem.
Because when content like this remains unaddressed, it’s normalizing the behavior – behavior that is not explicitly condemned in the book, by the exam board, and possibly also by the school. It can reinforce pre existing misogynistic views about women, leaving them practically unchallenged. And maybe this is an unfair thing to ask of individual schools, individual teachers – but that poses the question: why is this taught in schools at all?
Beyond its problematic implications, there’s also the fact that this is deeply disturbing content – disturbing in ways that can be a lot more real and relevant to our world that the torture Winston receives. In teaching this in schools, students are forced to confront and try to process information that they may not be ready to deal with, possibly even having their responses invalidated with views such as “Orwell is just presenting the ways that this dystopian society breaks people and prevents them from forming healthy relationships”. This is, obviously, up for argument, but that’s a large part of the problem. The average 15 year old is not going to think enough about the differences between a post-Victorian, post Second World War Britain, and its views on sex and relationships between men and women, and our 21st Century society. This kind of context is not even something that the iGCSEs require or encourage. The novel may be 72 years old, but it’s adolescent audience very much lives in the here and now, and when the
The book is not framed in ways that take this into account, it perpetuates problematic ideas and behaviors. Someone recently mentioned to me the irony of how often 1984 has been banned because of its political content. They also mentioned that most recently, it was banned from a school in the US for violent sexual language, on the request of parents. And again, the difference between these situations was not mentioned.
Now, to make it very clear: I do not believe in the practice of banning books, or “protecting the children” – I’m aware that there are many fifteen, and even fourteen year olds with the emotional maturity to respond appropriately to the book. However, in this scenario, I do understand the decision of the school; they felt that they couldn’t be responsible for sensitively addressing this content – a responsibility that schools and wider institutions around the globe have failed in. After all, even when a book just exists in a school library, it is a recommendation from the school that this will be beneficial for students. The school did not feel it could responsibly do this. Is this truly the worst decision?