Lipstick, Nylons, and a Queenly Identity: On Susan Pevensie of Narnia, Feminism, and Humanity

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Disclaimer: There will be much nerdery in this post, and it will become quite evident that some person in particular is a very devoted fan of The Chronicles of Narnia.

Susan Pevensie of The Chronicles of Narnia is a problem for feminists, summed up nicely by J.K. Rowling.

There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that. – J.K. Rowling

The quotes that Rowling references can be found in the last book of the Narnia series, The Last Battle, where the other protagonists mention Susan’s character.

“My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”

In reading these quotes, many feminists have acquired a fury that could very possibly match hell (one good example, this tumblr post).

I can see why. When I interpret this exchange similarly to the way that Rowling and other ladies have interpreted it, it seems that another Christian white male is condemning a woman for exploring her own sexuality or identity—hence, why Susan is considered no longer a “friend” to Narnia. I can see why some ladies would have a problem with this.

However, I have a problem with this problem.

The first problem I have is an offense to the literary nerd in me—the quotes being spotlighted are being grossly taken out of context. The full text is:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

Here’s the important part:

“Grown-up, indeed,” said Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

When read in its entirety, it seems to me that Lewis’ point was completely different from what everyone is getting into a furor about. While C.S. Lewis’ work may be founded upon Christianity, and while Susan’s distractions may have been lipstick and nylons, I do not believe that Lewis meant to condemn Susan for discovering or exploring her own strength, sexuality, or beauty. I do not believe he meant to imply any of those things were equivalent to her becoming irreligious, or falling from morality or from grace.

It is not so much Susan’s external activities, I think, that Lewis wanted to highlight, but the condition of her heart. And this was her condition—that she was preoccupied with things that, while not necessarily bad, were not worthy to be the foundation of her identity or source of affirmation. For she was a Queen. She had simply forgotten so.

Harking back to the Golden Age of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this was the account of the Pevensie children, Kings and Queens of Narnia:

And now, as you see, this story is nearly (but not quite) at an end. These two Kings and two Queens governed Narnia well, and long and happy was their reign. At first much of their time was spent in seeking out the remnants of the White Witch’s army and destroying them, and indeed for a long time there would be news of evil things lurking in the wilder parts of the forest… But in the end all that foul brood was stamped out. And they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live... And they themselves grew and changed as the years passed over them. And Peter became a tall and deep-chested man and a great warrior, and he was called King Peter the Magnificent. And Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet and the kings of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage. And she was called Susan the Gentle. Edmund was a graver and quieter man than Peter, and great in council and judgement. He was called King Edmund the Just. But as for Lucy, she was always gay and golden-haired, and all princes in those parts desired her to be their Queen, and her own people called her Queen Lucy the Valiant.

Lewis certainly has no problem with strong women. Both Queen Lucy and Queen Susan were strong, no doubt about it. They ruled justly alongside and just as capably as their brothers, according to Narnian legend. And Lewis didn’t bother to fit them both into one definition of what a “strong” or “beautiful” woman should be either, as can be seen in the other Narnia books. They looked different, and had different tastes, hobbies, and personalities. Lucy was extroverted, went to battle, as both a warrior queen and a healer, all the while retaining her childlike wonder and faith. Susan was gentler in nature, described to be gracious and a mothering figure, practical and sensible. But she also happened to be a badass archer when she wanted to be. So I do not believe the problem is that Lewis didn’t believe in strong women, or only believed a certain stereotype of in strong woman. It wouldn’t be very Christian or Christ-like to do so.

The problem cannot be that Susan found her identity or found her strength; it’s that she found it a long time ago—once a Queen of Narnia, always a Queen of Narnia. And then she forgot it—traded it for lesser things, frivolities of the world that would not last, nor compare to greater and eternal things. She forgot she was a Queen. She was not barred from Narnia, nor from her queenly identity. Rather, she chose not to have it. This is what Lewis mourns, not condemns, for Susan.

Perhaps this, in retrospect, is not so much a female or feminist problem as much as it is a human one. In one of his non-fiction books talking about humanity in general, Lewis describes human nature as such:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Does this not sound like Susan? Lipstick and nylons don’t sound bad. And they might not be bad at all. But what can it compare to being Queen?

And here is the catch—we can all be Susan. Whether we know or it not, whether man or woman, can we not all be found in such a place? It may look different for each one of us—our vices may be a whole galaxy of different things. But we can all sell our identities for so much less, settle for so much less, when there is so much more.

So we end with a question mark, much like Susan Pevensie of Narnia does. As Lewis himself wrote, “The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan … perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end … in her own way.”

Our gaze, then, must turn inwards, for this is what Lewis always meant for us to do with his work. Are we Kings and Queens? And if we are, are we living like it, truly? Or have we mud pies instead of crowns in our hands instead?

Think on it.