Hypocriticisms: Double Standards in Literature No. 2

Clipart depicting two women. Left, a woman is bent double and struggling under a huge stack of books. Right, a woman stands on her tiptoes to add another book to the top of the stack.

Welcome back to Hypocritisms, the series in which we list a few double standards we find in literature!

If you’ve ever read a book, you might have noticed that sometimes there are some double standards.  All kinds. It’s not limited to gender roles or sexuality. Just like in real life, you see discrimination for aspects like age, religion, justice/law, race/nationality, nepotism, and so on.

The Táin Bó Cúailnge is an ancient Irish epic and it’s a lot of fun.  It also happens to be rich in double standards, so let’s get into it:

Right from the beginning we’ve got what appears to be the opposite of a double standard. It looks fairly progressive. Queen Medb and her husband Aillil are lying in bed talking, as you do during Pillow Talk, and they start to try and one up each other regarding how wealthy they are. And at one point, Medb tells Aillil that he is a “kept man.”  

Of course, he takes offense, as usually it is the woman who is kept, not the other way around. So now instead of trying to one up each other, they are actively arguing about who has more money, and who is the “keeping” the other. It’s hilarious, the way they start listing off all the wealth they’ve brought to the marriage, including jewelry and employees. It comes to the point where they start talking cattle heads, and Medb is informed that her prize bull suddenly decided it didn’t want to be owned by a woman, and moseyed on over to her husband’s herd.

Aside from the typical gender-based double standards, we’ve also got some ageism rearing its head.

So, quick summary: after the Pillow Talk, Medb decides that she cannot lose this argument, so she declares war on the next province over for the sole purpose of getting a bull that would outdo Aillil’s herd. (Aillil, of course, has no choice but to march into battle alongside her in pursuit of a bull that will result in a score of Medb 1 / Aillil 0!)

The problem? As they’re marching, a 17-year old warrior from Ulster is decimating her army. She’s sending out experienced warriors like Nadcranntail and Cúr mac Daláth to stop him, only to find out that they refuse to fight Cúchulainn the warrior because he is a boy–more specifically, because he has no beard.  

The double standard here is that Cúchulainn is literally fending off an entire army, but these men won’t fight him one-on-one because ostensibly he’s too young to be fighting as well he does. These men actually go into these meetings expecting to find a man like themselves, but nope. Just a kid.  

Maybe Cúchulainn  ought to have invested in one of these bad boys. (ID: a fair headed boy wearing a thick black stick-on beard.)

Anyway, back to gender. So they have their final battle for the dang cow, and in the midst of the fighting, Medb suddenly has to pee. She makes Aillil watch her back, but they get captured, Medb with her pants down—literally. Fergus, one of the commanders and the dude who was sleeping with Medb (yes, Aillil knew of this, and actually sort of approved of it!), says kind of like, “of course we lost!” And of Medb he says: “We followed the rump of a misguiding woman. It is the usual thing for a herd led by a mare to be strayed and destroyed.” 

Would he have said that if Aillil had been the leader of this expedition? Maybe he would have said that Aillil was a bad leader, but of course he wouldn’t have blamed it on the fact he had a penis!

What are some of the double standards you’ve noticed in the Táin Bó Cúailnge?

-Leigh Ann

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