A Feminist Book Review of Angels & Demons (German: Illuminati)

Last Christmas I finally found the time to read a book I had been wanting to read for a while – Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (German: Illuminati). Having consumed myriads of scientific papers since I started my PhD in September, I was excited by the prospect of literature without a method section or statistics. Additionally, it seemed sensible to take a break from the incriminatory topic of gender inequality… I wish. Once you turn your attention to it, gender appears literally everywhere. And so here I am, reviewing a bestseller from a feminist perspective.


First of all, the novel is certainly very accessible; and captivating. Moreover, Brown’s all-encompassing knowledge of history, science, and religion is fascinating. He manages to convey a lot of in-depth information about Rome and the papacy with intriguing ease. He leaves you wondering why history was never this exciting during school days. However, the more I read, the more I uncovered scenes objectifying women, portraying women as submissive, or generally conveying a lack of respect for women.


I estimate the women to men ratio in the novel at 1:10. Partly, this is due to the story playing in Vatican City, where only a minute proportion of women officiates. Yet, even outside of this extremely male-dominated domain an unlikely proportion of characters are male. The women that do appear can be counted on one hand: a) a suppliant female sex worker being raped, b) an assistant camera woman called “Sweetie” by her boss, and c) Vittoria, scientist herself but introduced as the daughter of a famous male scientist. Arguably, Vittoria could be considered an agentic character. After all, she is “brave” and “decisive”, and helps pursue the villain. Her introduction to the novel, however, conveys an entirely different message. Whereas we receive information about education and career when male characters are introduced, Vittoria’s description concentrates on her appearance (p. 74*). While it seems unimaginable that an author would provide us with a description of genitalia when introducing a male character, Vittoria’s career seems to play a secondary role in comparison to the size of her breasts. Gender differences wear on when “Vittoria” is referred to by her first name throughout the entire book, whilst for male characters a more age-appropriate and respectful last name is employed.


Various scenes clearly capture the two sub-types of sexism, namely hostile and benevolent sexism. A malicious priest’s henchman bluntly objectifies women by describing them as a “reward” (p. 57) and“prey” (p. 491). He derives pleasure from threatening, torturing, and raping women. This, of course, is a quintessential example of hostile sexism. Equally pervasive is that the other men worry about Vittoria’s involvement in perilous undertakings and constantly attempt to protect her. They mean well, but treat her like a child rather than an equal – a behavior classified as benevolent sexism. Leaving no doubts to their attitudes the cause of their behavior is explicitly mentioned: “because [she is] a woman” (p. 299). When Vittoria gives in and her male partner Langdorn (who is no more qualified to deal with danger than she is) takes over everyone is relieved. Her will and opinions are not taken as seriously as his; for instance she is only allowed to leave the room when Langdorn supports her plead (p. 676). 


One could argue that the book was published more than a decade and a half ago and might hence be outdated. However, as much as I would like to believe this sentiment I remain doubtful. The book is still widely acclaimed today, and its also accompanied by a proliferation of other books that diminish and degrade women. For example, online shopping portals still praise the Da Vinci Code as a bestseller and a multitude of similarly sexist books are still flying off the shelves (e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey; Hush Hush; Twilight). A wide audience engages with this type of literature without even noticing the skewed nature of the gender roles they portray. Sadly, the objectification and submissiveness of women seems as natural in 2016 as it was in 2000.


Either way, if the author merely describes a world that we are all familiar with, can we accuse him (or her) of being sexist? My opinion is that artists of any kind, but especially bestselling authors, are blessed with the unique possibility of reaching an extremely wide and varied audience. Surely, this opportunity comes with a certain responsibility – a responsibility to shape the world and ideally to improve it. An author who merely depicts what we see every day -without commenting, critiquing or challenging- misses a valuable opportunity to advance the discourse in society. The Da Vinci code, whilst in parts interesting, is most notable to me because it offers women the alternatives of identifying either with a motionless sex worker or with a scientist’s daughter whose body type is more noteworthy than her qualifications. By lacking strong female role-models it essentially paints a very destitute future for woman everywhere. This actively inhibits women’s development and certainly does not improve this world.


*Page numbers all refer to the German translation “Illuminati”


~Please reference: Sudkaemper, A. (2016, May 11) Da Vinci Code. Retrieved from www.antoniasudkaemper.com