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We start the Cultural Lens series with Feminist Literary Criticism. No surprise for those who have watched this space for some time.
Now for some caveats:
- This is not a University level discussion, just a general approach to the subject. In-depth discussion in the comments is always welcomed.
- Feminist Literary Analysis/Criticism has a socio-political agenda, as do other schools of literary analysis. This does not, in anyway invalidate said analysis.
- Like other schools, followers of this work from several assumptions, one being the existence of the patriarchy:
With the second definition being the most common.
With that in mind, what is feminist literary analysis? Depending on your definition it can be as limited to the current Third Wave (post-1960s) or as far reaching as the suffrage movement of the mid to late 19th century. This also describes feminism as well, for the two are tightly intertwined. Since we are talking about over one hundred and fifty years of history, one can not treat this school as static in any way, shape, or form. One example of the divisions within this school of thought are what I would call Value Negative or Value Positive.
Example #1- Value Negative: This is classic Feminist Analysis and the one most derided by many of its critics. In this mode the analysis centers on those negative aspects of a work from the feminist point of view, i.e. those characters and situations that reinforce a male centric value system and diminish or pigeonhole women. If you read most cutting critiques of lets say Twilight, you know what I’m talking about. The main character is held as an example of what not to do, aspire to in any form. This conceptualization is exploited by critics of this school to create a caricature of feminism as nothing more than a collection of nay sayers, regardless of how accurate/valid the critique may be.
Example #2- Value Positive: Value Positive concentrates on elevating positive portrayals of women within a work or body of work. One example is the sex-positive movement, which seeks to highlight the power of women within the context of erotic expression. A particular focus of the sex positive movement lies with a very touchy subject: pornography/prostitution. A sex positive critic might embrace portrayals within a work that show women in full control of their bodies and enjoying erotic activities within this context where in someone from the example above might see it as another form of male exploitation of the female body without any regard to the wishes of the women involved.
This is an oversimplification but one that serves to point out the complexities of within feminist thought. Third wave feminism in particular seeks to expand its reach beyond the old male/female paradigm. Third wave feminist acknowledge the fact that human sexuality (be they sexual roles, biology, sexual identity and cultural history) is far too complex to be limited to the old duality of male/female. This in turn opened the door to expand/merge feminist analysis with other experiences based on non-normative presumptions such as homosexuality, minority ethnic, and religious views, etc.
One consistent problem within this school is the definition of what a “strong” female character is/should be. The classic view is that a strong female character is one that can do anything a man should do. She seeks to abolish the distinctions in roles between men and women. Modern theory holds that this is merely a “re-skinning” (as in video games, were all characters have the same wire frame but different skins/looks) of male characters in female bodies. Instead they focus on those areas that make women distinct and try to elevate them to parity.
Still, like any school it still is a narrow lens on which to view any given work and the framework may not fit all situations. But an author has to understand it (and other schools) in order to fully explore his own work as well as to engage any criticism hurled his or her way.
First, that meme is hilarious. Second, I don’t a strong woman has to do what a man can do. I guess I see feminine strength as an ability to endure gracefully, stand up for yourself and speak clearly, and exhibit beauty in resting instead of striving. Most every person has some form of feminine ideations, it’s how it manifests that’s different. The value positive/negative is interesting in literature.
Fantastic post. I think the major problem, or what annoys me the most, is that too many folks think its their business what other women do. I don’t see why it’s so hard to understand that we’re all individuals with different needs and wants. And our lives is that- ours.
As for writing- I just aim to create human, three-dimensional female characters that fit the story.
p.s. Just wanted to add that I agree with everything The Others1 said. Strength manifests itself in many different ways. I’m tired of people equating how strong a female character is by whether or not she is “kick-ass”.
So do I. Thank you both for your insightful comments.
There’s something insanely cool about a female character who DOES kick ass.
That being said, I don’t think a girl needs to kick ass to be a “strong female character”.
I remember reading “Ella Enchanted” when I was a kid. At one point, the titular character is captured by ogres. Ella not only outsmarts them and frees herself, but captures them in return – all on her own.
And throughout the story, she’s constantly an active character. When things happen to her, she deals with it. She decides things for herself. She makes tough choices. And – most importantly of all – she has strong, healthy relationships with other women, the most important part of a feminist narrative.
And she does all of this without ever picking up a weapon. It’s not necessary. She takes care of herself in other ways.
THAT’S a strong female character. (Though it’d still be cool if she did kick ass.)
Indeed there is something cool about an active hero be it male or female. Nobody wants to read about the passive ones. But the problems seems to come down to (for example U/F) every female hero turns into a Buffy clone. Maybe it is time to put away the “Strong” concept and instead concentrate on the credible, believable and active protagonist.