Feminists and Literature
Posted April 13, 2007on:
At the start of reading Handbook of Critical Approached to Literature one of the chapters I was most eager to read was “Feminisms and Gender Studies”. I’m quite proud to define myself as a feminist, undaunted by the extreme factions. (If I were to shy away from publicly avowing to any ideal because of such things I doubt I’d be able to call myself anything at all.) I wanted to know what the literary criticism looked like, happy to learn that it went beyond judging an author on whether or not he/she wrote three dimensional female characters. I admired the work of scholars focused on resurrecting and promoting the work of overlooked, deserving female authors. (A quick count of the books I read so far this year authored by woman showed a gratifying 9/19.)
But I also had some misgivings. It is essentially political and, not to repeat myself, but I care about the art first and foremost, in most cases. After that I’m concerned about quality and I’d like to say that my understanding of it includes meaty female characters, or at least at ones that aren’t idiots but that’s not true. (LOTR and much of Western mythology, for example.) I don’t invest authors with any mystical, overdeveloped insight into humanity at large, I don’t expect them to know about everything; I’d prefer an author who acknowledged this and avoided the pitfall (though I don’t knock the ambitious) rather than write embarrassing characters like María in For Whom the Bell Tolls. If you wish to recommend a book, observing that the author writes about either gender with god-given insight, warmth and moral complexity will go through one ear and out the other. When I read A.S.Byatt’s Possession I was positively warm with how unapologetically feminine it was in its themes, its imagery, everything was just swimming in it; but if someone had used that as a selling point I would have raised an eyebrow and changed the topic.
There are certain writing techniques and styles that are identified as “feminine” like open endings, free play with meaning, and the epistolary or confessional novels along with domestic themes. The use of “silence” that can either signal oppression or defiance and intractability like the woman being wooed unsuccessfully in Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. (You can imagine what the feminist critics thought of that poem.) The more familiar mythological/archetypal approach where one finds imagery of the “Earth Mother”, the use of metaphors to support the association, and various figures of female goddesses in Eastern and Western mythology that go before and beyond the Greeks. An interesting angle was one taken from feminist film critique called the “male gaze”. Laura Mulvey argued that there are films in which the woman is compelled to “participate in her own humiliation by watching the film as a man”. I’ve always sensed the ambivalence in Hitchcock films toward the major female characters without ever taking time to reflect and figure out exactly what it was so it was gratifying to see Mulvey spell it out here: “…male ambivalence toward the overall image of woman causes viewers to choose amongst devaluing, punishing or saving a guilty female, or turning her into a pedestal figure, a fetish.” Vertigo was the first one that jumped to mind, but I saw North by Northwest last week and the poor undercover agent certainly fit the mold. On Monday Japonisme addressed a similar issue in 19th century European and Japanese art in medium as message.
Pretty enlightening, yes? (For me, anyway, still young and foolish.) Considering how feminism is always criticised for being fragmented and rife with conflicts it was nice to read on the global and multicultural perspectives. There are bodies of criticism for African-American, Asian and Latin American literature; and there are the lesbian critics. You do have the disagreements where the black critics accuse the white of being complicit with the patriarchal culture, and lesbians revere woman with woman as more natural than any other arrangement in the world, but as superficially absurd as such positions may sound they do have the benefit of questioning assumptions and providing fruitful discussion that can depart from extremes.
I only had one problem with the chapter. What is UP with all the Freud terminology, y’all? What is this Female Imagination in babies stumped out by Manly Father Language law, this idea of semiotic being motherly feminine and symbolic being big Daddy Male? What is up with the Oedipal Crisis? Why are literary critics still heavily depending on theories that have been debunked ages ago? The more I read on Lacan the higher my eyebrows went until I was tempted to skip the entire psychoanalytic sub-section.
There was a lot more covered, including the difference between the essentialist feminists who maintain that there are inherent, biological female characteristics and argue for their high value, and the constructivists who say that gender is entirely engineered by society, abandoning any binary ideas of sexuality. The happy world of gender studies, particularly queer theory bears more than a striking resemblance to that dashing group of aesthetes around the late 19th century, approving of desire, deeming it sensible to follow wherever it may lead. For them unruly plots, ambiguities, vernacular idioms and readerly reactions are what count when it comes to the text.
As far as the application of the criticism to the selected books went, I thought the re-evaluation of Gertrude in Hamlet, not from Hamlet’s perspective but outside it, with a more objective look at her words and actions was the best. Again I never thought that Gertrude was as bad as her baggage-ridden son made her out to be, but the essay reasserted her as a generally admirable and honest character, no party to her husband’s murder, and arguably powerless in the matter of marrying Claudius. (Go Gertrude! As an aside my image of her is now Eileen Herlie, while Hamlet is a cross between Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Brannagh.)
This particular branch of literary criticism, more than any of the others I read so far, developed in the academy so there was a higher use of theoretical jargon than I am used to. There were rough spots but I found it ultimately very rewarding.