The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Feminists and Literature

Posted on: April 13, 2007

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.

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21 Responses to "Feminists and Literature"

Imani,

I enjoyed reading your post. I will be doing my graduate thesis on what I am currently calling “matriachal literature” and it is nice to see others who are enthusiastic about women writers, what they are saying, and HOW they are saying it.

If you have not heard about the concept of the Heroine’s Journey, you should check out my posting “Man VS Woman: the Epic Journey” on my blog The Corporate Dropout. Let me know what you think.

You draw a distinction between art and politics but isn’t it an artistic issue if there is a lack of truth in how authors portray women (or other “others”)?

Sylvia it’s not that I draw a distinction so much as I prioritise what strikes me as most important generally, which is not the “politics” of an author, reflected in his/her work. Unless the author’s morals and politics are anathema to me, and her writings support these things uncritically, unambiguously then I’m not too concerned. (Naturally this applies more to dead and almost dead authors rather than contemporaries.) Otherwise I’d have to get rid of maybe half the books in my library not to mention anything before…what mid-20th century in order to avoid negative stereotypes of black people, for example.

To get to your question it is an artistic issue, but it’s not a pivotal one for me unless it’s a pivotal element of the novel and is executed terribly. I mentioned Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls with the empty, servile María: her lacklustre characterisation was a weak point in the book for me. But she’s not pivotal to the story, IMO, (why even bother with her Hemingway, I sigh) and the other parts of the story, if not make up for it, at least save the book from being a loss.

(My reaction to Catherine Barkley in Farewell to Arms is more ambivalent and complex because it’s a more developed character.)

Now I wanted to do another post in which I question, as I try to work it out for myself, whether my tolerance for this (up to a point) is in itself erroneous and completely un-feminist.

corporatedropout I have not heard about the “Heroine Journey” before, it definitely sounds intriguing so I will check it out. I’m glad you enjoyed my post and thanks for commenting!

yeah but we’re raised when we’re raised. is it wrong for me to appreciate those hammock paintings, for example, knowing their probable genisus? culture will always be laden with worn-out values but i think, in the end, we rob ourselves of pleasure to guide our experiences of it more with our heads than with our hearts and bodies.

so thank for the link, o woman of many names. i’m so glad to see someone relating to the politics i throw in there every now and then.

Hi Imani. I want to point out something that isn’t directly related to your interesting post, though it’s indirectly related: on Cruelest Month you mentioned still counting the NYBR gender-wise because of Mobylives having done so years ago. Why not count how many books by females Melville House has published/publishes?

I already have: http://franswhatever.blogspot.com/2007/03/im-beginning-to-think-whole-literary.html

One publishing side is no better than the other side, in my opinion; they’re all biased and sexist, just maybe to differing degrees. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s not to be fooled by people, publishers, bosses, etc., who talk like they’re not sexist and exclusionary, but show the opposite in their behavior. Years ago many sexist people were more blatant about their sexism because they were censured less; now some aren’t as blatant but may be just as sexist in action, whether intentionally, unintentionally or both. I think sexism has become so ingrained in society that many people don’t even realize when they’re speaking and behaving sexistly.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that way too many males today seemingly think paying lip service to an injustice against females automatically makes them feminist and not-sexist themselves. It’s a token offering; it’s a lie.

Take care,

Fran

Hoo boy, if I had a nickel for every “sensitive new age guy” I’ve met who turned out to be a femicrite…

Imani, like you say, if we didn’t put up with sexist/racist/etc. crap there wouldn’t be much left to read. When it comes to real life, though, I have a zero tolerance policy. Hmm, I wonder why I’m still single…? 😉

lotus green yes, that’s my attitude in general, which may bite sometimes but it’s served me well. Be sure that even though I may not comment on every post I’m paying attention.

Fran wow, your comment took me by surprise. 🙂 I confess that though I am an avid reader I have a very casual interest in the publishing side of things (aka the gossip) so I’ve never taken note of the man:woman ratio with a particular press. I have read your linked post and others–I found the womantk site useful–and you’ve certain given me food for thought, particularly regarding smaller presses who figure themselves as representing the outsiders. Thanks very much for commenting.

Sylvia that there are different standards for real life should be taken for granted. Now I wanna hear more about these “sensitive new age guy” femicrites….

i just want to throw in here…. on some level i don’t know whether to be depressed or encouraged that younger women are re-embracing feminism. i first got involved with feminist stuff in the 70s. we were sure, i mean SURE, that, well, for example, to take a really trivial one, women would never again wear high heels because 1. they wrecked your back, 2. they proclaimed one as a sex object, and 3. because you couldn’t run in them (like if someone was chasing you).

then there was (another) decade or so when the word was “i’m not a feminist or anything, but….”

so i’m thrilled it’s back, but discouraged that now bratz dolls are selling more than barbie because of her heavy make-up, her mini-skirts, and her truly bad-ass high heels. and that the questions we asked, and the wave before us asked, still need asking.

I have a hard time with some of the psychoanalytic criticism also — those critics and theorists have good stories to tell, and their readings of books are sometimes lots of fun, but it doesn’t go much farther than that for me. I think of Freud’s writings as being more literary than theoretical or scientific.

lotusgreen it’s kind of depressing to consider how far back. I remember on one of verbivore’s post on Plato’s Republic, at Incurable Logophilia, in which she pointed out that he expressed ideas about women’s intellectual ability even equality to men’s that long ago. And somehow we managed to miss that boat.

Dorothy I wanted to do a post on some of the pyschoanalytical interpretations of Frankenstein. Some of it was truly bizarre! I won’t even get into the analysis of Poe’s works. (A Freudian dream to study, no doubt.)

One would think you’re a member of my graduate lit theory course! We did feminism week before last and gender studies this past week. And, incidentally, I’m using Mulvey and “the gaze” in my thesis. Good times all ’round.

It’s interesting to me to read a post like this, because I come in, of course, via the sf community, where feminism had a *huge* impact in the 1970s (Tiptree, Russ, Charnas, etc), and is still a very visible part of the field (perhaps because it has a more visible obstacle to push against?) — far more visible, as far as I can tell, than is the case in the mainstream. It’s the difference between the Orange Prize and the Tiptree Award; neither is allied with feminism per se, in the sense of mentioning it in their mission statement, but the latter is certainly more obviously political. The question of how politics shapes art is incredibly thorny; I tend to take the Virginia Woolf position that anger is a distorting motivator rather than an especially revealing one, but there are reasonable arguments to be made in the other direction.

Not unrelatedly, I find it strange to see open endings being identified as “feminine”; the term “slingshot ending”, which means exactly what it sounds like, an ending that is as open as possible, catapulting you off beyond the reach of the story, is common parlance in sf circles for a reason, and is something I actually associate more with hard sf, which is traditionally, though not accurately, regarded as the province of male writers. I think about half of Stephen Baxter’s books would qualify as having slingshot endings, whereas when I think of a writer like Tiptree — and particularly the famous, explicitly feminist stories like “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and “The Women Men Don’t See” and “The Screwfly Solution” — I think of endings that are about as closed as it’s possible to get. (To be fair, that could just be Tiptree.) (Oh, and a book you should read: James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips.)

Niall from what I can tell it seems to be a major faux pas in mainstream literature to even hit that there may still be sexism in the publishing and reviewing world. The assumption seems to be that if the overwhelming majority if prominent authors are men well that’s just cream rising to the top and everyone involved in the selective process has been as fair as humanly possible.

Heh.

You’re not the only one surprised by the “open ending” being described as ‘feminine’–I wasn’t really sure why any of the “writing strategies” as they were called in the book were particularly feminine as I had seen them employed by men as often as women. Was a survey done of fiction during a particular time period, or was it rooted in ideas of what is “feminine” writing, and is deemed such regardless of the author’s gender, etc? It wasn’t made clear and since this is just a handbook, it takes for granted a level of knowledge from the reader, I’m guessing I’d have to actually be a part of a grad lit theory course to get it.

Something I had wanted to include in the post was that the writers asserted that one of the genres of particular interest to lesbian critics was science fiction; a conclusion I found amusing in light of recent comments by a prominent (?) SF author who thought the idea of the genre being, somehow, inherently masculine had some currency.

Thanks for linking to that book–I remember reading a lit journal review on it last year.

Andi maybe you can tell us why an “open ending” is seen as feminine? (I plan to re-read that bit of the book myself to see if I missed anything.) And what’s your thesis about? I’ll search your blog to see if you’ve done any posts on it that I missed.

a conclusion I found amusing in light of recent comments by a prominent (?) SF author who thought the idea of the genre being, somehow, inherently masculine had some currency.

If you mean this letter from Geoff Ryman (who I would say is prominent, although not as prominent as he deserves to be), then I have to see (contra a lot of the comments on the post, although not eg this one), I don’t think he was saying sf *is* inherently masculine, he was asking us to think about whether it was still perceived as masculine and why. Largely because it’s impossible to imagine anyone who thought that way writing Air and The Child Garden, admittedly.

Imani,

I have no idea why an open ending would be considered feminine. I found that quite bizarre as I usually link ambiguous endings with pretentious male postmodernists. I love open endings, and pretentious male postmodernists, mind you.

My thesis is an examination of the relationships between the oral tradition and comics…both narrative and structural. I’m almost done with it, thank goodness! Only one more chapter to write!

Niall well if that’s what he meant, I think he can look to his own letter as to why that impression might still be upheld, since it’s rife with masculine assumptions. (Hesitancy in believing that women could be “profoundly hostile” to domesticity? (Not to mention his narrow definition of “domesticity” and the implicit idea that men have been trapped in it? Bwahaha.) “Women get to be guys” now? Is that right? The implicit premise on his questions of “political correctness”? That whole letter was a big bullet aimed at his own foot.)

Andi I think I may have to dig up some books on feminisms and see what I can come up with–I’m really curious about it now. And your thesis sounds pretty good, I hope it’s received well. Yay your for you being almost done. 🙂

“That whole letter was a big bullet aimed at his own foot”

–Too right.

That letter makes me want to puke for so many reasons, most especially for it’s dogmatic stereotypes and generalizations, such as “men certainly feel more at home with women who act like the rest of their buddies.” What is “men”? My husband is male and he has no “male buddies,” and he does NOT prefer being around females who act like one-of-the-stereotypical-sexist-guys. He doesn’t hang around other guys because he can’t stand the stereotypical behavior from too many of them. Why the hell would he want to hang around a bunch of females acting like that?

The “get to be guys” nonsense made my blood pressure go up. What is “guys”? And why assume that “women” (whatever that is) want to be something often portrayed so ridiculously, as many male characters in science fiction have been–shit, in any fiction. I think males are stereotyped too and in mostly negative ways. But how about “women” simply want to be treated like the HUMANS they are and want to be able to think, do and write what they want and get just as much respect and rewards for that as males do, and all without being told females shouldn’t or should be doing specific things because they’re female and not male?

He also said: “There was a time in the 70s when it suddenly seemed that women writers were calling the shots, getting the attention and winning the awards. Le Guin, McIntyre… the list seemed endless at the time. ”

–Really? Maybe to someone expecting to see NO females getting recognition that might seem true. For just the Hugo winners from the seventies, there are still mostly male winners in total, and I think a significant proportion of those winning females are listed along with males in each category (as is often the case in this stuff…)–like the females couldn’t win them alone so easily. His “a time in the 70s” sort of gives his statement away as likely being an overstatement. But even if the substance of that statement were true, out of all the years females have been writing science fiction, for “a time in the seventies” it seemed they were “calling the shots”? Big damn deal.

All those questions he posed at the end and yet he conveniently forgot to simply ask: is the sci-fi tradition sexist? But then he implies it here (though he probably didn’t realize it) with in my opinion what could be an illustrative description of sexism and even misogyny in sci-fi and in society too: “SF is driven by an underlying dream, and part of that dream is profoundly hostile to domesticity, which is traditionally assigned to women.”

Part of that underlying sci-fi dream is profoundly hostile to something traditionally assigned to women. Isn’t that special? And the tone of that whole paragraph–he sounds wistful!

What I think is going on here: he’s actually correct about that underlying current in sci-fi, but not for the reasons he seemingly thinks and he’s correct in terrible ways. As I’ve said on my blog about “classics” in general, the tone, the style, the content–in times-past, because whatever small amounts women were able to get published was too often ignored and because probably much more works written by males were published, that written-by-males stuff was almost the whole pool of available published and therefore widely known writing, and the supposed “best” of that work (or at least the ones that survived the best for whatever reasons), became known as classics, and those works were often written by certain kinds of males. Now today, because people refuse to let go of those dinosaurs and have elevated their mostly crap work to such high status, that work now represents what “great writing” should be to many people’s heads, to much of society. That type of writing from one type of male has become the main standard for literature. And in my opinion that standard is full of sexist exclusionary crap. It’s sexist and exclusionary toward both males and females, but especially toward females; it’s so gendered and full of stereotypes.

I fight this all the time on my blog and in the past too at my other message board and at even other places, and I’m often ignored now, by both males AND females. Many people are asleep as the world inches ever closer to a chaotic collapse.

I think those past icons of writing need to be shown for what they and their works really were, and mediocre writers writing mediocre works is what most of them really were. Their kind of dinosaur work should be extinct by now and so should the adulation toward it–AND the defense of it. Yet it isn’t extinct.

Sorry for the long post, Imani–this issue is so aggravating….

Not to mention his narrow definition of “domesticity” and the implicit idea that men have been trapped in it?

See, I would say that the assumption in his letter is not that only men have been trapped in domesticity, but that — traditionally — only men have been allowed to escape from domesticity; and that that, in turn, is why a description of the sf dream that is framed in terms of escape — as such descriptions often are — can end up excluding women, redefining what they write as “fantasy” or “slipstream”.

Similarly, I would say that “women get to be guys” was meant to raise your blood pressure, Fran — because I’m pretty sure it’s said with scorn, because it’s antithetical to the way Ryman writes and the people he writes about. What I think he was getting at is that a particular type of “strong female character” has become a cliche: it gets held up as an example of equality, when really it’s just putting female characters in one box. A different box than they used to be in — hey, maybe they even get two boxes instead of one now! — but female characters, too often, still don’t get to be fully rounded people.

But at this point we’re debating what Ryman meant, which is a little counterproductive, given that we all agree there’s a problem; we should be talking about what we can actually do. (One suggestion: vote in the Locus poll, which — unlike the Hugo — is open to anyone.)

Well before that I would need to start reading some SF….*ahem*, *shuffles*.

Fantasy is eligible too (as it is for the Hugos), and I’m sure I saw you admit to *that* somewhere … though now I see that this year’s vote actually closed on Sunday.

Oh, I love fantasy and I forgot that it was eligible too. I do mean to dip my toes into SF eventually, really! Some time soon…

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