Feminist Literary Theory. ENG 4U. Diversity. Feminist literary theory is difficult to define because feminism itself is difficult to define.
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Feminist Literary Theory ENG 4U
Diversity • Feminist literary theory is difficult to define because feminism itself is difficult to define. • The term “feminism” does not claim to account for all women’s experiences in exactly the same way because women have different experiences based on race, religion, sexual orientation, class, age, heritage, geographic location, physical appearance, etc. There is great diversity within feminism.
Feminism • However, feminists do agree that women, as a group, have historically been oppressed on the basis of their sex. Feminists, whether male or female, advocate for women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.
The Feminist Lens Critics who apply the lens of feminist theory to literature are concerned with the myriad ways that gender can be “read.” They examine: 1. Women’s Representation a) Archetypes (Stereotypes) b) Oppression and Internalized Oppression c) From Object to Subject 2. Women Writers and the Literary Canon 3. Women’s Language 4. Women’s Reading
Representation How are women represented in literature and film?
+++Positive Archetypes+++Women as Sources of Life and Bounty • The Earth Goddess Gaia • The Virgin Mary • The Earth Mother
+++Positive Archetypes+++The Platonic Ideal Laura (Petrarch) Beatrice (Dante) • The Muse Calliope
Patriarchy • Any culture that privileges men by promoting traditional gender roles, and penalizing women when they stray from those roles.
Traditional Gender Roles MEN • Thinkers • Strong • Providers • Protective • Assertive WOMEN • Feelers • Weak • Caregivers • Nurturing • Submissive
Traditional Gender Roles • The belief that gender roles are natural has been traditionally used to justify: •Why women shouldn’t own property •Why women shouldn’t get an education •Why women shouldn’t work outside the home •Why women shouldn’t vote •Why women shouldn’t hold the same positions as men •Why women shouldn’t earn the same wage as men
Biological Essentialism • Belief that women are born inferior • Based on biological differences between the sexes that are part of our unchanging essence as men and women
Biological Essentialism • Feminists don’t deny biological differences • However, they disagree that differences in physical size, shape, and body chemistry make men naturally superior to women • more intelligent • more logical • better leaders
Sex and Gender • SEX: biological constitution as female or male • •”between the legs” • GENDER: our cultural programming as feminine or masculine • •”between the ears”
2. Oppression • The root of the word "oppression" is the element "press." The press of the crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press; press the button. • Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gases or liquids in them. • Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce. (Marilyn Frye)
The Birdcage Analogy Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere…It is only when you step back…you can see that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.
Sexism is systemic. It consists of all the wires of a birdcage, not just one.
3. Internalized Oppression • Occurs when women begin to believe what dominant society tells them about themselves (i.e. that women are ‘naturally’ less intelligent than men, that their worth is measured by their looks, that their only value in life is as a wife and mother) • Internalized sexism is when women take up arms against each other and themselves. It is self-hatred.
Women as Objects • Art historian John Berger introduced the concept of “The Gaze” in Ways of Seeing (1972): Women must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.”
Women’s Representations : The Gaze This act of surveillance, of men looking and women being seen, Berger insists, is intrinsic to relations between the sexes: Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women, but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. She turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. Thus, men gaze at women, and women begin to see themselves through men’s eyes. They internalize the gaze that turns them into objects.
The Literary Canon Definition: The literary canon is a canon of books that has been considered “the greatest literature of all time,” and the most influential in shaping Western culture. These works are considered the pinnacle of “high art” (that is, art of the highest and most noble merit).
Feminists Question the Literary Canon 1. Why has the literary canon consisted mainly of male writers (and here we should qualify, "of white, middle-class and upper middle-class male writers")? 2. What have been the standards by which the works of women (along with non-white males and the economically-disenfranchised) have been judged? Who created these standards and who benefits from them? 3. Can women, or minorities, or working-class writers be comfortably added to the canon? Does the conception of a literary canon change as such writers are introduced?
Feminists Question the Literary Canon 4. Does the existence of a literary canon serve any useful purpose? Does it serve the interests of women or other marginalized groups of people (minorities and homosexuals, for example?)? 5. To what extent does the notion of a literary canon marginalize women? 6. Is it inevitable that there be a literary canon, or does the attempt to canonize some writers and exclude others serve an often unacknowledged political purpose?
Feminist Literary Critics • Feminist literary critics assert that most of our literature presents a masculine-patriarchal view in which the role of women is negated or at best minimized. • Feminists ask: what is left out when women’s experiences are left out of written culture?Whose stories are told, and whose are ignored?
Feminist Literary Critics • Feminist literary critics show that writers of traditional literature have ignored women and have transmitted misguided and prejudiced views of them • Feminists ask: What happens when women’s only representations in literature are generated by men? When their own voices are silenced? When someone else “tells their story”? When they are turned into an “object” (one who is studied) rather than a “subject” (one who studies)?
Feminist Literary Critics • Feminist literary critics attempt to stimulate the creation of a critical environment that reflects a balanced view of women’s experiences and values • Feminists: look at all women’s stories, not only the wealthy and literate few; they look at stories in both the oral and written tradition; they value first-person testimony and subjectivity (traditionally “female”) rather than privilege logic and reason (traditionally “male”)
Feminist Literary Critics • Feminist literary critics: attempt to recover the works of women writers of past times and to encourage the publication of present women writers so that the literary canon may be expanded to recognize women as thinkers and artists
Feminist Literary Critics • Feminist literary critics: urge transformations in the language to eliminate inequities and inequalities that result from linguistic distortions.
Feminist Literary Critics Might Ask… • Is the author male or female? How does that shape the way you understand the characters? • Is the text narrated by a male or female? • What types of roles do women have in the text?
Feminist Literary Critics Might Ask… • Are the female characters the protagonists or secondary and minor characters? Are they static or dynamic? • Do any stereotypical characterizations of women appear? Do they challenge or reproduce stereotypes? • What are the attitudes toward women held by the male characters?
Feminist Literary Critics Might Ask… • What are women’s attitudes towards each other? Towards themselves? • What is the author’s attitude toward women in society? • How does the author’s culture influence his or her attitude? • Who holds power in the story? Who does not?
Feminist Literary Critics Might Ask… • What happens when women in the story challenge the status quo? What consequences or limitations do they face? • Is feminine imagery used? If so, what is the significance of such imagery? • Do the female characters speak differently than the male characters? Compare the frequency of speech for the male characters to the frequency of speech for the female characters.