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Feminist Criticism

In this lecture on feminist criticism, Professor Paul Fry uses Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own as a lens to and commentary on the flourishing of feminist criticism in the twentieth century. The structure and rhetoric of A Room of One's Own is extensively analyzed, as are its core considerations of female novelists such as Austen, Eliot, and the Brontës. The works of major feminist critics, such as Ann Douglas, Mary Ellman, Kate Millett, Elaine Showalter, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, are mentioned. The logocentric approach to gender theory, specifically the task of defining female language as something different and separate from male language, is considered alongside Woolf's own endorsement of literary and intellectual androgyny.

00:00 - Chapter 1. Transition into Feminist Theory: Tony the Tow Truck
06:35 - Chapter 2. Overlapping Identities
15:29 - Chapter 3. The Structure of A Room of One's Own
22:32 - Chapter 4. Feminist Criticism and A Room of One's Own
28:23 - Chapter 5. Women's Language and the Male Sentence
39:18 - Chapter 6. Complications and Implications of Classical Feminism

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Feminist Readings

Feminist readers make an important distinction between the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’. For them ‘sex’ is a biological term that refers to the biological differences that really do exist between men and women. ‘Gender’, however, refers to our prejudices and assumptions about which traits or characteristics are usually thought of as male / masculine or female / feminine. Feminist readers point out that the idea that women naturally really are more emotional, caring, irrational and afraid of spiders is nonsense and that this is just  a ‘gender role’ that has been created by society and which women are often forced to try and fill. Equally, the notion that men are strong, silent, rational and equipped with innate instincts for spider combat is equally nonsense. However, once again, men are also, usually, forced to fulfil these roles. The assumption underlying feminism is that, if we were not forced to play a role that has been artificially created or constructed for us by society then we would be free to be whatever we want to be.


These ‘gender roles’ are present throughout our novels, plays, poems and movies and we are so used to them and comfortable with them that we often just accept them as true and believe that they represent the way the world really is. Feminist readings of texts attempt to reveal these biases, prejudices and assumptions and point out they are not ‘really true’ or ‘natural’ and that the world could be different if we would let it.


Why is this particularly important to feminists? Because virtually every aspect of the gender role assigned to women portrays them as weak, helpless, illogical and in need of rescue by men. If we view women in texts and in the real world in this way then it explains why women do not have an equal share of responsibility, power or wealth; after all, would you put someone who was helpless or illogical in charge of your armed forces or even give them the vote? The different male / female gender roles help to create an imbalance of power where men are always in the more powerful positions and women are often reduced to objects controlled by men.


So, by revealing these assumptions feminists hope that they can be combated and that a greater equality in texts can be achieved. Why is it important to fight against the stereotypical presentation of women in texts? Because texts are a model for life – novels, plays, poems and movies all affect our way of thinking about the world and what the world should be like. If our texts are sexist then sexism will seep into our world.


Things to look out for if you are reading a text from a feminist point of view:


Women presented as one of four basic character types:

·         The caring mother figure

·         The obedient daughter

·         The acceptable romantic partner (the wife)

·         The mad, bad, temptress (the mistress)

These four roles reinforce the idea that women should be passive and obey orders. The positive characters, the mother and daughter, are meek and mild while the independent and strong mistress figure is seen as dangerous and wrong.


Women presented in other stereotypical ways

Female characters portrayed as helpless, weak, illogical, emotional, passive, nurturing, caring, timid, dependent, irrational, empathetic, gossipy, homely, sweet or romantic. As we have seen, women are not really like this but these stereotypical representations of women help create the ‘gender role’ that women are expected to play. If we see enough of these roles again and again, what choice will we have but to think that this is what a woman is like.


The two sexes presented as a Binary Opposition:

Men and women are often presented as two complete opposites with the male side as being somehow superior. However, the ideas of the male and the female are interdependent. We would not have the concept male unless we had females, or at least the idea of females, around to contrast with it. In the same way the concept of light does not make sense unless we have the idea of darkness. As such both sets of attributes are as important and as valuable as each other. Men need women to make sense of themselves.


The attempt to write in a specifically female style (ecriture feminine):

The only real difference between men and women is the biological one. As such, in an attempt to find a style of writing that is truly feminine, some women have decided to write about their bodies or involve their bodies in their texts as a way of writing something that no man ever could. Themes of childbirth, rape, mothering are all specifically female themes. The theme of being trapped or incarcerated is often also associated with feminist reading representing how women are ‘trapped’ in a certain gender role.

So what do you do if you notice one of these elements in a text? Well, as with any other literary feature, you should try to comment on what effect it has on the text. One of the first things to consider is whether you think the author has included these elements intentionally or not.


If the writer has unintentionally stereotyped women into, for example, the classic four roles for women in point 1, you can point out the sexism involved here, how this text backs up our cultural prejudices and try to interpret the women in a different way and see what happens. This works particularly well if you can re-interpret a wicked woman in a good way.


If the writer has intentionally included these stereotypes (as is more likely to be the case with modern female writers) then they might be trying to point out how restricted the lives of females are as an attempt to draw attention to this problem.


Typical questions:

  • How is the relationship between men and women portrayed?
  • What are the power relationships between men and women (or characters assuming male/female roles)?
  • How are male and female roles defined?
  • What constitutes masculinity and femininity?
  • How do characters embody these traits?
  • Do characters take on traits from opposite genders? How so? How does this change others’ reactions to them?
  • What does the work reveal about the operations (economically, politically, socially, or psychologically) of patriarchy?
  • What does the work imply about the possibilities of sisterhood as a mode of resisting patriarchy?
  • What does the work say about women's creativity?
  • What does the history of the work's reception by the public and by the critics tell us about the operation of patriarchy?
  • What role does the work play in terms of women's literary history and literary tradition?