Feminist criticism

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Feminist criticism

Feminist criticism: A type of literary criticism that became a dominant force in Western literary studies in the late 1970s, when feminist theory more broadly conceived was applied to linguistic and literary matters. Since the early 1980s, feminist literary criticism has developed and diversified in a number of ways and is now characterized by a global perspective. It is nonetheless important to understand differences among the interests and assumptions of French, British, and North American (used in this entry to refer to the United States and Canada) feminist critics writing during the 1970s and early 1980s, given the extent to which their works shaped the evolution of contemporary feminist critical discourse.

French feminist criticism garnered much of its inspiration from Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal book, Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) (1949). Beauvoir argued that associating men with humanity more generally (as many cultures do) relegates women to an inferior position in society. Subsequent French feminist critics writing during the 1970s not only acknowledged Beauvoir’s critique but also focused on language as a tool of male domination, analyzing the ways in which it represents the world from the male point of view.

Drawing on the ideas of twentieth-century French psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, French feminist critics argued that language is a realm of public discourse. Children enter the linguistic realm just as they begin to understand that they are individuals, distinct from their mothers; boys also begin to identify with their fathers, the family representative of culture. All children then learn to speak a language structured in accordance with binary oppositions (dichotomous terms), such as masculine / feminine, father / mother, son / daughter, phallus / vagina, head / heart, active / passive, reason / emotion, and light / dark. French feminist critics pointed out that terms listed first in these binary sets tend to be aligned, as are terms listed second. Hence masculinity is associated with qualities such as light, reason, and activity, whereas femininity is associated with passivity and emotion. They also argued that these two sets of terms are hierarchically structured; reason, for instance, is valued over emotion by the masculine-dominated culture. They thus concluded that language is phallocentric, privileging the phallus and masculinity.

Many French feminist critics argued that language systematically forces women to choose between adopting the male-dominated discourse or opting out — and thereby remaining silent. Women may either imagine and represent themselves as men imagine and represent them (in which case they may speak but will speak as men) or they can choose “silence,” becoming in the process “the invisible and unheard sex,” as Ann Rosalind Jones argued in her essay “Inscribing Femininity: French Theories of the Feminine” (1985).

Some French feminist critics, however, maintained that language only seems to give women a narrow range of choices. These feminists suggested that women not only have different life experiences than men but also write differently, which led them to advocate embracing and developing a feminine language. Early French feminists such as Annie Leclerc, Xavière Gauthier, and Marguerite Duras spoke of this special, feminine language as l’écriture féminine: feminine writing, or women’s writing. Julia Kristeva, commonly considered a pioneer of French feminist thought even though she eschews the feminist label, characterized feminine language as semiotic, not symbolic, as the male-dominated canon of “Great Books” is said to be, in works such as Séméiôtiké: recherches pour une sémanalyse (Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art) (1969) and La révolution du language poétique (Revolution in Poetic Language) (1974). By semiotic, she meant that feminine language is rhythmic and unifying; it does not rigidly oppose and rank qualities or elements of reality, nor does it symbolize one thing but not another in terms of a third. If from the male perspective it seems fluid to the point of being chaotic, that is a fault of the male perspective.

According to Kristeva, feminine language is derived from the preoedipal period of fusion between mother and child, the period during which children do not recognize that they are separate from their mothers. Since feminine language is associated with the maternal rather than the paternal, it poses a threat to patriarchal culture. Kristeva’s central claim — that truly feminist innovation in all fields requires an understanding of the relation between maternity and feminine creation — came paired with a warning, however: feminine or feminist writing that resists or refuses participation in “masculine” discourse risks being politically marginalized in a society that still is, after all, patriarchal. Like Kristeva, other leading French feminist critics also associated feminine writing with the female body. Hélène Cixous, for instance, posited an essential (natural rather than socially constructed) connection between women’s bodies and women’s writing: “Write your self. Your body must be heard,” Cixous urged in an essay entitled “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1976). Luce Irigaray explored the connection between women’s sexuality and women’s language through the following analogy in a book entitled Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un (This Sex Which Is Not One) (1977): Just as women’s jouissance (sexual pleasure) is more multiple than men’s unitary, phallic pleasure (“woman has sex organs just about everywhere”), so “feminine” language is more diffusive than its “masculine” counterpart.

This emphasis on feminine writing as an expression of the female body drew criticism from other French feminists, many of whom argued that emphasizing the body either reduces “the feminine” to a biological essence or elevates it in a way that shifts the valuation of masculine and feminine but retains the binary categories. Christine Fauré, for instance, argued in “La crépuscule des déesses, ou la crise intellectuelle en France en milieu féministe” (“The Twilight of the Goddesses, or the Intellectual Crisis of French Feminism”) (1981) that Irigaray’s celebration of women’s difference failed to address the issue of masculine dominance. Marxist-feminist Catherine Clément warned that “poetic” descriptions of the feminine do not challenge masculine dominance in the realm of production; the boys will still make the toys and decide who gets to use them. Monique Wittig even called for the abolition of sexual categories in “The Category of Sex” (1982) so that women could be redefined as political rather than sexual beings.

North American feminist critics of the 1970s and early 1980s shared with French critics both an interest in and a cautious distrust of the concept of feminine writing. In “Some Notes on Defining a ’Feminist Literary Criticism’” (1975), Annette Kolodny worried that the “richness and variety of women’s writing” could be overlooked in the effort to celebrate only its “feminine mode” or “style.” And yet Kolodny proceeded to point out that women do have their own style, which includes reflexive constructions (“she found herself crying”) and particular, recurring themes (Kolodny mentioned clothing and self-fashioning; other North American feminists have focused on madness, disease, and the demonic).

Interested as they became in the “French” subject of feminine language and writing, North American feminist critics began by analyzing literary texts — not by abstractly discussing language — via close reading and historical scholarship. Critics like Carolyn Heilbrun, Judith Fetterley, and Kate Millett developed a model for American feminist criticism that Elaine Showalter called the feminist critique of “male-constructed literary history” in an essay entitled “Toward a Feminist Poetics” (1985). Critics undertaking the feminist critique reviewed canonical works by male writers, embarking on a revisionist rereading of Western literary tradition. They examined how female characters are portrayed, exposing the patriarchal ideology implicit in the so-called classics and demonstrating that attitudes and traditions reinforcing systematic masculine dominance are inscribed in the literary canon. In The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (1978), Fetterley urged women to become “resisting readers”; to notice how biased most male-authored texts are in their language, subjects, and attitudes; and to actively reject this bias so as to render reading a less “immasculating” experience.

Another group of North American feminist critics, including Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Patricia Meyer Spacks, and Showalter herself, created a different model, which Showalter dubbed gynocriticism. Whereas feminists writing feminist critique analyzed works written by men, gynocritics studied the writings of women who produced what Showalter called “a literature of their own,” in a book by the same name (1977). In The Female Imagination (1975), Spacks examined the female literary tradition to find out how women writers across the ages have perceived themselves and imagined reality. In The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Gilbert and Gubar focused on nineteenth-century women writers, arguing that similar concerns, images, and themes recur in their works because they lived “in a culture whose fundamental definitions of literary authority were both overtly and covertly patriarchal.”

If one of the purposes of gynocriticism was to (re)study well-known women authors, another was to rediscover women’s history and culture, particularly women’s communities that nurtured female creativity. Another related purpose was to discover neglected or forgotten women writers and thus to forge an alternative literary tradition, a canon that better represents the female perspective. In A Literature of Their Own, Showalter outlined just such a tradition by providing a comprehensive overview of women’s writing through three of its phases. She defined these as the “Feminine, Feminist, and Female” phases, phases during which women imitated a masculine tradition (1840—80), protested against its standards and values (1880—1920), and advocated their own autonomous, female perspective (1920 on).

With the recovery of a body of women’s texts, attention returned to a question raised by North American feminist critic Lillian Robinson in Sex, Class, and Culture (1978): shouldn’t feminist criticism formulate a theory of its own practice, since without one feminist critics must rely on critical discourses that are themselves part of the patriarchal tradition? Some feminist critics worried that using approaches such as psychoanalytic theory, formalism, and Marxism would prevent feminist theory from being accepted as an equal; others denied the need for a special or unifying theory of feminist practice. Kolodny, for instance, advocated a “playful pluralism” encompassing a variety of critical schools and methods. Nevertheless, critics such as Jane Marcus feared that if feminists incorporated too many approaches, they might relax the tensions between feminists and the educational establishment that spur political activism.

Although it gradually became customary to refer to an Anglo-American tradition of feminist criticism, British feminist critics of the 1970s and early 1980s criticized the tendency of some North American critics to find universal feminine attributes, arguing that differences of race, class, and culture gave rise to crucial differences among women. Taking a more political approach, British feminist critics emphasized an engagement with historical process in order to promote social change. They asserted that North American celebrations of individual heroines falsely suggest that certain individuals may be immune to repressive, patriarchal conditions and may even imply that any individual can go through life unconditioned by the culture in which he or she lives. Similarly, British critics like Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt viewed the North American effort to recover women’s history as an endeavor that obscured male oppression, implying that it created special opportunities for women. Most importantly, British feminist critics rejected the universalizing and essentializing tendencies of much North American practice and most French theory; they feared that celebrating sexual difference disguised women’s oppression and enabled patriarchy to survive and thrive.

By the early 1990s, the French, American, and British approaches had so thoroughly critiqued, influenced, and assimilated one another that nationality became significantly less predictive of a practitioner’s approach. Today’s critics seldom focus on “woman” as a relatively monolithic category; rather, they view “women” as members of different societies with different attributes (e.g., religion, class, and sexuality) and thus different aims and concerns. Feminists of color, postcolonial feminists, and lesbian feminists ask whether the universal category of “woman” constructed during the 1970s and early 1980s by certain French and North American critics is appropriate to describe women in minority groups or non-Western cultures. For instance, in Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), Gloria Anzaldúa, who grew up under the influence of both the Mexican and Anglo cultures, discussed the experience of many women living on the margins of Eurocentric North American culture.

Proponents of intersectionality, a term coined by civil rights activist and legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” (1989), have gone even further, arguing not only that identity is grounded in multiple social categories but also that discrimination and oppression are compounded at the crossroads of such categories. As Crenshaw’s title suggests, many individuals belong to more than one social group that is subject to discrimination and are thus subject to intersecting or overlapping forms of oppression. Viewed increasingly as a social theory, intersectionality posits that the prevailing, one dimensional categories of discrimination (e.g., sexism, racism, xenophobia) are inadequate and even misleading insofar as discriminatory practices do not operate in isolation or independently from one another. Rather, as sociologist Patricia Hill Collins put it in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990), such practices operate within an “overarching matrix of domination” and are “interlocking.” Moreover, practitioners of intersectionality argue that prejudice has a compounding, rather than just an additive, effect — in other words, that the whole of oppression is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, an African American woman who is also a lesbian is apt to experience more discrimination than a straight black woman and a white lesbian combined.

The evolution of feminism into feminisms has fostered a more inclusive, global perspective, a recognition that feminism comes in many forms and that feminist critics have a variety of goals. The emphasis on recovering women’s texts — especially texts by white Western women — has been supplanted by an effort to recover entire cultures of women. For instance, in works such as In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987) and Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993), Indian feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak demonstrated that national political independence for postcolonial countries is not the simple and beneficial change metropolitan Westerners commonly assume it to be; rather, independence has complex implications for “subaltern” and “subproletarian” women (women with an inferior position, rank, or caste and nonwage-earning women whose material conditions are substantially inferior to those we associate with working-class life), who may end up worse off than they were under colonial rule.

With the shifting understanding of woman as the nexus of diverse experiences, some white, Western, “majority” feminists like Jane Tompkins and Nancy K. Miller have advocated and practiced personal or autobiographical criticism, incorporating their personal reactions and even histories in their readings of literary texts. And with the advent of more personal feminist critical styles has come a new interest in women’s autobiographical writings. Some feminist critics have characterized traditional autobiography as a gendered, “masculinist” genre, given that its established conventions emphasize action, triumph through conflict, intellectual self-discovery, and public renown and downplay or even ignore the body, reproduction, children, and intimate interpersonal relationships. Arguing that the lived experience of women and men differ, with women’s lives being characterized by interruption and deferral to a much greater extent than men’s, Leigh Gilmore developed a theory of women’s self-representation in her book Autobiographies (1994).

Other developments in feminist criticism include feminist performance theory, feminist film theory, and lesbian criticism. Building on Joan Riviere’s insight in “Womanliness as Masquerade” (1929) that all femininity involves masquerade, feminist performance theorists argue that femininity is a social construct rather than a natural quality. Feminist film theorists analyze films as vehicles that perpetuate and enshrine the perception of women as sex objects. As Teresa de Lauretis argued in Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (1986), movies represent “woman as spectacle — body to be looked at, place of sexuality, and object of desire.” Lesbian critics have focused on sexuality by arguing that most critics (including some of their feminist counterparts) proceed from heterosexual and even heterosexist assumptions and by reinterpreting works by authors ranging from Emily Dickinson to Toni Morrison. All three of these approaches, however, have been as often associated with gender criticism as with feminist criticism.

Gender criticism, an approach to literary criticism that focuses on — and critiques — gender as it is commonly conceived in order to expose its insufficiency as a category, has grown considerably since the mid-1980s. Feminist criticism, which arose before gender criticism and heavily influenced its development, is now sometimes viewed as a form of gender criticism because of its focus on the feminine gender. Nonetheless, several distinctions can be made between adherents of the two approaches, even as practitioners of each continue to critique and influence those of the other. First, feminist critics tend to focus on women and women’s issues, whereas gender critics have focused as much on men as women. Second, many feminist critics tend to equate gender with sex and gender difference with sexual difference, treating both gender and sex as natural or innate, whereas gender critics typically take a constructionist position, viewing gender as a social artifact, a product of language and culture distinct from biological sex. Finally, many feminist critics have spoken of a feminine language grounded in sexual difference, a concept many gender critics reject, positing a relationship only between gender and writing, not biological sex and writing.