Let's talk about WOMEN!
Hell, yeah! Ain't nothing wrong with that!
Okay, long story short: women have not had it very easy since....well, since they were around. I mean, the first woman was blamed for everything that had gone wrong, and since then, women have been the weaker sex, the submissive partners, etc. Thus, for many hundreds and thousands of years, a woman's place has been behind or by her man's. She has been defined within a world of masculinity. Expectations of loyalty and submission are high, while opportunities outside of the family home have been traditionally few. It isn't easy being a woman. Well, don't take my word for. Take Tammy's.
Earlier female writers who pointed out inequalities and differences between sexes, like Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Stanton, have since been known as first wave feminism, while the late 60's and early '70s saw the second wave, in which a lot of theory developed. From the 1990's to the present has been known as third wave, and the theories from the 1970's have been placed alongside race and gender theories. A lot of the theories are also based on Foucault and Derrida, which, I think has become a real problem.
Feminism is important and necessary. Especially feminist literary criticism! Using Foucault's discourse on power has revealed a lot of super interesting and important ideas surrounding women in history and literature, as well as in history through literature. Part of these revelations have been part of the binary oppositions. While this certainly assists us in literary criticism on a male/female axis, it has leaked into the socio-political sphere so much so that feminism and anti-feminism have developed its own social axis. For instance, if this blog post falls into the wrong hands, there is every indication that I will be marked as anti-feminist because of my rough understanding of feminism. The power oppositions work super well in literary criticism, but I am starting to think that, especially in the United States and PARTICULARLY on social media, these binary opposites have not just settled into our social discourse but have come to define our conversations. If you voted for Trump, you are racist. If you believe in socialism, you are a communist. If you kneel during the national anthem at a sporting event, you hate the military. These binary opposites have created an impossible minefield of where people wait in anticipation for an opportunity to go be offended so that they can whip out faulty information about their opposition. It's a real mess!
But I digress.
What a lot of feminist literary criticism has in common is the (rightful) belief that women have been and continue to be oppressed by the controlling patriarchy. By exposing the patriarchal ideology, the hope is introduce a new ideology that says gender is a social construction and not determined by your biological sex.
Unfortunately, I think this is where a lot of people (not just men) get a little lost. I had a hard time slogging through Judith Butler, and even with the help of Sara Salih trying to explain everything. Just that phrase, "gender is a social construct" rings with the sort of extreme and foreign strangeness that makes a lot of men equate feminism with man-hating, or, worse, weird performance art:
So, let me try to break this down into terms that I can maybe understand. Because, I'll tell you, Butler and Salih do not make it easy to understand!
You are born with a ding dong, or you are born with a vagina (usually). These genitals determine what Eve Sedgwick has called "chromosomal sex." So this is the raw materials, the very basic platform. However, as we know, some people do not identify with this chromosomal sex. Plenty of people with ding dongs feel like they got shafted (thank you, how am I doing on time), and vice versa. We also know that there men attracted to other men and women attracted to other women, as well as men and women attracted to each other. I will skip over the Freudian explanations of all this because it gives me a god damn headache trying to sort out how I was attracted to my dad but now I am trying to fill a dad-sized hole with unrequited love of the opposite sex. Freud, you kooky son of a bitch!
So how do we make heads or tails of all of this confusion and crossed wires? Judith Butler's answer is that gender is not something that you "are" but something that you "do." Gender, then, is performative, a social act. She says that "gender is an act, or a sequence of acts, that is always and inevitably occurring." So, if I understand this correctly, your gender is a performative social act (and therefore a construction of your own making) that has nothing to do with your biological affiliation. It is hard for me to wrap my mind around what this has to do with literary criticism, but I am trying to get it. And I will discuss this sensitive topic more with just as much deftness in the next post about gender studies.
One more important aspect discussed by the brilliant Annette Kolody (who has been kind enough to answer my pestering questions over email!) is that of the canon. To me, this part of feminist theory is a universal idea that can be transferred into many different media forms. THE CHALLENGE TO THE CANON! Kolodny says literary history is a fiction. We are taught to read through paradigms rather than actually engaging with texts. So we read texts according to what we need. And what we as a society need now is much different than what a bunch of old stuffy white fuddy duddies needed when the canon was created. So, Kolodny's message is QUESTION EVERYTHING! Just because some dude said something was good once doesn't mean it is good. This can be super controversial. Questioning the timeless excellence of something like Shakespeare or The Beatles sounds like sacrilege, but it is essential and incredibly important to feminist literary criticism. They look into how aesthetic value was assigned in the first place, where that value lies and what that value means for us in our world. And even more importantly, "what ends do these judgments serve, and what conceptions of our world do they perpetuate?" In other words, why are these canonical texts celebrated, what does the text and the celebration/reception of the text say about our world, and what sort of stereotypes and conceptions do these celebrated texts put forth into our world? This is such a punk rock thing to do that it gets me so stoked! Kolodny goes on to say that questioning the canon does not diminish the value of the texts. But if the canon was mostly created when women or black authors were not looked on favorably, questioning the canon and suggesting new ideas may be the only way to get certain authors and texts their due credit.