If you’ve read some of my previous literary analysis posts, you know there is always that feminist voice in the back of my mind while I read, critiquing the novel’s treatment of women. While this may dampen my enjoyment of some works, it helps me to be a more engaged and aware member of society. So how do you train yourself to start analyzing the feminist merit of a book? It comes from asking a series of questions while you read. You can also adapt these questions to check for representation of other minority groups as well, such as LGBTQ, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.
Are there female characters? What are they like? Do they have aspirations and dreams?
If a book has no female characters, it is probably not a feminist work. This does not necessarily mean it is un-feminist, although it does contribute to the exclusion of women, especially if it is considered capital L Literature, has won an award or is a member of some other elite category. Having female characters usually means they have to have speaking roles and names. Female extras don’t count towards feminist brownie points. Lastly, they have to be fully-fleshed out characters, with hopes and aspirations, not just shallow stand-ins. Now compare the number of female characters who meet these criteria to the number of male characters who do to get a general feel for how important women are to the story. Even books geared towards boys need complex female characters because boys need to learn to empathize with them.
Examples: There are many books that grace high school reading lists which underrepresent women and girls. For example, Lord of the Flies has not a single female character, while Of Mice and Men has only two, both minor, and one of whom is the unnamed wife of another character, and known as the town tramp.
More about character complexity: Are the female characters mostly evil or subject to the Madonna/whore complex?
Women as monsters is a common theme that contributes to the notion of women as Other. Women in literature are often painted in black and white. Either they are paragons of purity, motivating the male hero to achieve his goals, or they are evil enchantresses sent to distract him from his task. Often, where they stand on the moral spectrum can be directly discerned from their sexual reputation.
Examples: In The Odyssey, many of the obstacles that Odysseus meets are monstrous females, from Scylla the sea monster to the wickedly sensual Circe. Odysseus’s wife Penelope, however, stays chastely at home warding off suitors until her husband’s return.
How are the female characters viewed/treated by the male characters?/ By the narrator?/ By each other?
Do the male characters perceive the female characters only in ways relevant to their sexuality? If so, does the narrator set themself apart from these views by showing insight into the deeper nature of the female characters, or do they seem to support these views? Does the novel pass the Bechdel test? Do the women view each other as rivals for more attention or do they form meaningful relationships with each other?
Examples: Last month, I wrote an article about The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles #1). I noted the clear lack of female characters in the novel’s exposition and the over-sexualized view of women in the male characters’ dialogue and the narration.
How do the characters view sexuality? Do they show an awareness of the importance of consent?
This goes for characters of any gender. The attitudes towards sex that we read in literature can serve to normalize bad behavior or can educate and lead by example. Are characters respectful of their partners? Do they view sex as a reward for heroic behavior or something owed when one feels gratitude?
Example: I have been reading the middle grade series Bloody Jack about a girl who defies typical gender roles to go adventuring on the high seas. But as the protagonist Jackie gets older, her thoughts on sex and romance started to bother me. She frequently falls for roguish men who cross her boundaries and take advantage of her when she is vulnerable, such as her best friend’s brother Randall and the British officer Richard Allen. Meanwhile, her fiancé James Fletcher’s feelings for her turn distinctly proprietary while he, too, enjoys his indiscretions. Across their long separation, he fantasizes about what he will do to her when they are reunited, varying from finally claiming her body, to punishing her for her ill behavior, to restricting her freedom so that she does not get separated from him again. While they show some signs of maturing later on, these attitudes are pretty problematic, especially in a children’s book.
It takes some practice to train yourself to think this way while you read, but soon you’ll notice these things naturally. Now, once you have asked these questions and found an answer that makes you uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean you have to put the book down and turn your back on it. It just means that you can plunge forward with a new awareness of the book and whether or not is contributes positively to a feminist message. Once we identify what our literature is missing, we are empowered to start conversations about it and put out a call for authors to be aware of these things when they write.
Will you start using these questions? What else do you ask yourself while you read? Let me know in the comments!