Feminism In Literature: Who Wrote What is More Important Than The Thing Itself

‘Feminist critical approach theory’. It’s an interesting sentence. When incoming freshmen are viewing potential classes to take, they’ll see quite a few of these ‘critical approach theory’ classes. Almost all of them will have the words, ‘feminism’, ‘African-American’, ‘Latino(a)’, ‘Marxist’, or ‘Queer’ in the title.

But what do these approaches actually mean? What does feminist critical approach theory actually tell us? This is an important question, as it leads like night to day as to why so many young people are no longer reading for fun. According to one study cited by Time Magazine, 45% of teenagers under the age of 17 will only read one or two books a year by choice. Meaning almost half of all American teenagers won’t read more than a book or two a year, unless someone is forcing them.

Why? What has changed in recent years? I believe it’s that we as Americans no longer look at a piece of literature as it stands, basing our judgment off of nothing but the work itself. No, these days, it’s all about who wrote it, and what it’s about. I’ll discuss a few examples of this, to show how feminist critical approach theory works, and then I will take you through the pieces, step by step, and show you how a true student of literature views things.

Firstly, we’ll look at two pieces that are reprinted in a popular college textbook for literature. Then, we’ll look at a few other feminist ‘master pieces’, that are inevitably ‘award-wining’. Afterwards, perhaps, we’ll see how foolish it is to approach literature with a closed mind, only looking at one perspective. I intend to show that these two pieces -‘A Jury of Her Peers’ by Susan Glaspell, and ‘homage to my hips’ by Lucille Clifton’ –along with several other popular feminist works would not be worthy of consideration if they weren’t written by feminists, for feminists.

So let us start by looking at ‘A Jury of Her Peers’. While at first glance, one might think this piece to be about Mrs. Hale or Mrs. Wright, it truly is about Mrs. Peters, a woman who struggles to break out of her societal boundaries, and do the right thing, as opposed to what she ‘ought to do’. It is all about the two opposing, pulling sides. Does she side with her husband, as a good wife ought to do? Or does she side with Mrs. Wright (accused of murdering Mr. Wright), who has been mistreated by her cold, distant husband?

This entire story centers around men’s casual dismissal of house-work, of women’s hardships and struggles, viewing them as little more than live in maid and nannies. We see the men  laughing at Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters trying to defend Mrs. Wright, with the men dismissing this as nothing more than women being loyal to their own sex.

We quickly come to the understanding that Mrs. Peters is a woman subjugated –too afraid to step outside of societal boundaries, to go against the unwritten and unspoken rules set down for women by men of the time period. By the end of the piece though, Mrs. Hale has convinced Mrs. Peters of the rightness of Mrs. Hale’s actions (attempting to hide evidence).

But let us truly analyze this piece as students of literature. While –refreshingly –the writing style is correct, and even somewhat aesthetically pleasing, we’re left with a rather dull plot, contrived characters, resulting in a story that leaves the reader quickly forgetting having read it, as they move on to better things. There’s no real pull to an average reader, no real ‘mystery’ involved, and the characters are ridiculously trite, particularly the male characters –indeed, it’s impossible to feel anything, even disgust, for the male characters, as they’re far too cookie cutter, cardboard cutout characters to evoke any real sense of emotion at all.

Another point of contention: at the end, we’re basically asked to condone murder, simply because a woman’s husband was ‘cold’. With no instances of abuse, other than his killing of the wife’s bird, we’re asked to be pleased about these two women are actively allowing Mrs. Wright to get away with her brutal crime, simply because her husband was not affectionate enough, and disliked her bird. While one can argue that the husband’s killing of the bird was a cruel act, would anyone deny that killing the man over it is a punishment that far exceeds the crime?

In the poem ‘homage to my hips’ (capitalization in the original), we find Lucille Clifton writing a poem celebrating her large hips, which she uses –in her own words –to ‘put spells on men’. She speaks of how her hips have never been enslaved, and how her and her hips go where she pleases, doing what she pleases.

What we see is a woman unconstrained by societal rules for proper behavior, writing about a subject that is uncomfortable for most to talk about. In today’s society, we don’t celebrate big hips –women are constantly trying to get ‘smaller’ hips, trying to be thinner, and match up to the patriarchy’s idea of what an ideal female body should be. But Ms. Clifton defies that stereotype, embracing her body for what it is, embracing the fact that she can –and apparently does –manipulate men with them.

This poem is written by an independent woman, who lives as she wants, who celebrates her body as it is, without constraining herself to what society thinks she should be. She steps outside of comfortable boundaries, setting her own rules and limits on her body.

Now, from a normal reader’s stand point, we find Ms. Clifton’s piece quite a bit different. With no stanza unity, no rhyming, and no discernible rhythm, a reader will quickly find themselves wondering if this piece was written by an illiterate. Missing capitalization, using small, simple words, celebrating nothing but a random genetic fluke of large hips, Ms. Clifton’s piece comes across as inane, and even eye-rolling at certain parts. Can you imagine how a piece about a man’s hips would fare in today’s society? It would –rightly –be laughed at, and treated as the joke that it would be.

Already, we can see just from these two pieces that looking at things as a feminist does changes, warps, and skews a person’s perspective. But, one might say, these are simply text book stories. Who is to say that this speaks for all feminist literature?

Let us look at some other popular feminist pieces, and see if the end result is the same.

We turn our attention now to ‘The Vagina Monologues’, a popular play put on by Eve Ensler. First performed on Broadway in 1996, this ‘play’ consists of nothing more than women sitting around talking about their vaginas, and how great they are.

From a feminist perspective though, this play is hugely successful. It’s been called ‘empowering’ (University of Richmond), ‘inspiring’ and ‘liberating’, (The Guardian (London)), ‘powerful’ (Times Union (Albany)), and dozens more platitudes.

But what is it? A series of seventeen monologues, in this paper, we’ll only discuss three of them –three of the most popular. We’ll start with ‘The Little Coochie Snorcher That Could’.

In this monologue, we hear a ‘young girl’ describing her sexual encounter with a much older lesbian at the age of thirteen, where said lesbian gets her drunk, and has sex with her, showing her the positivism of sex, and lesbianism. It ends with the line, “If it was rape, it was a good rape.”

Taking aside the fact that getting a thirteen year old drunk is illegal, this is also child rape –a punishable, criminal offense. To hear this girl talking about how good it was is simply horrifying to anyone with an ounce of decency. While the monologue attempts to portray the lesbian as good-intentioned, in reality, she is nothing more than a predator, no different than the thousands of other pedophiles across the world. But this story is incredibly popular with thousands of feminists as a truly freeing tale of a young girl, liberated from the need for men.

Next, we’ll look at ‘Reclaiming Cunt’. A derogatory –and indeed, offensive –term for a woman’s vagina, this monologue consists of a woman yelling ‘cunt’ numerous times to the audience, in an attempt to ‘remove the stigma’ of the word. There’s no real, inherent plot or point to the monologue; it is just an actress on stage seeing how many times she can input the word into her speech. Again, the point is to ‘reclaim’ the word, to erase the negative conotations that go along with it. But imagine, for a moment, if a male was to do a play, and one of the monologues consisted of him repeatedly saying the word ‘cock’ or ‘dick’ (slang terms for the penis) over and over again, to ‘reclaim’ the positive aspects of the word.

And lastly in the Vagina Monologues, we’ll talk about ‘The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy’, a piece about a prostitute talking about how how she loves to ‘pleasure women’ –this act ends with one of the performers vocally mimicking the sound of a ‘triple orgasm’.

The whole play is nothing but women shouting about their vaginas, and mimicking sexual acts on stage –along with one count of statutory rape thrown in for good measure. There is nothing particularly witty, intelligent, or satirical about it, but because it was made by a feminist, for feminists, it has been heralded as an amazing piece of literature. It is now world famous, and has been performed in over 140 countries, translated into 48 languages, and has had as performers big celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Rosario Dawson, Meryl Streep, and Alanis Morissette, along with dozens of others. It has received rave reviews from The New York Times, The Guardian (London), and Good House Keeping Magazine, along with many, many others. It has been named as one of the most influential feminist plays of this century. But why? What is in this play that makes it good?

The contrast becomes especially stark when compared to other famous plays, such as ‘Hamlet’, ‘RENT’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, and hundreds of other plays that have a story, that have a plot. Plays that manage to refrain from making vulgar comments, and inappropriate lines. Plays that avoid making lesbian rape look like a dream come true.

Next, let us look at ‘the color purple’ by Alice Walker. Required reading in many high school and college classes, on Oprah’s Book Club list, with the movie adaptation being nominated for numerous awards, and a Broadway play, one would think this would have to be an excellent, well-thought out book. After all, it’s immensely popular.

Wrong. This book reads like a horror story, with trite, one dimensional characters, where all men are rapists and abusers, and all whites are vehement, violent racists. In this book, every single male in Cecile’s life treats her like dirt. Her father (who we find out is actually her step-father) beats and rapes her –eventually marrying her off against her will – her mother cursed her with her dying breath, and her eventual husband also beats her constantly. We learn that her husband’s first wife was killed by a jealous lover, and that Harpo –her husband’s son –also mistreats and abuses his wife, and the sheriff of the town rapes a girl who only wanted to get her aunt out of jail. There is not a single redeeming quality to any of the males in the story.

But it’s not just the men we have to worry about in this feminist tale; no, Cecile is black, and the whites of the town treat the blacks as sub-human as well –with a white woman commenting on how ‘clean’ a woman’s black children look, and Cecile’s actual father (about the only plot twist in the entire book) was lynched by white men.

The story plot itself leaves the reader wearily wondering when the next instance of rape or abuse is going to happen (the next page, or perhaps the page after?), and there is nothing to keep the reader hooked –no overarching plot, no real twist, no climax –nothing that we typical require to consider a piece to be a good story. It is full of meaningless sayings (one popular line is, ‘I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear men’), dreary, depressing, and all around a struggle to get through.

It is simply a story of a woman who is mistreated by everyone except her fellow women –which is why, in the end, all of the women of the story end up as happy lesbians, or women who have foresworn men forever. But, since it has sexism, racism, and views men as evil, horrible entities only looking for their next opportunity to beat or rape a woman, this piece has been lauded by feminists everywhere. With rave reviews by the New York Times, Huffington Post, and The Guardian, this piece has (in its different forms) won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, nominated for eleven Academy Awards (winning the Best Actress category), and the play comes to rest with thirty three nominations, and nine wins, along with three honorees.

In conclusion, I level the charge that the Feminist Critical Approach to literature is slowly, but surely destroying the literary world. That this approach that values everything but quality is poisoning our minds to accept any piece, as long as it’s written by the ‘right people’ or takes the ‘right stance’ towards things. This ‘method’ of looking at literature is nothing more than looking at a piece with a slanted, biased, and unprofessional approach, leaving quality behind in the rubble of what was once a proud field.

Don’t misunderstand me; there are plenty of fine feminist pieces out there. Maya Angelou, for example, is a well-known, and much renowned writer. There’s ‘Mona Lisa Smiles’ coming in for an excellent feminist movie. But these pieces –and numerous others –are overshadowed by the terrible quality, and endless praise that goes to terrible pieces as those mentioned above.

And these are only a few. When looking through for praised feminist pieces of literature, I was undulated with terrible grammar, illiterate writing styles, trite characters, terrible story plots, and pieces that can only be described as ‘terrible’. Honorable mentions  go out to Jamaica Kinkaid’s ‘Girl’ (a ‘short story’ that is only a list of things a mother told her daughter, with a few references to being called a slut), ‘The Period Poem’ (a slam poem about how wonderful a bloody period is), and ‘Sex In The City’ (a HBO show where women do nothing but sit around and talk about sex). While all terrible pieces that have been praised, unfortunately, I had to limit myself. There’s only so much a mind can handle of this rancid garbage attempting to pass itself off as fine literature. There’s only so much fawning, praise, adulation, and worship a person can handle looking at these.

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