Notes from the Portland Feminist Meetup: January Edition
The first Sunday of every month, a group of feminists meets in the In Other Words space to discuss current issues through a feminist lens. The topic for Sunday, January 6th was “Feminism and Fiction.” IOW volunteer Susan was kind enough to take notes at the meeting.
Please note that this discussion is the result of an independent group, and the opinions expressed do not reflect those of In Other Words. If you’re interested in joining in on these talks, the Feminist Discussion Group meets the first Sunday of each month at In Other Words; the next meeting will be Sunday, February 3rd. You can join the facebook group for more information.
How do you write feminist fiction without being preachy?
There are a lot of options. You can:
- Create strong female characters.
- Create male characters who are feminist and sensitive, and who respect women and people of color.
- Write from a perspective that isn’t heterosexual or heterosexist.
- Incorporate trans and androgynous and queer characters.
- Show, don’t tell.
Save the overtly feminist preachy stuff for nonfiction; it’s fine if you’re writing essays, creative nonfiction. For fiction, simply show your protagonist living a feminist life and having feminist consciousness.
- Be realistic.
In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf talks about this toward the end of the book. You can’t support war because it’s not women’s sort of output, it’s not our idea, so we shouldn’t be there taking care of men in hospitals. But to sit there just saying war is bad etc…instead take an indifferent stance, say you don’t discuss war. It’s kind of like gay marriage: why are we even talking about this now? It should no longer be an issue. You’ve thus made your point and can move on. For fiction writers, this stance is relevant to picking the topics you write about and the settings you write about.
- Show opposing viewpoint; opposing character.
Show a character turning into a feminist, so that it’s a character’s journey rather than telling the reader, “You should be a feminist.” See how someone can overcome something negative; the reader can get that experience.
Implementing male characters in feminist fiction
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe paints the character of the men so accurately in the beginning; it’s not necessarily a nice portrait but something women should see more. She sheds light on the way men interact in conversation when women aren’t around. We’re too ready to praise men, such as the dad who takes care of children. We don’t similarly praise the mom who takes care of children. Maybe we shouldn’t shed a wonderful light on the male characters when it’s not true to life.
Men and women are never going to be exactly the same (though I do like androgyny, and just because someone is male doesn’t mean he has to like sports and objectifying women), but we can be different while accepting differences. For instance, a female character could be looked down on, as not as powerful or intelligent or useful, but then in the process of the story male characters come to realize that this female character is as good as they. Or you could write feminist fiction in which it’s a given that the female characters are as good and valid as the male.
As a fantasy writer, I believe we can write science fiction and fantasy in a post-patriarchal or non-patriarchal future. An example along those lines is Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It was originally published in 1916 and was very advanced for its age. Even the women had some exclusionary biases, either in Herland or its sequel, and the question comes up: “What if a woman doesn’t fit in?” The answer was to let them live alone and not allow them to reproduce. If you epitomize what it means to be a mother, then you get to have babies; motherhood was every woman’s goal. It was a strong society, and men exposed some things about the culture, but for some of us motherhood isn’t the pinnacle of life. But for its time it was extremely feminist and bold.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy in which the protagonist time travels to the future, a total egalitarian society. In this culture babies are grown and both women men can nurse the babies and be like mothers. There aren’t just two parents, there are a wide variety of people who are responsible for the baby. Children change homes several times throughout their youth. This is a socialist society in which men and women didn’t have the social struggle or parenting issues that we have today.
It is also possible to use fiction to subvert the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal” lens. So Long Been Dreaming is some of the most feminist fiction I’ve read recently, from the position of the conquered rather than the conquerors. The compilation didn’t define itself as feminist fiction, but looking at things from a very different perspective than usual. This voice was eye-opening even to someone who considers herself feminist.
White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy – is often used phrase from bell hooks . The way I understand it, is that present dominant system in the US is is based on multiple forms political, economic, social etc hierarchies and oppressions. White supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy remain largely unchallenged despite various advances made by social movements since the 1960s. The term is put into opposition to dominant mainstream definition of the US political system as “liberal democracy.”
Other authors have chosen to deal with gender in a more abstract way. Every Day, by David Levithan, is a YA novel in which the protagonist is in a different body every day, not always the same gender.
It’s important to remember that all feminist texts are a snapshot in time. They can only reflect where women were at a particular moment – it can be very different thirty years later. (For example, with Herland being surprisingly sexist in some ways).
Books on women’s writing
The following books are available through In Other Words’ Lending Library:
- Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them by Dale Spender
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
- The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Gubar
- Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature (in English)
- Literary Women by Ellen Moers
- Images of Women in Literature by Mary Anne Ferguson
- How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ
- Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers edited by Mary Morris
- Out of Her Mind: Women Writing on Madness edited by Rebecca Shannonhouse
- I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… And Then Again: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader by Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Alice Walker
- Last Girls by Lee Smith
Can fiction be very popular and very feminist?
Yes! At least, feminist, if not “very” feminist (as in, it can be popular if it’s fairly subtle). You don’t think of the lead character being female, unless you have feminist consciousness. A lot of people (especially males and the mothers of boys) avoid female protagonists.
Proof that fiction can be popular and feminist:
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (YA dystopia trilogy)
- Graceling by Kristen Cashore (and her related books Fire and Bitterblue; YA fantasy)
- Possession and titles by A. S. Byatt (won the Booker Prize)
- Science fiction: Octavia Butler (her most feminist book is Kindred, but it’s not her best written book), Ursula K. LeGuin, James Tiptree Jr.
- Allison Bechdel (graphic novels)
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (it’s a popular adult feminist fiction; picks out stereotypical attitudes about what a girl should be)
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone, a series by Laini Taylor (YA fantasy, somewhat reminiscent of patriarchal vs. goddess religion, or Israel and Palestine).
- Nancy Drew—really resonates with you when you’re a kid. Said a lot for its time. Carolyn Keene was a pen name for a man, sometimes a committee of authors. Gender segregation between Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys was unfortunate; I read some of the former, but I don’t think my brother read any of the latter.
- Grace Paley, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag –feminist mainstream authors who are very popular.
We owe a lot to a handful of feminist authors from the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth centuries, before the official movements starting in the nineteenth century. Mary Astell, Mary Wortley Montague, Mary Wollstonecraft, etc. (In Shakespeare’s time it was a common belief that you had to marry off women very young because without action their wombs would wander around in their bodies. “Hysteria” was the male theory of why women were “crazy,” or why they experienced, of all the terrible things, emotions!)
There seem to be an awful lot of feminist authors in the science fiction genre. Is it easier to write feminism into that particular genre? Is it easier for people to accept feminism in a fictional setting? Maybe publishers don’t know how to categorize female authors so they stick it in science fiction when in doubt.
From October 2012 discussion: Fifty Shades of Grey = Mommy Porn. It’s like a Harlequin novel, but it’s this huge bestseller. The basis is a strong, powerful man who doesn’t know how to relate and only knows how to dominate through S&M. The female protagonist is a virgin and the dude thinks she’s subservient and the only way he can love her is by dominating her, but she says she wants a real relationship. He learns to love genuinely, and she brings him down to being the man she wanted. It was originally Twilight fan fiction (gee, I mentioned that it’s no wonder lots of middle aged women love Twilight). This is so not feminist literature. Actually, you could call it backlash fiction.
TV shows and women in male culture
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wonder Woman, Zena Warrior Princess, Lost Girl (which does have some disturbing gender relationship issues), Once Upon a Time…. Most of these shows have a lot of feminist elements but are still problematic in some ways; mostly white characters, sex kitten characters, and violence. Veronica Mars (it’s great except for the last season; has very strong female character and is not typical). Drop Dead Diva. Is really good even though it’s on the Lifetime station. Twin Peaks
Currently there’s a movement toward female characters being more dude-like. How I Met Your Mother has women characters, but “I have a hard time believing those characters are female; I can’t relate to any of them. The more you get male attitudes in a female body, the “hotter” it seems to become; it seems weird in sort of a patriarchal way. There’s some sort of fantasy fulfillment going on: a female who’s casual about sex and drinks beer like a guy, for instance. There’s a push toward the female who’s going to be one of the guys. It’s a novelty, but for the majority of females this probably isn’t appealing. It reminds me of the nonfiction book Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy. Women are compelled to be a part of male culture, but men don’t seem to have a similar interest in being a part of female culture.
Creating feminist fiction from real life experience
One member of the discussion cited her experiences in a very male-dominated workplace. She talked about what it was like to have to keep the peace by not reacting to certain sexist or anti-feminist statements made by her coworkers
Real-life personal experiences like the above could be incorporated into feminist fiction. You could write a satirical story in which there’s a class to teach men how to properly and effectively express their emotions in the workplace. Or it could be like the real-life workshop for teaching women not to express emotions in the workplace, but with men in the place of the women.
Writing psychological fiction in a society full of insensitive and callous people would be challenging in that most readers might not appreciate it. For instance, I had what I eventually figured out was a very unprofessional editor give me a toxic developmental edit in which she claimed that the protagonist was unlikeable because she was deep in thought and therefore came across as self-absorbed; this editor also seemed to like the overtly patriarchal villain of the novella.