How do I analyze a text with feminist theory?

Expert Answers
mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Depending on the text, you will want to look at the roles of females in the novel and compare them with the roles of males.

In particular, you will look for these main points of criticism:

1.  Differences between men and women: "The basic assumption is that gender determines values and language."  Notice the differences in topics that men and women talk about and how they discuss them.  According to Deborah Tannen, for instance, men are "report talkers" (they announce things for show), while women are "rapport talkers" (they speak to foster intimacy).  She also says that all women are marked: by appearance (makeup, hair, clothes, body) and language (topic, tone, cues).  In other words, women must battle these markings in every day roles and conversations, and it is tough to do so.

2.  Women in power or power relationships between men and women: "Note and attack the social, economic, and political exploitation of women."  Notice the division of labor in marriage, the home, and work place.  Are men doing men's work only (segregation of gender roles)?  Or, are men and women sharing the work (integration of gender roles)?

3.  The female experience: is the speaker, author, or protagonist female?  If so, how is her point-of-view determined?  How are her experiences different from other females and males?  How does she treat others?  Does she celebrate femininity and the roles of mothers, wives, and independent women?

So says one feminist author and critic:

So, what has feminism taught me about literary studies? That it is not "artistic value" or "universal themes" that keeps authors' works alive. Professors decide which authors and themes are going to "count" by teaching them, writing scholarly books and articles on them, and by making sure they appear in dictionaries of literary biography, bibliographies, and in the grand narratives of literary history. Reviewers decide who gets attention by reviewing them. Editors and publishers decide who gets read by keeping them in print. And librarians decide what books to buy and to keep on the shelves. Like the ancient storytellers who passed on the tribes' history from generation to generation, these groups keep our cultural memory. Therefore, we gatekeepers, who are biased humans living in and shaped by the intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic paradigms of an actual historical period must constantly reassess our methods, theories, and techniques, continually examining how our own ethnicities, classes, genders, nationalities, and sexualities mold our critical judgements.

janihash24 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

First of all, it's important to realize that there is no one "feminist theory." For example, taking Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex as a guideline, we would analyze a text based on its representation of the biological differences between the sexes as contrasted with the "social and historical constructs" of gender roles and stereotypes. Beauvoir famously equated Woman as "Other," thus making her "the second sex," never equal to and always defined by men.

Compare this with the much more down-to-Earth feminist writings of Betty Friedan, who in The Feminine Mystique chose to focus on how American women, specifically, were forced into roles that left them intellectually unsatisfied and yearning for more challenging lives.

Thus, to answer your question, it would be best to avoid the construct of "feminist theory" in analyzing a text, and instead simply ask yourself about how women and men are portrayed. Are there assumptions that "men behave/do/talk" a particular way, as opposed to how "women behave/do/talk"? If the work is fiction, does the narrator appear to represent the author's own views on gender, or not? Who is powerful in this narrative, how, and why? Are there any shifts in power, and if so, how do they occur, and are they sustained?

Again, if fiction is the category: How many female characters are presented and how important are they to the narrative, and in what way? If you are analyzing a nonfiction text, read it while asking the question: Does this information apply equally to both men and women? Does it make assumptions based on gender status quo? Does the information presented correspond with your own experience? If so, why? If not, why not? What you find in a reading of that nature may well surprise you.