What are the basic tenets of feminist criticism?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Feminist criticism, essentially, seeks to understand how works of literature, particularly those that have long been recognized as part of a core literary "canon," perpetuate patriarchal ideas and represent female interests. Feminist criticism can be thought of as an interrogation of how feminist or otherwise is a work's presentation of...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Feminist criticism, essentially, seeks to understand how works of literature, particularly those that have long been recognized as part of a core literary "canon," perpetuate patriarchal ideas and represent female interests. Feminist criticism can be thought of as an interrogation of how feminist or otherwise is a work's presentation of women. Some feminist criticism will focus on works which present women's issues well, and some will focus on works which obviously perpetuate patriarchal narratives; the unifying factor is that all feminist criticism privileges the interaction of women with society, both in the context of the text and in terms of how the text relates to the wider world.

We can compare feminist criticism in this way to Marxist criticism, or post-colonial criticism. Marxist criticism does not only look at works perceived to be Marxist. Instead, it focuses upon how the ideals presented in a text might be said to interact with Marxist ideologies. Similarly, feminist criticism can be used as a lens through which to interpret works that are highly feminist and works that are extremely patriarchal; it simply means that the criticism focuses upon questions of feminism in the text and between the text and our modern reality.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Another important tenet of feminist criticism is the debate between essentialism and constructionism which occurs not only between feminists and non-feminists but also between feminists.

Essentialists insist that there are natural differences between the sexes, including psychological, biological, and linguistic differences. Furthermore, men and women can never completely understand each other and each possess differences that counteract the other. Essentialists tend to believe that women are more caring, and that men, unlike women, feel compelled to assert their separation from the mother by adopting an aggressive posture in the face of the world.

What French feminists call écriture féminine is a direct rebuke of rationalism in writing, for rationalism is perceived as masculine.

Constructionists contend that the differences between men and women are due to a cultural indoctrination that begins at birth, or even when parents are expecting. In response to the aforementioned arguments, a constructionist would argue that differences between men and women are constructed by societies whose histories and economic goals are incompatible with gender equality. Therefore, women are not inherently more caring, but feel compelled to develop that portion of their personalities to be socially accepted. Men, however, would downplay that part of themselves to avoid being mistaken as "feminine" or "weak." For, caring men who would like to take on roles in child-rearing or who believe in softer approaches to world diplomacy are seen as incompatible with desires to assert military dominance and to maintain men's economic dominance.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Feminist literary criticism grew out of political feminism. Starting with the suffrage and similar movements that struggled to obtain voting and property rights for women, the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in many western countries have been marked by a struggle by women for full social, political, legal, and economic equality. 

Part of feminist theory involved understanding how the mechanisms of patriarchy infuse every element of our lives and societies. Feminist literary critics draw on this insight to analyze how patriarchy affects both how we read literary works and which works we read.

The first element of feminist literary criticism, sometimes referred to as part of "liberal feminism", argues that the literary canon, the works normally read and taught in school, is a patriarchal construction that marginalizes and excludes female authors. Many feminist scholars have sought to increase the proportion of women writers being taught and to reprint in modern editions (or preserve in electronic archives) the works of neglected female authors.

The second, more theoretical, feminist approach uses feminism as a way to read and understand literary works, showing how the narratives and character descriptions replicate patriarchal ideologies. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team