Sex. Feminism. Lesbian Werewolves.

What is Feminist Literature?

Posted on Jan 17, 2011 in Feminism, Gender, Literature | 5 comments

Asking what is “feminist anything” is a dangerous game.  Feminism, like queer, like many things, is a self-defined term.  Anyone who proposes to have the “correct” definition, to guard the gate of feminism, is a huckster and a liar.

My individual definition of feminist literature is the following:

Feminist literature presents female characters as agents.  These stories present women as fully realized characters with faculties, desires, aggressions, ires, lusts, and conflicts.

To call forth an oft-used quotation by Cheris Kramarae, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human.” Feminist literature treats these humans as interesting and worthy of novels and stories.

There may be some who argue against feminism in some female-led stories.  Disney movies and Twilight are the first two easy targets.  The question I ask of these stories is, are they about the women they suggest to be?  That is, is Beauty and the Beast about Belle and her journey?  What about the Little Mermaid? Twilight?  If you can argue that these stories are indeed about these women, and that they aren’t acting as foils for the men in stories, then I say yes, they belong within the purview of feminist literature.

There is another layer wherein we can question the motives of the protagonists of these stories.  Indeed, a huge number of these same Disney stories and chick-lit films and books are about the pursuit of marriage and other socially-sanctioned feminine ideals.  Using this context for examining these same stories, it can be more difficult to consider these stories within the feminist canon.  This is the same standard that confounds many conversations about “what is or is not feminist.”  The question of feminist pornography, for instance, is particularly difficult to untangle because the question is not (or shouldn’t be) whether or not women chose to engage in the act with a free will, but whether or not their choice was a good/ethical/progressive one.

Feminist analysis of Disney princesses

Courtesy of Broke Hoedown

Herewith, we remove the sense that access to choice in itself is a feminist ideal, and add a further standard by which we place value judgments on the choices themselves.  This is doomed to be an endlessly recursive argument where people can parse out every choice and place it on a scale of good to bad.  Such can be done with nearly every aspect of gender equality – to choose to be a mother, to choose to have an abortion, to choose to abstain from sex, to choose a career in pornography, and on and on and on.

Feminist literature, then, is having characters that have the will and the ability to choose.  They are the mistresses of their own destinies. They make their choices and play their hands. They tell their own stories engaging us, the readers, in their extraordinary journeys



Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. jayparry

    So a man is human by default because he has faculties, desires, aggressions, ires, lusts, and conflicts.

    Yet a hetero man’s biggest desire/lust is a woman.

    Regarding the women in the Disney stories – IF a hetero woman has her faculties and realizes she has sexual power over hetero men, isnt she realizing (at least one dimension of) her power? Her aggression is guised in cunning sexual manipulation… just as the (mostly) male rulers in these stories use their power in other ‘realized yet flawed’ ways — to start wars, to send the hero into battle, etc — aren’t the women choosing to use their power to get what they want?

    The larger question is why did they want what they wanted (to be married to the male hero) in the first place… but are feminist women barred from using their sexuality to get what they want? If you realize you have sexual power must you renounce it??

    – Hetero white male. (Long time reader first time commenter.)

  2. Allison

    Hi Jayparry,

    Thanks for the comment. I think what you’re getting at is a pretty common paradox among feminist discourse which is: If feminism is women making their own choices and realizing their power, what happens when their choices and power are anti-feminist?

    You hear this a lot, specifically when dealing with women’s sexuality. Whether it’s Girls Gone Wild, stripping, porn, or any other objectification of women’s bodies, people like to declare that these can’t be feminist women doing feminist acts, because they’re feeding into the continued exploitation of women and thereby bolstering the patriarchy. It’s a reasonable argument.

    One of the questions you ask, “are feminist women barred from using their sexuality to get what they want?” has a simple answer: No. Of course not.

    However, there are plenty of subtleties to this question. No one is “barring” anyone from doing anything. There is no feminist membership card that is revoked. The real question is whether or not the act of using one’s sexuality to achieve power over others is itself is feminist. My answer to this is, no. Feminism is the belief in equal opportunity and resources for all people, regardless of gender. To use the assets proffered by society on your gender against another gender is antifeminist, because it capitalizes on an inequity.

    (I want to be clear that that’s different than being a professional sex worker, though. In ethical sex work, there’s an exchange of money for service, and it should be no different than going to a masseuse.)

    Using one’s sexuality to achieve personal success is no crime, and I think it’s totally feminist. Using one’s sexuality to exploit a patriarchal system that continues to oppress all genders, I argue is not feminist. But does that mean people who do the latter aren’t feminists by default? Absolutely not. There is no test or code of ethics that defines feminism full-stop, which is why you get groups like Anti-porn feminists, lesbian separatists, Sex-worker rights advocates, feminist porn producers, and all sorts of others.

    One can be a feminist while engaging in certain privileges that are anti-feminist. One can be a misogynist dick-bag who has some pretty progressive ideas on equality. No one can claim to be all one or the other, and they certainly can’t claim what other people are.

  3. Richy Roo

    I am a college student, and am in the process of writing a paper analyzing feminist heroes in modern media/literature.
    I would like to cite this column, but need the author’s full name and crudentials to do so. Is there a place where I may find that information? If not, can the author email it to me? I will respect your anonymity.

  4. Allison

    I’ve had a lot of people ask to cite this post for their papers. For future reference, my full name is Allison Moon and you can find all the copyright info for this website here:


  5. Kim Muncey

    I just wanted to say thank you for this. I too am writing an essay to do with feminist literature, and as you say there are so many varying definitions or a lack thereof. I’ll be citing you, with references, if you don’t mind. :)


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