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How to Use Feminist Literary Criticism


Feminist literary criticism is used to explore the inequalities, social injustices and abusive messages directed toward women within patriarchal societies and cultures. Patriarchy is a system of social organization that traces descent through the male line and bestows privilege and power to males on the assumption of their physical and intellectual superiority over women. Feminist literary criticism has evolved from a strictly literary activity to a way of analyzing and interpreting all forms of human communication and language.

Traditional Literary Uses

Writers and readers use feminist criticism, combined with insights from history, psychology and other disciplines, to explore drama, novels, short stories and poetry. Feminist criticism looks at the conflicts and hardships faced by women in different literary eras and genres. For example, feminist criticism and historical documents can be used to interpret the short story “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin and show that in the late 1800s, although both men and women were bound by moral and social conventions, men were allowed more sexual freedom and control over their individual destiny.

Entertainment and Feminist Criticism

Film critics use feminist criticism to show how mainstream Hollywood exploits stereotypical gender roles for commercial viability in films such as “Legally Blonde.” Feminist film critics also look for changing gender concepts such as gender neutral attitudes and role reversals, including heroines who fiercely challenge stereotypical gender roles in harshly patriarchal cultures. Harvard Crimson writer Tarina Quraishi says the film “The Hunger Games” reveals characters with nontraditional gender roles and shows “there is nothing inherently masculine about aggression or feminine about passivity."

Culture and Sexual Politics

Feminist critics investigate cultural expressions of all forms, including linguistics, visual art and popular texts, using the concept of dominant discourse. Dominant discourse refers to the power dynamics that control the written, spoken and behavioral expectations imposed upon society and culture by those in power. One way that women writers contribute to dominant discourse is by showing how patriarchy misrepresents the emotional and sexual experiences of women and by exploring new narrative strategies that help reshape sexual politics. Cultural views on morality are “a product of books and movies like Fifty Shades of Grey,” according to The Atlantic journalist Anna Green. Feminist critics say the novel shows “the terrible communication” between males and females.

Controversies and the Future

It is common knowledge that the traditional work of women is devalued and women still make less money than men in many commercial enterprises at the time of publication. Contemporary men and women may support the ideals and uses of feminist criticism, but they often have a negative view of the word feminist and refer to it as the other “f” word. Some advocates of feminist views have suggested changing the word feminist to a word with less revolutionary significance, but biological and linguistic feminists argue that the male paradigm is what needs changing; they counter that society should accept the word "feminist" and stay open to criticism as an honest way to identify the creative differences between the sexes and reward these differences equally.

About the Author

A native of New Orleans, Amanda Petrona holds a Bachelor of Science in anthropology/social psychology and Master of Arts in English. She taught writing, research and literature at LSU Baton Rouge. Petrona founded Wild Spirit Louisiana, an organic farm, nature conservatory, and education center for sustainable and holistic living.

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