Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory, or more broadly, by the politics of feminism. It uses the principles and ideology of feminism to critique the language of literature.
This school of thought seeks to analyze and describe the ways in which literature portrays the narrative of male domination by exploring the economic, social, political, and psychological forces embedded within literature.This way of thinking and criticizing works can be said to have changed the way literary texts are viewed and studied, as well as changing and expanding the canon of what is commonly taught. It is used a lot in Greek myths.
Traditionally, feminist literary criticism has sought to examine old texts within literary canon through a new lens. Specific goals of feminist criticism include both the development and discovery of female tradition of writing, and rediscovering of old texts, while also interpreting symbolism of women’s writing so that it will not be lost or ignored by the male point of view and resisting sexism inherent in the majority of mainstream literature. These goals, along with the intent to analyze women writers and their writings from a female perspective, and increase awareness of the sexual politics of language and style were developed by Lisa Tuttle in the 1980s, and have since been adopted by a majority of feminist critics.
The history of feminist literary criticism is extensive, from classic works of nineteenth-century female authors such as George Eliot and Margaret Fuller to cutting-edge theoretical work in women’s studies and gender studies by “third-wave” authors. Before the 1970s—in the first and second waves of feminism—feminist literary criticism was concerned with women’s authorship and the representation of women’s condition within the literature; in particular the depiction of fictional female characters. In addition, feminist literary criticism is concerned with the exclusion of women from the literary canon, with theorists such as Lois Tyson suggesting that this is because the views of women authors are often not considered to be universal.
Additionally, feminist criticism has been closely associated with the birth and growth of queer studies. Modern feminist literary theory seeks to understand both the literary portrayals and representation of both women and people in the queer community, expanding the role of a variety of identities and analysis within feminist literary criticism.
Feminist scholarship has developed a variety of ways to unpack literature in order to understand its essence through a feminist lens. Scholars under the camp known as Feminine Critique sought to divorce literary analysis away from abstract diction-based arguments and instead tailored their criticism to more “grounded” pieces of literature (plot, characters, etc.) and recognize the perceived implicit misogyny of the structure of the story itself. Others schools of thought such as gynocriticism—which is considered a ‘female’ perspective on women’s writings—uses a historicist approach to literature by exposing exemplary female scholarship in literature and the ways in which their relation to gender structure relayed in their portrayal of both fiction and reality in their texts. Gynocriticism was introduced during the time of second wave feminism. Elaine Showalter suggests that feminist critique is an “ideological, righteous, angry, and admonitory search for the sins and errors of the past,” and says gynocriticism enlists “the grace of imagination in a disinterested search for the essential difference of women’s writing.”
More contemporary scholars attempt to understand the intersecting points of femininity and complicate our common assumptions about gender politics by accessing different categories of identity (race, class, sexual orientation, etc.) The ultimate goal of any of these tools is to uncover and expose patriarchal underlying tensions within novels and interrogate the ways in which our basic literary assumptions about such novels are contingent on female subordination. In this way, the accessibility of literature broadens to a far more inclusive and holistic population. Moreover, works that historically received little or no attention, given the historical constraints around female authorship in some cultures, are able to be heard in their original form and unabridged. This makes a broader collection of literature for all readers insofar as all great works of literature are given exposure without bias towards a gender influenced system.
Women have also begun to employ anti-patriarchal themes to protest the historical censorship of literature written by women. The rise of decadent feminist literature in the 1990s was meant to directly challenge the sexual politics of the patriarchy. By employing a wide range of female sexual exploration and lesbian and queer identities by those like Rita Felski and Judith Bennet, women were able attract more attention about feminist topics in literature.
Since the development of more complex conceptions of gender and subjectivity and third-wave feminism, feminist literary criticism has taken a variety of new routes, namely in the tradition of the Frankfurt School‘s critical theory, which analyzes how the dominant ideology of a subject influences societal understanding. It has also considered gender in the terms of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, as part of the deconstruction of existing relations of power, and as a concrete political investment. The more traditionally central feminist concern with the representation and politics of women’s lives has continued to play an active role in criticism. More specifically, modern feminist criticism deals with those issues related to the perceived intentional and unintentional patriarchal programming within key aspects of society including education, politics and the work force.
When looking at literature, modern feminist literary critics also seek ask how feminist, literary, and critical the critique practices are, with scholars such as Susan Lanser looking to improve both literature analysis and the analyzer’s own practices to be more diverse.