Defining the “F” in Feminist Criticism #2

In shedding light on traditional “patripower” beliefs, to borrow the term from Hattie Gossett (1988), one only has to look at Sartre’s sexist tendencies. In his essay, “We Write for Our Own Time,” Sartre unkindly argues, “But the writer makes books out of words, not out of his sorrows. If he wants to stop his wife from behaving badly, he should not write about her; he should beat her . . . (Sartre, 1970). These are but a few examples of the prevailing thought which has, in one way or another, widely influenced society on the matter of the essential worth of the “trivial” word, woman.

Is “Femininity” natural? Is “Femininity” simply “a game played by girls, a chain passed on by one woman to another. . . a ‘mirror’ which allows for the possibility of difference” (Frith, 1991)? Is it true that “What is feminine affirms” (Cixous, 1989)? Likewise, is it true that femininity is a cultural fabrication? Simone de Beauvoir maintains that one is not born woman; one becomes one. On the one hand, that which contains femininity has been classified as soft-spoken, passive, virtuous, agreeable, compliant. On the other hand, one who is feminine can also be treacherous, lying, weak, indecisive, dull, moody, vain, superficial, dim-witted. Clearly, most of the former epithets can be classified into binary oppositions with the latter categories. Women can be good and bad, desirable and appalling, wild and tame, weak and strong, and all at the same time. In other words, women are expected to be energetic, but not too dynamic; brash, but not arrogant; beautiful, but not narcissistic. Are all these labels biological traits? Hardly!

In addition, femininity has also been established as “lack,” “negativity,” “absence of meaning,” “irrationality,” “chaos,” “darkness,” in other words, as “non-being” (Moi, 1989). According to Existential Philosophy, “Being” is requisite to any and all other potentialities. Virginia Woolf’s fair, albeit, somewhat desperate act may find a following, after all. Woolf commands: plow forth and murder the feminine “angel” who occupies the optimum space in our minds, our houses, our souls (Woolf, 1966). Woolf conveys her own “criminal act” thus:

It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her. You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her–you may not know what I mean by The Angel in the House. . . . She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draft she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all . . . she was pure. (Woolf, 1966)

Has “Feminism,” as some claim, corrupted women to the core? “Feminism.” Some women, even today, are apprehensive of the “bra-burning,” “women’s lib” ideas with which it has been labelled. Others refuse to associate with a term that encompasses such negative connotations. The term “Feminism” includes such disparaging ideas, as those of the ostentatious business woman who utterly neglects her family, especially her children; the seductress, who is willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top; the manipulator, who uses whatever means to get her way; the activist, who fights for women’s rights just so that she can go against the system; and those who choose to associate only with other women so that they can take revenge on men. Feminism, for whatever reason, acquired Medusa-like qualities. After all, she was classified as a “woman” too.

“Female,” “Woman,” “Other.” “So what is the beef?” Germaine Greer asserts and questions in her essay, “The Stereotype.”

Maybe, I couldn’t make it. Maybe I don’t have a pretty smile, good teeth, nice tits, long legs, a cheeky arse, a sexy voice. Maybe I don’t know how to handle men and increase my market value, so that the rewards due to the feminine will accrue to me. Then again, maybe I’m sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of pretending eternal youth. I’m sick of peering at the world through false eyelashes, or everything I see is mixed with a shadow of bought hairs . . . I am sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate. (Greer, 1983)

Some would classify this as radical feminist chatter. Others would fear the mere thought of it. What will happen when women come into power and identify with it? Will it create anxiety? Is it possible that women might even take revenge? Historically, this has not been substantiated. Nevertheless, it has been regarded as a possibility. What patripower fears is the possibility of an outcome as envisioned by Helene Cixous, who estimates, “When ‘The Repressed’ of their culture and their society come back, it is an explosive return, which is absolutely shattering, staggering, overturning, with a force never yet unleashed and equal to the most forbidding of suppressions” (1989).  She goes on to prophesy to the dismay of some, “For when the phallic period comes to an end, women will have been either annihilated or borne up to the highest and most violent incandescence” (Cixous, 1989).

In light of such great drive on the part of patripower to silence and suppress women, and in spite of their tremendous efforts, women have found a voice. This voice encompasses and contains the Other. At times, it may be cryptic, foreign, and indistinguishable by males. At times, it may be foreign even to those who are classified as Other. It could be non-conformist, distinct, and aloof. In a society consumed with categorizing and classifying, it would be forced to construct its own category.

Why look at women in literature? Is it because it encompasses endless possibilities? Is it because it makes up its own rules? Is it because it cannot be “enclosed within borders” (O’Grady, 1996)? It is because “Literature is a transnational country,” in which writers must be “border-crossers” and “outlaws” (O’Grady, 1996). A writer, and a female at that, must be a conglomerate (not a union), of unique and separate parts consisting of a multi-cultural, and multilingual self.  In turn, those parts swelling with creativity must come together in what we shall call the creative, imaginative, inventive womb.  And although many a man has appropriated this womb, this ability to give birth as the ultimate creation of literary imagination, they partake not in the birthing experience. Only women are given the gift of repeated conception and genesis of literary thought. This is the nexus where women’s power lies. In defying and ignoring patriarchal ideas and plowing forth by expressing themselves, women may find that others, especially men, need not regulate individuality and creativity. Coming to terms with self and artistic expression can only contribute to attaining self-knowledge deeply rooted in authenticity and truth.

Works Cited

Cixous, Helene. “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways–Out/Forays,” In The Feminist

Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Catherine

Belsey and Jane Moore, eds. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 101-116.

——. Laugh of the Medusa, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen

and Paula Cohen. Signs 1, 1976, pp. 875-93.

Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Trans. J. Strachey. W.W. Norton, 1966.

Frith, Gill. “Transforming Features: Double Vision and the Female Reader.” 

New Formations 15, 1991, pp. 68-76.

Gossett, Hattie. Presenting…Sister Noblues. Firebrand Books, 1988.

Greer, Germaine. “The Stereotype.” In Philosophy of Woman. Mary Mahowald, ed.

Hackett, 1983, pp. 11-19.

Isenberg, Arnold. Aesthetics and the Theory of Criticism: Selected Essays of

Arnold Isenberg. University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Moi, Toril. “Feminist, Female, Feminine.” In The Feminist Reader: Essays in

Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Catherine Belsey and Jane

Moore, eds. Blackwell, 1989, pp. 117-132.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.

Vintage Books, 1966.

Noddings, Nel. Women and Evil. University of California Press, 1989.

O’Grady,  Kathleen. “Guardian of Language: An Interview with Helene Cixous.” Women’s Education des Femmes 12, 1996, pp. 6-10.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “We Write for Our Own Time,” In A Casebook on Existentialism.

William Spanos, ed. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1970, pp. 133-139.

Stephen, J. K. “A Thought,” Cambridge University Literary Magazine, 1891, pp. 15-17.

Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women. ”Collected Essays, vol.2. Hogarth

Press, 1966.


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