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Practical Use of Feminist Literary Theory

Literary Theory is one of the most useful tools at the disposal of those who study literature. It helps them focus on certain aspects of the text and analyse them in the context of the world in which it was written and the world in which it is currently being consumed. Different schools of theory have evolved over the ages, such as Marxist, psychoanalytic and structuralist, amongst a myriad of others. But the one school of literary theory that has remained constantly present throughout all of this is that of feminist theory.

Feminist theory is the medium through which content can be understood in feminist perspectives and aspects. It is important to understand this because it allows us to analyse how women are depicted, and how that impacts and mirrors the way society treats them.

Feminist theory has come to the limelight in waves but has remained constantly in loop with others as well; it can be used as an umbrella term for smaller schools such as postcolonial feminism, psychoanalytical feminism, and Marxist feminist. It has evolved alongside the various feminist movements and revolutions that have occurred, each time bringing in a new aspect making it more intersectional and inclusive.

Understanding literary theory is not a difficult task, but practical usage of this theory, the criticism of texts, can best even the most adept student of literature. Here is a guide to practically using this theory and form educated opinions on how feminist a text is.

Any feminist text will show its women as fleshed out characters who have their own character arcs independent of their relationships to the men. The definition of feminist text keeps changing based on the time it was written in, and the time in which it is consumed. A period text, one for instance set in Victorian England, will show its women behaving as was the way in the time, with respect to those economic, political, and patriarchal structures. Today, a feminist text can be defined as one that depicts its women as financially, socially and sexually independent . She has a career and is able to make her decisions. But perhaps most importantly, the woman with these traits is shown in a positive light. A text may have a woman who is career oriented and sexually liberal, but if she is depicted negatively, and blamed, berated for these traits, it is not a feminist text.

Hence, one of the first things to analyse while attempting a feminist reading is understanding the historical, political and socio-economic context of when the text was produced. The biases, prejudices and outlook of the (predominantly male) writer are important here and must be kept in mind, as should your biases and experiences: they will impact how you read into the text.

Secondly, we come to the women characters. Do they have proper personalities of their own or are they stereotyped or stock characters? Do they exist only in relation to the men in the narrative, or do they have stories of their own? A handy way to get these answers are some simple tests that have been devised just for this purpose, like the Bechdel Test. If conversations between 2 women are only related to the men in their lives, it fails the Bechdel Test, and is not a feminist text. Similarly, the Mako Mori test judges if atleast one of the women characters has her own narrative arc that does not support a man’s story. How does she behave in relation to the expectations of the patriarchal structures and standards that she has on her shoulders? Is her breaking past these expectations portrayed negatively or positively? Does her socio economic status and marital status factor into how she is treated by other characters and the narrative? It is crucial to understand these structures, the roles women play in and outside them, and how the novel treats them for it in order to form a complete critical opinion on the text.

Practical implementation of theory is not easy: one needs to be practicing this over and over again. Each text has its own obstacles in figuring out the feminist stance it holds, and this is also dependent on your own stance on the matter. These tips are simply to give you a starting point in your journey of feminist criticism. Theorists like Peter Barry and Lois Tyson have spent their careers in understanding and writing about criticism, and their books are also great resources for learning further about this topic. These questions can be combined with those of other schools for a more specific analysis. Feminist criticism of current and old texts is important because it allows us to analyse how far we have come in the fight for equal standing and rights for women, and just how much there is still to achieve. It is thus of great importance that we use all the tools we have available, to map our way to this success.

- Jaishree Garg

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