Study Guide

Feminist Theory

Feminist Theory Introduction

Feminism is all about burning bras. And hating men. And being a witch, lesbian, and communist all lumped into one (they’re all the same anyway, right Pat?).

Or wait, maybe it’s just about grrrl power and doing whatever you wanna do whatever your gender, like Miley Cyrus says. Is that it?

The thing is, even though the word “feminist” gets thrown around like props at a pool party, it can refer to tons of different kinds of activism, politics, media, art, and critical theory. It’s usually not about whether you want to send your undergarments up in flames, but it does have a lot to do with trying to understand why a lot of the world operates in a way that’s pretty freakin’ contrary to people who do have a tendency for pyromania with over-the-shoulder boulder holders. And sometimes—even with our pal Miley—that leads to trying to change the stereotypes and discrimination that are built into many social norms.

So feminism’s about way more than equality for women. The focus can be on how women’s bodies are digitally altered, the way sexual assault is talked about (or not talked about), whether Beyoncé is a feminist and what kind, how race or sexuality affects women’s lives, or if our furry friends can be feminists too. The point is, the questions are about who’s getting the short end of the stick, what societal forces are making the stick that way, and whether using a stick metaphor is an example of our society emphasizing the phallic over the yonic.

And, in case you haven’t guessed it already, there’s plenty to debate in the world of feminism. And some kinds of feminism just don’t mix well with others. When the stakes are high—and feminists know they are—disagreements can get as hot as the fire under that first bra at the Miss America Pageant of 1968.

So what gives? Why can’t feminists just get along? Whatever happened to sisterhood and sit-ins, to the pageant-protesting Amazons and man-haters who marched in days of yore? And, for that matter, isn’t all of this hubbub kind of passé? Hasn’t equality (more or less) been won?

One thing that most feminists can agree on is that the answer to that last question is definitely “no.” In fact, make that a resounding “nope,” “no way,” and/or “you’ve gotta be kidding me.”

See, feminists aren’t just interested in being able to vote: they also want to know how sexism makes society tick. They want to know why it is that most of history’s “greatest” authors (so we’re told) are men. They want to understand why so many books and movies are full of the same one-dimensional female characters who appear again and again: like the virgin and the skank, the beautiful princess and the evil queen, the bookish nerd and the sexy cheerleader, and all those girls next door who want to get the guy but mope around in a dumpy sweater instead. But what if we kind of like the sweater? And why does it have to be about the guy, anyway?

This is where feminist theory comes in! It’s got all kinds of tools to help us understand why gender matters in the books we read, the movies we watch, and the marketing campaigns we see around us every day.

Plus, feminism is more than just an outdated protest or a type of lit theory: in the academic world, it’s also a major part of cultural studies, and feminist thinkers have their fingers in just about every other pie you can imagine too.

So, despite the fact that plenty of haters have called feminism confusing and shrill, it’s got to do with a lot more than burning chest-slings and hating on dudes. Unlike some other critical schools you might encounter (*cough* New Criticism *cough*), feminist theory is always evolving and adapting to new cultural and academic environments. Most importantly, it’s fighting the good fight with all the tools it can muster—razor sharp tiaras, lassos, and loaded literary terms included.

What is Feminist Theory About and Why Should I Care?

Why Should Readers Care?

We're willing to bet that you've had at least a few experiences in your life where your gender suddenly stood out to you like never before. Maybe you're a girl and someone said you're not supposed to be good at soccer. Maybe you're a boy and you got made fun of for wanting to dance.

Or maybe your life isn't right out of Bend it Like Beckham or Billy Elliot, but you've still had some experience with gender-based discrimination or something that made you realize that you have certain rights and privileges that other friends of yours don't (or on the flip side, that they do and you don't).

Whatever the case, our gender identities affect our lives in all kinds of ways that we don't always recognize, and feminist theory has lots of tools to help you understand what your gender means to you. And beyond the realm of the personal, feminist theory has literally opened up a whole new world of reading.

Unlike some other kinds of literary criticism (*cough* psychoanalysis *cough*), feminism doesn't just want to talk about new ways of reading secret phallus symbols into old classics. Since the 1970s, feminist scholars have re-shaped the literary canon in a BIG way, digging up tons of work by women writers throughout the ages, and giving that work the attention it deserves.

So, if you're glad you had the chance to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) or Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (1891) in lit class, why not send a psychic thank-you note to the women who made that possible? And if you're thrilled that Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) are recognized as great American classics next to books penned by male writers, well, you can thank feminist scholars for those, too.

Whether it's about your favorite female authors or having a different lens on the world and your place in it, feminism gives you the tools for taking apart power structures—and doesn't care whether those are power tools or kitchen utensils.

Why Should Theorists Care?

Aside from the fact that it's just plain silly to ignore the voices of half the world's population, lit scholars and crit theorists owe a lot to feminist theory. Many of theory's biggest schools—like psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and Marxist, postcolonial, gender, and queer theories—have been made bigger and better by feminist research and thinking.

Examples? Psychoanalytic theory just wouldn't be the same if Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan's ideas hadn't been challenged and taken in new directions by French feminist thinkers like Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. By the same token, deconstruction and poststructuralism would never have been as useful for identity politics and LGBTQ activism if it wasn't for the works of Judith Butler. And, believe us, those schools of thought really wouldn't have worked so well for decolonizing movements and social justice theory if it weren't for thinkers like bell hooks and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

Feminist theorists have radically challenged the everyday assumptions that have kept academic institutions chugging along since dinosaurs roamed the earth. They tackle topics that are so taboo they make other theorists quake in their boots. And, on top of all that, they're at the forefront of some of the smartest, savviest work being published today. Who wouldn't care?