Study Guide

Feminist Theory Critics

  • Hélène Cixous

    In women's speech, as in their writing, that element which never stops resonating, which, once we've been permeated by it, profoundly and imperceptibly touched by it, retains the power of moving us—that element is the song: first music from the first voice of love which is alive in every woman. Why this privileged relationship with the voice? Because no woman stockpiles as many defenses for countering the drives as a man....there is always within her at least a little of that good mother's milk. She writes in white ink.

    Are we in some hippy-dippy music haus, or what? First music? Writing with mother's milk? Huh?

    More or less, Cixous is saying that ladies are just fundamentally different from dudes. And men, with their own power-trip mode of filling up a page, had historically dominated the worlds of creative writing and intellectual thought. In response, Cixous's "The Laugh of the Medusa" seriously challenges psychoanalytic theories about women's bodies, voices, and art and offers an alternative, milky method of writing.

    Cixous makes the point that women in Western literature and philosophy usually show up as mysterious, dark, monstrous, and lower down on the food chain than men, and all that has taught them to be afraid and ashamed of themselves.

    But she argues that if women refuse to play the roles that patriarchy gives them, they can ignite a revolution. Rather than being ashamed of being "monstrously" different from men, they should be proud of it. Let's show 'em what we're made of! We've got power reserves like they've never seen! Forget what the psychoanalysts told you—we don't want to turn away from our mothers, we don't got penis envy, and we don't want to speak with the same voices as men.

    And, rather than trying to learn how to speak as men do, women should embrace a deeper, more womanly form of communication—they should write their écriture féminine. Our bodies remember our mothers, she's saying, and when we write, we're gonna show 'em what it means to live and breathe and love and speak like a WOMAN: Double-U-O-M-A-N!

  • Audre Lorde

    Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. For difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways to actively "be" in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.

    The African-American activist, poet, and critic Audre Lorde first delivered this paper at an academic conference at New York University, where the crowd was made up of mostly middle-class and upper-middle-class white women. Lorde pointed out the lack of women of color at the conference—not to mention Third World women, lesbians, and poor women—and argued that mainstream feminists couldn't make "tolerance" their goal when it came to those under-represented groups. Tolerating isn't good enough: that'd be patronizing, and pretty doggone useless.

    Basically, she dug her heels in by saying that if mainstream feminism was going to be all about straight white women's problems, it was going to be just as oppressive as the patriarchy that those women were trying to fight. Sure, it's hard work learning to listen to the voices of women whose experiences are totally different—it can be downright scary, and maybe even disturbing. She gets it. But she's saying that in the name of feminism, doing that work isn't an option, it's a necessity.

    Her argument that "difference" is a political necessity wasn't just a call to arms; it also challenged those women of means to recognize their privilege, and to pay better attention to those who didn't have the same.

  • Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

    What does it mean to be a woman writer in a culture whose fundamental definitions of literary authority are, as we have seen, both overtly and covertly patriarchal? If the vexed and vexing polarities of angel and monster, sweet dumb Snow White and fierce mad Queen, are major images literary tradition offers women, how does such imagery influence the ways in which women attempt the pen? If the Queen's looking glass speaks with the King's voice, how do its perpetual kingly admonitions affect the Queen's own voice? Since his is the chief voice she hears, does the Queen try to sound like the King, imitating his tone, his inflections, his phrasing, his points of view? Or does she "talk back" to him in her own vocabulary, her own timbre, insisting on her own viewpoint?

    It's no understatement to say that The Madwoman in the Attic helped to redefine lit crit in North America and the UK. Gilbert and Gubar argued it was high time to start taking stock of the barriers 19th-century women writers experienced, because lots of them were still alive and kicking. For ages, folks had been taught to associate writing with masculinity: just think of all those metaphors connecting pens and penises and swords!

    Plus, patriarchy had a knack for feeding women pretty dismal stories about themselves: apparently, they're either monsters or angels, evil queens or beautiful princesses. Which meant the flourishing of a lot of sexist stereotypes that glorified masculinity and pushed femininity off to the side.

    So where did that leave women writers? Telling the same old stories that patriarchy fed them? Sometimes. Or fighting back with stories about themselves? And if they did do that, was anyone going to listen?

    Gilbert and Gubar argued that when women writers try to work from inside patriarchal cultures, they'll be torn in two directions. Although they'll be desperate to tell their own stories, society will tell them they're crazy for feeling that way. And although they'll struggle to express themselves, they'll have to push back against all of the cultural expectations that dictate what women should sound like and be like.

    Sounds grim, but Gilbert and Gubar brought a lot of previously ignored women writers into the spotlight with their book, and showed the potential for shifting the paradigm. Now that's stickin' it to the man!

  • Adrienne Rich

    I have chosen to use the terms lesbian existence and lesbian continuum because the word lesbianism has a clinical and limiting ring. Lesbian existence suggests both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence. I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range—through each woman's life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman.

    What Rich is telling us in "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" is that "lesbian existence" isn't just about romance, and the "lesbian continuum" includes a whole range of interactions between women: mothers nursing their infant daughters, women working together in an office or a lab, elderly women being cared for by female nurses and hospital staff, you name it. "Lesbian" possibilities are as rich and varied as all of the different ways that women can work with and for one another—instead of against one another, or for men.

    Rich's argument challenges any feminist who assumes that heterosexuality is the "natural" state of affairs. Like other social constructionist feminists, Rich asks us to take a look at the social norms that make it seem like heterosexuality is the best option for most men and women. Ultimately, she argues, heterosexuality is a patriarchal tool, because it gives men unlimited access to women. It may aim to teach women to think it's natural to want to be chased, "caught," and controlled by men, but sticking to the continuum is a much richer option, says Rich (get it?).

  • Annette Kolodny

    To question the source of the aesthetic pleasures we've gained from reading Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and so on, does not imply that we must deny those pleasures. It means only that aesthetic response is once more invested with epistemological, ethical, and moral concerns. It means, in other words, that readings of Paradise Lost which analyze its complex hierarchical structures but fail to note the implications of gender within that hierarchy; or which insist upon the inherent (or even inspired) perfection of Milton's figurative language but fail to note the consequences, for Eve, of her specifically gender-marked weakness….All such readings, however useful, will no longer be deemed wholly adequate. The pleasures we had earlier learned to take in the poem will not be diminished thereby, but they will become part of an altered reading attentiveness.

    "Dancing Through the Minefield" asks lit scholars and critics to reconsider their opinions about "great" literature. What makes it so great? Sure, kudos to our profs for teaching us to love the nuances in difficult works by dudes like Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Milton—knowing lots about their poetry and drama legit means that we can get real pleasure from reading them.

    But still. The strategies we use to read them aren't governed by eternal truths: they reflect the values of the cultures that invented them. And hey, in case you haven't noticed, the cultures that invented them have been patriarchal right across the board.

    Sure, feminists aren't going to swear off Eddie and Billy and Johnny altogether, but those old reading strategies aren't going to satisfy us anymore. We're going to start paying attention to the women in those texts, and taking stock of how they're pushed to the margins. That doesn't mean we won't give the old boys a few righteous thumbs up for their killer metaphors and rhymes, but from here on out, we've got bigger fish to fry.

    Ultimately, she argues that until we recognize the assumptions we're bringing with us to the books we read, we won't be able to understand why women writers—or even female characters—are as awesome as they are.

  • Barbara Christian

    For I feel that the new emphasis on literary critical theory is as hegemonic as the world which it attacks. I see the language it creates as one which mystifies rather than clarifies our condition, making it possible for a few people who know that particular language to control the critical scene—that language surfaced, interestingly enough, just when the literature of peoples of color, of black women, of Latin Americans, of Africans began to move to "the centre."

    "The Race for Theory" makes a powerful intervention into the academic fads of the late-20th century, arguing that when "theory" is thought of as the height of sophistication, other forms of critical thought get pushed to the margins.

    As someone who built her career studying the works of African-American women writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker—and who struggled to have her work be taken seriously in universities—Christian isn't buying the deconstructive and poststructuralist delight in "difference."

    Sure, it became all the rage once hotshots like Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes started tossing that sorta word around, but really, it's no coincidence that theorists started talking about "difference" and "the absence of center" at the exact same time that marginalized peoples finally started to get some traction in the "central" institutions of the Western world. That just goes to show that theory can be just as oppressive as the social norms it's trying to break down.

  • Judith Butler

    The notion of gender parody defended here does not assume that there is an original which such parodic identities imitate. Indeed, the parody is of the very notion of an original; just as the psychoanalytic notion of gender identification is constituted by a fantasy of a fantasy, the transfiguration of an Other who is always already a "figure" in that double sense, so gender parody reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin. To be more precise, it is a production which, in effect—that is, in its effect—postures as an imitation.

    Although feminist thinkers before Judith Butler had pointed out that cultural scripts shape what it means to be a "woman," Gender Trouble kicks that conversation up a notch by pointing out that not only is gender socially constructed, but, in a lot of ways, our bodies are too! Butler makes the point that when it comes to distinctions between "male" and "female" bodies, we can't assume that anything is "natural," or "just the way it is."

    That's why she talks back against the guff from some feminists about things like drag, cross-dressing, and butch/femme style. She gets that those folks are worried that that kind of stuff just mocks femininity, or repeats the same old gender stereotypes that they've been trying to tear down. But what it's actually out to do is prove that gender is always a performance, even when we don't realize it. When men perform in drag, they're not parodying real women: they're parodying the assumption that natural "woman-ness" exists at all.

    Most importantly, she says that if feminism really wants to be an inclusive movement, it needs to recognize that it isn't enough to fight for women's rights if heterosexual, cisgender women are the only "women" who qualify.

  • Chandra Talpade Mohanty

    The relationship between "Woman" (a cultural and ideological composite other constructed through diverse representational discourses—scientific, literary, juridical, linguistic, cinematic, etc.) and "women" (real, material subjects of their collective histories) is one of the central questions the practice of feminist scholarship seeks to address. This connection between women as historical subjects and the representation of Woman produced by hegemonic discourses is not a relation of direct identity or a relation of correspondence or simple implication. It is an arbitrary relation set up by particular cultures. I would like to suggest that the feminist writings I analyze here discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the Third World, thereby producing/representing a composite, singular "Third World woman"—an image that appears arbitrarily constructed but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of Western humanist discourse.

    In a nutshell: "sexual difference" and "sexual oppression" don't mean the same thing in every global culture. Um, duh. So sure, white feminists in the Western world are concerned about women in the Third World and think that women everywhere should join forces against patriarchy. But is it as simple as that? No. Again—um, duh.

    "Under Western Eyes" made an important intervention into feminist theory at a time when lots of feminists in the Western world were trying to speak on behalf of women in the Third World. They figured that Third World women's oppressions were basically the same as their own, except worse, because—you know—foreign and backwards and stuff.

    Chandra Talpade Mohanty shows how condescending that kind of stance can be, and also reveals how Orientalist and Islamophobic it is. Her work is a serious challenge to feminists who think they know what's best for cultures they don't know much about. Now there's a good motivation to do your research.

  • Gloria Anzaldúa

    In a constant state of mental nepantilism, an Aztec word meaning torn between ways, la mestiza is a product of the transfer of the cultural and spiritual values of one group to another. Being tricultural, monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual, speaking a patois, and in a state of perpetual transition, the mestiza faces the dilemma of the mixed breed: which collectivity does the daughter of a darkskinned mother listen to?....Cradled in one culture, sandwiched between two cultures, straddling all three cultures and their value systems, la mestiza undergoes a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war. Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates. Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages.

    Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera is all about hybridity. Not only is she interested in thinking about cross-cultural identities, she also wants to explore ways of doing "theory" in hybrid genres. That's why she mixes personal histories, anecdotes, and bits of poetry with her academic writing. Plus, on behalf of the millions of Spanish-speaking Americans—many of them Mexican Americans, like her—Anzaldúa includes a lot of Spanish in the book too, and doesn't offer English translations. ¡Qué interesante!

    Her hybrid use of language will mean different things to different readers: bilingual readers should be able to understand her arguments totally, but monolingual readers will sometimes come up short. Which is a great way not just to tell, but to show how everyone sees the world through the eyes of their culture, and when you have multiple cultures, it's hard to make sense of all the messages you get. Imagine trying to piece together a vision of the world by watching multiple news channels on multiple TV screens simultaneously: mestiza consciousness is something like that.

    But hey, even though it's difficult, it's also a great source of power. Sometimes it's actually easier to see the truth when you can piece it together from lots of different sources. Especially if you're really good at reading between the lines. Which is what Alzaldúa's book makes you do if you don't know all the Spanish words, theory words, and poetry words she uses. You got it: the book literally performs Anzaldúa's argument by letting readers see how limiting it is to understand the world through just one perspective! Pretty awesome, right?

  • Donna Haraway

    Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that transmits all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallocentrism. That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine. These are the couplings which make Man and Woman so problematic, subverting the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of "Western" identity, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, slave and master, body and mind.

    Donna Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs," like Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), looks at hybridity as a powerful political tool. But Haraway goes at it through a really unusual mix of deconstruction and biology.

    At a time when it was getting harder and harder to say what it was that made human beings "human," Haraway asked: what are the real differences between humans, animals, and machines? And to answer her own question, she argued that our historical opinions about those differences have always profited society's most powerful people. So, when it's assumed that animals don't have souls, it's that much easier to use them as resources. And when it's assumed that men are naturally better than women, or that certain "races" of men are better than others, that's how centuries of oppression, slavery, and genocide get justified.

    Haraway is down with cyborgs because they aren't hierarchical: their hybridity does away with any questions about who, or what, is "naturally" best. Forget Western philosophy and its decrees about mind over body, man over woman, humans over animals, and everything on this planet being put here just for male, white folks to use up to their hearts' content. Let's have a cyborg politics instead! We'll explore our similarities with animals and machines, and we'll challenge all the kinds of exploitation we can find!

    If that's not inspiring to just about every living or semi-living or mechanically living or maybe even dead being out there, we don't know what is.