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According to Lois Tyson, (1999) “feminist criticism examines the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social and psychological oppression of women (p. 81). An approach that seeks to correct or supplement what may be regarded as a predominantly male-dominated critical perspective with a feminist consciousness. Feminist criticism places literature in a social context and uses a broad range of disciplines, including history, sociology, psychology, and linguistics, to provide a perspective sensitive to feminist issues. Feminist theories also attempt to understand representation from a woman’s point of view and to explain women’s strategies in writing as specific to their social conditions. It examines gender politics in works and traces the subtle construction of masculinity and femininity, and their relative status, positioning, and marginalization within works.
Before continuing to with feminist criticism, it is important to get a few definitions out of the way. Patriarchy is an authority-based system where the father or a male’s power is absolute. A society is considered patriarchal when men establish or inherit a social order where they dominate positions of power and authority or when important achievements and historical events are attributed to the actions of men. For example, in religion, God the Father oversees the wellbeing of his children and man is seen as the epitome of his creation, where women are seen as weak for succumbing to temptation of the serpent, eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge and seducing Adam to fall from the grace of God the Father. In religious orders, women are frequently restricted from serving in the priesthood. In politics, men often define the laws and mores of acceptable behavior of women in the society. Here in the United States our founding fathers signed the Constitution and kept women from voting until 1920 when 19th Amendment was eventually passed. What maintains the belief that women are inferior to men is the status afforded their masculinity, which is based on biological difference associated with having a penis (virile, athletic, brave, and sexually aggressive) and gender role differences (stoic, unemotional, logical rational and objective). Traits that are considered feminine include large breasts, narrow waist, and fertility, being emotional, affectionate, sympathetic, sensitive, soft-spoken, warm, childlike, pretty, submissive, and compassionate. Given the importance of masculinity, men invest a great deal of effort to maintain a masculine self-image, not to do so is to open criticism of femininity which may be considered a sign of homosexuality. A male who exhibits femininity or insufficient masculinity may be called a “sissy”, “pussy”, “queer”, “bitch”, or “faggot”, among other things, while a young female who exhibits masculine behavior is sometimes called a “tom boy”, to encourage conformity. Consequently, feminist have devoted a great deal of attention to the social construction of gender identity and gender roles.
Feminist critics take for granted that the structures of gender and sexual differences have been enormously influenced in all areas of human existence. We cannot understand history, politics, and culture (which includes literature) until we acknowledge this influence. A feminist critic may argue (about deconstruction and feminist criticism) that one point at which supposedly unified and universal meanings of texts almost always unravel is the assumption that the teacher to unmask the truth that many texts that have been called universal are in fact male-gendered and arise from and support structures that subjugate women.
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