Feminist critical theory examines the oppression of women in literature, how the literature “reinforces or undermines the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (Tyson 83). Tyson argues that society is so immersed in patriarchy that we’re programmed “not to see the ways in which women are oppressed by traditional gender roles” (86). To understand what this means we need to understand patriarchy as “any culture that privileges men by promoting traditional gender roles. Traditional gender roles cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive” (85). If the literature supports theses characterizations of men and women then it is “sexist, which means it promotes the belief that women are innately inferior to men,” (85) otherwise known as biological essentialism. However, feminism is “culturally, not biologically, produced” says Tyson (86).

When we look at the history of literature it’s argued that “the literary works of (white) male authors describing experience from a (white) male point of view was considered the standard of universality” (84). Feminists argue “the marginalization of many women writers” (84) is just another example of patriarchy as it oppresses the influences and ignores the experiences of both female authors and women in general.

All throughout society patriarchy works to justify inequities between men and women. But we need to look at the difference between sex and gender. “Sex, which refers to our biological constitution as female or male, and the word gender, which refers to our cultural programming as feminine or masculine” (86). It’s not enough for a guy to be male, he has to espouse the masculine qualities and “being a ‘real’ man in patriarchal culture requires that [he] hold feminine qualities in contempt” (88). Men oppress women to “maintain the male monopoly of positions of economic, political, and social power” (86).

Feminisms “ultimate goal [is] to change the world by promoting women’s equality” (92). Because feminists argue women live in a male dominated society wherein the point of view for most things is from a male perspective. Even the frameworks of psychoanalysis and Marxist critical theory borrow from patriarchal ideology (93). And of course feminist literary interpretations are subjective, because we are all living in a patriarchal society and are limited by our ability to see beyond that social conditioning.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Originally published at www.happinessfootprint.com on April 11, 2012.

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