I’m currently revving up for a submission blitz, preparing some of my short stories to send out to a variety of competitions and magazines. As I comb the web and writing resources for suitable homes for my stories, I keep stumbling across the same term: ‘feminist fiction’.
Let me start by saying loud and proud that I am a feminist. I have never wavered from the belief that women and men are equal, deserve to be treated as equals in all aspects of society, and have equal capabilities to make incredible contributions to the world. However, despite my strong feelings on the topic of feminism as a political, psychological and social concept, I have never given a lot of thought to feminism as a category of literature.
What categorizes a story as ‘feminist fiction’?
To simply break it down to the inclusion of a feminist character seems a little too simplistic. After all, what is a feminist character? Most frequently this is interpreted as a ‘strong female lead’ – the kind of woman who kicks ass, takes names and looks great in a pair of combat boots.
But when thinking about the different personalities and appearances of some of the most passionate feminists in my life, I started to feel uncomfortable with the idea of there being only one kind of ‘feminist’ character.
My friend R. is a young twentysomething with waist-length blonde hair and a love of fancy dress. She enjoys cooking and keeping her home clean, collects china tea sets, and has seen every period drama ever produced by the BBC. She is, in all appearances, a traditionally feminine woman – and yet she is the most outspoken feminist I know. She doesn’t fit the mould of the ‘strong female lead’ (though I fear she would kick my ass for saying so). Does this mean a character like R. would not be accepted as a ‘feminist’ character?
Furthermore, I fear that the focus on creating ‘feminist’ characters will only serve to homogenize women in fiction. If we all create the same cookie-cutter women in our stories – brave, heroic, tough, emotionally guarded – not only will women’s fiction become boring and unbelievable, it will still only further the patriarchal idea that there is one right way to be a woman. It will also further an idea that I wholeheartedly disagree with: that there is only one right way to be a feminist.
Feminism may mean something different to me than it does to you. To me, feminism is about freedom, especially the freedom to be me. Feminism is for all the different kinds of personalities out there, whether you are ass-kicking and tough as nails, or whether you’re shy and passive. I think we still have a need for characters like Bella Swan, lauded as the ultimate symbol of anti-feminism in fiction. There is a little Bella Swan in all of us, in the times when we are scared, when we need help from others, when we love vulnerably, when we do stupid things for boys. To stop creating characters that are the human equivalent of a wet tissue would be to deny the reality of humanity.
So if feminist fiction isn’t solely about character, what is it about?
The truth is: I don’t know.
I believe a story becomes feminist fiction when the female characters have agency, make decisions, take action and don’t rely on anyone else to save the day. However, I think to write a story simply following this formula ignores all the variety of twists and turns that can make fiction exciting, suspenseful and interesting. Besides, all lead characters should really have agency, make decisions, take action and save their own skin no matter what their gender, if you want to write a really compelling protagonist.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s a good idea to write a story with an underlying political or social agenda. Readers are smart cookies and will notice that your story is basically a dressed-up version of your own political opinion. An author trying too hard to educate rather than entertain can come off as patronizing or condescending to their readers.
I also don’t want my characters to become puppets I’m using to express my own opinions. To write real characters, you have to let them be real. Real people are, unfortunately, often crude, politically incorrect, inconsistent, hypocritical and downright cruel. As illustrated by my friend R., people are complicated and often have contradicting sides to their personalities and interests.
That doesn’t mean your character shouldn’t be a feminist or even be the kind of ass-kicking female lead that’s become so common – go for it, if it makes sense for who your character is (and they really shouldn’t be just a thinly veiled version of you).
Personally, I want to feel free to write about realistic women with strengths and weaknesses who sometimes do terrible things without worrying about what kind of social or political commentary my story may be making. I don’t want to worry if my story is ‘feminist’ enough. I don’t want to wonder if people will think I’m not a feminist simply because my character may be timid, likes to sew or allows a man to save the day.
So I’ve resolved that I’m not going to care. As a writer, I have to let my characters be what they are and allow the story to unfold from there, whether or not it falls in line with my personal beliefs. Once your writing is out in the world, people can twist it and use it in whatever way they want to. Never allow that to stop you from creating. Be daring! Be bold!
What do you think feminist fiction is? Do you think writers have a responsibility to use their work to promote societal good? Tell me what you think in the comments or tweet me @gennyjuillet!