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Origins of Feminism

As a movement concerned with supporting women’s rights and identity, feminism has undergone constant development and refinement. Despite its lengthy past, feminist literary criticism only began to gain momentum towards the 20th century. Unlike other well-known methods of literary criticism, such as new criticism, structuralism, and deconstruction, feminist theory is often considered to be less methodological in its analysis of literature. Whereas many previous literary theories revolve around formalism and the text itself, feminism marks a change in that it places an increased emphasis on culture—particularly that which pertains to women. Its broader approach to literature represents a shift away from earlier attempts at establishing a set of codes or method to interpret literature. Instead, feminist criticism can be regarded as more of “an area of interest and… a commitment”

The foundation of feminism draws upon concepts from other literary theories such as psychoanalysis. In particular, it considers and redefines gender concepts from Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. For instance, psychoanalysts “often discuss what they refer to as the phallus… the gaze or the look,” and Lacanians and Freudians viewed “women as psychically castrated versions of men.” These preexisting beliefs allowed feminists to bounce criticisms off of them in efforts to redefine those terms to include and empower women.

Feminism also draws upon deconstruction. This is seen in their shared tendencies to interpret and seek out multiple meanings. The way in which “third-wave feminism” sought to include women of all races and classes in efforts to encourage a variety of identities is reflected in the “antiessentialist impulses of deconstruction.” Whereas deconstruction related the multiplicity of meaning back to the interplay of words within the text itself, feminism relies on the varied meanings to interpret gender roles and culture. In addition, certain deconstructive terms were borrowed and adapted by feminists. For instance, Derrida’s “logocentrism” was reinterpreted by the feminists Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, who then coined the term “phallocentrism." This focus on the way in which gender, culture and identity manifests in literature also paves the way for other literary theories, such as queer studies and postcolonial race theory, to follow from feminism. Contemporary, third-wave feminist criticism continues to expand “the dialogue between feminism and the study of gender," bridging the distance between feminism, gender, and geographical and cultural studies.

Biography of Key Theorists

Hélène Cixous

Algerian/French feminist writer Hélène Cixous was born on June 5, 1937 in Oran, Algeria to Jewish parents. She is a professor, poet, playwright, philosopher, literary critic and rhetorician. Her first language being German, Cixous studied literature in many languages from an early age, reading various authors, including Franz Kafka, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Clarice Lispector. She went to school in France and studied English literature with a focus on Shakespeare, mythology, and the German romantics. In the 1960s, she taught at the University of Bordeaux and at the Sorbonne. While in Paris, she met the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b. 1930), who would soon launch a controversial method of criticism and analysis known as “deconstruction”. Cixous and Luce Irigaray would later coin the term “phallocentrism” based on Derrida’s employment of the term “logocentrism” in deconstruction. Cixous and Derrida’s lifelong, intellectual friendship began with their talks on Joyce. Cixous would later publish her thesis—L'Exil de James Joyce ou l'Art du remplacement (The Exile of James Joyce, or the Art of Displacement). Her first text, Le Prénom de Dieu (God's First Name) was published in 1967; two years later, she published her first novel Dedans (Inside). In 1976, Portrait de Dora (Portrait of Dora) was the first of several of her plays to be produced in theatre. In 1974, she founded the first doctoral program in women’s studies in Europe. Best known for her widely influential essay “Le Rire de la Méduse” from 1975 (“The Laugh of the Medusa”), Cixous developed her concept of écriture feminine, a method and practice that commits to Cixous’ interests in the struggle for identity and the overcoming of Western phallocentrism.

Luce Irigaray

French feminist and philosopher Luce Irigaray was born on May 3, 1930 in Belgium. Irigaray is an author in French feminism and Continental philosophy. She is an interdisciplinary scholar with works in philosophy, psychoanalysis and linguistics. Originally a student of the famous philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, she was trained as a psychoanalyst at the École Freudienne de Paris (Freudian School of Paris), which was also founded in 1964 by Lacan. In a 1993 interview with Margaret Whitford, Luce Irigaray says that she does not like to give out personal, biographical material due to her mistrust of analysts and critics within the male-dominated academic establishment who might use such information to distort or dismiss the work of women thinkers. It is therefore not surprising that biographical information about Irigaray’s personal life is limited.

In 1974, she published her second doctoral thesis (in philosophy)—Speculum de l’autre femme (Speculum of the Other Woman), where she criticizes the exclusion of women from both philosophy and psychoanalytic theory and the phallocentrism of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. The thesis resulted in her dismissal from her teaching positions at Vincennes and the École Freudienne and her ostracization by the Lacanian community. Nevertheless, her criticism earned her recognition as a leading feminist theorist. Her analysis of the exclusion of women in culture and her use of strategic essentialism are greatly influential in contemporary feminist theory. Her work extends from theory into practice, having been actively engaged in the feminist movement in Italy.

Among many of her contributions to feminist theory and continental philosophy is the challenge towards traditional conceptions of gender, body and self.

Key Terms

Three waves of feminism

three waves of feminism, feminist criticism focuses primarily on exposing the prevalence of the patriarchy and encouraging female empowerment. The first wave began with Mary Wollstonecraft’s arguments for women’s education and voting rights in the 1790s, and the second wave, which emerged in the 1960’s, emphasized equality between the two sexes and celebrated women’s embodiment of a distinct culture, regarded as different from the dominant culture. The third wave began, partially as a reaction to the essentialist implications of the prior waves, and focused on merging gender, class and race in its discussions of equality and autonomy. Although the origins of feminist literary theory are partially embedded within the three waves of feminism, critics are often not particularly concerned with the division between the stages, and instead, draw inspiration from all three waves.


Misogyny is a type of behaviour that disrespects girls and women. As a part of the broader cultural history and the social world, misogyny is the practice of favouring and centering on men while underestimating and putting down women.


The term “patriarchy” is often related to “misogyny”, as the patriarchy is the social system under which many societies throughout history and today are formed. In this system, men tend to be in control of power, and in roles of leadership, authority and privilege. In feminist theory, the patriarchy is criticized as an oppressive system that enforces rigid and stifling gender roles, limits the freedom and self-expression of both women and men.

Images of Women Criticism

Also known as early feminist literary criticism, images-of-women criticism at first featured mostly male-authored works but eventually also female-authored works. The method focuses on judging whether a work provides “positive images” of women. If a work features “good women” then it is a good work. This is critiqued by many feminist theorists as “limiting and old-fashioned”, since it prescribes onto women certain standards and criteria of being “good”. Images-of-women criticism is closely related to criticism that focuses on images of, for example, African Americans, such as in Postcolonial and Race studies. This focus can be challenged as essentialist, but defended by strategic essentialism--the reinforcement of an identity towards achieving certain political goals. Strategic essentialism is used interchangeably in both feminist and postcolonial theory. Images-of-women criticism is not so obsolete as one may think, as it is still relevant in literature and film criticism today. Taking the female protagonist in The Hunger Games for example, her adventurous, energetic and active personality breaks away from the past traditional portraits of the weak, submissive woman. Yet such characters as Katniss may also mock the less active or assertive women outside of movies in everyday life.


The revolutionary French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir challenged the notion of the “sex/gender system” in her influential work The Second Sex (1949). Sex, as de Beauvoir analyzed it, is biological, something that one is born with. Gender, on the other hand, is what one becomes. One may be born female or male (or both), but becomes feminine or masculine. This notion that gender is constructed opens up many doors to critical theory, especially with the rise of Queer Theory, which interprets gender as performance that repeats and variates.


Tying feminism to postcolonial theory, African American author Alice Walker came up with the term “womanism” as an alternative that captures feminism as no longer centering on white women but broadened to include women from all race and social class backgrounds.


Legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw came up with the concept of intersectionality, highlighting the need for feminist thinking to progress beyond naturalizing women as white. In Crenshaw’s studies, she focused on the difficulties that black women face when the law and courts tend to overlook black women and respond to prejudice against women as if all women were white. Intersectionality draws upon “womanism” in that it expands feminist studies to look at the vulnerability of black women when they are legally invisible and less attention is paid towards them when they are the victims.


The issue of objectification refers to instances where, in the context of feminism, a male would consider a female to be an object (i.e. “a thing”). In so doing, females are robbed of agency and influence, and more often than not, they are cast into a role of passivity. This contrasts against the active role that males often play, and as they maintain their place in the position of control, they are able to make decisions that reinforce the repression of women, which suggests that the nature of this problem is cyclical. In addition, objectification can also refer to situations where the woman is not so much a “thing,” but an “other”. Building on Simone de Beauvoir’s argument of the “Woman as Other,” objectification encourages women to be seen in opposition to men, and like objects, they are placed in binary opposition to each other, which further reinforces the gender divide. Interpreting objectification as the creation of an “other” can influence other literary theories such as race studies, which depicts the opposition between different cultures, often as a consequence of misconceptions or false assumptions of superiority.


A term with its roots in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, scopophilia was popularized by Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975). Scopophilia is centered around the notion of “pleasure in looking” and refers to instances where the portrayal of women according to patriarchal conventions allows for observers to engage in voyeuristic fantasies (234). This issue is particularly prevalent in cinema, where women are frequently presented on screen as eroticized objects for the audience’s viewing pleasure. It is essential to identify these tendencies and patterns in cinematography because it allows audience members to become aware that their viewing experiences are guided by patriarchal influences, allowing them to be less passive viewers.

Male gaze/Masculinization of spectators

The idea of the male gaze is closely linked to Mulvey’s concept of scopophilia. Referring to the privileging of the male perspective, the male gaze is is restrictive and encourages spectators to view both males and females in a way that reinforces patriarchal conventions. Often, this way of viewing the world is so ingrained in our society and individual minds that it becomes normalized and manifests subconsciously. Although this concept can expand to apply to a variety of situations where the male perspective is prioritized over the female perspective, as Mulvey pointed out, it is most prevalent in cinema. The frequent use of camerawork to zoom in on specific body parts of female actors means an increased focus on certain parts of the body rather than the whole, and in so doing, cinema alienates women and reinforces the male gaze (Mulvey 237). This allows audience members of both genders to identify primarily with males (masculinization of spectators), and further disempowers women to carve out an identity for themselves.

A Summary of Major Claims

Rejecting Phallogocentrism

Feminist writer Hélène Cixous in her famous essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975), rejects the psychoanalytic definition of women as “failed men”, castrated and incomplete. She also highlights the notion of “parental-conjugal phallocentrism” (243) that has misled women into self-disdain, shame and blame. Her main thesis is that women can depart from “phallogocentrism”, the way in which they are immersed in the patriarchal language and thinking, and write themselves into being. “Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; and not yourself”, writes Cixous (244). Imagining a feminine alternative to predominant, masculine/“phallogocentrist” language, Cixous calls the newly-formed, feminine writing “ecriture feminine”. Cixous, along with her contemporaries Irigaray and Kristeva, is sometimes criticized as essentialist in their belief of the inherent essence of the feminine. Yet one can always turn to strategic essentialism as a solution, which uses the collective, inherent feminine towards a political agenda. As Parker notes, “Some more admiring readers see the French feminists, by contrast, as teasingly, exaggeratedly, even ironically essentialist for the sake of provocation” (163).

Application of Key Terms and Ideas

Literary Example: Woman Hollering Creek

"Woman Hollering Creek," a short story by Sandra Cisernos, depicts the lives of several women and the ways in which they cope with a predominantly patriarchal society. Cleófilas, the protagonist, is oppressed by her abusive husband. However, this oppression is not an isolated incident, rather, it is a systemic issue that affects all women (and men). One significant factor that contributes to this oppression is scopophilia, a concept developed by Laura Mulvey in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Scopophilia is centered around the notion of “pleasure in looking” and refers to instances where the portrayal of women according to patriarchal conventions allows for observers to engage in voyeuristic fantasies. This issue is particularly prevalent in cinema, where women are frequently presented on screen as eroticized objects for the audience’s viewing pleasure. A parallel between Mulvey’s essay and “Woman Hollering Creek” is that the relationship between cinema and scopophilia emerges in the short story through descriptions of TV dramas known as telenovelas. Although these shows are fuelled by male-oriented perspectives on love, marriage, and feminine beauty standards, Cleófilas is preoccupied with imitating the women on screen, but what she does not realize, is that these women have been molded by masculine expectations. By treating these female actors as her role models, Cleófilas is subconsciously reinforcing the oppressive values and misogyny encouraged by the patriarchal society.

Despite the visual allure of women in the telenovelas, obsessions with these figures are typically discouraged by feminists literary critics because it turns women against themselves and against their own natural bodies. As argued by Hélène Cixous in her essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” the greatest crime men have committed against women is that men have led women “to hate women, to be their own enemies, and to mobilize their immense strength against themselves." This inclination towards self-scrutiny is reflected in Cleófilas’ habit of noticing and commenting on female body flaws. For instance, she notes the “one hair quivering annoyingly on the screen” and the “pimple on her backside." By focusing on certain parts of the body and not the whole, the body is alienated and objectified.

Interpreted from a feminist perspective, the objectification of the female characters becomes evident. After her marriage, Cleóflias is given away by her father and taken away by her new husband to live in another town. The male characters are associated with agency and action, while Cleófilas—along with many other women in the story—are passively acted upon, like objects. Her father is aware of the patriarchal society that they live in, yet, he remains a willing participant and perpetuates the passivity of women without so much as a second thought. The normalization of active men and passive women is an issue that feminism seeks to challenge, however, it is a pervasive problem than spans across multiple generations and cultures. Even today, in our present society, it would not be unusual for a man to ask a woman’s father for her hand in marriage. This suggests that there are certain aspects of language deeply ingrained in cultural traditions that reinforce the repression of women.

Film Example: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic, post-war society where the Capitol rules over North America and, as a tradition of their glory, holds an annual event called the Hunger Games, a brutal, reckless competition in which the participants must attempt to outlive others in order to win. The idea of the patriarchy can be seen in this rigid system set up by the Capitol, where masculinity is preferred over femininity, and toughness over weakness. In order to survive in the games, our female protagonist Katniss must have strength, determination and survival skills. Male authority or guidance in the novel can be seen in Haymitch, the mentor of Katniss and Peeta in the games. He asks Katniss to pretend to be Peeta’s sweetheart and play up the romance if she’s to get the audience’s pity and support. This puts Katniss in the role of performing the servile woman who is bound to a man. However, Katniss undermines this image by playing the hero and saving Peeta. She crosses certain gender boundaries as she faces various challenges and takes risks. The traditional image of the woman being subordinate to the man is turned around in this case, where Peeta is characterized by his love for Katniss and willingness to sacrifice for her, being bound to Katniss, and Katniss merely accepts the romance primarily for both of their survival. Katniss also undermines the patriarchy by taking the position as the head provider for her family. Her subversion that is necessary for survival marks her as a resourceful, practical female lead who is willing to bend the rules. Images-of-women criticism can be used to examine Katniss’s role in the story. The fact that Katniss must switch her image suggests that in order to fit in, she must be flexible and willing to bend. She learns to be athletic and adventurous, adopting masculine ideals set by the Capitol. Yet, at the same time, she plays the vulnerable girl in love with her fellow tribute in order to get the system to re-claim her. This shows that images-of-women criticism can be multi-faceted and used to analyze how strategic essentialism works in the story. In order to survive, Katniss uses her feminine image to gain the audience's liking; in other words, she uses her femininity towards political advantage. It can be seen that images-of-women criticism doesn’t have to be simply about evaluating positive images or negative images of women. It can be used to represent different aspects of a woman.

Intersectionality in the story is demonstrated by the introduction of a character such as Rue—a young, clever girl who is portrayed by an African American actress in the film. Rue becomes Katniss’s friend when she saves Katniss by pointing out a nest of lethal wasps over Katniss’s head. Similar to Katniss, Rue is resourceful, intelligent and practical, and her being portrayed as African American in the film brings race into the dialogue along with images-of-women critiques. The term womanism which suggests that women’s struggles shouldn’t all be painted as white and European, comes into play in Rue’s case, where Rue is in the same position as Katniss with similar mental and physical qualities aside from differences in skin colour. What’s significant is the fact that in The Hunger Games, Rue is not in any social class or status higher or lower than Katniss or any of the other tributes. This can be criticized as the erasure of Rue’s cultural difference and additional struggles due to her ethnicity.

The male gaze and the masculinization of spectators operate in The Hunger Games through the screening of the games and the security and surveillance systems of the Capitol. The Capitol and its peacemakers are seen as the watchmen of the Panopticon model. The audience can see everything happening in the games and those in control can manipulate and manage what goes on in the games, while the tributes cannot and are at the mercy of whatever stakes created by the operators. Nevertheless, they know that they are being watched. The games, televised to the rest of the districts, function as a way to draw people into the patriarchal, capitalist enterprise of entertainment and commodification of violence. The audience, by gazing upon the tributes in their quest for survival, comes to identify with the gaze of the operators. By watching the games, the audience members can feel thankful that they aren’t the ones involved, and join the collective unconscious of the patriarchal, capitalist system of the Capitol that supports the continuation of such a tradition.[1]


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Cisneros, Sandra. "Woman Hollering Creek." 40 Short Stories. Ed. Beverly Lawn. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 457-467. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Critical Theory. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 242-256. Print.

Irigaray, Luce. "This Sex Which is Not One." Critical Theory. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 257-263. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Critical Theory. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 231-241. Print.

  1. SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Hunger Games.” SparkNotes LLC. 2012. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.