The Role of Feminist Criticism

In one of my recent pieces, I criticized a particular aspect of the love stories often found in popular books and movies. Whenever someone critiques pop culture–especially from a feminist perspective–it raises a lot of questions for many people. Questions such as:

  • Does it really matter that this work is “problematic”?
  • Can you even have media that isn’t problematic in any way?
  • Am I a racist/sexist/etc. if I find a racist/sexist/etc. joke funny?
  • Would people really take this seriously?
  • What’s the point of talking about this?
  • Am I a bad person if I enjoy this book/movie/show?

Of course, people rarely come right out and ask these questions; they usually couch them in objections instead: “You’re just looking for flaws,” “It’s just a movie,” “There’s nothing that would make you feminists happy.”

But if you read between the lines you’ll usually find questions like the ones above, and all of them eventually condense into the same question: What is the role of feminist criticism? In other words, what’s the point of picking cultural artifacts apart and finding their flaws and analyzing them?

In my view, the role of feminist criticism is not to prescribe what you should and should not read, watch, listen to, wear, or otherwise consume. It is not to say which things are “bad” and which are “good,” since, as some detractors have pointed out, everything seems to have flaws. It is not to create some list of 100%-feminist-approved media and boycott everything else.

Rather, it is to use cultural artifacts as a way to analyze our prevailing norms and values and see how they might be harmful. For instance, in my earlier post, I used the romance genre to show how people are encouraged to maintain abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationships because that’s the “romantic” thing to do.

In this situation, I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t consume those books, films, and TV shows, because then you wouldn’t be able to criticize them. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t enjoy them, because ultimately I don’t care what you enjoy and what you don’t. That’s up to you.

Sometimes, though, it might be more ethical to avoid something “problematic” entirely. The role of feminist criticism is also to remain aware of what we consume so that we’re able to draw the line when it’s gone too far. For instance, I don’t eat at Chick-Fil-A and I don’t purchase any music from Chris Brown. Others may draw their personal lines differently, which is okay. But I wouldn’t have been able to decide that this business and this musician do not deserve my money had I not kept myself informed of what they do and what the criticisms of them are.

For me, the most important insight that feminism has given me is that we do not live, love, consume, and decide in a vacuum; we do so under the influence of society. That doesn’t mean we don’t have “free will” (and I do hate to get into that debate), but it does mean that we might not always be aware of all of the reasons for which we want (or don’t want) to do something. We will probably never be able to disentangle ourselves from the influence of society, and that’s fine. What’s important to me is to be aware of what some of those influences might be.

To use an example that’s slightly off-topic: makeup. Many women like to wear it, and many women are, unfortunately, under the impression that feminism opposes the use of makeup unilaterally. Hence the “I’m not a feminist, I wear makeup and dresses” thing that you get sometimes. (Maybe second-wave feminism did oppose makeup, but no feminist person or piece of writing that I’ve ever come across has said that.)

Again, in my view, feminism doesn’t prescribe whether or not women should wear makeup. What it does is ask questions:

  • Why does makeup exist?
  • Why are women expected to wear it and considered lazy, ugly, or unprofessional if they don’t?
  • Why aren’t men expected to wear makeup?
  • Come to think of it, why are men shamed if they do choose to wear it?
  • Why do some professions require women to wear makeup to keep their jobs?
  • Does wearing makeup ever actually make a woman better at her job?
  • Why do makeup ads show women who are considerably more flawless than any foundation or cream could actually make you look?

And so on. Answering those questions for yourself is enlightening, a bit disturbing, but also (in my opinion) kind of fun.

In my own case, becoming a feminist and learning about feminist criticism of makeup and the beauty industry didn’t change my makeup-wearing habits at all. I still do exactly what I did back when I wasn’t a feminist: sometimes I feel like wearing it so I do, and sometimes I don’t feel like wearing it, so I don’t.

What feminism has done for me, though, is to silence that petulant voice I get in my  head on days when I choose not to wear makeup–the one that tells me I’m being lazy, that I’m not a real woman, that people are going to judge me, that I look bad. Before I’d stubbornly choose not to wear makeup on days when I didn’t want to but then have to deal with that voice in my head all day. Nowadays it’s gone. Maybe people do judge me for not wearing makeup sometimes, but I no longer give a fuck.

So feminist criticism hasn’t kept me from doing things i want to do or forced me to do things I don’t; it’s merely given me a framework for understanding some of my own desires, fears, triggers, values, and so on.

The same sort of thing applies to feminist criticism of pop culture. I still enjoy popular movies and TV shows (except How I Met Your Mother, perhaps), but I understand how some of the assumptions they contain are inaccurate and harmful. Thinking through these things helps me think about our culture as a whole and how it might be improved. It also helps me construct a blueprint for how I want to live my own life, raise my future kids, and so on. (For instance, I will never tell a daughter of mine that if a boy treats her like crap “it’s just because he likes you.” That’s the most dangerous bullshit I’ve ever heard, and He’s Just Not That Into You is with me on that.)

And on that note, feminist criticism has one more role–showing us ways to improve the stories we tell. It reminds us that casts should not be all-white, that the Bechdel Test should be passed with flying colors, that glorifying violence against women (or anyone, really) is not okay. We can’t produce better books, movies, and shows unless we criticize the ones we have thoroughly.

In summary, feminist criticism is important because:

  1. It allows us to analyze problematic aspects of our culture.
  2. It lets us know when we should consider avoiding something entirely.
  3. It helps us understand how culture influences our behavior.
  4. It points the way to better media in the future.

It’s unfortunate that some people think that feminist criticism “ruins” everything or that feminists are here to take all the stuff you love away. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are ethical ways to consume problematic media, and I’d say it’s easier to enjoy something when you understand exactly why you sometimes get uncomfortable feelings about it.

I’m sure many feminists would disagree with a lot of what I’ve said, but I’d probably respect their views nonetheless. The view I definitely do not respect is that we should just ignore critiques of the stuff we like because it’s boring and not fun and who cares that the stuff we read, watch, and listen to is selling us a version of reality that we might despise if we actually thought about it.

The Role of Feminist Criticism

40 thoughts on “The Role of Feminist Criticism

    1. 4.1

      I wrote a post about this a while ago, but basically, I just can’t find Barney funny. It hits way too close to home. I know plenty of other feminists manage to find it funny somehow but it just makes me deeply uncomfortable and tense.

      Here’s the post if you’re curious:

      I definitely wouldn’t judge anyone for enjoying the show, unless they’re one of those dudebro Barney wannabes. 😛

  1. 6

    To analyze and ask questions. I like that a lot. Always a lot of good uncomfortable questions to be asked, not just about feminism, but our culture as a whole. Applause.

  2. 7

    Really this could all be generalized, the point of any criticism is to primarily to make you think about something. If you’re not thinking about something you can’t even begin to have any change or affect if that’s ultimately what’s needed.

    1. 7.1

      I think it can be generalized to some extent; different types of criticism demand varying amounts of change. With pop culture criticism, I’d really just want people to start thinking about stuff, but when I criticize, say, coercive sexual behavior, I actually want them to cut that shit out immediately. They don’t even have to think about it. Though that’d be nice too.

  3. 8

    This is a great post about a great feminism in a great universe. Great!

    On our planet, you can trivially find modern feminists, academic feminists, leading feminist bloggers who will eagerly weigh in on language we can correctly use, media we can correctly watch, jokes we can correctly make, clothes we can correctly wear, and sex acts we can correctly have as long as we correctly have these sex acts with the right, correct, partners, and the political context of the sex act is politically correct.

    Many of those feminists belong to a particular brand of Septic Feminism known as Atheism+.

    Anyway, I am pleased to know life exists outside of Earth, and I truly wish you the best in whatever Universe it is that you inhabit in which you cannot find feminist busybodies shutting down speech, taking products off the market, demanding script changes, throwing speakers off stage, and making the whole damn planet about themselves.

    1. 8.1

      What exactly is your point? These are my views on what the role of feminist criticism should be. You can’t use the arguments of those who disagree with me–whom you ostensibly ALSO disagree with–to somehow discredit my approach.

      If you’d like me to criticize a particular feminist idea, by all means, cite it here. But since you haven’t provided any evidence (yet) for the existence of these supposed feminists who want to tell you what to watch and read, I can’t very well take you seriously.

      Skepticism–it sure makes things difficult sometimes!

      1. MRA troll, banned from at least three other places on FTB so far. Apparently without any sense of irony, or else he’d understand that his own bitching amounts to telling others what they can “correctly” consume, believe, and say.

      2. I think Oliver Crangle is trying to collect the set of being banned from every possible blog he can on this network. (And he obviously can’t spell ‘Sceptic’. Fixing that typo doesn’t improve his argument.)

    1. 9.1

      Haha, that’s true. Although I don’t think anyone would be able to agree on whether or not certain works would belong on the list.

      For instance, some people claim that the film (500) Days of Summer is misogynistic because Tom continually ignores Summer’s claim that she doesn’t want a serious relationship and acts as though he’s entitled to commitment and love from her. Summer, in turn, is presented as a “bitch” because she won’t commit to Tom despite the fact that he’s such a Nice Guy.

      Others, though, read the film as a critique of that exact trope. That’s how I read it. I saw it as a commentary on dating and expectations and how people will keep trying to make their partner fit the “role” they want them to without any regard to who that person actually wants to be. Joseph Gordon-Levitt himself has stated that you are NOT meant to sympathize with his character (except perhaps in the most superficial “damn it sucks when someone you want doesn’t want you back” sort of way), and that you’re supposed to want to criticize the character.

      tl;dr would this movie make the list? I don’t know! Some women were very offended by it; others thought it was a witty and original critique of a common problem.

  4. 10

    I do have a problem with the Bechdel test as used on a case by case basis. Some of my objections to it are covered in that section of the Wikipedia article:

    Nina Power noted that the test raises the questions of whether fiction has a duty to represent women (rather than to pursue whatever the creator’s own agenda might be) or to be “realistic” in the representation of women.

    It all came to a head for me when I was reading this one guy’s movie review site after seeing “Bernie,” where he gave the movie a “Fail” on the test. Here’s what I wrote:

    “I’ll tell you what set me off: I just watched “Bernie” last night and then saw the Bechdel Test: fail at the end of your review. It just struck me as absurd to provide that isolated datum for a movie like that, about a gay murderer, and then the entire thing hit me as an absurd metric to provide in isolation. Ok, so I’m an asshole, so sue me.”

    The argument I have against the test is that it’s only a statistic that has meaning when correlated to genre and collected over a significant time and volume (number of movies). In other words, it’s a statistic that has no valid meaning, in itself, when assigned to individual movies. So I disagree with your sentiment that the goal should be that the test is passed with flying colors. As collected over a significant sample, and perhaps via other correlations, the test results may gain more meaning, but no matter how much data is ever collected or what the trends seem to indicate, in and of itself, the Bechdel test is meaningless when applied to isolated movies.

    1. 10.1

      Although I agree with you that not every movie should need to pass the Bechdel test, a simple “n/a” with a reason should suffice, just as “contains people of colour” is n/a when it’s a historical movie set in a time or place without people of colour.

      What you are claiming though is that because the Bechdel test is not always meaningful, we should not use it at all. I am in total disagreement with you about that. Even having a Bechdel test raises people’s awareness about the sorry state of female characters in Hollywood blockbusters. For that reason alone, it is not meaningless. Also, the majority of Hollywood movies revolves around the same themes (action movies and romcoms most prominently), and those themes lend themselves very well for the Bechdel test.

      So yes, the majority of movies should pass the Bechdel test with flying colours, and yes, Hollywood does have the moral obligation to represent women, just as they have the moral obligation to represent minorities.

    2. 10.2

      I agree with both of you to some extent. I think that if a movie’s not going to pass the Bechdel test, there should be a pretty good reason for that–just as there should be a good reason for not including any people of color in a film (for instance, as someone mentioned, because it takes place in a particular setting that wouldn’t have had any people of color in it). While there may be a legitimate reason for not having many female characters in a given film, I can’t really think of a good reason why the female characters that there are should discuss nothing but men.

      1. Yeah, the Bechdel test is a shorthand. It’s possible to pass the test with a non-feminist movie, and it’s possible to not pass the test with a movie that’s otherwise feminist. I can think of two or three examples of each off the top of my head.

        But what it really does is ask the question ‘is your film about women.’ Because if it is, it’s hard NOT to pass the Bechdel test.

        Do all movies have to be about women? Um, well, it looks like the last decade was all about movies that weren’t about women. How about we have a decade where all the movies are about women, and then we can have a decade with an even split, mmmkay? /facetious

  5. 11

    “Why aren’t men expected to wear makeup?” and “Come to think of it, why are men shamed if they do choose to wear it?”

    Since yesterday was David Bowie’s birthday these are particularly great illustrations of your point. When I was a teenager back in the 1970s most of the men in my circle of friends, myself included, hated David Bowie for two overlapping reasons: first, because he wore makeup, second, because so many of the women in my circle of friends thought David Bowie in makeup (and his chest-baring bustiers, tights, etc.) was overwhelmingly, directly, (and even worse from our perspectives) heterosexually erotic.

    The reason I’m so into the feminist critique of culture is that so many men considered and still consider that method of “getting girls” to be invalid or, even weirder, “unmanly.” Because, um, nothing is more unmanly than tens or hundreds of thousands of women wanting to have sex with you? What could be more “faggy” than marrying one of the “hottest” supermodels of the era?

    Oh wait!

    Yeah, if there was no such thing as a) constructed male gender or b) unconscious but abject fear of bucking the blueprints used in that construction then it either wouldn’t have been such a problem for us men or we would immediately have been able to articulate why. The tools of feminist critique instead make it pretty obvious.

    Cool post, Miriam.


  6. 12

    “Why do makeup ads show women who are considerably more flawless than any foundation or cream could actually make you look?”

    I can’t hardly stand to look at the fashion magazines my wife subscribes to. The art works (pictures of models?) hit the uncanny valley for me.

    “I used the romance genre to show how people are encouraged to maintain abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationships because that’s the “romantic” thing to do.”
    Yes, yikes @ twilight and 50 shades of gray. Those aren’t all that healthy.

    So I read a lot and it includes feminist criticism stuff. Your posts are pretty much stuff I agree with or don’t disagree anymoreso than some other blog. Comment sections, however, (or twitter, more yikes!) are filled with proscriptivist feminism (man shaming?).

    I think that the later proscriptivist behavior colors (gets commingled) with the former, (analysis and feminist critique ) and drives some amount of the standard blowback (mindless noise) you have as examples at the start of your post.

    1. 12.1

      I guess the thing with that is, you can find any number of people who will believe ridiculous things and ascribe them to whatever philosophy or ideology they happen to have. There are Muslims who want to convert the entire world to Islam. There are atheists who think religious people are all stupid and/or mentally ill. There are Libertarians who think we shouldn’t have speed limits or police officers. There are animal rights activists who think it’s okay to murder lab techs who work with animals. There are pro-life activists who think it’s okay to murder abortion providers. These people are not representative of Islam, atheism, Libertarianism, the animal rights movement, or pro-life activism. Judging an entire philosophy/ideology by its extremes is probably some sort of logical fallacy and it prevents discussion of the concepts that the majority of adherents are actually proposing.

      That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize these wildly extreme opinions when they actually come up, but just look at olivercrangle’s comment above. He didn’t even bother citing an example of the sort of feminism he thinks represents the majority view, not even after I invited him to do so.

  7. 13

    Excellent article! I have to admit, the deeper I get into the social justice blogosphere, the more annoyed I get with peoples’ tendency to find hidden little manifestations of injustice in what seems like every movie, TV show, song, or piece of media out there. But at the end of the day, I gotta remind myself that they’re not telling me those things are evil or that I’m not allowed to enjoy them; they’re just critiquing them. This article definitely helped me remind myself of that. Thanks!

  8. 14

    this really hits home for me given my blog is all about feminist analysis of pop cultural things. While being more aware of this stuff can make it harder to consume the films, music, TV that my peers are into, I find myself more engaged with the material and wondering why we accept what we are shown. I honestly think representations are getting better though, and it’s feminist criticism that has helped us get there 🙂 too many people do get confused between a critique of a program and a critique of its audience, however. no one likes to be told that they are secretly bigoted, I think.

    1. 14.1

      too many people do get confused between a critique of a program and a critique of its audience, however. no one likes to be told that they are secretly bigoted, I think.

      Along with that, I really wish that racist/sexist/etc. weren’t considered so insulting. Everyone’s a bit of a bigot sometimes; it’s a matter of finding your weak spots and improving them. But the fact that some people clearly consider being called an “-ist” to be just as bad as saying an “-ist” thing to begin with is just ridiculous to me.

      1. Crommunist had a great post about the ‘-ism/ist’, and his personal preference (which I share) to labeling things (thoughts, statements, etc) ‘-ist’, instead of calling the person an ‘ist’. That is, “your statement there is racist” as opposed to “you are a racist”. Can’t seem to find the post at the moment, my google-fu is weak. 🙁

        Of course, this was presented as a benefit of the doubt situation in the hopes of avoiding possibly unnecessary insult. If someone doubles down or replies with the ridiculous assertion that being called an ‘-ist’ is the Worst. Thing. Ever… the window of doubt starts to close rapidly.

  9. 16

    I find this article briliant! Thank you for reasuring me that critique and reflexion from the feminist point of view is still needed and purposeful – sometimes I hear opinions like “men and women are equal now, what more do you want?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.