Writing Feminist

As many of you already know, I’m currently working on a novel that’s feminist in theme and nature–though, hopefully, that won’t end up reading like agitprop. In working through it, I’ve come to ask myself a lot of questions about just how this is done: How can we write in ways that promote social justice without turning our stories into political propaganda? As Indiana Seresin, a Radcliffe Research Partner at Harvard, explained for Radcliffe Magazine, “Writing an intentionally feminist-friendly book is totally different than writing from a feminist perspective. It’s a very difficult line to tread.”

Picture1But it wasn’t until recently that I began actually brainstorming and writing down some of my own answers to these kinds of questions: How do you write feminist fiction? What does it mean to write in a feminist way? How do we tread the line between fiction, feminism, and propaganda? Where’s the line between a sexist character and sexist writing? (and so on and so forth)

The fruit of my meditations:IMG_1159

  1. Be Imaginative: As a scifi lover, I’m constantly disappointed in stories that succeed in imagining beautiful new worlds and technologies yet fail to imagine any new social systems that break with real-world stereotypes and prejudices. As Angela Davis said, “It is important to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world.” In other words, it’s as much an activist’s duty to speak out against injustice as it is to imagine worlds free of it.

  1. Stop Using Violence Against Women as Plot Device: I’m not against stories on tragedies or dark looks into our many dark possibilities–the horror genre happens to be one of my personal readerly favorites–but I would like to see more work that does away with the use of violence against women as mere plot device (especially those that then use said violence as justification for yet more and more violence). It’s not only annoying and (usually) sexist, but is also often boring and, frankly, lazy. There are certainly plots, characters, and stories that necessitate pain, violence, and abuse (and definitely gore!). However, there are careful lines to tread in these areas, lines that separate art, reality, entertainment, and protest from hate, true violence, and prejudice.

  1. Create an Actual Character: So often in stories, the primary and secondary female characters are not really what anyone would call characters. They’re often so poorly constructed and so lacking in detail and complexity as to barely be more than a name on a page. As Rachel Shukert explains in her article, “How to Write a Feminist Young Adult Novel” for Jezebel, “Other women are neither cheerleaders nor enemies. A female friend is another person, with her own thoughts and feelings and motives, which may or may not dovetail with the protagonists. If they do, it doesn’t mean she is unconditional, unthinkingly self-sacrificing fan. If they don’t, she isn’t necessarily an implacable enemy.” (emphasis added)

  1. Read Feminist Writing: As with studying and developing any skill and style, the best way to begin is to study the work of those who came before you: Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Dorothy Sayers, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Alice Munro, Pat Murphy, and so on. The importance of this has been driven home to me again and again by my own experiences as a rDorothySayerseader as well as by resources like the VIDA Count and by activist writers like Toni Morrison (who herself served as an editor for Random House for many years, where she worked tirelessly to bring the voices of underserved and minority populations to print). Unfortunately, many high schools and even some colleges continue to keep women writers largely off their syllabi. This means that it’s often up to you to do the research and find the writers for yourself—seek them out, however, and you’ll find them.

  1. And, as Shukert also states in her aforementioned article, probably the best way to write feminist is to first Be a Feminist! The best way to ensure that your writing is feminist in nature (without necessarily becoming “preachy” or propaganda) is to embrace feminism for yourself. This is at once complicated and simple, requiring introspection, action, socialization, study, and thoughtfulness. If you’re to trust your artistic instincts as inclusive and unprejudiced, then you yourself must strive to be also in all facets of life.
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3 thoughts on “Writing Feminist”

  1. I was taken by a seeming contradiction in Indiana Seresin’s quote that “writing an intentionally feminist-friendly book is totally different from writing from a feminist perspective. It’s a very difficult line to tread.” If a line is so thin that treading it is “very difficult,” then the things or perspectives on either side of that line cannot be “totally different,” can they? It’s not that I disagree with the tone of her comments, that preaching and story-telling are different, but they’re not “totally different,” or so different that they share nothing in common. Things that are completely different from one another don’t provide the challenge that she’s talking about. It also sounds as though she’s setting herself up as a final arbiter of the two concepts, dismissing one because it’s so “totally different” from the other. This is a common way in which people dismiss social consciousness in writing by claiming that it’s “too preachy,” without ever needing to explain themselves about what constitutes a legitimate perspective and what qualifies as agitprop. Thin and difficult lines are tough to tread for a reason; it’s sometimes hard to tell one thing from the other, especially when the message is presented without context or knowledge of the writer’s background and character. Sorry if this sounds ticky-tacky, but I think it’s important to recognize and acknowledge the overlaps writers and policy-makers must deal with when addressing tough issues. Social issues are shades of grey, entire rainbows of grey.

    Mike Brewer

    1. I don’t think you’re being too ticky-tacky at all — you raise good and important points here. I think all Seresin likely meant was that “writing an intentionally feminist-friendly book” is simply not the same thing as “writing from a feminist perspective,” sort of the same way that scientific “fact” and scientific “theory” are not synonyms, yet can work together fluidly and are both often greatly misused/misunderstood by the larger public.

      I do especially appreciate your point though, that: “This is a common way in which people dismiss social consciousness in writing by claiming that it’s ‘too preachy,’ without ever needing to explain themselves about what constitutes a legitimate perspective and what qualifies as agitprop.”***

      It certainly seems to me that works of feminist fiction are often labelled as or accused of being “preachy,” “pedantic,” or “propaganda” without the accuser ever considering that things can be at once feminist in nature without also being a clarion call for specific feminist political policies. Similarly, sometimes works are accused of being sexist or misogynist because of the incorporation of sexist/misogynist characters, stereotypes, and other such elements when, in fact, the story may be using these elements to get to a larger, feminist point.

  2. I really enjoyed this blog. We put feminism in too small boxes. It takes a lot of thought to work out what it means in every aspect of life.

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