On Poetry and Culture Shock

Feminism, Women's Studies, Gender Studies

An anonymous Spanish reader left once a comment here saying that making a distinction between literature for/by queers, for/by women, is discriminating, and that we should only pay attention to whether literature is good or bad. Excuse me if I don’t link.

Then, Carboanion asks me if my research, which is done from a “gender studies” perspective, is feminist or not. I don’t want to give much detail, but I study domestic violence in fiction. When Carboanion asks me if my research is feminist, she means whether I’m attacking violence against women as a real-life phenomenon, if I show sympathy in favour of women victims, and the like. My answer is that my research is feminist because I’m feminist, but not in the sense she says because I’m researching fiction, not writing a manifesto. I only analyse. I’m not an activist when I’m at the library.

What is the difference between disregarding feminism like my anonymous commenter, and doing Gender Studies the way I do them? And what is the difference between Women’s Studies and Gender Studies? I’ll take a simple example. Barnaby Rudge is a minor novel by Charles Dickens with a main character called Mrs Varden, who psychologically abuses her husband.

Until about twenty years ago, research on this novel pretended Mrs Varden didn’t exist. This author’s analysis of Barnaby Rudge simply excludes the four main female characters except for a few minor details that he needs to mention in order to better describe three of the male ones.

A feminist in Carboanion’s sense would explain Mrs Varden as either a product of a misogynistic Dickens, “Women are not really as nasty as Mrs Varden”, which is not true. Or she would explain that Mrs Varden is a victim of the circumstances, that she is nasty because she is unhappy (true) and that men have made her unhappy (maybe true).

Someone doing Women’s Studies would go a little bit beyond the feminist and maybe analyse the relationship between Mrs Varden and other women in the book, and with women in the real world. Does Mrs Varden behave like a historian or a psychiatrist say women in her position do? The Women’s Studies expert would not necessarily behave as if Mrs Varden had to be defended or excused, and that would be the biggest difference between this one and the feminist-in-Carboanion’s-sense.

Someone doing Gender Studies would also analyse Mrs Varden’s husband.

So, contrary to what my anonymous commenter said, doing Gender Studies, or Women’s Studies, or Queer Studies, is not discriminating: it just adds to everything else. Literary criticism as it was done thirty years ago is not simply discriminatory, it’s incomplete.

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