What Makes Fiction Feminist?

(by Sarah)

Grace and I have been talking about feminism for as long as we’ve known one another. Weirdly, we didn’t apply it to books until recently. Even after we started this podcast, the idea to apply one of the founding principles by which we both live to this project that we both put a lot of time and energy into, didn’t occur to us. I can’t remember how it happened, but here we are.

Here we are, in coffee shops, and in the car, and hunched over our respective laptops at my kitchen table. Here we are talking, endlessly about what makes fiction feminist. Can dudes write feminist fiction? Can a character in a book be feminist even if the book doesn’t have a feminist plot or theme?

Here we are, having spirited debates about intersectionality and tokenism and appropriation. Here we are, texting one another into the wee hours of the morning about books and movies and advertising that makes us angry.

And here we are talking about the bookstore we worked at and how often we were talked down to and patronized by anarchist bros who clearly knew more about street harassment and slut shaming then we could ever gather from, y’know, firsthand experience.

And here we are. Making a podcast about the two things I love most in the world: books and feminism. I don’t think there is a comprehensive checklist about what makes a book feminist. Even books that are part of a broadly accepted canon of feminist lit are sometimes problematic because of their lack of diversity or inclusiveness. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list by any means. One of the great things about feminism is that it is broad enough to include all of us.

What (I think) makes a novel feminist:  

- Passes the Bedshel-Wallace Test 

This should be a given. There should be more than two  female-identified characters in a feminist novel. They should have names and talk to each other about something besides a man. This is a really bare minimum. 

- Sex positive

No slut-shaming or victim-blaming. No abortion remorse or invalidating of sexual identities or decisions. Or if so, there needs to be an overall point that is ultimately empowering to a female identified character in the book. 

- Not sexist, racist, homophobic, abilist, transphobic, ageist, etc.

Characters in books can be bigots. Sometimes they start out as bigots and grow as people. Sometimes bigots make convenient bad guys. Overall, the message of a feminist book should not elevate any form of discrimination.  

- It has to be a good ass book.

Because fuck sacrificing quality for representation. Fact or fiction, our stories matter in complicated, nuanced, important ways. 

- Romance isn’t anti-feminist.

Love is something we all think about and (I hope) experience. So is heartbreak. Romance as a genre gets a bad rap because the primary audience is women. A book can be commercial and not literary and still be totally valid and important to a lot of people. A heroine who waits to be rescued and is helpless without the help of a hero is bullshit though. See: most fairy tales, Twilight, my worst nightmares.  

- Representation.

There should be at least as many capable female main characters as there are male main character. They should not be entirely homogenous: white, straight, cis, able-bodied people.  There's a thin line between representation and tokenization, though. One person of color, one disabled character, or one queer character doesn't suddenly make a book diverse. Especially if that character could be replaced by an inanimate object with no impact on the story. 

Because I'm not pretending to have a definitive answer, I asked my friends, some of the kindest and most brilliant people I know, what defined feminist fiction to them. This is what a few people had to say: 

"1. A novel that directly addresses or espouses feminist views & concepts
2. A novel that is a product of feminism
Example for #1 might be Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, that is satire and has characters dealing with Feminist(TM) issues (beauty standards, queer identities, sex positivity & safety, racialized femininity, etc). 
Example for #2 might be The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne, which features very prominent, diverse, and complex cast of female and trans women characters. That, in itself, is a goal of feminism--to get books with characters like that, even if the characters themselves are deeply flawed, are not role models in any sense, and do some seriously shitty things and unfeminist things."
-Moose Lane
"One of two things: highlighting and contradicting misogynistic stereotypes and societal perceptions, and/or positing a social order that has destroyed or does not contain those things."
-Aus, founder of The Wheelhouse
"I like a book that brings you into the world through a strong female voice, shows a female perspective and issues women deal with like My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. The main character gives a first person narrative. There is a lot of contrast between the main character who is a career woman and a battered housewife. The book deals with sexual stereotyping and job discrimination."
-Shellie, Chicago
"A deep exploration of how social gender roles have shaped persons into male and female and the costs of that to personhood. Also, I didn't at all mind how British novelist Anna Livia wrote a novel about a group of women in which all of the men where named John: John Busdriver, John Boyfriend, etc."
Elliott, Philadelphia

Again, this is a long conversation with priorities that are constantly changing and with opinions as different as the all encompassing. What defines fiction as specifically feminist for you?