Recently, I’ve become more and more aware of a theme I’ve seen in books/movies/TV shows and its name is anti-feminism. In the past ten-ish years in the book community we’ve been treated to books—and after the success of those books, movies—where women finally are as accomplished, and even respected, at performing tasks traditionally assigned to men.
Heroines such as Katniss Everdeen, Beatrice Prior, Celaena Sardothien et al are all non-traditional heroines who know how to take down an army and are damn good at it. Good for them. But also good for women who like to knit or take pictures or paint pictures or walk on a high wire or cook or sew. Making a character skilled at activities traditionally assigned to men does not make a book feminist by any means.
Feminism to me means everyone can be his or her own person. Everyone should be able to make their own decisions and decide what they think is best for themselves. This is a common theme among books where there’s a boy and a girl and the boy is being blackmailed because if he doesn’t do what the villains want the girl will be in danger. And instead of telling the girl what’s going on, he keeps it from her “to protect her.” No, that’s not how it works. I’ve seen books repeat this trope where someone makes a decision for another person and it. Is. Harmful.
We are more than the people who make decisions for us. We are our own people and can decide what is good for us and what isn’t good for us. And yet even though most of us women aren’t reduced to baby making machines anymore, we are still pushed and bossed around like it’s the 16th century. Let’s chat about anti-feminism.
Obviously, we’ve still got some work to do.
One of the many lies we, as humans, are expected to accept is we must conform to all of society’s expectations and norms. This idea is heavily prominent in books particularly relating to a woman’s appearance. As Nicole Brinkley wrote in her article, “Women built this castle”: An in-depth look at sexism in YA, “As if Bergstrom’s protagonist did not transform from a ‘slightly chubby’ girl to a ‘lean warrior,’ reinforcing that a feminine ideal—even for a warrior—was a skinny, toned girl, with maybe a slightly wider waistline than Barbie’s nineteen-inches.” In the end, what this character did at the end of her journey, when all the bad guys were caught and the character is supposed to have change for the better; suddenly, she conforms to societies perception of beauty. An incredibly harmful idea, especially when society would rather women were all created white with long hair and have limbs the size of Popsicle sticks.
But this doesn’t only relate to appearance, it relates to the idea that women cannot choose for themselves. It relates to the idea that society; the love interest etc. believes they “know what’s best for you.” Completely taking away the character’s agency and he or she is reduced to being acted upon yet again, instead of making her own decisions.
This is not feminism.
This is obeying orders.
This is a main theme in A Court of Mist and Fury, and at least 30 percent of the book is dedicated to it. Rhysand’s ideas are all modern concepts: educate women, teach them to fight and be strong. But we forget Feyre only learns/accepts all of the “good” things he’s saying (e.g. Women shouldn’t only have to bear children, classes should be destroyed, she’s not a pet, Tamlin wanted to keep her away from the world because he wanted Feyre for himself) because Rhysand—A MALE—is telling her this is how it should be. Why didn’t she, after being apart from Tamlin, realize this herself? Why did she have to be told how she felt or how offended she was? Instead she’s told these things by Rhysand. Feyre might be a strong female character, but she’s still victimized, she’s still treated like she knows nothing and has to be taken care of.
Holding Up the Universe is a great example of this where the main character accepts who she is as a person and the main love interest doesn’t tell her to change. Instead, it’s society who is telling her she needs to change. But in the end of the story, she still accepts who she is and she’s not sorry. Libby knows how cruel society can be, and she stands against it. She stands up to the bullies who tell her she’s not good enough and she publicly proclaims she is good enough, and even better than they believe. Libby has this inherent self-worth that disallows her to believe she’s any less of a person than anyone else, just because of the way she looks. But she also doesn’t need to be told this. She’s already figured out her net worth isn’t tied to what other people think and say about her.
This is a theme commonly found in YA books where the main character is constantly belittled or told they are less than a person, and the truth of it is there is not truth to it. No matter what we look like or what we do or what we say, we are all humans who do not need to change because society or a boyfriend/girlfriend or a friend tell us who to be and what to feel.
The heroic journey has traditionally featured a hero, not a heroin. And a master; who 9.5/10 times is a man. In her essay, “Tea, Bodies and Business: Remaking the Hero Archetype.” Kameron Hurley pointed this idea out, “Hero: a dude. Muscles. White. Butch. Hero. First image. Every time.” When books started to appear with female leads, that was a good start, but it still needs work. Unfortunately when diversity of heroes did not extend to diversity of mentors. Is it any wonder words like “master,” “mentor,” and “trainer,” imply the person is a male? A male mentor as the cataract for change and the book being feminist are mutually exclusive. It implies women are helpless beings who need a man to “get them into action” and men are the only beings who elect change and can make a difference. This frame of thinking is polarizing and also very limiting. But then when we consider books where the woman is a mentor, how often does that happen? Seldom to never. There is something to be said about books with mentors who are ALL male.
Professor McGonagall is held in high esteem and is Deputy Head Mistress and Head of Gryffindor House is a good start, but she doesn’t do any strong, strong mentoring like Dumbledore does with Harry (although she does help Hermione secure the time-turner in the third book). Professor McGonagall is the only female professor we actually even get to consider as a mentor. In addition, she does minimal mentoring with Hermione in the 3rd book. But she doesn’t participate in any mentoring with Ron and Harry. Other female professors are present at Hogwarts, which is good, but they aren’t taken seriously. Umbridge is a close second to McGonagall, but she’s not taken seriously as a mentor. And then Trawlaney who is portrayed as having a few screws loose, Grubbleyplank who’s villainized for taking Hagrid’s place and Madam Hooch and Sprout who are in, maybe, 5 scenes all together in all the books. None of the other Hogwarts women professors are supposed to be held in high esteem even though they’re ALL Hogwarts professors, to which we know is no small feat.
This is in contrast to Ella Enchanted; a Cinderella retelling featuring a not so typical damsel in distress. In Ella Enchanted, Ella has many mentors from her cook/fairy godmother/plain ‘ol godmother to a parrot to her finishing school mistresses, who are all women. In Ella Enchanted, Char is a dashing prince, but he also respects her as a person and even takes counsel from her. Most of the story revolves around her interactions with her many different mentors, and good deal more than half of them are women. Realistically, no one is influenced by only men or only women, but if this is true, why are so many of our main characters only mentored by men? Ella is headstrong and completely thinks on her own, but she also learns much from Char and Mandy. And in turn they learn from her. In the end the characters learn from each other, which I think is the key here.
It’s important to realize and be aware of the books and harmful themes that are subtlety and sometimes injected unknowingly into books. Remember feminism is for everyone, no matter what anyone says. And while having women in different occupations and with different desires is good. It’s not enough. We should be able to read about a diverse cast of amazing characters who are not only good at stealth, but also act of their own accord; Characters who don’t need to be told what they want or should want; characters who show true equality and don’t belittle women between the lines. This isn’t only necessary, we as women deserve to be represented and represented well. But in contrast to books needing more people of colors, more women of color, normalizing mental illnesses, more LGBTQIA+ representation, more representation of religions and diverse hobbies, we really do not need more anti-feminist books and it’s time we start demanding that.