No work of pop culture is perfect. Not creatively, not anti-oppression wise. A lot of works with both good and bad elements are widely named and celebrated as feminist works, and it's worth exploring where people think the boundaries between 'feminist' and 'not' lie. These works have managed to overcome their mixed messages to be regarded by many people as examples of feminist work, and some of them come from some surprising sources.
What makes a work feminist? It's worth answering that before we begin. In some circles, depicting strong female characters resisting sexism is feminist. That's not enough for me. To qualify as a feminist work, I think that something actively needs to include an anti-oppression message, not just an anti-sexist one. A feminist work is one that challenges beliefs and attitudes about race, culture, gender, sexuality, disability, and much, much more. Not necessarily all in the same work or all at the same time, mind you, but I don't give a passing grade to works that are anti-sexist while conveying other -isms.
Your mileage may vary, and for the purposes of these evaluations, I'm looking at work that is considered feminist by society in general, not necessarily by my own standards, which means that these works might not pass my own personal litmus test. Or yours!
Up today, the Millenium Novels by Stieg Larsson. Writing about the books in preparation for the release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Charles McGrath at the New York Times went ahead and used the F-word, and I see a lot of people referring to these books as feminist.
There's a long tradition in Swedish literature of embedding social commentary in fiction, especially, intriguingly, detective novels. I rather love it, because I think that a lot of people pick up detective novels when they would not read serious commentary-type-books, and thus people are exposed to interesting stuff when they might have been expecting fluff.
One of the key characters in the novels is a woman, Lisbeth Salander, who appears (although it is never explicitly stated, only speculated upon) to have an autism spectrum disorder. The books revolve both around the exploitation and abuse of Salander, and larger themes about the abuse of women. Rape, human trafficking, economic control of women with disabilities, molestation, and other very feminist themes come up in the books. Ultimately, the series is in part about the redemption of Salander.
That sounds pretty feminist, doesn't it? Especially because the books include some factual information and commentary. This isn't just a personal story. There's some barely veiled criticism of the inaction of the Swedish government on issues like trafficking and active questioning of the guardianship system. Larsson wrote with claws out.
These are books that feature a lot of strong women. Women editing major newspapers, aggressive and talented lawyers, powerful academic women, sharp-eyed police women and security professionals, and Salander herself, a very skilled hacker with some other handy talents. Yet, a lot of the strong women in these books end up sleeping with Blomkvist, the male protagonist (who strikes me as a bit of a Gary Stu). How feminist is it that Blomkvist is depicted as a man with irresistible attractions that suck every woman into his sphere?
One could argue that one aspect of feminism is sexual autonomy, and it's notable that one of his partners is a woman in an open marriage, but there's also a bit about these books that sticks in my craw; Blomkvist is an iteration of the Nice Guy who is oh so progressive and Helps Women and, by golly, has lots and lots of sex with them too!
Even as the characters resist oppression, the books challenge social attitudes, and the commentary in the narratives directly questions government policy when it comes to people living in marginalized bodies, the books ultimately make me feel a little bit uncomfortable. Are people reading Blomkvist like I do, or do they think that his sometimes exploitative attitude towards personal relationships is just as feminist as the rest of the books?
And how about the extremely intense and highly sexualized violence in the books? I've actually warned some people not to read them specifically because of this content. Yes, it's included as a commentary, and it's not portrayed in a positive light, but it's still there, and some of it is salaciously and disturbingly detailed. Is this really feminist?
And I think it's notable that these books were written by a man. Larsson is not the first or last male creator to be called a feminist. I wonder, though, how these books would have been received if they had been written by a woman. Would they have been as widely circulated? Male names on the cover of mystery novels make a big difference, sometimes the difference between hitting the bestseller list or not. Obviously that's not Larsson's fault, but it is something to be aware of when labeling works by male creators as 'feminist.'
Hey Bitch fans! If this topic piques your interest, you should check out Taraneh Ghajar Jerven's article in the new Make Believe issue, "The Girl Who Doubted Stieg Larsson's Feminism." It's on page 9!