Halls of Mirrors: How Genre Fiction Can Uncover Feminist Realities

Literary culture is at a point where feminist writing is recognised and celebrated. Feminist literary criticism and theory is now a college staple, and the work of feminist writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Caitlin Moran is widely read. While the theoretical and non-fiction writing of countless women continues to enlighten and inspire many in feminist thought, we still tend to think of serious feminist writing as primarily theoretical and non-fiction. This type of writing is powerful because it doesn’t have to bend to the constraints of convention, nor is being written to entertain, unlike genre fiction. Because of its lowlier reputation in the literary world is easy to overlook the way that genre fiction can express the issues and truths that non-fiction feminist writing does, and does so in affecting, powerful ways. In celebration of International Women’s Day, here is a look at how genre fiction can enact the female experience and create a safe space for female expression.

Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction is the broad term used to describe fiction that has elements that stray from realism, for example novels with a touch of sci-fi, dystopia, supernatural or horror. Within this broad term is where acclaimed feminist writer Margaret Atwood finds her literary niche and her work is an excellent starting point. Her best known work, the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale recently commanded the attention of popular culture once again, 32 years after it was first published, in the wake of Trump’s election and inauguration. The bestselling dystopian novel now seems startlingly less fictional and more prescient as women’s reproductive and civil rights continue to be attacked, diminished and revoked outright. Atwood differentiates her work, and speculative fiction as a whole, by classifying it as “fact within fiction,” which we see played out in her work.

Another remarkable novel of hers, The Edible Woman, reveals sharply observed realities about the subtle ways that women have been conditioned to think from a position of inferiority. The novel tells the story of Marian, who, after becoming engaged, begins to disassociate from herself and all that is natural and living, becoming unable to eat anything. Early in the novel we are introduced to the ideas of women’s bodies and behaviour being constrained, ideas that Marian and her work friends “the office virgins” seem to agree with. Marian works for a research company on a floor of only women, knowing she can never hope of moving to the floor upstairs where the men work, and is faced with a sign in the bathroom that asks the women “not to leave our hairs or tea leaves in the sink.” she is judgmental of the way her roommate Ainsley dresses and behaves, in particular her decision to become pregnant without getting married.

Living within these restrictions causes the women to unravel; Emmy’s scalp and hair fall in clumps from her body and Marian disassociates from herself in part two, switching from first person narrative to third and finding her body and bodily functions remote from her. The novel’s core ideas of nourishment and fulfilment are carefully linked to the body and eating, so we see that while Ainsley is filled physically with her foetus and emotionally with the firm control she has over her own life, Marian feels empty in her life with the very dull, very conventional Peter. The only way Marian can regain a sense of wholeness and a connection to herself is by making a cake in the shape of a woman and offering it to Peter so that he will consume it instead of her. He rejects it and she eats it herself, causing the narrative to shift back to first person. It’s a novel that should be very strange to read, but Atwood’s prose manages a poetic clarity because once the logic of the premise is pieced together, it doesn’t really seem strange at all.

Horror/Magical Realism

Angela Carter is another exemplary writer whose speculative fiction, largely infused with horror and magical realism, is regarded as seminal feminist literature. She is best known for her collection The Bloody Chamber which is a regular fixture on second and third level curricula. Carter uses horror and fairy tale-like plots to explore the violent and threatening nature of male fantasy, desire and will. Her 1974 collection Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces was inspired by the systematic oppression of women she witnessed during the time she spent living in Japan between 1969 and 1971. She recognises this period as a turning point in her feminist consciousness, remarking that “In Japan I learnt what it is to be a woman and became radicalised.”

The collection’s most affecting story is probably ‘The Loves of Lady Purple.’ The story is about an ageing puppeteer and his travelling show entitled ‘The Notorious Amours of Lady Purple, the Shameless Oriental Venus,’ which he channels all of his slowly depleting energy into. He worships the marionette the star of the show, he “revealed his passions through a medium other than himself and this was his heroine, the puppet, Lady Purple.” Onto this marionette he has projected everything men desire and fear in women – she’s a vixen, a dominatrix, and a murderer, and of course inhumanly beautiful. Lady Purple and her backstory are of course fictitious, as “no woman born would have dared to be so blatantly seductive.”

Once she comes to life, she realises that although she has ripped herself from her puppet strings, she is not free. She cannot tell if her next actions will be performed because of her desire to do so, or because she has performed the puppeteer’s desires for so long, she knows nothing else. All she can do is re-enact her origin story, murdering her father and making her way to the nearest brothel. The story is so affecting because we see how Lady Purple’s will has been so shaped to her master’s she cannot discern if she has her own will at all. In the end, she is only what she was made to be, and she seems to accept this. It is a sobering reminder that women’s desire can be paved over when we are so used to the will of man being prioritised and  forced upon us.

Romance

Romance novels are at once among the best-selling and least respected works of literature. Genre fiction has a bad rap as it is but romances are  pretty much on the lowest rung, probably because they are written predominantly by women and for women. Only a small few romances make it to the elite literary fiction canon, for example Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Initially romances seem like the least feminist genre – but only when you ignore the fact that the genre gives autonomy to both the author and the heroine, the plots usually explore gender roles and, more often than not, the man’s will bends to the woman’s and the book ends with her getting what she wants. With all this considered, then, perhaps it’s not so surprising that the romance genre has been a significant tool for black feminism. The most familiar example has got to be Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel that tells the life story of Janie and how it was shaped by her relationships to men. The novel is powerful because Janie manages to grow despite how terribly she is treated, and she resists the expectation that black women should be uncompromisingly obedient to men. Despite the brief mention of slavery the bulk of racist behaviour in the novel comes from how black people treat each other, and we see that black men treat the women so poorly because they feel inferior to whites.

Romance novels written by black women, about black women and for black women began to really emerge in the 1990s. Terry McMillan is credited with being the first writer to bring the interior world of black, single, successful women to the foreground of mainstream culture. She adapted her 1995 New York Times bestseller Waiting to Exhale, a novel about the love lives of four successful black women, into a film starring Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett. The film has an all-black cast, which was described as a “social phenomenon” by the Los Angeles Times, making  McMillan a major figure in the empowerment of black women.

Brenda Jackson is another writer who has proven the empowering potential of romance fiction. Having taken to reading romances as a way to escape stress, Jackson  felt the need to see more ethnic and cultural diversity in the genre, and decided to forge it herself. Her career is outstanding as she’s published 106 novels and was the first black romance writer to make the New York Times Bestseller List. Her work is noted not only for its sexy content but for her portrayal of strong men who are respectful to women.

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