Back to: Literary Theory in English Literature
Table of Contents
An Influential American Feminist
Kate Millet, born in 1934, was a highly influential American feminist figure whose ground-breaking work Sexual Politics, published in 1969 is still considered a highly relevant text on feminism, and its ideas not only helped the growth of second-wave feminism but is still used by literary readers and feminist alike in analysing the literary texts from the lens of feminism.
When her book was published, literary works written by feminists were few in number, so as have a female canon. And, not every feminist, like Elaine Showalter was interested in digging out the unknown literary texts written by few forgotten female authors, to discover their worth.
So second-wave feminists, like Millet started analysing the work written by male authors and started dissecting western canon (that predominately contains male authors) to analyse how women are represented in these works. This criticism is called phallocentric criticism as it tries to expose the masculine bias present in these works.
Construct of Patriarchy
For Millet, one should try to understand the relationship between men and women in a patriarchal society, as a deeply entrenched power structure that has political implications embedded within its structure.
Millet explains, that various institutions that are constructed by patriarchy are used subtly and excessively to keep the male superiority and authority over women.
Whether it is biological sciences, that justifies the physical weakness of women, or the politics, where women historically were given negligible or no rights at all, or the familial structure that binds the women in domestic sphere, all of these institutions, argues Millet, are deeply interconnected and all play a collective role in women’s subjugation.
It is done to such an extent that women actually accepts her own inferiority, both psychologically and in the physical sense.
Literature – a tool of Patriarchy
Millet also argues that literature is also another tool used by the patriarchy that helps to propagate this idea of female weakness and inferiority, by retelling this myth of male superiority, again and again, until it’s is deeply embedded in the psyche of both men and women.
To support her claim, Millet in her work goes on to analyse the work of various prominent male authors like DH Lawrence.
For example, she exposes the male chauvinistic nature of his characters and how the man’s body and phallus are in a way worshipped both by male and female characters while female characters are nothing but passive spectators and admirers of this male hegemony.
This was a highly ground-breaking approach to read literature, especially the established canon, which was before only looked with awe and admiration.
Criticism of Freudian Theory
Millet also uses the psychoanalytic theory of Freud in her phallocentric criticism. According to her, male authors didn’t purposely and intentionally stereotyped women as inferior beings in their works, but these emotions and expression found its way automatically through imageries and descriptions of female characters as the male bias was deeply embedded in their subconscious.
So just as Freud explained repressed expressions and meaning can be understood through analysing the dreams where these suppressed emotions found their way, similarly by dissecting literature one can unravel the repressed female emotions and characteristics.
Millet, however, looked at the Freudian theory with a critical eye and disregarded it as an untrusted tool for feminism and should be used carefully considering its male bias.
Although, various later feminist mentioned that male-biased of Freud should be separated from his psychoanalytic theory which should be instead used as a tool to understand how male superiority gets its place in society in the first place.