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Writing a Post-feminist Character

Writers have weird quirks. Invoking the muse often involves peculiar rituals — sitting at a coffee shop with precisely the right ambiance, playing precisely the right soundtrack at precisely the right volume (or surrounding oneself with utter silence), using only a no. 1 pencil on college-ruled paper*; I hear all kinds. I’ve also noticed that most of us writerly-types are particular about language to the point of pedantry, understandably. Me? I’ve got a whole list of words I love and hate. There’s no logic to most of them. I love “pearlescent”, hate “eldritch”. The latter is probably the result of too much Lovecraft. No idea where the former comes from.

But there’s one whole class of words that I hate, which is the newfangled trend of slapping a “post” onto anything society (or at least its literati) would rather not think about or deal with. For example, SF/F fans are fond of the word “post-technological” in reference to the society of today or the near future, often conveniently forgetting the digital divide when they do so. There have actually been some people declaring the United States “post-classist”; I suspect that one started before the recession kicked in. And us USians have also been bombarded with crap about our “post-racial” society in the past few months, mostly since President Obama’s election. I especially loathe this word because it implies that we are somehow past the point in time when race matters, because one good thing has happened to one black man.

All these constructed words are based on wishful thinking rather than any significant societal change. But the word “post-feminist” has a slightly different etymology. Most people in the literary field (tossing in genre literature here) seem to use it to refer to works created after/affected by the feminist movement and Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. I have less of a problem with this word because it’s mostly just used to differentiate — i.e., there are feminist works from before this time, and feminist works from after, and the latter gets labeled post-feminist. There’s some implied meaning to the term: we all experienced significant cultural change with the feminist movement, and post-feminist works usually acknowledge that change in some way. It’s more common to see female protagonists now, or have a story be centered on a woman. We see fewer examples of blatant sexism in fiction — though there’s still plenty, sadly.

But here’s one big problem I have with the word: I was born after the Sixties. Does that mean anything I write is automatically post-feminist? Is all literature created since then post-feminist? What does this term actually mean in terms of the content and style and structure of fiction?

I want to note that this is an open question, and I’m not even going to try and answer it here. That’s because a lot of people have talked about these issues with respect to science fiction and fantasy (and fandom) for quite some time now, and rather than rehash all that they’ve already said I’ll just point you in those directions. These conversations have been going on for decades, and I’m not crazy enough to think I can begin to summarize them.

But I’m thinking about the issue of post-feminism now because I’ve started to hear back from readers and reviewers about my book now that the release date has arrived, and I’ve been getting some interesting questions about one element of it. I’ll try to avoid significant spoilers.

The element in question is the background of my protagonist, Yeine Darr, who was born and raised in a matriarchal culture. I didn’t base this culture on any extant matriarchy (although if I had to slap a real-world label on her, Yeine’s home culture corresponds to that of the pre-Columbian Incans, who were probably matriarchal, though with vastly different customs). And since Yeine spends the bulk of the story amid the more patriarchal culture of her estranged relatives, readers don’t see much of Yeine’s homeland. But her upbringing does shape her character in interesting ways. Yeine’s a bit of a chauvanist, see. Not an obnoxious one — but she does tend to casually assume that the men around her can’t take care of themselves, are more emotionally fragile than women, and generally aren’t much use outside of bed. This is because in her land (which has undergone changes much like our own Sexual Revolution), men have historically been valued solely for their muscles and pretty faces. They’re expected to direct their greater physical strength toward the protection of the home and children, while the women go off to war. (Since the changes, men can fight, if they want, but those who do are treated much the same as female soldiers in the US — not nearly as respected as they should be.) Now, Yeine is enlightened as women in her culture go, because her father was a rare male political leader; she’s very pro-equality for men. But despite this, her behavior and attitudes still show the subtle effects of being raised in a culture that undervalues and objectifies its men.

I think it’s pretty obvious what I’m doing here. Yeine’s culture is neither a feminist utopia nor even a dystopia; in fact it’s a pretty by-the-numbers reversal of modern American society in some ways. (Not in all ways; there are hints that this culture has a darker history, including ugly acts like the violent forced circumcision of men at puberty.) Yeine was shaped by my own understanding of how sexism really works.

See, sexism is not simply men doing bad things to women, but people with power (mostly men in our case) doing bad things to people who lack it (mostly women in our case), in order to keep that power. And, as with any other situation of power and privilege, this status quo is perpetuated not just through overt hatred, unfair policies, and unequal access, but also in the subtle messages of our entertainment and day-to-day behavior. Entertainment can also send counter-messages, which is where feminist science fiction and fantasy comes in; many of its stories are meant to shock or provoke readers, forcing them to reevaluate their assumptions about gender and power.

I didn’t set out to write a feminist work, though. Wasn’t even thinking about it. I haven’t read a lot of feminist SF/F, for one thing — some of Suzy Mckee Charnas’ chilling Holdfast Chronicles, Esther Friesner’s even-more-chilling Psalms of Herod, some essays by Joanna Russ, a bit of James Tiptree, Jr. But my impression of explicitly feminist SF/F is that it’s trying to send a message; it’s got a goal beyond the story. My only goal was to tell a good story — but because I was born after the Sixties, and because I’ve spent a lot of time studying how people work (I’m a psychologist in my day job life), my understanding of feminism shows through even when I wasn’t really trying to write about it. In fact I didn’t even notice, until it was pointed out to me.

So anyway, Yeine is a sexist, feminist character. That is, she’s got a serious character flaw, but she also exists as a challenge to and reflection of the sexism of our own society. Among other things, she’s a strong female protagonist in an epic fantasy novel, which makes her a relative rarity; and she’s a warrior and leader, not something we see much in our own world. And unlike other sexist, feminist characters we’ve seen in media — Wonder Woman, for example — Yeine doesn’t fit the standard US notion of what a female sex object should look or act like. She describes herself as “short and flat and brown as forestwood”, yet she’s nevertheless attractive to several men in the story.

So is this how post-feminism works? Subversions of sexism, accidental enlightenment, characters who are walking contradictions? I can’t answer this question; like I said, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Still not sure Yeine qualifies, though I’m beginning to think she does. But my curiosity has been awakened, so now I’d like to see other characters who might qualify as post-feminist. Anybody got examples to share? Or your own definition of post-feminism? I figure since we’re all post-feminist now, we all get to decide what that means.

* Yeah, that was me as a teenager, way back before I learned to type. I think the idea was that nobody would be able to read the manuscript but me.

about the author

N. K. Jemisin

  1. The Dream of Perpetual Links « Torque Control

    February 17, 2010
    at 10:47 am

    […] Jemisin on “Writing a post-feminist character“, and interviewed at […]

  2. Laughingrat

    February 28, 2010
    at 7:56 pm

    Hm. No, I mostly have encountered “post-feminist” used in that ugly, disingenuous way that really means, “Shut up about the sexual harassment you got at work today, baby, and get me a beer.” It means that sexism still happens, but we’re not supposed to talk about it anymore or even think about it. That’s what “post-feminist” means in the larger culture, which is why I won’t use it.

    I’ve been hearing a lot of good buzz about your novel and added it to my to-read list recently–hope you experience continued success!

  3. Tara

    June 29, 2012
    at 12:25 pm

    I’ve read a bit about post-feminism and I know that it it’s more than a label for post-1960’s feminism. Sometimes it’s used that way and sometimes it’s used to denote what the comment above is describing. However, no, everyone interested in women’s rights is not now automatically a post-feminist.

    Although feminism embodies a very diverse set of ideologies there have been louder voices and quieter voices in it and I think that the reason a lot of us want to dissociate ourselves from it is because we perceive the louder voices to be the sexist ones (be they misandrist or misogynistic). Merely looking at the term feminism tells us that it is something that was heavily informed by and held within the boundaries of gender and sexual difference (why else would a philosophy of “equality” feel the need to reference the feminine?).

    I don’t think post-feminists are bound by these categories the way the term feminism suggests. Personally, I see a more thoroughly post-gendered society on the horizon that not only eliminates socially-constructed gender roles, but also biologically-constructed sexual roles (i.e. the exclusively female ability to carry offspring).

  4. Williams

    February 19, 2013
    at 9:59 pm

    Valuable info. Lucky me I found your site by accident, and I am shocked why
    this accident didn’t happened earlier! I bookmarked it.

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