Critical Theory: Feminist Critical Theory

Feminist critical theory looks at ways that gender roles are depicted and explored in a text.

Specifically, feminist criticism looks at ways that women are portrayed and assesses the ideas of culturally defined gender roles and power dynamics.

A fancier way to put it: Feminist critical theory seeks to directly examine and challenge a male-dominated hegemony.

In Applying Feminist Critical Theory…

  • We are looking at issues of power, agency, and voice.
  • We are looking at who gets to speak for themselves.
  • We are looking at who has the power of choice (agency).
  • We are looking at who has the ability to influence or determine the behavior of others. 

Defining Feminist Critical Theory

Marshall Boswell summarizes the aims of feminist critical theory this way: “Feminist literary criticism examines, interprets, and seeks to redress the marginalization of women through a critical response to literature, within the larger context of a male-dominated literary establishment. Feminist literary criticism also challenges, and aims to correct, broader assumptions and prejudices about female behavior, both within and without the realm of literature.”

Literary scholar Sandra Gottfreund describes feminist critical theory as being “Based on the premise that social systems are patriarchal—organized to privilege men—it seeks to trace how such power relations in society are reflected, supported, or questioned by literary texts and expression.”

We can also say that the notion of agency is a central concept in feminist discourse.

In its most official form, feminist critical theory is a school of progressive thought that seeks to articulate a message of gender equality and mutual respect. 

In this regard, feminist criticism is a definitively political school of criticism.

While it is difficult to apply this critical theory without getting at least a little political, it is possible to apply a feminist critique to a text in ways that are objective and formal.

And you don’t have to be a woman to apply feminist critical theory to the analysis of a text.

Broadly Defined Goals of Feminist Criticism

  • In applying feminist critical theory, a critic will assess the ways in which a text perpetuates ideas that support the hegemony.
  • He or she will also assess the ways in which a text might seek to subvert, question, or confront the ideology and ideas that support the hegemony.

When we apply Feminist critical theory, we are looking at ways women have been presented as “the Other.” We are analyzing literature, films, television shows, and popular music and asking how these texts conceive of women.

Particularly, we are looking at how women are depicted in terms of having power or being powerless. We are looking at ways these texts portray the “reality of society” and women’s role in that reality.

Some Typical Questions in Feminist Criticism:

  • How are women depicted in the text?
  • Do women have central roles in the text?
  • Do women in the text have power in relation to men?
  • Do women have power in relation to other women?
  • Does the text seem to promote traditional views of women and/or gender roles?
  • Does the text seem to subvert or resist traditional views of women and/or gender roles?

Works Cited

Boswell, Marshall. “Feminist Literary Criticism.” Encyclopedia of American Literature, Third Edition, Facts On File, 2013. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=106412&itemid=WE54&articleId=29842. Accessed 22 Jan. 2021.


Gottfreund, Sandra. “Feminist Criticism.” Encyclopedia of the British Short Story, Second Edition, Facts On File, 2013. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=106412&itemid=WE54&articleId=12672. Accessed 22 Jan. 2021.

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