A while ago, I picked up a book because I had seen it positively reviewed by a lot of book lovers on different social media platforms. The consensus around this novel, and around the main character, was that is was feminist. So I went into it with great expectations; the premise sounded very interesting, and I always love a good feminist main character. But I read the book and I was left feeling confused. I couldn’t really see what was so feminist about it. Throughout the whole book the main female character does not have a single positive interaction with another girl, in fact, she mercilessly criticized them for their choices, even when those choices were made for their own safety and survival. She did this instead of criticizing the system which had forced them into that life, and even hated her own mother for being “weak,” and venerated her father even though he was a murderous villain.
I went back to read those reviews that called the main character “feminist” and figured out that she got that status simply because she was badass and bested many men while fighting, and because she didn’t want to marry. But to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” Nowhere in that definition does it say that to be a feminist a woman must not have a romantic interest, refuse to marry that romantic interest, or that they must know how to fight. And in a way, they are subverting traditional female roles that have been imposed on them by doing those things, but most of the times they are doing it for themselves, and not necessarily for female liberation.
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I don’t put the blame on that book, because nowhere did it say that the character considered herself a feminist, the concept probably didn’t even exist since the book was set in the 15th century, it was only the readers who labeled her that. I never continued the series, and I don’t know if the main character’s views changed as the books went on, but I do hope that she at least got a female friend by the end of it.
But this problem is not exclusive to this particular book, female characters who are “badass” are regarded as feminists or “more feminist” than other female characters whether they really are feminists or not. Perhaps a classic example of this is Game of Thrones. There is no doubt that this book series is full of amazing female characters who are badasses in many different ways, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them all “feminists” because we have to consider: are they fighting for equality or are they fighting for personal power?
I think it’s great to have these kind of women in fiction, female characters who are physically strong and defy all odds are great representation and role models to have, and I personally love an ambitious and sometimes ruthless female character. What I disagree with is calling them “feminists” just on the ground of them being those things, and completely disregarding female characters who do have feminist beliefs but are not as badass as the others. Female characters who are traditionally feminine, who have love interests, who marry at the end, who are not good at fighting, or are gentle and nurturing can be feminists too.
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Most importantly, feminism, both in real life and in fiction, is about wanting equality for the sexes and has little to nothing to do with a woman’s capacity to wield a sword. And yes, we love female characters who do wield them very much, but we love those who don’t too.