Given that I'm a woman of a not particularly feminine persuasion, you'd think I'd like the modern trend for fictional women who go out fighting battles and having adventures. To an extent I do, but there are aspects of the portrayals I really don't like... namely that those tough women frequently turn out to be misogynists.
But it goes beyond that, because it's not just that they're misogynist. The book is set up in a way that supports their misogyny. It's not that the heroine hates other women for no reason - other women are worthless and worthy of being hated.
A few examples of this:
- Lack of positive female relationships - Most women will have friends who are men, particularly when they work in a male dominated profession* and most people they meet daily are men. However, many books take this one step further. When the character does meet other women, she doesn't develop positive relationships with them. The heroine has no close female friends (or if she does, they'll end up betraying her). Other women are depicted as shallow and uninteresting. Even women that the heroine is related to will be portrayed in that light. A mother or grandmother won't offer useful advice or be the one the heroine goes to when she's upset.
- The jealous evil harpy triangle - When you have a love triangle of two men after the same woman, each man will have good and bad points. There will be fans wanting each alternative to success. But when it's the heroine in a love triangle with another woman and the man she wants, the other woman does not have good points. She kicks kittens. She's cruel to her friends. No one would possibly want her to succeed over the heroine.
You could understand why she might see the opposition in a bad way, but this isn't only the heroine's worldview. The narrative supports her opinions, because the other women clearly prove they are jealous evil harpies by the end.
- Women who stand in the heroine's way are jealous evil harpies - It isn't just women who stand in the way of the heroine's love interest... any woman who expresses doubts or otherwise dislikes the heroine is a jealous evil harpy. On the other hand, men who stand in the heroine's way have good qualities too and may be won over in time.
- The heroine is liberated, unlike other women - Most obvious when it comes to the issue of sexual freedom. When the heroine sleeps with ten men in as many days, she is sexually liberated, not conforming to the patriarchy's rules and comfortable with her own sexuality. When another woman sleeps with ten men in as many days, she is a slut and a whore. Plus, a jealous evil harpy.
- Always take a man's advice - Going against a man's advice means failure. The heroine will be captured, someone will die and everything will fall apart. A heroine can't succeed by going against a man's advice and doing her own thing. That would mean she is right and the man giving her the advice is wrong. She ought to learn to be less emotional/reckless/unstable and listen to men.
Women invariably give bad advice. Following a woman's advice means being captured, someone will die and everything will fall apart. A woman offering good advice might also raise the possibility of the heroine having a positive relationship with another woman, which clearly can't be allowed.
- Ew, embroidery - The heroine actively looks down on women who engage in feminine pastimes, be it wanting to be a housewife or a love of embroidery**. She's perfectly justified though... it isn't simply that the heroine thinks women who do embroidery are boring. They really are boring. A woman who loves embroidery will never have anything interesting to say and won't be intelligent.
- The problem with hating yourself - She's a woman and misogynist, so she hates herself. But there's a way to make herself feel better: she seeks out male approval for her actions. After all, men are the only ones who count, so their approval means everything. The reverse of this is that male disapproval is the worst thing ever. It's all about how men feel and making sure the menfolk are happy. Nothing else is as important, even the fact the heroine just survived an attempted rape. His feelings come first.
A woman who tries to offer the heroine approval is doing so for her own ends and is a jealous evil harpy. A woman who gets male approval instead of the heroine is a jealous evil harpy who didn't deserve it.
- Women make men evil - It turns out the main villain is a man, but hang on... he's only doing it because his wife / an evil temptress demon made him, often because she was jealous of the heroine (other women are hysterical and irrational, because they're women). Maybe she possessed him. Maybe she poisoned his mind over the years. In a variation of this, men are evil because of the loss of a female relative or love interest, who manipulated the men and made them so dependant they went mad from the loss.
Women who are villains don't need a man to possess them or poison their mind. They're evil and jealous of the heroine directly.
- Bonus dehumanising points - The heroine gets bonus points if she finds a way to dehumanise other women in her descriptions. Likening their behaviour to rabid dogs, calling them hysterical... there are so many ways to make other women look worthless. Again, this will be done in a way that makes the heroine look right, rather than the heroine seeing the world through special misogyny glasses.
One of the biggest stereotypes I face in the real world is the idea that I hate women. Not wanting to wear feminine clothes is seen as hating women who wear them. Not wanting to read romance novels is seen as hating women who like romance. People have a hard time grasping the idea that I might not like something because I don't like it, not because I hate women or I'm trying to make some sort of point.
It's not helpful when books portray this stereotype as the truth. Nor is it helpful for feminism overall to show feminine women, or traditionally feminine pursuits, as being less worthy.
And yet, books that do all of the above get raved about in reviews for being feminist. On the surface, they may appear to be. They show a strong heroine going on an adventure. That doesn't mean much if the underlying message is that any woman who isn't the heroine is hateable or a non-entity. It's also suspect when capable means she's fine as long as she follows a man's advice, and confident means she's confident when given male approval.
The next time you read a book heralded as feminist, dig a big deeper. Is it equality for all, or only for the super-special heroine? Does she only get that apparent equality due to following instructions from men and seeking their approval?
* You could argue that things like demon hunting are actually female dominated in some genres, like urban fantasy, but only when you look at the books as a whole. Within the books, the heroine is often portrayed as a rare woman in a world of men. I'm struggling to think of an urban fantasy where women fighting demons is the norm, or the main character is a lone man in a profession dominated by women.
** I don't know quite why embroidery, but somehow crafts involving needles get extra hate. I like a spot of sewing. I don't pick up a needle and worry that making this teddy-bear will drain away everything I know about genetic engineering. My personality doesn't drain out of my ears. My muscles remain just as strong afterwards too! It's amazing.