Currently in one of my other English courses, the class is reading The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. If you have attended any high school in the United States, it is likely that you have read this book at one point during your high school years or maybe as an undergraduate in college. Personally, when I first read the book in high school, all I cared about was “Now, who the baby daddy?”
We probably discussed the gender politics of the book in my high school English class, but I was far from mature enough or intelligent enough to really grasp the issues within the book and how (and if) they applied to my daily life. I believe most people would agree that The Scarlet Letter engages in great gender discussion and that Hawthorne was purposefully emphasizing the troubles within Puritan society. However, my post is not exactly about The Scarlet Letter or Nathaniel Hawthorne–I was inspired by reading the book again (with an adult perspective), along with our readings in this class. My question is this: Can everything be read from a feminist perspective, or is there a point where we can overreach?
The reason I would like to ask this question is because I have often asked myself this when I was newly in grad school. I had many professors who wanted me to read essays and studies from well-known feminist critics, such as Judith Butler, or they asked me to complete a study with a feminist lens or viewpoint. Do you think that we, as scholars and academics, can potentially insert different -isms where the -isms don’t belong? I’d like to view this question more as a “devil’s advocate” question, than as a critique of feminist perspectives. Whenever I read The Scarlet Letter, I can see how it is a call for feminism. Hester Prynne, the lead female character, faces terrible treatment due to the sex discrimination present in colonial Puritan society. Though she accepts her punishment for adultery, there are many instances in which Hester is defiant of Puritan society and she refuses to let the rules completely break her. The Scarlet Letter is an example of a book we can, without question, read with a feminist perspective.
If I were to answer my own question, I would say this: I believe that everything can be read from a feminist perspective. I argue this because we have been so ingrained with gender and sex dichotomies that it is difficult not to read everything from a specific perspective. We, both men and women, are told from our births that men do this and women do that (based upon gendered ideas), or that men have this organ and women have that organ (based upon sexual biology). Both men and women can have experienced discrimination based upon these two different, but related, dichotomies. Can I read The Scarlet Letter as a woman, who identifies as a woman, and see it as a call for feminism because of my own experiences as a woman? Can a man, who identifies as a man, sees it as something completely different because he has never experienced discrimination as a woman? Or maybe the -ism is just not there? When do we get to the point where the -ism isn’t there, but is merely something we want to see?
(Reiteration: the author of this post argues that a feminist perspective can be used at all times; but do you?)