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Gynocriticism is the historical study of women writers as a distinct literary tradition. (Friedman 18) Elaine Showalter coined this term in her essay "Toward a Feminist Poetics." It refers to a criticism that constructs "a female framework for the analysis of women's literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories" (quoted by Groden and Kreiswurth from "Toward a Feminist Poetics," New Feminist Criticism, 131). The work of gynocriticism has been criticized by recent feminists for being essentialist, following too closely along the lines of Sigmund Freud and New Criticism, and leaving out lesbians and women of color. (Literary Terms)
Gynocriticism is the study of feminist literature written by female writers inclusive of the interrogation of female authorship, images, the feminine experience and ideology, and the history and development of the female literary tradition. During the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds respectively, Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir began to review and evaluate the female image and sexism in the works of male writers. During the nineteen sixties the feminist movement saw a reaction and opposition to the male oriented discourse of previous years. Most thoroughly developed during the late seventies and early eighties, gynocriticism was a result of the interrogative critiques utilised in post-structuralism and psychoanalysis.
Development as a literary critique
Gynocriticism developed as a literary critique from the theories and techniques of post-structuralism and psychoanalysis. Post-structuralism is by nature, the study of the uncertain (Barry 2009). According to Barry, post-structuralism questions and interrogates the scientific certainty that structuralism took for granted, identifying the fact that language is ambiguous and therefore the universe is indeterminate. Psychoanalytic criticism focuses on the word of Freud and the concept of the unconscious. The textual content is both conscious and unconscious and the critique involves the uncovering or decoding of the two. Additionally, Freudian psychoanalysis identifies repression and sublimation, two unconscious processes that involve the struggle with identity. Gynocriticism, examines the female struggle for identity and the social construct of gender. If gender is inherently constructed from an ideology, then that ideology is by nature, indeterminate and fluid, susceptible to the analysis of differences. According to Elaine Showalter, gynocriticism is the study of not only the female as a gender status but also the 'internalized consciousness' of the female. The uncovering of the female subculture and exposition of a female model is the intention of gynocriticism.
According to Showalter, literary history has seen three distinct phases of gynocriticism. Until the twentieth century, the female literature tradition was constructed of images and values of the idealized 'feminine', constructed from the patriarchal oppression that sought to identify the woman as “other”. During the twentieth century, the 'feminist' movement saw a reaction to the patriarchy of previous times and protested the ideology of the feminine. The most recent development is the 'female' criticism, where a female identity is sought free from the masculine definitions and oppositions. The recognition of a distinct female canon and the development of the 'female reader' are fundamental aspects of gynocriticism.
Gynocriticism and psychology
Gynocriticism arose as a feminist critique as a result of the Freudian psychoanalytic perspective of the female inadequacy. According to Freudian psychology, the female possesses a psychological deficiency in the lack of male anatomy and as a result suffers envy and feelings of inadequacy and injustice combined with feelings of intellectual inferiority. However it is not just the physical female inadequacy that led to the inception of gynocriticism. The male 'phallic prejudice'  itself, creates a female consciousness that demands a critique of the female perspective. The prejudice against the female, incites a specific noesis that gets attributed to the female. Psychologist Karen Horney theorised that the ideal of woman is not necessarily innate to her sex but that the patriarchal pressures and cultural influence compel her to behave in conformity with the image. This prejudice has concealed the female literary tradition to the point of imitating the masculine.
Flaws as a critique
However gynocriticism aims to uncover a female psyche, it frequently fails to encompass the female as a whole. Often critics critique the feminist literature to the exclusion of other considerations such as race, class, social interest, political inclination, religion and sexuality. According to Friedman, the self 'is not singular, it is multiple'. Identity is not constructed of gender alone. The female encompasses other attributes such as race, class, sexuality etc. that are all subject to different positions of oppression and are in fact, related. The separation of these properties would create a one dimensional view of the female. However if gender and identity are merely constructs then it becomes difficult to assign any inherent qualities of nature or language by which to critique.
Gynocriticism is a literary theory that is relatively new and continues to evolve. Until the patriarchal ideology of the female is resolved and gender inequality and social subjugation are neutralised, then it remains necessary to review and examine the female literary canon. Indeed, even when gender inequality is no longer an issue, interrogation of 'female' literature will remain valuable, as it is the study of sameness and difference in gender that delineates the 'female' literary theory.
- "Literary Terms." Fall 2002. Montclair State University (students of ENGL 605: Literary Research). 05 Jun. 2005 <http://english.montclair.edu/isaacs/605LitResearch/litermFA02.htm>.
- Friedman, Susan Stanford. Mappings : Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.
- Groden, Michael and Martin Kreiswurth, eds. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
- Xu, Y 2007, 'Contribution of gynocriticism to feminist criticism', US – China Foreign Language, vol. 5, no. 5, pp. 1 – 5.
- Barry, P 2009, Beginning theory; An introduction to literary and cultural theory, Manchester University Press, Manchester.
- Friedman, SS 1996, 'Beyond gynocriticism and gynesis: The geographics of identity and the future of feminist criticism', Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, vol. 15, no. 1, Spring, pp. 13 - 40.
- Janowick, T 2008, 'Feminist discourse across the waves: A rhetorical criticism of first, second and third wave women's discourses', Southern Illinois University at Carbundale, May, pp. 1 -121.
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