As a child who started reading at a very young age, I was always succumbed to books and read all kinds of books that I found. Not restricting myself to a certain writer or genre, I read and loved books from every genre that was available to me. But most of my favourite books were the ones with female protagonists. Maybe because I could relate to them, or maybe I liked imagining myself as those girls and going on an adventure that at the moment was mine only.
As I grew up and started learning about feminism and feminist ideologies, it reflected in my reading list too. My reading pile was more often books surrounding feminism or with strong women characters. Most of those were written by women themselves and I liked reading books about women from their own perspective.
But as I reached high school and my idea of feminism widened, I learned that there are a lot of men who are feminists too. This was a surprise for me because I had not yet met any such men in my life.
To satiate my curiosity, I turned to the only thing that could give me answers – books. I started to find and read books that were written by male authors and tried to find out their perspectives about female characters. Trying to read fantasy, thriller to romance, I tried to find out how male writers wrote the female protagonists in their books.
What I found was not what I expected. Before reading these books, I had thought that I was on a ride to read about some strong feminist characters as most of these books were marketed as the “feminist book of the age”. But what I got was the over-sexualisation of female protagonists in the name of “feminism”.
The idea of feminism that these writers had was women using their bodies to gain everything they wanted and having no idea about what they wanted in their life. Many writers started writing “quirky” female protagonists in the name of strong characters.
Among the many books I read by male authors, there were some that stood out for getting feminism right. Here are five of them:
Matilda – Roald Dahl
The way Roald Dahl places an emphasis on gender equality in the story is remarkable. If we consider the basic idea of feminism, which is equality between all genders, this children’s book is arguably one of the strongest examples of feminist literature.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“A girl should think about making herself look attractive so she can get a good husband later on. Looks is more important than books, Miss Hunky…”
“The name is Honey,” Miss Honey said.
“Now look at me,” Mrs Wormwood said. “Then look at you. You chose books. I chose looks.”
In this excerpt, Dahl takes a feminist stance by portraying Matilda’s mother as a misogynistic person. This shines a negative light on the prejudice which is prevalent against women by showing how ridiculous this phrase sounds, especially coming from Mrs Wormwood, a woman.
The reader at this point in the book understands that Miss Honey is a woman who is a smart, kind person who is both “beautiful” and “intelligent”. In other words, Dahl says that there’s no necessity to choose between “looks” and “books” as they are not mutually exclusive.
Another phrase from the books goes like this:
“I’m afraid men are not always quite as clever as they think they are. You will learn that when you get a bit older, my girl.”
The message here is pretty simple and understandable which is men are not the only clever ones.
The Subjection of Women – John Stuart Mill
This classic published in the year 1869 describes the role of women accurately.
“I consider it presumption in anyone to pretend to decide what women are or are not, can or cannot be, by natural constitution. They have always hitherto been kept, as far as regards spontaneous development, in so unnatural a state, that their nature cannot but have been greatly distorted and disguised; and no one can safely pronounce that if women’s nature were left to choose its direction as freely as men’s, and if no artificial bent were attempted to be given to it except that required by the conditions of human society, and given to both sexes alike, there would be any material difference, or perhaps any difference at all, in the character and capacities which would unfold themselves.”
Stuart Mill wrote a blunt truth in an age when women were considered as second class citizens around a major part of the world. He talked about the topic of equal opportunities, a right that women around the world are still fighting for. If women are given equal choices, opportunities and the right to chose, there would be no difference at all in their capacity to perform anything.
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
This book mainly revolves around the idea of making choices. Isabel Archer was brought to Europe by her wealthy aunt and is expected to marry a suitor of her aunt’s choice. But Isabel wants to determine her own fate.No matter how wonderful or drastic her choices turn out to be, she wants to make them.
This excerpt from the book explains the character perfectly:
“I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do.”
“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.
“So as to choose,” said Isabel”
Isabel wants nothing more than to have the freedom to choose. She wants to be the master of her own life and choices. In this more than 135-year-old book, the writer completely understands the importance of choice in a person’s life, whether a man or a woman.
A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
Hosseini is known for writing on social issues and is considered a supporter of equality and education for all genders. It comes through in his book.
“A society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.”
“A woman who will be like a rock in a riverbed, enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulence that washes over her.”
“Marriage can wait, education cannot.”
To women who are made to believe from a very young age that the most important thing in their life is marriage, Hosseini has something to say. Not only this books takes a feminist stance throughout its length but also features a feminist male character in the form of Laila’s father.
The Paper Bag Princess – Robert Munsch
This feminist book to my and to most people’s surprise is a fairy tale. When hearing the word fairytale we often think about the damsel in distress who is saved by her knight in shining armour. This fairytale is anything but that.
The Prince in this book looked at the Princess and said,
“Elizabeth, you are a mess! You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled and you are wearing a dirty old paper bag. Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.”
This is not a welcome Elizabeth expected after saving the Prince. But she wasn’t the one to get flustered by a comment about how she looks, she was very confident in however she was.
To what the Prince thought was an insult to Elizabeth, she replied:
“Ronald, your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.”
The Princess then went dancing off free and exuberant in her paper bag outfit and the princess did not marry the prince in this one.
The writer very subtly emphasises that everything is not based on looks and you do not have to look or behave a certain way to be an ideal woman, because there is no such thing as that. You just have to be yourself which is more than enough.