Iconography: Futures and Foibles
Any moment in time is the history others might look back on. I want to look to the writing happening, and the reputations being shaped, right now. Who do you think are going to be today’s feminist literary icons in future eyes, and who ought to be? And what is the point of having icons?
I can’t predict the future—no, really, it’s true!—so I can’t tell you who are going to be recognized as great writers with feminist consciousness or consciences. I can, however, tell you who I like, and who represents the kind of expression I’d like to see more of in time to come. Karen Joy Fowler is a gem who writes wonderful group dynamics and beautiful, uncomfortably human human beings, who gets her descriptions so right, and who loves her feminism. If you haven’t read or seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech on the danger of a single story, you need to at once as it will reshape your ideas about people, narratives, countries, and stories. More writers with Adichie’s head would not go amiss. And neither would the presence of more writers who aren’t white or Western, who have ideas to offer the world such as the publishing industry doesn’t facilitate anywhere near as much as it should. Justine Larbalestier is pretty fabulous, a white woman whose young adult fiction comes with non-white protagonists (see Why My Protags Aren't White), even if the not infrequent use of ableist terms (so ubiquitous in YA) does rather jerk me out of my enjoyment.
But, however, that said: I started this series because something is troubling me. I am not entirely certain about the value of feminist literary icons. If we look to feminist icons more generally, it’s pretty evident that the kinds of feminists, or people who are important to feminism, who are getting represented are not representative of the feminist movement. The white straight woman who isn’t so happy about those trans and disabled folks gets held up as an icon. And, because she is an icon, because she has done so much for women (which women, precisely?), her bigotry, her erasure, her lack of inclusiveness gets a pass.
I understand that role models and individual stories are important. The way discourses around icons have played out for feminism, however, has resulted in “the default feminists,” the ones with the least oppressions, being elevated. A hierarchy of feminist icons has meant that some of us are more worthy than others in a simple replication of oppressive systems.
It is therefore with caution that I think about feminist literary icons. This series has been as much about examining who gets to be an icon, and why, as it is about celebrating those icons. Iconic discourses get into a dangerous snarl when we’re talking about literature. Literature is a cultural product, a form of personal expression, a vital conduit for ideas. It’s something loved, which can last for a long time, which seeps into people’s heads and changes them. Literature is delicate. It is a dangerous thing to manipulate, because, in doing so, people’s loves, lives, and understandings of the world are affected. The shaping of it to a hierarchy of who is the best, and who doesn’t fit into the narrative and so should be kept quiet, ought to be a matter of great feminist concern.
Tread with caution, readers, and be sure to not fall prey to the idea of heroes at the expense of something meaningful.
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