“A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
― Gloria Steinem
I did not sit down at my computer almost nine years ago to write The Iris of Issoria with the idea that it would be a feminist work of literary fiction. The story is a simple, middle-grade fantasy whose main purpose is entertainment. However, after spending the last year re-reading, revising, editing, and refining Iris, I was struck by the fact I wove the theme of feminism throughout the fabric of the story subconsciously. Reflecting on this, I realize that it would be impossible for me to write anything without alluding to feminism. As I mentioned recently on Twitter:
Just as I could not walk without bending my knees, I could not write without incorporating feminist culture and theory. This is why:
1) As a woman, mother, educator, and writer, my job is to educate the younger generation of the true definition of feminism.
A few months ago, the YA author community was dismayed when Shailene Woodley said she was not a feminist because she "loved men" and did not think the idea of raising women to power while taking power away from men would work due to lack of "balance". Normally, children's book authors do not care what the stars of Hollywood say. Shailene's statement caught the attention of the children's literary community because she was the star of arguably the most high-profile YA-based films of the year, "Divergent" and "The Fault In Our Stars".
My reaction to her statement was that of disappointment. I read Divergent, but not Stars. I have not watched either film. I have not seen Shailene in any of her TV or film endeavors. I was not disappointed in her, I was disappointed in myself and my generation of feminists. To me, her statement showed that we are not doing an adequate job educating the younger generation of girls about the true definition of feminism, which is simply the belief in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes according to Merriam-Webster dictionary.
We are not trying to take over. We are not trying to strip men of their power. We don't hate men. We just want to be treated as equals. We want equal pay. We want to walk out the door and walk down the street without fear.
2) I want to depict women as epic heroes and leaders in the context of a world that expects and wants them to succeed.
Many writers depict strong female characters in their stories, specifically in fantasy. Kristin Cashore's Graceling, Tamora Pierce's Alanna: The First Adventure, and Ellen Oh's Prophecy all feature female protagonists with incredible strength, courage, and character. However, the female characters in these books have to operate in a patriarchal, male-dominated world where being a strong woman is not typical. I understand that these authors likely wrote their stories this way to reflect the realities of our own patriarchal, male-dominated world.
I have chosen to take a different approach when creating my female characters. I write "strong" female characters where their strength is the default, not an abnormality. They live in an egalitarian world where femaleness is not a liability. The male characters are not threatened by femaleness, and I do not weaken my male characters to falsely strengthen the females.
"When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men that not only have no problem with the idea of a female leader, but were in fact engaged and even attracted to the idea."
Writing using the Joss Whedon approach may seem unrealistic, but I see it as a baseline to which we can aspire as feminists. I am not naive. I know we do not currently live in a world where men have no problem with a female leader. But I do hope to get there within my lifetime.
3) I like being a woman.
I do not have an inspirational quote or soap-box dialogue for this one. I simply like being a woman. My characters are women because that is what I know and makes me happy. I know I will write a story with a male protagonist some day. For now, there are too many girls and women in my heart that I want to share with the world first.
4) I am invested in seeing girls and women succeed.
“There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."
― Madeleine Albright
I was raised by my feisty grandmother while my immigrant parents each worked two jobs to support my three sisters and me. I had no brothers. I guided my sisters through the world of college application. While I was growing up, my friends were mostly other girls. When I became a faculty physician after my pediatrics residency, I mentored medical students and residents to groom them for success as pediatricians. Since pediatrics is one of the few female-dominated fields in medicine, most of my advisees were women. I have spent most of my adult life helping other women succeed in career and life.
Now that I am a writer, my words are the main medium I use to communicate. As the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign has advocated, all children need to see themselves in books to feel empowered. I write complex, three-dimensional female leaders as my characters to teach young girls that they have that option. They can be anything they set their minds to be.
"When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part."
--Rudine Sims Bishop
5) I owe it to my daughter.
When I first wrote Iris, I simply wanted to write a fantasy story for my daughter and nieces where the heroine was flawed and complex and did not need a prince to rescue her. I was not trying to make a political statement. I just wanted to share the story in my heart with them. And now I am ready to share it with the rest of the world too. If my daughter and readers learn about the true definition of feminism along the way, that would be icing on the cake.
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