From supporting to main character: Female narratives emerge in literature

By Kylie Corral, Staff Writer

When it comes to literature, the past has seen a trend in female narratives being secondary to male ones.

As we move further into the 21st century, however, gender distinctions in the female narrative are less sharp, but female the representation of female characters has decreased.

University of Illinois professor Iryce Baron, who teaches three courses about women and literature, said that as women narratives have moved into the spotlight, focusing on their own distinct paths beyond the heroic male narratives in literature, the disenfranchised past of women involves love, education and power.

“Biology was very much destiny, and so women were second class citizens,” Baron said. “So one of the cool things about fantasy and young adult literature is how it explores these issues through female characters.” 

She said fantasy and young adult literature today has developed a potential modality to explore many gender related issues, giving women a more equal narrative than usually seen.

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Earlier forms of literature revolved around the idea that women were weaker, never affording them physical and intellectual power as character, Baron said. 

The elements of physical and intellectual power, she said, have slowly seeped into both modern literature and the female narrative, creating a new, more empowering voice.

“I think it really reflects a shift, a cultural shift for women, as we’ve moved into the 21st century,” Baron said.

However, even as female narratives begin to reflect a more intellectually and physically powerful image, there is still a long way to go for representation involving all kinds of individuals who identify as female, Baron said.

She also said there is still a large focus on mainly heteronormative relationships in modern literature and scarce representation of LGBTQ+ women characters.

“I’d like to see the equivalent of the Harry Potter septology being told from the perspective of a really empowered young woman, and I’d like the character to be a girl of color,” Baron said.

Baron said that some strong female characters and narratives can be observed in the popular series: “The Hunger Games,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Red Queen,” “Out Of The Blue” and “The Discovery of Witches.” Many of these books are taught in her courses.

Ashley Grapenthien, junior student in Business, said she agrees that the women’s narrative in media and literature still has a long way to go.

“I do think that women can have a bigger voice in media and literature,” Grapenthien said. “I feel like women should be given more opportunities to share their voice.”

But she also said that as the women’s narrative becomes a larger focus in society and begins to help level out equality, there have been many positive effects for women in the world as well.

“Some positive effects are the allowing of different perspectives that can then provide insights on certain situations,” Grapenthien said.

Many narratives still depict women as the secondary characters in a primarily male narrative and not just in the literature world. Even journalism sees just about 19% of stories based on women narratives. 

“I believe having more people who are just willing to listen will help women achieve this equality,” Grapenthien said.

Sabrina Lee is a doctoral candidate in theUniversity’s Department of English along with a graduate minor in Asian American studies. She is also the managing editor of the academic journal “American Literary History.”

Lee said she was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” when reflecting on women in literature.

She said Woolf’s point on how relationships between women and fiction aren’t just structured by gender but by class and race too, and it is one that is incredibly important to remember.

“These circumstances affect both who gets to be a writer and, then, the kinds of characters that populate our literature and media,” Lee said. “Material constraints like these, even if they aren’t identical to those in Woolf’s time, are still with us.” 

Lee said representation is very important and that she loves to see feminist rewritings of fairy tales. She urged students to write the interpretations they want.

“If there are representations that you would particularly like to see in literature or media, I would encourage you to make them,” Lee said. “Start where you are. Get together with some friends to write the stories that you need.” 

Lee said she has been impressed by students at the University and what they have accomplished and that there have been many undergraduate students that have started their own publications too.

“However, when we think about representation in literature and media, I also want to push us to think about the readers and viewers who encounter the representation,” Lee said.

She said the topic of how stories are taken up by different people has been something that she has been thinking about recently. She said people do different things with representations and so, equity in representation doesn’t automatically translate to change.

Lee also said the combination of imagination and action is, to her, a very feminist practice.

“I’m finding that we give reading a lot of power in its ability to change the world, and I worry that we often give it too much power,” Lee said. “Instead, I want to encourage reading to be both an engagement with our imagination and with our actions.”

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