Generally, a feminist novel is one that has a female protagonist and deals primarily with the relationships between women. (Do we apply The Bechdel Test to books? Comment and tell me your opinion.) But that doesn't mean we can't look at other kinds of books from a feminist perspective.
(It's also worth noting that a female character who isn't "strong" can still be a feminist novel. Sure, we feminists love a strong, kickass woman, but really, who doesn't? But that's also not realistic. Just as men aren't always strong - and many novels focus on the low and pathetic points of a man's life - women aren't always strong either. We can definitely have feminist novels where the women don't come out looking great.)
Reading Like a Feminist
When reading, ask some questions about the book.
- Are there women in this book? Is the protagonist or antagonist a woman?
- What is the relationship women have to men? Are they primarily girlfriends, wives, daughters, mothers, sisters? Do you experience female characters outside of their relationship to men?
- How do men treat women in this book? Does it seem like the book or narrator condemns or condones the actions of men towards women?
- Do the female characters seem realistic and fleshed-out to you? Do they experience growth or learn any lessons? Do they change in any way?
- If this is a historical book, are the roles and actions of women much different than they are now? Do they women have anything to say about their roles? Do the men? Does the book take time to point out how the roles of women back then are different from women today?
- If there are multiple female characters in the book, are they different from each other? Do they have different personalities and make different life choices?
- Do women come out looking good or bad?
- Do the female characters drive the plot of the novel at all?
- Are the female characters passive or active? Are they acted upon or do they do the acting?
- Is the author of this book male or female? Do you think that the sex of the author somehow colors the way they write about men and women?
- Are the female characters dependent on men?
- As a feminist, what do you like about the book? What do you dislike? (This is different from asking you what you like and dislike about the book generally. You are allowed to love any kind of entertainment or literature that makes the feminist in you angry.)
Let's use the Harry Potter books as an example, since almost everybody has (or really, REALLY should have) read those.
Harry Potter is obviously about a male character. There seems to be an equal balance of male and female characters (but I haven't actually counted, so there could be more men than women). Harry, as a character, has varying relationships with all sorts of women. These female characters have a large range of diversity, displaying traditional femininity, vapidness, intelligence, athleticism, loyalty, cruelty, kindness, villainy, determination, heroics, etc. They all (for the most part) have distinct personalities from each other. Many of the more important female characters have both strengths and weaknesses, and they change over the series, making them round, fleshed-out characters. While they all have men in their lives, none of them seem to be dependent on men, and they are all generally pretty active.
So even though this is a book with a male lead (and a male antagonist), we can still look at the women within the story. There may not be a ton to glean from different books about the female characters (because LOTS of books center on men), but it is always possible to pick out little bits and pieces.
Go try this and tell me how your experiences turn out. If you can think of any more helpful questions to ask yourself when reading, please comment below and tell me!