Gynocentric Feminism Definition Essay

1. Introduction

Feminism brings many things to philosophy including not only a variety of particular moral and political claims, but ways of asking and answering questions, constructive and critical dialogue with mainstream philosophical views and methods, and new topics of inquiry. Feminist philosophers work within all the major traditions of philosophical scholarship including analytic philosophy, American Pragmatist philosophy, and Continential philosophy. Entries in this Encyclopedia appearing under the heading “feminism, approaches” discuss the impact of these traditions on feminist scholarship and examine the possibility and desirability of work that makes links between two traditions. Feminist contributions to and interventions in mainstream philosophical debates are covered in entries in this encyclopedia under “feminism, interventions”. Entries covered under the rubric “feminism, topics” concern philosophical issues that arise as feminists articulate accounts of sexism, critique sexist social and cultural practices, and develop alternative visions of a just world. In short, they are philosophical topics that arise within feminism.

Although there are many different and sometimes conflicting approaches to feminist philosophy, it is instructive to begin by asking what, if anything, feminists as a group are committed to. Considering some of the controversies over what feminism is provides a springboard for seeing how feminist commitments generate a host of philosophical topics, especially as those commitments confront the world as we know it.

2. What is Feminism?

2.1 Feminist Beliefs and Feminist Movements

The term ‘feminism’ has many different uses and its meanings are often contested. For example, some writers use the term ‘feminism’ to refer to a historically specific political movement in the US and Europe; other writers use it to refer to the belief that there are injustices against women, though there is no consensus on the exact list of these injustices. Although the term “feminism” has a history in English linked with women's activism from the late 19th century to the present, it is useful to distinguish feminist ideas or beliefs from feminist political movements, for even in periods where there has been no significant political activism around women's subordination, individuals have been concerned with and theorized about justice for women. So, for example, it makes sense to ask whether Plato was a feminist, given his view that women should be trained to rule (Republic, Book V), even though he was an exception in his historical context. (See e.g., Tuana 1994.)

Our goal here is not to survey the history of feminism — as a set of ideas or as a series of political movements — but rather is to sketch some of the central uses of the term that are most relevant to those interested in contemporary feminist philosophy. The references we provide below are only a small sample of the work available on the topics in question; more complete bibliographies are available at the specific topical entries and also at the end of this entry.

In the mid-1800s the term ‘feminism’ was used to refer to “the qualities of females”, and it was not until after the First International Women's Conference in Paris in 1892 that the term, following the French term féministe, was used regularly in English for a belief in and advocacy of equal rights for women based on the idea of the equality of the sexes. Although the term “feminism” in English is rooted in the mobilization for woman suffrage in Europe and the US during the late 19th and early 20th century, of course efforts to obtain justice for women did not begin or end with this period of activism. So some have found it useful to think of the women's movement in the US as occurring in “waves”. On the wave model, the struggle to achieve basic political rights during the period from the mid-19th century until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 counts as “First Wave” feminism. Feminism waned between the two world wars, to be “revived” in the late 1960's and early 1970's as “Second Wave” feminism. In this second wave, feminists pushed beyond the early quest for political rights to fight for greater equality across the board, e.g., in education, the workplace, and at home. More recent transformations of feminism have resulted in a “Third Wave”. Third Wave feminists often critique Second Wave feminism for its lack of attention to the differences among women due to race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion (see Section 2.3 below; also Breines 2002; Spring 2002), and emphasize “identity” as a site of gender struggle. (For more information on the “wave” model and each of the “waves”, see Other Internet Resources.)

However, some feminist scholars object to identifying feminism with these particular moments of political activism, on the grounds that doing so eclipses the fact that there has been resistance to male domination that should be considered “feminist” throughout history and across cultures: i.e., feminism is not confined to a few (White) women in the West over the past century or so. Moreover, even considering only relatively recent efforts to resist male domination in Europe and the US, the emphasis on “First” and “Second” Wave feminism ignores the ongoing resistance to male domination between the 1920's and 1960's and the resistance outside mainstream politics, particularly by women of color and working class women (Cott 1987).

One strategy for solving these problems would be to identify feminism in terms of a set of ideas or beliefs rather than participation in any particular political movement. As we saw above, this also has the advantage of allowing us to locate isolated feminists whose work was not understood or appreciated during their time. But how should we go about identifying a core set of feminist beliefs? Some would suggest that we should focus on the political ideas that the term was apparently coined to capture, viz., the commitment to women's equal rights. This acknowledges that commitment to and advocacy for women's rights has not been confined to the Women's Liberation Movement in the West. But this too raises controversy, for it frames feminism within a broadly Liberal approach to political and economic life. Although most feminists would probably agree that there is some sense of “rights” on which achieving equal rights for women is a necessary condition for feminism to succeed, most would also argue that this would not be sufficient. This is because women's oppression under male domination rarely if ever consists solely in depriving women of political and legal “rights”, but also extends into the structure of our society and the content of our culture, and permeates our consciousness (e.g., Bartky 1990).

Is there any point, then, to asking what feminism is? Given the controversies over the term and the politics of circumscribing the boundaries of a social movement, it is sometimes tempting to think that the best we can do is to articulate a set of disjuncts that capture a range of feminist beliefs. However, at the same time it can be both intellectually and politically valuable to have a schematic framework that enables us to map at least some of our points of agreement and disagreement. We'll begin here by considering some of the basic elements of feminism as a political position or set of beliefs. For a survey of different philosophical approaches to feminism, see “Feminism, approaches to”.

2.2 Normative and Descriptive Components

In many of its forms, feminism seems to involve at least two groups of claims, one normative and the other descriptive. The normative claims concern how women ought (or ought not) to be viewed and treated and draw on a background conception of justice or broad moral position; the descriptive claims concern how women are, as a matter of fact, viewed and treated, alleging that they are not being treated in accordance with the standards of justice or morality invoked in the normative claims. Together the normative and descriptive claims provide reasons for working to change the way things are; hence, feminism is not just an intellectual but also a political movement.

So, for example, a Liberal approach of the kind already mentioned might define feminism (rather simplistically here) in terms of two claims:

  1. (Normative) Men and women are entitled to equal rights and respect.
  2. (Descriptive) Women are currently disadvantaged with respect to rights and respect, compared with men […in such and such respects and due to such and such conditions…].

On this account, that women and men ought to have equal rights and respect is the normative claim; and that women are denied equal rights and respect functions here as the descriptive claim. Admittedly, the claim that women are disadvantaged with respect to rights and respect is not a “purely descriptive” claim since it plausibly involves an evaluative component. However, our point here is simply that claims of this sort concern what is the case not what ought to be the case. Moreover, as indicated by the ellipsis above, the descriptive component of a substantive feminist view will not be articulable in a single claim, but will involve an account of the specific social mechanisms that deprive women of, e.g., rights and respect. For example, is the primary source of women's subordination her role in the family? (Engels 1845; Okin 1989) Or is it her role in the labor market? (Bergmann 2002) Is the problem males' tendencies to sexual violence (and what is the source of these tendencies?)? (Brownmiller 1975; MacKinnon 1987) Or is it simply women's biological role in reproduction? (Firestone 1970)

Disagreements within feminism can occur with respect to either the descriptive or normative claims, e.g., feminists differ on what would count as justice or injustice for women (what counts as “equality,” “oppression,” “disadvantage”, what rights should everyone be accorded?) , and what sorts of injustice women in fact suffer (what aspects of women's current situation are harmful or unjust?). Disagreements may also lie in the explanations of the injustice: two feminists may agree that women are unjustly being denied proper rights and respect and yet substantively differ in their accounts of how or why the injustice occurs and what is required to end it (Jaggar 1994).

Disagreements between feminists and non-feminists can occur with respect to both the normative and descriptive claims as well, e.g., some non-feminists agree with feminists on the ways women ought to be viewed and treated, but don't see any problem with the way things currently are. Others disagree about the background moral or political views.

In an effort to suggest a schematic account of feminism, Susan James characterizes feminism as follows:

Feminism is grounded on the belief that women are oppressed or disadvantaged by comparison with men, and that their oppression is in some way illegitimate or unjustified. Under the umbrella of this general characterization there are, however, many interpretations of women and their oppression, so that it is a mistake to think of feminism as a single philosophical doctrine, or as implying an agreed political program. (James 1998, 576)

James seems here to be using the notions of “oppression” and “disadvantage” as placeholders for more substantive accounts of injustice (both normative and descriptive) over which feminists disagree.

Some might prefer to define feminism in terms of a normative claim alone: feminists are those who believe that women are entitled to equal rights, or equal respect, or…(fill in the blank with one's preferred account of injustice), and one is not required to believe that women are currently being treated unjustly. However, if we were to adopt this terminological convention, it would be harder to identify some of the interesting sources of disagreement both with and within feminism, and the term ‘feminism’ would lose much of its potential to unite those whose concerns and commitments extend beyond their moral beliefs to their social interpretations and political affiliations. Feminists are not simply those who are committed in principle to justice for women; feminists take themselves to have reasons to bring about social change on women's behalf.

Taking “feminism” to entail both normative and empirical commitments also helps make sense of some uses of the term ‘feminism’ in recent popular discourse. In everyday conversation it is not uncommon to find both men and women prefixing a comment they might make about women with the caveat, “I'm not a feminist, but…”. Of course this qualification might be (and is) used for various purposes, but one persistent usage seems to follow the qualification with some claim that is hard to distinguish from claims that feminists are wont to make. E.g., I'm not a feminist but I believe that women should earn equal pay for equal work; or I'm not a feminist but I'm delighted that first-rate women basketball players are finally getting some recognition in the WNBA. If we see the identification “feminist” as implicitly committing one to both a normative stance about how things should be and an interpretation of current conditions, it is easy to imagine someone being in the position of wanting to cancel his or her endorsement of either the normative or the descriptive claim. So, e.g., one might be willing to acknowledge that there are cases where women have been disadvantaged without wanting to buy any broad moral theory that takes a stance on such things (especially where it is unclear what that broad theory is). Or one might be willing to acknowledge in a very general way that equality for women is a good thing, without being committed to interpreting particular everyday situations as unjust (especially if is unclear how far these interpretations would have to extend). Feminists, however, at least according to popular discourse, are ready to both adopt a broad account of what justice for women would require and interpret everyday situations as unjust by the standards of that account. Those who explicitly cancel their commitment to feminism may then be happy to endorse some part of the view but are unwilling to endorse what they find to be a problematic package.

As mentioned above, there is considerable debate within feminism concerning the normative question: what would count as (full) justice for women? What is the nature of the wrong that feminism seeks to address? E.g., is the wrong that women have been deprived equal rights? Is it that women have been denied equal respect for their differences? Is it that women's experiences have been ignored and devalued? Is it all of the above and more? What framework should we employ to identify and address the issues? (See, e.g., Jaggar 1983; Young 1990a; Tuana and Tong 1995.) Feminist philosophers in particular have asked: Do the standard philosophical accounts of justice and morality provide us adequate resources to theorize male domination, or do we need distinctively feminist accounts? (E.g., Okin 1979; Hoagland 1989; Okin 1989; Ruddick 1989; Benhabib 1992; Hampton 1993; Held 1993; Tong 1993; Baier 1994; Moody-Adams 1997; Walker 1998; Kittay 1999; Robinson 1999; Young 2011; O'Connor 2008).

Note, however, that by phrasing the task as one of identifying the wrongs women suffer (and have suffered), there is an implicit suggestion that women as a group can be usefully compared against men as a group with respect to their standing or position in society; and this seems to suggest that women as a group are treated in the same way, or that they all suffer the same injustices, and men as a group all reap the same advantages. But of course this is not the case, or at least not straightforwardly so. As bell hooks so vividly pointed out, in 1963 when Betty Friedan urged women to reconsider the role of housewife and demanded greater opportunities for women to enter the workforce (Friedan 1963), Friedan was not speaking for working class women or most women of color (hooks 1984, 1-4). Neither was she speaking for lesbians. Women as a group experience many different forms of injustice, and the sexism they encounter interacts in complex ways with other systems of oppression. In contemporary terms, this is known as the problem of intersectionality (Crenshaw 1991). This critique has led some theorists to resist the label “feminism” and adopt a different name for their view. Earlier, during the 1860s–80s, the term ‘womanism’ had sometimes been used for such intellectual and political commitments; more recently, Alice Walker has proposed that “womanism” provides a contemporary alternative to “feminism” that better addresses the needs of Black women and women of color more generally (Walker 1990).

2.3 Feminism and the Diversity of Women

To consider some of the different strategies for responding to the phenomenon of intersectionality, let's return to the schematic claims that women are oppressed and this oppression is wrong or unjust. Very broadly, then, one might characterize the goal of feminism to be ending the oppression of women. But if we also acknowledge that women are oppressed not just by sexism, but in many ways, e.g., by classism, homophobia, racism, ageism, ableism, etc., then it might seem that the goal of feminism is to end all oppression that affects women. And some feminists have adopted this interpretation, e.g., (Ware 1970), quoted in (Crow 2000, 1).

Note, however, that not all agree with such an expansive definition of feminism. One might agree that feminists ought to work to end all forms of oppression — oppression is unjust and feminists, like everyone else, have a moral obligation to fight injustice — without maintaining that it is the mission of feminism to end all oppression. One might even believe that in order to accomplish feminism's goals it is necessary to combat racism and economic exploitation, but also think that there is a narrower set of specifically feminist objectives. In other words, opposing oppression in its many forms may be instrumental to, even a necessary means to, feminism, but not intrinsic to it. E.g., bell hooks argues:

Feminism, as liberation struggle, must exist apart from and as a part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms. We must understand that patriarchal domination shares an ideological foundation with racism and other forms of group oppression, and that there is no hope that it can be eradicated while these systems remain intact. This knowledge should consistently inform the direction of feminist theory and practice. (hooks 1989, 22)

On hooks' account, the defining characteristic that distinguishes feminism from other liberation struggles is its concern with sexism:

Unlike many feminist comrades, I believe women and men must share a common understanding — a basic knowledge of what feminism is — if it is ever to be a powerful mass-based political movement. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, I suggest that defining feminism broadly as “a movement to end sexism and sexist oppression” would enable us to have a common political goal…Sharing a common goal does not imply that women and men will not have radically divergent perspectives on how that goal might be reached. (hooks 1989, 23)

hooks' approach depends on the claim that sexism is a particular form of oppression that can be distinguished from other forms, e.g., racism and homophobia, even though it is currently (and virtually always) interlocked with other forms of oppression. Feminism's objective is to end sexism, though because of its relation to other forms of oppression, this will require efforts to end other forms of oppression as well. For example, feminists who themselves remain racists will not be able to fully appreciate the broad impact of sexism on the lives of women of color. Furthermore because sexist institutions are also, e.g., racist, classist and homophobic, dismantling sexist institutions will require that we dismantle the other forms of domination intertwined with them (Heldke and O'Connor 2004). Following hooks' lead, we might characterize feminism schematically (allowing the schema to be filled in differently by different accounts) as the view that women are subject to sexist oppression and that this is wrong. This move shifts the burden of our inquiry from a characterization of what feminism is to a characterization of what sexism, or sexist oppression is.

As mentioned above, there are a variety of interpretations — feminist and otherwise — of what exactly oppression consists in, but the leading idea is that oppression consists in “an enclosing structure of forces and barriers which tends to the immobilization and reduction of a group or category of people” (Frye 1983, 10-11). Not just any “enclosing structure” is oppressive, however, for plausibly any process of socialization will create a structure that both limits and enables all individuals who live within it. In the case of oppression, however, the “enclosing structures” in question are part of a broader system that asymmetrically and unjustly disadvantages one group and benefits another. So, e.g., although sexism restricts the opportunities available to — and so unquestionably harms — both men and women (and considering some pairwise comparisons may even have a greater negative impact on a man than a woman), overall, women as a group unjustly suffer the greater harm. It is a crucial feature of contemporary accounts, however, that one cannot assume that members of the privileged group have intentionally designed or maintained the system for their benefit. The oppressive structure may be the result of an historical process whose originators are long gone, or it may be the unintended result of complex cooperative strategies gone wrong.

Leaving aside (at least for the moment) further details in the account of oppression, the question remains: What makes a particular form of oppression sexist? If we just say that a form of oppression counts as sexist oppression if it harms women, or even primarily harms women, this is not enough to distinguish it from other forms of oppression. Virtually all forms of oppression harm women, and arguably some besides sexism harm women primarily (though not exclusively), e.g., body size oppression, age oppression. Besides, as we've noted before, sexism is not only harmful to women, but is harmful to all of us.

What makes a particular form of oppression sexist seems to be not just that it harms women, but that someone is subject to this form of oppression specifically because she is (or at least appears to be) a woman. Racial oppression harms women, but racial oppression (by itself) doesn't harm them because they are women, it harms them because they are (or appear to be) members of a particular race. The suggestion that sexist oppression consists in oppression to which one is subject by virtue of being or appearing to be a woman provides us at least the beginnings of an analytical tool for distinguishing subordinating structures that happen to affect some or even all women from those that are more specifically sexist (Haslanger 2004). But problems and unclarities remain.

First, we need to explicate further what it means to be oppressed “because you are a woman”. E.g., is the idea that there is a particular form of oppression that is specific to women? Is to be oppressed “as a woman” to be oppressed in a particular way? Or can we be pluralists about what sexist oppression consists in without fragmenting the notion beyond usefulness?

Two strategies for explicating sexist oppression have proven to be problematic. The first is to maintain that there is a form of oppression common to all women. For example, one might interpret Catharine MacKinnon's work as claiming that to be oppressed as a woman is to be viewed and treated as sexually subordinate, where this claim is grounded in the (alleged) universal fact of the eroticization of male dominance and female submission (MacKinnon 1987; MacKinnon 1989). Although MacKinnon allows that sexual subordination can happen in a myriad of ways, her account is monistic in its attempt to unite the different forms of sexist oppression around a single core account that makes sexual objectification the focus. Although MacKinnon's work provides a powerful resource for analyzing women's subordination, many have argued that it is too narrow, e.g., in some contexts (especially in developing countries) sexist oppression seems to concern more the local division of labor and economic exploitation. Although certainly sexual subordination is a factor in sexist oppression, it requires us to fabricate implausible explanations of social life to suppose that all divisions of labor that exploit women (as women) stem from the “eroticization of dominance and submission”. Moreover, it isn't obvious that in order to make sense of sexist oppression we need to seek a single form of oppression common to all women.

A second problematic strategy has been to consider as paradigms those who are oppressed only as women, with the thought that complex cases bringing in additional forms of oppression will obscure what is distinctive of sexist oppression. This strategy would have us focus in the U.S. on White, wealthy, young, beautiful, able-bodied, heterosexual women to determine what oppression, if any, they suffer, with the hope of finding sexism in its “purest” form, unmixed with racism or homophobia, etc. (see Spelman 1988, 52-54). This approach is not only flawed in its exclusion of all but the most elite women in its paradigm, but it assumes that privilege in other areas does not affect the phenomenon under consideration. As Elizabeth Spelman makes the point:

…no woman is subject to any form of oppression simply because she is a woman; which forms of oppression she is subject to depend on what “kind” of woman she is. In a world in which a woman might be subject to racism, classism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, if she is not so subject it is because of her race, class, religion, sexual orientation. So it can never be the case that the treatment of a woman has only to do with her gender and nothing to do with her class or race. (Spelman 1988, 52-3)

Recent accounts of oppression are designed to allow that oppression takes many forms, and refuse to identify one form as more basic or fundamental than the rest. For example, Iris Young describes five “faces” of oppression: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and systematic violence (Young 1990c, Ch. 2). Plausibly others should be added to the list. Sexist or racist oppression, for example, will manifest itself in different ways in different contexts, e.g., in some contexts through systematic violence, in other contexts through economic exploitation. Acknowledging this does not go quite far enough, however, for monistic theorists such as MacKinnon could grant this much. Pluralist accounts of sexist oppression must also allow that there isn't an over-arching explanation of sexist oppression that applies to all its forms: in some cases it may be that women's oppression as women is due to the eroticization of male dominance, but in other cases it may be better explained by women's reproductive value in establishing kinship structures (Rubin 1975), or by the shifting demands of globalization within an ethnically stratified workplace. In other words, pluralists resist the temptation to “grand social theory,” “overarching metanarratives,” “monocausal explanations,” to allow that the explanation of sexism in a particular historical context will rely on economic, political, legal, and cultural factors that are specific to that context which would prevent the account from being generalized to all instances of sexism (Fraser and Nicholson 1990). It is still compatible with pluralist methods to seek out patterns in women's social positions and structural explanations within and across social contexts, but in doing so we must be highly sensitive to historical and cultural variation.

2.4 Feminism as Anti-Sexism

However, if we pursue a pluralist strategy in understanding sexist oppression, what unifies all the instances as instances of sexism? After all, we cannot assume that the oppression in question takes the same form in different contexts, and we cannot assume that there is an underlying explanation of the different ways it manifests itself. So can we even speak of there being a unified set of cases — something we can call “sexist oppression” — at all?

Some feminists would urge us to recognize that there isn't a systematic way to unify the different instances of sexism, and correspondingly, there is no systematic unity in what counts as feminism: instead we should see the basis for feminist unity in coalition building (Reagon 1983). Different groups work to combat different forms of oppression; some groups take oppression against women (as women) as a primary concern. If there is a basis for cooperation between some subset of these groups in a given context, then finding that basis is an accomplishment, but should not be taken for granted.

An alternative, however, would be to grant that in practice unity among feminists cannot be taken for granted, but to begin with a theoretical common-ground among feminist views that does not assume that sexism appears in the same form or for the same reasons in all contexts. We saw above that one promising strategy for distinguishing sexism from racism, classism, and other forms of injustice is to focus on the idea that if an individual is suffering sexist oppression, then an important part of the explanation why she is subject to the injustice is that she is or appears to be a woman. This includes cases in which women as a group are explicitly targeted by a policy or a practice, but also includes cases where the policy or practice affects women due to a history of sexism, even if they are not explicitly targeted. For example, if women are deprived an education and so are, on the whole, illiterate. And if under these circumstances only those who are literate are entitled to vote. Then we can say that women as a group are being disenfranchised and that this is a form of sexist oppression because part of the explanation of why women cannot vote is that they are women, and women are deprived an education. The commonality among the cases is to be found in the role of gender in the explanation of the injustice rather than the specific form the injustice takes. Building on this we could unify a broad range of feminist views by seeing them as committed to the (very abstract) claims that:

  1. (Descriptive claim) Women, and those who appear to be women, are subjected to wrongs and/or injustice at least in part because they are or appear to be women.
  2. (Normative claim) The wrongs/injustices in question in (i) ought not to occur and should be stopped when and where they do.

We have so far been using the term ‘oppression’ loosely to cover whatever form of wrong or injustice is at issue. Continuing with this intentional openness in the exact nature of the wrong, the question still remains what it means to say that women are subjected to injustice because they are women. To address this question, it may help to consider a familiar ambiguity in the notion “because”: are we concerned here with causal explanations or justifications? On one hand, the claim that someone is oppressed because she is a woman suggests that the best (causal) explanation of the subordination in question will make reference to her sex: e.g., Paula is subject to sexist oppression on the job because the best explanation of why she makes $1.00 less an hour for doing comparable work as Paul makes reference to her sex (possibly in addition to her race or other social classifications). On the other hand, the claim that someone is oppressed because she is a woman suggests that the rationale or basis for the oppressive structures requires that one be sensitive to someone's sex in determining how they should be viewed and treated, i.e., that the justification for someone's being subject to the structures in question depends on a representation of them as sexed male or female. E.g., Paula is subject to sexist oppression on the job because the pay scale for her job classification is justified within a framework that distinguishes and devalues women's work compared with men's.

Note, however, that in both sorts of cases the fact that one is or appears to be a woman need not be the only factor relevant in explaining the injustice. It might be, for example, that one stands out in a group because of one's race, or one's class, or one's sexuality, and because one stands out one becomes a target for injustice. But if the injustice takes a form that, e.g., is regarded as especially apt for a woman, then the injustice should be understood intersectionally, i.e., as a response to an intersectional category. For example, the practice of raping Bosnian women was an intersectional injustice: it targeted them both because they were Bosnian and because they were women.

Of course, these two understandings of being oppressed because you are a woman are not incompatible; in fact they typically support one another. Because human actions are often best explained by the framework employed for justifying them, one's sex may play a large role in determining how one is treated because the background understandings for what's appropriate treatment draw invidious distinctions between the sexes. In other words, the causal mechanism for sexism often passes through problematic representations of women and gender roles.

In each of the cases of being oppressed as a woman mentioned above, Paula suffers injustice, but a crucial factor in explaining the injustice is that Paula is a member of a particular group, viz., women (or females). This, we think, is crucial in understanding why sexism (and racism, and other -isms) are most often understood as kinds of oppression. Oppression is injustice that, first and foremost, concerns groups; individuals are oppressed just in case they are subjected to injustice because of their group membership. On this view, to claim that women as women suffer injustice is to claim that women are oppressed.

Where does this leave us? ‘Feminism’ is an umbrella term for a range of views about injustices against women. There are disagreements among feminists about the nature of justice in general and the nature of sexism, in particular, the specific kinds of injustice or wrong women suffer; and the group who should be the primary focus of feminist efforts. Nonetheless, feminists are committed to bringing about social change to end injustice against women, in particular, injustice against women as women.

3. Topics in Feminism: Overview of the Encyclopedia Sub-Entries

Given a schematic framework for considering different forms of feminism, it should be clearer how philosophical issues arise in working out the details of a feminist position. The most straightforward philosophical commitment will be to a normative theory that articulates an account of justice and/or an account of the good. Feminists have been involved in critiquing existing normative theories and articulating alternatives for some time now. A survey of some of this work can be found under “Feminism, interventions”, in the sub-entries within “Feminist Political Philosophy”, viz., Liberal Feminism, Materialist Feminism, and Radical Feminism. (See also Hampton 1993; Jaggar 1983; Kittay 1999; MacKinnon 1989; Nussbaum 1999; Okin 1979; Okin 1989; Pateman 1988; Schneir 1972; Schneir 1994; Silvers 1999; Young 1990.)

However, there is also important philosophical work to be done in what we have been calling the “descriptive” component of feminism. Careful critical attention to our practices can reveal the inadequacy of dominant philosophical tropes. For example, feminists working from the perspective of women's lives have been influential in bringing philosophical attention to the phenomenon of care and care-giving (Ruddick 1989; Held 1995; Held 2007; Hamington 2006), dependency (Kittay 1999), disability (Wilkerson 2002; Carlson 2009) women's labor (Waring 1999; Delphy 1984; Harley 2007), scientific bias and objectivity (Longino 1990), and have revealed weaknesses in existing ethical, political, and epistemological theories. More generally, feminists have called for inquiry into what are typically considered “private” practices and personal concerns, such as the family, sexuality, the body, to balance what has seemed to be a masculine pre-occupation with “public” and impersonal matters. Philosophy presupposes interpretive tools for understanding our everyday lives; feminist work in articulating additional dimensions of experience and aspects of our practices is invaluable in demonstrating the bias in existing tools, and in the search for better ones.

Feminist explanations of sexism and accounts of sexist practices also raise issues that are within the domain of traditional philosophical inquiry. For example, in thinking about care, feminists have asked questions about the nature of the self; in thinking about gender, feminists have asked what the relationship is between the natural and the social; in thinking about sexism in science, feminists have asked what should count as knowledge. In some such cases mainstream philosophical accounts provide useful tools; in other cases, alternative proposals have seemed more promising.

In the sub-entries included under “feminism (topics)” in the Table of Contents to this Encyclopedia, authors survey some of the recent feminist work on a topic, highlighting the issues that are of particular relevance to philosophy. These entries are:

See also the entries in the Related Entries section below.


  • Alexander, M. Jacqui and Lisa Albrecht, eds. 1998. The Third Wave: Feminist Perspectives on Racism, New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
  • Anderson, Elizabeth. 1999. “What is the Point of Equality?” Ethics, 109(2): 287-337.
  • Anzaldúa, Gloria, ed. 1990. Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras, San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
  • Baier, Annette C. 1994. Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Barker, Drucilla and Edith Kuiper. 2010 Feminist Economics, New York: Routledge.
  • Barrett, Michèle. 1991. The Politics of Truth: From Marx to Foucault, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Bartky, Sandra. 1990. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” In her Femininity and Domination, New York: Routledge, 63-82.
  • Basu, Amrita. 1995. The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women's Movements in Global Perspective, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Baumgardner, Jennifer and Amy Richards. 2000. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • Beauvoir, Simone de. 1974 (1952). The Second Sex, Trans. and Ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books.
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Other Internet Resources

Resources listed below have been chosen to provide only a springboard into the huge amount of feminist material available on the web. The emphasis here is on general resources useful for doing research in feminist philosophy or interdisciplinary feminist theory, e.g., the links connect to bibliographies and meta-sites, and resources concerning inclusion, exclusion, and feminist diversity. The list is incomplete and will be regularly revised and expanded. Further resources on topics in feminism such as popular culture, reproductive rights, sex work, are available within each sub-entry on that topic.


“Waves” of Feminism

Feminism and Class

Marxist, Socialist, and Materialist Feminisms

Feminist Economics

Women and Labor

Feminism and Disability

Feminism, Human Rights, Global Feminism, and Human Trafficking

Feminism and Race/Ethnicity

General Resources

African-American/Black Feminisms and Womanism

Asian-American and Asian Feminisms

Chicana/Latina Feminisms

American Indian, Native, Indigenous Feminisms

Feminism, Sex, Sexuality, Transgender, and Intersex


Thanks to Elizabeth Harman for research assistance in preparing this essay. Thanks also to Elizabeth Hackett, Ishani Maitra, and Ásta Sveinsdóttir for discussion and feedback. Thanks to Leslee Mahoney for the 2011 revisions.

Article by Raymond Cormier


The title, “You Make Me Want to Be a Better Man”, is an unforgettable quotation from As Good As It Gets, the Jack Nicholson–Helen Hunt masterpiece (with Greg Kinnear). It occurs at about the midpoint in the 1997 film and Carol (played by Hunt) responds to Melvin (Nicholson) that it’s the best compliment she’s ever had in her life. As Roger Ebert quips: “It becomes clear that Melvin has been destined by the filmmakers to become a better man: First he accepts dogs, then children, then women, and finally even his gay neighbor.” Nevertheless, Melvin does change his ways and, under the influence of love, completely redirects his behavior.

I explore courtly love values in several contemporary movies, for example, Casablanca (1942), Roxanne (1987), Pretty Woman (1990), Beauty and the Beast (Disney 1991), Hercules (Disney 1997) Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and Tangled (2010). The hero or heroine saved through love and/or self-sacrifice constitute a guiding thread of the article; another focus is the “major personality shift” of the hero/heroine under the influence of love; and a third theme is the “quest and rescue” of the beloved. My diverse sources (comparanda) reach back to Marie de France’s courtly lai, Lanval as well as to the ineffable motifs of troubadour love service and the joy and largess/generosity emblematic of St. Francis of Assisi.

In his recent monograph, The Making of Romantic Love, William Reddy observes that the eleventh-century Gregorian Reform brought with it condemnations by the Church—seeking to eliminate “polluting” sexual desire among Christians—and thus proposed severe new constraints on marriage and sexual behavior. It is argued further that in response, European secular poets and romancers—like the troubadours—devised a furtive way around the whole matter, namely, by inaugurating what is called today romantic love. This dualistic new creation, which opposes love and desire and was forged in the context of honor and secrecy, is found by Reddy to have a far-reaching influence (361), though not universal, yet uniquely Western and principally cultural in origin (i.e., not biological or neurological).1

With regard to romantic love, Reddy’s three case studies (medieval Europe, South Asia and Heian Japan) examine court codes in particular, and for the Europeans, he deduces that spiritualized love incorporated selfless devotion (370) as well as radical dissent (352) from the Church’s “cosmic order.”2 Adherents to the new values embraced, it would seem, individual conscience over blind obedience to the Church. Relative to our topic (in a work devoted in fact to women troubadours) one finds these words ‘of new values:’

“In exchange for their prostration, the troubadours expected to be ennobled, enriched, or simply made ‘better’: ‘Each day I am a better man and purer / for I serve the noblest lady in the world […]’”.3

Some of the films considered here belong to the “romantic comedy” genre, analysis of which is exemplified by the 2003 study by Deleyto, “Between Friends.” For such works, a tripartite categorization is proposed4: “nervous romance (tension filled),” “new romance (featuring independent women),” and “deceptive narratives” (fashionable and highlighting “constructions of a representation” in spite of soundtracks with old love songs).

Deleyto finds that friendship, in many films, is more important than love (171), and that the greater presence of female friendship signals the malleability of the genre (176). Deleyto writes (168): “[… an] unexpected new tendency has arisen within [the genre] over the last fifteen years or so in a growing number of contemporary romantic comedies, heterosexual love appears to be challenged, and occasionally replaced, by friendship.”

In this article, however, I intend to explore not friendship, not film weddings and not specifically the romantic comedy film in any significant way. Rather, I examine what may be named courtly values—as part of the courtly legacy from the Middle Ages—in over a dozen modern movies, from Casablanca (1942) to Tangled (2010). “Hero/heroine saved through love and/or self-sacrifice” will be one guiding thread of the analysis. Another focus is the “major personality shift” of the hero under the influence of love (as seen to a degree in As Good As It Gets, even more so in Pretty Woman). A third theme is the “quest and rescue” of the beloved (this can even be from a loveless marriage, as found in Excalibur). Films were selected among a number of successful productions, because they illustrate the prevalence of the themes in question.5 Limitations of space will prevent examination of other films that may suggest to some readers further links to courtliness, to the courtly legacy or to any number of medieval costume dramas.6

My hypothesis should be stated clearly: courtly values were palpable—neither a medieval fantasy nor a Romantic invention. This conjecture still needs to be put to scientific testing, which I will leave to other scholars to prove or refute. A more systematic survey, for which there is no space here, would likely reveal a significant imprint of the same themes on a wide range of contemporary films.

Such values and courtly love (the usual term is fin’amors, “true, fine, refined love”) survive to an extent today, a viewpoint not shared by all scholars.7 In his monograph Ennobling Love, Stephen Jaeger, while not using the fraught terms “courtly love” or “courtly legacy,” does assert that medieval “spiritualized” or “charismatic” love did not die out as such (5-6), though in his conclusion (212) he observes that “the paradigm of ideal love”, once established in medieval, early modern and modern narratives, is then destroyed “by revealing its false and destructive side.”

The term itself was invented in the late nineteenth century as a way of characterizing relationships found principally in French romances and poetry popular in the twelfth and thirteenth century, which were produced in and for, and which have been seen to emblemize court settings.8 Such love (for me, obviously, much more than a stylized game of flirtation), in the poetic context, is true, joyful and intense; it harmonizes with the commonweal and with divine intentions. Love brings, as we shall see, abundant feelings of liberation, of transformation and self-actualization. Jane Burns concedes the significance of courtly love when she concludes (48):

[…] despite its heteronormative veneer and its tendency to displace and occlude women as subjects, courtly love, when taken as the full range of amorous scenarios staged between elite heterosexual couples in a court setting, offers models for love relations that disrupt the binary and exclusive categories of male and female and masculine and feminine used typically to structure the Western romantic love story.

While the influence of powerful troubadour motifs is undeniable, let us cite here one brief northern French text as a kind of shorthand, for emphasis. It is a brief narrative or lai that illustrates certain courtly values.

Lanval, Marie de France’s eponymous hero, is a sad, forlorn Arthurian knight, abandoned, lonely, and helpless. An otherworldly sequence brings to him a wealthy and supremely stunning noblewoman (a fairy princess) with whom he becomes “well lodged.” His liberation from the bonds of solitary abandonment lead to liberality (he now gives freely to all comers), the medieval ideal of generosity, “the queen of virtues.”9 Kindness and love rescue him, as they do several male characters in modern film.10 Northern French poets emphasized too the “chivalry topos,” that is, that love motivates the knight in love and he becomes a better person through his adventures, thus meriting his beloved all the more. Noble love ennobles; in this better world too (for Auerbach), the apolitical “feudal ethos” encompasses “self-realization” (116-117). Clearly, we cannot accede to the damning proclamation of D. W. Robertson:

The study of courtly love, if it belongs anywhere, should be conducted only as the subject is an aspect of nineteenth and twentieth century cultural history. The subject has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, and its use as a governing concept can only be an impediment to our understanding of medieval texts. (18)

Courtly thinking existed in the Middle Ages and is manifested in the modern era.11 Each of the films we analyze here will of course not yield up every feature of the courtly mode, but still I sense that there is enough medieval residue and resonance in each to justify the argument, that, as some might put it succinctly, “courtly themes continue to generate artistic creation.” Along these lines, one wonders if the strong continuity of the Troubadour ethos—in particular that longing for a “far-away love”—is what underlies the resonances and residues. Love stories, requited or not, remain viable even in today’s hip-hop world.

It has been reasoned that the two principal and most admired modes of courtly behavior were generosity and joy. Aristocratic courtly culture held that “the lady” was lord, and the lover’s role was to serve her, to sing about her merits and qualities, and carry out all imaginable actions to remain or become worthy of her, in a word, to deserve her.12 The function of love in this context was as dictated by the De amore of Andreas Capellanus (ca. 1185): “Love easily attained is of little value; difficulty in obtaining it makes it precious” and “Everything a lover does ends in the thought of the beloved.”13 For Auerbach, the synthetic term corteisie embodied values like the “refinement of the laws of combat, courteous social intercourse, service of women” (117).

In what is dubbed the long European twelfth century (1050-1250), French humanism predominated, a phenomenon already analyzed historiographically at length. As Italianist Ronald Witt recently put it (2012: 317): “The term ‘humanism’ aptly describes French culture in the period […].” In this context, interior monologue and dialogue arose from a new awareness of the interior life (the unique individual is now consciously separate from the court), which was further linked to the chivalric adventure/quest whereby audiences yearned for the unusual and the marvelous—now stimulated especially by wondrous stories brought back from the East by returning Crusaders (in particular the First-ca. 1100, and Second-ca. 1150). In discussing this particular type of medieval love, Aldo Scaglione has written (559):

The radical interiorization of the love experience carried with it the impossibility of communicating with the love object (topos of ineffability). Not only did poets profess themselves incapable of communicating to the beloved the depth of their passion, but the very lack of communication was for them both a sign of its depth and a consequence of it, to the point of entailing the complete physical absence of the lady.

Transformation through kindness and love, the frequent quest motif, the rescue of the hero/heroine—such are the narrative innovations associated with these elements (even the ineffable moment can be noted in at least one film, Roxane). Allied terms include honesty and humility—for perfection of the knight depended on his courtly worth, manifested through continuous bravery and feats of arms, humbly accomplished so to enhance and vouchsafe his honor and his nobility. Such aims for flawlessness were mirrored by the lady’s perfection, inspired too by her knight/liege. Of course, adultery occurs as co-incidental in this context, as does a “religion of love,” whereby mutual suffering and adoration are obligatory14. Let us see how all this plays out in the series of films selected for analysis.

The romantic comedy As Good As It Gets, the Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt masterpiece (with Greg Kinnear), has provided the main title of this essay. The iconic line, “You Make Me Want to Be A Better Man,” is spoken by the misanthropic Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), whose obsessive-compulsive behavior and pathological germophobia strangle all of his human interactions. In the penultimate sequence, after he affronts and insults Carol (played by Hunt), his apology, necessary to get back into her good wishes, is a confession that he wants to merit her and deserve her respect (enough so that he can have their relationship return to its prior arrangement). One can say that all his motivations are selfish (arranging to care for Carol’s asthmatic son, putting up with his gay artist neighbor and then the neighbor’s dog), yet he is redeemed in the end, having moderated somewhat his odd manners.15 If not mere empathy, a kind of love is born in Melvin’s heart—even for his gay neighbor, for the dog, even for his neighbor’s African-American agent, and especially for Carol. For in the end, he is “a better man.”

Perhaps no genuinely touching and dreamlike modern film has captioned courtly features as much as Pretty Woman (1990), in which the Richard Gere character (Edward) undergoes a major personality shift, from ruthless business tycoon to generous shipbuilder, as a result of his experience of love for/with (an apparently) blonde streetwalker named Vivian (played by Julia Roberts).16 The wig disguises, as it were, her true personality. Over and above the film’s obvious Cinderella theme, it has been argued in fact, in a reversal of traditional gender roles, that it is she, Vivian, who, as the “Fair Unknown” (Scala 35), is transformed from “veiled” Hollywood Boulevard prostitute into a truly “noble character,” a change attributable to soul-sharing (with Edward—neither “wimp nor wild man”17), catalyzed by the experience of a San Francisco opera performance focused on the heroine Violetta (La Traviatta). Vivian’s real character is revealed too in an early scene when she drives, like a NASCAR expert, Edward’s sports car, then again in the bathtub scene, where she sexually enfolds him in her extra-long legs.

But, after their goodbyes, when Edward unexpectedly returns (in a white stretch limo) to Vivian’s apartment at the very end of the film, he scales the fire escape (in spite of his fear of heights) to “rescue the princess in the tower.” He has undergone a total conversion, from emotionless corporate raider to brave, forgiving and loving human. Tellingly, he asks the now red-haired (and post-feminist) Vivian what happens after the knight rescues the princess, she replies that she saves the hero “right back,” another revelation of a “reversal of gender roles” (Scala 38).18 And, as Genz recently put the question of the “post-feminist woman” (PFW). The PFW wants to “have it all” as she refuses to dichotomize and choose between her public and private, feminist, and feminine identities. She rearticulates and blurs the binary distinctions between feminism and femininity, between professionalism and domesticity, refuting monolithic and homogeneous definitions of postfeminist subjectivity.19 Reddy, in his analysis of this film posits it as a mirror of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s (380-381), whereby prostitution is permissible and sexual desire is destigmatized, but still stands in opposition to love, since both characters, now mutually devoted to each other, give up their life of “mere appetites.”20 Edward is thus a better man, Vivian a better woman.

Going back now to the World War II era, we will glance briefly at the great 1942 classic, Casablanca, in which, again surprisingly and ironically, the bitter and cynical refugee hero Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is transformed not by passionate love, but in this case through a self-effacing compassion. He just wants his beloved Ilsa (the woman between two men story), played famously by Ingrid Bergman) to be happy, for, as he remarks to her—“We’ll always have Paris.” In the final sequence, Rick, his tough-guy veneer now gone, surrenders two objects, one tangible, the other human—i.e., the vital letters of transit for transport out of Morocco, along with his chance for love with Ilsa. In a meeting with her and her husband Lazlo (the Resistance-fighter) at the Casablanca airport, the now-noble Rick swallows his resentment toward her and yields himself to a new emotion, empathy mixed with admiration for both Ilsa’s devotion and Lazlo’s political cause. And he opines: “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” In a dramatic gesture of magnanimity, Rick turns Ilsa over to the freedom fighter. Generosity and self-sacrifice redeem the hero as it will the other protagonists, even in different ways.

At this point, we will turn to three animated films (one of which is inspired by a live-action archetypal film produced just a few years after Casablanca). I refer to Beauty and the Beast, known today mainly through the 1991 Disney version. The lesser-known account that inspired the modern and magical remake is the Jean Cocteau classic, a contemporary parable based on a seventeenth-century French tale. The flawless Belle—to pay for her father’s transgression and obliged to dwell within the Beast’s castle—finds the beast repulsive, but, eventually, love is the potion that will transform both her and the Beast within; he is saved through Belle’s own generous change of heart as she responds to his kindness and favors. Similarly, Belle’s pity, patience, growing admiration and slowly-receding fear of the Beast, brings her to lower her guard and embrace the creature. Once she does love him (as foretold), the enchantment magically evaporates, the Beast is tamed and everything is joyfully transformed—by their love and new-found respect for each other.21

Redemption of a different sort rescues the mythological hero Hercules from the depths of weakened loss and despair. In this 1997 Disney film, the once-powerful and immortal youth attempts to save the life of Megara, his beloved (to provoke the hero, she was slain by Hercules’ nemesis Hades). His awesome powers had been taken from him by the villain but Hercules miraculously regains his strength through mutual love, and is on his way to become a “true hero”— just as (Samson-like) he lifts a huge column that had fallen on Meg. He is wholly and joyfully restored—by love—as a proper and divine hero, and elevated to Mt. Olympus.

In Disney’s 2010 Tangled, the heroine Rapunzel undergoes a major personality shift as a result of her encounter with the hero Eugene. It is in fact he who is responsible for getting her out of the imprisoning tower (using a ruse along with the appeal of the mysterious tiara—it’s hers, it is discovered, and she’s the princess!). In an interesting twist and role-reversal, Eugene tells Rapunzel that she was his new dream and Rapunzel says he was hers. Eugene dies in Rapunzel’s arms. In despair, Rapunzel sings the “Healing Incantation,” and begins to cry. Moved by her love and kindness, the last remnants of a magical flower’s enchantments condense in her tear, which heals Eugene. Later, the two return to the castle to meet her parents and eventually marry, living happily ever after. Rapunzel is redeemed through reciprocal love.

One must expect courtly themes in a medieval film like Excalibur (1981), set presumably in the late fourteenth or fifteenth century, bearing “mythical truth, not historical,” according to its director John Boorman.22 When the charismatic character of Lancelot first appears, he battles with Arthur’s knights, then with Arthur himself. Summoning such superhuman power that the sword Excalibur is cracked in half, Arthur overcomes Lancelot, though the new champion enigmatically but with great nobility bows to the king and offers him fealty. With the twelve-year peace across Britain established, along with the Round Table and its famed fellowship, Arthur proclaims he will marry. The relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere at first encapsulates what Scaglione named (see above) the “impossibility of communicating with the love object (topos of ineffability).”

But then, while escorting the bride Guinevere to the wedding (each, now love struck, having already undergone a coup de foudre), Lancelot is asked by her if he will find a soul mate to love and marry. His reply goes like this: I have found someone. It is you, Guinevere. I will love no other while you live. “I will love you always as queen and wife of my best friend.” Several scenes later, the queen is charged with adultery and Lancelot (now aware of her unhappy marriage) is at once named her champion—to defend her honor.

Such a scenario is familiar to scholars, but surely the millions of non-specialists who have seen the film must relate somehow to this courtly episode. As if enacting a Occitan love lyric, each has been mightily unfaithful: Guinevere in her longing glances, Lancelot in his fixed staring. But finally they must surrender to their passion. Their shameful infidelity, a deep wound, paralleled by Arthur’s own (unwilling) incestuous coupling with his half-sister Morgana, brings on a terre gaste, a horrid, morbid and gross wasting of both Arthur’s body and the land. The courtly and anti-courtly elements here predominate: the lovers’ religion of love easily nullifies any idea of a stylized game of flirtation. No one is improved this time.

In the romantic comedy, Roxanne (1987), brilliantly adapted by Steve Martin from Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the astronomer heroine (Daryl Hannah) argues with the genuinely courtly hero (C. D. Bates, Martin’s tennis-playing fireman). In the final sequence (to this woman between two men story) the hero reveals himself as the epitome of generosity by interceding for another man and wooing the heroine on his behalf. Bates says in the end that all Roxanne wanted was the perfect man who was both physically beautiful, emotionally mature and verbally adept. Finally, Bates (who loved her from the beginning, but direct communication with her was not possible—once more, the ineffable!) and Roxanne forgive one another as she confesses her love for him, in spite of his extraordinarily characteristic nose: it gives him uniqueness, she thinks, observing that flat-nosed people are boring and featureless. Feelings of compassion, admiration, tenderness and understanding change her point of view. The joyful humor and big-heartedness of the film charm the viewer.

We turn next to a blockbuster, the mysterious 1999 science fiction “cyberpunk-cyber thriller,” The Matrix. Amidst all the computer-generated graphics, amazing action scenes and visual effects, futuristic costumes, the enigmatic significance of The Matrix itself, and the secretive feelings Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) experiences for the hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves), the story really embodies a simple and beautiful fairy-tale component. Trinity’s destiny was to fall in love with “the One” (prophesied as a savior-healer and super manipulator of The Matrix). The romantic relationship of the two is not revealed until the very end of the film, but Trinity’s act of kissing Neo powerfully resuscitates him within the sentient world (his interfaced physical body) and within The Matrix as well, where his avatar has been active. It is a phenomenal moment when the obscure meaning of The Matrix, Trinity’s love (from afar!) for Neo and Neo’s resurrection and fate are revealed all at once. Trinity does not have to quest for Neo: his sentient body remained right there with her in the laboratory. One can argue that Neo’s life is saved (literally) through the efforts and love of a beloved: Trinity has loved Neo all along. One can also posit that Neo’s acceptance of his destiny as “the One” is augmented by his awareness of Trinity’s love for him.

At the very opening of the film’s sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, the two have now become lovers, and, in one of the film’s final sequences, Neo has a choice: save mankind from extinction (it would happen through a “system reboot”), resulting in the survival of the destructive machines (but not humanity), or choosing to save Trinity’s life: in a face-to-face battle with an Agent (humanoid robot of The Matrix), she crashes out of a window and a bullet pierces her heart. In his abbreviated and breathtaking quest, Neo catches her in mid-air, but she dies. Loath to allow Trinity’s death, Neo uses his superhuman abilities to remove the bullet and revive her. The balance of the two scenes is perfect: in The Matrix it is Trinity who rescues Neo, while in the sequel Neo the hero saves his beloved through love. These films do not illustrate every aspect of courtliness or court culture, but the revealing moment does transport the viewer to a realm of heightened emotion. As in Hercules, love reigns supreme.23

Our final film is Slumdog Millionaire, billed as a kind of bildungsroman, a straightforward story about Jamal Malik, an eighteen-year old orphan from the slums of Mumbai. But the film has multiple strata, and underlying the story is Jamal’s search for his “far-away love”—a theme made legendary by twelfth-century Occitan poet Jaufre Rudel’s amor de lonh.24As the film’s narrative revolves around “Kaun Banega Crorepati,” the Indian TV version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? each chapter of Jamal’s increasingly layered story reveals where he learned the responses to the show’s seemingly impossible questions. To witness the unfolding of Jamal’s life journey—surviving as a street urchin/career thief, his many colorful adventures, gang encounters, his job serving tea in a call center—helps to explain several mysteries, like how and why he ended up as a featured contestant, but most especially how he knows the answers. His life story—in reality a quest—includes being orphaned at an early age; growing up with an older brother, who was both his guardian/protector and antagonist (a kind of rival and dark “other”); and having a relationship since childhood with another orphaned child, a girl named Latika.

A parallel plot line deals with the law—in the present-time episodes, the police grill him to determine how Jamal can be doing so well on the show when others who are brighter, more educated and wealthier fail. Is he cheating? Is it purely luck? But the fact is, the complex and interwoven story is simply a tale of love: every action of Jamal is motivated by his search for his lost childhood love, Latika. The resplendent joy manifested in the final sequences—an emblem, we recall, of courtly life (Battais 135)—unlocks all the puzzles and enigmas of the film.25 With great generosity of character, Jamal, enduring and shaking off all sorts of suffering and pain, was searching endlessly for Latika: that is why he found a way to get himself recruited to be a contestant for the game show, for he knew she would be watching and that they would be able to meet together, finally, at a designated locale, and no doubt live “happily ever after” and in joy.26

As we have seen, in these selected films (and in many other contemporary ones) transformation through kindness and love frequently manifests itself as a part of the finale. The quest motif very often subsumes the conversion—not necessarily as dramatic as an Augustinian one—yet nevertheless resulting in the rescue of the hero/heroine, where rescue is a generic term including redemption, resuscitation and/or vindication. Melvin Udall, Edward and Vivian, Lancelot, Neo and even Rick Blaine—all are made over or made better by love. Beauty and the Beast, Hercules, Rapunzel and Eugene—these are characters transformed from within; Jamal Malik’s life quest, motivated by a far-away love, ends in a glorious epiphany. An explanatory rationale for the preceeding essay might suggest how faintly aware of these themes our readers might be, but the need remains to inform them of their exact correspondence with courtly love themes. However much it has been transplanted, the courtly legacy sustains. And “the better man” (or woman) survives today.

Works Cited

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  • Kantor, Jodi. “Elite Women Put a New Spin on an Old Debate.” New York Times June 22, 2012. Consulted online: .
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