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Stephen King Through a Feminist Lens: High-Riding Bitches

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Author Stephen King
Author Stephen King
(Image by (From Wikimedia) Pinguino Kolb, Author: Pinguino Kolb)
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Stephen King is generally dismissed as an author of popular horror fiction and horror has often been a genre that is exploitative of women. However, King has created many believable, smart and strong female heroines. King is not afraid to point out the flaws of the patriarchy, the trials and tribulations of being a woman and to empower his female characters to fight back against their oppressors, whether human or supernatural. King is a true feminist because he does not idealize his female characters. They are not superior to men; however, they are equal. King's females are as capable of cowardice or courage, good or evil, as their male counterparts. The female protagonists do this by using their intelligence, strength, emotion and any means necessary. King has addressed many social issues in his writing and has proven that he is a feminist, a man who empathizes with and supports women in his work.

To better understand how a man known primarily for writing horror stories can write such believable female characters and so critically examine feminist issues in his work, we should first examine this social construct known as Stephen King. As a man and author, he has repeatedly praised the strong and intelligent women in his life. In Danse Macabre he reminisced about his mother: "After my father took off, my mother landed on her feet scrambling. My brother and I didn't see a great deal of her over the next nine years. She worked at a succession of low-paying jobs... She was a talented pianist and a woman with a great and sometimes eccentric sense of humor, and somehow she kept things together, as women before her have done and as other women are doing even now as we speak." Mr. King's life experience and the example of his mother have given him personal insight into first and second wave feminist theory and his mother's reality.

In his autobiographical book On Writing his love and respect for his wife Tabitha is evident. He credits her with his success as an author by supporting him and by retrieving his first published work, Carrie, from the trash and encouraging him to finish and submit it. Later in life when his drinking and addictions got out of hand, Tabitha intervened and issued an ultimatum that she would not watch him commit suicide. She helped him through this crisis and he credits her with saving his life and keeping their family together. I believe this gave Mr. King insight into the "superwoman" ideal created by second-wave feminism and the incredible pressure it places on women.

It seems that King had the good fortune of being raised by a strong woman and the intelligence to recognize and appreciate her. When Stephen fell in love it was with another strong, intelligent woman who shared his love of language and that appears to have been a wise and enriching choice on his part. These two women have been a good influence on the author and his writing, helping him to imbue life and realism into his female characters.

Stephen King would have been a college student in the 1960s when feminist criticism was emerging to prominence. This second wave of feminism was no longer focused primarily on legal issues and voting; it was now focused on women's personal rights, to control their own reproductive functions and to have equality. Women were actively seeking the same rights to work and live as they choose just as men in a position of power and privilege had done for centuries. The focus of feminist theory was on the patriarchy. Feminist critics sought to expose the phallocentrism of our society in which the rules and culture had been created almost exclusively for and by men. Even in linguistics women were treated as other instead of equal. There is not a distinct and separate term for the gender that is not a variation of the male. We have the binary opposition of male/female and man/woman; even the language seems to support Thomas Aquinas when he stated that women are "imperfect man... an incidental being... a botched male" (Bressler, 145). King could not help but be drawn into this critical analysis of patriarchal society and of women's desire to overthrow an unfair and tyrannical system and be accepted as separate but equal.

King is a prolific writer and has created a universe filled with strong female characters and feminist themes. In this examination of feminist themes in the King bibliography our focus will be limited to Carrie, Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game.


In Danse Macabre, King described Carrie as an allegory for feminism and states that it is largely about women finding their own channels of power. The central character, Carrie White, is a 16-year-old girl. Carrie's life has been dominated by her abusive, unstable and fanatically religious mother, Margaret. Margaret is both a victim of the patriarchy and an agent of it. Margaret's fanatic Christian fundamentalism has led her to despise her own femininity. The text begins with Carrie's first menstruation, which begins in the school shower. Carrie attracts the attention and cruelty of the other girls in the locker room who pelt her with feminine products while shouting "plug it up".The other girls' disgust and cruelty may symbolize some of the cultural stigma attached to menstruation. Patriarchal society and many religions have declared menses to be unclean, forcing many women to feel shame and the need to hide this normal biological function.

When Carrie goes home seeking comfort from her mother, Margaret is furious with her and locks her in a closet to pray for her soul. Margaret tells her she must be sinful because if she had stayed free from sin she would not have been punished with the woman's "curse". Margaret simultaneously condemns men as being dirty, lustful animals while believing that women are cursed and sinful. When she tells Carrie of her conception she does not describe it with motherly affection or in terms of the miracle of birth; instead she says she was certain that God was turning her woman parts black with a cancer, a cancer as black as her sin of lust. This is the patriarchal dogma of many Christian religions, that Eve by her disobedience caused all of mankind to be born in sin. Therefore, women deserve to be cursed with hormonal changes and painful childbirth and need the supervision of the morally superior male.

A popular girl, Sue, who participated in the locker-room incident and now feels deep remorse decides she must do something nice for Carrie. Sue persuades her popular boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. Sue like many of the other girls are enjoying the sexual freedoms that have come with the second wave of feminism. However, the girls seem to mistakenly believe that their power as women still lies in their beauty and ability to attract a powerful male. They see their feminine power as being one of manipulation, almost purely sexual, and still believe that they require a man to achieve happiness.

Since achieving physical maturity Carrie has begun to discover she has telekinesis and her mother Margaret insists that this is proof of Carrie's sinful ways. The appearance of supernatural power coinciding with the menses represents Carrie's potential power as a female; it is her own if only she will embrace it.

Carrie rebels against her mother and attends the prom with Tommy. Everything seems to go well at first and Carrie and Tommy are even named King and Queen. However, this is a cruel joke staged by many of the popular girls and boys as they are angered by what they feel is an upsetting of the natural order by Carrie. Upon being crowned Queen a bucket of pig's blood is dumped on Carrie. Again, the blood is symbolic of Carrie's being inferior because of her femininity. However, it is the students' and even some of the teachers' laughter that is her breaking point. It is at this moment that Carrie breaks free of the patriarchal oppression of her mother's religion, the judgment and scorn of her peers, and embraces her true power. "She did not know if her gift had come from the lord of light or of darkness, and now, finally finding that she did not care which, she was overcome with an almost indescribable relief, as if a huge weight, long carried, had slipped from her shoulders."

Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to set fire to the gym and walks out, slamming and locking the doors behind her. She walks through the town like an angry and vengeful Goddess, destroying everyone and everything in her path. When she reaches her house, her mother Margaret accuses her of being evil and stabs her, leaving Carrie no choice but to kill her mother. Fatally wounded, Carrie dies crying out for her mother, longing to be accepted and loved as she is, as a woman.

Carrie's telekinesis and the destruction she perpetuated upon the town paints her as a monster and represents the fear feminism evokes in some men and women. Culturally and religiously a powerful woman is a monstrous thing that would bring about the destruction of the established order.

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Kimberly McNeil is an honors student at Bowling Green State University in the School of Media and Communication. She is active in the Association of Women in Communication, Omicron Delta Kappa and as a Student Ambassador. Kimberly is married, (more...)

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