Feminist Resistance: Creating Space in Petrofiction

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This is the second post in a series based on papers presented at workshop held in Banff, Alberta by Petra Dolata and David Painter called “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: The Oil Crises of the 1970s and the Transformation of the Postwar World.”

The interdisciplinary research area, energy humanities, attends to the cultural, social, and political dimensions of energy: the humanities questions. Scholars from this discipline look beyond the science and engineering of energy solutions to the challenge of redefining abstractions such as freedom, mobility, and security as we face transition to low carbon energy sources. In preparation for the conference, I accessed writing from this discipline to inform my presentation on how Alberta women were impacted particularly and perpetually by the 1970s oil crises.

I encountered a neologism for the realm of woman as consumer and producer of oil: petrofeminism. But what’s interesting is that two writers claim to have coined this term at separate conferences in the same year, 2017, and their definitions are vastly different. Dr. Sheena Wilson applies the concept within energy humanities to critique petrocultures while American postcolonial scholar, Dr. Helen Kapstein, considers it in the context of literary theory. Given the apparent discrepancy, I set out to determine which scholar’s view would best inform my own research on the petrofiction genre. I wondered which aligned with my argument that stories based on the experiences of Canadian women––be they oil executives, environmental researchers, derrickhands, or mothers consuming petrochemical-based household products––must be told. And they must be told by women.

Wilson conceived petrofeminism to describe one of the “guises [of] petronormativity,” alongside petrocolonialism and petrocapitalism.1 Her conviction is that Big Oil co-opts progressive women’s rights in the global north to justify their activity. To illustrate this notion, Wilson references the ethical oil argument popularized by Ezra Levant in 2010 which privileges oil produced in liberal democracies over extraction by state-owned operations overseas. In an ethical oil television commercial, images and voice-over narrative links women’s agency and freedoms with Canadian oil and pairs the subjugation of women with oil extraction in the middle east.2 The message of this campaign was clear: western oil supports women’s rights, while foreign oil represses them. In Wilson’s interpretation there is artifice in the binary, Canadian oil versus Middle East oil, and the rationale for continued support and growth for the Canadian petroleum sector is that the alternative hurts women.

Beyond justifying Canada’s duty to produce this ‘ethical’ oil, petrofeminism, according to Wilson, also describes the way that corporate North America disarms female resistance to oil production. Whether or not they are oil company employees or exclusively consumers of petroleum products from household items to cosmetics, women are inextricably tied to oil. And by working for companies who claim to embrace green processes or by responding to consumer ads that encourage green shopping, Wilson writes that corporations have convinced many white upper middle-class women in the west, that they have already done their part. By linking consumption and consumer choice to political power, specifically eco-resistance, “supposedly empowering them,” the message sent is that there is no need to resist any further.3

Kapstein approaches petrofeminism as a pathway for literary scholars and readers to know women’s lives as petrosubjects including the challenges and the rewards that populate them. Kapstein studies Nigerian fiction. She explains that while the literary genre there disrupts the Big Oil narrative by pointing to ways in which women are victimized, Nigerian romance fiction tells stories of female characters achieving their personal objectives within a society thoroughly entangled with the production, trade, and consumption of oil. Life goes on in a place such as Nigeria, before the backdrop of pervasive oil extraction.4 Kapstein explains the productive nature of petrofeminist acts as they relate to writing in this quotation:

Book cover depicting a Black man and woman walking together on a sunny beach with their arms wrapped around one another looking into each other's eyes.
A Heart to Mend (2009) was self-published by Nigerian romance author Nkem Okotcha under the pen name, Myne Whitman. Myne Whitman, A Heart to Mend. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2009. Photo credit: Goodreads.

This particular strand of feminism—shaped by, reactive to, and corrective of a petroarchy––suggests that romance and pleasure are as much oil relations as are dirt, violence, and degradation. Petrofeminism, in this way, highlights the constructive potentials of writing, love, and care in the service of various kinds of liberation ranging from the individual (pertaining to selfhood and sexual identity) to the epochal (pertaining to anthropocenic concerns like mobility and energy independence).5

A book cover depicting a Black woman standing next to window looking away from the viewer. The window is framed by drapes, casting shadows inside the room, contrasting with the bright light from outside.
Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home (1990) by Balaraba Ramat Yakubu was the first full length Hausa novel written by a woman translated into English. Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home, trans. Aliyu Kamal. Chennai, IN: Blaft, 2012. Photo credit: Blaft Publications.

Women who seek satisfying stories in romance fiction despite economic or cultural conditions, in Kapstein’s view, are participating in an act of female solidarity. She writes that “[p]etrofeminism operates within, not outside of, an oil economy.”6 The novels themselves do not imagine successful courtships separate from the petroculture, rather they create, for example, “space in which the romance of women’s work is a job at the oil company and in which a romantic relationship is not possible until the love interest returns to Nigeria to make his fortune renting properties to Shell.”7 Based on her analysis of this genre, Kapstein seeks to advance theoretical discussions of petrofiction arguing that petrofeminism is “a necessary development in theories of petrofiction [which] drastically underrepresent women as consumers, producers, and reproducers of oil and petroculture.”8 In this way, unlike Wilson, Kapstein’s view of petrofeminism includes women as survivors of the petroculture who perceive futures for themselves within it.

The claims of these two writers appear unreconcilable, but it is at the point where their ideas intersect which functions as inspiration for both critical and creative writing. While Wilson characterizes Big Oil’s appropriation of women’s autonomy as ‘petrofeminism,’ Kapstein uses the term to categorize Nigerian women’s productive relationship with literature. Together these two scholars are concerned with the range of female petrosubjectivity: how they are subjugated variously as well as how they embrace literature in resistance, to thrive. Wilson’s rejection of the petro-apparatus provides the urgency for researchers to uncover ways oil mingles with concepts representing female autonomy. These ideas, such as mobility, freedom, and independence once untangled, may be redefined in a post oil society. Kapstein’s literary analysis reveals a model for the solidarity possible when women come together through shared stories.

As long as the oil narrative is controlled and manipulated by self-serving profit-based interests, it will not be a valuable source for us to turn to as we consider our relationship with oil. An evolved petrofiction genre expanded by a continuum of women’s stories will inform this simulated narrative by exposing and countering it. Specificities of exploitative impacts in addition to stories of women who have flourished as petrosubjects will bring us closer to knowing the reality of our current petroculture. And as Wilson’s energy humanities co-founder, Dr. Imre Szeman, writes elsewhere: “Only by knowing oil can we start to understand fully what and who we might become without it.”9 Reading and writing both sustain and hearten many women; therefore, it is not surprising that in the great challenge of energy transition, Canadian women should turn to literature to imagine, create, and learn. Fiction, in particular, can imagine sites of incremental feminist resistance without rejecting the entire petroculture apparatus, feature female characters who fiercely exercise their agency, and relay the pain of exploitative encounters. To read how fellow women experience petroculture not only resists the current narrative and builds compassion, it safeguards freedom.


1. Sheena Wilson, “Trafficking in Petronormativities: At the Intersections of Petrofeminism, Petrocolonialism, and Petrocapitalism,” in Transportation and the Culture of Climate Change: Accelerating Ride to Global Crisis, ed. Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2020), 253. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ualberta/detail.action?docID=6313885.

2. Wilson, 231.

3. Wilson, 249.

4. Helen Kapstein, “Petrofeminism: Love in the Age of Oil,” in Oil Fictions: World Literature and Our Contemporary Petrosphere, ed. Stacey Balkan and Swaralipi Nandi (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2021), 59-60, accessed January 14, 2024,  www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/jj.5233138.9.

5. Kapstein, 61.

6. Kapstein, 75.

7. Kapstein, 75.

8. Kapstein, 60.

9. Imre Szeman, “How to Know about Oil: Energy Epistemologies and Political Futures,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 47, no. 3 (fall 2013): 163.

Feature image: Eyeshadow in mirror: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
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Jennifer McDougall

Jennifer is a creative writer and will begin her PhD studies at the University of Calgary this fall. Her current novel project explores the past and present contributions of women professionals in Alberta's energy industry.

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