Tag Archives: feminism

The Guilty Feminist – all together now

The Guilty Feminist review – flaws-and-all approach to ...

I was lent The Guilty Feminist by a girlfriend, who I notice from the sweet inscription on the first page, had it bought for her by another girlfriend. When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure about the tone – it felt a little bit you-go-girl-but-of-course-we-still love-cake – and I didn’t like the sound of guilty feminism, but it won me over quite quickly with a very interesting potted history of feminism through the ages and continued to cover a wide range of topics relevant to modern feminism. It reminded me a bit of when you start an interview squeaky and nervous but eventually settle down when you start talking about what you know.

In fact, that’s what won me over a little to the concept of guilty feminism, the idea that you don’t have to be sure you’ve definitely got this before you start, that you don’t have to have all the answers before speaking up – after all, men don’t hold themselves to that same standard, statistically speaking.

Frances-White talks at length about the different confidence struggles between men and women – how women behave in traditionally male spaces and why, and how we can change the way we relate to patriarchal environments to improve the lot of ourselves and other women. She covers internalised misogyny and talks at length about intersectionality, with interesting interviews with women of colour, transwomen, disabled women etc., throughout the book. Indeed, to list all she covers would be unwieldy, but the book is a really good starter-feminist jumping-off point and if you’re interested in feminism or women at all it’s a very worthwhile read.

One thing I noticed that the book makes a very conscious effort with is inclusive language – a desire to avoid alienating transwomen, disabled women or any other marginalised group is evident everywhere, and sometimes this does interrupt the flow and start tying the author up in knots as she tries to acknowledge every possible offence. To some older readers, I can imagine this being alienating in itself. To some, it seems the world is changing too rapidly to keep up, to others it feels like change is coming at a glacial pace and being fought tooth and nail at every turn. I’m a similar age to the author and often find myself doing the same thing – editing, re-editing, relearning. At one point, I started to wonder if maybe we were going a bit overboard with it all.

Then, when I was off on maternity leave I rewatched Friends from start to finish. This is a show I grew up on, that seemed modern and normal and, I guess, feminist, although it was an unfashionable term at the time. Ross is a gaslighting weirdo, and Joey and Chandler are creepy sex pests. Imagine you’ve been friends with a guy for years and he’s still trying to sneak a look at your boobs or saying sleazy things to you. There are things in that show and many others of the time that we no longer think are remotely OK – and that is because people made a nuisance of themselves and complained about small things like which words we use until the subconscious acceptance of certain concepts started to weaken.

Now when I sing my baby son ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, I alternate the pronouns so it’s not just the mummies on the bus that go chatter, chatter, chatter, but the daddies as well. And nobody does any shushing. There’s an interesting interview in this book with Becca Bunce where she talks about the social model of disability which says that “people are disabled by the way society is organised, rather than the person’s impairment, health condition or difference”. In many ways, that’s very true. When I started trying to live as a vegan, my eating out options were limited less by the foods I could eat than the foods that were on offer in a society that bases the vast majority of its meals on meat and animal products. Suddenly, it was a shock to be on the outside looking in.

When I first started trying to navigate London Underground with a baby in a pram, I started thinking ‘How the fuck do people in wheelchairs get around this bloody city?’ My privilege had been invisible to me until that point – which is why intersectionality is so important in the feminist struggle. No one is free until we all are free, and while he’s not the worst of the worst, time is still up for Chandler Bing.

 

 

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Fifty Shades of Grey – a dark mirror

I was determined not to buy Fifty Shades of Grey, as I’d heard it was poorly written, cringingly sexed lifestyle porn. That said, when a colleague offered to lend me her copy (which was complete with what looked like teeth marks) I was curious.

When I started reading it, I was surprised it had been slated to such an extent (that’s the price of popularity, I suppose). It was by no means as awkwardly written as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which was beloved, seemingly, by everyone but me). OK, I wasn’t a fan of the way Ana kept referring to her ‘inner goddess’ or repeating ‘holy crap’ but everyone is entitled to their own style. I have read many more poorly written books – at least E.L. James can hold a story, write a reasonable bit of dialogue and produce characters you can get your teeth into.

Yes, the book is lifestyle porn in the sense that it explores the pleasures of the playboy lifestyle, the joy of having nice things and being able to buy exotic experiences – but it’s not an endless exercise in product placement as some people would have you believe. James is no Stieg Larsson, faithfully recording the exact make and model of each of her characters’ possessions. Anyway, it’s escapism – why should Grey be forced to be a noble but poor supermarket worker?

As for the sex, there are repetitive bits and there were times when I was getting on the tube first thing in the morning and I really wasn’t in the mood to read about bondage, but I have read much cringier sex in my time. The problem is, though, that there’s too much sex in the book to call it anything other than porn, but it’s a bit too long-winded and chick-lit-esque to be proper porn – not to mention that at one point Grey pulls out Anastasia’s tampon in order to have sex with her. I cannot think of a less sexy or more horrifying inclusion in a porn book. I actually dry-retched when I got to that point. WHY?

Moving on from that though (I think we’d better), I’m ambivalent about where the book sits in the world. Is it, as some people say, a revolutionary sex manual for unfulfilled wives and girlfriends across the globe, or is it a monstrous piece of misogyny that is putting back the cause of feminism fifty years?

Well it must be at least partly the former. I admit that I was shocked to find that the book’s subject matter was still considered shocking to the public at large. I saw men on Twitter saying they would be horrified to see their partners reading the book – this shows that the book is necessary and boundary-pushing to a certain extent. Can we really still be shocked by the idea of women as consumers of porn? This seems weirdly Victorian. Madonna was years ago, people!

On the other hand, detractors (I saw a program where Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady and sister of Boris, was practically apoplectic with disgust for Christian Grey) say that it is misogynist filth that is anything but liberating to women. Is that fair? Well, there were bits of the book that made me decidedly uncomfortable. I found myself wondering why women were worshipping a protagonist who wanted his partner to eat from a prescribed list of foods, who wanted her to obey him in and out of the bedroom and who wanted to punish her painfully for any perceived transgressions. I got that it turned him on in the bedroom but forcing a grown woman to clean her plate in a restaurant when she’s not hungry is controlling in a deeply, deeply unsexy way.

I suppose the thing that made me most uneasy was that I could imagine so many women in abusive relationships superimposing their own partner’s face over Christian Grey’s and finding new excuses not to leave. The book plugs the reader firmly into those fallacies that say: real love is jealous and possessive. It’s OK to submit to the will of an attractive man even if what he is asking of you makes you anguished. Being rich makes for a happier, more exciting life. If a man is troubled, he should be excused for his kinks. Attempting to change and help him is not foolish but heroic. God help us if we believe these things.

Every time Christian commanded Ana to eat, I found myself wanting to pick up the plate and throw it in his face with a few choice words. Couldn’t we have a protagonist who just likes bondage but isn’t weird and screwed up and controlling outside of the bedroom? I think that would be more revolutionary.

Having said that, though, I think that E.L. James does strive to show reality in the book. She documents Ana’s difficulties with the lifestyle Christian is offering, she shows her pushing back sometimes successfully against his boundaries and she doesn’t excuse all of his behaviour. She also never set out to write a moral guide for troubled relationships – she writes fiction and she should no more have to make her characters agreeable than Dostoyevsky or Dickens. If we think Fifty Shades of Grey is damaging to women, romance and relationships everywhere, perhaps we should think why this is.

Is it not offensive to women to assume they cannot critically assess a book and dismiss a cruel protagonist when they see one? Maybe some cannot, but that is a problem that has deeper roots than literature. I don’t think E.L. James can be blamed – all she does is hold the mirror up.

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The Sexual Life of Catherine M – is just not sexy

Not long ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of The Sexual Life of Catherine M and said, “Now Literary Kitty, don’t be shocked!” so I was quite curious as to what all the fuss was about. It seems I wasn’t the only one. This book caused quite a sensation when it was originally published in France and has since been translated into several languages. The front cover boasts Edmund White’s quote that it is ‘One of the most explicit books about sex ever written by a woman’. Well OK Edmund, it’s explicit. I’d guessed that from the titty on the front cover. But is it any good?

In my opinion, no.  The blurb claims that ‘Unlike many contemporary women writers, there is no guilt in Millet’s narrative, no chronicles of use and abuse’ but I’m not so sure that Millet is the feminist icon she’s being made out to be. She seems to have sex indiscriminately, to offer herself up as a receptacle for men’s desires without questioning whether she’s sexually attracted to them or even whether they’re clean. Rotting teeth, flabby bellies, an overpowering stench – nothing puts Millet off. Her motto is to be available to all at all times.

Well OK, each to their own I suppose, but I found that attitude a little depressing, a little too passive and listless. It didn’t sound like the sex would be liberating. Millet says she was always shy in relationships and that anonymous sex was where she felt comfortable. Honest? It may be. Inspiring? Definitely not. I’m sure plenty of women feel that way – we don’t hold them up as feminist idols and nor should we. It’s nothing to do with feeling good about yourself or about feeling strong, and Millet never strikes me as a strong woman, never someone who’s in control of her own destiny.

The blurb says that “The Sexual Life of Catherine M. is very much a manifesto of our times – when the sexual equality of women is a reality and where love and sex have gone their own separate ways.” Well, I think it’s a travesty to call it a “manifesto of our times” when it’s just dreary coupling after dreary coupling. Yes, women these days are free to choose who they sleep with, how many people they sleep with and indeed how many people they sleep with at once without judgement. That all sounds right to me. But surely the important word here is ‘choose’, whereas Catherine M. never seems to choose. She just sort of gets on with it.

There’s no narrative, no hint of Catherine the person, the art critic, the editor – just Catherine M: the set of genitals. And yes, I use the word genitals because it fits the tone of the book – which is utterly clinical and dull. That’s right, DULL. A succession of anonymous penises that all blur into one, a series of unsexy sexual encounters. Yes she does it in the office, in a stairwell, in a flat so seething with filth there’s no room to park her naked bum – but we never get past boring. If the book wasn’t so short I might have given up.

Once again, I’m not saying that Millet shouldn’t have sex with whoever she pleases. On the contrary, I believe that that is her right. I just don’t want to read about it because her style is so dreary she might as well be writing about having a catheter put in. Sex to her is as simple as eating a bowl of soup. Fine, I suppose, but a woman eating bowl after bowl of soup does not a bestseller make. Even if the soup is a slightly different flavour each time.

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – a lot of wasted ink

Unless you’ve been hiding away in a hut in Outer Mongolia for the last couple of years you will have heard of Stieg Larsson and his trio of crime thrillers, the first of which is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  So many friends of mine have read and raved about it that I felt I should form my own opinion. So here that is….

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is pacy and entertaining and it keeps you guessing until the very end. It’s pretty gruesome in parts, which is not my cup of tea – but then I’m not a big crime fiction fan. I’m the sort of person who gets upset every time I watch the news and I can’t read the Metro in the morning unless I want to lie awake worrying every night.

But… even putting aside my distaste for the gruesome and the sordid I can’t say that I loved the book or that I felt the incredible hype surrounding it was justified. The characters feel like cardboard cut-outs, the plot is totally implausible and the book sorely needs some editing.  To give an example, Lisbeth Salander’s computer breaks and Larsson says: “Unsurprisingly, she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminium case with a Power PC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 megs of RAM and a sixty gig hard  drive. It had BlueTooth and built in C.D and D.V.D. burners.” What????

Another classic example (sorry, I couldn’t resist it) comes about when Blomkvist is writing up the Vanger family tree. Larsson says: “The family was so extensive that he was forced to create a database in his iBook. He used the NotePad programme (www.ibrium.se), one of those full-value products that two men at the Royal Technical College had created and distributed as shareware for a pittance on the internet.”

Seriously, what the hell? What editor in his right mind would let that utter tripe slip through the net? You have to wonder how it was allowed to happen – no normal author would be allowed to stamp his feet and force such dreadful material through the editing process, I’m sure of it….

On that note, the story behind Larsson’s crime trilogy is much more interesting than the books themselves. (This is perhaps the x-factor that accounts for their runaway success.) The untimely death of the author (pretty much just after he turned his manuscripts over to the publishers) and the subsequent battle between his partner of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, and his estranged family for control of his estate – these stories are the stuff of great fiction.

I was ready to blame Gabrielsson for the dreadful editing of Larsson’s book. It smacked of her being over-fussy about keeping his original text but in an interview with the Guardian she actually criticises the English translation of the book. (Since she and Larsson were not married she had no say when it came to the editing.) She claims that Larsson’s family has not taken good enough care of his existing work and she also complains that Larsson’s British editor, Christopher MacLehose, has ‘prissified’ his dialogue. (Is he also responsible for the other editorial crimes that occur throughout or should the family’s overbearing influence be blamed for those?) Either way, someone should be ashamed.

Gabrielsson complains that now Larsson is dead “the “mythology” is unbearable.” I can imagine her frustrations. As a reader, I think the mythology that surrounds the Millenium trilogy puts Larsson’s books on a pedestal when really they’re average crime thrillers (speaking for the first book anyway – which I am told is the best). If you’re not much of a reader and you’re not a pedant like myself, pick the book up at the airport and enjoy it. Personally, the whole thing was a bit sloppy for me and there were dull stretches where I felt my interest flagging.

Having read the ‘taster’ for the second book in the back, which again dealt with a gruesome rape, I think I’ve accepted that these books just aren’t for me. I’m not attacking Larsson for writing them – after all, he is essentially a feminist and good for him – but I don’t have the stomach for them. And if I want to know about the latest (or in this case outdated) computer gadgets I’ll go to PC World…

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