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How to Be a Woman: A Strident Manifesto

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Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman is to me a cushty feminist manifesto, accessible. There is none of the ‘male-hating’ which feminists are so often accused off, it does not cite reams of statistics or complex analysis. Moran tackles the small (though not insignificant) stuff, the too-small underwear, high heels, ugly handbags. She accepts that texts already exist which examine FGM, the glass ceiling, the gender pay gap, rape, and this is not that. If you’re looking for that, you can find that elsewhere. This on the other hand, is lighthearted, more fun.

Caitlin Moran’s writing has been somewhat problematic for me, while I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of what she says, it is her tone I cannot get on-board with. It is funny, it is informal, but is also reminds me of what I was writing when I was a teenager (although admittedly I’ve never had her skill). Guest writes that How to Be a Woman is ‘full of shouty capitals and shocking personal confessions, which could so easily come across as teenage, grating and slightly mental in less assured hands’. And while I think for the vast majority of readers, it is personable, they feel as though they would love to be friends with the writer, for me it is a wee bit irritating. It’s like I can see why it is funny, but it’s just not. Maybe it is the medium, I would probably adore it as a TV show, I would no doubt be fully on-board.

I wanted to get my criticism of How to Be a Woman out the way quickly so now we can focus on the ways in which it is fantastic.

For Moran, the personal is very much political, I think the ways in which Three Women highlighted the ways in which heterosexual relationships are predominately patriarchal, here Moran is empowering women to be more. Moran wants women to strive to be more than a mother and a wife, a framework which writes her off when she is finished being fertile. Her conclusion is, she wants to see more women. I grew up in a household where everyone (except me) was very good at science and maths, I was more arty. When I was younger, it used to enrage me that my mother didn’t see any value in this. I recognised early the need for society to be a variety, we couldn’t all be scientific because then there would be no music, no film. I didn’t see why there should be a hierarchy of expertise. Moran reminded me of these feelings when she loudly proclaims she wants to see more women. It’s not that we don’t also want to see men too, we just want variety. I think it was Gloria Steinem My Life on the Road which I read recently which also made this point that the personal is always political.

Moran’s views on sexism were interesting, though I am not sure I agree, she states that if you strip it all back, sexism is simply impoliteness, bad manners. She sees sexism as not about men vs. women,  but winners vs. losers, in that men have just been leaders for so long they don’t want to give up their birthright power. I think it was Rebecca Traiser in Good and Mad who wrote, that too often women are made to feel like they need to put other women down to get ahead. As though there is a finite amount of success afforded to women, a slice, whereas it should be seen as a cake, there can be some for everyone. I think that is the point though of all kinds of prejudices, sexism, racism etc, it is letting someone get ahead who you may have previously had an upper-hand over. Rather than allowing a rightful meritocracy, getting ahead based upon your demographic is tempting when you have the ‘right’ credentials.

It wouldn’t be my blog if I rattled off some personal detail which no one excluding myself really cared about so here goes! How to Be a Woman gave me clarity. Recently, I have been speaking to a man I was previously speaking to. I had stopped speaking to him months ago as he ignored me for long stretches of times and I often felt as though he was avoiding my messages, and he is a lovely guy, a really nice guy and I felt that he was perhaps too nice to just tell me he wasn’t interested. He popped back into my life recently and I responded. This weekend, his behaviour is repeating, he is actively avoiding the message I sent him and I know he will message me back when my weekend finishes and he knows he won’t have to spend time with me. I’ve been feeling desperately for the last few weeks that I was – I need – to speak to a friend for advice. Moran makes the point that in the early days of a relationship, dating, wanting to talk about it often highlights that the relationship isn’t right, when really all you’re doing is talking about great length because nothing is happening. If you were happy, you would just disappear for a few months, no one would hear from you and you’d return fatter after just getting on with it. My desperation to talk, to hear a different perspective which pins the blame on my unrealistic expectations emphasises that this is not the right thing for me.

I wanted to end the post with a quote from Sawyer, ‘the joy of this book is just that: the joy. What Moran is really arguing for is more female happiness’. She is championing unadulterated joy, sheer delight at being a ‘woman’, she wants us to be free from the meaningless worries and ‘do’ more rather than just ‘be’. The ‘joy’ is also the pleasure that can be found in friendships between women and the utter hilarity of many women which is all too often dismissed.

 

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Book Reviews Everything Writing

A Ladder to the Sky – Boyne’s Machiavellian Anti-hero

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Published in 2018, John Boyne’s Ladder to the Sky centres around the wannabe novelist Maurice. A character we witness sacrifice everything for literary success. While he is a talented writer, he lacks imagination, his plots are dull. He sees this as merely a minor inconvenience, bypassing this potential weakness by plagiarising from those around him.

Maurice is a Machiavellian character, a figure ruled by his ambition. He is a narcissist who sees his place as amongst the literary greats. He is consistent in his seemingly unwavering belief that the end justifies the means. His first novel is based on a secret he cajoled out of his mentor, Erich. Growing up in the rise of Nazi Germany, Erich, a young man in love, unwittingly sends five people to their deaths at the hands of the Nazis. This becomes a secret he lives with for his life, until he meets and confides in Maurice who publishes without his knowledge. By this point, Erich is infatuated and the shame of the ordeal sees him retire into relative obscurity. That’s the thing about Maurice, he sees people as pawns in his game, he assesses what he can get from them and cultivates a friendship based on that. Once they have fulfilled their purpose, he drops them unexpectedly and moves onto the next thing, the next victim.

One reviewer writes before his meeting with Gore, Maurice was simply using people, however after this meeting Maurice becomes dangerous. There is a limit to what he will do for success. The striking thing about Maurice is his complete inability to feel any guilt, perhaps if was able to feel even a slither of empathy, he wouldn’t be totally devoid of writing plot. Even when he is duped into a confession, he finds a way to condone all his actions. He feels that by editing other people’s work, he can justify the assertion that it is in fact his work. For Maurice, it is very much the praise the commercial success he seeks, he has no desire for personal accomplishment. While he wants to be the name behind the next great novel, he does not want to be the manpower. Ambition and success act as an insatiable craving for Maurice, he comes addicted. With each ‘bad thing’ he does, he gives off the sense to those who catch him out, that this will be the last thing, the last time, he just needs this one thing. But it is too easy for Maurice, he can’t give it up, it satisfies everything he has ever wanted and he craves the next thing, he never has enough.

The novel is so good because the plot is so good, you could read it in one sitting, wholly due to it’s sheer driving force. My only criticism of the novel would be, in some parts, it feels somewhat heavy-handed. Some of the characters lack subtly, it feels as though Boyne spends a great deal of time telling you things, rather than showing you. While I think the point was that a lot of characters lacked self-awareness, I found a lot of the dialogue unrealistic. For example, Rebecca, she was an awful character but it felt like Boyne was desperately trying to tell me how bad, rather than showing me, rather than just describing her actions and describing her through Edith’s memories. Some of the characterisation felt forced, but on the other hand Boyne has done a tremendous job of creating Maurice, a nefarious figure with psychotic tendencies.

The premise of the novel is based on a proverb ‘ambition is putting a ladder to the sky’, in that achievement is limitless but with each step up the ladder, the fall back down grows greater. Maurice’s two goals in life is to become a successful novelist and to become a father and he achieves both. However, his methods at rising to the top, once discovered leave a large space for him to fall. While I talked about how I wanted Emily in A Simple Favour to ‘get away’ with her crimes, in this I was relieved when they caught up with him. I relished his exposure, it felt as though justice had been served.

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Book Reviews Everything Writing

A Simple Favour: A Simple Read

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Craving something easy, I picked this up, I’ve not been reading as much the last week and needed something I could fly through and this fitted the bill perfectly. Since it’s publication, A Simple Favour has been made into a film, which I am obsessed with. I think it is rare a film is better than a book but in this case, I think it might be the case. I remember when I read Jamaica Inn (Daphne Du Maurier) years ago, and soon after reading it there was a BBC adaption released and within minutes they had changed parts of the plot. At the time I was to some extent enraged, I was disappointed they’d felt the need to change something that was already so perfect. A Simple Favour on the other hand was made perfect by the film. In this review I will discuss both the book and the film, I would highly recommend the film.

The narration is told through three perspectives, Stephanie’s, Emily’s and Sean’s. Predominately it is told through Stephanie and her ‘mummy-blog’, she publishes the case details through the blog and eventually uses her blog as a way of subtly communicating with Emily. Despite being a fictional character, you can imagine how irritating a real life Stephanie would be. Stephanie frequently alludes to a ‘deep, dark secret’, she is consumed with guilt and is deeply ashamed. Sean fairly accurately points out that the only person who cares, is Stephanie, Stephanie is very much in her own head, taking on the weight of the world. She depicts the contrast between the offline and online persona. We see both from Stephanie, in her ‘offline’ passages, we see how often she is preoccupied by the other mum’s opinions, her fear of being judged by them for her honesty. We see her hypocrisy, she wants to unite mums and create a space for them to interact but it is a facade, she plays a character they’ll not judge. It reminded me of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, where he highlights the wrong opinion online can elicit an onslaught of criticism. Online, Stephanie becomes the person she wants to be, atoning for her past.

Emily’s husband, Sean is a minor perspective we see during the narrative. He is framed as the abusive husband, despite the inaccuracy of this, we don’t feel much sympathy for him. He may not be overtly a bad husband, he needs little help in casting himself as the selfish man, seeking out his own gratification. He uses Stephanie, he blames Emily for everything. My main gripe with Sean however, is his poor characterisation. He is British, which Bell frequently reminds us, because if she hadn’t, we would literally have had no idea. As a British person, there are parts I literally recoiled, for example when he describes getting pizza with his 5 year-old as ‘two guys picking up pizza on the fly’. I am confident no matter how long a British person lives in the States, their internal monologue will never sound like this. There seemed little point in making Sean British, it just posed as an unnecessary trip-hazard for the author.

Finally, onto the best perspective, Emily. I think she is further developed in the film, and the film version of Emily is probably my absolute favourite fictional character ever. Emily says all the things you aren’t allowed to say in the film, in the book she too has a public vs private image. She damage controls her whole life. For example, we hear Emily’s voicemail early on in the book which just politely asks the caller to leave a message, in the film, her voicemail is ‘leave a message or go fuck yourself’. Film Emily is everything. While I was reading this, it struck me why I love her so much, she is the ultimate matriarch. She is omniscient, she has such a present that she can afford to not be watching. She orchestrates everything and puts it all down to boredom.

A Simple Favour follows a similar strand of fiction as Gone Girl, I think Bell was incredibly lucky it became a film but it was also improved by the film. However, I remember when I first watched the film with a friend, we were both disappointed that Emily was caught. If there is one thing the book does better, is that Emily escapes, she is free as the novel closes.

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Book Reviews Everything Writing

Three Woman – Lisa Taddeo

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Written by Lisa Taddeo, Three Women recounts the ‘love’ stories of three women, it is the ‘defining sexual relationships in three people’s lives’ (Witt). It is lyrical in it’s style and poses itself as non-friction, with Taddeo the omniscient narrator who spent 8 years getting to know each woman. In a sense it reads like a high-brow companion to the film How to be Single, which centres around the notion that a woman’s worth and personal story is told through her dating history. That relationships to a woman are integral though largely unsatisfying.

Love and relationships is inadvertently posited as patriarchal, something I was subconsciously feeling but hadn’t named. I have felt at the whim of men for my whole dating life, feeling as though I need to be selected, a man needs to consciously choose me or the ‘relationship’ is fleeting. I mean this in a bigger way than just deciding if you romantically like someone or not, I mean, I consistently feel disposable. Three Women has helped me see the universality of this feeling. Even when Lina begins an affair with a married man, he is the one who is calling the shots, she has no agency in the relationship. Her only agency is leaving her husband but even this farmers little control for her. Furthermore, what is interesting is the two books which are cited by the women are Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, both depicting problematic relationships. In Twilight it is a ‘forbidden’ love, Bella practically begs Edward into her life. 50 Shades on the other hand (in my opinion) depicts an abusive relationship, where Anna is controlled and (legally) silenced by Christian. In both men are cast as stoic, in control and a woman’s only power is temptation which the man consistently fights. Bright summarises this well, she writes that the two are marketed at ‘female audiences, which create an echo-chamber that enforces, romanticises and finally excuses patriarchal power’. Our literature is not only romanticising our submission but it is reinforcing male control. 

The patriarchal landscape in which this is set, casts the women in the ‘male gaze’. The women have internalised the male gaze, they are all conscious of how they are viewed by men. Sloane has sex with men her husband chooses for her because he enjoys watching her have sex. He’s voyeuristic and acts as a crew member on a porn set rather than the atypical husband.

Furthermore, victimhood is explored, Maggie is in a relationship with her schoolteacher when she is a minor. The relationship begins when Maggie confides in her teacher that she had a relationship with an older man. Their relationship unfolds much like a teenagers first love. In hindsight, Maggie begins to view this relationship as inappropriate and reports it, it goes to trial and he is found ‘not guilty’. On the one hand, it shows how a man is able to hide his crimes behind his perceived respectability and charm (in much the same way as Humbert Humbert was able to hide behind his education). On the other hand, it shows how Maggie just wasn’t the ‘right kind of victim’, her parents are heavy drinkers, following the relationship she enters a long period of depression and becomes a figure of pity but not one to be believed against Mr Knodel, Teacher of the Year. In my review of Lolita,  I made the point that we choose which children we protect. Maggie is seen as a fantasist, no one believes her, the act itself is not necessarily condemned, it is questioned, the focus becomes ‘why her?’ She is not the most popular, the most beautiful, so why would he go for her? Perhaps, it is not such a leap to suggest that this is exactly why he went for her, she was in prime condition to be groomed. Her easy silence makes her the perfect victim. Three Women perhaps also tackles how victims view themselves and perhaps in turn how we should change the way we view victims. Firstly, Maggie didn’t see herself as a victim, she sees herself as hopelessly in love with someone who reciprocates her feelings. And secondly, victims don’t have to be likeable and they don’t have to be victims for 100% of the time. I am in no way condoning this relationship, but the point I am trying to make is a situation can start off okay, sex can begin consensual, and become rape. To bring it back to Maggie, you can become a victim with hindsight, things don’t need immediately addressing as wrong to be wrong, hindsight can make them wrong. We can’t and don’t expect children to have this level of perception, knowing the inappropriateness of this relationship comes in full force with age. 

Maggie’s character is interesting as she belongs to the trajectory of female rage. The reactionary power of female rage, we see it online so frequently with the likes of #MeToo. We see women who are angry about how they’ve been treated and are speaking out. Maggie is punished for speaking out, but she belongs to a wave of female rage that needs to be heard. Perpetrators need to be accountable. If there is one thing in the world. I cannot stand, it is when people treat others however they want to without facing the consequences. Do what you want, but actions have consequences. People get hurt. The rage all three women in this narrative feel emerges ‘in relation or in response to that of the man or men in her life’ (Bright).

There is a solitude in Three Women, not only do the women face judgement, but they are also lacking in any kind of support group. As a woman reading this, it reinforces the importance of female companionship. When a woman is a victim, she inadvertently becomes a voice for all other women, however she must still fight to convince women that she is a victim. If we are making other women our figureheads for a better society, the very least we can do is support them, we need to stop judging fellow women so harshly.

 

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Everything Writing

Mom & Me & Mom (and my mother)

It is inaccurate (and unfair) to paint a version of my mother which deems her a bad parent, but my relationship with my mother feels complex. I don’t want to cast her as ‘bad’, but she has never struck me as a particularly loving parent. I don’t think she has given me and my brothers as unhappy upbringing by any stretch, but she has definitely dived into parenting carrying the baggage of her parents mistakes. The apple has not fallen far from that tree. Mom & Me & Mom has made me question my own relationship with my mother. I don’t want to lay the blame for all my faults at my mother’s door, that is a cop-out and it feels too easy. But I have been thinking of ways I would raise children (particularly daughters) to be different from me, and Angelou’s narrative has reinforced this. I would teach a daughter to know her own worth first and foremost, this is not to make a girl arrogant, but this is to stop her accommodating shitty behaviour. I want women, I want a daughter, not to linger. To acknowledge when they are not being treated right, accept that the other person’s behaviour towards them will not improve (but likely get worse) and to walk away. Not to stay because they have somehow convinced themselves that they either deserve this or that this is their ‘one chance’. I want them to feel confident alone, to be single as a default, and only enter relationships that are worthwhile.

I can’t reiterate enough how I don’t want to blame my mother. But perhaps there is something in this. For my mother, I never felt like I was enough, I was never clever enough. It was all about results, it wasn’t about the ‘well you tried your best’, that felt largely irrelevant. I have in turn never felt like I have been enough for any of my partners, and in my defence my previous partners have all proven that I wasn’t enough. I remember as a child, not so much trying to impress my mother (although that was also very much present), but altering my behaviour to avoid her anger. Whereas what strikes me about Maya’s mother is her reason. She changes what she sees worth changing (what she can change) and accepts what she cannot. Faced with Maya’s pregnancy, her mother is accommodating, she appreciates it is not a situation she can change and that what is needed is a practical approach. The fear of her mother’s reaction that Maya feels is stifled. She isn’t going to make her daughter miserable along with everything else she must have been feeling. I know my mother has lost her temper with me in a big way for much less.

There is an incident in Mom & Me & Mom where Maya expresses her desire to be a conductor. She is unaware that being black will pose a hindrance in pursing this career. She tells her mother she was rejected and her mother sends her back, she tells her not to take no for an answer. And this advice works, she gets the job, it feels idealist but it works. I think this is maybe a stroke of luck, but the sheer confidence her mother has in her must be significant. It seems important that she had a woman championing her, I don’t know if this difference in my own childhood would have been significant, if it would have shaped who I am now, but it surely wouldn’t have hurt. I remember once a conversation with my father who said my mother wasn’t much in the way of a ‘female influence’ for me. He didn’t mean this cruelly, but my mother is so bound up with her own insecurities. I used to starve myself as a teenager, at the time, I thought this was my thing, I thought it was my own way of garnering control. However, my mother will also starve herself when she wants to lose weight, it is a very short term solution, but that’s her method. And I realise, that I must have learnt this behaviour subconsciously. In the same way, I think I have learnt to hate myself from being witness to my mother’s perspective of herself.

However, if there is one thing my mother is not, it is weak. So why am I constantly making myself small? Why do I mould myself to what others around me want me to do? My mother is not like that at all, it is not unreasonable to say that my mother’s sheer anger has had me walking on eggshells my whole life. I think she learnt this behaviour from her father, that anger could get results, it could be used as a tactic. I think she grew up watching her father get unreasonably angry and watched it get results as everyone would scamper and accommodate his needs to keep him happy. To keep the peace. I don’t think she purposefully does this, but I think she know it’s how you get what you want. I am the complete opposite of this, I suppress my anger to keep others happy, I avoid confrontation at all costs. Why have I got such a strong mother, but in my relationships, what I want is to love someone and keep them happy. Not that I have ever had this, but I want someone who will take me and not take advantage. Perhaps it is seeing my parents explosive marriage (although hugely one-sided) that has made me so docile. As though timidness will make me more lovable, watching my mother (unintentionally) push everyone who cares away has had the opposite effect.

I want to finish with some wisdom someone gave me recently, he said if someone is hard to love, and abrasive on the outside, their internal voice is likely worse. So in all the ways I am not good enough for my mother, it is likely, the way she talks to herself is much worse.

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Worn Out

I am so sick of men saying one thing to my face
And behaving the complete opposite the next week.
I am too sad to sleep, too enraged.
Expecting too much too soon, or accepting less.
You said you liked me, liked spending time with me.
But it is weeks later and now you barely respond, barely engage.
I just wanted to mould into the girl you wanted,
To be whatever you were looking for.

So I stopped looking, stopped inviting men into my life,
as they did little for me but diminish my fleeting self-worth.
And yet here you are, a man uninvited, entering my life for what?
To feign interest and leave me feeling empty,
leave me feeling worse than I did before.
You have mastered the art of saying the right thing
Perfected the ‘nice guy’ act, it’s a disguise.
Wears me out, my need to self-preserve and
the constant internal fighting against new feelings.

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Book Reviews Reviews Writing

Vagina – A Re-Education

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Lynn Enright’s Vagina: A Re-Education is the solid attempt to re-educate all things vagina/vulva and to move women’s genitalia away from a discourse of shame. Enright’s tone is perfect, she is factual, anecdotal, she writes in a way which is engaging as well as educational. And I did learn a lot from this book. While she talks in depth about the general anatomy, it is the cultural vagina and the woman in the bigger picture that I am perhaps most interested in here. She talks about how the modern education system is lacking, how sex education is not doing enough to educate young girls and boys about the vaginas, it is either skimming over the facts or it is giving them inaccurate facts. Enrights rightfully argues that the emphasis on sexual education is how to make babies and how to avoid making babies. While I think this is true from my own sex education at school, what I also think is missing is the exclusion of pornography. I think we can no longer ignore that this is where young people are learning about sex (you just need to see the rise of choking to see this) and that without context, pornography is a really dangerous place for a sexual education. Contraception is obviously important, but we should be teaching consent. We should be teaching women so much more about their bodies than just not how to get pregnant, given that so many of them will be sexually assaulted.

Enright devotes an entire chapter to the hymen, of it being a myth. The idea of your hymen breaking during sex for the first time is not only incorrect but is also damaging women. In many cultures, a woman is expected to remain a virgin until she is married or risk bringing shame on her family. Sex in this instance takes the focus away from the couple and becomes a topic of interest to the wider family. The hymen myth is firstly problematic as a lot of women won’t experience pain and blood during their first time. And secondly, when a woman is a virgin, her hymen becomes a site of concern. Hymen reconstruction surgery is on the rise so that women can recreate this first time for their husband. While, I did have a joke with my friends when I learnt this fact, jokingly telling my friends that hymen reconstruction surgery was perhaps ‘the fresh start I needed’. The idea that women are seeking out (and paying for) surgery to ‘correct’ their vaginas to protect themselves from the potential reaction from their husband and extended family is so outdated and dangerous. The myth is propelled by cultural fear that wants women to stay ‘pure’ for their husbands. It is a myth that is perpetuated to further exert control over women. Enright also mentioned that capsules can be bought online (either filled with animal blood or red dye) which can then be inserted into the vagina and burst during sex to allude to the hymen having broken. What strikes me as interesting about this whole phenomenon is that these very same men who want women to bleed profusely for them on their wedding night, are not the same men who would entertain the idea of having sex with a woman on her period. Blood that is caused by a man is desirable (there is perhaps also a ‘more the better’ attitude towards it), but blood caused by the female body is deemed disgusting and avoided. Blood that proves male dominance and ownership is permissible.

Surgery to alter the labia is on the rise, in fact I believe that it is the fastest growing form of cosmetic surgery at the moment. Pornography is often blamed for this, as increasingly the first time men and women (perhaps more fittingly boys and girls) see a naked, sexualised body is in porn, before they have any awareness that the vulva can be (and is often) surgically altered by the pornstar performing, they are already comparing it to theirs. Harrington writes in her review of Vagina ‘we call the vulva the vagina, then infantilise it with daft names or pornify it with porny names’. The male gaze has a large part to play here. I don’t think it is such a leap for me to suggest that porn to made on the whole for a male audience. So from porn, women are learning what men are expecting their vaginas to look like. From pornography, the vulva is given a name less anatomical, more comical, the ‘pussy’, it makes it sound docile. The vagina is sidelined, it is seen as an accessory to male pleasure. It is spoken to like a third person in the room, ‘your pussy likes that’, denying the woman full pleasure. I think it is easy to blame the sex education children receive in schools but I think it is largely being ignored that children are learning about sex online in unhelpful places and that this needs to be tackled.

Another point I learnt while reading this was the use of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) in Victorian Britain. Isaac Baker Brown removed the clitorises for women during this period for various reasons, he saw it as a cure for female hysteria. Women would visit him if they had low sexual libido and he would remove the clitoris. Absolute madness given that the clitoris is the only part of the male or female body which purely functions for pleasure. Baker Brown’s license was revoked and he moved to America to continue the practise there. What is is interesting is the debate in Britain didn’t condemn him for mutilating a woman’s genitalia. His license was revoked because he was performing the surgery without the consent of the woman’s husband, brother, father etc. The problem the authorities had with it was a kind of property law, that Baker Brown was daring to tamper with a man’s woman without first consulting the man first.

The point that resonated most with me in Vagina was the point about heterosexual women having the worst time sexually of all. Enright cites a study in the US in 2017, 50,000 people were surveyed, which found 95% of straight men usually or always orgasmed during sex, whereas 65% of straight women did (which seems awfully high to me). I understand that men are maybe a wee bit more straight forward when it comes to an orgasm, but you compare this to 86% of lesbians saying that they usually or always orgasm, it might suggest there is something currently wrong with the way boys are taught about sex. I think part of the problem, perhaps from my own experience of sex education was for me at school most of it was segregated, the girls would be in one classroom discussing periods, and boys would be in another room, I suspect discussing wet dreams, I don’t know. I think the problem is we should be teaching children together about each other’s bodies, not just assuming that you only need to know about your own gender. Also, I know I have probably made this point before on this blog but I’m going to make it again. I was with my ex-boyfriend for nearly three years and had the most unsatisfying sex, I didn’t get close with him at all for the whole duration of the relationship. I think some of this is my own fault, but I want to pin most of it to him, but not all. However, I think I was his 5th sexual partner and in that time, he had made one girl orgasm once (and I think she might have faked it). I think if this was a woman who had 5 sexual partners and had made one of them orgasm once, she would be mortified, she would think there was something wrong with her, she would either educate herself or be too ashamed to have sexual partners. But instead, my ex-boyfriend blamed me. He had so many theories as to why I didn’t enjoy having sex with him and none of them positioned him as the fault, it was always mine. I think education could go a long way in breaking down this myth that women are virtually impossible to infiltrate, female orgasms should be seen as less mythical and more commonplace. I don’t want education to make either gender feel inadequate, but I want the vagina to be seen as less of a problem zone.

I think the key message to take away from this book is that there is still so little research done on vagina (in part perhaps due to science being historically dominated by men). As there is still so much we don’t know about vaginas and on a wider note, sex, we can’t just teach children in school as a tick-box exercise. What I mean is, this is where education should begin, but we should be constantly re-educating ourselves.

 

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Eloquent Rage – Evolutionary Feminism

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Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage is a collection of essays which show her feminist evolution. She writes from her perspective of a black feminist, in both a personal and academic way. I would at this point like this point out that I am a white feminist, so please call me out. In some respects I do think this was unapologetic, it didn’t give a fuck if I liked it or not. I think there are so many interesting points in Eloquent Rage and I’m sorry if this review ends up coming across as though I didn’t enjoy it, I did, I just didn’t necessarily agree with it.

I absolutely adored the honesty of Cooper. She was talking about her singleness, she admits she wants companionship, how you can want a life partner and still be a feminist. She reiterated that women are not betraying their feminism by wanting these things. She talks about how inter-racial relationships became more commonplace, black men are dating more white women and white men are not dating black women. In this section, what I might have appreciated being explored was the idea of the black woman being fetishised. How attributes physically assigned to black women are desirable but on a white woman. For example this trend for large bottoms and big lips, men (and non-black women) want the physical feature, but they do not want the woman. A woman’s physical body is becoming a site of cultural appropriation.

Following on from this, the point she makes about Bill Crosby felt more of a theory than a fact. Cooper argues that as Crosby predominately rapes white women, it becomes a symbol for white supremacy. As Crosby will have grown up in a milleu of racism, of being black first, he chooses to exert power by raping women. I wholeheartedly agree that rape is more about power than it is about sex. However, Cooper even admits that Crosby raped black women, so it wasn’t about some chip-on-the-shoulder (I’m not trying to downplay the impact of relentless racism). I think he was a man in a position of power who could get away with his treatment of these women and did, I think it says more about his character, I don’t think it becomes a kind of social commentary about the treatment of black men in America. I think white women were perhaps a target for Crosby, but they weren’t a convoluted political point.

Cooper discusses how she was put off by feminism in part because she still wanted to be attractive to men. I’m not put off feminism for this reason but I guess this point gave me a realisation. I want to be powerful, strong-minded woman, and I am worried that this intimidates men. There have been instances where I have purposefully made myself small in order to facilitate fragile masculinity. It winds me up that I have done this (and will most likely do this again). The problem is that I entirely understand feminism, I am so on-board with it, but that I don’t believe in myself. Wow, that was probably the cheesiest line I have ever written on this blog. What I mean by this, is internally, I am strong, the advice I give to other woman is all about them being strong, of knowing their worth, of basically telling men to ‘sit on their own dick’. But when it comes to me, I act agreeable. In part, I often feel that there is no point beginning an argument (often about things that were really important – like for example, consent) with someone who will never understand it from my perspective. I don’t want to put a man off me by being too strong-willed, I don’t want to assertive my opinions. Whereas perhaps what I need is to take my feminism and what I am internally and around friends and not be afraid that it will upset a man. If it upsets men, that should be okay, that should be the point. My being a woman is important to me and it should be more important to me than a man’s ego.

Finally, what I loved about this book is the implication it has for female rage. In Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister, she talks about how black women are used as a symbol of rage, how we have even weirdly culturally appropriated their rage. What I think is interesting is how powerful female rage is (and perhaps importantly how downplayed it is). Female rage has been present in so many political movements, from suffrage to #MeToo. And for me, rage brings clarity. In my case, I can get angry about how I am being treated and then it comes with a clarity, that either that thing matters to me or that it is beneath me. There are so many things as women that we are and we should be angry about. I am personally angry and the state of consent, that women are still explaining this to men who at this point are wilfully ignorant. I am sick of the constant self-sacrifice women make. I’m bored of protecting men’s feelings, who in turn ignore ours.

I think rather than seeing rage as a masculinity trait, women need to harness it, they needs more confidence. I need more confidence. I know Eloquent Rage was perhaps not written for me, there is still so much in there to really think about.

Categories
Everything Writing

An Option

Slipping back into old habits,
Ignored for hours, transparent lies.
Just why is it you wanted me back?
Wanted someone to ask about your day?
A bit of faux intimacy to make you feel less alone?
You see me as merely an option,
Which is fine, suits me well in fact,
As I see you as nothing at all.

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Book Reviews Everything Writing

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – A Bildungsroman ‘Done Right’

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Published in 1943, Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel narrates the childhood of Francie. A simplistic interpretation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would be that it deals with the American Dream, it deals with rising above poverty. However, I think it deals with so much more than this, at the heart, it feels a novel about women, about their complexity and their variance. To me, it deals with women who care deeply, feel emotions passionately and have ambition. It deals with an impoverished upbringing in Brooklyn, where ambition is cultivated and nourished. It highlights the importance of education as a vehicle out of poverty. But, I think the pure charm of this novel, is that you can strip away all the detail, and find at the core an endearing and relatable protagonist.

‘Sometimes I think it’s better to suffer bitter unhappiness and to fight and scream out, and even to suffer that pain, than just to be…safe…At least she knows she’s living’

Absolute perfection in a quote. And for me this made the book worth reading, and boy was it a long book! Granted, in this line, the character who utters this is referring to Katie’s labour pains. And in that moment, I don’t suppose knowing you’re ‘living’ is of any comfort. But on a more personal note, this made me think. Because is it better to feel anything, rather than nothing? If you can’t control the degrees to which you feel it, is it better? I feel in touch with my emotions, and feel as though I have a lot of them (I am Pisces afterall!), many of them negative. When I am sad, I am really down, and my highs can be quite high. I do know with my negative emotions, it shows I care. I was dating a man recently (ended terribly and has barely ended at all), but I was jealous with him. Even now, I hate the idea of another girl getting his attention for the night. And I was open about this, I told him I was jealous, but my jealousy means something, it means I care. My jealousy isn’t a given, it shows a person, that I think what I have is not worth losing. I am obsessive, with things I love, I really love them, I let them consume me. And is it better to care like I do? So far, it hasn’t felt like it. But my emotions for all their faults, they never bore me, I always know how I feel, whether I want to feel them or not. But do I get the same passion from anyone else? No, I don’t, and I always feel more invested, like I am trying desperately to get others to care. As pathetic as it now sounds, with the man, I have just mentioned, I thought if I could just get him to care about me, he would want to date me. If I could just make him see I was a nice girl, he would care. For obvious reasons, this did not work.

Is this a novel about ‘care’, about priorities? I think so, maybe. For Francie, she cares about everything. As the novel is narrated by her, we get the privilege of being privy to these cares. She cares about her school, about learning, about reading that one book a day, about rising above her upbringing. She cares that she is solitary, she dreams of making friends with girls her own age, of knowing how to do this. She cares that her mother seemingly loves her brother more. She reaches the conclusion that maybe this is okay, as maybe it’s okay that she loves her brother more, but that she needs her more, she concludes ‘she needs me more than she needs him and I guess being needed is almost as good as being love. Maybe better’. Francie is a character who doesn’t shy away from addressing her feelings, she accepts she is not her mother’s favourite, she doesn’t see this as an injustice, she merely accepts it. She deeply cares about her family, she is willing to give up her schooling to earn enough money to look after her family. Francie is in many respects the absolute pinnacle of self-sacrifice. It’s self-sacrifice without self-pity, it’s a kind of self-sacrifice which believes it can earn love.

It is not only sacrifice, to tease this out, it also perhaps could be read, that each love takes a part of you with them. With Francie’s love for Lee, he takes her innocence, he takes her short-term happiness. Her mother makes the comment that the first love leaves a permanent mark, that you will see a part of them in all those who come after. And I guess this is true. In the words of one of my favourite band, The Twilight Sad, ‘there is no love too small’.

There is a naivety about Francie which is both endearing and oddly effective. She fiercely believes in her intellect, and it is this which gets her through education, she has a determination, through hard work she is able to bend the world to her expectations. It is a novel where women are consistently outshining the men. Katie is the main breadwinner, Mary is the matriarch and Francie is the one with ambition. While it perhaps feeds into a greater dynamic between mother and daughter, it is Francie who’s education is sacrificed for Neely, seemingly due to the mother’s unwavering belief in Francie’s natural abilities. The tree grows in Brooklyn, but the tree is Brooklyn, and the use of ‘grows’, rather than ‘grew’, shows ongoing development.

While Francie endeavours to sacrifice herself for love, Sissy proves a more selfish, but no less desperate desire to love and be loved. She is ridiculed for moving from husband to husband, she names each husband ‘John’ as she likes the name. As though she has created this ‘John’ figure as her ideal man. It is only when her final John proves his love that she begins to call him by his real name. Interestingly, Katie also has her ‘John/Johnny’, Johnny is dating her friend when they meet and she decides she wants him. He eventually leaves her friend for Katie and Katie sets about altering him. Sissy on the other hand, with each relationship she dives in thinking they will complete her. What she thinks will complete her (and does) is a baby. When each man fails to give her a baby, she moves onto the next ‘John’. It is the ‘John’ that plays along with her facade and facilitates her motherhood who she keeps. It is with him, as a mother and a wife, she can feel complete. Sissy is such a character who I can imagine at the time this book was released, was not fully appreciated. She is a woman who dares to know what she wants and is intent on getting it. She refuses to settle, and is convoluted way, things do work out for Sissy.

Finally, it is loneliness that lingers on every page, it feels real, it feels raw. It is a preoccupation for Francie. It is the loneliness in amongst the chaos, the ‘busy’ of Brooklyn. There appears a disconnect between Francie and the external world, the one place she is rooted is Brooklyn. When her family suggests she move out of Brooklyn to study in the hope that she will lose her accent, she indicates her desire to keep this as a token as ‘it meant that she belonged some place’. This sense of belonging is so greatly important to her, perhaps in part due to the lack of fulfilment she finds in her close relationships. Her ‘first love’ embodies this, she perhaps looks for a man to complete her. And he is just using her, he just wants to feel the excitement of a connection, the closeness of another, a faux intimacy. Reading that episode, I felt as though I had been there. Been there recently, been there repeatedly. I guess, it was just the sheer infatuation with someone who sees you as nothing more than an option.

And while it is beautiful, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is truly a bildungsroman ‘done right’, I would have absolutely loved it had I read this at 17/18. At that age, it would have spoken to my soul. Just the sheer loneliness and the strong desire for a friend. After my first break-up, I was desperately alone, I spent hours in my room by myself, with few friends and even fewer people who I felt understood. In the confines of those four walls, this book would have made me feel less alone. Francie is a work in progress, an over-thinker, who desperately wants to know that everything will be okay, and it is this that makes her such a relatable character. It dawned on me when I was contemplating the novel, that for 17 year old me, things did get better. While life can’t follow a trajectory of always getting better, I needed to know now that things get better and this helped. And actually, to present me, I am done trying to get people to care about me who genuinely don’t care at all so thank you Francie, I’m sure for you too, things will get better.