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Over at Torque Control Nic (of the ever joyous Eve’s Alexandria) has a post about feminism in Gwyneth Jones sci-fi novel ‘Life’. The quote below gets all my cogs spinning:

‘I don’t want to be liberated, I want to be a monster. He didn’t get it. No one ever got it, and Ramone could have straightened them out by saying nobody is born a woman and that what she hated was the way she COULD NOT ESCAPE from the role of second-class person. No woman could, the only escape was to become SOMETHING NEW that had never existed before.’
and I was hoping we could talk around the ideas in this quote a little bit (come on, it’ll be more fun than it sounds *puppy dog eyes*). 

First I wonder, how could (edit: cis-gender women) become ‘SOMETHING NEW’, in the middle of a pre-existing world full of pre-conceptions about gender and behaviour?

Then, I’d love to know if you think this new state of existence is even what feminists should be aiming for. Are some current feminist goals (achieving respect for things that are traditionally female and respect for women who don’t want to be traditionally female) more important? Is it important to work towards both traditional feminism and the ‘new paradigm’ that Nic mentions in her review?

And do you think the idea of existing, without being being examined as a product of gender at all (in a negative, or positive way) is desirable for (edit:cis-gender) women?

Chuck your words at me if you’re interested.

Edit: Please note that I am specifically asking these questions about cis-gender women, because I don't have the knowledge to ask how this quote might apply to trans-gender women.
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Anna and the French Kiss The 10PM Question


For the first part of this series of posts, please read: On Showing & Telling & Making My Head Explode

I want to begin this second post by analysing examples numbers three and four in my list of novels that have been read in both feminist and anti-feminist ways. My current working theory is that the centrality of the problematic or controversial aspect to the novel or story’s overall themes makes a world of difference when it comes to the extent to which the plot is allowed to speak for itself. But it’s entirely possible that there might be more to it than that.

In Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Anna’s relationship with Meredith, the first person she befriends in France, shifts into understated tension over the fact that both of them are in love with the same boy. Likewise, Anna’s best friend back home disappoints her by becoming involved with the boy Anna liked before going to France. As I said before, I spent about two third of the book worrying this was going to be yet another girls-do-nothing-but-fight-over-boys sort of story, and my ultimate conclusion that Perkins avoided this huge pitfall is by no means universal.

What I think places Anna and the French Kiss firmly in portraying-is-not-endorsing territory is Anna’s realisation that this a problem, and how this ties in with the novel’s overall theme and stance on human relationships. Anna and the French Kiss is unapologetically a romance, but the points it makes about trust, communication, the dangers of entitlement and the slow build-up of intimacy go far beyond romantic relationships. In the end, Anna rekindles her friendships with Meredith and Beatrice not because some sort of agreement is reached about who “deserves” to get the boy, but because they all learn something about what you can reasonably expect from those who are close to you. They all learn about honest communication and entitlement and control – they all grow up, and thus grow closer as human beings.

In Kate de Goldi’s The 10PM Question, the protagonist, Frankie, befriends a girl named Sydney. Both Frankie and Sydney have complicated family backgrounds, and upon learning Sydney’s history Frankie has several uncharitable thoughts about her mother, including comparing what she does (letting the guys she’s dating pay the bills) to prostitution. This is thought in definite loaded and shaming terms, not in a neutral she-is-a-sex-worker sort of way. I’m in awe of the way de Goldi prevented the thoughts of her close third person protagonist from becoming the only voice that is heard within the story, and try as I might I’m not sure if I can exactly point out how she did it. The 10PM Question is actually a novel that goes beyond my current working theory, because it’s not that slut-shaming and the complex circumstances sex workers find themselves in are exactly central to the story. Yet de Goldi manages to introduce enough plurality into the universe of the novel that Frankie’s anger is shown for what it is and Sydney’s mother is ultimately humanised.

Something that worries me when I consider how I position myself before these stories is how much of my reading is influenced by factors outside the text. Some of these books came recommended by other writers or bloggers I love and respect – how much does that predispose me to give them the benefit of the doubt and read their ambivalent aspects in a positive light? Then again, we never read in a vacuum, so perhaps this shouldn’t worry me – perhaps I should just embrace it as an inevitable part of how we engage with texts.

Another issue I keep returning to is that of didacticism – I’m tempted to say that no, I certainly don’t want YA or any other form of fiction to be didactic, but then again, I’d first like to come across an unambiguous definition of “didactic”. Like “preachy”, I suspect it’s often used to mean “takes a clear stance about something I disagree with”. In a comment last week, my partner in crime Jodie said:
I think some of the best modern novels in the world include didactic 'comments' in amongst ambiguity, it's just that they do it much more elegantly than the word didactic implies. Paulo Bacigallupi's 'The Wind Up Girl' for example is hugely complex and ambiguous to the max. He never really lets his characters go off on 'here is the point I am trying to make' speeches and pretty awful things happen to good people, but there are deaths and consequences in his novel that reveal where he stands on everything, while he still allows the reader the freedom to make up their own minds on many issues.
This put me in mind of a point John Carey makes in the excellent What Good Are the Arts: that the idea that literature should strive to be “neutral” can and often does turn into a plea for it to be apolitical and disengaged with any sort of Big Issue – which is the opposite of what some of the most beloved literary works of all time have been doing for centuries and centuries. There is certainly such a thing as heavy-handedness, but I’m inclined to distrust those who are too quick to file any novel that makes some sort of political or social point under this heading.

This brings me back to my original question, which yes, I realise remains unanswered: where do you drawn the line between ideological engagement and heavy-handedness? What about between subtlety and disengagement? As we have seen, the centrality of the issues being dealt with to the novel as a whole have a role to play; afterthoughts rarely work (except when they do). Another factor that I think might be important is how the world at large frames the topic at hand – is it unacceptable enough that most readers will see a subtle critique for what it is?

Again, I shall quote my partner in crime, who took the words off my mouth in her comment to part one (and who really should be writing these posts for me):
… if general society perceives something as absolutely wrong a book is much more able to cast aside didacticism and effectively explore an issue from all angles, without being read as condoning that issue. So, for example, 'Lolita' presents a paedophilic protagonist that the reader is initially encouraged to sympathise with, but each reader knows that general society condemns paedophiles, so we're more willing to go along and see where Nabokov is going with this and feel like what he writes doesn't threaten out particular stance on this issue. Books about rape are different, because we don't all know that general society agree with our individual stance on rape (every day there's proof that many people just don't get what constitutes rape) and so anything written more ambiguously can lead the individual reader to feel like the book threatens to lend help to a view they despise.
I think this is absolutely true, but the supposed “revenge rapes” in Tender Morsels are actually of the kind society is mostly willing to accept as “real rapes” – unambiguously brutal and involving strangers. Still, the point nonetheless stands: it just might be that some readers are too wary of how rape is generally perceived and portrayed to tolerate any ambiguity at all; anything but firm, clear condemnations. As much as I sympathise with their wariness, though, I don’t think this makes for particularly good art (or even politically effective art, if you choose to think of it that way).

But suppose it’s murder we’re talking about rather than rape: a story like Shirley Jackson’s brilliant and chilling “The Lottery” doesn’t critique anything explicitly, but you’d be hard pressed to find readers who claim it endorses ritual killings (or so I hope, at least). Everyone knows that what happens in the story is a big no-no, so no explicit commentary is necessary. This is also true of a novel like Never Let Me Go (I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll refrain from saying more, but those who have read it will know what I mean). Yet if we return to slut-shaming and the Lyga story I mentioned in part one, the picture is much less clear. I don’t think slut-shaming has been exposed for what it is enough in the real world for a story like this to speak for itself. It goes on around us all the time, and it’s widely accepted as only right and proper. That makes the lack of overt pointers in the story problematic. Regardless of authorial intent (which only means so much, at any rate), it’s much too easy for Andi’s fate to be taken at face value exactly because this is what happens in real life.

But is it really the role of a writer to do something about this? Can you introduce these overt pointers while maintaining the narrative elegance Jodie speaks of? In Part Three: The Big Questions, I’ll attempt to address these questions, as well as others such as what can we reasonably expect from literature, and what does it all mean?
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Manic Pixie Dream Girl the First Manic Pixie Dream Girl the Second

First of all, this post was partially inspired by a John Green quote my friend Marisa reblogged on tumblr the other day:

 

I’m fascinated by the way the contemporary world has constructed this manic pixie dream girl (to use a term coined by Nathan Rabin) who flutters into the lives of men and changes them forever with her moodiness and mystery. This idea has become the kind of female Edward Cullen, and I am of course drawn to it myself but also really troubled by it, because I think it’s just a new kind of objectification of women. So I think I wrote about that in Paper Towns not because I saw it in my own life but because I saw it in my first novel, Looking for Alaska, and because in the years after writing that story, I became more and more troubled by the book’s failure to point out that, like, the idea of the manic pixie dream girl is not just a lie but a dangerous one that does disservice both to the person doing the imagining and the person being imagined.

I love what he says, and I love how this transition actually shows in his writing, which isn’t always the case when it comes to what writers claim about their own work. What I mean to do here is not only talk about why these stories are problematic, but also about why I’m nevertheless so drawn to them, just like John Green. It’s almost embarrassing to look at a list like this and count how many of these films are among my all-time favourites. This is a bit of a scary post to write, actually, because I don’t want to come across like I’m saying, “This is not a problem! Will everybody please shut up and go away!” I never want people to shut up and go away when it comes to criticism, even when I disagree with the points they’re making. And in this case I do agree, which leaves me with a lot of unanswered questions and vague notions that I need to try and articulate.

As John Green states, these films and books are problematic because the women in them are idealised to an extent that dehumanises them. And yet there's something about the process of doing that when you first fall in love that’s incredibly human and that really speaks to me. Don’t most of us do it when we’re young and struggling with very intense and sometimes new feelings of longing and desire? How do we deal with having someone, or the idea of someone, have such a huge impact on the person you’re in the process of becoming? I know I’ve been there myself, and I love these stories because they reflect and validate a kind of experience that isn’t perfectly aligned with the kind of romantic experience we acknowledge and value. I love them because even though this process isn’t the same as my current far more egalitarian, messier, and actually intimate definition of love, it mattered hugely to me. It matters still.

But of course, to speak of these stories in such general terms is to ignore the gender angle, which I don’t think is something we should be doing. This may be a universal and human process, but we’re only fed stories that present it from a male perspective – and yes, that’s a huge problem. It’s the good old issue of women being expected to relate to and put themselves in the shoes of men, but the reverse being unthinkable. Also, not believing that there are any essential gender differences in how we experience longing or in how we tend to idealise others is not the same as not thinking there are any differences in how men and women experience these things in a deeply sexist world.

I think the pattern is the main problem here – the pattern all these stories form, and how it ties into the history of the male gaze. I may love these stories individually, but when I look at them as a whole, they do ring alarm bells. They strongly suggest that to experience this – to become obsessed with, or be deeply changed by, someone you might not even know all that well but who seems to embody everything you care about and want to be – is only acceptable if you’re male. Which is why as a 19-year-old trying to write a story about it, I instinctively adopted a male voice and made it m/m.

As a consequence, girls are made to feel that their agency and their right to feel longing or desire have been denied. How many stories about unrequited love, for example, or about having deep feelings for someone who may "officially" only play a peripheral role in your life, have female protagonists? This is an honest question – if you can think of any examples, I’d love to hear all about them. And perhaps more importantly, how many of those stories about women present their unrequited feelings in a sort of heroic, glamorised light? My experience, both in stories and in life, is that this kind of idealised crush is exclusively the prerogative of boys and men. A woman in the same position would be perceived as kind of pitiful; not as noble or tragically heartbroken. I'm of course well aware that the idea of the tragically heartbroken male, Sorrows of Young Whether style, is also not at al mainstream. And yes, boys are laughed at and shamed for having deep feelings of any kind, let alone for deep feelings for girls who don't necessarily love them back. But at least the trope exists, you know? Sensitive young men along the lines of the protagonists of all these movies no doubt feel isolated, but there's no shortage of characters they can relate to; there's at least a whole subculture out there to make them feel acknowledged and validated and like they're allowed to exist. Girls in the same position? I'm not entirely sure.

Of course, the way we tend to read these stories can’t really be dissociated from culturally dominant ideas about male and female sexuality, even if the stories don’t deal with sexual feelings in themselves: it’s okay for men to experiment, it’s okay for them to go through several partners until they find The One, it’s okay to love and lose someone. For women, to do so implies you’re either foolish or Morally Loose. What you should be doing is finding and settling down with the person you’re going to stay with for the rest of your life as soon as possible. Nobody else is allowed to matter. (This idea applies to men and women alike when it comes to mainstream definitions of “true love” and romance, of course, but we do enforce it far more strictly when it comes to women.)

I’m a sucker for stories about people who have mattered and continue to matter to us even if the relationship is not permanent, or isn’t really a romantic or sexual relationship as we tend to define them, or isn’t even much of a relationship at all, but more of a vague and possibly one-sided connection: stories like Paper Towns, Meg Rosoff’s What I Was, The Virgin Suicides, and yes, all those manic pixie dream girl books and movies. But I desperately want them to be told from the point of view of girls too. Can you think of any examples of stories that actually do this?1 I will love you forever when you introduce me to some.

 

I thought it was interesting how John Green mentioned these female characters becoming a sort of female Edward Cullen – Twilight does seem to have had the potential of being a story about longing and idealisation from a female perspective, only somewhere along the way it became a cautionary tale about the dangers of female desire and the inevitability of true love. (I say this without having actually read it, though, so feel free to argue with me or tell me to shut up.)

When I was a teen, I devoted a lot of my time and energy to struggling with feelings of deep shame I couldn’t even put into words; feelings that in retrospect obviously have to do with the cultural notions hammered into my head about what I, as a girl, was allowed to feel or want without becoming a wretched, pathetic sort of creature everybody would point at and laugh. I wish there had been “manic pixie dream boy” stories around, preferably the kind that are also thoughtful and self-aware enough to alert us to the dangers of idealising people – but without demonising the process in itself. In sum, stories like Paper Towns starring girls.

They would have made such a huge difference in my life.

ETA:

 


1 My boyfriend read this post as a draft and suggested that Girl With The Pearl Earring might qualify. I knew there was a reason why I loved that book.

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