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New Girl promotional image


So, recently I took advantage of the iTunes free download offer and watched the pilot of New Girl, Fox’s new sitcom starring Zooey Deschannel. I hated it with a passion, for reasons that have nothing to do with how I feel about her. I hated it because it might as well have been called The Gender Stereotype Parade – because the whole premise of the show is based on the idea that men and women are so different they might as well belong to different species. The humour of the show relies almost entirely on the amazing!miracle! of male-female communication. The three guys Jess moves in with see her as “a gateway into the elusive female mind” — because any self-respecting male will surely need one (at one point one of Jess’ housemates tells her that no, he doesn’t understand what she’s saying, because he “has a penis”). There are also jokes that rely on how boys will be boys, and on the hilarity of silly females being overemotional. This, combined with a view of interpersonal and sexual relationships I just can’t go along with, resulted in all my buttons being pushed, and it left me pretty furious.
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Speech bubbles at Erg


A couple of days ago, we here at Lady Business headquarters were discussing Sarah Rees Brennan’s recent post titled “Ladies, Don’t Let Anyone Tell You You’re Not Awesome”. Brennan makes excellent points about the social acceptability of confidence in men and women. Although I don’t think we can assume this is always the root cause behind a woman’s insecurity, her points are certainly worth bearing in mind. Plus she earns extra awesome points by adding,
I hesitate to say any of this because I don’t want to see any specific fictional lady lambasted for being insecure: loads of people are insecure. And readers naturally criticise girls for anything: that’s my whole point.

Which may seem like an unnecessary disclaimer, but unfortunately I’ve often seen critiques of the social double standard that pressures women into apologetic modesty slip into problematic “Don’t insecure, spineless, WEAK women who don’t stand up for themselves just totally suck?” terrain. This is, of course, just one more chapter in the ongoing conversation about how the goal of feminism is not to replace traditional models of femininity with alternative but equally mandatory and restrictive models. If you think it is, I’m afraid you’re DOIN IT RONG.

This brings me to the real topic of this post: the conversation about Sarah Rees Brennan’s post reminded me of Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus, an incredibly satisfying critical smackdown of gender essentialism in sociolinguistics. There’s a specific point I was going to make when I reviewed the book, only it doubled the length of my post and was a bit of an aside anyway. Since I’ve been encouraged to think of LB as a place for all my extra words, you’re getting it here instead.

Cameron writes about how the pseudoscientific rhetoric of gender essentialism permeates several management or business how-to guides in ways that, interestingly enough, actually create a tension with that’s truly valued in a patriarchal society. According to these books, a “feminine” communication style – nurturing, encouraging, and relationship centred – is nowadays preferable to a more traditional “masculine” leadership style. “Feminine” communication is therefore overtly praised, but at the same time, it’s covertly devalued. No matter how many management gurus recommend cooperation, encouragement, or listening skills, the corporate world still rewards ruthlessness and traditional authority – and everyone knows it.

This is true of most public arenas, really. The most perverse thing of all is that women who enter public discourse are doubly punished, because their adoption of widely admired “masculine” traits or behaviours is not read the same way when it’s them and not men performing them. The men are great leaders; the women unnatural shrews. Which is of course what Sarah Rees Brennan was also getting at.

Before I go any further, I want to take a moment to state the obvious and say that I don’t believe that these different communication styles are inherently masculine or feminine. And believing they’re socially constructed rather than inevitable isn’t even the same as believing they’re an accurate representation of reality: I have my doubts about what an analysis of the percentage of men and women who communicate in one way or another will reveal if we control for confirmation bias and the tendency for the exact same speech act to be interpreted differently in men and women. Studies that point in this direction DO exist out there. Nevertheless, the fact remains that cooperative communication styles are strongly associated with femininity, and this is a huge part of why they’re so often held in contempt.

I am a woman, and I also happen to be a pretty stereotypical example of someone with a cooperative communication style. Hedges, quantifiers, tag questions – I use them all a lot. I add a bunch of disclaimers to most of what I say, and I worry about alienating people or hurting their feelings. The way I phrase things is often shaped with these concerns firmly in mind. I don’t know what role female socialisation played in shaping the way I communicate – we can’t, after all, ever truly separate the strands of what made us who we are. I do know several men just like me, and many women very much unlike me. But I also know that in this regard I’m pretty gender-normative. By communicating the way I do, I do not trespass. I’ll never have the hostility that unapologetically outspoken women have directed at them directed at me.

The thing is, not trespassing doesn’t necessarily mean I have it easy. Women are constantly put in impossible positions, and this is just one more example. The outspokenness or sarcasm I so admire in many women lead to accusations of “bitchiness”. And my own milder demeanour is often constructed as spinelessness. It’s perceived as gender-appropriate, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also despised.

You know what, though? I’m a cooperative communicator and I’m not one bit sorry. I’m telling this to myself as much as to anyone else, because very often I do feel like a failure for not adopting traditionally masculine traits that, while censured in my gender, are more socially prestigious and thus seen as superior. But I get tired of being made to feel weak and shamefully womanish because of this. I admire outspokenness, but I also don’t think my hedges or my disclaimers make me a failure as a human or a traitor to feminist ideals. There isn’t one right way for people to communicate – bluntness is effective with some audience, caution with others. Obviously this also means there’s no right way for women to communicate: speaking up doesn’t make anyone a “bitch”, and being tentative doesn’t make anyone a “doormat”. Once again, we can have the full spectrum – and we shouldn’t ever settle for anything less.
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Summer Finn Miss Marple


The following post was inspired by two things: first, a conversation between Jodie and Renay about romantic plotline outcomes and epilogues on the comments of my post on The Adoration of Jenna Fox; secondly, a comment I read somewhere last week (but sadly can no longer find – I seriously should bookmark these things) about how making romance central to the plot of any novel always undermines the female characters.

There’s a phrase the three of us have been repeating in our behind-the-scenes conversations, and which seems to be on its way to becoming a sort of unofficial motto for Lady Business: there’s no wrong way of being a girl. So although there are several legitimate concerns surrounding how many romantic plots play out, it seems pretty drastic and problematic to me to make a statement of the kind this unknown commenter made. Do we really want to add “fall in love/enter a relationship” to the list of things female characters are not supposed to do if they are to be considered proper feminist icons?

With this in mind, I wanted to analyse how different narratives I’ve encountered in the past dealt with “lady who didn’t want a relationship changed her mind” storylines, as I think these are filled with particularly good examples of my personal “dos” and “don’ts” of romance. I’ll start with my favourite negative example: Summer Finn, Zooey Deschannel’s character in (500) Days of Summer.

The reason why this movie let me down was not because Summer starts out saying she doesn’t want a serious commitment and ends up married. Regardless of my own misgivings about marriage as an institution, I find it extremely problematic to single out any one woman’s chosen course of action as a betrayal of feminist ideals or anything of the sort. I also have no issues with Summer’s inconsistency, as I think it’s only human to have contradictory feelings and wishes or to simply change one’s mind.

No, what bothers me about Summer is how the narrative frames her change of heart. It’s the fact that she sits on a park bench and tells Tom, her ex, that he was right all along. Her former views on romance were silly, misguided and naïve, whereas his ideas about destiny and soulmates were correct – it’s just that she hadn’t met the right person yet. Over the course of their conversation, Summer doesn’t just show she has changed – she belittles, erases and delegitimised her previous position. Ladies changing their minds = perfectly fine by me. Ladies who deviate from convention being shown to have been RONG all along and laughing at the folly of their past selves? Not so much.

My favourite antidote to (500) Days of Summer is probably Dorothy L. Sayers and her Harriet Vane/Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon). It’s no spoiler to say the two main characters end up together, as most readers go in already knowing that. What surprises people (and what is an absolute joy to discover and savour) is the how of it. Yes, Harriet Vane begins be rejecting marriage and then changes her mind, but this doesn’t happen through a rejection of her previous stance. It happens through a slow and careful negotiation of each of her concerns about entering a relationship (which are further complicated due to issues of class, money and dominant views of employment for women in the 1930’s). These concerns are never shown not to have been legitimate – quite the contrary. And it’s exactly this that makes the romance so satisfying from a feminist perspective.

I can think of other single heroines who end up paired up, such as Amelia Peabody or Alexia Tarabotti from Soulless, and whose stories don’t bother me in the least. Again, nothing about how the novels frame their transition from singledom to coupledom dismisses or delegitimises their previous lifestyle, and that’s all I really ask for.

Having said that, I completely understand people being frustrated with the inevitability of heroines like Amelia Peabody or Alexia ending up in relationships, especially in a world where so few stories feature single heroines and show them to be leading happy and fulfilling lives. And here we enter representation issues territory. I think this kind of thing does matter. I think it matters a whole lot. But. At the same time, what Jodie was saying recently resonates with me more and more. Yes, we need more ladies doing and being everything. But I don’t want to hold what doesn’t exist against any single female character. The problem is in the pattern more than in any individual story (problematic issues like the ones surrounding Summer aside, of course). Let us demand more ladies, but preferably without hating on the ones that already exist. It’s not that they’re doing anything wrong, or that the solution to our current problems is to despise or erase their more traditional choices.

I’m an unapologetic sucker for a good love story, yet all the same I really don’t want romantic relationships to be held up as the end-all and be-all of every woman’s existence. But saying that they all weaken or undermine female characters? Creating even more rules that limit what women can do, be or experience? Let us not go down that road, please.


*By which I mostly mean ladies entering relationships and opting for whatever arrangements they choose. It just so happens that all the examples I’m analysing here do involve marriage.
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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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Tender Morsels Geektastic

This series of posts has been long in coming: partially inspired by my own reading, partially by recent (and recurring) debates online, I decided to devote some time to considering the following questions: where exactly do you draw the line between a novel that doesn’t acknowledge or question its own problematic aspects and a novel that is simply being subtle, letting the story speak for itself, and not hitting readers over the head with unnecessary heavy-handedness? Should a novel be required to always question the status quo? Why does any of this even matter? What do these discussions tell us about the nature and the role of fiction, and about readers' expectations?

Before I start, a few warnings: first of all, this is one of those posts where I attempt to figure out my thoughts by writing them down. So if the end result turns out to be confusing, it’s because I’m indeed confused. It’s quite possible that I’ll end up with more questions than I started out with, but then again that’s part of the fun of writing (and indeed of thinking about things). Secondly, I’m going to attempt to keep spoilers to a minimum, but none of what I have to say would make much sense without concrete examples, and often these have to involve a story’s ending. Apologies in advance for that.

To attempt to answer the above question, I’m particularly interested in considering the following cases, all of which are YA novels or short stories that have been read in both feminist and anti-feminist ways:
  • Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. I make no secret of the fact that this is one of my favourite novels of recent years, and that I completely disagree that it “glorifies, by failing to address or question, rape as revenge”. But rather than just tell you that I disagree, what I meant to do here is explore the reasons why.
  • “The Truth About Dino Girl” by Barry Liga, from the Geektastic anthology. A horrifying exercise in gratuitous slut-shaming, or an “empowering, realistic” story about high school dynamics? If you’re me, it’s very much a). But once again, what matters here is the why.
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins – Just another story about girls fighting over a guy, or something that goes beyond it? My review should let you know what I think, but I hope to be able to elaborate on it.
  • The 10PM Question by Kate De Goldi – I posted my review of this earlier today, and I mentioned it’s one of my favourite reads of the year so far. I have recently become aware that there were readers who felt that the way the story portrayed the protagonist best friend’s mother had too many hints of slut-shaming for comfort. Since one of my favourite things about the novel was exactly how this aspect of the story was dealt with, this gave me considerable pause.
I’m a big believer in the value of a plurality of perspectives when it comes to literature; of approaching reading as democratically as possible. But at the same time, I have no problem acknowledging that there is such a thing as misreading a text by making claims for which there’s no textual support whatsoever. Because it’s been some time since I read the texts I mentioned above, I don’t feel that I’m in a position to comment on the existence or nonexistence of textual support for readings that contradict my own. Therefore, I’m going to assume that the texts do not completely rule out these readings, and that the issue here amounts to how certain plot elements are framed, as well as the lenses/worldviews through which they’re filtered.

My first example is Tender Morsels: I have to say that it feels like cheating to start here, because someone has written down all the reasons why I disagree with the Bitch Media reading of it, and worded it far better than I ever could. I encourage you to read the whole post, but I wanted to highlight the following paragraph:
There is certainly no victory to be had in this kind of vengeance and therefore, I would argue, absolutely no validation of it within the text. Liga, on whose behalf vengeance was enacted, finds no happy ending in its aftermath. There is no need for Lanagan to sit you down and provide an explicit critique of the preceding events — I’m not even sure how such a discussion could have been presented within the pages of Tender Morsels as a novel.
I’ve spent a long time thinking about this point, because while in the case of Tender Morsels I agree instinctively, there are other cases in which I’m the first to reject the “there is no need for an explicit critique” argument (see my Barry Lyga example below). What, then, is the difference between texts about which I feel this is true and texts about which I don’t? I think it comes down to how central the problematic issue is to the novel as a whole. In the case of Tender Morsels, the consequences of sexual assault are at the very core of what the book is about. This makes it easier for me to accept that when the impact of the rape of a group of secondary characters is not dwelt on at length, it does indeed speak for itself. After all, the reader has just spent about 400 pages witnessing the impact of rape on the protagonist’s life, so it doesn’t take that much of an imaginative leap to understand that the same kind of violence will also have an impact on this group of men. And no, this is not a good thing, even if these men are not characters we like. It doesn’t take a scene where we see them suffering  psychological horrors for that to come across.

But take my second example, Barry Lyga’s “The Truth About Dino Girl”. I’m going to have to spoil the story for you before I continue my argument, so apologies in advance. In this story, Katherine, a nerdy and unpopular high school student, takes revenge on popular and arrogant Andi by taking a photo of her naked in the school’s locker room, photoshopping it to pretend it was taken at a motel, and distributing it to the whole school with captions such as “Do you like sex? She does!!!! Call Andi!”. As a result, Andi’s boyfriend breaks up with her, her friends shun her, and she becomes a social pariah – the end.

This story horrified me when I read it, but since then I’ve seen readers say that it’s realistic, that it’s empowering because geek girl fights back and triumphs, and that the fact that the story portrays slut-shaming doesn’t mean that it’s endorsing it. In a different story, this could be true – portraying something is certainly not the same as endorsing it. But as for the other arguments, as the other Ana so well says, the “It’s realistic!” card doesn’t tell us much on its own. Also, before I go any further I wanted to say that even though I know that what I described is dreadful, I fully acknowledge that it’s no more dreadful than a group of magical clothesmen violently and gleefully raping Liga’s rapists in Tender Morsels. It’s not the dreadfulness of what happens in itself that I object to – it’s how it’s handled by the text.

As we have seen, Tender Morsels is about sexual assault. But “The Truth About Dino Girl” is (arguably) about bullying, not about slut-shaming, or female sexuality, or the many challenges that teen girls who want to enjoy safe, happy and fulfilling sexual experiences without having these determine who they are and how other perceive them have to face. The story is about high school power and arrogance and the mistreatment of others. If I read it generously, I’ll say that it’s attempting to explore how someone like Katherine could be driven to a horrifyingly malicious revenge by years of bullying. I therefore acknowledge that it’s indeed possible to read a story like this as doing something other than glorifying revenge.

However, it’s the form that Katherine’s revenge takes that troubles me. She uses female sexuality for shaming purposes in a way that feels completely incidental to the story. The act of revenge itself may or may not be questioned, but the idea that female sexuality is fair game for such purposes never, ever is. Unlike what happens in Tender Morsels, there is no other characters we can use to draw a parallel. There’s absolutely nothing but a dominant social assumption – that teen girls who have and/or enjoy sex are sluts and deserve to be ostracised – being replayed. Readers may leave the story thinking that Katherine shouldn't have done what she did, but not because of the nature of her actions. It isn’t just that the text doesn’t explicitly critique Katherine’s use of sex to shame Andi – it’s that it doesn’t do it implicitly either, not by any stretch of the imagination.

My whole point, then, is that slut-shaming is too important as a social phenomenon to be included in a story as casually as thoughtlessly as it was here. By all means it should be written about, but not as an unquestioned afterthought (of course, this raises all sorts of questions along the lines of “Why not?”, and these will be addressed later on in this series of posts). Sexual assault is of course also important and painful, but being at the very centre of Tender Morsels, the same arguments don’t really hold.

Coming soon: Part the second, where I analyse the final two texts and attempt to reach some conclusions about what these examples have shown us.
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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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