Tag Archives: books

A Dudely Challenge: Read More Books By Women

28 Sep

The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA), a national organization devoted to promoting “strong and active female perspectives and presences within the Canadian literary landscape” recently released a report looking at gender representation in Canadian book reviews. You can find the full set of numbers here, and an infographic explaining those numbers here.

Folks, the news is not good. I mean, it’s not terrible, but it’s also not great. It’s also pretty indicative a deeper gender imbalance in the literary world in general.

Let’s take a look at some of the numbers provided by CWILA, shall we?

First, the basics:

Out of the 5,613 book reviews studied, 56.9% were reviews of books written by men, 37% were reviews of book written by women, 5.02% were reviews of books co-authored by men and women, 0.14% were reviews of books written by non-binary individuals, and 0.93% percent came from “unknown author(s).” So far so good – I mean men are slightly outpacing women, but it’s not a big deal. 37% of the pie is still a lot of delicious pie (whenever I look at pie charts I always picture a big old steaming dish of apple pie, but your mileage may vary).

It’s when we start to look at who’s reviewing what (and how often) that things start to get a bit .. whacky? Out of all of the reviews written by women, 51% are of books authored by women and 43% are of books authored by men (with the remaining 6% being taken up by reviews of books that were either co-authored by men and women, were written by non-binary individuals or were written by unknown authors). Out of all of the reviews written by men, a staggering 69% were of books authored by men, while a measly 25% were of books authored by women (with, again, 6% of the reviews taken up by the same three groups mentioned above).

On top of that, while some publications (The Vancouver Sun, The Toronto Star, Quill & Quire) employ more slightly more female reviewers than male, reviews written by women still make up only 38% of the top 20 reviewers (those who wrote 50+ reviews last year) in the country.

Let’s just look at some of those numbers one more time:

25% of the books reviewed by men were written by women. 

69% of the books reviewed by men were written by men.

Men review nearly three times as many books by men as they do books by women.

If that’s not a huge indication of the problematic ways we view women writers, then I don’t know what else is. Women review nearly twice as many books written by men as men review books written by women. And it’s not as if there’s a dearth of women authors writing quality books – novels written by women won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, 2012 and 2010. Books by women won both the French and English Governor General’s Literary Awards in 2013; women also won in 2012, 2010, and 2009. Alice Munro won the Nobel Fucking Prize for literature last year. There are so many fantastic, internationally-recognized, award-winning books by women (many of them Canadian – CANLIT, REPRESENT) – so why aren’t men reviewing them?

The answer is, unfortunately, pretty simple: men don’t read books by women.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is true. Some men – like David Gilmour and all of his highbrow dudebro acolytes – just don’t think that women are very good writers. See, they only like the serious, classic stuff – stuff like Chekhov and Tolstoy and Proust. They like the good ole-fashioned, tried-tested-and-true Western literary cannon, which is pretty male-dominated for reasons that I’m sure have nothing to do with the historical oppression of women and everything to do with talent and know-how. Some men have shied away from books by women, worried that being caught reading Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights will somehow bring their masculinity into question. And some men have literally just never thought about it; they grew up with a toxic cultural mix of beliefs that taught them that real, serious books are written by men and only girls read books by girls. Which is tragic, and not just because every kid should should have the chance to read the delight that is Anne of Green Gables.

It’s this last group of guys who, I’m pretty sure, make up the majority of the male readers in this work. They’re guys who, in school, were told to read famous books by famous men as a matter of course. They’re guys who were never handed works of literature written by women because a teacher or a parent or a friend never thought they needed books they could better “identify” with. They’re guys who don’t question the fact that nearly all of the major works of fiction displayed at a bookstore or library are written by men. They’re guys who have never noticed that male writers are the status quo, because if you’re part of the status quo, why would you ever bother questioning it?

Women are, in many ways, treated as a special interest group. And sometimes that treatment is legitimate, like when we’re talking about reproductive rights or street harassment or workplace sexism. But that also means that literature written by women is viewed, often subconsciously, as being especially for women. And while we might praise the technical aspects of a book written by a woman, or laud its excellent storytelling or well-developed characters, we still ultimately view it in the category of other. It’s not regular a book – it’s a lady book. Probably with some kind of lady agenda. But books by men are just books. Serious, literary books.

Men aren’t encouraged to read books by women because on some level we don’t believe that those books were written for men. And yet no one ever questions why women would read books by men. It’s just taken as a given that books by men are the gold standard, and that everyone, no matter what their gender, should read them.

So here’s a challenge for all the men out there (including, but not limited to, the men who write book reviews): read books by women. Pick out a specific chunk of time – maybe a month, three months, or, if you’re feeling especially brave, a whole year – and during that period only seek out books by women. This challenge, by the way, doesn’t have to be isolated to literature – you could also have a month where you only listen to music by women, or look at paintings by women, or watch movies written and directed by women. If you’re struggling to find enough media to fill a whole month, then ask for recommendations; ask you’re girlfriend what she’s reading, or ask your little sister what she’s listening to these days. Ask your mom. Ask the woman who sits next to you at work. Ask that aggressively eye-linered punk chick who almost always ends up on the same bus as you in the morning. I mean, don’t be pushy or gross about it, and if they’re not interested in talking then back the fuck off, but still. Just try asking. I’m willing to bet that most women would be delighted to have a man ask them what they’re reading these days.

I have a friend who was recently explaining to me why she’d decided to end a blooming relationship with a nice, smart, funny man. There were lots of reasons why things just weren’t working out between them, but one red flag for her was this: he wasn’t reading any of the books she loaned him. See, book-talk was a big part of the attraction between them, and he was lending her plenty of books (which he expected her to read and which, diligently, she read), but apparently it wasn’t a two-way street. The books he gave her were, in his mind, important; the books he received were not. And before you jump in and tell me that not all men, let me say that I’ve seen this same dynamic play out in so many relationships. Men take it as a given that the women in their lives will read the books they recommend; unfortunately, they do not extend those women the same courtesy.

Guys, don’t be that guy. Read (and review, if that’s your bag!) books by women. If you consider yourself to be in any way an advocate for gender equality, then let that equality extend to the media you consume. Because women’s voices won’t get any louder if men aren’t helping to amplify them.

Not only that, but if you’re only reading books by men, then you are seriously missing out on some really fucking good books.

Photograph by Edward Steichen

Photograph by Edward Steichen

Feminism Killed All The Grownups

19 Sep

The patriarchy is dead, adulthood is in steep decline and A.O. Scott feels Some Type Of Way.

At least, that’s my takeaway from Scott’s rambling 4,500 word essay in this week’s New York Times Magazine. Of course the piece has its supporters (since, after all, Scott is a well-known film critic and noted Man of Words), and some of the folks tweeting about this essay in earnest adulation are people that I typically agree with. But I’ve read Scott’s piece in its entirety three times now, and I can’t seem to get anything out of it other than one lone white dude raging (and raging, and raging) against the dying of the light.

Scott starts out by using the upcoming second half of the final season of Mad Men as proof of the death of the patriarchy. The speculated death Don Draper, he argues, as well as the deaths of Tony Soprano and Walter White, mark a sort of “end stage reckoning” of a certain type of television masculinity. This masculinity is, according to Scott, pretty complicated – after all these men aren’t exactly nice or good (in fact, Scott at one point refers to them as “monstrous”) – but they’re undeniably charismatic and quite often sympathetic. Are we supposed to cheer for them or hate them or just feel sorry for them? The answer, for most viewers, seems to be a strange combination of all three, and their deaths apparently mark a watershed moment in our culture. Scott writes that “Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.”

He then hastens to point out that, although he believes the patriarchy to be dead, that doesn’t mean that he’s denying the existence of sexism or misogyny. No, not at all. In fact, he believes that “in the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life.” But, he adds, “… in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.”

I’m not even going to get into the ludicrousness of a middle-aged white dude announcing that the patriarchy is dead – I trust my readers enough to believe that they can figure out the many ways in which that statement is wrong without me offering them a long-winded explanation. But I do take issue with Scott’s assertion that criticism of male privilege is the uncontested norm in the “universe of thoughts and ideas.” First off, my main concern when it comes to discussions about male privilege isn’t so much that people will “defend” it, but rather that people will ignore it, downplay its cultural effects or flat-out deny that it exists. Those speaking up in “defense” of male privilege are easily discounted; those who don’t even acknowledge it are much more slippery and harder to fight.

Second of all, it is absolutely untrue that assertions of male privilege or belief in the inherent superiority of men (especially when it comes to ideas about the superiority of male intelligence) don’t exist in the “universe of thoughts and words.” Look at Richard Dawkins, for example – even in light of his recent comments on false rape accusations, people are still defending him by saying, “well, he’s still a brilliant scientist.” Or, for a broader perspective, look at the short-lists for the more prestigious book and film awards, and count how many books and films are written or directed by women, versus how many are written or directed by men. Or look at the gender imbalance when it comes to tenured staff at a university. There is plenty of evidence that we still take the superiority of men as the “natural order,” even in the world of deep thoughts and bon mots.

Five paragraphs in, Scott finally comes to what you might call the thesis of his essay. “It seems” he writes, “that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.” So, feminism is to blame for the supposed death of adulthood? Is that what I’m to take away for this? That in exchange for the cultural domination of men, we’ve traded away our ability to grow up? As evidence of this so-called death of adulthood, Scott offers a few brief anecdotes: Nearly a third of young adult fiction is purchased by readers age 30 to 44. Sometimes Scott has seen grown men riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops. There’s a woman in his office who wears plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair; when Scott sees her, he can’t help but make a disapproving face. That’s just how much of a grownup he is.

“God, listen to me! Or don’t,” he cries, sounding exactly like a modern-day Holden Caulfield. He then goes on to list all of the awful shows, mostly dominated by women (think Girls and Broad City) that have replaced more adult television fare like Mad Men or The Sopranos. Writes Scott, “What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore.”

After a lengthy side-step into the apparently childish history of American literature (mostly, according to Scott, “a literature of boys’ adventure and female sentimentality”), and a brief discourse on why the Founding Fathers weren’t really fatherly and should maybe more accurately be called the Founding Bros or something equally un-grown-up, Scott finally swings back around to the cultural force that’s to blame for modern America’s lack of real, bonafide adults: the feminist movement. See, there are lots of young women who self-identify as feminists, most notably Beyoncé (who Scott calls the “most self-contradicting” feminist, which I can only assume is a dig at her overt sexuality and the length of her proverbial hemlines), and they want equality. But these women don’t want the good kind of equality; these women – especially the ones with television shows – want, Scott writes, to be “to be as rebellious, as obnoxious and as childish” as men are allowed to be.

All of which is to say that what Scott refers to as “cultural feminism” (as opposed to, I guess, academic feminism) is ruining being a grownup for everyone. Instead of forcing men to grow up, it’s encouraging women to be just like the man-babies. Instead of fostering a type of equality where everyone has an awesome job and wears a suit, it’s created a slacker equality where we all live in our parents’ basements and make fart jokes. For shame, feminism! What would Susan B. Anthony say? Oh god what hath we millenials wrought?

Finally, in the third to last paragraph, Scott writes what is probably his essay’s most important and most telling sentence: “The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all.” This, you see, is ultimately what Scott believes is holding people back from achieving full adulthood: not wanting to pay attention to critical discourse, a field that, by the way, has long been dominated by white men. And, you see, this is what this whole 4,500 word essay has been about. It’s not about people who read YA fiction or revere Huck Finn or live in their parents’ basement; this whole thing all boils down to the fact that A.O. Scott, and other successful, well-educated white dudes like him feel like they might be losing their audience. This isn’t a brilliant article about the downfall of the patriarchy and who the real grownups are and whether or not Beyoncé is too bootylicious to be a feminist – it’s the sad, dying cry of a white dude who sees all of his unearned privilege slowly slipping away.

It seems worth pointing out that not once in this entire essay does A.O. Scott define what adulthood is; he only tells us what it isn’t. Adulthood isn’t wearing shorts and flip-flops. Adulthood isn’t living in your parents’ basement. Adulthood isn’t liking what you like just because you like it. So from all of these negatives, I guess that we can infer that being a grownup means wearing a suit, living on your own, and only enjoying literature and media that someone else tells you will be challenging and enlightening.

If that’s what adulthood really means, then let me be the first to dance on its grave.

mad-men

Fairy Tales Are Women’s Tales

28 May

Heyyyyy I have a post up on The Toast which is SUPER EXCITING for me because The Toast is pretty much my FAVOURITE THING EVER. ALL CAPS.

It’s about gender and fairytales, which are two things that I’m pretty stoked about. Also, unlike 100% of the posts on this blog, I actually bothered to edit it and I come off sounding pretty smart and not too ranty. I don’t even think there are any swear words. You should check it out!

http://the-toast.net/2014/05/26/fairy-tales-are-womens-tales/

A brief excerpt:

“The Grimms’ deletion of all things sexy from the second edition could be taken as a sort of Teutonic prudery, but when we look at it in context with some of the other alterations, there begins to emerge a pattern of marginalization and disempowerment of women. Not only did they remove any mention of sex, the majority of it both consensual and premarital, but all sorts of other details defining and limiting the female characters were added in. With each successive edition, the Wilhelm Grimm added in more and more adjectives describing what they thought was the perfect Christian woman; female characters were suddenly “dutiful,” “tender-hearted,” “god-fearing” and “contrite,” where once they had simply been “beautiful” or “young.” Wilhelm also began to alter the structure of the tales, introducing moral judgments and motivations that previously hadn’t been there. Traditionally, fairy tales had seen luck and chance count for more than hard work and obedience, but Wilhelm put a stop to that – instead the sweet, well-behaved, godly women were rewarded, and those who deviated from that mold were punished. Finally, Wilhelm added in all sorts of hints about the domestic activity he felt women should occupy themselves with – for example, in an early draft of Snow White, the dwarves only ask that she cook their meals in exchange for shelter, but by the time the first edition of his book was published, their demands included that she keep house for them, do the cooking, make the beds, wash, sew, knit and keep everything neat and clean.”

fairy

I just want to break that song into pieces and love them all to death

2 Apr

TW for talk of police brutality

I just finished reading Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and dang. It gave me a lot of feelings.

I read it for Young Adultery, which is a) a book club where a bunch of fabulous grownups sit around and talk about YA literature and b) the coolest book club around. Like, what up, I spent last night sitting in a gorgeously hip Queen West book store talking about a super great book with some of my favourite people in the world. It was so great (and the perfect diversion from all the mental health stuff that I’ve been dealing with).

What was interesting for me was that for a lot of people in the group, this book brought them back to their first romance, their high school crush, their awkward first kiss. And, I mean, Eleanor & Park is primarily a love story, so that makes perfect sense. For me, though, the book stirred up a lot of memories about what it was like to be the poor kid in high school with a group of nice middle class friends.

I was always embarrassed when people came over to my place. We lived in this ugly brown townhouse, which was part of a low-income housing complex owned by the city. The places had probably been nice back when they were built, which is to say back when they were all privately owned. But the lot was right next to a former landfill site that everyone called Mount Trashmore, and sometime in the 70s there had been a health scare about it. It turned out that the giant mound of decomposing trash (covered by some very attractive sod) leaking methane into the air, so they evacuated everyone and for a while the houses were abandoned. And then the city bought them and moved the poor people in. We all had to have methane detectors in our basements and here was this giant industrial flame that burned day and night. It was supposed to burn off the methane. 

None of my friends had to worry about dying of methane poisoning in their sleep.

It wasn’t unusual to see the cops in our complex. Like the night we heard gun shots and my mother tried to laugh it off and pretend for our sake that she wasn’t scared. Or the time the police came to our door and said that a neighbour had accused me of stealing their car. I didn’t even know how to drive a car, but they wanted to question me because, they said, I matched the description of the thief exactly. Or when another neighbour’s brother showed up high as fuck and stark naked. Someone called the cops and when they came they immediately started beating him. Like, they didn’t even give him the chance to come quietly. And he was rolling around on the ground screaming, “Oh god, oh god, oh please no,” but they just kept going. I was on my way to school when it happened, and I stopped and watched because I felt like I should do something. But what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t call the police, because the police were already there. They were there and they were hitting a man senseless with their batons.

And the next time I saw the cops in our neighbourhood, I made a point of smiling at them. I wanted them to think that I was harmless. I was afraid of what would happen if they didn’t think that I was harmless.

All of my friends lived in nice houses on tree-lined streets where no one was ever high or naked or puking on their front lawn because it’s Christmas and the whole family, even the five year old, is drunk. My neighbours thought it was funny to get their five year old drunk. But only on special occasions.

I always had the wrong clothes. Always. I was so embarrassed by my clothes. And when they ripped, which they often did because I wore them to shreds, I didn’t know how to fix them. I would put safety pins through all the tears, and I was always so worried that someone would see the flash of silver in my armpit or my crotch and realize that my clothes were pinned together and, like, not in a cool way. Not in an on-purpose way.

Speaking of clothes, this one tine time in English class my jeans were sagging low enough to show my underpants. I figured this out too late, after a kid called out, “Hey, nice panties.” I was mortified. My body was the biggest it had ever been and I didn’t want them to see the rolls of fat above the waistband of my pants. I didn’t want them to know that I was wearing stretched-out baggy underwear full of holes. But they saw everything and they all laughed. Even the teacher laughed. Having a grown man laugh at my torn up worn out purple grandma panties felt unbearable, but it must have been bearable because I still came back to school the next day.

I could never afford anything. I had to beg and beg my mom for money just to go see a movie with my friends. Sometimes after the movie my friends would want to go out to a restaurant because hey, we were young and fancy-free and why not stay out late on a Saturday night? I would tag along because I always wanted so badly to be included in everything, but I would always just order water because I couldn’t even afford a Coke. Watching my friends eat would always make me so hungry, so I would ask if I could have one of their fries and then they would get mad and say that if I’d wanted fries I should have ordered some. They weren’t being mean they just didn’t know why I never ordered food, and I didn’t want to tell them.

Speaking of food, it was all canned soup and grilled cheese and frozen dinners at my house, because my mom got home from work late and then often went out as soon as she got home, because she was finishing her bachelor’s degree in night school. This meant that a lot of the time, I would end up making dinner, but I didn’t know how to cook. I mean, I knew how to make pancakes and fried hotdogs and stuff, but nothing with actual nutritional value.

Sometimes my friends would invite me over for dinner, and their parents would prepare this amazing meal made up of food that I’d never even seen before, like eggplant and zucchini. They would make stuff like macaroni and cheese from scratch and, like, that wasn’t even a thing that I knew you could make from scratch; I just thought it only ever came in a box. And I didn’t want to have my friends over for dinner because I didn’t want them to know that we had Chef Boyardee not as a once-in-a-while treat, but all the time because it was fast and easy.

One time my friend’s mom gave us a giant box of food for Christmas and she started crying and I was so mad at her for crying. No one else got boxes of food for Christmas.

I remember telling my friends that I was going to my dad’s on the weekend and he wanted me to go a rave with him. His friend was going to bring some speed for us. I’d thought that my friends would think that my dad was such a cool, bad-ass parent, but instead they just looked uneasy. Having a forty-something dad who went to raves and did hard drugs was apparently not the same as having laid-back middle class hippie parents who were hiding but not quite hiding their pot habits. They didn’t think my dad was cool – they thought he was scary and weird.

I had this boyfriend who lived in a beautiful house in the next town over, and I was excruciatingly embarrassed whenever his parents dropped me off at home. I didn’t want them to see where I lived. I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t good enough for their kid. I could tell that they didn’t like me. It was like my poverty had a smell, somehow, coming off me in waves. They wrinkled their noses when they saw me, even though I could tell they were trying to be nice.

Being poor meant that I couldn’t afford the twenty dollar student card fee in grade twelve, which mean that I couldn’t collect the extracurricular participation points that year. This meant that I wasn’t eligible for the giant silver participation plaque that they gave out at graduation and you know what? I am still fucking sore about that. When I am super-famous my high school will call and BEG me to take that stupid plaque and I’ll be like HEY, FUCK YOU, WHERE WERE YOU FIFTEEN YEARS AGO but also I will be like, yeah, give me the damn plaque because I am still not too cool for this. But the point is the office would happily have waived the fee for another kid, a cleaner, nicer kid, but they did not give a shit about me.

Being poor meant constant vigilance over how I acted, dressed, even smelled. It especially involved hypervigilance when talking about my family because there was just so much to edit out, or else to purposely misconstrue so as not to make our family life sound so bad. And I should clarify that it wasn’t bad – my mother did the best that she could for us, and she did a fantastic job. Our life wasn’t bad, but it was so different, and I knew that I was being judged and found wanting on a daily basis. Appearing to be middle class was especially critical when meeting my friends’ parents, who all seemed to size me up as soon as I went in. I was irrationally terrified that they would tell my friends not to bring me around again.

Being a teenager was just so much trying to hide our economic status. It was avoiding awkward questions from the school counsellor, because what was she going to do about it? It was using money that my grandmother had given me for Christmas or my birthday to buy the disgusting nachos at the school cafeteria, because for once in my life I wanted to be someone who was rich enough to buy nachos in the cafeteria. It was telling teachers that I couldn’t go on field trips, because I couldn’t afford them. It was scouring the Value Village down the street and learning to develop this cheap funky style that no one could make fun of because it was obviously intentionally tacky. It was borrowing a prom dress from the mother of the kid I babysat for, because I couldn’t afford anything new. It was a million stupid little humiliations, and a few big ones.

And everything, all of this, had to be kept hidden at all costs. Because I was already being made fun of, and I didn’t need to add fuel to the fire. And I didn’t want me friends to think of me as so different from them just because they had more money. And I sure as hell didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.

Eleanor & Park fan art by Simini Blocker Illustration http://siminiblocker.tumblr.com

Eleanor & Park fan art by Simini Blocker Illustration http://siminiblocker.tumblr.com

 

You Don’t Have To Be Pretty – On YA Fiction And Beauty As A Priority

23 Mar

“I’m not trying to be self-deprecating,” I say, “I just don’t get it. I’m younger. I’m not pretty. I –”

He laughs, a deep laugh that sounds like it came from deep inside him, and touches his lips to my temple.

“Don’t pretend,” I say breathily. “You know I’m not. I’m not ugly, but I am certainly not pretty.”

“Fine. You’re not pretty. So?” He kisses my cheek. “I like how you look. You’re deadly smart. You’re brave. And even though you found out about Marcus …” His voice softens. “You aren’t giving me that look. Like I’m a kicked puppy or something.”

“Well,” I say. “You’re not.”

Veronica Roth, Divergent

This handful of sentences, spoken by Divergent‘s protagonists Tris and Four, might be some of the most revolutionary words ever written in a young adult novel. In fact, they’re pretty incredible no matter what the genre. These words may not look like much, but trust me, they’re actually pretty mind-blowing when you really think about them.

Let’s just take a moment to digest what’s being said here, shall we?

Tris, Divergent‘s heroine and current YA dystopia It Girl, has just kissed the boy she likes. He’s a few years older than her – in fact, he’s her instructor – and, although it’s been clear throughout the book that she has a total lady-boner for him, she didn’t think she stood a chance. Throughout the book she and others consistently describe her as homely, skinny and flat-chested; she herself says, “I am not pretty – my eyes are too big and my nose is too long,” and one of her antagonists, catching a glimpse of her naked, crows “She’s practically a child!” Among her peers, she either fades into the background or else becomes a target because of her apparent helplessness and vulnerability. In short, she’s a real Plain Jane.

Having the female protagonist of a young adult novel believe that she’s ordinary-looking, uninteresting and unnoticeable is nothing new. In fact, it’s a trope that’s been pretty widely covered throughout the genre — from Katniss Everdeen to Bella Swan to Hermione Granger to Mia Thermopolis, it seems like just about every heroine needs some convincing to realize how beautiful they are. Because, of course, they are beautiful — though often the character requires a makeover before she herself and the world around her (except, of course, for that One Special Boy Who Always Knew) realize her true beauty. Think of the scene when Katniss first arrives in the Capitol, when they shave off her body hair, tame her eyebrows and slather her with makeup. Or the part in The Princess Diaries when Mia takes off her glasses, straightens her hair and poof, she’s a babe! Or else Hermione’s appearance at the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when she puts on a fancy dress, bewitches her frizzy hair into submission and suddenly gets everyone’s attention. The message that we get over and over is that beauty, even hidden beauty, is somehow part and parcel of being an exceptional, successful young woman. And of course every girl longs to be pretty, right?

But not Tris.

Tris is pretty matter-of-fact about not being beautiful; she mentions it once or twice, but it’s not pivotal to her character. She doesn’t seem to give her appearance all that much though, probably because she has other, more pressing concerns like her own survival. She does get a makeover of a sort, but not one that especially improves or feminizes her appearance. Being pretty is not a priority for Tris and, amazingly, her prettiness is not a priority for her love interest either. Look at the words he uses to explain why he likes her – smart and brave. These attributes are the reasons that he wants to be with her, not her appearance. Of course he finds her physically attractive – he does say that he likes how she looks, after all – but that’s not her main appeal for him. He’s more drawn to her because of what she does rather than how she looks. And that is pretty amazing. Having a plain, ordinary-looking female protagonist whose looks don’t, at some point over the course the book or movie, wind up being “fixed” is something I have actually never seen before.

When we talk about women’s appearance, we often get hung up on the idea that all women deserve to feel beautiful. Many initiatives meant to empower women hinge on the concept that all women are beautiful in their own way. The message is that though we might not all be super model material, each of us has our own special brand of prettiness. This is thought to be helpful in deconstructing the beauty ideals that our society for women – the idea that “pretty” only comes in a package that’s tall, white, skinny and blond – and is often embraced as part of feminist ideology. But while I know that the intentions behind this message are good, I can’t help but feel that it’s not a very healthy thing for young girls to be hearing.

The problem is that when we promote this idea that all women are beautiful, what we are really doing is emphasizing that it is important for women to be physically attractive. We are telling girls that, as females, the way that they look is a huge part of who they are – that we expect prettiness from them, and that we expect them to want it. Even if we don’t mean to, we are still attaching a high value to physical appearance. And that’s messed up.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m all for people feeling good about themselves and being comfortable in their own skin. I want everyone to be happy with how they look. But I don’t want girls believing that feeling pretty is equal to or more important than feeling smart, competent or powerful. I also don’t want them to think that not feeling beautiful or not putting a premium on their own beauty means that there’s something flawed or unfeminine about them. Instead of living in a world where every woman struggles on a daily basis to find something attractive about herself, I would rather live in one where women are told that it’s fine not to care about how they look.

I know that this has been said before, but it bears repeating:

Girls, you don’t have to be pretty. Your sex does not place you under any obligation to feel beautiful. You are so much more than your appearance.

We never say that all men deserve to feel beautiful. We never say that each man is beautiful in his own way. We don’t have huge campaigns aimed at young boys trying to convince them that they’re attractive, probably because we very rarely correlate a man’s worth with his appearance. The problem is that a woman’s value in this world is still very much attached to her appearance, and telling her that she should or deserves to feel beautiful does more to promote that than negate it. Telling women that they “deserve” to feel pretty plays right in to the idea that prettiness should be important to them. And having books and movies aimed at young women where every female protagonist turns out to be beautiful (whereas many of the antagonists are described in much less flattering terms) reinforces the message that beauty has some kind of morality attached to it, and that all heroines are somehow pretty.

Can we please change the script here? Instead of saying that all women deserve to feel beautiful, can we instead say that all women deserve to feel smart? How about all women deserve to feel respected? Or all women deserve to feel capable? Let’s tell women that they are something, anything, other than pretty. Because seriously, we deserve to be so much more than just pretty.

Divergent-roof-jumping-scene

Gilmour Girls: A Reading List for David Gilmour

7 Oct

This list is not as diverse as I wish it could be. It’s still very white, and there isn’t a super great representation of queer and trans* folk. It sort of ended up being both a reading list for David Gilmour and a list of my favourite books by women. Writing this has been a great exercise for me, and has illustrated pretty clearly that I need to expand my own reading repertoire – I do love women writers, but I still tend to favour white, cis-gender women. Helloooooo to my own cultural bias.

I didn’t include any Alice Munro or Virginia Woolf because Gilmour says that he likes both of those authors, and I don’t have multiple books by the same author. Those were some rules that I arbitrarily made up for myself.

Please feel free to add to this list or to fangirl with me over how much you love some of these books. Fangirling is the best!

1. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ohhhh, books about Ordinary People set against the backdrop of Serious Historical Events, you get me EVERY. DAMN. TIME.

2. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

The best book that I’ve ever read about the nearly-invisible cruelties that little girls practice on each other, and the lifelong fallout of that sneaky, subtle bullying.

3. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

One of the best depictions of depression and suicidal ideation in classical literature.

4. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

My friend Jesse said it best: Alison Bechdel’s memoirs are like magic. You read them, and they’re technically about her, but somehow you end up learning about yourself?

5. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Shut up, I don’t even care, I fucking love this book. DO NOT LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT. 

FEMINIST KING ARTHUR, Y’ALL

6. Villette by Charlotte Brontë

I don’t care if Jane Eyre is your favourite book of all time, I swear to you that this book is better.

7. Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

I have four words for you: Lesbian. Coming. Of. Age.

In the south.

With cheerleaders.

And bourbon.

8. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Oh good lord I am such a sucker for dystopian fiction it is not even funny.

9. My Ántonia by Willa Cather

Sort of like Little House On The Prairie for grownups. Except for the fact that Little House On The Prairie is totally for grownups too.

10. Chéri by Colette

In which a young, beautiful man (who loves silk robes and pearls) is kept and petted and spoiled by a woman twice his age, and then has to deal with her departure when he gets engaged to a much younger woman. Maybe one of the best role reversals in literature? Anyway I love Colette so much.

11. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Like Jane Eyre except better, spookier and more accurate in terms of how creepy and skin-crawly the Mister Rochester character is. You guys, MISTER ROCHESTER IS AWFUL. 

12. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Probably the weirdest book I’ve ever read and that’s saying something.

13. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

I think this is my favourite novel about transgender experience?

14. The Butterfly Ward by Margaret Gibson

This weird little book of short stories found its way into my hands on my birthday about ten years ago. I’ve never read anything else by this author – never even seen anything else by her – but some of the stories in this book haunt me still.

15. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

I don’t even care if you liked the movie. Suck it up and read the book.

16. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The book that made me realize that I needed to cultivate better, stronger friendships with women. Friendships where I felt empowered instead of competitive.

17. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs Of A Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

I don’t even know how you could see this book’s title and not immediately need to read it

18. The Namesake by Jumpha Lahiri

If you read this book while you are pregnant you will suddenly begin obsessively stock-piling baby names as if there might be some kind of baby name shortage.

19. The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I read this as a very impressionable teenager and was hooked.

20. Small Island by Andrea Levy

Race and class in post-war London how does that sentence fragment not make you tingle with excitement even a little?

21. Fall On Your Knees by Ann Marie MacDonald

I have read this book so many times and it is so painfully near to my heart that I don’t even know what to say about it. Frances Piper is one of my favourite fictional characters of all time ever.

22. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Thomas. Cromwell. THOMAS CROMWELL. MARRY ME THOMAS CROMWELL.

As a post-script, I think that, as David Foster Wallace would say, this was Hilary Mantel’s way of imposing her phallus on the consciousness of the world seriously thought what does that even mean.

23. The Group by Mary McCarthy

A lovely, weirdly prescient little midcentury gem about a group of friends and how their lives diverge after college. A lot of discussion about how fucking hard it is for women to have it “all” – if that’s even possible.

24. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

If this book doesn’t give you Feelings I am pretty sure that means that you don’t have a soul.

25. The Street by Ann Petry

A single mother living on her own 1940s Harlem. Do I have your attention yet?

26. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

As if this was not going to be on this list. Have you even met my blog.

27. Clay Walls by Kim Ronyoung

Faye, a second generation Korean-American, says at one point that reading is, “just a way for me to see how other people live. I haven’t found a book yet written about the people I know.” And then Kim Ronyoung wrote that book.

28. The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

This one took me two reads to love, but love it I do.

29. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Speculative fiction gives me a total boner.

30. Push by Sapphire

Ohhh this book made me break out into a sick sweat. Maybe one of the best reminders of my privilege that I’ve ever had?

31. Memoirs Of An Ex-Prom Queen by Alix Kates Schulman

Another one that took me a while to love – I felt like the main character was so privileged and whiny. And then I realized that that was kind of the point, and also that those things didn’t take away from her experiences.

32. Caucasia by Danzy Senna

Probably the first book to really make me think about race – definitely the first time I ever questioned the idea of being colour-blind, and my first encounter with the idea of passing privilege.

33. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

The most painfully accurate description of what it’s like to be a white, lower-middle-class girl.

34. A Tree Grow in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I don’t even care if this is a YA book, it’s balls to the wall one of my favourite books. BALLS TO THE WALL.

35. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

One of those epic books that spans several generations and several families, except this one explores race and class in 1980s England. And it’s so unbelievably good.

36. Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I don’t even care that this book is super dated, it is the book that made me fall in love with historical fiction and also bromance.

37. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor)

Probably the most selfishly awful, incredibly unlikeable protagonist I’ve ever encountered (and that’s including Holden Caulfield), but. 

38. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Heartbreaking and darkly funny and also Miriam Toews is one of the best human beings on this planet maybe.

39. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t so innocent. Also you will want to punch Newland Archer a bunch. But it’s good, I promise.

40. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Scary Evangelical Christian Lesbian Coming Of Age. No but seriously.

book-porn

An Open Letter to David Gilmour

25 Sep

Dear David Gilmour,

As a woman writer I’d like to say thank you.

No, honestly, thank you.

Thank you for being privileged enough, culturally tone-deaf enough, and even just plain stupid enough to say that you don’t love women writers enough to teach their works in your class. Thank you for saying what so many other male professors think but are afraid to admit. Thank you for opening up this huge fucking can of worms that most people are happy enough to pretend doesn’t even exist.

Seriously, thank you for reminding me that, as a writer who happens to be female, I will always be a woman first and a writer second.

Oh and thank you especially for throwing in that little racial comment about how you also don’t love Chinese writers, because you might as well shit all the beds while you’re at it, right?

But thank you. Thank you for proving how very unequal the world is when it comes to female writers and queer writers and trans writers and any writer whose skin isn’t lily-fucking-white. Thank you for pulling back the curtain and showing the dark, misogynist, racist underbelly of academia. Because when people like you pull shit like this, everyone is finally forced to pull their collective heads out of the sand and accept how very biased the academic world is.

Look, I’m not here to tell you what literature you should love or not love. None of us can help which writers resonate with us while others, though we can admit that they are technically proficient, brilliant with language, and certainly not without talent, fail to move us. We like who we like. I get that.

What I don’t get is how very little self-reflection there seems to be in your discussion of which writers you love and why. Have you ever wondered why you might possess such a bias against female writers, Canadian writers, and (apparently) Chinese writers? Have you considered what influence your own professors and their prejudices have had on you and how they have warped your perspective and taste? Have you thought about the fact that your own relative privilege means that without serious thought and introspection it’s going to be a real fucking challenge for you to understand the context and nuance of writers who don’t fit the mold of cis-gender white male?

And maybe what I really want to know is if you were ever up for that particular challenge, and if the answer to that question is yes, then I need to know when the fuck you got so literarily lazy that you could no longer stretch yourself enough to inhabit a skin that didn’t resemble your own. Because that’s what the best literature does, right? It takes us completely outside of ourselves and forces us to view the world from a completely different perspective. If done well enough, that experience changes us. Hopefully it makes us better people. I don’t understand how you could ever become a better person if you only ever read books with protagonists whose take on the world is, ultimately, not so very unlike your own.

I also want to tell you that as a professor, your first responsibility is to your students, not yourself. Like a good book, a good professor should change a student. The best teachers that I’ve had in my life have been the ones who’ve taken me out of myself and made me see the world in an entirely different way. Passion for what you teach is, of course, incredibly important and can’t be discounted, but so, too, is the ability to extend yourself beyond your own petty likes and dislikes in order to give your students a well-rounded view of literature. How can you possibly be doing that when every year you devote all of your time to re-hashing all of your favourite books? How can you open someone else’s eyes when you refuse to do anything but perpetuate your own biases? And honestly, if you can’t challenge yourself when it comes to how and what you read, how can you ever challenge anyone else?

Finally, I want to ask you how, as someone who is a writer who also happens to be female, I am supposed to process this. When you say that you “teach only the best,” what should I take away from that? Am I supposed to just sadly shake my head and assume that my vagina* prevents me from ever writing anything interesting or good? Am I supposed to laugh in a world-weary way and say, “well, that’s just one man’s opinion,” as if your opinion isn’t symptomatic of a much larger problem within academia? Or am I supposed to think that you are somehow trying to throw down the gauntlet, as if you could maybe bully women into writing something that you love?

Because the thing is, I’ve got my own fucking gauntlet to throw down.

I’ve got a dare for you, David Gilmour. I dare you – I fucking dare you – to spend six months reading nothing but writers who aren’t white cis males. Read female writers. Read Chinese writers. Read queer and trans and disabled writers. Read something that’s difficult for you to love, then take a deep breath and try harder to love it. Immerse yourself in worlds and thoughts and perspectives that are incredibly different from your own. Find a book that can change you and then let yourself be changed.

I’ll even put together a top-notch reading list, if you like.

In return, I will let you teach me to love one of the books on your curriculum. I live in Toronto; I can easily audit one of your classes. Prove to me that you’re a decent professor, and that the books that you teach will, in fact, change me the way that the best literature can and should.

I’m totally up for this if you are.

Sincerely,

Anne Thériault

Photo on 2013-09-25 at 4.18 PM

*Not all female writers have vaginas, and not all people with vaginas are female. However, since in my case my sex aligns with my societally-expected gender, and because I love the word vagina, I’m gonna run with this.