Mary Beard is, of course, a well-know classicist, and it’s a personal life mission of mine to read all of her books. Even the dry academic ones – they’re quite interesting, if you’re curious about life in the Ancient Roman or Greek worlds. This is not one of those.
Women & Power is a very slight book – less than 100 pages – that is basically a transcript of two speeches she gave about just how deep silencing women goes in Western culture. Spoiler alert: the first example of silencing a woman in a written text is the Odyssey, which is possibly the oldest written text there is.
There are examples of powerful women in ancient texts, but these women are never portrayed as positive role models – think of Medea and Medusa – and even Athena is problematic. The feminine is secondary to the masculine by default.
This was a quick but illustrative read. Definitely recommended.
I had, perhaps a bit densely, never really thought about mystery novels primarily as books about working until I read Hardboiled & High Heeled. Mysteries had always been books about solving problems, about putting the world in order. That is, until this book pointed out that mysteries were the first stories to show women, working. Not as the love interest, nor primarily looking for a romantic partner. A woman, at work, solving problems.
It focuses mainly on three characters: Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, Kinsey Millhone, and Kay Scarpetta. Each woman is competent, not interested in relationships (though interested in sex, as most people are), and the primary objective of each of these characters is solving the mystery in front of them before anyone else gets hurt.
Hardboiled & High Heeled is a bit academical, but still readable. If you’re interested in how women are portrayed when they want to read as competent and in charge, this is a good start.
Sharp is a well-researched overview of a series of ten public intellectuals, all women, what they wrote, how other people reacted to it, and how they handled those reactions. What kind of personas did they get? Which of their pieces defined their public personas? How did they feel about that? Why?
The well-researched aspect of the book was the part that most resonated with me. I came away wanting to read all the books and articles by Kael, Didion, Parker, even Sontag, who I developed a disdain for in the 1990s for no particular reason. I want to add every entry in Sharp‘s bibliography to my own already too-long to read list. I am envious of Michelle Dean for having the time and purpose to have already done so.
Also, Nora Ephron, I’m sorry. I knew your persona as the person who wrote Meg Ryan movies. The same Meg Ryan movies that I got sick of in the 80s and 90s. I still don’t understand why/how Meg Ryan’s and Tom Hank’s characters fell in love without really meeting through the whole of Sleepless in Seattle. And Billy Crystal’s schtick was fine the first time I saw When Harry Met Sally, but it was grating upon re-watch. Eventually, the movies just felt like Meg Ryan being Meg Ryan – unfair to her and you, I can see now – and not like anything special or interesting. (And yes, I believe men and women can be friends without one wanting to sleep with the other.) I had no idea you had a whole pre-movie body of work. It’s time to go read that.
And maybe this is where I say something about how women get discounted in intellectual life, and where I cite a relevant quote from How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Instead I will say that I am glad Michelle Dean is taking these women seriously and inspiring other people to also take them seriously.
Manhattan Beach is about New York City in World War II, and it’s about a young woman, Anna, who decides she wants to be a diver. Her father disappeared when she was a teenager; she both wants and doesn’t want to find him. She would like to know what happened to him and to build a life for herself.
I picked up Manhattan Beach because I read the first chapter in an issue of Elle magazine and was entranced by the story of eleven-year-old Anna tagging along with her father as he goes to meet a new business acquaintance. It’s both dreamy and practical. Anna impresses her father’s new business partner with her toughness about putting her bare feet into the cold ocean; the cold ocean and the house on the ocean is shot through gauze. Nothing bad could happen at a house like that.
But overall, I ended up being surprised at the story’s toughness. The rest of the book is not nearly so dreamy or romantic. Bad things happen, people are betrayed, sexism is prevalent. Anna moves through the world competently and with confidence. It’s a nice change from the uncertain way women often act in stories.
Smart, competent girls yay!
Honestly? Plot? A young woman, Alia, gets in a shipwreck. Diana saves her. It turns out there’s a conspiracy around her, blah blah blah, Diana saves the day. You know the plot – no wheels are being reinvented here.
So what’s the point? The point is: smart competent girls get it done despite incompetent and sometimes outright evil dudes. Warbringer is a fun read and will make you proud to have two X chromosomes. Recommended.
I really really really really really like Fear and Clothing. I like how it explores the different ways that Americans dress. I like that Cintra Wilson tries to reason out why people in different parts of the country dress differently. I like her feminism, I like her ideas of weaponized femininity, I like her respect for Valerie Steele, I like her attitude towards Iowans.
What I didn’t like was how the structure of the book sort of falls apart at the end – why are there so many photos of Seattle fashion if you’re not going to have a chapter on Seattle? Why couldn’t she have talked directly to more people who lived in each place she visited, who live with that fashion day in and day out? Did she have to be so mean towards Salt Lake City?
But mostly, I like her ideas that fashion is a way of expressing who *you* are and your fashion should be unique and different. Clothes really are fun and do communicate a lot about who you are (or who you want to be). You are unique. Why shouldn’t your clothes be?
Society has a very definite idea of what makes someone an appropriate woman. Or, to quote yet still more Anne Helen Petersen, a good girl. You’re thin, wealthy, subordinate your own desires (of all kinds) to your husband’s, (of course you have a husband). Don’t swear, don’t look like you’re trying too hard, don’t have ambition, don’t yell, don’t age. And god forbid you have a bodily function.
Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud celebrates women who break all these rules, and it is awesome. Serena Williams is the best in the world and if you can’t accept her ambition, mouth, and body type, that’s your problem, not hers. It’s the first chapter and it sets the appropriate tone for the whole book.
Caitlin Jenner is included, and Anne Helen Petersen talks about how she’s problematic for her book, because she wants to be the most stereotypical woman she can be – transnormative – and not unruly at all. But simply by being such a prominent trans woman, she breaks barriers. With her show, she brought more trans stories to light and explored different ways to be trans in the world, sometimes despite herself.
Personally, I wish the Madonna chapter had been more fleshed out. As I’m getting older myself, how women are allowed (and not) to age becomes more interesting to me. (Selfish, I know.) But the point of that chapter is that Madonna isn’t aging like other women (unruly), but she’s fighting age in a way that we’ve seen before, by trying to act and perform as young as possible. The big idea is that Madonna has always been new. She transforms herself to stay new; her fight against age isn’t new. We’ve seen it before by others. The chapter was unsatisfying.
The book overall though is a strong recommend. Maybe my favorite book of 2017.
It is just about the weekend y’all.
Agrippina, specifically Agrippina the Younger, was a kind of incredible woman who co-ruled the Roman Empire first with her husband Claudius and then with her son Nero. This book has a distinctly feminist take on her.
Agrippina has often been portrayed as a power-hungry woman who would do anything (e.g. setting up Claudius’ prior wife for political downfall, murdering Claudius so Nero would inherit over Claudius’ natural son, sleeping with Nero once he was on the throne to stay in his good graces) to rule Rome. Mr Barrett’s take on it is as follows:
- Look, she was a powerful woman in a deeply misogynistic society. She’s not going to be portrayed in anything like a positive light.
- She only shows up in the contemporary stories about the men whose lives she was in. We don’t have anything that focuses on her.
- Sex scandals were frequently used by the contemporary sources to explain why powerful people (both men and women) were suddenly not in power anymore.
So when she’s implicated in a sex scandal, it’s important to look around and see who benefits and who else is being taken down with her. That’s going to show you what’s really going on.
Here are the facts: she was raised by an extraordinarily determined mother and her dead father was worshipped by the military. When she was around Caligula (the emperor before Claudius and her brother), he wasn’t such a crazy asshole who tried to kill everyone. Claudius’ reign was much smoother when she was his wife than when he was married to his prior wife. Nero didn’t go off the rails until after she was banished (and then he had her killed to keep her from coming back). Shit worked when she was on the scene.
So maybe consider that the contemporary reports were written by gossipy people with a strong patriarchal bias and should be taken with a HUGE grain of salt.
I liked this one.
The Pearl that Broke Its Shell is about women in Afghanistan. There are two interwoven stories: Rahima, a young girl who pretends to be a boy before becoming a 13-year-old fourth wife of a warlord, and her great-great grandmother, who does many things to not die while trying to get a bit of autonomy.
All the women in this book sort-of escape from the shackles of Afghani life. If you can call death or drug addition or getting forcibly married to someone who doesn’t beat you escape. It’s more like coming to terms with what you can do with where you are. Escape seems like too bold a word.
All sexism (and all racism) is, at its core, economic. It’s one group denying another the ability to earn enough money to live in the ways they want when they want. Controlling your labor. Standing in the way of you owning your own business. Refusing you health care so you can’t work. It’s vividly illustrated when you talk about Afghan society, it takes work on your part to see it here in America too. Policing what women wear. Pressuring men and women to be married and/or have children. Women fighting each other instead of supporting each other.
You can read The Pearl that Broke Its Shell and congratulate yourself that at least America isn’t that backwards or think that at least all of its main female characters end the story at peace. But mostly, I just felt unsettled.