Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist

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Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist

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març 6, 2016, 10:51am

I know several of us have read or wanted to read Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist. I have been specifically considering rereading the essays on literature and reading the books that she discusses so that I can really interact with them intellectually. When I first read -- and loved -- Bad Feminist, I'd only read a handful of what she mentioned. I feel like I could get so much more out of this if I read the books. Given this is LibraryThing, I thought others might be interested in joining me or weighing in!

I'm not reading books that she merely refers to, but rather books that she discusses. For instance, she cites Cider House Rules as an example of abortion stories that are really about men. I don't need to read the book to know that is accurate about our society. (After all, I know John Irving's deal, and I saw part of the terrible movie with Toby Maguire.) Rather, I'll be reading the books that she dissects in her essays.

I've never done this before, so it will be a new adventure for me.

Books are listed -- with commentary -- below.

Essay: "I Once Was Miss America"
-Sweet Valley High series and Sweet Valley High Confidential by Francine Pascal
(I read several of these in junior high and remember them. I won't be rereading, but will write up a response to the essay.)

Essay: "Garish, Glorious Spectacles"
-Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler
-Green Girl by Kate Zambreno
-Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion
-Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer L. Pozner

Essay: "Not Here to Make Friends"
-American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (I barely made it through American Psycho the first time, and I did NOT make it through the movie. Not sure I'll stomach rereading this, but I remember it well enough to talk about.)
-The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
-The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (Read it before, and it's well known you can't read this as an adult and like it. I didn't like it when I was seventeen, even. Probably won't reread.)
-The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (I read this because of Bad Feminist and I recall it in detail. Probably not going to reread unless the essay really compels me.)
-How Fiction Works by James Wood
-Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
-Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
-Dare Me by Megan Abbott (Read this before)
-Magnificence by Lydia Millet
-You Take It from Here by Pamela Ribon
-Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Read this before.)

Essay: "How We All Lose"
-The End of Men: And the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin (I have purposely avoided this book because I hate its premise. But I'll try it for this project.)
-How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
-Heroines by Kate Zambreno
-This is How you Lose Her by Junot Diaz (Read it. Shrug. Roxane Gay said she was "conflicted" about this. That is a little more generous than I'd be, but I think we are on the same page.)

Essay: "Reaching for Catharsis"
-Skinny by Diana Spechler

Essay: "The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll"
-An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
-Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp

Essay: "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence"
-Rape & Representation by Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver
-An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (again)
-Rape Fantasies by Margaret Atwood (short story)
-Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction by Laura E. Tanner

Essay: "What We Hunger For"
-Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (Read them all.)

Essay: "A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories"
-Privacy by Garret Keizer

Essay: "Beyond the Measure of Men"
-Last Night: Stories by James Salter

Essay: "The Trouble with Prince Charming, or He Who Trespassed Against Us"
-Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (Nope, not rereading. Read the first one when it came out. It was Mormon propaganda.)
-Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James (Ha!)

Essay: "The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi"
-The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Definitely not rereading this racist drivel! But when we get there, I'd be very interested in discussing it with you all!)

març 6, 2016, 11:00am

Hey, is it okay to comment? Don't know if you want this thread to be a personal blog--in which case sorry and I'll delete (no worries, perfectly okay). Bad feminist is the book by Gay I have and was meaning to read soon--I was just thinking about it the other day when her new book came up, so this is a fine coincidence.

març 6, 2016, 11:08am

Please comment! All are welcome.

març 6, 2016, 11:38am

I'm commenting too so I can find this thread later. I'm planning on reading Bad Feminist soon. I don't know if I could read many of those books you cited above, but I'll be interested to see if I feel inspired after reading the essays, as you have been. I couldn't even make it through Untamed State--it was too raw for me.

març 6, 2016, 5:25pm

I am looking forward to what you think about the book. I ended up really liking it, even though Gay's devotion to pop culture leaves me wanting. But her analyses are sharp and her devastating discussion of rape culture, in particular, really stayed with me.

març 9, 2016, 9:31pm

Essay: "I Once Was Miss America"
-Sweet Valley High series and Sweet Valley High Confidential by Francine Pascal

I did not reread any Sweet Valley High books when considering this essay. As a child, I read probably 20 or 30 of those books fourth and fifth grades. My parents were scandalized by this and tried to discourage me, thinking that the books were too old for me; they should have been more worried about the problematic racial and gendered messages in the book than the fact that there might be something racy. There wasn't. After all, the only reason I started reading them was that the series was in the spinner right next to the series I had just finished, The Baby-Sitters Club.

I didn't recall how problematic -- and judgmental! -- these books were until I reread this essay. Gay notes issues around interracial dating (namely, that an interracial couple is "too different" to work out) and the role of women (supportive to men; if pursuing their own dreams, scandalous). I also recall weird ableism themes intertwined with the role of women themes, which I certainly did not identify when I was a dumb fourth grader growing up in a conservative town, but strike me as truly horrifying now. A deaf character, who is one-dimensional as the day is long, is deaf because her mother tried to continue her career while pregnant. It's penance, or punishment. The mother is reviled for something she did, what, seventeen years before?

Unchecked privilege permeates the books. The books revel in the characters being rich and white and beautiful. If I someday have a child who wants to read them, I'd feel obligated to talk with her about those problematic messages.


But like Roxane Gay, I really liked Sweet Valley High when I was a kid.

I don't feel nostalgic for them the way she does, and I didn't read the whole series -- I distinctly remember discovering V. C. Andrews in fifth grade and there was no way Sweet Valley High could compete with something that salacious. Something that strikes me as interesting for both Gay and myself is that we read Sweet Valley High so, so much younger than they are billed.

She started reading them at eight years old. I would have been about nine. Younger than the target audience. I realize that most children's and YA literature is aspirational, so it isn't as though the goal was for seventeen-year-olds to read about seventeen-year-old Jessica and Elizabeth. Maybe 14 and up. Maybe 12 and up. But not us.

And at the risk of over-attributing, I wonder if her love of Sweet Valley High at a prime age is what set her up to love pop culture, crappy and awful and shallow as it is, unabashedly throughout her life. After all, finding those dramatic, salacious V. C. Andrews books at a prime age is what made me love that genre forever.

Seriously, I will defend My Sweet Audrina TO THE DEATH.

Books shape us.

març 10, 2016, 3:24pm

>6 sparemethecensor:

I'm not familiar with that series but everything you say about how important are the things we love in childhood strikes a chord. Important for shaping what I call our mental habits, and dreams, fantasies... How could it not matter in laying down the first foundation of how we position ourselves in regard to the world and other people?

març 10, 2016, 4:16pm

>8 LolaWalser: Sweet Valley High was the series that spawned a hundred series. I think "series" books took up about 80% of the shelf space we had allotted for middle grade fiction in the bookstore I worked at. They were all aimed at girls, and all of them emphasized how girls could be independent and still be "good." They were exceptionally good brainwashing.

març 10, 2016, 9:59pm

>9 southernbooklady:

Makes me wonder whether I wasn't better off after all without that sort of thing, poaching "boy's own" adventures for my own. I was trying to remember whether I had anything like that--I suppose a series of paper doll "adventures" comes closest to it, but it was very ephemeral in my life--she was called Daisy, the books came with full wardrobe and omg, yes, Google throws up a mess of results--yes, the blonde wonder (not the kiddie version, the grown up one)--"the only doll with real-life fashions by Mary Quant"!

Aaaaaa! I had all of these!

Dammit, that's probably worth a fortune now--it all went off to kids of friends and relatives as we grew/lost interest.

març 11, 2016, 8:46am

>10 LolaWalser: Makes me wonder whether I wasn't better off after all without that sort of thing, poaching "boy's own" adventures for my own

One of the things I really liked about Gay's book is that she explores how we all are constantly reconciling our feminist consciousness with all the trashy stuff we like even though we know how bad it is. Women are raised on a diet of cultural stuff that is really terrible for them, but childhood is childhood, and you create your role models where you can. I don't suppose the SVH authors intended for Jessica Wakefield to become some kind of proto-feminist icon, but it is pretty interesting to read how Gay went from "Team Jessica" to the sharp-eyed cultural critic she is today. It certainly made me think hard about all my childhood favorites. Not many of them would pass the literary equivalent of the Bechdel test.

març 11, 2016, 6:42pm

>11 southernbooklady: Yes, that's a real strength of the book -- reconciling feminism with the trashy pop culture we like, the things we internalize even if we don't like them, and especially the nostalgia we feel for things we KNOW are bad.

There are a lot of insidious messages in books like these, and some I saw when I was young but most I didn't. I do now. I appreciate feminists like Gay looking at trashy pop culture for exactly this reason. Theorists aren't looking at what people are absorbing day-to-day as children.

I remember reading Twilight, for instance, as an adult and seeing how it was problematic in just about every single way, but so, so many girls I went to high school with -- Mormon girls living in Mormon towns -- couldn't see it and got passionate about defending it. That's one thing. But my fiance's mom did it, too, and she's a New York Italian who would identify as a liberal feminist any day of the week. That's why we need cultural critiques.

març 11, 2016, 7:03pm

Wait until you get to the 50 Shades of Gray chapter!

març 17, 2016, 12:50pm

I am somewhere in the How we all lose essay, and, although originally I intended to wait until I finished the whole book, now I'm thinking it might be better if I started making some notes as I go, given how varied are the topics, and how bad my recall is getting.

These are all off-the-cuff remarks, always prone to revision.

This I'm still not sure whether it's a minor or middling quibble: I've problems with Gay's phrase "bad feminist". It strikes me as coy pandering to those who abhor the word "feminist". I expected something like the explanation she gives in the beginning, and I understand that explanation, but in the end it is no less illogical to use it. If, as Gay says, there is no one model of "perfect" feminism (something I believe myself), then there is no absolute standard according to which one is a "bad" or "good" feminist (which, N.B., does not mean there are no standards of judgement at all--but it depends on what questions we are asking). So the phrase is ironic or joking, and the butt of that joke are some other, capital-F Feminists (Professional Feminists, as Gay says), theorists, academics etc.? I can see where this would make her seem more approachable, less scary etc. but, like I say, the resulting paradox and the target make me uneasy.

It's probably safe to assume that every feminist is some feminist's "bad feminist", and to much of the public at large feminists are simply "bad". In that situation, I'd prefer to ignore the hints and questions about the relative purity of one's ideology altogether, and concentrate on what common ground can be found regarding the practical problems feminism is addressing.

Going on: I haven't read most of the books Gay discussed up to the essay I'm in currently (I do have a few, mostly unread) and I've seen no television she mentions. I should read Gender trouble sooner rather than later, and she intrigued me with the description of Sara Levine's book, which I never heard of (or the author) before. I think I have a copy of Moran's How to be a woman somewhere; I started reading it but lost interest, although I'm left with the impression that Moran was very likeable and funny. I'm beginning to think that there is only so far I can follow the straight women--men just aren't that important to me, and children (especially having children) even less.

Comment on one specific bit:

Western opinions on the hijab or burkas are rather irrelevant. We don't get to decide for Muslim women what does or does not oppress them, no matter how highly we think of ourselves.

Gay transmutes "opinions" in the first sentence to "getting to decide" in the second. I would point out that, first, while "we" (Western or not) indeed have no business "deciding" anything for others, we are entitled to having opinions on anything under the sun. Second, I'd point out that there is no fixed barrier between "Western" and "Muslim", and above all that the terms aren't synonymous with, respectively, "not-wearers of religious dress" and "wearers of religious dress". Third, even we who are Western and not Muslim can easily experience the oppression of mandated religious dress, if we just travel a little. It's not something only Muslim women know about.

Why has the talk about the hijab etc. become so one-sided? Why are we constantly expected to express support for those who supposedly freely choose to wear them, and never for those who don't or would prefer not to? We should defend the right to choose, not a given choice.

Well, that's it for now. Lest it seem I'm nothing but critical, I should add I'm loving Gay's voice and enjoying the essays very much. Our tastes would appear to be totally different, but that only makes it more interesting.

març 18, 2016, 1:52pm

The Careless Language of Sexual Violence hit me hard. Best essay so far. I remember that shameful fiasco in the NY Times--published on March 8 no less. Wall-to-wall bastards...

I don't know how Gay manages to watch all that TV crap. I guess being a public voice, a cultural commentator, makes a difference... it's sort of her job. A few years ago when I was sick in bed for a month and discovered YouTube was the first time I REALLY noticed all the carnage and violence women are made to suffer on television, for entertainment. It's beyond bizarre. There's just no positive spin to put on it. "Catharsis", "facing your fears"--cheap bullshit.

People enjoy seeing women suffer, that's all there is to it.

març 18, 2016, 4:50pm

>15 LolaWalser: It was one of the strongest parts of the book. Like you, I found myself marveling at how Gay could sit through a lot of that crap she sits through. But as I said in my review, I found it strangely hopeful that she came to many of the same feminist conclusions I did, albeit by way of an entirely different set of cultural reference points.

març 18, 2016, 5:50pm

>15 LolaWalser:
>16 southernbooklady:

I agree with you both. It's valuable for someone as insightful and incisive as Gay to be able to critique these things because most people who watch aren't thinking critically, by definition of who this is marketed to.

març 21, 2016, 11:29am

Finished the book. I was especially appreciative of The solace of preparing fried foods and other quaint remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on "The Help". I haven't read The help (and don't intend to), nor have I seen the movie (might add here I haven't seen a single one of the movies Gay discusses), but I feel I totally understand her anger and irritation based on some (many, actually) other examples of that... well, it's hard to think of a single phrase that would grasp it--white obliviousness, white egocentricity, ignorance... it's probably easiest just to say "read the essay", it explains it.

Two things I feel like saying more about... one, the rage that comes up in the essay about The help. How right it is, and how brave Gay was to admit it--because any mention of the rage of the oppressed is swiftly punished. You're mad, you're bad, you're clearly homicidal, genocidal, and you better come out with a whole load of bromides and explanations and excuses if you dare so much as frown at injustice. Must be POLITE, must keep SMILING, must be--using the term of Gay's white friend at the cinema-- FAIR.

I totally understand why she needed three days away from white people, I'm only amazed, and have been constantly amazed, at the high levels of tolerance black Americans have for whites since I first landed in New Orleans.

The second thing concerns Gay's repeat musings (in two pieces) on "bad feminist". She gives a description of something she calls "essential" feminism as the template from which she differs (and is therefore a "bad feminist").

Essential feminism suggests anger, humorlessness, militancy, unwavering principles, and a prescribed set of rules for how to be a proper feminist woman--hate pornography, unilaterally decry the objectification of women, don't cater to the male gaze, hate men, hate sex, focus on career, don't shave. I kid, mostly, with that last one. This is nowhere near an accurate description of feminism, but the movement has been warped by misperception for so long that even people who should know better have bought into this essential image of feminism.

I made before the point about the paradox and coyness of her phrase if this caricature of feminism is actually a misperception. There's nothing "bad" about not being something wrong.

But there are more problems with this. One is the word "essential" which I don't see how it applies at all. (I'm not sure but I think it also gets interchanged in the essay with "essentialist", which is no better and also does not mean the same thing anyway.) It feels like a random choice, just a word to give us a phrase against which to place Gay's "bad feminism". Yet, random as it seems, it can create problems for those who associate "essential" with "important" or "real".

Second, one's perception can be warped, but that doesn't objectively warp whatever is being perceived. You can take a gallon of milk for a hare but that won't actually make it a hare. To say "the movement has been warped" is, at a minimum, sloppy writing, because Gay doesn't really believe feminism consists in this caricature.

This misperception, she says, is shared by anti-feminists and those who "buy into" feminism for wrong reasons. This seems to me to toss out many people who have as much right to be seen as feminist (even if "bad feminists") as Gay. Why couldn't someone who hates pornography be a feminist? Someone who focusses on a career? Someone who won't cater to the male gaze? Someone who hates sex? Someone who doesn't shave? "Hate men" deserves special discussion and I think I'll take it to the other group (hate, rage and their expressions have been long on my mind); here I'll just say, similar to what I remarked about anger and rage of black people, that it strikes me as only natural to feel hate for those oppress us, so there's nothing wrong, in principle, with hating men--especially as it typically turns out to be nothing more than an instance of high irritation with the most clueless and/or evil of bastards.

It's men who massacre women out of hate, time and again. Not the opposite.

What I'd like to suggest is really no more than what Gay herself seems to think--that "feminism" is principally about a single core idea which unites, in theory if not practice, all of us who smart at gender inequality and believe it should be eliminated.

This core idea can be expressed in different ways--"women are people", or (Rebecca West): "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.", or (Roxane Gay): "I don't want to be treated like shit". Or, etc.

All the rest is difference of opinion. Between feminists.

març 21, 2016, 7:41pm

Essay: "Garish, Glorious Spectacles"
-Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler
-Green Girl by Kate Zambreno
-Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion
-Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer L. Pozner

This is an excellent essay about what it means to be a young woman who can't win. I connected to it, maybe too much, because I am a young woman who can't win.

Gender is performative, and a huge part of being a Western woman is performance. We don't define ourselves in a vacuum. We are shown the types of women to pick from and we usually pick one of them to be. We wear makeup and flattering clothes; we fix our voices to speak a certain way; we discuss our hobbies, or don't, and trust other women, or don't, publicly. You can opt out of it; people do. Opt out of all of it and you are rejected by society, of course, a weirdo, a loser, you suffer economically in hiring and housing. It isn't costless. Most of us opt out of some piece of it but that means we have to opt into others or else we lose out, too. It's well documented: being thin is patriarchal bullshit, but thin women still make more money than fat. Wearing makeup is patriarchal bullshit, but women who wear makeup still make more money than those who don't.

Even outside of strictly economic terms, I know how much harder it is on days I don't wear makeup, all the questions I get about how tired I am, whether I'm sick. Even for people who don't know me: how much nicer servers and TSA agents and train conductors are to me when I adhere to social cues about blow-drying my hair and wearing mascara. It's terrible but sometimes I decide not to fight, because it's easier to just put on mascara in the morning than stand in longer airport lines. I am philosophically opposed to women having to do it but I do it sometimes because I'm too exhausted not to. I am not voting with my feet. I am voting for ease.

I admire women who do not do this.

The super of our building doesn't respect women. He thinks the man in the apartment should make all the decisions and have all the conversations with him. I hate it. It infuriates me. Oftentimes I take charge instead. But sometimes, when we just really need to get something done, I ask my fiance to talk to him. I'm not always making the stand I should make. I am giving in.

Again, I admire women who do not do this, women who always fight. But I don't judge women who sometimes don't, because I am one of them.

I've been pondering this quite a bit because of my upcoming wedding. Weddings are simultaneously beautiful proclamations of commitment and cesspools of oppression. My fiance and I have grappled with a lot of questions of tradition and rejection thereof. A father walking his daughter down the aisle is a disturbing tradition reflecting men's historical ownership of women, the transfer of a woman-chattel from one man to another. I oppose it. It is also very important to both of my parents that my father walk me down the aisle, and my parents are very important to me. Can I deal with the optics? Yes. Can I deal with the optics of other things, like "man and wife" or "Mr. and Mrs. His Name"? No. What is the difference?

I know, consciously, that wanting to lose weight to look better in my wedding pictures is patriarchal bullshit. But I still want to do it, because it's what I was taught, silently, in every iota of the cultural consciousness, since I was a little girl. Then I hate myself for wanting to lose weight, because I am abandoning my own principles, and in turn hate myself for valuing principles over something that I want (to look beautiful in the wedding pictures I'll treasure forever), and in turn hate myself for absorbing that message that I won't be beautiful unless I am thinner, and it spirals onward and onward, indefinitely. I can't win, even with myself.

The ennui in Zambreno's and Didion's novels may be mistaken by some to be the same as any ennui in any modern novel -- Cheever, Yates, Franzen, ugh -- but it feels different to me. To me, it's furious. I believe American women experience fury in a way that men don't, just as American people of color experience fury in a way that white people don't, (or name any other marginalized group here) because it feels hopeless. Every small change we make in our own lives is shadowed by the hegemonic culture saying the opposite. I can say that I've never met a shallow, bitchy gold-digger in my real life, but I've seen dozens on TV. I can then say that TV isn't real -- even reality shows -- but everyone else is absorbing the message and implying that I shouldn't trust other women as we are in constant competition with each other. That I should lock down a man -- that this is where my value is. That it's a relief I'm finally getting married so I won't be alone. This is what people think and it makes me furious. Like I have accomplished something by tricking a man into marrying me.

(The number of times, by the way, that people have reacted in horror when hearing that I will not be changing my name to his, and always asking, "How is he OK with that?" as though it is his and only his decision to make. Or that it is generous of him, as though he is doing me a favor by "allowing" me to do this.)

We as young women aren't allowed to define ourselves, and even when we eventually decide we no longer buy the performance we've been taught we must undertake as women, we still can't win. Didion's Maria Wyeth opts out only to see her life collapse further. I read it and I wonder if it's worse, or better. It isn't as though her self-actualization revolutionizes and energizes her. She's still trapped by all the others who won't accept a self-actualized woman or a woman with agency. We can make a decision for ourselves and have it doubted, questioned, criticized, anything but supported. even by ourselves. Because even when I know I am making the right decision for me, that voice of society that has always tried to keep women down still whispers to me, inside me.

Womanhood. It's a spectacle.

març 21, 2016, 8:13pm

>19 sparemethecensor: Wow. I am not a young woman--or is that more patriarchal bullshit?--but I can so relate to everything you're saying here. Oh, yes.

març 21, 2016, 8:20pm

>20 sturlington: Thanks. The topic of the essay is specifically young women, but the issue is universal. I appreciate that I am not alone!

Green Girl: early 20s
Play It as It Lays: late 20s/early 30s
Reality Bites Back: predominantly women in their 20s and 30s (women older than that are identified by TV executives as women who should not be seen as anything but mothers in the public eye, certainly not as humans with goals and interests of their own!)

març 21, 2016, 8:26pm

>19 sparemethecensor:

If it's not inappropriate to say so when you are talking about something that disturbs and pains you--that's a wonderful post.

I wish I could help with your uncertainties but, as I'm sure you know, a lot of it is inevitable in the circumstances in which we live. Everyone must decide which battles are worth having, with whom, when, why. You are not betraying anything by marshalling your forces and energy.

I too wear makeup, as a mask and a weapon. I look feminine but anyone expecting me to be a stereotype invariably gets a lesson. If I didn't wear makeup or look feminine they'd chalk me up as a different kind of stereotype. As you say, we can't win. But the world IS slowly changing.

It's not much of a consolation, but men too "perform" gender and in some ways are even more constrained than we are. We can wear trousers, but they aren't allowed dresses. We own the rainbow, they have black, grey, blue, brown. It is easier for us to play with trucks than it is for them to play with dolls. Dismantling the stranglehold of gender roles and essentialism is really the only way for either sex (and all in-between) to gain real freedom.

I'd happily annoy the heck out of your super, though, every chance I got. :)

març 21, 2016, 8:35pm

>22 LolaWalser: Thank you. Yes, I wish more people realized that the patriarchy hurts all of us -- men, women, trans people, genderqueer people, everyone.

Perhaps an inappropriate follow-up because of how tongue-in-cheek the book is, but I recently read The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, and now when I stress myself out about these things, I think to myself, "Do I really have the time and energy to give a fuck about this?" It doesn't quite work for everything, but it's a pretty good attitude for a LOT of what the patriarchy puts on me, personally. Especially wedding planning!

abr. 11, 2016, 8:25pm

Next up:

Essay: "Not Here to Make Friends"
-American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis - borrowed from library. Already read in 2012.
-The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton - borrowed from library
-The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - borrowed from library. Read in high school.
-The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud - borrowed from library. Read this in 2013.
-How Fiction Works by James Wood - borrowed from library. Read in 2015 and I can't remember a thing about it, which is not a good sign.
-Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins - borrowed from library
-Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine - borrowed from library
-Dare Me by Megan Abbott - borrowed from library. Read in 2012.
-Magnificence by Lydia Millet - borrowed from library
-You Take It from Here by Pamela Ribon - borrowed from library
-Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - borrowed from library. Read in 2013.

Editat: maig 1, 2016, 3:58pm

"Not Here to Make Friends"

This essay uses a mix of classic and modern fiction to illustrate this claim made early on in the essay:

"Even from a young age I understood that when a girl is unlikable, a girl is a problem."

This speaks to my experience growing up in a Mormon-majority town. It speaks to my experience in college studying a male-dominated field (yet less male-dominated every year; in my current job, we have reached parity among the employees in our 20s and 30s -- though our leadership team and board of directors still have only two women each). Many women -- including myself -- choose to chafe against this and reject it, but it's still there in my life.

There is nothing new in this essay for me, I think because my childhood environment and my reaction to it seem to mirror Gay's, but there are numerous clear distillations of ideas I've grappled with and never summarized as well as Gay does. We see a sharp gender divide:

1. Patrick Bateman is a hero online. The purpose of Patrick Bateman is not heroism, but there is this vocal group of (mostly white) men online who think he is a truth-teller American hero, taking what is his. His violence is righteous and justified. These are the people who adopted Heisenberg out of Breaking Bad as their new hero, not seeing the show as this arc of a man going dark but rather as a laudable hero's journey that horrible normal people (especially his vitriol-inducing wife) keep trying to circumvent. These are not good people but they are men so they can be heroes.

This is also who Holden is, in Catcher in the Rye.

2. Women who do not fit in are not heroes. Countess Oleska of Age of Innocence; Amy of Gone Girl; very clearly Nora of The Woman Upstairs; these are not heroes. Their rejection of morality is a mortal sin (sometimes literally). We accept this to varying degrees: Dare Me, for instance, was popular, but not because it was rejuvenating or a guilty pleasure or something to absorb, but because we like to be voyeurs seeing salacious examples of women and girls hating other women and girls, tearing each other down. These women aren't heroes by doing these things. We are interested in them because of how horrible they are.

We should have this reaction to Patrick Bateman. This is the point of American Psycho! It's so clear to me. But there again, it is also clear to me that Humbert Humbert is not a hero (I think Nabokov's narrative makes this obvious) while so any people, mostly men, have told me I am wrong.

Before writing this response to the essay, I perused the LibraryThing reviews of some of these books, and the likability question appears for women only. Treasure Island!!!, Dare Me, Magnificence, You Take It from Here, and of COURSE Gone Girl -- all the modern books have reviews littered with commentary on whether the female protagonists are likable and whether we'd want to be friends with them. Whether they are good people. Whether their relationships are right. The words "selfish" and "mean" and "codependent" and "unrelatable" appear multiple times. (I glean that women who do not give of themselves wholly are selfish. And did anyone relate to Patrick Bateman?)

I think you can see it comparing American Psycho and Gone Girl, which are also some of the most popular of the books here so you may be likeliest to have read them (or have absorbed them though our Western cultural consciousness). Patrick and Amy are both narcissistic sociopaths, can we agree? They both commit violence for personal gain and react in extreme ways to perceived slights. If you want to defend them, you might do it in the same way, as products of capitalistic societies that value bad traits. American Psycho is more graphic, while I think Gone Girl has more emotional depth to it; the emotional stakes in Gone Girl are higher, I think, because there's a marriage and a web of interpersonal relationships, while the factual stakes of American Psycho are higher what with the raping and murdering.

Have you seen anyone ever say Amy is a hero? I haven't. I think a lot of people have seen her as a compelling protagonist and the book as valuable, so yes, a lot of readers are seeing the books in the same way. But there's also a subgroup of reviewers of Gone Girl who hate Amy and hate nonstandard portrayals of women and hate unlikability that I simply haven't seen in American Psycho. (To be fair, there is a significant subgroup of people who couldn't finish American Psycho because of its graphic violence, which I totally get as I admit to skimming some scenes that were too graphic for me.) Nobody reads it and says, "That Patrick Bateman is just so mean! I wouldn't want to be his friend!" But so, so many people read about Amy and Nora and Smidge and Beth and say just that.

But not everyone! I have hope. More horn-blowing for everyone!

I am also grateful to this essay for bringing me to read books I may not have otherwise that I absolutely loved. I thought The Age of Innocence was just phenomenal (and I just hated Ethan Frome and swore to stay away from Wharton forever at age sixteen). I loved Treasure Island!!! so very much both on literary and personal/emotional levels. I had read Dare Me before but liked it more on a reread, as I could better appreciate the experimental style and character development. Thumbs up all around.

maig 1, 2016, 5:06pm

>25 sparemethecensor: I had a similar early Wharton experience with The House of Mirth in college, finally came back to her and read The Age of Innocence last year, and loved it. Maybe Wharton should not be read when young?

I hated both American Psycho and Gone Girl -- American Psycho more, though, and for the same reasons I hated many of Chuck Pahalniuk's books. I could find no way into the book. Even though I get that it's satire, it was such a turnoff to me, so alien. I didn't like Gone Girl because I thought everyone was too whiny. Not the same thing as being unlikable--they just annoyed me, both Amy and Nick. I have read Flynn's other two novels and liked them much more. Here's a little blog post I wrote about Flynn's unlikable heroines, which was inspired by Gay's essay.

maig 1, 2016, 5:22pm

>26 sturlington: Thanks for sharing! That's a great essay. I liked Gone Girl but I loved Sharp Objects. It felt so gritty and real, and it had that horror element (the horror of real life and real families) done by an expert on dark writing about women.

American Psycho is tricky -- I think it's an important novel with something important to say about capitalism and masculinity, those men at the top of the pyramid for whom there are never consequences. It also captures this period in time in Manhattan that I've never seen anything capture the same way. But I struggled to read it because of its graphic violence. I didn't have the stomach for it. Unlike some novels, though, I didn't think it was gratuitous -- it was the point. Meanwhile I loved his novel Less Than Zero that talks about some of the same things (the horrible things rich men can do because they are rich; this pervasive ennui among them that manifests in violence to others and to self).

maig 1, 2016, 5:47pm

>25 sparemethecensor:, >26 sturlington:

I haven't read any of those books so I can't comment on the specifics (I did see the movie of American Psycho, thought it was very good), but the ideas are of course quite familiar. How much more narrow is the range for female characters, the double standards etc.

Incidentally, would you say there are gender differences in how readers react to "unlikeable" characters? Are women more judgemental in this regard than men, or does everyone judge female characters more harshly than male ones?

maig 1, 2016, 5:59pm

>28 LolaWalser: I'm not sure. Most of the fiction readers I know are women. I can't think of a single male friend, acquaintance, or family member besides my dad who reads much fiction. (My dad has never made any such comments though again, n=1.) Looking at the reviews, I did not notice any patterns possibly because I hesitate to attribute gender to online usernames.

maig 1, 2016, 6:08pm

>28 LolaWalser: Incidentally, would you say there are gender differences in how readers react to "unlikeable" characters?

I'd like to know as well. Really, I'd like to know if women pay attention to "likability" more than men. And if so, why?

Editat: maig 1, 2016, 6:27pm

>29 sparemethecensor:

Right, it's hard to tell... I sort of have the impression that it's more often women than men who go "I hated the characters!", but as you say, with so many more women reading...

>30 southernbooklady:

Yeah, I don't know. In general (not answering the question), I feel there's a special burden on women--if men can be said to be "innocent until proven guilty" (not really anything to do with "innocence"), women, it seems to me, are supposed "guilty" as a matter-of-fact and so must be proving their innocence at all times.

If you're not actively behaving like a good girl, putting on that particular performance, you're bad, and a bad woman is a viper to be crushed like no bad man.

I'm wondering whether books like Flynn's are opening new space for readers to follow "unlikeable" women the same as so many unlikeable male heroes, or are they just traditional villainesses unusual simply in getting more of the limelight?

juny 29, 2016, 5:33pm

Up next:

Essay: "How We All Lose"
-The End of Men: And the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin - borrowed from library
-How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran - borrowed from library
-Heroines by Kate Zambreno - purchased
-This is How you Lose Her by Junot Diaz - borrowed from library

jul. 7, 2016, 7:06pm

"How We All Lose"

This essay uses four books published in 2012 to varying degrees of acclaim (but all certainly acclaimed) to illustrate how much of both patriarchy and feminism are premised on the concept of conflict. The first sentence Gay writes is, "Discussions about gender are often framed as either/or propositions." It is as though men and women are constantly in conflict and civil rights is a zero sum game in which any strides for women are at the expense of men.

(Not to mention how erasing this is for people with nonstandard gender identities!)

I had not read the first three books prior to reading this essay; I had read most of This is How You Lose Her and found it so misogynistic that it outweighed how much I love Diaz's writing. Interestingly, one of the things that this complement of books made me question was the bias that comes out of my own identity.

For instance, I hated The End of Men. I hate everything about its premise. I thought the author either willfully or ignorantly misrepresented much of the sociology research she cites in the book (I am a social scientist and had read many of the studies/books cited, and it was almost always poorly depicted). I thought the book was written around a claim I don't believe in, but written poorly -- I try to read books I disagree with regularly to keep myself apprised of others' views and challenge myself intellectually, so it wasn't just that. This book is almost impossible to interact with if you know the demographic trends and sociology research literature on marriage, education, and childbearing.

I thought How to Be a Woman was funny in places but pretty oblivious to the interaction of race/class and feminism. Don't get me wrong, I laughed several times, and I thought Moran was trying to get to a place of class consciousness when she talked about the type of education available to people growing up poor, as she did, but it never really got there. It felt like Moran doesn't read much outside of her narrow demographic.

And like I said, I thought Diaz's book was so misogynistic that all my love for his beautiful and engrossing prose just disappeared. I don't think Diaz is a good person on the inside.* I think he forgets women are also people.

(*Being a good person is NOT a prerequisite for being a good writer, or a popular one, or a critically acclaimed one. The accolades he gets for his writing are well deserved. But for me? I can't get past the misogyny. And it isn't just him -- I don't want to read more Philip Roth either!)

Then there's Heroines by Kate Zambreno. Gay introduces the book by saying it is another example of gender as zero sum game (in this context, marriage) and the invisibility of writers of color. And Gay is absolutely right. But I loved Heroines. I couldn't get enough of it. I identify so closely with Zambreno that it was like reading my own diary of drama and fears if I were more well-versed with modernist writers. Zambreno is married to an academic whose job dictates where they will move in the short-term -- just like I am. Zambreno feels that her identity is erased and reduced to simply "wife" by her husband's colleagues -- just like I do. Zambreno suffers from endometriosis and struggles to account for the betrayal of body and hormones with a truly egalitarian outlook on the (biological) sexes -- just like I do. Zambreno reads to distraction -- just like I do. Zambreno chafes against the modern summary of the mistreated female modernists -- just like I do (though I fully admit she knows more than I do, and I found many parts of the book so outrageous I fumed on my train commute).

Zambreno's book is also erasing of race and class. She talks about the universality of the male/female struggle in marriage in a way that again approaches zero-sum while it is not universal, but rather reflective of young white academics (though she at least talks about agency). It is personal and it is political, but it doesn't quite bridge that claim of the universality of her experience.

But god, her experience IS my experience so even though I know those things, and I see the blindspots, I think Zambreno is a genius. I connected so intimately and intensely. She even has my same endo diagnosis! If Gay hadn't pointed these issues out to me, would I have noticed? I don't know.

Things like this make me wonder about how we move forward in 2016. Do we fracture? How can we be supportive enough of the larger movement while making sure the under-represented are, well, represented?

I believe it isn't enough to be told, after the fact, that we have blindspots and should account for them. But that's part of being human -- fixating on our own experiences and extrapolating from there. What can we do as feminists to be better?

jul. 7, 2016, 7:45pm

>33 sparemethecensor: I can't answer any of your rather excellent questions, but when you compare Diaz to Roth? Well, this is how you lose me. It seems that the defense of this book is that Diaz knows he's writing from a sexist point of view, so that somehow makes him so aware or above it all. Or maybe,as you say, he just isn't a good person on the inside. Which places him in a long line of literary forbears but just makes me want to roll my eyes, you know? I mean, I've kind of had it with the whole line of macho literary crap that they keep trying to feed us over and over.

On a different but related note, I see Roxane has a short story collection coming out next January called Difficult Women.

jul. 16, 2016, 1:02pm

Up next: "Reaching for Catharsis"

-Skinny by Diana Spechler

jul. 20, 2016, 8:47pm

"Reaching for Catharsis"

This is a compelling essay about the tortures we Western women inflict on ourselves around body image. I have nothing new to say on this topic; I know we all know it and live it. Gay has it covered, here. Instead, I'm interested in something she identifies about novelists of realistic fiction: how much we trust them based on who they are.

For instance, after reading Skinny, Gay says that she googled the author to find out if she were a fat woman. Gay notes that when she found out that the author is thin and seems to have always been thin, she trusted her less. (I don't think it's this alone -- the author also seems to believe that her character being 30 pounds overweight constitutes "fat" which I'd argue it doesn't. Gay believes this is because that's fattest the character could be before ceasing to be likable to a broad readership. Sad, if true.)

How much do we expect our novels to reflect their authors? I'm not sure I fall into Gay's camp. I take her point, certainly, that a person who has never experienced X situation (in this case, being a fat person) may not be able to think through that situation and its eventualities as well as someone else. That may be a trend. But I don't think it's a rule. To me, the greater crime is that the author thinks being 30 pounds overweight is some sort of extreme situation. She isn't in step with society. Perhaps this is because she has never been fat, but I think it's likelier that her imagination failed. This to me is the greater novelist's crime.

That said, I do abide by these guidelines pretty closely in nonfiction, so am I being too kind in fiction? For instance, at the library today, I was looking for one of Vine Deloria's books. It wasn't on the shelf, so I looked at other books on Native Americans with the same call number, assuming there would be others like Deloria writing about Native issues from the Native perspective. And... there weren't. I found one. One! At the largest (regular) branch of the New York Public Library, one! Everything else was white people talking about Native Americans with no indication whatsoever of Native involvement. And these weren't 1800s ethnographies -- these were modern (1970s and later) books on history and politics and movements and reservations. I'm not interested in this. I don't need to read yet another white person talking about reservations and politics when I'm looking for an inside view. It almost doesn't exist (at least in my library). But I want it to.

I think the stakes are higher in nonfiction, but it made me wonder if I would feel the same about novels. In the past, I've been highly skeptical before about non-Native authors writing novels about Native groups, but my radar doesn't go up until something is wrong. (The Ella Clah series, for instance -- I grew up close enough to reservations in Arizona to know things that were wrong, and I am far from an expert!) Is doing research enough? What if it just feels wrong? Should I be more skeptical from the outset?

No message here -- just thoughts I'm working through for myself.

jul. 20, 2016, 9:13pm

>36 sparemethecensor: I take her point, certainly, that a person who has never experienced X situation (in this case, being a fat person) may not be able to think through that situation and its eventualities as well as someone else.

If we are only allowed to write what we know, we'll never know anything else.

Everything else was white people talking about Native Americans with no indication whatsoever of Native involvement. And these weren't 1800s ethnographies -- these were modern (1970s and later) books on history and politics and movements and reservations. I'm not interested in this.

But is this an indictment of those authors? Or on the state of academia?

jul. 20, 2016, 9:21pm

Both? Because it's an institutional problem that people of color aren't represented, but it's also an individual's problem if he (or she, but mostly he, from my survey of the books) is so arrogant he thinks he can write a book about a group of people without interacting with even a one.

jul. 20, 2016, 9:25pm

So what does "no indication of Native involvement" mean? I suppose if it is like writing about the Civil War without researching both sides, I see your point, but a credible historian would do their research. That would mean original sources.

jul. 21, 2016, 7:26pm

I would like to believe that, but I don't think academia has a good track record when it comes to representing its subjects fairly when they come from under-represented groups. I looked briefly at the books and none had co-authors or prefaces by Native Americans (as far as I could tell). One book about "the Apaches" (an imprecise term at best and fraught at worst) that I looked at in depth didn't even name any in the acknowledgements. Another, about the Diné, stated in its foreword that historians should disregard the movement to be called Diné instead of Navajo. That doesn't sound like an attitude that takes original sources seriously, if it approaches them at all.

I'm not saying a non-Native person can't write a book about Native issues, history, or culture. Indeed, the book I checked out is not by a Native American: The search for an American Indian identity: modern Pan-Indian movements by Hazel W. Hertzberg. She was a professor at Columbia/Teachers College. But Roxane Gay's essay made me wonder if I should be thinking more critically about this idea of representativeness.

jul. 21, 2016, 7:26pm

Up next: "The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll"

-An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (owned)
-Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp (borrowed from library)

jul. 21, 2016, 7:49pm

>40 sparemethecensor: I looked briefly at the books and none had co-authors or prefaces by Native Americans (as far as I could tell).

Not disputing the criticism of academia -- there is no doubt that it has its own myopic tendencies --- but I don't think this can be considered a reliable indicator. I tend to judge nonfiction, and especially history, based on its bibliography and cited source material. Not who writes the prefaces, intros or who co-authors the work. Mostly, I don't think legitimacy can only be conferred by a person who is representative of the subject of a book.

It reminds me of this editorial that came across my computer around the time that Dolezal was coming under fire for passing as black. The writer herself is black, but her field of study is Russian and Central European literature -- something she has no cultural ties to, only personal curiosity and interest:

I fully understand the intangibles that come with actually being from a culture, not just studying it. However, I felt uneasy about linking academic work to personal experience. How can we inspire our students to study a foreign culture if we discount their input by virtue of who they are and where they are from (or not from)?

I suppose I cling to the belief that we each have it in us to reach across and understand and connect with people not like us. Otherwise, the human race is doomed.

jul. 21, 2016, 8:07pm

Yes, I hope so, too! Thanks for sharing that editorial.

ag. 5, 2016, 6:31pm

"The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll"

This brief essay discusses the topic of happiness in literature. Gay notes how people take literature much more seriously when it is about violence and tragedy, how challenging it is for a novel to be taken seriously when it is about joy or has a happy ending. I think this is quite true, and is gendered: "fluffy" novels with happy endings are for women and "serious" novels are for men.

Simultaneously, I found her discussion of what a happy ending looks like very meaningful. Troubling topics -- PTSD, for instance -- are seen as impossible to come back from in literature, so what is a happy ending? Instantaneous full recovery isn't realistic, but other, smaller victories can be.

I read Gay's novel An Untamed State for the first time in anticipation of reading this essay. It's a dark tale of a woman kidnapped for ransom and the physical and psychological torture she experiences during her thirteen days of captivity. But where some fiction might end at the happy ending -- reunification with her family -- this one goes beyond, to her PTSD, how she struggles to reintegrate into normal life (as though that has a meaning after such an ordeal). It's just as visceral and exhausting for her -- not easy, not quick. The look into how a woman comes back from that was engrossing for me as a reader.

There is that happy ending for her, eventually: she lives. She gets therapy. She moves forward, has another child. She returns to Haiti, once, and never will again. Things are awful and they get marginally less awful. That's her happy ending.

ag. 5, 2016, 6:38pm

Next up: "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence"

-Rape & Representation by Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver - I will not be able to read this as my library does not have it and all the copies I've seen online cost more than $100

-An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (again) - owned

-Rape Fantasies by Margaret Atwood (short story) - available online

-Intimate Violence: Reading Rape and Torture in Twentieth-Century Fiction by Laura E. Tanner - placed a hold at my library

ag. 5, 2016, 7:43pm

I'm following, even if I have little to comment. Rape is something I can never bring myself to read about in depth.

ag. 6, 2016, 10:44am

>46 LolaWalser:
Yes, I struggle with it as well. Rape taken seriously as a violent side of women's experience is something I can read about, when I am in the right mental state; rape used to titillate readers or motivate a male character (refrigerator women for instance) is something that makes me stop reading.