‘Frenchman’s Creek,’ a romance novel by Daphne du Maurier

If you’re like me, then you know Daphne du Maurier from two things: her story “The Birds” and Rebecca, that freaky book you had to read in high school. But recently, I came across her romance novel!!!! in a secondhand bookstore in the city, and I had to have it. It’s called Frenchman’s Creek, and it will give you feels. I have to say, this has automatically become one of my favorite works of literature; it has almost everything I look for in a great story. Read more about this recommendation!

frenchman's creekWhat it’s about: Frenchman’s Creek is about a noblewoman named Dona St. Columb (a perfect romance-novel name, IMO), who feels stifled in her life in London. It takes place in Restoration England, and the entire narrative is a kind of flashback through the eyes of a modern-day yachtsman visiting the place in Cornwall where Dona flees to when she can’t take her life anymore. The framed narrative creates a spooky atmosphere that is definitely characteristic of du Maurier’s other works.

When Dona arrives in Cornwall at her house called Navron, with her two children in tow (but not her husband), she is consumed by a feeling of freedom she’s been craving all her life. Eventually, she meets and has an affair with a philosopher turned pirate named Jean-Benoit Aubéry, who teaches her that even though she craves escape, it’s almost impossible for a woman to have the same freedom as a man does. Their relationship becomes a metaphor for societal expectations placed on women, and the whole metaphor is couched in the language of a high romance novel with plenty of passion. Oh, and the writing is utterly breathtaking, so you don’t have to feel bad about reading romance!

Through her experiences with the pirate, she tests her strength, her courage, and finds herself outside of her constructed “proper” persona. She becomes her own person, someone whole and fulfilled in both life and love. She finds freedom and happiness.
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My thoughts on ‘Twilight: Life and Death’

Early this year, I was overcome with this unrelenting urge to read the entire Twilight series over again. I’d been a casual fan when I was in high school, hated the movies, and then found myself defending them against people who really hated Edward and Bella. And while their points are valid, it also made me ashamed of liking them. More on that here.

So when Life and Death was announced, the book that promised to clear up any notion that the series is sexist, I was more than intrigued at the possibility of reading about a “weak” human male who falls in love with a “strong” female vampire. I was tickled by the idea.

26874617And then the reviews started rolling in: that Stephenie Meyer, far from shattering gender roles, reinforced them instead. And certainly, there are many instances in the book that that proves true, but when I read it, the message Meyer was trying to send, even though it was flawed, came through.

In this updated version of the first Twilight, Edward is swapped for a female vampire named Edythe, while Bella becomes a gangly, awkward teenage guy named Beau (terrible, terrible names, I know).

In some points in the book, gender roles are reinforced in small, subtle, but important ways. Like when Beau shows up on Charlie’s doorstep, Charlie seems to imply that Beau is responsible for taking care of his mother, but it was never implied that Bella was similarly responsible. In another scene, Beau says something is “beautiful, I guess” while Bella spoke without the qualifier. And then there was the moment when Edythe gives a cold Beau her scarf and tells him not to feel weird for taking it, because it’s “her brother’s” scarf—not a girly one.

There’s definite stuff like that, which seemed to me like Stephenie Meyer was deliberately calling attention to gender stereotypes. There’s an interesting scene in which Edythe pays the check for her and Beau (even though she ate nothing) and Beau’s reaction is to object, acting like the guy should pay for the first date. Edythe laughs at his reaction, saying, “Try not to get caught up in antiquated gender roles.”

And then there is the actual relationship between Beau and Edythe, and the fact that each of them has very nearly identical characteristics, personality, personal history, and behavior as the originals. Read: Edythe is self-assured, confident, physically strong, and somewhat self-loathing. Beau is shy, clumsy, terrible at sports and completely disinterested in them, very responsible, and wholly obsessed with a beautiful vampire.

Edythe does the same things Edward does: follow Beau to protect him, watch him sleep at night, all the things that Edward was called creepy for (with good reason), but when Edythe does it, it doesn’t come off as creepy. Edythe is just protecting someone she loves, who’s physically weaker than she is. She’s also very much in love with him, and feels best when she’s around him, just like Edward did.

Similarly, when Edythe constantly saves Beau’s life, it does not read as Beau being weak or submissive, two things Bella was constantly charged with. Also, he’s arguably even more obsessed with Edythe than Bella was with Edward; strikingly, Beau never gets mad at Edythe in this book the way Bella got mad at Edward. He never stands up for himself against Edythe’s behavior. You can read this two ways: Beau is taking the traditional masculine role, not getting mad at Edythe because he’s treating her like a lady. But you can also read it as a defense for Bella; she’s not half as submissive as Beau is.

This book, at the end of the day, is not free from gender stereotypes, and perhaps doesn’t subvert them so neatly as Meyer had intended. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, because it’s making people think about their own prejudices, and opening a dialogue about gender roles.

In this book, it’s inarguably the woman who is the stronger being, the woman who has a very dark past. It’s the man who takes on her way of life, and chooses to follow her wherever she goes. He doesn’t feel like his masculinity is threatened by her strength and self-assurance. But there’s also no doubt that gender roles are still active here, that the characters are aware of them. I think that makes it more effective: gender roles do exist here; they’re not ignored. The characters find their ways around them. This is like actual life: gender roles exist, and it’s up to us to be aware when they’re asserting too much control.

And then it made me think about my own gender prejudices. As feminists, I think we tend to hold female characters to a higher standard than male ones. Any aberration is seen as weakness, and that character is dismissed as a poor role model, and the author labeled as sexist. This is counterproductive.

Beau said and did everything the same way Bella did, but Beau does not come off as weak. In fact, his behavior is endearing. This is proof that the criticism leveled at Twilight for a decade is gendered. We are more comfortable with a “weak” male than a “weak” female, and more congratulatory of an assertive, self-assured female, while an assertive, self-assured male receives vilification. Understanding that our activism sometimes carries its own kind of prejudice is important to effect real change.

Rant over. Bottom line is that I really enjoyed this book, and will not apologize for it.

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‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ and the Complex Heroine

The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber, may be my favorite book of all time, besides some choice classics. I’ve written about this lush, transporting tome before, but for the past couple weeks I’ve been re-reading it (again), and I’m surprised by how much I still learn from it every time I pick it up. It’s taught me about the world a woman lives in and how her choices and determination and kindness affect others. It’s taught me about the importance and relevance of writing a complex female heroine. And that’s who Sugar is.

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Sugar is one of the best female heroines I’ve ever read. She’s a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian London who’s gained a reputation for giving men the best experience, a reputation that has allowed her to move from St. Giles, a London slum, to Silver Street, the “middle-class,” so to speak. Sugar has a harrowing childhood history, having been forced into prostitution when she was only 13 by her own mother. She’s not typically attractive: she’s tall, “scrawny,” flat-chested, and she has ichthyosis, a severe form of psoriasis that makes her entire flesh cracked and rough. But she’s brilliant, well-read, charming to a fault, and filled with a white-hot anger for the world. “God damn God, and all His horrible filthy Creation” is her oft-repeated motto, and on her days off, she writes a novel in which the heroine, her namesake, slowly and sadistically murders the men who have taken advantage of her over the years. All Sugar wants to do is escape, which is so understandable for someone like her, a survivor, a warrior, and she finds her way out when she meets a man named William Rackham.

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Rackham, a cowardly man of complex, sometimes paradoxical character, falls in love with Sugar and makes her his mistress, removing her from Silver Street and moving her into an apartment in Marylebone, and then he makes her the governess to his daughter. As Sugar moves up through the strata of this labyrinthine late-Victorian society, she comes to terms with the person she’s become, and the person she wants to be. I’m constantly held in thrall to Sugar, and to her complexities.

Sugar is at once nurturing, cutthroat, compassionate, impatient, self-loathing, confident, scared, courageous, insecure, calculating and passionate, and she is as real as you or me. On Silver Street, she’ll tell a man anything to make him love her, and do anything to keep him paying. When she is esconced as a mistress in Marylebone, she falls victim to bouts of self-doubt and insecurity, constantly afraid that William will stop loving her and either dump her back onto the streets, or else kill her. She begins to feel true affection for William as well, and must reform her long-held beliefs that all men are beasts. She also uses her brilliance to spy on William and his troubled wife Agnes, following them to balls and theatres, eager to use any knowledge she gleans to make sure she never loses her status. Sugar must be cunning to rise out of the gutter in which she was born. But it’s when Sugar is appointed governess to William’s daughter Sophie that she learns the most about herself, and finds liberation in becoming a virtual mother to a six-year-old girl.

Lately, Sugar has been confounded, even disturbed, but how intensely physical her feelings for Sophie have become. What began, on her arrival in the Rackham house, as a determination to do her hapless pupil no harm, has seeped from her head into her bloodstream and now pumps around her body, transmuted into a different impulse entirely: the desire to infuse Sophie with happiness.”

Sugar’s character is also interesting when set aside Agnes Rackham, the wife of William. Agnes is a little bit “mad,” and when she sees Sugar loitering around her property (trying to glean details about William’s life), Agnes believes Sugar is her guardian angel. Agnes is the perfect image of female, the “ideal” in every way: she is curvy yet slim and petite, has alabaster skin and big, blue eyes, grace, charm, beauty, and every other asset you’ve come to understand as the “perfect woman.” Against Agnes, Sugar feels both superior in intelligence and cripplingly inferior in appearance. Sugar both cares for and loathes Agnes in turns, but both women are complex, and function as a way to break down the virgin/whore dichotomy. Agnes is the typical virginal woman, but she can also be cruel and shallow. And Sugar is both an angel (to Agnes) and a whore (to William) but she’s also a mother, a daughter, a “fallen woman,” an intelligent writer, and the ultimate hero with the ultimate hero’s journey. Reading about Sugar makes apparent the need for complex female heroines in all stories from sitcoms to literature, to erase the notion that a woman must be an “ideal,” or that she is either a whore or an angel. Sugar is both, at once, literally.

It’s a long book—830ish pages—but it’s so completely worth the time. I highly recommend this book if you want to learn about a slice of Victorian history, if you want to read about sexual politics, and especially if you want to read an interesting, complex portrait of a young woman trying desperately to find her place in a hostile world.

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Buy the book here: The Crimson Petal and the White at Wordery.com.

10 Things I Learned About Myself When I Reread 'Twilight'

Okay, so I have to acknowledge that I have/had a serious problem. In the beginning of January, I caught the first Twilight film on TV and my sister and I enjoyed a lovely half an hour trashing it, laughing hysterically at Robert Pattinson’s snarly acting and Kristen Stewart’s blue face and spastic blinking. If you’ve read this previous post of mine, you may remember that I really liked Twilight the books as a teenager and still carry a nostalgic fondness for them, despite the fact that the films—especially the first two—are laughably terrible. As I watched the movie and was faced with a marathon of them (again) I suddenly had this irrational desire to re-read the books. Oh, dear.

Twilight-coverThat night I reached into my least-used shelf (the one to which I relegate subpar reads I would still care to own) and dusted off the first Twilight. I devoured it in two days. The same happened to the sequels. Seriously, should I seek help? I decided to use the experience to figure out why the hell I liked it so much. Here’s what I learned about myself through this experience:

1. I tend to defend Bella as I’m reading, even though she has zero confidence and relies on men for her self-esteem. Okay, look. The girl drives me crazy. She bases her self-worth entirely on her looks and thinks she’s boring and normal and that no one could ever love her. She’s ridiculous, but I root for her because I want her to be proven wrong. Love yourself, girl! And please stop whining! I do think she has her good qualities, her selflessness among them, but the huge problem with reading about her is that she has no self-esteem. Literally none.

2. I’m a total sentimental sap and love the idea of this crazy, unconditional love. It’s irrational and somewhat disturbing that these two people are totally willing to kill themselves if they are ever faced with living without the other, but I’m a sucker for a love story and will always be.

3. It’s self-indulgent fiction that stirs up the fangirl in me, and that’s okay. Sometimes you have to indulge in your guilty pleasures. I used to love this series when I was a teenager, and part of this experience was to rediscover what used to make me so happy. I liked indulging in something purely for fun, and leaving aside some of the more difficult, “important” fiction for another week.

4. I really love the vampires’ backstories. I think this is something Meyer did well. You may well quibble about the sparkly vampires, but Meyer took old legends and completely reconfigured them into something unique. She also created an entire world that fit seamlessly into reality. I love that there are details about the vampires: the fact that their skin can age if they remain too still for centuries, that their eyes change color depending on their diet, that there are even vampires at all that don’t hunt humans, and that there are peacekeepers/dictators on hand to kill you if you do something wrong.

5. I really love the Quileute legends. Again, Meyer took on tired legends and morphed them into something fresh, and with the Quileutes, she also stayed true to Native American culture and traditions, no easy feat. She infused the series with magic.

6. I honestly don’t understand why Bella and Edward fell in love at all, so that’s an interesting change from when I was 15. All they do is stare at each other and tell each other “I love you.” Not how love works, bruh. Sorry.

7. I wish I could have written it better. I would have done, too. If I had had a red pen in my hand while reading, possibly half of Bella’s dialogue and most of Edward’s would have been stricken and changed.

8. I can totally understand those ‘Team Jacob’ people from 2008 now. Jacob is adorable! He’s so fun and not broody at all, even as a werewolf. If Bella had an ounce of self-respect she would have ended up with Jacob after Edward left her in the second book. But she has zero self-respect and so Jacob has to settle for Bella’s half-human immortal daughter.

9. I love Edward’s moral compass, even if he is controlling and irascible all the time. Despite the fact that Edward treats Bella somewhat problematically, he has such a profound, obsessive sense of what’s right and wrong, and he constantly puts Bella’s safety and happiness before his own. Because he’s sort of a self-loathing person, he’s cultivated these complex rules of morality that protect everyone else except himself. He kind of reminds me of a less-terrible Dimmesdale, actually. Edward is probably one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever read, once I got to thinking about him.

10. Why am I still on about this? I’ve had a strange relationship with Twilight over the years. First I loved it, then I hated it, and now I’m trying to figure out why I can’t just leave it alone. This post, from a Twilight fan site, contains screenshots from a “Twitter rant” John Green conducted about a year ago, and his defense of Twilight echoes a lot of the sentiments I’ve felt as I re-read the series:

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So I’ll never again feel embarrassed for liking Twilight. Take that as you will.

Falling in Love with Lily Bart

Take a look at this:

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Yes, Lily. Yes I do mind not being able to buy all the books I want, thank you for asking.

I’m really enjoying The House of Mirth so far and have fallen desperately in love with Lily Bart. Isn’t that the point? No? Anyway, Lily Bart is a 29-year-old New York socialite at the turn of the century, well aware that the time has come for her to get married. Her parents passed away after her father was “ruined” financially, and she has no one to finagle her into a marriage. Lily is accustomed to wealth and is eager to marry a rich husband and cement a spot in high society, where she currently hovers on the fringes.

Despite her rather money-grubbing ways, Lily is a product of her time. Raised to be nothing other than a rich man’s wife, Lily nevertheless is full of wisdom and uncomfortable truths about the plight of women. She sees past the veneers people display to the truth beneath, even though she sometimes would rather not face the consequences of the choices she decides to make.

Lily sets her sights on a dull, horrible mama’s boy and charms him into wanting to marry her, but she finds herself drawn to an unsuitable suitor, the not-rich-enough Lawrence Selden. Selden is charmed by Lily’s wit and beauty but scorns her for wanting to marry only for money. For Lily, being happy means entering willingly into a loveless, boring marriage with a man she hates, trading freedom for financial security. It’s unfortunate for Lily that marriage is one of the few ways a woman can sustain herself in this period, a concept that Selden fails to grasp.

One of my favorite parts of the book so far was a conversation/discussion/disagreement between Lily and Selden, in which they discuss what it means to be free:

Selden: “My idea of success,” he said, “is personal freedom.”

Lily: “Freedom? Freedom from worries?”

Selden: “From everything—from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit—that’s what I call success.”

Lily: “You think me horribly sordid, don’t you? But perhaps it’s rather that I never had any choice. There was no one, I mean, to tell me about the republic of the spirit.” 

Lily’s plight is apparent in this short passage. What other choice does she have? Just like in the picture above, there is a huge difference between the amount of freedom allotted to men and women. Selden has the luxury of dreaming about freedom whereas Lily’s idea of freedom is trading one bad fate, spinsterhood, with another—a loveless marriage. I admire Lily because she has the intelligence to see her environment and her choices clearly, and the honesty to come to terms with her flaws.

I’m really excited to keep reading. Have any of you read The House of Mirth and want to share your thoughts on Lily Bart?

In Defense of Kendall and Kylie, YA Authors

There’s something about literature that’s sacred. Authors are special people with a special purpose and their stories attain the status of a holy text to their fans, for good reason. And then there are the Kardashians. When I first heard that the young Jenner sisters had written a dystopian YA novel, my first, knee-jerk response was, “Oh God, really?” And then I sat back and thought about it. It’s really not that bad. And I’m not just talking about the book itself.

The virtual avalanche of Internet and official criticism engulfing the release of Rebels: City of Indra takes the form of several different arguments:

The “They hired two ghostwriters; they didn’t even write it themselves!” argument. 

So many other film stars, performers, and musicians hire ghostwriters to tell their stories. In this instance, the only difference is that Kendall and Kylie’s “story” happens to be a work of fiction and fiction, as we know, is perceived differently than celebrity memoirs, for example. However, Jason Segel recently sought a collaborator on his children’s book, Nightmares!, to be released in Fall 2014. When asked about his decision to work with a co-writer, he stated that he “wanted the book to be good” and that he “provided the template in the script and [Kirsten Miller] provided a description of the world with the prose the way a director would do visually.” Hiring collaborators shows a level of insight and humility; the Jenner girls knew they didn’t have the talent necessary to give their story its literary legs.

Personally, I find their desire to write a novel commendable, especially given that these two girls were born into privilege and are paid to be filmed continuously. They’re models and have been in the public eye since they were just children, but despite being accustomed to making money from their looks (and let’s face it, they’re beautiful), they’ve taken it upon themselves to do something creative and different.

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The “These girls should stick to what they know: shopping and taking selfies” argument. 

Criticizing Kendall and Kylie for wanting to writing a book is tantamount to saying that just because they’re pretty, they can’t possibly be smart. Pretty girls who like to shop can’t be interested in books. While there is no evidence to assume these girls read a lot, there is also no evidence proving they don’t. Kendall’s now-infamous comment of “I’m the worst reader” really referred to her public speaking ability. In fact, both girls are self-proclaimed lovers of YA dystopia, like most teenagers. Basically, they’re fan-fiction writers with a famous family, but judging by the level of hatred directed at them, you’d think they’d been caught burning banned books.

Are they spoiled and privileged? Very possibly. But at least they’re doing something more creative than stumbling drunkenly out of LA bars. In fact, with their show, modeling careers, clothing lines and now a book, they’re kind of teenage workaholics. And they’ve channeled their energy and influence into a medium more substantial than a reality show. Where’s the bad?

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The “There are so many people out there working so hard, with so much talent, trying to get published and then this happens? It’s a travesty” argument. 

While I am utterly sympathetic to the struggling writer trying desperately to get published, this argument is as invalid as the author who asked J.K. Rowling to stop writing books. Kendall and Kylie’s book does not sap the talent from lesser-known or unpublished writers, nor does the fact of their publication bar others from being published themselves. Their book is marketed to a vastly different audience than most authors would wish to sell to. Comparing the marketing of an author’s debut novel, for example, to that of this work is illogical.

Whether this work is good enough to be published I cannot say, but if it’s not, then blame the publishers, not the authors. Publishing houses exist to sell books and they have obviously bet on a proven money-maker. Time and again, the Kardashians have proven they’re an excellent investment.

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So is the book itself really that bad? I haven’t read the whole book yet, but from reading it sporadically and reading about it pretty diligently, it’s clear that Rebels: City of Indra shows some pretty sophisticated themes. The setting, Indra, is a small biosphere salvaged from the remains of the earth, and split into two drastically different social spheres: the super-rich and the very poor. Strict standards of beauty are enforced on women through their Governesses, and extensive plastic surgery is the norm to adhere to these standards. Women are second-class citizens judged entirely on their looks. They are even forced to take birth control pills to limit their childbearing.

Set against this rather chilling backdrop are the Jenner girls’ alter egos, Livia and Lex, the former wealthy and the latter dirt poor. In the course of the story, they recognize the faults in their system of government and join a rebellion. Livia declares early in the novel: “I’m breaking the rules, and I absolutely refuse to care.” It’s a common YA trope, but in the case of this particular novel, the quality of the writing and plot are irrelevant compared to the messages of the book and its intended audience.

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The truth is that Kendall and Kylie Jenner of Kardashian-reality-show fame have put their names on a work that denounces the ubiquity of plastic surgery, roundly criticizes standards of beauty that oppress young women, and makes some scathing commentary on wealth disparity and the rape of the earth. Even if they didn’t put pen to paper themselves, they have collaborated on—and more important, endorsed—a work that makes positive political statements. Their characters may be dystopian versions of Kendall and Kylie themselves, but their characters’ decision to rebel against their image-obsessed, sexist government has the capacity to inspire positive reactions in their impressionable female readers. I’d say Kendall and Kylie are using their konsiderable klout for the powers of good. And that’s something to be grateful for.

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Most of the venom directed at these girls stems from mean-spirited, senseless Kardashian hatred. And I don’t care who you are, how talented, how smart, how worthy, if you hate someone that much without knowing them, reevaluate your life.

Falling in love with Scarlett O'Hara

Last night I stayed up until 3 a.m. glued to my book, reading the bit of Gone With the Wind where Scarlett is widowed and moves to Atlanta, hates her boring widowhood, and ends up scandalizing everyone by dancing with Rhett Butler at a Civil War fundraiser. I literally could not put the book down. I love Scarlett. I want to be her. She’s so vivacious and headstrong, and as the book drills into your head, nothing like the rest of the Southern belles who act dumb to try to catch a man. She’s foolish sometimes and at others, dangerously impetuous, but Scarlett’s fiery, and I love that.

Here are some passages that made me fall in love with Scarlett:

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm.”

I love that Scarlett isn’t conventionally beautiful. She has the hard jaw of her Irish father mixed with the delicate features of her French-descended mother, but her charms make people forget her appearance alone. I also love how vain she was, and how confident in her appearance and manners. Scarlett’s behavior with men borders on the scandalous for this period, for she doesn’t care. I love that vanity and arrogance.

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“The other women were simply silly and hysterical with their talk of patriotism and the Cause…She, Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton, alone had good hard-headed Irish sense. She wasn’t going to make a fool out of herself about the Cause, but neither was she going to make a fool out of herself by admitting her true feelings. She was hard headed enough to be practical about the situation, and no one would ever know how she felt.”

Scarlett really doesn’t care a whit about the war. She doesn’t want to talk about it, but she can’t denigrate it, either. As a widow of a husband she didn’t love, Scarlett must constantly pretend to be overwhelmed with grief when the only thing she’s grieving for is her lost youth. Silence, for her, is the only way to conceal her true feelings and also her true personality. She’d much rather be dancing and flirting than wearing mourning clothes and knitting with other matrons.

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“How wonderful it would be never to marry but to go on being lovely in pale green dresses and forever courted by handsome men. But, if you went on too long, you got to be an old maid like India Wilkes and everyone said “poor thing” in that smug hateful way.” 

The narrative is full of commentary on the plight of women in 1860s American South. Women are groomed to be charming, empty-headed creatures always eager to defer to a man’s intelligence and power, regardless of her own mental prowess. Once you have “caught” a husband, you must put away these charms and tricks and become a meek, timid wife. Scarlett hates this system and finds it difficult to break away from the reputation of a lady and live as she pleases. I’ll be reading ravenously as her story progresses!

Has anyone else read Gone With the Wind? How did you feel about Scarlett?

The Meaning of Feminism

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Celebrities have been making headlines lately because of their remarks about the meaning of feminism, its drawbacks, and the huge role it plays in the lives of women. Recently, Zosia Mamet from Girls garnered attention for her comments about modern feminism in a recent issue of Glamour. Here’s the link in case you haven’t read it already. Basically, Mamet makes the common-sense argument that just because a woman isn’t a CEO—and does not want to be—does not make her any less of a feminist. Sacrificing a high-paying job, or any job really, to have children, is not betrayal. And that’s a message that all women need to hear.

Excerpted from the fantastic column:

“We are so obsessed with “making it” these days we’ve lost sight of what it means to be successful on our own terms. As women we have internalized the idea that every morning we wake up, we have to go for the f—king gold. You can’t just jog; you have to run a triathlon. Having a cup of coffee, reading the paper, and heading to work isn’t enough—that’s settling, that’s giving in, that’s letting them win. You have to wake up, have a cup of coffee, conquer France, bake a perfect cake, take a boxing class, and figure out how you are going to get that corner office or become district supervisor, while also looking damn sexy—but not too sexy, because cleavage is degrading—all before lunchtime. Who in her right mind would want to do that? And who would even be able to?”

Mamet makes the argument that feminism has put undue pressure on women to pursue traditionally male-oriented goals like power and money. She rightly proclaims that we need new goals, and ones that aren’t quite so gender specific. After all, who says that all men crave power and money over a simple life with domestic or artistic pleasures? It’s important for each woman to set personal goals for herself to achieve happiness and a sense of equality, whether it’s in the home, as a teacher, the owner of a business, or the president of a Fortune 500 company. That’s a message I can get behind.

On the other hand, we have Shailene Woodley, a woman who does not identify as a feminist for many personal reasons, some of which have drawn hateful remarks from self-proclaimed feminists. Woodley has said in an interview with TIME magazine:

TIME: You’ve talked about before—with Divergent specifically, too—about being conscious of the kind of messages that you’re sending to young female fans when you’re taking on roles. Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Shailene Woodley: No because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance. With myself, I’m very in touch with my masculine side. And I’m 50 percent feminine and 50 percent masculine, same as I think a lot of us are. And I think that is important to note. And also I think that if men went down and women rose to power, that wouldn’t work either. We have to have a fine balance.

My biggest thing is really sisterhood more than feminism. I don’t know how we as women expect men to respect us because we don’t even seem to respect each other. There’s so much jealousy, so much comparison and envy. And “This girl did this to me and that girl did that to me.” And it’s just so silly and heartbreaking in a way.

Shailene-Woodley-ELLE-20th-Annual-Women-In-Hollywood-Beverly-Hills-California-October-22-2013I have a lot of respect for Shailene Woodley and I definitely would agree with the general statement that “taking power away” from men does not work and should not be the goal of feminism; feminism is not about gender wars, at least for me. I agree that feminism suffers when it places too many rules on women, a sentiment I think both Woodley and Mamet would agree with.

It is in this respect that I very much agree with Shailene Woodley, but I think she’s wrong when she says she isn’t a feminist. I think she’s just defining it in her own way. I do think it’s ironic that she’s arguing for a sisterhood when she seems to criticize other women for their behavior, but her comments do ring true, sadly.

So what is the meaning of feminism? Is it power and wealth, is it stripping men of their power, is it being the stereotypical “strong woman?”

I don’t quite know what the “meaning of feminism” would be if I were ever asked this question, and I think that’s the point. In the past, feminism has placed strict rules upon women about how to act, how to dress, how to walk and talk, and that kind of attitude is always destructive. I can understand denigrators of feminism complaining about one evil being replaced for another, but the answer is not eschewing feminism altogether: it just means we have to rewrite the “rules.”

I’m a girly-girl and will never feel shame about wearing makeup and pretty skirts; it’s who I am and I won’t change it to make others take me seriously. If my mind and my speech and my accomplishments don’t make you take me seriously, then certainly changing my wardrobe or eyeliner won’t. I always think of that episode of New Girl when Jess says that wearing polka dots and liking girly things doesn’t make her any less tough and strong. We’re all very multi-faceted, aren’t we?

Defining one’s own brand of feminism is essential for women and for men. In my opinion, there is only one stipulation: support other women always, be kind to women whose decisions you don’t agree with, and don’t feel ashamed of your own decisions. And that—I think—is what feminism means to me.

Thoughts on "The Awakening" by Kate Chopin

A three-dollar paperback is so hard to pass up. For three measly dollars I left Bruised Apple Books last week with a 1970s edition of The Awakening tucked under my arm: all 190 pages of the slim novel. Kate Chopin’s now-classic novella is about a 28-year-old married woman named Edna Pontellier. She has never realized it before, but her life as a wife and mother has become not only stifling and unfulfilling, but entirely unbearable. Her husband is kind and loving, but he’s a man and does not understand her need for personal fulfillment, for a life apart from her duties as a society wife and a mother. Her children and wonderful and she loves them, but she admits to herself that she wouldn’t be willing to give up her life for them–she would die for them, but she won’t give up her life for them.

52277In the course of the novel, Edna undergoes her “awakening.” She realizes how much fulfillment she receives from sketching and painting and befriends a musician to further deepen her artistic inclinations. She stops taking society callers on Tuesdays and instead leaves her home and walks around New Orleans by herself. She begins to sell her paintings. She loves her children but prefers them to be in the care of her mother-in-law. She begins to hate her marriage, even though she respects her husband. She does not conduct physical love affairs but falls in love with another man. She moves out of the manor that she shares with her husband, remains married and largely faithful to him, but takes another home a few blocks away, where she can live peacefully and independently. And at the end of the novel, she drowns herself when she realizes she will never achieve the fulfilling life she has worked so hard for.

Chopin wrote Edna in the late 1800s. She’s a remarkably modern woman living in this late Victorian world, and she’s always confused and has these feelings and wishes she cannot understand because there is little language for it yet. Chopin was generations ahead of her time with Edna. Still, a hundred years after Chopin wrote Edna, after first- and second- and third-wave feminism and all we have gained from these movements, people still hate Edna. This is disgusting to me.

Here are some quotes of Edna’s emotional turmoil and her perspective on life:

“I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”
“He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”

“Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”

“It was not despair, but it seemed to her as if life were passing by, leaving its promises broken and unfulfilled. Yet there were other days when she listened, was led on and deceived by fresh promises which her youth had held out to her.”

“She’s got some sort of notion in her head concerning the eternal rights of women.”

“There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.

There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why—when it did not seem worth while to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead; when life appeared to her like a grotesque pandemonium and humanity like worms struggling blindly toward inevitable annihilation.”

And here are some excerpts from one-star reviews on Goodreads:

“Chopin is spoiled, confused, and completely unaware of how the world around her really works.”

I think this is the point. I think Chopin really did know how the world worked because she makes her protagonist so confused and spoiled and not perfect. Edna is a real person, for God’s sake: confused and selfish and struggling. Yet people–and scarily, women–condemn Edna for her imperfections and vulnerability. She didn’t know what to do all the time. Do any of us?

We are supposed to feel sympathy for a selfish woman with no redeemable qualities. Just because her marriage is bad it does not give her the right to be a lousy, despicable person. Get a divorce? Yes. Find new love? Yes. Abandon your children, be completely self-absorbed, commit adultery, and drown yourself? No, no, no, and no. This is my problem with the book. Drowning oneself and leaving one’s children without the guidance of their mother is a tragedy. The book would have you believe it is a triumph.”

Ugh, are you serious? Edna may be selfish, but that’s the point. She wants the freedom to be selfish and do what she wants, but the social structure has fettered her. I think the reviewer above fails completely to grasp nuances and sees things in terrible black-and-white. Edna is not a despicable person: she has flaws. Get a divorce? Like it’s so easy in 1896 Creole Louisiana, yes. Find new love? And be forever ostracized for it, yes, and live in poverty on the outskirts of society. And I’m sorry, but “adultery”? Is this the Bible?

The author of this review seems to find it unforgivable to “abandon” one’s children, and maybe he’s right. Maybe Edna is being a horrible person for abandoning her children to the coddling arms of their loving mother-in-law, to inherit the wealth of their father, to be brought up in a privileged society. Barf. Give me a break. It’s not like Edna is abandoning her children on the side of the road in rags and tatters, while she goes off and lives a life of luxury. While it is undeniably a tragedy to lose one’s mother, Edna’s actions were more desperate than selfish. I doubt she killed herself out of selfishness. Come on, man.

I also didn’t interpret Edna’s suicide as a triumph. Another huge flaw in this person’s perspective. It’s a tragedy on all fronts: that Edna was trapped, that her children lose their mother, that the man she loved could not find the courage to break with tradition and be happy with her. It’s a sad story. Edna’s suicide is not a triumph; it’s all a tragedy.

Some reviewers called her a “trollop” (what?), and others simply hated her because she was not “sympathetic.” Barf again. Is Humbert Humbert sympathetic? Do we appreciate him as a character? (He’s morally the most despicable literary persona I could think of.)

The point is that women today have a choice, for the most part, and Edna did not. She loved her children because they were hers, but she was not a good mother, nor did she want to be. Only those who truly want to be mothers should become mothers, because the alternative is to be caught in a life you don’t want. Edna gave up her life because it could never be fulfilling to her. That’s the real tragedy. But people still argue that a woman’s first duty is to her husband and children, regardless of her own wishes and desires. That’s what these one-star reviews are tantamount to: arguing against the independence of women.

“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice much have strong wings.”

Okay, soapbox put away now. I am off to torture myself with some one-star reviews of Anna Karenina.

1st Book of 2014: The Handmaid's Tale

I’ve started off 2014 with a bang with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale. When I was reading the last hundred pages of the book, I frequently closed it and put it down and buried my face in my hands and said, “I can’t take it. The pressure is too much.” It’s frightening at times but unlike 1984 (my guidepost for all things dystopian), the frightening aspects are not tied to the plot exactly, but rather, the fear lies in the elements of the world itself: Atwood has created a world in which women are truly second-class citizens, in which they are valued (or not valued) for the ways in which they are used sexually by men.

handmaids-tale-reviewThere are the Wives, capital “W”, who are revered. There are the Daughters, clad all in white and kept completely separate from the world. There are the Unwomen, those who cannot produce children and who are shipped off to the Colonies to perform dangerous and menial tasks. And then there are the Handmaids, dressed all in red, like our protagonist, Offred.

Our setting is Gilead, a new nation instated after the President and Congress have been annihilated, after the Constitution is suspended, and after a theocracy has been established. The birth rate has plummeted and the Handmaids are those women who have been assigned to copulate with the high-ranking Commanders, to have the children the Wives cannot, and they only have three chances (three cycles of Commanders) to birth a child before they are deemed Unwomen and shipped off to Colonial hell. These women don’t even retain their names; Offred is called such because she is the handmaid “of Fred.” This is a world where a woman’s worth is tied to her purity and/or fertility, and she has no identity independent of her assigned Man.

The present narrative of Gilead is punctuated by Offred’s nostalgic recollections of a normal 1980s American existence. She fought with her feminist activist mother, debated with her outrageous best friend Moira, conducted an affair with a married man and when he divorced and married her, Offred can remember her five-year-old daughter, who was taken from her. She remembers being placed in the Red Center, where other future Handmaids were taught to think of themselves as empty vessels to be filled with babies. They were taught a strict Christian ideology, taught to be pure, that sex is not to be enjoyed, and that rape is their fault. Stripped of all natural human rights, of their previous lives and loved ones, controlled by fear, Offred’s tale is a haunting one full of truths of what would happen if contemporary abuses against women become not only the norm, but the law.

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies. (127)

As a dystopian tale, the novel is lacking in several ways. The voice of the speaker, whose real name is never revealed, feels distant and somewhat unrelatable. The world she builds is also riddled with holes and feels allegorical. I tend to think these features are deliberate, however. I feel like Atwood used the dystopia trope to highlight more important issues, and her undeveloped world may be due to the narrative method: Offred, as a sheltered Handmaid, doesn’t know what is actually going on in Gilead. We see what she sees. We know only what she knows.

The Handmaid’s Tale feels more like a collection of all the ways women can be abused/controlled/exploited than a novel with a tight plot and exciting characters. It’s a cautionary tale more than anything else, but in this way it seriously delivers. I judge a dystopian tale by the terror it instills in me and the amount of despair it manages to elicit in the reader (I like depressing, soul-shattering reads, apparently). In the first respect, The Handmaid’s Tale receives top marks; in the second, thankfully, it sort of falls flat. Offred’s fate is left uncertain but there’s nothing like that one-two punch at the end of 1984 where the reader realizes that there is no escaping the strong arm of the government. I feel like an ending like that is powerful for a reason: it is much more effective in ramming the message down the reader’s throat that this world is possible, terrible, and must be actively warded against.

A Commander on the status of women in Gilead:

This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else he’d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook? (219-220)

What, indeed?

References

Atwood, M. (1985) The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books.