Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Fierce girls

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

A friend recently said that our four-year-old, H, reminds her of a Yoshitomo Nara character. I’d never heard of Nara but googled him and promptly fell in love with his paintings. I also saw the resemblance straight away.

At home, H is brave and affectionate, funny and confident. What most visitors and strangers see, however, is this face:

Yoshitomo Nara, Sprout the Ambassador

Yoshitomo Nara, Sprout the Ambassador

(No, she’ll never be a Mouseketeer.)

But those who care to make the effort can see what we see: an introvert who takes her time getting to know new people. A child who scrutinizes situations with care, and who will not be rushed into interactions. A person who knows her own mind.

Yoshitomo Nara, Looking for Treasure

Yoshitomo Nara, Looking for Treasure

Parenting a child like this is always interesting, not least because others are so often full of advice: “Don’t be shy!” “Smile, peanut!” “Nobody likes a sulky girl!” They offer this advice in loud, bright voices, usually while trying to touch her. And more often than not, they’re offended when she flinches away.

While this can be awkward, I’m not-so-secretly thrilled. I love the idea of raising a fierce girl. A girl uninterested in pleasing strangers. A girl who trusts her own judgement.

Yoshitomo Nara, Bandage

Yoshitomo Nara, Bandage

(And, in the future, a woman who embraces her RBF.)

That’s why I love Nara’s paintings so. Most images of girls and women still fall into one of three broad categories: pensive/passive, playful/pliant, or faux-fierce. In contrast, Nara’s girls seem completely uninterested in pleasing the viewer – or, often, even acknowledging one.

Yoshitomo Nara, The Complete Works, vol 1 (cover)

Yoshitomo Nara, The Complete Works, vol 1 (cover)

One day, fierce girls will rule the world. I hope ours is one of them.

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Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Hello, friends. I’m halfway through a novel by Paul Scott called The Chinese Love Pavilion. I know, I know: SKETCHY TITLE ALERT! Don’t worry: this is, and will remain, a PG-rated blog.

Paul Scott, The Chinese Love Pavilion

Cover of the 2013 edition (University of Chicago Press). The pavilion on the cover looks very little like the pavilion described in the novel.

Mostly, it’s research for my novel-in-progress (which is set in Malaya during the Second World War). The Chinese Love Pavilion (another suggestion from my well-read friend Mary Alice Downie) takes place mostly in Malaya just after the war, so I get to experience another writer’s vision of the place. I’d heard excellent things about Scott’s Raj Quartet – four linked novels set in India during the twilight of British colonial rule. I also knew the first novel of the quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, was adapted as a miniseries by the BBC in 1984 to massive acclaim.

The Chinese Love Pavilion, published in 1960, is about a friendship between two Englishmen in the colonies. The narrator, Tom Brent, is younger and in search of a shape for his life. He meets the unconventional, charismatic Brian Saxby in 1930s Bombay and, over the course of a whiskey-soaked evening, falls under his spell. This sets up the men for long conversations about the soul, fate, and the meaning of life. I have a limited tolerance for cod philosophy at the best of times, and that limit plummets when the “exotic” East is used as a picturesque backdrop for these kinds of musings. However, I stuck with it.

The story then skips over the Second World War and picks up in 1946 or so, when a war-injured Brent is brought to Malaya and instructed to find Saxby. Apparently, Saxby is hiding out the Malayan jungle and might be responsible for the revenge-slayings of some Chinese civilians. The metaphysical novel morphs into a kind of homage to Heart of Darkness, with Brent travelling deeper into jungle-dark territory to find his legendary but tortured friend. Promising, right?

Paul Scott, The Chinese Love Pavilion

An early edition

Actually, I can’t remember the last time I was this appalled by a well-reviewed novel. The self-indulgent metaphysical musings drove me nuts, but I am predisposed to like most things thriller-ish, and the pacing of the novel’s second half is excellent. Also, Scott is gifted with an extraordinary sense of place. His descriptions of the Malayan landscape are vivid and entirely convincing, and his eye for natural detail is impeccable.

However, there’s one massive problem with the novel that (from my current perspective, 3/4 of the way through) taints everything else it attempts: the way it handles prostitution. Women – specifically, the sexual services of young Indian and Chinese girls – are the common currency of this novel. I’m not exaggerating in the least. Here are three conversations from the novel, in the order they occur:

At a restaurant in Bombay, where Brent and Saxby have just dined:

“[The girls are] clean. Clean now, you understand, not later. Later the bloom goes. Disease enters.”

“Does he sell them too?”

“To us first. Honoured guests. Then to others.


When Brent visits Saxby after a three-year gap:

“The little one holding the curtain so patiently, is for you. She is an untouchable, and, I am told, a virgin.”

I looked from Saxby to the girl and back to Saxby. “That was very thoughtful of you.”

He smiled. He said, “I have always been accommodating to my friends.”


In small-town Malaya, where the officer-in-charge offers Brent the use of “his” designated prostitute:

“Did you like her?”

“Yes, I liked her.”

…”Well while you’re here she’s yours. It all comes under the contract but you’ll probably like to give her the occasional present.”

“It’s very hospitable of you. What about you?”

“I’ll manage, I expect.”

Do you see the progression here? Prostitution is first an economic fact, and then a gesture of welcome between friends, and finally a common courtesy, like a cigarette or a cup of tea. I wondered, at first, if this obsessive attention to prostitution could be read as a kind of critique of colonialism, or a comment on the moral effects of the British imperial project. But no.

In a still-later scene, Brent describes a prostitute named Suki “who by European standards was no more than a child and looked absurdly fragile in his beefy arms”. This is an isolated moment of light-hearted physical contrast in a novel that otherwise takes itself extremely seriously. Significantly, it features a young woman who, if she was “European” – that is, worthy of civilized treatment – would be “no more than a child”. I don’t think the word “beefy” is an accident, here. It’s an evocation of what’s familiarly, essentially English. And the “beefy” Englishman who holds Suki – a loud-mouthed but fundamentally loyal and reliable soldier – has the approval of all characters. Could the subtext be any clearer? Child prostitution is a harmless joke, as long as the women are brown and the men are white.

*Let us all pause for a moment to bellow in rage and disgust.*

I am going to finish this novel, because I need to be as thorough as possible in my research. I remain open to the possibility that I could be wrong, and that something towards the end of the book will demolish all my objections. But I’m sad and afraid I’m on the right track.

I have a terrible taste in my mouth right now. What are you reading, friends? What do you recommend to cheer me up, when this thing is over?

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Bikes, Bars and Bloomers

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week’s blog post is about the first bold women to ride bicycles, in the late 1880s.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

Juicy stuff! It’s up now at the History Girls.

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In the presence of misogyny

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Sometimes, I despair of this world and the people it contains.

I try to work hard, to take responsibility for my mistakes, to be grateful for my privileged life, to see the world from other people’s vantage points. I try to raise my children to do the same. I try to remember that most people in my life do so, too. I try to remember that there are many, many decent and reasonable people in the larger world. And then something like the Isla Vista killings occurs – only a month after the terrorist kidnapping of some 270 Nigerian schoolgirls. I haven’t a single wise thing to say about either.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the most insightful responses to Elliot Rodger’s killings I’ve read so far, by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman. (Thank you, Vee, for posting this to Facebook.)

The ideology behind these attacks – and there is ideology – is simple. Women owe men. Women, as a class, as a sex, owe men sex, love, attention, “adoration”, in Rodger’s words. We owe them respect and obedience, and our refusal to give it to them is to blame for their anger, their violence – stupid sluts get what they deserve. Most of all, there is an overpowering sense of rage and entitlement: the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power.

from “Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism”, 25 May 2014

The Belle Jar is equally thoughtful:

We don’t know if Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. We don’t know if he was a “madman.” We do know that he was desperately lonely and unhappy, and that the Men’s Rights Movement convinced him that his loneliness and unhappiness was intentionally caused by women. Because this is what the Men’s Rights Movement does: it spreads misogyny, it spreads violence, and most of all it spreads a sense of entitlement towards women’s bodies. Pretending that this is the a rare act perpetrated by a “crazy” person is disingenuous and also does nothing to address the threat of violence that women face every day.

from “Elliot Rodger and Men Who Hate Women”, The Belle Jar, 24 May 2014

I hope you’ll read both linked articles in full. I’d appreciate knowing what you think.

My overwhelming sense is of a need for urgent action: we have to push back. We need to weed out any sense of entitlement in ourselves and in our children. We need to speak up in the presence of misogyny, and do so persistently and constructively and fearlessly.

And that is always the hardest part.

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Mary Wollstonecraft

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Hello, friends. A couple of days ago, I finished reading Claire Tomalin’s The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft, painted in 1797 by John Opie

This is Tomalin’s first book, it’s forty years old (originally published in 1974), and it remains the definitive biography of the first feminist. I read the revised edition of 1992, when it was re-issued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s incendiary A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but the revisions are light. And WOW, is good biography ever addictive. There are so many fine, thoughtful, glowing reviews of The Life and Death of MW and I don’t feel the need to add to them. But I wanted to highlight a few things that particularly stood out for me.

– One of Tomalin’s finest traits as a biographer is her measured, conscientious empathy with her subjects. She doesn’t take sides in a blind fashion, but remains alive to how each person in a situation may have felt. She even manages to be balanced in her treatment of Gilbert Imlay, who usually reads like a music-hall villain.

– Mary Wollstonecraft was a hothead and a completely unreasonable prima donna. It’s what enabled her to write such radical polemic, of course, but it makes for difficult reading. The peace-loving part of me wants to beg her to take a deep breath (or ten) before charging into a situation. Then again, what do I know about genius? Maybe it needs to trample a few victims in its course.

– This is hard to express without sounding gender-essentialist, but Tomalin’s very clear understanding of childbirth and breastfeeding really makes a difference to the elucidation of Wollstonecraft’s state of mind, at times. A biographer who didn’t grasp the medical and psychological complexities involved would be less effective at interpreting certain lines in the letters and in (Wollstonecraft’s husband) William Godwin’s diary.

– There is no getting over the bitter irony of Wollstonecraft’s dying from complications of childbirth (retained placenta, septicemia). Her death was excruciating and long-drawn-out. In a different time and place, it could have been averted entirely, either through effective birth control or better medical hygiene and technology.

– Wollstonecraft’s husband, friends, and fellow intellectuals sold short her intellectual legacy. I don’t think I realized how completely alone she stood, in her intellectual position, or just how unready the world was for her arguments. Even the other radical thinkers of her day seemed to think she’d gone too far, and then there were the so-called friends (notably Amelia Opie) who turned around and attacked her once she was no longer alive to defend herself. Wollstonecraft remained as isolated after death as she frequently was in life.

– Wollstonecraft was an unfavoured daughter, a governess, a mediocre schoolteacher, and a hack journalist; an emotional tyrant who lived more frequently in conflict than in peace. She was also a self-taught intellectual, an independent woman who earned her own living, an effective negotiator, a courageous and sturdy traveller, a loving mother, and a genius who knew nothing of compromise. We are lucky to have Tomalin’s portrait of her.

And now that I’ve read about Wollstonecraft’s life, I’m going to re-read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. What are you reading right now?

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Mythological maidens

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Hello, friends. We were in Ottawa this past weekend and I spent several minutes staring, transfixed, at the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill. I had cleverly neglected to bring a working camera with me, so this image is ripped, with apologies, from the Public Works and Government Services of Canada website.

statue of Sir John A Macdonald by Louis-Philippe Hébert

I’m interested, specifically, in the slightly-larger-than-life-sized sculpture that adorns the pedestal: the regal-looking woman seated with a spear. There’s a much clearer image of her here, if you’re willing to click through. Or you can just take my word for everything I’m going to say.

I didn’t know who she was, at first: some generic Greek-mythological nymph, I thought. There’s quite a tradition of placing decorative female figures (which I’ll call FFs, from now on) below statues of male politicians. I had read somewhere, years before, that the FFs embodied aspects of the politician’s best-known leadership qualities. Well. If that is indeed the case, Macdonald (or “John A”, as he’s familiarly known in Kingston) was primarily celebrated for an imperious gaze, carelessly worn togas, and very large breasts.

The most striking thing about this statue (the woman is more than an embellishment; she’s a statue in her own right, and much more prominent than Macdonald himself, if you’re standing at ground level) is how extremely young, firm-bodied, and nearly undressed she is. She’s bare-armed, the thin fabric of her toga leaving nothing to the imagination. And she’s wearing very minimal sandals, so that her feet are essentially bare. This is an extraordinary state of public undress for 1895, the year of the statue’s creation by Louis-Philippe Hébert, and a year when respectable women dressed like this.

I suppose that’s the point: the FF is not meant to be a respectable woman, or any kind of real human being at all. She’s a decorative element, the spirit of a person or nation or movement personified. (This one is sometimes referred to as the Personification of Canada.) But it’s another startling reminder of just how casually the female body could be used, even in 1895. It’s also part of a long artistic tradition of male sculptors and painters evading the standards of the day by using “historical” costume to undress female bodies for visual pleasure.

I’ve been wondering how viewers in late-nineteenth century Ottawa responded to the FF. Did adolescent boys flock to view her, to their parents’ consternation? Did MPs pause before it for a few moments’ distraction, during a break in the House of Commons? Or was it simply another semi-nude figure scattered across Ottawa’s terrain? I would dearly love to know.

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Caroline Heldman’s Sexy Lie

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Hello, friends. You may have seen this already but this week, I wanted to highlight Caroline Heldman’s crisp, powerful TEDx Talk, “The Sexy Lie”. In thirteen engaging minutes, Heldman defines objectification; teaches us how to identify it; and outlines a few strategies for how to deal with it.

This brilliant talk is aimed at young people and it doesn’t talk down or attempt to be chummy. Instead, it takes a fraught subject and distills it. I know I’ll be taking its lessons and teaching them to the young people in my life. I hope you will, too.

What did you see or read this week that really impressed you, made you want to share it with everyone, and maybe even realigned the way you see things?

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Are we all laughing at the same thing?

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Somewhere in the wilds of the internet, I clicked through to the comedy sketch State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls. It’s fairly funny, in my opinion, although there’s a clangingly callous throwaway joke at the end that ruins it for me. But I was slightly irked by its underlying assumption that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character is the main thing to be mocked: stupid MPDGs, who start out so refreshing and redemptive, until men weary of their whimsy. Hang on a second. Shouldn’t the mockery be aimed at the creators of the MPDG? There’s a brief flash of this in the State Home video, but it goes unexplored.

I was going to write a post about this until I realized that Feminist Frequency has already done it! It’s a bit more serious than I’d have been, but it’s all there. Take it away, FF!

If you want a transcript of the video, it’s here. And there’s some interesting conversation to be had in the comments, too. And now I’m off to read more about Feminist Frequency. Oh, the internets.

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On having it all

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

The best thing I read this past week was Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, in The Atlantic. (Thank you, Stephanie Burgis, for linking to it on fb!) It’s a long, thoughtful, nuanced article that, despite its deliberately provocative title, is a powerful argument for fairer, more flexible working conditions for Americans.

Essentially: nobody who is tied to a rigid work schedule can hope to “have it all” – by which Slaughter means professional success and work-life balance. And while Slaughter is talking primarily about women like herself – affluent, powerful, highly educated mothers, the kind who most people see and marvel, “How does she do it all?” – it’s also applicable to men.

Are you up for a long read? If so, I’d love to discuss it with you. My main questions so far are:

– Slaughter is a seriously elite academic, talking about other super-high-powered women. What does her argument mean for average workers – for example, someone who works in retail and has to be in in the workplace in order to work?

– Why hasn’t Slaughter questioned the very idea of the mega-hour work week? Is it really an achievement to work from home if you’re still sending email at one a.m.?

What are your thoughts and questions?


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The Pretty Pink Girl Thing

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Sometimes, the universe seems to steer me towards a subject. Then it clobbers me over the head with it, repeatedly. (It’s not subtle, my universe.)

In this case, a Facebook friend shared a link to a terrific slam-poetry performance. Then I read Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter. After that, generous friends gave us 3 enormous bags of sweet, tasteful, hand-me-down clothes.

And you know what? Our girl isn’t even born and I’m already experiencing Pink & Pretty overload. I avoid the pink aisles in children’s stores. I know that Barbies, Bratz, and yet more bumptious dolls await. And I’ve noticed that clothing for small girls is relentlessly – even furiously – feminine: pink and purple, frills and tucks, flowers and hearts. Depending on the day, I sigh, shudder, or rant.

What I’m less certain of is why this bothers me so. Little boys are equally stereotyped: blue and more blue, trucks and dinosaurs, “action figures” (can’t call them dolls, or society will collapse!) and toy guns. But to me this seems less dangerous, less toxic, less generally loathesome. Also, less compulsory. Am I under- or over-estimating boys, or being unfair to them in some way?

These questions churned in my brain as I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter. The pretty/pink conundrum torments Orenstein, too, as you’ll see if you read her book (I recommend it). And here’s where I think Orenstein really gets it right. She says:

It would be disingenuous to claim that Disney Princess diapers or Ty Girlz or Hannah Montana or Twilight or the latest Shakira video or a Facebook account is inherently harmful. Each is, however, a cog in the round-the-clock, all-pervasive media machine aimed at our daughters – and at us – from womb to tomb; one that, again and again, presents femininity as performance, sexuality as performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price. It tells girls that how you look is more important than how you feel. More than that, it tells them that how you look is how you feel, as well as who you are.

That’s it, right there – the core of my anxieties, uncovered.

And the slam-poetry performance I mentioned earlier? It’s Katie Makkai’s “Pretty”. I think all girls should hear it – as mine will, one day. (Thanks, Coco.)

On a completely different subject, The Agency: A Spy in the House was recently shortlisted for an Agatha! These are readers’ choice awards (yes, named for Agatha Christie) and the members of Malice Domestic will vote for a winner at their April convention. (Check out the full shortlist here.) I’m so very honoured. Thank you, mystery fans!

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