I write this knowing that I will not able to truly express how I feel about this novel. It is equal parts breathtaking, heartbreaking and infuriating. I was drawn to this book by the title. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that Kate and I have an interest in Korea and I was born in 1982. You add the feminist storyline and it had me. Kim Jiyoung quit her job that she liked to be a full time mother and wife. She starts speaking in other women’s voices which not surprisingly concerned her husband so he enlist the help of a male therapist to treat her. The novel plays out out a narrative her life as she explains it to her therapist during their sessions. Through this we see the hardships she endures throughout her life and everything that has led her to today. Like so many women of our generation, Jiyoung was encouraged to follow her dreams and pursue a career that she wanted but also expected to give it all up once marriage and children come into the picture. As the novel progresses and she gets older I could see of how the toll of constantly being undervalued, dismissed and harassed by a misogynistic society has taken on her. There are the all too familiar stories of having expectations of taking care of ones family over yourself. The expectation that her brother should get cherished because he will be the one to bring the family honor and not the sisters. The expectations that women have to do just deal with being harassed and belittled at the work place. That she will always come in second to the wants and needs to the men in her life. Every woman knows how this all feels. Growing up in the US during a time of mostly prosperity, there were things about her childhood I could not identify with but what I could was being told that the boy teasing you/bulling you means that they secretly like you. The assumption that the boys are just smarter and some how more mature and more immature then you too. I remember a specific incident in college getting a grade two points below my fellow male student even though it was a group project and we both did equal amount of the work. At least twice I was passed over for promotions in favor of a less experience male coworker. As a single woman living in New York City. I am constantly aware of my surroundings and cautious of what I say and do when I’m around men. On the occasion I went out with friends, we always make sure to text each other when we get home to check in that we all got home safely. It’s exhausting to be a woman. Admittingly, Kim Jiyoung had it harder then I did. I do admit that I have a certain amount of privilege that has allowed me to live an easier life than most. I have had some sense that Korea is a very patriarchal society based on the amount of Kdramas and Kpop I’ve consumed but how it’s illustrated here makes it feel so oppressive. It seems to be getting better but you can’t change thousands of years of thinking and traditions overnight. Jiyoung is constantly trying to find the balance of sticking up for herself but also not rocking the boat. She sees that what she is being told and taught is unfair but doesn’t what to to say or do about it. When she does stand up for herself it is often her that gets in trouble and not the man in question. Again all too familiar. It really is a wonder that after a lifetime of this abuse and oppression that all women don’t just snap. The sense of dread I began to feel as the narrative came closer and closer to her getting married was just heavy. I wished I could tell her no. Don’t do it. Don’t quit your job. Insist more that your husband give up more of his time once the baby is born. At the end we get to read the therapist diagnosis and like so many good intention men he gets so close to getting to the truth and understanding what she is really going through but in the end fails to comprehend. Mostly because it would mean he would have to start to actually see women as something other then just their wives, mothers, daughters and human beings and to do that he would have to make them people, equal and that is just too hard for too many men. So nothing changes and we all suffer for it.
So, I had a moment earlier this year where someone referenced the feminist classic the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and I realized that I hadn’t read it. It seems like something I should have read. So, I used one of my audible credits and I picked it up. And, then I spent hours cooking, cleaning and walking on the tread mill while Parker Posey read it to me.
Isn’t that the creeepiest image?
Anyway, this classic was originally published in 1963 and it addressed a problem that women who bought (and a society that sold) the fantasy that the most fulfilling thing a woman could do with her life was get married and have children and how that not only affected those women but also had ripple effects within society. I can see, looking back, how this was a revolutionary book. It is important to know and remember that women are people and that women, all women, have capacities and interests and being stuck in and reduced to one or two roles for any person is potentially trapping.
But, this book was definitely written in a different time and was focused on different issues than the feminism is now. For one, every time Friedan wrote “women”, I found it was almost always easier to take if I added “Middle Class White” before “women”. While Friedan was probably trying to write about an ideal (and, a societal image of what a “woman” should be is certainly something everyone woman-identifying person has to contend with much like the idea of what a “man” should be is something all men-identifying people have to contend with.) most of the data she presented was about a very particular kind of woman. As already mentioned, middle class white women. And, that’s fine, but the problems that middle class white women face are not always the same as the problems that working class white women face. Or, Middle class African American women. Or, working class African American women. Or, Trans women. Or, Asian American women. Or, Native American women. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
I am glad that I read it, though. It is nice to be able to look back and think about how much we have accomplished and to note how much work we still have to do.
2016 has really started off with a bang. You could maybe tell by my lack of posting? I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. But, I have managed to get a little reading done (just not a lot of review writing. I have been writing, but that’s another story.)
The bang 2016 started out with was a family member in the hospital. (They’re fine now.) While they were in the hospital, I tried to do my best and not panic. If I’m calm, they had no reason to not be calm, right? They had to be taken out of the room for various tests (Again, they’re fine now) and to occupy myself while they were out of the room I read a book on my phone. I read Witches, Midwives, and Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English.
I thought that was an appropriate thing to read in a hospital.
This is a short pamphlet of a book written in the 1970s. It discussed midwifery, the rise of medical professionals (as opposed to healers), the popular health movement of the 1830s and 40s, and feminism and the need for women in medicine today. This was a really short book; it was only 59 pages, but I learned a lot from it. I didn’t know about the popular health movement. Or, I knew about it tangentially because I know a little bit about patent medicine from visiting the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta. (And, even though there was probably a lot wrong with some of the ideas the popular health movement was spreading, there was also probably a lot right about it.) Ehrenreich and English tell us a story about the movement pushing the equivalent of know-your-body courses (still a good idea) and also supporting a lot of self-advocating amongst patients. (The movement is described as espousing the virtues of frequent bathing, loose-fitting clothing for women, temperance and eating whole grain cereals. Any of that sound familiar?) The movement they describe also seems to have been initially supportive of women and minorities and in line with the cause of civil rights. While some of the professional societies out right banned women and minorities from their ranks, schools in the popular health movement did not do so (at least with the same frequency.) Unfortunately, from the description that Ehrenreich and English give, it would also seem that women threw other minorities under the bus in order to gain legitimacy and when favor to their causes. No cool, bros. So, I learned a little about the insidious underbelly of the history of the women’s rights movement.
What I found most interesting about this book (and also incredibly sad) were the conclusions. They conclude that the medical profession isn’t just an institution that discriminates against women, it is one that has been designed to exclude them. That was probably true in the 70s and it is still true today. Last year I reviewed the book the First Twenty Minutes and one of the things I found hardest to swallow about that book was the amount of research the author presented that was done only on male bodies. Women and men are different! There is a fairly large amount of scientific evidence to support that! (Also, there’s probably not just men and women! Gender as a binary is probably not a real thing!) Just as examples from recent news: women have different heart attack symptoms than men (and new research shows women aren’t aware of this) and women with ADHD present differently than men. They also conclude that we have become mystified by science and don’t know how to argue for what we need in the face of a scientific (or scientific sounding) argument. (Recent blow ups of twitter about whether or not the Earth is round seems to show that we still have a lack of scientific literacy.) They suggest that there needs to be an opening of the medical profession so that all women can have access to medical expertise when they need it. I still think that’s true.
So, this was a good read and a quick read. Not a bad way to start out the year in reality!
I’ve found myself thinking about Libbi Bray’s Beauty Queens a lot in the past few days. (That link is to Beth’s awesome review of the book.) As Beth mentions in the review, Bray does a good job of capturing certain expectations about women. (spoilers ahead). In the book, there is a subplot about the Corporation, a mega-company bent on continuing to push into illegal markets and trades, and the beauty queens throw a wrench in the works by crash landing in the middle of the operation. From the moment of the crash landing, the queens are completely underestimated. As Beth said, “They are just girls so they are not that important. They won’t survive long. Right?” This part of the book captures how old ideas about gender still cling on even though advancements have been made. But, Bray did a good portraying another dynamic as well and this is what I want to talk about today. Changing norms have made some space at the top of many fields for women to succeed, but it hasn’t really leveled the playing field. Some women have an advantage over other women because of other ways our societies are unfair. This plays out in the book through the interactions of two non-white characters Nicole, an African American woman, and Shanti, an Indian immigrant. In the book, they know that there is only room in the top ten for one non-white contestant and that makes them leery of each other. They also know that their faults will be scrutinized more than their white counterparts, a subplot seen through the eyes of Nicole as she remembers the last time an African American contestant had a sex scandal and it ruined her chances of success (even though the consequences for white contestants wouldn’t be as severe).
This has been on my mind because some of those dynamics have been in the news recently. If you are at all interested in pop culture, you may have heard that the 2015 MTV VMA award nominations are out and that Nicki Minaj is not happy with them. After the release of the nominations she took to twitter and stated that she felt that her videos for Anaconda and Feeling Myself were slighted because of the type of artist she is and that other artists doing what she does in her videos are rewarded. She also stated that because she wasn’t celebrating particular types of bodies, she wasn’t getting as much love from the awards committee. I don’t watch a lot of music videos, any really, and I don’t think I’ve seen any of the videos nominated (although, I have seen Anaconda). Then, Taylor Swift took Minaj’s comments personally. I would like to suggest that part of the reason why Swift might take Minaj’s comments personally is that she knows that there is a limited amount of space for women at the top of her field and she works hard and is unwilling to give up that space. Minaj’s twitter criticisms are valid: as a society we do value certain bodies higher than other bodies and this is not only seen in how we reward people but also in how treat people in general.
Beauty Queen was an interesting book because it brought intersectionalism, the idea that people may be operating in a space under more than one type of oppression, into the conversation meant for teen audiences about how women are treated. And, while I found the book to be funny and moving, this broadening of the conversation of what feminism is and who it best serves might be the most important part of the book.
Stop what you are doing right now and read this book. I mean it! I really wish it had been written when I was a teenager because I could have used this book. That being said, my 32 year-old self needed this book too. It works on so many levels. Taking on feminism, sexism and the unrealistic expectations of beauty on it’s head. Let’s be honest, no one really expect much from teenage girls. We expect them to be agreeable, charming, pretty, and happy and not much else. Just like you probably wouldn’t think much about a book about beauty queens stranded on a deserted island either but this is one fine satire.