Boring Books & Fierce Femininity

June 3, 2010 § 2 Comments

This post right here is inspired by Tiger Beatdown‘s recent (spectacular and spectacularly titled) series What We Read When We Don’t Read The Internet.

What I want to talk about has little to do with who’s writing a particular book, and more to do with what they write about. Because I’ve noticed that regardless of an author’s gender, if their book makes the TRAGIC AND FATAL mistake of being at least partially centered around feminine topics, it’s a literary megafail. Texts focused on women-stuff — romance, friendship, children and parenthood, gradual life processes — tend to be dismissed as soft, as less meaningful than texts focused on men-stuff — violence, foreign lands, epic journeys, dramatic showdowns.

Often these books explore issues that are socially “feminine” by focusing on female characters. A great example is Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters (1998). I first discovered this book in seventh grade, when I borrowed it from Ruth after she raved about it at a sleepover. (Yeah, we’re cute.) I loved it, but in my mind it didn’t amount to real literature. It wasn’t a book that I could reference in my English class, or talk about with my parents. It just didn’t seem important or serious enough.

People: It wasn’t even someone else, some sexist ass, who told me Summer Sisters was trashy and unworthy of critical attention. It was me! My own self! (That’s how deep patriarchy is embedded in us.) I was willing to admit that I enjoyed it, but only as an escapist beach-read — not as the complex narrative of broken friendship, shifting family dynamics, sexual awakening, and class tension that it is. I’d say to my friends, “I just read this great book! It’s kind of trashy; you can borrow it if you want. It’s a little silly. So do you want it?” instead of “I just read this great book! By Judy Blume, a feminist literary goddess. It describes so beautifully the pain and loveliness of friendships, the pain and loveliness of family, the angst and hopelessness of growing up. I really recommend it! Do you want to borrow it?”

What a mistake! I regret that time before I realized how fucking awesome this book is.

But books don’t have to be about women to be “feminine.” They can be about men and still explore ideas that we categorize as soft and inconsequential. These books can even be written by men! Case in point: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) by the amazing Sherman Alexie. It’s a series of short stories (the kind that sort of connect! I love that.) about coming of age on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, about navigating alcholism and despair and whiteness and racism. The subject of dull, draining oppression is undeniably feminine; it lacks the immediate vitality, the quick punch or enraged stabbing that we associate with masculinity. Gradual processes are feminine because they are slow and boring, supposedly, while lone actions are masculine because they are exciting and totes dramatic.

When my eighth grade class read this book, many complained that it was a chore to read. “Nothing happens! They just sit around and drink. Where’s the action? What are we reading next?” FALSE, I say! So much happens, yet we refuse to name it as action, as real plot, because it isn’t loud and domineering and aggressive. It isn’t manly. It isn’t important.

We dislike, dismiss, and disregard feminine literature because in this world, in this fucked up partriarchal world, we don’t just hate girls and women. Apparently, that’s not enough. No, we also hate anything that even remotely reminds us of girls and women. And, very conveniently, we have taken all the attributes that occur naturally in human beings but that we most loathe as a collective society and ascribed them to — you guessed it — girls and women. This is a tricky move! This is a cunning move! This move makes girls and women, and also the things that remind us of girls and women, even easier to hate. It’s so convenient, so fucking coincidental. Except that the word “coincidental” implies some sort of cosmic accident, some kind of mystical power from above that just happened to make shit this way, not a deliberate, socially constructed system of oppression that relies on individuals’ and communities’ perpetuation of its lies to survive.

Feminine attributes like sensitivity, emotional openness, resilience, love, caring about other people, interdependence, vulnerability — all of these things can be beautiful. All of these things are natural and, what’s more, necessary to lead a healthy and fulfilling life (for women and men!). But we deny that these traits live inside us, we reject their presence and their desire to breathe and feel alive in our personalities, they frighten us and repulse us and disgust us, because they remind us of women.

It’s time that we recognized “feminine” issues and ideas as valid. Too often, feminism is about allowing women to personify masculinity, to take on traditionally male roles and traits. That is great and so important! But we also need to empower femininity itself. We need to realize that the feminine is not weak; it has a strength all its own, a strength powerful enough to shatter glass ceilings and smash patriarchy to smithereens.

§ 2 Responses to Boring Books & Fierce Femininity

  • Courtney says:

    These are exactly the kinds of stories I have been hungry for lately. I’ve been focusing on stories by women and about women’s authentic stories. I’m not really into the “ZOMG SHOPPING!” stories that seem to be fairly thick on the ground. I absolutely *love* Summer Sisters. I need a new copy because I re-read it so many times that I tore up the paperback copy I had.

    Have you read Lolly Winston? So far she has written Good Grief about a young widow figuring out how to build a new life for herself and Happiness Sold Separately about a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair going through the process of figuring out if they can save their marriage (and if they even want to.) I periodically search for her name on Amazon to make sure I don’t miss anything new that she writes in the future.

    I haven’t branched into men telling these kinds of stories, but I would like to in the future. I will check out Sherman Alexie. Can you recommend other male writers who tell these kind of poignant, genuine stories?

    • mirandanyc says:

      One wonderful book by a male writer that I can recommend is She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. It’s basically an epic novel about one woman’s life from childhood through her 40s. It explores so many feminist themes and gets the majority of them right. The prose is just beautiful.

      Another book I adore, which is about men but feminine (an idea that I addressed in the post) is Refresh, Refresh — a collection of stories by Benjamin Percy. Feministing’s Courtney Martin has a great interview with the author.

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