The World Was Hers for the Reading: May 2013

We consider ourselves well read ladies that are constantly on the lookout to continue finding new reads to nourish our minds. We have decided to start a collaborative and interactive section where we will discuss books we have recently read and we hope for you to give us feedback about them or perhaps others as well, helping us discover new favourite reads. Without further ado: Welcome to The World Was Hers for the Reading!

85767Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler. First published in 1990.
Reviewed by Cristina.

A referent when it comes to feminist theory, what you must take into consideration if you decide to read Butler, is that she is a philosopher, and therefore her way of approaching feminist criticism is through philosophy. Gender Trouble is an in depth analysis of the ways in which society and the human being build and continue to shape the concepts of gender, sex and being, and she does this through the deconstruction of other writer’s works. She examines the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Claude Lévi-Strauss,Sigmund Freud, Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault amongst others… And while Butler has many interesting and complex things to say, perhaps my complain about this work is that she spends so much time deconstructing other people’s work that I found myself wishing she had spent a bit more time elaborating on her own theory, which is not precisely easy to come to terms with. I do recommend this if you are interested in the field, you may not entirely agree (or entirely understand) what she is talking about all of the time (I know I did not) but that is the beauty of it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.First published in 2013.
Reviewed by María.life-after-life-e1364310158304

Let me preface this by saying that I love Kate Atkinson. She has a unique and interesting voice and she always writes really complex female characters. Maybe that’s why Life After Life, despite its success and hype, was just a disappointment to me. As it was, I found it had a great premise that ultimately went nowhere. What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? The book promises so much and yet delivers few little. Ursula, the main character, seems to be the punching bag of history; she drowns, is raped, beaten and ultimately killed by her husband…and it all seems so pointless, yes she learns to live a little longer the next time but that’s about it. Kate Atkinson’s beautiful prose and lyrical narrative end up carrying the book most of the time because sadly, the story does nothing to sustain the reader’s interest.

13590844

NW by Zadie Smith. First published in 2012.

Reviewed by Jade.

Since she published White Teeth in 2000, I had always wanted to read Zadie Smith’s work but somehow never got around to it. Then on some day back in February I decided to buy an autographed copy – score! – of NW at Vroman’s in Pasadena, California. At that time I was drawn by anything ‘London’, all coincidences really but I was watching Luther a lot, researching relocations to London etc etc. Anyway, NW was the perfect book to complement this patch of my life. London’s NW is most definitely the 5th main character of a book where 4 childhood friends’ lives intertwine in typical urban stories that feature issues of race, survival, love, struggle…. Everything feels so real and ‘close’ to the city and portrays it just perfectly. Smith’s realism is detailed, sarcastic, straight-up funny, and poetic at the same time. That kind of poetry only a city like London can offer. Just wonderful.

Advertisements

Girls

girls-8

Girls first caught my attention with its trailer for the first season. I remember watching it and duly noting I would watch the pilot, and give the show a chance. It was mainly because it was a cast full of fresh faces. I had never seen or heard of these actors before and, given the state of television nowadays – where every single new show seems to be attached to a famous face – I really like the feeling and the mood these shows give me. I like unknown faces, it makes the show more special and somewhat more easy to relate to. The other reason for my interest was Lena Dunham. Back then I had no idea she was also the creator and the writer, so to me she was only the “unconventional leading lady” (that’s another thing: I will watch every new show with an unconventional leading lady, I’m all for unconventional, it is very easy to seduce me into watching television just like that).

         It took me a while to get into the show because this is not an ordinary show. In fact, I remember my first reactions to it, and I don’t think I felt entirely okay with it until the last episode of the first season. I was annoyed because I had read a few articles on it, and it was a show described for people of my generation, it was meant to be a show that touched base with me, but I felt like an alien next to these women. This show was sold on the premise that it was like Sex on the City without the glamour and the slight surrealism of a world most women my age had never known. I guess I was disappointed because, while surely Girls has no glamour, it was not my reality either. It bothered me it was called Girls. It bothered me that I had been put into the same circle as these girls, because I felt it gave nothing to me and it told nothing about my experience as a woman (or rather, as a post-graduate girl that was meant to go into the world and “become a woman”).girls-21

         As I said, the end of the first season felt rather different. I have no idea if it was the narrative direction of the show, or if it was me finally seeing beyond my disappointment and my uncalled-for expectations. The fact is that I started seeing the show in a different light, and with the beginning of the second season, I started to realise just how important it was. I felt every new episode dared to go even further into places not many shows dare to go these days. We live in an age where our television is populated by medical and cop dramas, where violence and death are glorified, where you navigate between cheap entertainment and laugh tracks or products that seem to be handcrafted for the intellectual snobs of our time. Girls, in the midst of this panorama, feels like an unexpected and a perhaps unwelcomed breath of fresh air.

          There are many articles out there that will debate the show’s alleged racism, the fact that Lena Dunham is “constantly naked” or the fact that with each new episode, a new taboo subject is uncovered. As there are many of those already, I will skip all of that and jump to what I admire the most from the show, which is not its ability to strike controversy, not the acting that is contained within it, not even its ability (or perhaps its inability) to feel realistic. What I admire is the writing: not because I think it’s incredibly fascinating, or because I think the show is specially well constructed or because its characters are particularly very well drafted. I admire it because, in my opinion, what Girls does is create a grey area of discomfort.Girls-Season-2-Promotional-Images-girls-hbo-33209283-1200-800

            Girls is aware that the world is not a black and white scene, that human ethics are dubious, that there is no such thing as right or wrong. It is aware that we live in a day and age where it is difficult for human beings to establish what ethics to adhere to, that the human race is chaotic and neurotic, self-centered and selfish. It is also aware that things can change. That people change constantly, not necessarily always towards a good place. Girls dares to make the spectator uncomfortable, it dares to write about things no other show has dared to write, and it does not need to use blood, death and destruction to shake its audience up. Girls dares to have a character such as Adam, really, and I believe that should be enough. Adam has been developed as a weird and occasionally scary character. At some points you feel you finally understand him, at other points you want to scream in exasperation. What is interesting is that Adam is not black or white, the fact is, that no character in this show is one or the other, in fact, they are all grey.

            These characters, as all human beings, will screw it up one day, and the following they might make a better choice. They will not always apologise for their actions, even if they become aware of how wrong those were. Despite the show being  a drama (I refuse to call it a comedy, I just refuse) it does not stand within the narrative lines established by televised dramas. Not everything is dark, and neither is it very light. Girls doesn’t want you to root for Adam, and it doesn’t want you to understand him. Because we don’t understand everybody around us either. Sometimes, the choices we make make us uncomfortable as well. And that’s why episode nine in its second season (painfully titled “On all fours”) was my favourite. It was one of the most uncomfortable hours of television I have ever sat through, and I thoroughly enjoyed going on that ride, where I was being shown how these characters kept on making wrong decisions, and they were not excused by it, because in real life you do not always get immediate redemption for your mistakes… in real life, you are actually rather lucky if you get such redemption.a_4x-horizontal

                “On All Fours” had us witness how all of these characters not only screwed it all up but they also made fools of themselves at the same time. It had us cringe with rather domestic and ordinary actions. It had Hannah and her q-tip, it had Shoshanna and her unexpected doubt, it had Marnie making a fool of herself because she’s unable to find out what she truly wants. It, then, yes, had Adam finally having a relatively healthy relationship, but then it had him destroy it, unaware that what needs changing is not the person he is with, but himself. “On All Fours” had one of the most beautifully heartbreaking scenes I have ever seen (dancing to Fiona Apple in that club – yes, that might be a biased statement sponsored by my undying, everlasting love for Fiona Apple) as well as one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have ever sat through (Adam, Natalia and the… ”sex”).  I think that scene was a very important moment for Girls and for televised fiction in general. I believe it put forward how grey that area truly is. How grey it is for society to be able to identify what constitutes consensual sex and what doesn’t, how difficult it is to portray rape on television without glorifying the act, or without making it completely irrelevant. Girls dared to go where hardly any other television show has dared to go, and I really admire it for that.

          The second season finished last March, and this article is only seeing the light today. That is because, while I started writing this article right after “On All Fours” aired, I stopped writing it a week later, after seeing the last episode of the season. I decided to let it rest, and let time decide if (and how) I should continue writing it. The season finale was contradictory to me, because it was one of the most alienating episodes the show has had – precisely because it was incredibly complacent and because it made a big effort to be definitely comfortable. It made me question if what I had been experiencing with the show up until that moment had simply been an illusion. But the truth is, I have been thinking about this article for weeks,  and I have been discussing the show with new people as well, and every time I have revisited the show, one way or another, I have realised I was not able to let go of my need to write about it. I guess that, for all the damage that season finale could have done, the show has still managed to do something different in fiction in a very short period of time, and that is truly commendable.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope: The Case of Ruby Sparks

ImageThe term “manic pixie dream girl” is not a new one. Critic Nathan Rabin coined it in his review of the movie Elizabethtown back in 2007 where he explains that a “manic pixie dream girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

You know the MPDG, you have encountered her many times in movies. From Kirsten Dunst’s Claire in “Elizabethtown” to Natalie Portman’s Sam in “Garden State and to a more recent Sam, Emma Watson’s character in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”*. You will recognize her easily. She is free-spirited, quirky, mysterious, likes indie music and her sole purpose in these movies is to make the male protagonist’s life less monotonous and sad so they can figure themselves out. They are female-shaped epiphanies if you will. They are usually created with the idea of making the male protagonist rethink his life choices, this MPDG will teach our hero how to be more easy-going, how to enjoy the little things in life and take himself less seriously so at the end of the movie he will have become the MAN he was supposed to be.  Basically the MPDG is the woman as an idea.

ImageNow, the case I want to discuss today is something different. I watched Ruby Sparks some months ago and I haven’t been quite able to keep it out of my mind. Although I feel (and this is my opinion) that the movie ultimately fails at going all the way through with its message, I think it’s an important movie with a great idea at its core. Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a “one hit wonder” writer who wrote a great book at a very young age and has been trying to write another one and live to everyone’s expectations (and his own) ever since. While trying to come up with this book he starts dreaming about a girl- beautiful, quirky, free spirited…well, you get the gist, right? Calvin thus proceeds to write about her and make her the heroine of his new book. In the process he becomes so enamored of this dream girl that he believes he is falling in love with her. Until one morning he wakes up and his creation, Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the movie) herself, is there on the flesh, living and breathing in his living room.

At the beginning everything is perfect. Ruby is everything Calvin dreamt of (because he actually wrote her that way). But little by little Ruby starts to want more. She wants to get a job, she wants her own friends, she wants to test herself…in sum she wants to live her life the way she pleases. But what she doesn’t realize is that she is trapped by Calvin’s idealized version of her so she cannot move forward. She cannot escape it and when she tries to do so things get really messy.

ImageSomewhere in the movie Calvin says about Ruby: “She is complicated. That’s what I like best about her.” He likes her being complicated as long as it’s the cute kind of complicated, you know? He likes the kind of messy that is endearing. Not the real fucked up one which all real people experience. He likes her being complicated so long as it doesn’t actually interfere with his perfect idea of her. She can build play forts, act child-like and jump into beautifully lighted swimming pools at night but she cannot be assertive and make decisions for herself that he does not agree with.

That’s Ruby Spark’s message, I think. Ruby, like everyone who begins a new relationship, starts off as an idea but little by little she becomes real. The first stage of a relationship is obviously going to be great but the natural progression of things dictates that little by little you will get to really know the person you are with. The greatest case against the MPDG is that they don’t grow, change or evolve. They are just a catalyst or a male fantasy in which the woman is forever stuck in that honey-moon phase of the relationship.

ImageNow, while I was halfway through writing this piece I stumbled upon an interview of Zoe Kazan in which when asked about the MPDG trope she said this; “That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. […] I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.”

While I do understand what she is saying and where she is coming from I don’t fully support it. I agree 100% on the fact that not all original and quirky women found in movies are MPDG and we should not try to group them all together. The cases she mentions (and the ones I have previously discussed) have been labelled so without really considering the many complexities of said women. You can be quirky, endearing and original AND be a complex and real woman. One does not exclude the other. But I also think that the trope exists because we’ve seen it in too many movies. It’s problematic and thus it should not be ignored. The problem doesn’t lie with the term, the term in not misogynistic.  What is misogynistic is that female characters are so predominantly featured as nothing else than plot devices.

SprklsAt one point in Ruby Sparks Calvin, struggling with his success as an author and the idea the public has of him, says, “Women aren’t interested in me, they’re interested in some idea of me.” Well that’s really what it’s all about for the MPDG.

Now, while I think that Ruby Sparks creates a great case against the Manic Pixie Dream girl trope, I don’t think it was written with that idea in mind (and the words of Zoe Kazan are a testament to that) and thus that’s why I think it ultimately fails at it. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone but for me, it kind of invalidated the whole premise of the movie and the message that it had so strongly made a case of. At the end the movie ends up being a tad too forgiving of its male protagonist and the viewer is supposed to just forget how poorly Calvin treated Ruby. This is Hollywood after all and romantic comedies do get their happy endings.

*I want to analyze the cases of Summer in “500 Days of Summer” and Clementine in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in a more in-depth article further down the road. While I agree that they would fit into MPDG trope at first glance but I think they are set up to subvert it somehow because we are not meant to fully trust the views of the male protagonists of said movies. After all, the first thing Clementine tells Joel in Eternal Sunshine is “I’m not a concept. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to make them alive, but I’m just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”

 

You can read María’s latest article here.

The Cycle of Violence: The Case of Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat

ImageLet me preface this by saying that I don’t think I’m equipped to properly discuss Mark Ravenhill. And yet, in a way, I want to try. I was introduced to his work some years ago when I had to read Shopping and Fucking for a class I was taking at university. To this day I think I still haven’t properly gotten over it. The experience was hard and distressing. In that class we were expected to read the plays and then take it in turns to re-enact some of its scenes. Shopping and Fucking was not one of the plays I got to act on but I remember the experience of watching some of my classmates do it. We were not professional actors, just a bunch of English Literature students trying to understand a text that was way beyond our scope. You could hardly look for what was going on and I remember feeling a mixture of pity and awe for the students who were “on stage”.

So when we went to see the production of Ravenhill’s Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat at the Teatre Lliure in Barcelona I was excited but scared. This selection of seven out of the seventeen short plays written by Ravenhill for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival deals with the personal and political effect of war on modern life and the West’s necessity to sell the whole world into the ideal panacea of “Freedom and Democracy”.

ImageAs I dreaded, expected and hoped, the plays are violent, powerful, incendiary and necessary. They are intense and they rise questions that will nag at you for days to come. They question choices and they discuss themes such as terror, fear, love and death. And most of the main characters are women. So it should come as no surprise, then, that there were a lot of women being killed, tortured, and raped on stage. Right?

After the play ended there was a Q&A with Mark Ravenhill himself. At some point he mentioned that he had written an almost all female play because there comes a time in an actress’s career when no one is offering them interesting roles to play and he thought that was crap. I think that’s commendable and very very true. And yet… I’m not sure if I’m entirely sold. I wanted to ask him why. Why all this violence against women? Was it necessary? Had he really chosen so many women to showcase how strong they can be (which really, they are!) or has it just been established that they will always be the ones being raped, beaten and abused? Five out of the seven plays performed showed some kind of abuse on women. Six if I want to be overtly precise, all of them showing situations in which women are overpowered by men and made to suffer in varying degrees of physical and mental abuse.

ImageNow, I don’t know what to make out of this. These are just questions that I ask myself because I want to understand. Have we reached a moment in time in which violence against women has become the cultural norm? Are we immunized against it? Has the representation of rape and violence against women become so permanent on the media that it just has ceased to surprise us? Or is this a necessary way to denounce a problem? Violence against women exists, and things don’t seem to be getting better so exposing it through art and in the media seems to be the logical way to shed some light into it.

The only way I have of trying to make sense of things is through my reaction to the play and while I thought it was brilliant it also left me emotionally tired and preoccupied. Why are women always on the receiving end? Why can’t we subvert the roles? While it is true that movies, television and even advertising are full of degrading imagery towards women, I had never felt it as deeply as this time. Theatre, in my opinion, always obtains the most visceral reactions.

I don’t think there is a campaign to abuse women on the media or the arts, and I feel like Mark Ravenhill in particular would be the first one to criticise such a thing, but that’s exactly what scares me. It seems that in order to bring attention to it we need to show more violence, and thus the endless cycle of violence can never broken.

You can read María’s previous article here.

Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

“I turned the pages so fast. And I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for a something, version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite shoes.”

13562049DISCLAIMER: I will discuss the novel at length and this will lead me to reveal big plot developments so beware of spoilers.

 I feel like I need to start by saying I love Ian McEwan. I love him in a way that is difficult to express without turning into a puddle of giggly thoughts. Atonement is one of my favorite novels of all time. Whenever I read one of his books I feel like this is a man who understands human nature. That is why when I read that Sweet Tooth was coming out I was over the moon with glee. But not only were we getting a new book, it was also the first one since Atonement with a female heroine at its center. I was sold.

The basic premise for the book is simple yet deceiving. At a rather young age Serena Frome becomes a low-level recruit for England’s intelligence agency, MI5. She is supposedly hired because she is a compulsive reader (also, because she sleeps with some man?) and thus the perfect under-cover agent to infiltrate the life of writer Tom Haley in whom the agency has invested interests. Once she gets to know him it becomes impossible for her to differentiate her mission from her real feelings as she falls in love with him.

So this is a spy novel with a bit of sexy romance in it, right? Somewhere in the blurb you can even find something along the lines of “espionage is the ultimate seduction”. But is it really? Obviously it is not. What the novel turns out to be is something completely different and so much more complex and important than that. It is about women. It’s about men. It’s about male writers and a woman’s consciousness. It’s about male writers inhabiting a woman’s consciousness and making it their own playground.

From the start something in the novel feels strange. If you are a usual reader of McEwan you can sense it right from the first lines. Serena is intelligent but lacks depth. She is one-dimensional and very simple at times. She likes to read novels. She has a family. Not much of her is known prior to the moment when the book starts. She likes men. Mostly she likes to discuss the men in her life. There are facts and there are actions but there is no true self. She does not seem to grow or change. The façade of the woman is there but nothing true or interesting comes out of her. Which would be just fine in any other novel but this is in no way a character Ian McEwan would create or feel any interest in writing about.

WK-AT331_COVER__G_20100324155405

But of course as the book comes to a close (and much before that if you, like me, know the author) you realize that this has never been Serena’s book. It’s been Tom Haley’s all along. The fact of the matter is that towards the end of the novel Haley discovers that Serena has been lying to him and leading a double life. In order to understand her decisions he has to get inside her head and the only way he knows how to do that is by writing her. So while all along we thought Serena was the one speaking to us it turns out that it was Haley from the start. The real woman exists, but is she at all like Haley invents? Why is this important? I have read reviews suggesting that the “final twist” doesn’t work, that it lacks emotion. But this is not a book about twists. This is not a book about spies. This is a novel about writing and about the male gaze and how male writers write about women, how they try to inhabit and understand them. If Serena seems to be bland and a bit one-dimensional at times it’s because we are just scratching at the base of her true being. And if we always feel like we don’t really know her it’s because we don’t. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. Serena is just an ideal; she is not the real woman. We are supposed to be disconnected from her. Once the revelation occurs everything falls into place and most of Serena’s actions start making sense. The adoration she feels for Haley, her pliability, her intellectual inferiority, and the way she seems to enjoy his sexual domination. Once it becomes clear that Serena’s inner consciousness has been rewritten and that it was never her own but Haley’s idealized version of her it all makes sense.

“I was the basest of readers. All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form.”

I have no problem with men writing women. Men have written some of the greatest works of literature about women. I also don’t think Sweet Tooth is a critique of that. But McEwan is indeed writing about men and about this idea of what a perfect woman should be like. He is writing about how Serena is just a vessel for a man to channel his own demons. Serena is just another of the author’s creations, a vacant and compliant woman, a doll if you may. Incidentally this is a recurring theme in the book as throughout the novel we can read some of Haley’s stories, one of which is about a man who falls in love with a store mannequin. It is also in these stories that the reader can glimpse the true meaning of what is going on. The stories are powerful, have depth and are hauntingly beautiful and sad in equal parts. These stories show that the writer is not unable to transmit real feelings with his words, he has beauty in him, but in trying to imagine Serena he falls short. He doesn’t understand the woman behind the face. He over-simplifies her interests and misunderstands her actions. He makes her uninteresting and boring. He writes her as he’d wish her to be instead of how she really is; complex and flawed, a real living woman. But he does so because Serena was never the focus of the story, she was only an excuse to write about himself.

While Sweet Tooth does not have the epic scope that Atonement did and it lacks its lyricism and beauty of words (for a reason) I feel like this is a much more important book. It teaches us about the politics of gender. It shows us how deeply men can misunderstand women and how fraught with deceit and wish fulfillment relationships can be. This is a book that demands to be reread and understood.