Thursday, December 6, 2018

Book 158: Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

"There's a highly circumscribed performance of femininity expected at each stage of a woman's life—a certain way her face and body should look. All of these ideals are some form of striving for youthfulness, but only to the extent that it's 'appropriate', and with any part of the body that fails its duty hidden from sight."

Dates read: July 4-6, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Like most girls of my age, when I was little, I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be. And for a while, I (and I assume most everyone else) believed it. But as you grow up, you realize that no matter what you are, girls are expected to not be "too much". Don't be too smart, that intimidates the boys. Don't be too ambitious, set goals that are high but not too high. Don't be too capable, guys like being the ones to "rescue" you from spiders and leaky faucets. Don't be too direct, people won't think you're very nice. Look how big this box is, you have all the room you need in here. Don't get out of it.

I've long-since looked forward to Anne Helen Petersen's work on Buzzfeed. She's so good at not just really looking under the surface of our cultural climate, especially in how we perceive and treat women, but explaining it in a compelling, understandable way. If you haven't read her Cool Girl essay, go read it right now because it's phenomenal. And so of course I was psyched when I found out she was writing a book, Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud, about women who transgress our social norms. Who among us hasn't stepped outside the lines, peeked out from inside the box and felt blowback for it? Who hasn't looked at the women who do get out there and live out there and regarded them with a curious mixture of revulsion and envy? Petersen highlights nine (well, ten technically) "unruly" women, focusing on how each in turn has challenged the expectations we place on lady people. Many of these challenges focus on the body, from Serena Williams' "too strong" frame to Madonna's refusal to cover up because she's "too old" to Caitlyn Jenner's "too queer" gender confirmation surgery. There are also women who make other choices they're not supposed to: Hilary Clinton might be smart and ambitious, but she's "too shrill", and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (the Broad City team) make us uncomfortable because they're "too gross".   

I wanted this book to be amazing and mind-blowing and incredible. And it was good! Petersen's writing is lively and insightful and serious without being ponderous. But I think maybe it would have worked better if it had been split into two volumes, one focusing on body and one focusing on personality. The essays felt like they skimmed the surface, taking a shallow dive into concepts that deserve deeper thought and analysis that I would have loved to read Petersen's take on. In writing about how Nicki Minaj is "too slutty", for example, Petersen refers to and gives some brief background on how black female bodies are sexualized and fetishized. But there's so much there that because the book needed to be a reasonable length and there are eight other subjects, she doesn't really have space to really give it the full context it deserves. I felt the same way, perhaps even more strongly, about the chapter on Jenner and trans issues. It would have felt problematic to leave the gender binary untouched entirely, but to only briefly interact with it doesn't feel quite right either. 

One essay, though, that really made me think was the piece about "too loud" Jennifer Weiner, who won't just quietly accept the judgment of her writing about women and their lives (which, to be perfectly honest, I don't personally much care for) as mere "chick lit" not to be taken seriously. I know I fall into that trap with my own reading, disdaining titles with pastel covers or shoes and shopping bags prominently displayed. It's snobbish, but if I'm being transparent here, I will say that it takes a lot to get me to take a second look at a title deemed "women's fiction". Which is actually pretty bullshit of me. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is just as good as Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, so why is the former a "girl book" and the latter a book for everyone? There's not a good reason why we treat stories about women's lives and problems, written by women, as lesser than books written by and about men. I love Nick Hornby, but he writes lighter fare that would probably be shrugged off if he and his protagonists were ladies. I need to do some work to think about my own internalized misogyny, especially when it comes to my reading choices.

Tell me, blog you think of books by and about women as less important than books by and about men?

One year ago, I was reading: The Games 
Two years ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements

Three years ago, I was reading: Occidental Mythology

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