The Power of Beauty – Nancy Friday

2016eclecticreader_bookdout2016 Nonfiction Challenge

41M5MWGCWDL._SX296_BO1,204,203,200_

Genre: Psychology, feminism

Narrative Style: Informal, first person

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1997

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: Friday analyses the way beauty effects female lives. She uses psychoanalysis to investigate events early in her own life that she feels have held her – and all women – back. She uses anecdote and fictional examples to support her ideas.

Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge and Non Fiction Challenge

This book was a slog. I very nearly didn’t finish it. (It took me a month to read it, I was that irritated with it and it has gone straight on the charity pile.) The main problem is Friday’s tone. She sounds hard done by – especially in the early chapters. She blames a lot of her issues on problems with her early childhood. Her father abandoned their family and she felt her mother loved her sister more as she was prettier. This lack of loving gaze meant that Friday was lacking in confidence about her looks. This seems disingenuous when you look at the author picture and Friday is indeed a beautiful woman. She later says that by the time her looks came in, it was too late for her to believe that she was beautiful. She uses psychoanalysis to help her understand how her formative years were so important in making her the person she is. To a certain extent this is fine. I am happy to agree that psychoanalysis is a useful therapeutic tool but Friday takes this one step further. She then extrapolates from her personal experience to all women lacking the gaze from their mothers. My own experience of childhood was completely different from Friday’s. My father was very much involved in childrearing and my mother worked because she had to. How can Friday assume that my issues will be the same as hers?

Friday does seem to see all women as being the same as her. That is white, privileged, straight and American. She sees gender as the only issue affecting women and men. (And men are masculine and women are feminine in this little world.) All of the examples she gives are from the business world or from friends who are writers and artists. Hardly representative of the whole human race. Which is also fine but if you are going to talk about all women, perhaps you should think about what that really means.

At one point, Friday talks about sexual harassment in the office. Instead of blaming men, she says, we ought to think about how women have changed the atmosphere of the office by coming in to work dressed sexually and making it hard for men to understand the new rules of the office. There may be some truth to this. Undoubtedly more women being in the office has changed the dynamic between men and women but lets not let men completely off the hook. Harassment suggested a sustained campaign. Sexy clothes are no excuse for that sort of behaviour.

Similarly, when Friday talks about the media and its affect on women’s perception of beauty, she seems to let the media off the hook as well. She says that women aren’t so easily brainwashed. Well, true, women can think for themselves but there is also no doubt that the media influences how we feel about and see beauty around us. How Friday can discuss beauty for older women and not challenge the way beauty is seen in the media as a youthful characteristic, I do not know. Again, she puts the blame squarely at the feet of other women without stopping to think about what may make women act in this way.

Rightly, Friday says that we shouldn’t blame men for all of our ills. I remember being thoroughly depressed by some of the authors she mentions – Dworkin and McKinnon, for example. But instead of suggesting that patriarchy affects all of us, she goes on instead to blame other women. This is no more helpful that saying all men are evil. It is finding just another scapegoat instead of actually challenging any of patriarchy’s expectations.

Overall, I was disappointed with how personal this book was. I enjoy reading about others’ experiences, however, this was not an autobiography, this was supposed to be about men, women and beauty. Really it is just about Nancy Friday.

 

 

Belated Response to Germaine Greer’s transphobic comments

You’d think that ‘are you a feminist’ would be an easy question to answer. Enthusiastically, you’d say ‘of course, I believe in equality, don’t you?’ In fact, if asked, I do say yes, not least because it is important to acknowledge all the changes that have brought us to the position we are now in. The women who won votes for us, women who were firsts, who fought for whatever reason. And I do believe in equality. Obviously. Not just for women but for everyone.

And therein lies a problems with feminism. It isn’t inclusive. You’d think that being on the wrong side of prejudice might make feminism open its arms to all women who have suffered. This does not seem to be the case.

A recent example of this was Germaine Greer saying in her usual subtle way that trans women can’t be women. (Does this mean you’re only a real women if you have all the correct body parts. What if you have had a mastectomy? What if you are intersex? What if you happen to look rather boyish? Do you have to prove your female parts before you are allowed to have a voice?)  I do not think that the entirety of my personality – or anyone else’s – resides entirely in their genitals. I do not look at someone else and think I wonder if they have the correct genitalia for the clothes you are wearing. Greer goes on to say that transwomen don’t always look or sound like women. The assumption is then what do women sound or look like. Is she suggesting you have to be suitably feminine to be a feminist? Surely not but clearly there are some rules. Whatever it is she thinks about women and what they are like, it is very narrow and confining.

If you are going to live as a woman, you are going to face female problems, regardless of what body parts you may have beneath your clothing. If you are going to face sexism in any form then you are surely allowed a voice within feminism. Of course, I am not the same as a transwoman, just like I am not a black woman and I am not a lesbian but that doesn’t mean that I think that feminism should be open only to those who are like me. Difference is important, probably more important than sameness.

Transfeminism exists, has its own identity and doesn’t need the likes of Greer to offer support or otherwise. But it would be nice if mainstream feminism – the view that the majority of people get of the movement – would be a bit more supportive. Greer is listened to and has an enviable position in the media. It is a shame she uses this position to be a bully. Maybe it is true that once you have some form of power, you can no longer relate to others who don’t, regardless of what sex you are.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 31. The Stepford Wives – Ira Levin

Genre: Horror, Dystopia, Satire

Narrative Style: Third Person from the point of view of one characterdownload (8)

Rating 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1972

Synopsis: Joanna moves to Stepford at the insistence of her husband, Walter and, at first, it seems to good to be true. She soon becomes irritated by the passiveness of the women and their housework obsession. Then the two friends she thought were different start to show the same obsessions and she starts to wonder what exactly is going on in Stepford. I can remember seeing the 1975 film version of this book when I was fifteen so I knew what the basic story was. You might think that this would spoil the story, making it less tense but this was not the case. Levin unfolds Joanna’s story masterfully and knowing what might happen to her only made me more anxious for her to escape the clutches of the men of Stepford. Joanna begins the novel an independent, strong woman who works as a photographer. She does housework when she has to and is used to having strong female friendships. She is sexual and attractive without the need for make-up. However, when she comes to Stepford she finds all the women are eerily similar and coldly distant. They are unable to find a place in their housework schedule to even meet for coffee. They are beautifully coiffed and clothed. She is rightly appalled by this and by her husband leaving every evening to go to the men’s association. Joanna does meet two other like-minded women – both of whom have not lived in Stepford for long – and they try desperately to get some sort of female movement going. However, when one of them suddenly becomes docile like the other women, they start to worry that they’ll be next. Eventually there is only Joanna left and she tries desperately to warn the one woman to move to Stepford after her before the men seal her fate. Levin cleverly does not tell the reader exactly what happens to Joanna. She merely loses narrative perspective. Ruthanne takes over the narrative point of view and she runs into Joanna in the supermarket, noting her coldness, her obsession with housework and how good she looks. As Ruthanne is a writer, it can be assumes that she will be the men’s next victim. The men in the novel respond specifically to their wives’ attempts at politicising themselves. Joanna discovers that the women were once activists or very successful professionals that held feminist meetings. The message that Levin is trying to get across is clear. Men will not just stand back and let women gain power from them. As Chuck Palahniuk notes in the introduction, perhaps more heed should have been taken. The whole beauty industry and the obsession with women’s appearance is one very successful way of keeping them in their place regardless of their professional position.

Books Read in 2014 – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (contains spoilers)

 

Image

Genre: Thriller

Narrative Style: Two first person accounts of events. Chronological timeline

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2012

Synopsis: Nick Dunne’s beautiful wife goes missing on the eve of their fifth wedding anniversary and he doesn’t react the way that loving husbands should. What secrets is he keeping from the police? But is this crime as obvious as it first appears? 

 

Somehow I managed to avoid any spoilers for this book. I always sort of intended to read it as it had so much hype around it but it wasn’t at the very top of my list. However, I did know that it was a twisty little narrative so almost from the first I was trying not to be fooled by it. I guessed straightaway that the anniversary treasure hunt was going to figure highly and that once Nick worked out the clues, he receive his present – in this case a very long jail sentence. So at the end of the first section, I was more pleased that I was right than surprised. Once you realised the importance of the anniversary clues then it seemed apparent that Amy was behind it all. For me, this was by far the best section of the book. The contrast between Amy’s faked diaries and Nick’s view of her and their marriage was well portrayed and it was exciting trying to figure out exactly what must have happened.

I found Amy’s real voice even more annoying than the fake sweet girl of the diary entries. She was arrogant, self-centred and vindictive – almost impossible to empathize with. I was actually pleased when the two people she’d befriended at the motel where she was staying robbed her of her remaining cash because she was under the impression that she was infallible. Nick, however, developed some backbone and I began hoping that when she inevitably returned, he’d kill her as he kept imagining.

The final section was disappointing, I felt. There was still some tension but it soon became apparent that Nick would not be able to escape Amy’s clutches. That Nick would decide to stay with Amy seemed a step too far into the unlikely for me. His reasons were understandable – she becomes pregnant using stored sperm – but all the same it didn’t quite work for me.

Ultimately, this book left me feeling a little depressed. Amy seems like every man’s worst nightmare; controlling, manipulative, self-centred – all those nasty words that men like to throw at women. Flynn points out in an interview at the end of the book that she does have good points – she’s organised, intelligent, meticulous but that is a bit like letting a sociopath off the hook because they planned their crime to the letter. She’s a  version of negative feminine stereotypes who wins in the end. Nick is her perfect opposite, taking the easy route of staying with her and appeasing his own conscience by saying its for the best for his inborn child. Some dubious sexual politics there. I was left wondering if the portrayal of Amy was sexist. Obviously not every portrayal of a woman should be positive but Amy is strong and she does get things done but she is also a monster. It made me feel uncomfortable.

 

Day 2 – 30 day writing challenge – Pick a book at random and use the opening line

Day 2 - from Chrys Fey's 30 day writing challenge. 
Open a book at random and pick a line. Use that line as the
beginning of your piece and continue writing from where it 
leaves off. Pen the first thoughts that come to mind and don’t
revise it.

(The opening line is from Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood.)

Her parents thought she was becoming too wrapped up in these 
things and tried to give her dancing lessons to make her more
sociable. 
More sociable? In what way would being in a room full of sweaty
girls make her more likely to speak to any of them. Probably some
sort of leotard would be required. She had no desire to have flesh
on display. The more flesh on display, the more tongue tied. That
was an obvious correlation.
She didn't really understand why they were so concerned. She would
speak to them if she thought it was worth it but it clearly wasn't.
None of them were as interesting as the people in the books she read. 
None of them came close to the people she could imagine. They must
exist somewhere other than in her head. Well, even if they didn't 
she liked creating a world where they did. 

Chrys Fey’s 30 day Writing Challenge – Start a story with Once Upon a Time

First off, before the story, an apology. As ever, life is hectic and when I posted that I was starting this challenge I really thought I’d be able to do it the next day. Due to circumstances beyond my control, it has taken over a week to get this to you. This is the first challenge of Chrys Fey’s 30 day writing challenge. Hopefully the next one will be quicker but on her website it does say that you don’t have to do one every day which, given my busy life, is just as well.

Start a story with Once Upon A Time. 

Once upon a time….

There was a princess called Lucinda that lived in a big castle. I know, that’s not unusual for princesses but she really didn’t like living there. It was dull and cold and too big. Sometimes she thought her entire family could leave and she wouldn’t even know. The worst thing about that was the fact that it wouldn’t surprise her if they did go. And it was likely they would leave her behind.

The castle had big towers that filled the princess with foreboding although she wasn’t sure why. She just knew that when she was on her way to princess school and she looked back; she shuddered involuntarily when she saw them. There was one at each corner, tall and proud with only the one window at the very top. She didn’t like them any better when she drove back from school and they seemed to stare down at her, one cold dark eye each. It made her skin cold all over.

The school wasn’t much better. It was grey and imposing with the same stark towers on the corners. Perhaps, she mused, they would be frightened into behaving as they were supposed to. It was true that no one seemed to step out of line so maybe it worked. They all trooped into the classroom and sat at their desks and learned the many things that princesses needed to now. Like how to be radiant. Or how to talk down to your subjects. The princess wanted to ask about the towers. Questions like why are they so tall. Questions like what happened at the top with the one eyelike window. Once you got in, she reasoned, you would not get out. But she didn’t ask. It was unspoken that the towers suggested punishment. And they were all good girls really. Even Princess Lucinda.

It was hard enough for Lucinda. She knew she didn’t really fit in. The other princesses were pink. They were flouncy. Lacy. Well, so was she. That was the uniform. But she didn’t like it. The dresses got in her way and when she sat down; they could always see her underclothes no matter how careful she was. She had failed that this year. Ladylike posture. It just didn’t come naturally. She looked on with envy as the others stuck their little fingers out when they picked up their cups and when they moved slowly and elegantly across the room in their sharp healed pointy shoes.  

Their hair was bouncy. Her hair refused to do that. She had asked to have it cut short but they would not let her. Instead, it tangled itself into knots or unravelled from however it was supposed to be. And she couldn’t stay clean. The other princesses sat and waited for things to be brought to them, for things to happen. She wanted to go and find things. Although most of the time, the only things that she found were dirt and the corners of tables that were intent on ripping skirts and tearing lace.

There was a lot at stake of course. If they didn’t pass all levels of princessing, then they’d never get a prince and go on to have lots of other little princes and princesses. The thought of marrying a prince filled Lucinda with nearly as much horror as the thought of the tower. What a choice! She supposed it would be different with real babies but when they had to practise with the dolls, well, she genuinely couldn’t see the point. All the others cooing and exclaiming and dressing the dolls up. She wasn’t sure what it was but there had to be something better than this.

So that is what they were doing, they were still waiting. For their prince to come. Lucinda sniggered but they were far too delicate to think such vulgar thoughts. They knew that you had to be to snag a prince and sniggering didn’t really figure. Probably, Lucinda reflected, it gave you wrinkles and that was tragedy beyond measure. They spent long hours shaping their nails and curling or straightening their hair depending on what the fashionistas said. Then there was the rubbing on of creams. She looked at them and thought how they all looked the same.

They all had that careful voice, as well, not too loud, not too quiet. The exact right tone. She couldn’t manage that either. Too loud. When she laughed, not only did it come out in guffaws but also her whole body joined in. They tittered carefully behind their hands when that happened although she had no doubt that nasty little thoughts existed behind those careful eyes. She almost hoped they did. At least that would make them interesting.

The princes were equally boring. All vying for position. All carefully styled, of course. Perfectly clothed. That was the problem. Nothing wrong with them. She was fed up with feeling less than perfect. They talked about themselves constantly. The whine of them contrasted horribly with the giggling from the princesses. They were all handsome and that struck Lucinda as odd. Surely they couldn’t all be. What happened if a less than perfect baby was born? Were they sent to some lesser family where it mattered less if you were beautiful? Another question she would never ask.

It was not like Lucinda to be early. Things eluded her. The things needed for school that day, for example. So often, they’d have to turn back and get a servant to run and find some book or other or some homework she had forgotten. Sometimes she’d realise that she had odd shoes on. This morning had run smoothly. She was the first one into their classroom. Or so she thought

She was trying to decide what to do with this small piece of freedom when she heard a noise from the cupboard at the back of the classroom. She knew what she was supposed to do. Scream and then run. Alert the nearest male. Lucinda had no intention of behaving in such a princessy way. How very tedious. She wasn’t frightened, she was intrigued. With a delicacy that usually eluded her, she moved quietly towards the cupboard. The noises – rustles and swishes – made her think of a small animal. No threat.

She paused briefly to make sure she was ready and then she yanked the door open. She couldn’t believe her eyes. One of the princes. In there, among their clothes. Lucinda tried to recall his name. She knew she had seen him before. With the others but they came as one mass. They were the princes. She didn’t try to pick them apart. Then she tried to recall what it was that was different about him. He was slim, slight. Probably the smallest of the princes. But it wasn’t that. It was something that she couldn’t quite place. A delicacy perhaps. It was hard to see him rescuing or duelling or any of those things the princes learned about. Lucinda realised that she quite liked that about him. That and the fact he looked more frightened of her than she felt of him.

“What are you doing in there?” She asked with as much authority as she could muster. There was a pause and Lucinda thought the prince might cry. That wasn’t allowed. Boys don’t cry. She was ready to put her arms around him though, if she should need to. But instead, he spoke. The same thing that Lucinda couldn’t quite grasp about his body was wrong with his voice. It was smooth and had none of the depth that the other princes aimed for. It was soft like silk. Lucinda felt it rub over her skin.

“I picked up my sister’s bag by mistake. I was just leaving it for her.” That sounded fair. Lucinda wished she had a brother that would be so helpful but they were all hateful.

“You probably should go.” He nodded his head. After all, the princes were not allowed in here and perhaps, he knew that the towers were for punishment as well. She couldn’t imagine that he found being a prince very straightforward.

As she watched him leave – his steps were small and dainty – she thought he moved more like one of them. More like a girl. She felt sorry for him. He was as out of place as she was. He turned just before he left. Smiled.

“My name is Sam.” He said. Samuel, thought Lucinda. She would not forget.

“Lucinda.” She hadn’t realised until that moment, how much she had hated her name. It was clunky and awkward. Well, it suited her; you had to agree with that.

Lucinda thought about Sam a lot. She called him the prince of the cupboard. In her head, anyway. For once, that lunchtime, she sat with the others while they giggled over their possible future husbands. Some of them had been promised to princes already. Providing they got the right grades at princessing, of course. Quietly, she asked if any of them knew anything about Sam. They seemed surprised to see her and hear her but they soon recovered.

“Trust you,” said Marianna, “To notice a fellow freak.” Lucinda realised that it was true. That was what was so similar about them. They were all wrong for the role. The others all laughed and she moved back to her lone seat. The prince of the cupboard was wrong in all the ways that made him right for her.

Weeks passed and Lucinda made an effort to make it into school early but she never saw the prince of the cupboard in their room again. It disappointed her every time. She began to think that she would never be able to speak to him again. Not that it would matter anyway. Not when she was going to fail her princessing exams. What happened then? No one wanted to say but she felt the presence of the tower whenever they spoke about it. A lot of good it would do her. Sam didn’t look like the rescuing type. She pictured herself looking out of that one window. That small square her only view.

It was soon to be the end of term ball. Lucinda always hated it. They didn’t pick her to dance. Or if they did, they didn’t do so again after she had trodden on them or elbowed them of in some way or other injured them. These days her reputation went before her so she stood on the sidelines and watched them glide effortlessly around the dance floor. She wished she had the grace to do so herself. It was a strange feeling, to want something she so thoroughly hated but it would be easier, fitting in. Easier than standing watching everyone else enjoying their life. Okay so they were thoughtless but maybe that was better.

This time she tried really hard to stay clean and tidy by sitting in one place before they had to leave and even her mother was impressed that she hadn’t managed to mess up her hair. She was wearing her best dress. (The most expensive one not the one she liked the best. She liked none of them but trousers were not allowed.) She wanted Sam to think she was beautiful. She assumed that he would like this perfect version. It was what all the princes wanted. That was the whole point.

So she giggled not sniggered. She wiggled not stomped. She hid her face behind her hand. She was that shy, sweet girl. A couple of the princesses asked if she was feeling okay. She said she was although it was a lie. She had never felt worse. She was pretending to be what they wanted her to be. What he wanted her to be. Not even that. What she thought he wanted her to be. It was difficult but he was the prize. It had to be worth it.

It was the opinion of the princes that the ball was really for the girls. They had to be there and they had to dance but it was not their thing. Jousting and archery and sports that was their thing. But they had to be impressive and to be impressive, you had to be there. So mostly, they came and stood and watched and decided who was the prettiest. They fought to be the one who danced with the prettiest. They looked at Lucinda and sniggered at the way she giggled, at the way she wiggled. She might be trying but she lacked grace. She lacked feminine charm. She was still a little scary. The princes were taught what the princesses would do and that was fine. None of them was really bright enough to work out someone who did not follow the pattern.

Sam watched her carefully. He patted down his own clothes. They would probably suit Lucinda as well. Maybe he should share with her the secret of his success. He supposed it was probably too late. Watching her, trying so hard, it was heart breaking and Sam knew his heart was already soft with feeling for her. He wasn’t sure what he should do.

She was more like him than she realised. He had to find some way of letting her know that. He thought he’d seen recognition in her eyes, that day she had caught him changing his clothes but she had easily bought the lie he told so maybe she was clueless. Maybe she thought him just like all the rest, hence the terrible trying to fit the role

He couldn’t remember the first time now. Just that it was a long time ago. Long enough that he had abandoned all thoughts of femininity. Even in his own head. Every time though, he felt that small thrill of it being right and proper even though everyone else thought it wrong. He had to be at school early to ensure no one saw him arrive, stay late so he could change again before home. Now, at home, in girl clothes, that was when it was odd and opposite.

“May I have this dance?” Sam looked up and there was Lucinda. His heart pounded unsteadily. She must have grown bored with waiting. Sam had decided that there would be no dancing for him tonight. He was too small and too nervous and he feared whoever he chose would just laugh. He grinned at the way everyone was staring. He hadn’t been concentrating or he would have seen the entire hall come to a stop.

“Of course.” He said, taking her hand. She let her hand sit on Sam’s waist, gently ran her hand over the hip. She noted the curve and nodded.

“You’re just like me.” She said. “Just like me.” She emphasized each word and Sam was glad she had figured it out.

“Do you think we’ll be able to live happily ever after?” She asked. Nobody else seemed to have figured it out and as far as she could tell, no one else wanted either of them. Her own mother would be pleased just to see her married.

“Oh, I think so.” Sam said grinning. They were floating across the dance floor now and much to everyone’s amazement, they moved well. They fitted together. Lucinda grinned as well. She was thinking about the lack of towers in the future and how it pleased her immensely.

Reading Habits

I was looking for inspiration by looking through old posts and I realised that I had resolved to read more female authors this year. That was after I only read 5 female authors out of 31 books. This seemed a low percentage. Hence the resolution. However, I had forgotten so I haven’t particularly been making an effort. I went straight to Goodreads to see how many I had read.

It wasn’t good. I have read 42 books so far and 5 of them were by female authors. (It’ll be 6 when I’ve finished the current read, The Painted Girls.) So even less than last year. Interestingly, two of those were academic books – The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter and Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. But in terms of fiction, the men are winning hands down.

The question is whether this really means anything. I think of myself as a feminist but does the fact that I read so many male authors mean that I subconsciously think that male writers are better. It isn’t something I really think about when choosing a book – whether the author is male or female. It neither encourages me or the opposite.

Perhaps it is a question of identification. I’ve always been quite tomboyish (if that is still an appropriate term when you are nearly 41.) I’ve probably a lot more in common with the narrator from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity than with Fielding’s Bridget Jones. I don’t really like girly things and the women that I do read – Atwood, Barker, Carter, Atkinson – aren’t really girly either.

Nevertheless, I will try for the last few months of the year to read more female authors. I’ve a Susan Hill I’ve been meaning to read and, of course, the new Atwood will have to be bought. That’s at least another two.