Review: The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti

This summer has been one long lesson in disagreeing with people I agree with. As a liberal girl growing up in Louisiana, I have been far more accustomed to disagreeing with people I disagree with, but here in this liberal university town, I am surrounded by a whole bunch of people who agree with me. This is really nice in a way, as I can say things about gay rights to someone I hardly know without fearing that I have just inadvertently issued the opening salvo of a debate. But in another way, it is frustrating. When people who disagree with me ignore arguments that prove them wrong, or repeat little sound-bytes that don’t really mean anything, or fail to give any genuine consideration to the views they hold, I consider that to be evidence that they are Wrong. And I am Right. No such pleasing dichotomy presents itself when I spot similar problems in the remarks of people who agree with me.

Oh, and also, when I disagree with people who agree with me, I start to feel like I am conducting that nasty kind of one-upmanship where you are only disagreeing to prove that you are the most open-minded participant in the conversation. And I do not want to be that girl. It reminds me of how my ex-boyfriend used to describe church camp. He said that no matter how holy anyone was being, someone else was going to find a way to be holier, like, “I don’t think telling ghost stories on our bunk beds is the best way to walk with Jesus right now.”

Which is why I’d rather disagree with people I disagree with.

Which brings me to Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth, a book about a topic dear to my heart, which is the reducing of women to their sexuality, and valuing (or more often devaluing) them on that basis. I really enjoyed Yes Mens Yes!, a collection of essays about women and sexuality and consent that Valenti co-edited, and I have been looking forward to reading The Purity Myth ever since I learned of its existence. I enjoy righteous indignation as much as the next person, and I really think that when it comes to society and women’s sexuality, much righteous indignation is warranted.

Valenti is an engaging writer, and I agree with her of course and I think the problems she’s describing and the people that perpetuate them are wrong. Of course. But I have heard a lot of these arguments before, so they did not please me with their novelty; and if I didn’t already agree with her, I would not be moved by the arguments she presents in this not-very-weighty book. I would think she was sharply and (here’s the key point) not always convincingly dismissive of studies that might suggest conclusions contrary to her beliefs. I would think she made no effort to be respectful of her ideological opponents, and this weakened the book. I would think, as indeed I do think, that she was not careful about providing context to the examples she claimed were highly significant.

She notes that men’s magazines are a good place to look “if you want to see the purity myth in action”, and cites in particular an article from an online men’s magazine called “Training Your Girlfriend” (to give you sex whenever you want it). Okay, that’s gross, and it’s disrespectful to women and it does, as she claims, reinforce “the notion that women are sexual gatekeepers and men the potential crashers”. All v. bad.  But like, have you seen all those girly magazines? That have all the big screamy headlines about training your boyfriend to bring you sparkly presents and marry you tomorrow in a costly but tasteful wedding? I dunno, it seems unfair to get mad at men’s magazines, when women’s magazines are equally culpable for the reinforcement of unfriendly and reductive gender roles.

Or in another part, Valenti quotes Douglas Rushkoff’s essay “Picture Perfect” where he says that his high-school desire to “go steady” with a girl “had nothing to do with her, really. Her purpose was merely to assert and define my masculinity….She had only to prove I was not a fag.” Valenti says “Women cannot continue to be the markers by which men measure their manliness.” Well, no, but that’s not really what Rushkoff is saying. If a dude wants to prove he’s straight, going out with a girl kind of works. Right? Am I crazy?

Whoever had this book before me wrote in the margins in pencil (tsk), and in one spot when Valenti says some religious group feared girls having the chance to have sex “without consequences”, it said in the margins “Why should sex have consequences?” And I just wanted to share that with y’all because it made me laugh. Why indeed? And why food also? I would like to be able to eat a whole pack of Oreos without my skin breaking out. Universe, please arrange this.

Because this review has been quite negative, I would like to reiterate that I almost completely agree with Jessica Valenti. I read The Purity Myth for Women Unbound, and I STILL BELIEVE that society is full of crap and father-daughter purity balls are creepy. And this is another reason I don’t like disagreeing with people I agree with, because I have to spew disclaimers all over the place or else feel like I am arguing on behalf of the people that want to stop Gardasil and refuse to give people emergency contraception. What about you, internets? How do you manage when you disagree with people you agree with? Would you rather be able to praise your political candidate in ringing tones in front of all your coworkers, or bask in the agreeable feeling of being in a persecuted (but Correct!) minority?

People what also had read this book:

Book Addiction
The Book Lady’s Blog
Peace of Brain

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Review: Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat

Note: Edwidge Danticat has the best name in all the land.  I shall say it as often as possible in this review because it is a superb name.  Edwidge Danticat.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is a goes-off-to-live-with book.  (Written by Edwidge Danticat.)  I love a goes-off-to-live-with book, although now that I am a grown-up, such books are increasingly likely to involve severe trauma at the original home or the place where the character goes off to live.  Sophie (the protagonist invented by Edwidge Danticat) has spent all of her twelve years with her Tante Atie, but suddenly she must leave her home in Haiti and go off to live with her mother in New York.  It’s a book about women and families and the heritage of trauma: “Nightmares,” she [but really it is Edwidge Danticat] writes, “are passed on through generations like heirlooms.”

Edwidge Danticat uses a structure that did not altogether thrill me, organizing her book in sections that jump ahead several years, so that with each section change I was distracted from the story and trying to piece together clues to figure out how much time had passed.  It’s a shame that this happened, as Sophie is an increasingly unreliable narrator, and I’d have preferred to spend that time and mental energy piecing together what was really going on in her life.

That said, this book deals with complex issues really well and in beautiful, spare prose.  Edwidge Danticat portrays Haiti and its traditional culture in an incredibly respectful way, while not giving the culture a pass for the trauma it inflicts upon its people.  Sophie’s mother tells Sophie how her own mother used to “test” her to see if she was still a virgin; until, that is, she was raped by a stranger and produced Sophie.  Both experiences have scarred Sophie’s mother, yet she in turn tests Sophie each night after she discovers that Sophie has a boyfriend.  It’s a very intriguing look at the role women play in creating a sexually repressive culture.  Hence I am counting it for the Women Unbound Challenge.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I kept thinking it might have been better as short stories.  Each section was so separate from the others that the book didn’t feel cohesive, particularly as there seemed no good reason to skip ahead those years, except that Edwidge Danticat had nothing else to say about Sophie’s present age and situation.  I’d like to read some of Edwidge Danticat’s short stories, because that Edwidge Danticat, I bet she could write really good short stories.  Edwidge Danticat.  I LOVE THAT NAME SO MUCH.  It is better really than Francisco X. Stork, the last name I professed to adore.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot (thanks for the recommendation!)
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Joystory
Musings

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Review: Enlightened Sexism, Susan Douglas

You know what I never do, that I should do?  I never write down call numbers for the books I want at the library.  I look them up on the computers and then just hope they stick in my memory long enough for me to find the books I’m after.  I make them into little songs and sing them under my breath as I wend my way through New Nonfiction, Film, and Young Adults back to the regular nonfiction section.  This is fine as long as there are no books with exciting titles in New Nonfiction; as long as I don’t suddenly remember a Film I want to see; and as long as (this is the real peril) I do not make eye contact with the scary cardboard cut-outs of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner that cast dour, dead-eyed stares at you as you walk through Young Adults.  All of these things distract me and make me forget my carefully memorized call numbers.

I got Enlightened Sexism off of the New Nonfiction shelf.  At first I thought it was promoting enlightened sexism (like, one of those books that says, Men’s brains are different to women’s!  They want sex all the time because of evolution!  Accept it!), so I trotted over to investigate and found that, on the contrary, it was condemning this new media thing that posits feminism as having succeeded completely and proceeds, from that basis, to promulgate harmful and sexist images of women.  Interesting, eh?  I had to go look up the call number for Quiverfull again, but it was worth it!

Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done is exactly what I wanted out of Female Chauvinist Pigs.  Douglas casts a critical eye on the gaps between media’s portrayal of women (the powerful, in-control women as well as the blonde bimbos) and the realities for women in American society.  She explores TV shows and films that provide positive (or “positive”) portrayals of powerful women, as well as those that reinforce stereotypes about gender roles.  Her tone is light and conversational, making this a quick, absorbing read, especially if you are like me and enjoy detailed analysis of gender roles in media.  In a particularly interesting chapter, she discusses the paucity of positive, layered portrayals of African American women in media these days.  I liked that one because oh, you just have no idea how much it makes me squirm to see yet another sassy black girl friend on an otherwise all-white TV show.

My only gripe is that Douglas has this unfortunate habit of making ironic use of slang.  “Feminism was, like, so yesterday – hostile to the fun of new girliness and unnecessary because equality had, like, so totally been achieved.”  “The deafening boom-boom dance-floor music was supposed to convey that, dude, we were in a totally cool zone, but I always felt like I was trapped in Godzilla’s left ventricle.”  If those were the only two examples, I would not be griping about it, but she does it a lot.  For a book that is generally very intelligent, it was kind of obnoxious.

Oo.  Did I say “my only gripe” just there?  I meant to say, my only gripe not predicated on my certainty that my perceptions are always correct.  Susan Douglas analyzed a bunch of different films and TV shows, and I feel like she got some of them wrong.  She kept saying they implied things I don’t think they implied.  For example, she said that male sexuality in Buffy is portrayed as a threat to women, and women’s sexual desires are also dangerous.  So not the message of Buffy.  I would argue this point into the ground, but it would be very boring if you don’t watch Buffy, so let me just say: I am right, and Susan Douglas is wrong.  Don’t you hate it when writers make critical but spurious claims about things you love?

This has been for the Women Unbound Challenge.  You should read it too!


Do you identify as a feminist?  Why or why not?

Other reviews:

Rantings of a Bookworm Couch Potato

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Reviews: Yes Means Yes & Female Chauvinist Pigs

At last!  It’s March and I’ve finally managed to read another of the books from my list for the Women Unbound Challenge!  I’m having to make substitutions to the list because my library does not have Bluestockings (which, oh, I really wanted! but never mind, life is pain), and although it claims to have Foreign Correspondence, it has not been shelved where they claim that it is shelved (in Biography).


Yes Means Yes, ed. Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman

The subtitle of this collection is Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  It’s a collection of essays about feminism and rape culture, addressing these issues in the context of immigration, transsexualism, army training, virginity, etc.  I thought the editors did brilliantly at getting a wide variety of authors and perspectives.  I was particularly struck by the essay about rape of illegal immigrant women, as it highlighted an issue of which I was previously unaware and explored the ramifications of leaving such women without any legal recourse.

IT WAS ALL VERY UPSETTING.

Oh, except for the one by Hanne Blank, she of Virgin: An Untouched History.  Her essay, “The Process-Oriented Virgin”, began by narrating a “good” virginity-loss story from a girl she interviewed for her book.  The girl was in her late teens and in a loving relationship with a guy who was not pressuring her for sex; eventually she decided to have sex with him, and although she didn’t really enjoy it, it didn’t hurt that much.  (That’s not the undepressing part.)  Blank said that although this was a fairly typical “good” virginity-loss story, she frequently had women tell two stories: the story of when they think other people would consider they had lost their virginity (e.g., first instance of vaginal sex), and another story, of the first time they had sex and wanted it and enjoyed it.  “The sex that counts,” Blank writes, “is sex in which they are involved and invested.”  That was pleasing to read.

Another essay, “Why Nice Guys Finish Last”, by male-to-female transsexual Julia Serano, talked about the value of transgendered people in exploring the ways that males experience the world vs. the way females do, on the basis that such people have often navigated the world as both.  Serano says:

When I was male-bodied, it was not uncommon for women to cross the street if I was walking behind them at night, or to have female strangers misinterpret innocent things that I said as unsolicited sexual advances.  It is telling, I think, that I had to deal with the sexual predator stereotype despite the fact that my appearance was about as unthreatening as it gets….While the predator stereotype affects men’s interactions with women, it probably has an even greater impact on their interactions with children.  When I was male-bodied, I found that if I interacted enthusiastically with children, women would often give me dirty looks….Obviously, men make up the overwhelming majority of sexual predators.  But that does not mean that all men are necessarily sexual predators.

The point of which, I suppose, is that rape culture is hurting everyone.  (But women are the ones who can’t walk alone at night.)  (That really pisses me off.)  Anyway it’s food for thought.  Yes Means Yes! is full of well-written and thought-provoking essays that will inevitably make you angry with society and how it handles gender.  Enjoy!

Other reviews:

things mean a lot (thanks for the recommendation!)
Book Addiction

(Tell me if I missed yours!)

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy

I don’t have much to say here.  Female Chauvinist Pigs deals with the kind of supposed “feminism” that encourages women to get naked and rejoice in displaying as much of their bodies as they can, as often as they can.  It was a quick read partly because it was short, and partly because it wasn’t very insightful.  I agree with Levy, but I did before she started, and I didn’t feel at the end that my understanding of what she calls “raunch culture” was any deeper or more complex.

Other (better) reviews:

Book Addiction
Burning Leaves
Mad Bibliophile
Adventures in Reading

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Review: Secret Keeper, Mitali Perkins

For some reason I can’t seem to finish any books these days.  There are a number of factors involved.  I have a lot of good books right now.  I am rereading Fables as well as several volumes of L.M. Montgomery’s generally-predictable-but-sweet-nevertheless short stories.  I’m also reading The Two Towers, The Bell, Yes Means Yes, and more of Tom Stoppard’s plays.  I have fallen back in love with a still-untitled (I’m crap at titles) story I’ve been working on for ages, so I’m working on rewriting that.  Having scheduled a Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Marathon with my sister and her boyfriend for later on in the month, I have also found myself absolutely craving epic trilogies, so I’ve been rewatching Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Secret Keeper is set in 1970s India.  When sixteen-year-old Asha’s engineer father moves to America to find work as an engineer, Asha and her sister Reet and their mother (whose depression Reet and Asha call The Jailor) go to Calcutta to live with their father’s family as they wait for their father to send for them.  Beautiful Reet receives attention from the local boys, and their uncle begins receiving proposals for her.  Asha, darker-skinned, resourceful and athletic, is determined to save her sister from marriage; at the same time she begins to develop a relationship with an artist neighbor called Jay.

For a book set in 1970s India, this book did not say very much about what was going on in 1970s India.  I was expecting more of a historical perspective going into the book, and for a while I was annoying that I wasn’t getting it.  As the book continued, though, it became clear that the girls’ limited awareness of the outside world was intentional, one among several ways of depicting the circumscribed lives of women in India at this time.  Reet and Asha are hardly ever allowed to leave the house, let alone – as Asha longs to do – play cricket with the neighbors.  Perkins does a fantastic job of conveying the enforced narrowness of their lives as young adult females, while not forgetting to give Asha enough to do that we see her as an independent, brave, intelligent person.

It’s a bleak view of being a woman, and reminds me, at the same time I am reading ferocious indictments of rape culture in Yes Means Yes, that I am (comparatively) fantastically lucky to be living in this country in this time period.  Though Asha dreams of becoming a psychiatrist, her best hope while living with her uncle is that someone will offer to marry her.  And Perkins doesn’t pull any punches: things do not end up all sunshine and roses for Asha and her family.  Worst-case scenarios are avoided, but best-case ones don’t come to pass either.  It is effective, and sad.  I am glad I live here and now and I can go shopping alone and wear shorts and decide if and who and why I want to marry.

Because it made me so grateful for my life as a twenty-first-century American woman, in interesting counterpoint to how angry I feel when I read Yes Means Yes, I’m going to count this for the Women Unbound Challenge.

P.S. Friends across the pond, will you please explain cricket to me?  I found the Wikipedia article bewildering.  My impression is that the batter bats the ball that is bowled by the bowler in an attempt to prevent the ball from knocking over the batter’s wicket.  But I also have the impression that there are two batters, and I can’t figure out what the second one is for.  Is the batter meant to knock over the bowler’s wicket?  When a batter gets a run, is s/he they running back and forth between the two wickets, or running in a diamond/circle shape like in baseball, or something totally else?  How many players are there on the field (pitch?) at once?  Would there ever be more than one person from the batting team trying to make runs at the same time?  TELL ME EVERYTHING.

Reading in Color (thanks for the recommendation!)
Book Nut
My Friend Amy
Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Semicolon
Sarah’s Random Musings
MarjoleinBookBlog
jama rattigan’s alphabet soup
Ramya’s Bookshelf
A Patchwork of Books
Musings of a Book Addict
Booking Mama

Let me know if I missed yours!

Review: The Group, Mary McCarthy

Verdict: Upsetting.

I’d never heard of The Group before Claire of Paperback Reader posted about it on her blog earlier this year, but I was immediately intrigued by her description of it (and not just because the phrase seminal feminist text is delightfully absurd).  The Group follows a group of eight 1933 Vassar graduates, with each chapter focusing on one of the girls and a major event in her life: Dottie’s first experience of sex, Priss attempting to breast-feed her first son, Libby’s struggles with her career in literature, Polly’s involvement with a married man.  It’s very frank and upfront about these things, and was apparently very shocking when it was first published in 1963.

These are women with Advantages and Education and, in many cases, women who come from money.  They are proud, in the first chapter, to be seeking employment after college rather than depending on their parents or potential husbands.  They are politically aware and consider themselves independent.  Yet still their lives head in the direction of the domestic, and – here’s why it’s scary! – they seem to exercise less and less control over their own lives.

I was annoyed that the characters weren’t acting like grown-ups – but that’s the whole idea.  They are helpless because they are living in a culture that infantilizes women.  I had to stop reading for a while when Priss’s husband is telling her to breast-feed, and the hospital is telling her to give the baby a bottle, and she doesn’t know what to do.  It’s upsetting, I suppose, because she is completely at the mercy of other people, in the hospital after giving birth, and because everyone (the nurses, the doctors, and her husband) treats her like a child, and she duly acts like a child.

Sidebar: Norman Mailer wrote a crabby review of this book when it came out.  He said the characters were boring because they lacked determination and drive (see above re:  whole idea), and he was upset that the men in Mary McCarthy’s books were all jerks; he said, “[Dick is] still another in the endless gallery of Mary McCarthy’s feverish, loud-talking, drunken, neurotic, crippled, and jargon-compensated louts”.  Aw, gosh, Norman Mailer, are you struggling to find relatable, well-developed characters of your own sex in a book by a member of the opposite sex?  I CAN ONLY IMAGINE HOW AWFUL THAT MUST BE FOR YOU.  But don’t worry, the solution is simple: just abandon Mary McCarthy and return to one of your stated favorite books, The Sun Also Rises.  With that one, at least, you need not fear encountering an endless gallery of feverish, loud-talking, drunken, neurotic, crippled lou – wait a second.

Sidebar to the sidebar: I get Norman Mailer and Normal Rockwell confused. I doubt that either of them would appreciate this.

Mary McCarthy is writing a self-aware – and occasionally, I’m afraid, self-conscious; and perhaps just a tiny bit self-righteous – satire about women of a certain class at a certain time in America’s history.  It’s all about characters and moments, so it doesn’t have an overarching plot, but then, it isn’t meant to.  It’s a snapshot.  It’s a hell of a scary snapshot.

Y’all, I bought an adorable black flapper dress on Saturday, and yesterday I wore it, and my little black cloche hat, and some high-heeled black shoes, and told everyone I should have been born in the twenties.  I would just like to go on record as saying, I could not be more glad that I was not born in the twenties.

Truly, I have never ever read a book that made me fonder of my time period than The Group.  I am thankful for so many things: gains in the field of mental health, and ready access to birth control, and the beautiful, wondrous internet that lets me research things privately that I might be nervous to ask about.  We have far to go, but what a long way we have come.  What gains are you thankful for?

Other reviews:

Paperback Reader
Tales from the Reading Room
Verity’s Virago Venture

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Reviews: Watching the English and Changing My Mind

Watching the English, Kate Fox

I have a confession to make, y’all.  I am a sucker for pop psychology, and also pop sociology and yes, pop anthropology.  It’s all, you know, it’s all readable, and there are interview excerpts, and people talk about what they think and why they do the things they do.  How could anyone not love that?  I love that so much!

I know that Kate Fox’s Watching the English is observational and subjective and thus Not Proper Science, and maybe it was a tiny smidge repetitive…and yet I do not care.  Because it got me all nostalgic.  Oh, for so many reasons.  With the queues; and the thing about how Americans don’t understand irony and Britain knows we don’t because of that Alanis Morrissette song; and the tea v. dinner debate (which raged in my flat my whole first term at Essex University).  I love living in Louisiana – y’all know I love my home state – but oh how I miss England sometimes.  Kate Fox writes with wry humor (humour) about all sorts of British customs, admitting freely their absurdity and her own adherence to them.  It was a fun read.  Excellent for camping, and of course it reminded me of all the things I liked so much about England.

(When I went to the WH Smith (or Waterstones?) in Croydon to buy the sixth Harry Potter book at midnight, one of the British girls I was with said, perfectly seriously, “Oh goody!  A queue!” as I was preparing to launch into a moan about the length of the queue.  She was very cheerful all the time we were waiting, but was sobered when she had the book in her hands.)

Other reviews:

Stuck in a Book
Musings

Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith

As much as I love pop anthropology books, that is how much I do not love books of essays.  Which is to say, when I am reminded of them, I express strong feelings (see above), yet I spend most of my time not thinking about them at all.  Eva wrote about Changing My Mind in glowing terms; ordinarily when she busts out the glowing terms to describe a book, I go to my library’s website to investigate the availability of that book; but I don’t like books of essays.

Except when I went to the library before camping, to get a bunch of books to read on our camping trip, I suffered a series of disappointments.  The library claimed it had The Group, which I really wanted, and Cold Comfort Farm, which I really wanted, and you know what?  IT HAD NEITHER.  I was wandering out of the children’s section, where I had been searching for a Mary Stolz book the library also did not have.  My life was so depressing.  I’d come to get one duty-read (Slaughterhouse Five) and three pleasure reads, and y’all, walking out of the library with one book is just, you know, it’s just such a defeat.  And then, right there on the new books shelf, was Changing My Mind, and I didn’t want to leave with only Slaughterhouse Five, so okay, I got Changing My Mind.

And yeah, Eva was right.

The essays in this book vary in topic from Greta Garbo to Zora Neale Hurston to Smith’s visit to Liberia.  I learned many things, such as that Firestone is very, very wicked in Liberia, and that Nabokov was quite as arrogant as I have always vaguely suspected him to be.  Zadie Smith writes so beautifully in these essays that I read all of them, even the ones on topics that should have (and have, in the past) bored me stiff, like Kafka and Greta Garbo.  I particularly enjoyed her essay about her father’s participation in D-Day, “Accidental Hero” – it’s not just a glimpse into the experience of war, but a reflection on her relationship with her father, as a daughter and as a writer.  These are occasional essays and personal too.  I guess now I should go try one of Zadie Smith’s full books.

This is my first read for the Women Unbound Challenge!  I loved the way each of the essays spoke to Zadie Smith’s personal life and views, which I suppose is what made all of them enjoyable for me.  She writes about relationships – between books and between people.  Next up for this challenge is The Group, which I have now managed to acquire, and to which I am very much looking forward.

What are your feelings on essays?  Like them, don’t like them?  Like them singly but not a bunch all in a row?  Want to recommend some?

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair
Book Addiction
Vishy’s Blog

Tell me if I missed yours, on either of these books!