Reviews: Non-Fiction

Review: “Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny” by Anna Goldsworthy [2013]

unfinished-business-sex-freedom-and-misogynyThere has been a notable surge in narrative non-fiction on the idea of misogyny in Australia (the excellent Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport by Anna Krien and The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers). It has become quite topical due to several high profile events within the last year, most notably the rape and murder of Jill Meagher and the axing of our first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

This essay begins with one of the more memorable speeches Julia Gillard made during her term. The speech is not one on politics but rather, an accusation against the male members of the opposition party (namely, the opposition leader Tony Abbott) for constantly viewing the Prime Minister of Australia as a woman first and foremost. The constant gender jibes and insults that Gillard has had to put up with during her term that, arguably, a male PM would have not had to endure. Gillard’s personal life was particularly under scrutiny as she is also unmarried,  in a defacto relationship and has never had children (“deliberately barren”, as a shock jock elegantly phrased it).

Aside from that, Goldsworthy leads into a lively discussion of what feminism is in today’s society when many in the younger generation have eschewed that term. Have we really come as far as we had hoped as a society where there is gender equality?

The essay also briefly explores the perception of the female as a writer as Goldsworthy wonders about

… the suggestion that women – by writing about ‘smaller’ topics such as friendship, motherhood and domesticity – ghettorise themselves from a male readership. Similar criticisms have rarely been made of the male writer, lovingly documenting his midlife crisis. The assumption is that women, as the accommodating sex, are better prepared to read across gender. – p. 32

I think that is an excellent point. I think awhile ago, there was a discussion on the idea of ‘gender’ writing. Is there really such a thing? Can you really tell if an author is female/male/ungendered exclusively by their writing? From authorship Goldsworthy moves across to the image of the woman and how she constructs herself. No matter what she does, she will always have preconceived expectations on her simply because she is female. The way she does or does not do her hair, make-up and the amount of clothing she wears. She will be under scrutiny no matter what she does despite the progress society has seemingly made:

As clothing continues to disappear, the body itself becomes more stylized. The gowns of our forebears may have been restrictive, but they concealed any number of modern-day female sins – cellulite, varicose veins, leg hair, armpit hair, pubic hair. The more we were liberated from these garments, the fiercer the scrutiny we stepped into. – p. 41

We may be out of the corsets but are we even now more restricted by the invisible cage built around us? The cage we build around ourselves to fit into society?

A very interesting essay and it’s also a reminder that despite the progress in society, we still have a way to go to achieve gender equality.

Here is the video of that speech by Julia Gillard that made such an impact:

Review: “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice” by Emily Maguire [2010]

Your Skirt’s Too Short is a dissection of the current situation of the female sex in the world today. Yes, sexism still exist. Maguire, having already written an earlier version of this book entitled Princesses and Pornstars, explores the various aspects that threatens and prevent the female sex achieving sexual equality. The book also looks at what feminism means since society’s perception of feminism still recalls the movement in the 60s and of women burning bras:

To be clear: feminism never says that men and women are exactly the same. But the vast majority of gender differences are socialised, not natural, and are not significant enough to justify unequal legal and social treatment of women. A common misconception about feminism is that it means taking something – power, rights, status – away from men. But feminism is about restoring the rights, power and status of women so that they match those of men; not taking, no giving, simply restoring the natural order. And it is the natural order unless you believe that men are inherently more deserving than women. – p. 181

This is one of the best explanations I’ve read. Feminism is not about aggression, unshaved legs, burning bras or ‘acting like a man’ but simply restoring rights to women that had been systematically stripped away from women over the centuries simply because they menstruated and had a vagina. Of course, it is easier said than done.

There is also the ever persistent double standard of sex where Maguire likens society’s perception of a woman’s vagina to that of a used car: it goes down in value with every use/man. And yet, virginity has become somewhat of a shameful badge to carry around. Too many lovers, the girl is a slut. Too little, she’s a prude.

Men believe women don’t really like sex, they complain about it to their mates, they contrive ways to convince the women in their lives to go to bed with them, and they lament the unfairness of having to work so hard just to get laid. And then they meet a woman who’s totally into it, and they collapse into misery and confusion … And women play along, going home frustrated every night because he hasn’t performed enough money-spending, movie-romance rituals to allow her to sleep with him without feeling like a ‘slut’. Or they stop playing the game, sleep with whomever they want whenever they want, and end up stigmatised or pitied. – p. 32

Alongside the recurring debates about women and the portrayal of their sexuality, Maguire also discusses sex education. The focus on sex education is to explain the changes in the body, safe sex and how to prevent pregnancies. However, Maguire argues that it should also include all the other aspects generally involved with sex: the emotions in play, how to say no, masturbation and advice for those dealing with their sexuality.

Emily Maguire discusses other issues that are hounding the female sex that I can’t do justice to in this pithy review. However, I do highly recommend this as it did leave me rather enlightened although also a little more disheartened that we still have to battle our way through socially ingrained sexism. Most of these I believe are due to laziness (household product commercials – I despise you). Maguire doesn’t blame only the male sex for the ongoing oppression of women but women also partly carry the blame. To achieve gender equality, it is ultimately up to all individuals to not socially discriminate according to their gender.

Feminism does not treat men as stupid, worthless, uncontrollable, savage, dangerous or expendable. The system that does that is called patriarchy and we live under one. It’s a system that relies on restrictive gender roles as a means of keeping us all under control. If the men stay in their place and the women in theirs, and if when they do meet they are filled with misunderstanding and bitterness and resentment, then maybe they will never recognise each other as friends and allies, and they will never join together to make things better for everyone. – p. 194

Review: “Beautiful For Ever” by Helen Rappaport [2010]

In Victorian England, the use of cosmetics was taboo. It was perceived as evil and corrupt and not dissimilar from witchcraft and sorcery with innocent men as victims. Beautiful For Ever details the career of the controversial and almost mythical figure of Madame Rachel: cosmetician, con artist and almost likely, a procuress of prostitutes. Madame Rachel, whose real name was Rachel Leverson or Levison, was an astute entrepreneur with a keen eye for business, rising from poverty to creating one of the most infamous businesses in Victorian society. Although illiterate, Rachel made sure her children had the best education she could afford to give them and who would in turn help her in her deceptions.

Once Rachel Leverson established herself in a small shop on expensive and reputable Bond St, she changed her name to more exotic ‘Madame Rachel’. Her products, face washes, soaps, creams, cosmetics and special baths, were sold and promoted under a guise of similarly exotic ideas:

The catalogue abdounded in exotic potions such as Rachel’s now much-hyped Magnetic Rock Dew Water for Removing Wrinkles and her extensively advertised Circassian Golden Hair Wash. Madame’s Royal Arabian Face Cream and Honey of Mount Hymettus soap worked wonders too; as did her ‘Arab Bloom’ and ‘Favourite of the Harem’s Pearl White’ face powders – not to mention a whole range of fumigated oils, gums, scents and essences of perfumes and herbs from the most exotic and far flung places. – p. 76

These ‘exotic’ potions promised to make women ‘beautiful for ever’ and in a society obsessed with the women’s marriageability, anything must be done to enhance a girl’s physical attributes. To encourage the myth of Madame Rachel, she told her many wealthy customers that she was actually several decades older than she looked and it was due to her potions.

The business of Madame Rachel proved very successful for awhile and even opening up a branch in Paris and Rachel’s wealth grew enough to send her children to the best schools there. With so much cheating and conning with the products, the consequences soon found Rachel . Many wealthy women, duped and coerced by Rachel’s sales tactics, quickly lost a small fortune and many amassed a debt. This grew messy because the women hid their visits from their husbands. The women, almost all who held high standing and reputations in society, feared their visits to Madame Rachel would become known and Rachel held this to her advantage.

For those who have read Sensation Fiction, Madame Rachel appears in two (the two that I know of) of the popular titles: in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, Madame Oldershaw is a weak caricature of Madame Rachel. The infamous ‘Beautiful For Ever’ catalogue briefly appears in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret.

Helen Rappaport writes a very readable biography of the infamous Madame Rachel and I believe this is one of the few books available on Rachel Leverson. While it’s incredibly readable, I’m not sure if it’s suitable for academic research even though Rappaport does back her study up and it is very well researched. Reading this, I couldn’t help but compare the rather harmless procedures (of course, discounting the use of poisonous minerals such as arsenic and lead!) the women used to enhance, or completely alter, their beauty with the procedures we do today: body sculpting, liposuction, breast implants, nose jobs, face lifts, botox, scrubs, facials,  wraps, spas, etc. What is real and what is fake? What is real beauty? And of course, we all buy numerous amounts of creams, lotions, cleansers, exfoliators, perfumes, lipsticks, foundation, eyeshadows with promising tag lines.

Review: “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” by Ariel Levy [2005]

There is no denying that raunch is everywhere in our culture today. Music videos, advertisements and even children products are more often than not targeted as ‘sexy’ because, let’s face it, sex sells. In Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy explores and discusses how this culture has risen and how the second-wave feminist struggle has appropriated into the war cry that sex and stripping now means liberalisation for women. Levy writes:

This new raunch culture didn’t mark the death of feminism, they told me; it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We’d earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes.  – p. 4

But have women actually come so far as to not be objectified? Levy asks herself:

And how is imitating a stripper or a porn star – a woman whose job is to imitate arousal in the first place – going to render us sexually liberated? – p. 4

[Strippers] are merely sexual personae, erotic dollies from the land of make-believe. In their performances, which is the only capacity in which we see these women we so fetishize, they don’t even speak … they have no ideas, no feelings, no political beliefs, no relationships, no past, no future, no humanity. – p. 196

How has stripping, imitating sexually explicit poses and flashing their breasts in public or for the camera render women ‘sexually liberated’? Are they still not being objectified as sexual objects by men? Levy sets out to ascertain why the raunch culture is so appealing to women, particularly young, educated women and more concerning, young teenage girls, some as young as twelve, who strive to embody the raunch culture by wearing make-up and snapping g-strings at boys. Levy discovers that raunch and sexual appeal have become separated from the act of sex itself. These young girls understand acting and dressing sexily is what gets attention from boys but they do not understand the act of sex and its pleasures.

Raunch culture, then, isn’t an entertainment option, it’s a litmus test of female uptightness. – p. 40

In the book, Levy also details the history and battles of the second-wave feminist movement and key activists. Women have finally broken through the barriers and have presumably gained gender equality. The problem is, as Levy suggests, that women are still not free to act as ‘women’ or as themselves but they are now pressured to act as ‘men’ so they will be included and considered as one of the boys. Levy discusses women like Christie Hefner, Hugh Hefner’s daughter and the CEO of Playboy, and  Sheila Nevins, a high profile and formidable veteran producer for HBO. They see no problems with producing media that promotes and encourages female raunch. Women either have to ‘get with the program’ or risk looking prudish and uptight to both other men and women.

… the Female Chauvinist Pig (FCP) has risen to a kind of exalted status. She is post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it. She doesn’t mind cartoonish stereotypes of female sexuality, and she doesn’t mind a cartoonishly macho response to them. The FCP asks: Why throw your boyfriend’s Playboy in a freedom trash can when you could be partying at the Mansion? Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving – or getting – a lap dance yourself? Why try to beat them when you can join them? – p. 93

The female chauvinist pigs are women who consider themselves apart from their less raunchy sisters,

a new sort of loophole woman who is ‘not like other women’, who is instead ‘like a man’. – p. 96

And there lies the problem. Who is this invisible, ideal man that everybody strives to emulate? And are women actually liberated when all it seems is that they are still struggling to be accepted as themselves? Why aren’t the men concerning themselves that if they don’t flash their genitals, women might not find them sexy and think them prudish? The FCP is not limited to heterosexual women and Levy discusses how the lesbian community have appeared to have taken similar heterosexual gender roles such as butches, femmes and bois.

Female Chauvinist Pigs is a slim but thorough and interesting volume and Levy ties in the current, past and alternative cultures nicely although it is very American-centric. The raunch culture have appeared to stabilised since the book was published in 2005 but, having said that, strippers, gyrating dancers, porn stars and Paris Hilton are still figures that many young girls and women look up to. Women still find it hard to find their own independent voice, particularly if they work in male dominated and cut-throat worlds. To succeed, they ultimately have to become ‘one of the boys’ or otherwise come across as uptight.

Review: ‘Lucky’ by Alice Sebold

In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheatre, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was lucky.

luckyThis preface made up part of the cover of a previous edition of Alice Sebold’s amazing memoir and it is part of a longer preface leading into her recollections. From the very first sentence, there is no pretension or mistake about what the memoir was going to be about. It focuses entirely on Sebold’s rape, her virginity and inexperience with sex (she was a virgin when she was raped) when Sebold was an 18 year old freshman at Syracuse University, the aftermath and its consequences for most of her adult life. Nothing is held back when Sebold details her rape and recounts the moment when she wanted nothing more in the world than to live. After several attempts to escape –

Then I began to run. Like a giant who is all powerful, he reached out and grabbed the end of my long brown hair … that was my first missed escape, the hair, the woman’s long hair

Sebold relents to the demands of the rapist in order to live. This becomes a little problematic during the court proceedings down the track where the adage, ‘it is better to be dead than to be raped’, was still a popular consensus.

Intertwined with Sebold’s story is her childhood and stories about her somewhat dysfunctional family – a mother who was previously an alcoholic and ver nervous, a somewhat reclusive father who was more interested in his books than the family and an older sister whose main motive was to plot her escape away from the family. The two sisters never seem particularly close and, I think, that Sebold writes with guilt that she always managed to spoil her sister’s special moments and never letting her shine. Alice was raped on the day of her sister’s exam and her trial against her rapist was on the day of her sister’s graduation.

Sebold’s story is bravely told and the writing is amazing. There were so many times when I ached for her when Sebold recounts her physical injuries which were quite severe. There were many times where I was moved to tears. Her story also sheds light on how one moment, one horrendus moment, can have such a devastating lifelong impact. While Sebold gains justice in the end and she manages to finish her degree (not to mention taking writing classes from Tess Gallagher and Tobias Wolff), there is no justice for the pain and suffering the rape had caused and perhaps continue to cause.

The ending, as most of us will know, is a quite happy one. Sebold later wrote (the memoir was publised in 1999) The Lovely Bones and The Almost Moon and is married to the writer Glen David Gold.

Review: “Romulus, My Father” by Raimond Gaita

…tragedy, with its calm pity for the affliction it depicts, was the genre that first attracted my passionate allegiance: I recognised in it the concepts that had illuminated the events of my childhood. They enabled me to see Mitru, my mother, my father and Vacek, living among his boulders, as the victims of misfortune, in their different ways broken by it, but never thereby diminished. – p. 124.

Raimond Gaita’s slight but detailed autobiography about his father, Romulus, and Gaita’s own early childhood is filled with both tragic and heartwarming moments. Born in the former Yugoslavia, Romulus was thrown out on the world at the age of thirteen and forced to make his own way. During the second world war he moved to Germany where he met and married Christine who soon after gave birth to Raimond. This happy little life, however, would be peppered with drama and tragedy. Christine, young, attractive and bubbly,was unable to settle down particularly when the family emigrated to Australia and settled in country Victoria. She displayed signs of mental disturbances when Raimond was born, which we can now label as post-natal depression, refusing to take care of her newborn baby. Christine eventually leaves Romulus and embarks on a string of affair. She become a floating figure in young Raimond’s life as she weaves in and out of the family home and, later, psychiatric wards.

Despite this, Romulus, turning his back on the gender conventions of his day, does his best to raise Raimond up alone and, with the help of Romulus’ best friend, he succeeds tremendously. Gaita portrays his father as a strong, moralistic and compassionate man which is all the more heartbreaking when Romulus’ life unravels further down the track.

Despite being a slight volume, Gaita elegantly details his father’s life until his death. It is very clear throughout the book that, despite having a difficult childhood, Gaita felt very loved by his father and that there was not much he missed out on. The book also has a historical element as it details the post-war years of the European migration to Australia and it’s setting of country Victoria.

I was slightly reluctant to pick up this book because I was afraid of reading another depressing but heartwrenching autobiographical story. However, Gaita writes so movingly and simply, with a touch of philosophy thrown in and a nice mixture of heartwarming anecdotes that it becomes a wonderful read. It was a pleasure reading about the life of such a wonderful man.