Archive for the ‘ Books ’ Category

Review: To Be Real

I always read at least two books at once. One is always a novel, and the other is more often than not a collection of feminist essays. Most of these collections read like a school assignment. There are a few interesting essays, and a lot of uninspiring rambling. In contrast, the collection “To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism” was a pure delight.

Now don’t get me wrong, as in any anthology, some pieces are better than others. However, this one had a much higher good read to tedious read ratio.

Published in 1995 and edited by Rebecca Walker, this collection seeks to break down notions of what makes a feminist, showing the “infinite number of moments and experiences that make up feminist empowerment.” This is a collection that goes beyond experiences of being a women in a sexist society, and explores contradictions and ambiguity. It’s about lesbians embracing a femme identity, it’s about fulfilling a white wedding fantasy, it’s about male dykes, rape fantasies, and creating a sexy bachelor parties without female strippers. It’s about coming to terms with your feminist “failures” and knowing that those makes you no less of a feminist.

Though published 15 years ago (Was 1995 really 15 years ago!?), these essays are as relevant as ever.

In the introduction, Rebecca Walker writes, “A year before  I started this book, my life was like a feminist ghetto. Every decision I made, person I spend time with, word I uttered, had to measure up to an image of what was morally and politically right according to my vision of female empowerment.” A decade and a half later, young feminists struggles with this same dilemma. (Or perhaps I should say, me and my peer circle struggle with this same dilemma- I don’t know for a fact that other worry about the same thing, though I have a sneaking suspicion that they do.) I wonder how my sexual desires fit with a feminist identity. I worry that I am buying into mainstream culture too much as I write a fashion blog. I question my ability to be a “good” feminist because I’m spoiled with white privilege. This book explores the array of ways that feminism manifested during the third wave.

Essays I particularly enjoyed include “Femmenism” by Jeannine Delombard on merging third wave feminism with third wave lesbianism, “Identity Politics” by Jennifer Allyn and David Allyn on merging names in marriage, and “Close, But No Banana” by Anna Bondoc on coming to terms with ones political “failures”. Seriously, this collection is worth having on your shelf, or at least worth checking out from your local library.

Let’s Talk About Books

I love books. I love the feel of thin pages between my fingers. I love how the spine creaks when you open a brand new edition. I love sharing books. I love giving them as presents. I love rummaging through piles of books at garage sales or thrift stores. I love getting lost in a story.

And of course, I love reading books.

I recently speed through Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The introduction was a little bit slow, but once I got into the body of the text, I couldn’t put it down. It combined the excitement and mountaineering adventures of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air with the boldness and unconventionality of Dr. Paul Farmer as profiled in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains. Couple that with stories of female education and empowerment (a la Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran), and you have a book that everyone should read. It’s one of those stories that proves that vision and determination can lead to social change, and that something small can turn into something much bigger. Three Cups of Tea certainly has its share of hard facts, but it provides the dream of an uplifting future, even in regions where the Taliban sometimes control civilization.

[NOTE: Apparently, a sequel entitled “Stones into Schools” was released in December 2009. I haven’t read it yet, but I plan on it.]

And this brings me to my next item of discussion. I need book recommendations. As you may or may not have gathered, I will soon be starting a graduate program in Women’s/Gender/Sexuality Studies. Since,  beginning in August, I’ll be reading and writing nonstop for the next two, five, six, or twelve years, I figure I might as well get started now.

  • While my undergraduate work allowed me to explore a variety of women’s and gender issues both national and internationally, theory was largely absent. I need both feminist theory and queer theory. What are those works you consider essential reading?
  • More specifically, one of my primary research interests concerns gender and athletics, particurally gender in what has historically been considered “feminine sport.” (I’m thinking figure skating, gymnastics, beach volleyball…) I’ve found some work on men (and to a lesser extent, women) in boxing and wrestling, as well as a bit of work on “the body in sport.” However, if anyone has interesting suggestions concerning gender (especially femininity) in sport, I’d love to hear.
  • My second research interest considers how non-binary gender identities are presented in the media. While I plan to explore the academic writing in this area, I’d love to be pointed towards any books/magazine articles that present transgendered, genderqueer, or otherwise gender-variating individuals. I’d be especially interested in this portrayal in young adult lit, although I haven’t searched out if such books even exist.
  • The last request is the most personal. I have this complicated and uncomfortable relationship with the term “femme” and even I can’t quite figure out quite where my discomfort is coming from. What are your favorite books on queer femininity and butch/femme identities?

My friends, followers, and random passerbyers, please share. Let’s talk about books, baby.

Review: Unleashing Feminism

I am a member of BookMooch, where I can give away books I no longer want in exchange for books I do want. You never know what books will be available, so sometimes, I like to select random books recommended for me through whatever algorithm the site employs.

Unleashing Feminism: Critiquing Lesbian Sadomasochism in Gay 90’s, a collection of radical feminist writings was one such book.

The key words drew me in. Feminism, check. Lesbian, Sadomasochism, check and check.

I tend to mark books when I love them. I underline quotations. I dog-ear the pages containing meaningful passages. While this books is as destroyed as many of my favorites, it is for the exact opposite reason. Few books have made me so angry.

One reviewer on Library Thing wrote, I have read many books in my day, feminist and otherwise. The arguments are poorly contructed at best and downright offensive at worst.” I couldn’t agree more.

The central argument of this book is that lesbian S&M is inseparable from Nazi genocide or American slavery. As a solution, all true lesbian/feminists must separate themselves from the S&M culture of mainstream queers, preferably through lesbian separatism. (Now this book was written in 1993, but I’m pretty sure that most people had realized by then that lesbian separatism was not a feasible solution.)

Though this book contains brief discussion on consent, the radial feminist authors continually question a woman’s ability to give consent and claim her desires. No woman can possibly genuinely want to explore S&M. She’s stuck under Nazi rule. She’s stifled by continued racial inequality. She’s used to police brutality. Rape is part of her daily life. This is what angered me the most.

Mr. Sexsmith explored the idea of consent and agency in the post “Reconciling the Identities of Feminist & Butch Top”, in which he discusses coming to terms with being masculine, queer, butch, sadistic, a top, and a feminist.

‘I didn’t realize how little trust I had in others until I started playing deeper with BDSM. Because I would tell myself, it’s okay, she wants to do it, but then I would think, does she really? Maybe she wants to because I want to. Maybe she wants to because society tells her she should want to. Maybe she wants to for fucked-up reasons, like she thinks it’s okay for her to feel humiliated and less than me because of her own internal misogyny … but that was me not trusting that what she said was true…”

He goes on.

‘This was an issue of agency, in feminist terms – my not trusting my lover to communicate with me what she wanted, to explain to me how far I could go, and my not trusting that she would let me know if I was going too far or too hard, either with her physical communication or her words or both, was me not trusting in the agency of my lover. I have to trust that she will tell me, she will let me know, if I am going too far…”

This is a fabulously worded example of how feminism, at its best, recognizes the agency inherent in each women. An empowered woman can claim whatever she wants and needs, sexually and otherwise. This is the essential point that the authors of Unleashing Feminism missed.

That doesn’t mean that everyone should explore S&M. You can be 100% vanilla and be entirely happy, and this is entirely fine. However, to me, feminism means acknowledging women’s agency. This is the very core of my feminist beliefs, and the reason the close-minded nature of the book irked me so.

The book did contain some good points. Surely, there is too much violence in our culture. It is a fact, the Nazis employed sexual sadism to dehumanize their victims and establish “power over.” The service sector is disproportionately populated by women, the sex industry included. Women are raped. S&M can be traumatizing for abuse survivors.

However, the Holocaust did not happen because of sexual sadism. Men also participate in the sex industry and boys- like girls- can be victimized. Not all men are evil. Some are genuinely loving, caring, and respecting. Some people have never experienced abuse, rape, or violence (myself included), and may choose to explore S&M with few or no personal hangups.

For a book presenting itself as academic writing, the examples presented throughout the text are poorly sourced and often entirely fabricated.

In short: Don’t read this book. And if you do read it, expect some total crap.

It’s So Predictable: A Review of “It’s So You”

T-Rex recently lent me a copy of  “It’s so You: 35 Women Write about Personal Expression Through Fashion and Style.” This collection is edited by Michelle Tea, perhaps best known for her lesbian novels “Valenica” and “Rent Girl.” Furthermore, the anthology includes writings by such names as Jenny Shimizu (known for dating Angelina Jolie and modeling for Calvin Klein), Kate Bornstein (author of “Gender Outlaw” and “My Gender Workbook,” among others), and Debbie Rasmussen (of Bitch magazine). I was pretty excited.

However, as I read through the essays in this collection, I quickly became bored. Now don’t get me wrong, I love fashion as much as the next girl. However, most of these essays recount the same story with minor variations in details:

First, I was poor/ I was a child. I didn’t have fashion sense. I wore what people gave me. Then, I tried really hard to fit in. It didn’t work. So, I started to dress punk/goth/crazy/80s/like my grandmother. I tried on identities. Now, I have my own style, and I can express myself without totally embarrassing my friends (most of the time). I can be a feminist and still have fun with clothes.

I, myself, have the same story:

First, I was a kid. I didn’t have fashion sense. I wore what my grandmother collected on her thrift store journeys. Then, in 4th grade, I tried really hard to fit in. I got a Old Navy logo tee, but it was the wrong logo. It didn’t work, I still wasn’t cool. So, I started to dress wannabe punk, heavy eyeliner and clunky boots, with colorful tights and short frilly skirts thrown in for good measure. I tried on the identities of my high school; goth, punk, emo, hippy. Now I have my own style, and I can express myself without totally embarrassing my friends (except for Bam-Bam, who laughs at my red over-dyed jeans). I’m a feminist, but I can still have fun with clothes.

That said, if you don’t mind a little repetition, or, if you don’t mind skipping a few selections, you can find the gems in this collection.

Laura Fraser’s “How to Dress like a Cowgirl” is an essay about trying on identities and discovering one’s personal style- but it works. Much of the essay is about reconciling feminism and femininity under the shadow of a second wave feminist mother who saw women’s clothing as inherently oppressive. “How to Dress like a Cowgirl” is a touching memoir about finding that balance. And, Fraser may sum many of us up when she writes, “I wanted to dress like a princess sometimes, too, but I also wanted to be a witch, a movie star, a diva, a Victorian, a rodeo queen.” If feminism is about opening the options available to women, Fraser captures it here.

Frances Varian’s “Lighten Up, It’s Just Fashion: How to Be a Gorgeous Revolutionary” offers another thought-provoking foray into the intersections between fashion and feminism. As she puts it, “Fashion and feminist are both infused with the theoretical and practical limitations and opportunities presented by the female body. They can be symbiotic or deadly, depending on the way the light shifts. The are parasites and I am the host.” She concludes by arguing that the artistic merit of feminism is not diminished just because fashion can be unsafe for women, just as the political value of feminism is not diminished because feminists forget to recognize their privileges. Her message is simple and relevant: “lighten up” and recognize that both fashion and feminism can be tools in women’s hands.

My other favorite, “Oh My God- Shoes!” by Cindy M. Emch, explored one of my favorite topics (That would be shoes, in case you haven’t noticed). In a world where designers don’t envision their clothing in a size larger than 10, and fat is deplored, shoes offer any woman a means to explore fashion. “The shoe store […] Here anything was possible. All I had to do was tell them my size and it always fit.” And when it doesn’t fit, it’s no big deal. “No one cared if they had to try on a 9 instead of an 8.5; they just blamed the manufacturer. Things vary. No big deal.” This is important. As Emch explains, when clothing sizes vary and women have to try on a larger size, tears may ensue. It’s a breakdown of self image. But with shoes, whatever. I try not to let clothing sizes get me down (just last week I bought items in a size 4 and a size 12, both of which fit beautifully), but it can be difficult with that size 8 just won’t zip. With shoes, however, I’m just glad to have  found a good pair of shoes, be that in a 9, a 10, or (god help me) an 11.

[2.5 of 5 stars] There are some good essays in this collection, but expect a lot of repetition. I want more voices. I want to hear from non-American women, as well as women of different racial, religious and class backgrounds. There is so much to say about fashion and feminism. I don’t want to read the same thing over and over.