Archive for the ‘Gender Politics’ Category

April is a popular month for causes. Maybe it’s because spring time brings a sense of hope with it, a renewed sense of purpose for those of us who spend the dark days of winter hibernating in our pajamas, feeling empty of all inspiration and will to live, like a used tube of toothpaste squeezed dry. The warmer, sunny days of spring fuel our ambitious natures once again and we remember that life is good.

Or maybe it’s just me and I’m part bear.

bc-speakHere we are with another cause that is close to my heart. So close to me in fact that I wrote a book about the subject – my current YA manuscript that’s out with agents now, Institutionalized; I’m not Crazy – but I digress.

This month is National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a fantastic book about it, too. Since hers has already been published and since she has put her voice and extraordinary talents behind a campaign to help survivors of abuse, we should talk about her. I first read her book, Speak, about five years ago. What an emotionally gut-wrenching little tome that was.

Here’s an introduction to the plot:

Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Now her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t even know hate her from a distance. The safest place to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that’s not safe. Because there’s something she’s trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have to speak the truth. This extraordinary first novel has captured the imaginations of teenagers and adults across the country. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

What the summary doesn’t tell you is that Melinda is unable to tell her friends why she called the cops. She cannot verbalize what happened to her. She then decides it’s safer to stop talking altogether to keep her world from completely falling apart. She instead begins to express herself through her art projects and diary entries. We as the readers can only watch her suffering from afar and wish that someone else knew her pain and was able to help her.

It’s a poignant and beautifully told story that every young woman (and dare I say it, even every young man) should read. And every parent should encourage a dialogue with their child about this subject so that they know that they don’t have to accept any unwanted violation of their own bodies and that they can report it and their parents will support them.

To learn more about RAINN (the Rape Abuse Incest National Network), visit their website here.

Laurie Halse Anderson is running a fund-raising campaign for this organization right now through April 29th, and her publisher Macmillan will match any donation up to a total of $10,000. You can’t beat that. I made a donation and you can, too. Even $10 will help someone through the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE. To support Laurie’s #Speak 4RAINN campaign, follow this link here. You can follow the discussion about the campaign on Twitter at the hashtag, #Speak4RAINN.

I hope you’ll join us and speak up for those who can’t find their voice.

Learn more about Laurie Halse Anderson here.

Follow Laurie on Twitter here.

Some of you may have remembered that I’ve taken up a couple of challenges this year. (I first mentioned them in this post here and this one here.) Both involve reading and reviewing books with differing themes. Not such a tough thing for a lover of reading, I admit. In the end, not so much challenging as just fun and another excuse to share some great books with you. I have two reviews for you this week – one today and one this weekend.

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200For the Pride & Prejudice Bicentenniary Challenge, I wasn’t ready to tackle the original text just yet. Then I stumbled on some news about a children’s author I follow on Twitter. Then I read that she not only wrote something for adults, but that it had a Jane Austen theme. Not only that, the first book in this new series was just made into a movie. And it’s all about a woman who is totally obsessed with Pride and Prejudice and that fantastic Mr. Darcy, much to the detriment of her own love life.

Perfect!

The book?

Austenland by Shannon HaleAustenlandPB150

Here’s the plot summary:

Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her love life: no real man can compare. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined.

Decked out in empire-waist gowns, Jane struggles to master Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen—or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It’s all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to fall away, and the more she wonders: Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

And honestly, how many of us (participating in this challenge or not) can identify to some degree with a (slightly obsessive) preoccupation with Pride & Prejudice and hoping that there is a Mr. Darcy out there for us as well? Of course, I’m not saying that we would take it to Jane’s extreme, but still…

Jane is at first ecstatic to be immersed in the world of corsets and drawing rooms, but soon she finds the actors a little too spot on, feeling as if she is the fraud ruining this romantic utopia. She begins to think back on each of her failed relationships to see where they all fell short of the most perfect romance ever written. Is there really a Mr. Darcy out there for her or should she stick to her plan and get this nonsense out of her system once and for all?

Here’s a brief excerpt:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a thirty-something woman in possession of a satisfying career and fabulous hairdo must be in want of very little, and Jane Hayes, pretty enough and clever enough, was certainly thought to have little to distress her. There was no husband, but those weren’t necessary anymore. There were boyfriends, and if they came and went in a regular stream of mutual dissatisfaction—well, that was the way of things, wasn’t it?

But Jane had a secret. By day, she bustled and luncheoned and emailed and over timed and just-in-timed, but sometimes, when she had the time to slip off her consignment store pumps and lounge on her hand-me-down sofa, she dimmed the lights, turned on her nine inch television, and acknowledged what was missing.

Sometimes, she watched Pride and Prejudice.

You know, the BBC double DVD version, starring Colin Firth as the delicious Mr. Darcy and that comely, busty English actress as the Elizabeth Bennet we had imagined all along. Jane watched and re-watched the part where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy look at each other over the piano, and there’s that zing, and her face softens, and he smiles, his chest heaving as though he’d breathe in the sight of her, and his eyes are glistening so that you’d almost think he’d cry…Ah!

Each time, Jane’s heart banged, her skin chilled, and she clamped down on the distracting ache in her gut with a bowl of something naughty, like Cocoa Pebbles. That night she would dream of gentlemen in Abraham Lincoln hats, and then in the morning laugh at herself and toy with the idea of hauling those DVDs and all her Austen books to the second hand store.

Of course, she never did.

That pesky movie version was the culprit. Sure, Jane had first read Pride and Prejudice when she was sixteen, read it a dozen times since, and read the other Austen novels at least twice, except Northanger Abbey (of course). But it wasn’t until the BBC put a face on the story that those gentlemen in tight breeches had stepped out of her reader’s imagination and into her non-fiction hopes. Stripped of Austen’s funny, insightful, biting narrator, the movie became a pure romance. And Pride and Prejudice was the most stunning, bite-your-hand romance ever, the kind that stared straight into Jane’s soul and made her shudder.

It was embarrassing. She didn’t really want to talk about it. So let’s move on.

Hale gives a charming, if at times uncomfortable, view of what it would feel like to actually be transported to one’s own Austenland. Be careful what you wish for, here. This book may make you question how much of your concepts of romance, what you expected to find out in the world when searching for someone to be your partner in life – the deep down ones that you never told anyone – were based on unrealistic expectations and fantasies not to be found in the real world. You may ask yourself, “Is this nagging sense of my life being incomplete that I sometimes get after reading/watching P & P from some lame lack of fulfillment or just the wistful longing that great literature can evoke?”

Of course, those stories never show the perfect romantic couples dealing with whose turn it is to take out the trash or feed the screaming baby at 2 AM either, do they?

This is a great, easy read for any hardcore Austen fan to enjoy.

Learn more about Shannon Hale and her books here.

Am I kissable?

The recent uproar surrounding Ashley Judd and the ugly media speculation on her changing appearance and her thoughtful response really got me thinking about a conversation I had with a close relative (who wishes to remain anonymous). It started something like this:

“I need this new lip gloss.”

“What? Why? You have tons of makeup.”

“It will give me more confidence.”

“What!?!”

“That’s what it says.”

“You’re joking.”

She was not joking.

That was the beginning of the most disturbing conversation I’ve ever had with her. Voices were raised. Tears were shed. It was very uncomfortable for both of us. When we finally got down to the heart of  the matter, she revealed that she thought of herself as some disfigured troll that couldn’t go out among normal, flawless humans without a coat of protective camouflage hiding all of her most hideous deformities, and that she actually needed this new lip gloss to feel better about herself.  The Kissaholic Lip Gloss from Victoria’s Secret did not promise to boost one’s confidence as it turns out; it only promised to “increase lip volume for a fuller, sexier, more kissable pout”, apparently something my young anonymous female relative, who has very full lips to begin with, was in desperate need of acquiring. The advertising went on to say that it was “infused with an exotic blend of aphrodisiac ingredients designed to inspire desire.” How embarrassing to have to explain to me that she wanted, needed to feel desired by someone. And how embarrassing for me to have to explain that she had been duped by a marketing campaign aimed at her vulnerable heart.

I was in shock. Did she really think that beauty was all she had to offer anyone? Had I myself influenced this young woman in any way to be so dependent on her looks for her self-esteem?

I hoped not. I knew better. I had taken some enlightening college courses in the past and I was amazed at what I learned from a paper I read on toy advertising; how we as women are subjected to not only societal expectations, but blatant marketing strategies encouraging us even as young girls in toy commercials to find satisfaction and pride in our physical appearance and care-taking skills, unlike boys who are encouraged to take pride in skills like problem-solving and risk-taking.  One of my favorite passages came from another paper I read entitled Analysis of Gender Identity Through Doll & Action Figure Politics in Art Education by Anna Wagner-Ott, an associate professor at California State University at Sacramento:

“It is from popular culture that most people weave their identities and establish their relationships with others and the environment. Mass media images saturate our lives, structuring much of what we know beyond personal experience.” (Duncum, 1997, p.70)

She wanted her paper to help other art educators to “gain insight into how cultural forms, marketing, and aesthetic productions are generating gender identities” and to help them emancipate their students from these contemporary forms of domination. Heavy stuff.

After studying these subjects, I wanted to make sure my own daughter knew that she was more than just a pretty face. I made sure I told her often that she was smart, compassionate, a talented artist, and a tough soccer player among many other things. I couldn’t help it that she heard from other people that she was also beautiful.

Then puberty hit and that struggle to find her unique identity within the crowd and “Mom you couldn’t possibly understand what I’m going through” period came along with it.  Although I do know exactly what she’s going through, there is no way she’ll believe it and there’s no way I can make it any easier for her. My compliments hailing her many fine attributes now fall on deaf ears. She’ll have to survive her own battle of self-esteem.

So how do you fight against that overwhelming tide of societal norms and let your children know it’s okay to be exactly who they are and that they are more than a beautiful face? As with Ashley Judd’s comments, I am reminded just how much other young girls – other women – help perpetuate the obsession with YOUTH and BEAUTY and devalue those who stray from this path.  How quick are we to say something snarky about someone else gaining weight or a cosmetic surgery job gone wrong? How many women hold real positions of power? What do we say about them? Do we value each other as women for traits NOT tied to appearance? Do we cheer other women on for their accomplishments or tear them down? If we want our daughters to be valued and teach them to find value in themselves, we need to lead the way. Do you agree? How do you teach your daughter to love herself for all that she is?

I leave you with a fantastic performance by slam poet Katie Makkai that I am stealing from another awesome blog. (thank you, Cassie.)

I was once like many young girls who worshipped at the alter of Barbie. I coveted the Malibu Dream House; I longed for the Pepto pink convertible to drive around my less attractive friends. I wanted to accessorize my troubles away. And then one day something in me just stopped believing the hype that my self-worth was tied into my appearance and I couldn’t be one of those girls anymore. I don’t know why it happened, but the glitz of Barbie’s world lost its charm; all that sparkly sequins seemed tacky and life started being about swimming against the current…and it has been ever since.

I blame my father.

He always treated me like I had a brain that was useful for more than organizing sock drawers. We would have long talks about everything where my very inexperienced opinion was just as important as anyone’s. He also made me do everything that my brothers had to do; mow the lawn, cut and stack firewood, and wash the dishes. There were no gender-specific chores at our house.

And reading was encouraged.

My dad was and still is a voracious reader. Not surprisingly, I became an unstoppable reader myself. One of my fondest memories as a child was the night my dad started reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis to me. I was so captivated. Not only did I have my dad all to myself, but we were sharing this amazing adventure in Narnia together. If only I’d been patient enough to wait for him to read the rest of the story to me. When he couldn’t read to me the next night, I took off on my own and never looked back until I had devoured the entire series. I re-read those books more than any other throughout my childhood. I even saved up my own lawn-mowing money to buy A Companion to Narnia by Paul Ford printed in 1980 that I still have to this day.

I’m pretty sure that’s when the writing bug sunk its teeth deep into my skin and made itself at home in my soul.

Fast-forward thirty or so years later and it hasn’t let go. Now I’m deep in the process of writing my second book and enjoying (almost) every facet of it. This one may actually be worthy of publishing. We shall see. I’ve learned a few things along my continuing journey to be a children’s writer, mostly from making a slew of mistakes – but isn’t that the most memorable way to do it? This blog is my latest leap into the unknown, trying to push myself further and keep on swimming upstream. I hope you’ll join me.