Book Clubs, Man

This article in the New York Times is a truly moving and groundbreaking piece of investigative journalism detailing the plight of men who are members of book clubs. Apparently, men feel really ostracized from the contemporary literary world. I had no idea! Well worth a read if you have nothing better to do. But if you do, some choice quotes:

“Mr. McCullough’s group expresses its notion of manliness through the works it chooses to read. ‘We do not read so-called chick lit,’ he said ‘The main character cannot be a woman.'”

“The [book club’s] ‘About Us’ section says it was founded, in part, on the vision that ‘one day we could step out of the shadow of our mothers’ book clubs and proclaim that yes, we too, are intellectuals.’”

“For the International Ultra Manly Book Club, in Kansas City, the monthly meetings provide a space to explore literary depictions of what it means to be a man.”

“And yet the group has standards. ‘We are not allowed to suggest books that our mothers have suggested,’ Mr. Creagar said. ‘We had an accident one time. We read ‘Water for Elephants.’ It was a huge mistake.'”

These guys really have a point. Society has a hard time seeing men as intellectuals and arbiters of literary taste. Such a hard time, in fact, that more than half of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels from the last 15 years have been books by men about men. In the same time period, 60% of Man Booker Prize-winning novels have been books by men about men. Seventy-four percent of reviewers writing for the New York Review of Books are men. Only 74 percent! And only 91 on Modern Library’s list of 100 best novels were written by a man. A truly appalling lack of representation.

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The Handmaid’s Tale, revisited

Last weekend I discovered that The Handmaid’s Tale, which I first read as a teenager, is available on my favorite reading app. I couldn’t pass up the chance to take it for another spin, especially considering the disastrous times we’re living in when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. Frankly, the society described in the Tale probably sounds like paradise if you’re a right-wing, anti-choice extremist like many of the people who stood on stage last Wednesday and said they’d like to be president.

But I’ll rant about that later. First, a little bit about the Tale:

Gilead, a Bible-based theocracy that has superseded the United States, is the setting for The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a society that’s been built on an extreme version of the GOP’s current pro-forced birth platform, and the cult of the fetus runs deep.

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Bystander Intervention is all about “protecting a buddy from getting into trouble” according to the NYT

There are a lot of problems in this New York Times article about preventing rape through bystander intervention. While I think bystander intervention programs are a good tool, I’m bothered by the way intervention is being taught – or, at least, how it’s being presented this morning by the NYT.

From the way this article is written, I get the sense that bystander intervention programs – especially those targeted toward male athletes – are more about protecting men from the consequences of “bad behavior” rather than protecting women from assault. In the article’s fifth paragraph:

“While the public discussion on sexual violence has primarily focused on the physical and emotional damage done to women, it is also true that getting arrested for sexual assault can mark a young man for life.”

And soon after that:

“Several male athletes at a training session last month seemed to feel that bystander intervention was as much about protecting a buddy from getting into trouble as saving a woman from harm.”

Is that really what it takes to get this message through to people? Intervene and you’ll keep your buddy out of “trouble”?

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Chasing perfection in a world without men

herlandFor its time (1915), “Herland” was revolutionary, both in terms of its science fiction content and its skewering of gender stereotypes. “Herland” was one of the first novels to explore utopianism within the context of a single-sex society, an idea that become more common with the rise of radical feminism and lesbian separatism in the 1970s.

The novel centers on a small society that has been cut off from the rest of humanity by a natural disaster. That disaster kills off many of the land’s male inhabitants; the remaining men are killed off by the women, who rise up against being subjugated. The women are initially convinced this will be the end of their race, until a woman bears a child through parthenogenesis. The society continues and evolves in this way, up until the 20th Century, when three male explorers – Vandyck Jennings, Jeff Margrave and Terry Nicholson – “discover” Herland and are taken in by its inhabitants.

Herland is not so different from what our land was like at the beginning of the last century. The women have gone through their own industrial revolution, and have been able to produce automobiles and other modern marvels. They have a system of agriculture, and value orderliness in public spaces. The women, however, behave much differently than a Victorian woman (and even differently than many modern women). They are strong, athletic, intellectual – and they only wear pants! The society itself is nearly a utopia. Thanks to years of common education, most “bad” qualities are rarely exhibited. In this respect, the novel teeters perilously close to promoting eugenics.

Throughout, the novel walks a fine line between representing the female society as a complex, hard-fought endeavor painstakingly built by its inhabitants (through education yes, but also through a limited program of eugenics) – and as simply a perfect world that is the result of woman’s natural good grace, intelligence and patience.  

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Personal transformation in the novels and short stories of Kate Chopin

Last month I decided to take a slight detour from the usual fare and venture into some feminist fiction rather than nonfiction. While Kate Chopin never called herself a feminist (or suffragist, a term she would have been more familiar with), many of her short stories and two published novels center on strong-willed women and their ambivalent feelings toward traditionally female interests, especially marriage and childrearing.

The awakeningChopin (née O’Flaherty) was born in St. Louis and lived most of her life there, but she collected the material for her fiction from the decade she spent living with her Creole husband Oscar in New Orleans and the central Louisiana Creole country. When her husband died in 1882 she moved back to St. Louis and began writing. She was a popular and prolific short story writer, penning 100 or so in her lifetime. Her two novels – “At Fault,” written toward the beginning of her career, and “The Awakening,” written toward the end – were less well received, likely because they contain the most overt exploration of how Victorian cultural and religious institutions converged to stifle a woman’s happiness, especially if she was married.

Both stories’ heroines are grappling with a physical longing for men who are not their husbands, as well as a more visceral longing for freedom and clarity of purpose. In “The Awakening,” Edna Pontellier is wife and mother of two young boys. She married her husband, Léonce, impulsively, wanting to scandalize her Protestant parents by marrying a Catholic Creole. While vacationing on Grand Isle with her family, she meets Robert Lebrun, a young bachelor who flirts mercilessly with the women around him, single and married, including Edna. But with her, his usually benign attentions blossom into genuine and mutual love. Robert, realizing it is futile to love a married woman, soon leaves Louisiana. Although she is sad when he leaves, their romance is only the beginning of a series of changes for Edna. Realizing that she has not been truly fulfilled by the life society has afforded her, she rebels. She neglects her household duties and social customs, begins studying seriously as an artist and eventually decides to move out of the large house she shares with her husband and children. When Robert inevitably returns, the two take up where they left off – almost. Edna is prepared to transform her romantic life as she has transformed the rest of her life, but Robert cannot bring himself to engage in an affair that he knows will ruin her. He leaves, this time for good. Edna, inconsolable, swims out into the Gulf of Mexico and lets herself sink into the water.

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Thoughts on “The Dialectic of Sex”

When summer started I tasked myself with becoming more familiar with some of the more obscure feminist classics. There was no grand plan behind this idea – I just decided that since grad school was over I was going to start reading for pleasure again, and I just happen to take pleasure in both radical feminism and classic fiction and nonfiction.

A couple weeks ago I finished reading Shulamith Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex,” and while I don’t feel qualified to comment on her interpretation of Freud (since I’ve barely skimmed Freud’s major works), some of her other observations ring depressingly true to a woman living 33 years after Firestone published her “case for feminist revolution.”

When Firestone penned “Dialectic,” the mainstream feminist movement had already counted some legal victories. Eight states had legalized abortion to some degree and Griswold v. Connecticut invalidated state laws that banned the use of contraceptives. The labor force participation of women in their 20s and early 30s grew by 9 percentage points during the 1960s, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed workplace discrimination on the basis of sex. And although more successes kept coming through the 1970s, 80s and 90s – the passage of Title IX, the legalization of abortion, the increased recognition and criminalization of rape, the first female Supreme Court justice, the first female vice presidential and presidential candidates – in many areas women’s progress did not seem so assured.

Today, households still operate under a traditionally gendered division of labor (including childcare), victims of sexual and domestic violence are still overwhelmingly female, and even though women are enrolling in and graduating from college at a greater rate than men, the pay gap persists and women are underrepresented in the highest-paying professions.

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Now reading: The feminist canon

Completing a Master’s in Public Affairs doesn’t leave much time for pleasure reading, especially if your favorite fare is feminist philosophy and political theory. Fortunately that’s over (the degree, not feminism), so in between working full-time and continuing to search for my dream job I should be able to scratch the surface of some hefty tomes.

Over winter break I was able to finish Andrea Dworkin’s “Intercourse” (spoiler alert: Her main theme has been wildly misconstrued by those who parrot the “all heterosexual sex is rape” criticism). Shulamith Firestone’s death last August spurred my interest in her “Dialectic of Sex,” so I’ve set it aside as my first reading assignment of the summer. Stay tuned.