Apr 23, 2014

Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause by Louise Foxcroft

Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause by Louise FoxcroftHot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause by Louise Foxcroft

The menopause has been thoroughly medicalized in Western culture and this process has determined the way we now think of, respond to, and feel about it. We have to look to its medical history to understand why this natural phenomenon has become sodden with a cultural negativity which is ill-founded and spurious.
The above is exactly what Louise Foxcroft goes on to do in Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause: she traces the history of the menopause for the past two thousand years, from the Ancient World to the emergence of modern medicine in the 18th century to hormone replacement therapy and contemporary approaches. Foxcroft’s central thesis, which she supports with plenty of evidence from historical sources, is that the loaded cultural meaning of the menopause doesn’t directly follow from its biological manifestations. Instead, it has its roots in deeply entrenched negative attitudes towards women and ageing.

I wanted to read Hot Flushes, Cold Science because I thought it would make for an interesting companion to Florence Williams’ Breasts, which I really enjoyed when I read it earlier this year. The subtitle of the latter is “A Natural and Unnatural History”, in reference to Williams’ combination of science and cultural history; Foxcroft, on the other hand, leans much more heavily towards the cultural history side of things. Which is of course perfectly fine — I love books like this, which illuminate how the practise of science and medicine are affected by social factors, and which go on to show us how this process happens over time. I especially like them when they’re written by people who are careful not to throw away the baby with the bathwater and who acknowledge that the scientific method is a good way to make sense of the world — it’s just that its practice doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Louise Foxcroft doesn’t delve into this as deeply as, say, Cynthia Eagle Russett; but all the same, it’s very clear that this isn’t a “medicine is inherently corrupt” sort of book but rather a “the practice of medicine, like so much else in our world, is influenced by misogyny” one.

One of the best ways to demonstrate that a phenomenon we think of as “natural” is in fact cultural is to trace its history over time. Foxcroft thus begins by showing us things haven’t always been this way. She tells us that “when the menopause [made] its debut as an official medical entity in the eighteenth century, the emphasis was on reassuring patients. But as the menopause was illuminated, it was pathologized.” Today we perceive the menopause as something close to a disease, requiring medical intervention and treatment. This process is not at all unlike the creation of “micromastia” (the “disease” of small breasts) described by Williams in Breasts: the creation of a pathology is (coincidence of coincidences) shortly followed by great efforts to market a cure. Foxcroft calls the sense of anxiety and dread women are encouraged to feel regarding menopause “a lucrative fear”, which seems to me a very apt way to phrase it.

But what does the menopause mean for women outside of its negative cultural connotations? One of the most interest sections of Hot Flushes, Cold Science is the one where Foxcroft lists the various symptoms that have been associated with the menopause at one point or another:
The all-inclusive lists of physical and psychological symptoms associated with menopause today may or may not include hot flushes, cold sweats, night sweats, weight gain, backache, tingling, fatigue, headache, palpitations, arthralgia, dizzy spells, irritability, nervousness, anxiety, apathy, depression, early wakening, emotional instability, fears, feelings of suffocation, forgetfulness, insomnia, lack of concentration, lightheadedness, loss of interest, loss of self-worth, feelings of panic, sadness, tenseness, osteoporosis, depression, dysuria, dyspareunia, parasthesia, chest pains, breast pains, constipation, diarrhoea, facial hair, vaginal dryness, changes in libido, in skin and hair, and, unsurprisingly in light of these lists, worry about the body. These myriad symptoms take in every bodily system – vasomotor, cardiovascular, metabolic, sensory, digestive, skeletal, glandular and the central nervous system – yet the only universally agreed symptom is vasomotor, the constriction of blood vessels which precipitates hot flushes.
Of course, this isn’t to say that women who experience symptoms beyond hot flushes are “faking it” — only that “individual and cultural influences illustrate just how complex the relationship is between bodily changes and the plethora of symptoms women say they experience.” There’s no point in suggesting that women should expect all of the above when individual variations are so huge, and when there’s so little scientific evidence supporting a strong link between the menopause and most of the items on that long list of maladies.

Our understanding of the menopause was developed in a cultural context where “women were solely understood by physicians as child bearers”: the belief that reproduction is the “purpose” of women’s lives, the idea that women are helpless victims of their biology, and negative attitudes towards older women all combine to form the perception of the menopause as the “end of viability, fertility, beauty, desirability and worth”. Today the justifications are different (“oestrogen deprivation” rather than “hysteroneurosis”), but the overarching narrative is the same.

The good news is that none of this is inevitable: Foxcroft reminds us time and again that the meaning we attribute to the menopause can change. A world in which we see women as fully human, in which we understand sexuality in its full complexity, in which ageing and the loss of markers of conventional beauty aren’t widely portrayed as tragedies, in which we challenge the association between youth, beauty, desirability, and a fulfilling sexual life — this would very likely be a world in which the menopause wouldn’t inspire such widespread anxiety.

A few more interesting quotes:
They [the 18th century medical establishment] were creating a disease from a discomfort – a process which often involves stigmatization, and attitudes and assumptions about the menopause proliferated: ‘the malady of the women of forty’ was a phrase physicians used to describe the ‘traumatic’ experience of women who painfully realized that the male gaze might be directed at younger women, while they were left with ‘cold respect’ and ‘forced politeness’. This, they agreed, explained women’s ‘ill-natured, restless, and often agitated’ demeanour and the ‘terrible harm’ that ‘merciless time’ did.

Some historians still understand women as historically passive and impotent, and – resurrecting Aristotelian notions of the perfect male body (as though biology doesn’t affect men and their bodies) and the much less than perfect female body – defective or deformed. And if we erroneously entertain the idea of women victimized by their own nature and as ‘direct victims of male sexuality’, where does that leave the actions and beliefs of society, of the medical profession, religion, politics and economics? It is difficult, if not impossible, to read authors such as Shorter without being forcibly struck by a not always subtle, but always present, misogyny. The shame, contempt and confusion that shrouded diseases peculiar to women were extremely hard to dislodge, rooted as they were in fundamental ideas about the very nature of things.

Female sexuality was not understood as being independent from the male’s, revolving as it did around pregnancies, childbirth, nursing, family care and menopausal ‘anxieties’. Men’s sexuality was defined, in popular and medical literature, as instrumental, forceful and direct, whilst women’s was supposedly expressive and responsive, and medical discoveries were used to validate conventional ideas about femininity and women’s sexuality. That women were natural invalids was almost universally embraced and there was a pervasive belief, even amongst many women, that biology had incapacitated them.

It has been powerfully argued that cliterodectomy was the surgical enforcement of an ideology which restricted female sexuality to reproduction. Instinctive and autonomous sexual pleasure, especially after the menopause, was seen as a precipitating cause or a symptom of insanity. Baker Brown was expelled from the Obstetric Society in 1867 after many complaints from patients who felt they had been tricked or coerced into surgery. His colleagues found it difficult to agree on the efficacy or the morality of the procedure, although some regretted its demise. Lawson Tait was almost wistful about its passing, saying, ‘I am certain in many cases it could be useful,’ and in America there were those who regretted only that Baker Brown’s enthusiasm had ‘prostituted an occasionally valuable and desirable operation’.
(Have you read this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to your review.)

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Apr 20, 2014

Boys Read Girls

Ben (Aged 7) likes Harriet the Spy
Photo Credit

Boys Read Girls
The response to the recent Let Toys Be Toys #BoysReadGirls campaign was heartening: over the past few weeks I’ve seen pictures of boys and men proudly holding copies of favourite books with girls and women at their centre all over my Twitter timeline, and also on this gallery over at The Guardian — which disproves again and again the absurd but popular (and seemingly logic- and evidence-resistant) belief that any self-respecting man must be unwilling to and incapable of empathising with roughly half the human population.

This belief underpins many approaches to the so-called “boys’ reading crisis”. To quote from my go-to post on the subject, Saundra Mitchell’s “The Problem is Not the Books”,
The problem that needs to be fixed is not kick all the girls out of YA, it’s teach boys that stories featuring female protagonists or written by female authors also apply to them. Boys fall in love. Boys want to be important. Boys have hopes and fears and dreams and ambitions. What boys also have is a sexist society in which they are belittled for “liking girl stuff.” Male is neutral, female is specific.
Here’s how we solve the OMG SO MANY GIRLS IN YA problem: quit treating women like secondary appendages. Quit treating women’s art like it’s a niche, novelty creation only for girls. Quit teaching boys to fear the feminine, quit insisting that it’s a hardship for men to have to relate to anything that doesn’t specifically cater to them.
One of the reasons why I care about this is because boys (and girls, and non-binary teens) take their cues from adults, and literacy professionals have a particularly important role to play. As Cordelia Fine puts it in Delusions of Gender, kids are like “gender detectives”, actively trying to work out the full implications of belonging to the binary gender categories they’re told they must fit into:
It’s hardly surprising that children take on the unofficial occupation of gender detective. They are born into a world in which gender is continuously emphasised through conventions of dress, appearance, language, colour, segregation and symbols. Everything around the child indicates that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance. At the same time (…) the information we provide to children, through our social structure and media, about what gender means — what goes with being male or female — still follows fairly old-fashioned guidelines.
As I’ve said before, what I try to do in my own work is normalise the idea that there’s nothing questionable or even particularly unexpected about a boy reading and enjoying a story by or about a girl. My experience is by no means universal (in fact, it owes much to the particularities of my context, which I detail in the post I link to above), but so far I’ve met with a surprisingly small amount of resistance. Once, the youngest boy in my reading group expressed some reluctance to read Legends of Zita the Spacegirl because it was “about a spacegirl”, but all it took was a gentle “Why don’t you try it anyway and tell us what you think next time?” for him to overcome it — and lo and behold, by the following session he was a convert. Again, I realise it’s not always this easy, but these are kids who are willing to follow my cues — just as they’d follow them if I communicated to them, in words or actions, that an interest in “whatever (…) gals read about” is unexpected or suspicious if you’re a boy. For them I represent reading authority, and that’s a powerful thing.

It was promising, then, to see a campaign based on the same sort of normalisation do so well and get mainstream media coverage. Of course, lest I become too optimistic, the world is only too happy to provide constant reminders that we still have a long way to go. Only a few days after seeing the Boys Read Girls campaign take over my timeline, I came across the following on Twitter:

Library sign featuring the sillouette of a man in a fedora and the caption: It's a Man's World. For those who are tired of the following: sparkling vampires, drama queens, royal snobs, obsessive angels, supernatural romances, cute critters, and whatever else gals read about, these books are for guys, by guys, about guys

Let me start with the obvious: the misogyny implicit to this sign isn’t even particularly subtle. It hopes to appeal to boys by showing (and therefore validating) contempt for everything tainted by association with femininity; it betrays a simplistic understanding of “guys” and “gals” as homogeneous categories; it has, as Ron Hogan suggests, hints of homophobia; and it assumes that boys should define themselves in opposition to “whatever else gals reads about”. The “should” is crucial here — you wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that we live in a world that encourages masculine identities to be constructed in exactly this way, but that’s precisely why there’s no reason whatsoever for literacy professionals to legitimatise this and exacerbate the problem.

Some people in my Twitter timeline expressed surprise that a library would put up a sign like this, but while I was dismayed I can’t say I was exactly shocked. As some of you might remember, this was the topic of my MA dissertation — while I know there’s no shortage of thoughtful and forward-thinking librarians out there, I also know that essentialist approaches have gained a worrying amount of currency among educators and literacy professionals. According to researcher Jeffrey Smith, these approaches are based on “recuperative masculinity politics”: using biological determinism, the idea that cultural constructs are immutable, or the assumption that social change is beyond the scope of education as points of departure, they argue that the only way to engage boys is to return to traditionally masculine values and areas of interest, which they assume to be universal.

The problems with this should be obvious: as the authors of the wonderful book Boys, Literacies and Schooling: The Dangerous Territories of Gender-Based Literacy Reform suggest, if you only attempt to encourage boys to read by presenting them with “manly” books, you implicitly delegitimatise the gender performance of the many, many boys whose interests don’t align themselves with hegemonic masculinity. These approaches supposedly value what makes boys “different”, but what they in fact value is a culturally dominant yet very narrow subset of masculinity, while belittling everything else (as well as belittling femininity, of course). They also patronise boys who already read by assuming that all boys need special intervention to get over their “natural” reluctance to read fiction. Last but certainly not least, they lend credence to the idea that interests culturally coded as “girly” are contemptible, and spare no thought for its troubling social and political implications.

Hegemonic masculinity is not only culturally dominant, but also widely perceived as the only “normal” or “natural” way to be a boy, while everything else is pathologised (for a fascinating look at the links between this sort of gender policing and homophobia, I highly recommend C.J. Pascoe’s work). Arguing against approaches that assume it to be universal is of course not the same as marginalising boys who happen to like, say, sports or cars or explosions. Instead, it’s about acknowledging that there’s nothing inherently “masculine” about these interests, that in fact many girls share them (while many boys do like “cute critters” or “supernatural romances”), and that there are many different ways to be a boy, a girl, or a non-binary person — all of which are equally legitimate and fully deserving of our respect.

As educators and literacy professionals, we get the opportunity to actively challenge narrow and rigid definitions of what it means to be a boy or a girl. We get to expand what’s socially permissible for boys to be interested in, to work towards broadening limiting cultural constructions of gender roles, and to contest the subordinate status of identities that fall outside of hegemonic masculinity. Why would we miss those chances and cater to reductive assumptions about what boys are universally interested in instead?

I want to finish by mentioning a third thing I came across on Twitter in the past week or so: this BBC news piece titled “Children’s Laureate’s plan to get boys back into books”, which relates to yet another major concern of mine. To be clear, I think Malorie Blackman is doing an excellent job as Children’s Laureate, and I like how at the end of the video she directly challenges recuperative masculinity politics and essentialism-based approaches. However, let me tell you what the main thing going through my mind as I watched the piece was. According to the statistics the BBC presents (which I’m going to take at face value while making my argument, partially because I have no direct access to the studies and can’t go over their methodology; partially because it’s their inclusion in a mainstream media piece and how that impacts popular perception that matters here), while 35% of teen girls read for pleasure, only 25% of boys do.

Now, a 10% difference is sure to be statistically significant, but what I couldn’t help but think was this: 35% is more than 25%, but it’s nowhere near the majority of girls. It doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that girls are doing just fine as far as reading habits are concerned. The gendered focus of the piece makes little sense when you consider what the numbers actually tells us. It’s not like the fact that the stats are even lower for boys is mentioned as one of many possible literacy challenges faced by contemporary teens; instead, it’s their whole angle. There’s plenty more I could say about the piece (for example, the fact that digital literacy is framed only as a “distraction” and as something that doesn’t really count, even though a lot of what teens do online revolves around reading, is another thing that worries me), but my main concern is that we’re forgetting that girls’ literacy also needs attention. As yet another group of excellent literacy researchers (Mills, Martin, Francis, Becky and Skelton) put it, education is not a zero sum game. The specific challenges boys might be facing don’t mean that girls are “winning” and thus don’t require attention or face challenges of their own. When we assume that to be the case, we’re acting as if girls matter less, and again defaulting to treating women as second-class citizens.

Communicating to boys that stories about girls don’t apply to them and can safely be ignored; defaulting to gender essentialism and only valuing traditional masculinity while pretending it’s “natural” and universal; forgetting that girls also need attention and not so subtly implying that their literacy is a secondary concern: these are all sides of the same problem. To quote from my favourite book on the subject again, the work that needs to be done to normalise reading for boys “cannot be seen as separate to work concerned with the educational needs of girls”.

Lastly, look what I came across just as I was finishing this post (hat tip to Jenny for bringing it to my attention):

Newspaper headline: it’s no wonder boys aren’t reading, the children’s book market is run by women

Now there’s a thought worth considering.

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Apr 16, 2014

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

Plain Kate by Erin BowPlain Kate by Erin Bow

Plain Kate was thinking of witches. How in bad times people were more eager to buy her objarka, but more inclined to take a step back, to crook their fingers at her when they thought she wasn’t looking, or when they were sure she was. How they wanted the witchcraft to protect them, but how they looked too for a witch to blame. It didn’t matter that there was no magic in her blade, people saw it there. They saw witchcraft in her skill, witch marks in her mismatched eyes, her bad luck, her long shadow.
Erin Bow’s Plain Kate (published as Wood Angel in the UK, with an inexplicable cover that completely misrepresents the book’s mood and tone) tells the story of a wood-carver, Kate, who after her father’s death must learn to live by her wits, and also to protect herself from her village’s superstition. Plain Kate’s skill with a carving knife attracts suspicion, as do her mismatched eyes — and really anything that might set someone apart. Kate is well aware that at a time of hunger and devastating illness, the village is looking for someone to blame, and as an orphan girl with no wealth or influence she’s a prime candidate.

Plain Kate’s precarious life changes when one day a strange man arrives by boat. He takes advantage of the villagers’ suspicion and of Kate’s isolation to get her to agree to swap her shadow for her heart’s desire, and this magical bargain has greater consequences than Kate could have imagined. To escape the voices whispering “witch”, she and her cat Taggle set off with a group of Roamers — but what begins as a journey towards safety becomes a quest to stop something terrible from happening.

Plain Kate was a complete surprise. I brought it home from the library based on the strength of Meg Rosoff’s blurb (“...full of poetry, magic, humour, sorrow and joy. A wonderful book.”), plus on all the good things I heard about Bow’s second novel Sorrow’s Knot last year. But even then, I didn’t really expect to fall for this novel like I did. I have to say I have absolutely no idea how it wasn’t even on my radar up until now, because it’s so completely my sort of thing it’s ridiculous. It reminded me slightly of Chime and Gifts, two books I loved wholeheartedly; and plus I have two words for you, my friends: TALKING CAT. A lovely, sarcastic, self-interested but still affectionate talking cat named Taggle, who introduces moments of warmth and humour in an otherwise dark novel, and whose relationship with Kate I adored. I have no idea why I didn’t read this ages ago, but hey, better late than never, right?

There’s something about Erin Bow’s writing that gives Plain Kate an emotional weight it might not have had otherwise. This isn’t to say the plot isn’t interesting in its own right; only that what makes it so extraordinarily good is the fact that it’s told in a way that gives it added resonance. Bow’s narrative voice is wonderful, and the result is an engrossing subtle and moving novel, full of shades of grey and of memorable small moments. Plain Kate is the story of a girl’s search for a place where she can belong, and it’s also an examination of all the small things that can go wrong and push someone who’s already on the fringes of society towards complete despair. It’s about exclusion, injustice, grief, and what people do when they believe they have nothing to lose. It’s about how someone might lose their compassion; and about the far-reaching consequences of the hurts we inflict one another. Most of all, it’s about the dangers of hanging on to the desperate belief that bad luck won’t come your way because it only afflicts those who deserve it, of turning on anyone tainted by misfortune, and of one day realising you’ve nevertheless joined their ranks.

The world of Plain Kate is vaguely medieval and influenced by Russian folklore. It’s a world where Rusalkas move among the mist, where magic is real but not infallible, where hunger and disease are feared, where witches are burned, where the Roamers Kate joins are regarded with suspicion, and where menstruating women are thought of as impure. It’s a world whose power structure mirrors our own’s, but what I said recently about The Goblin Emperor also goes here: you can see the fissures. You can see the consequences of a social structure that encourages every vulnerable group to find someone even more vulnerable than themselves to scapegoat. The poor townspeople who suffer from hunger and illness accuse those who are defenceless of witchcraft in a desperate attempt to save themselves, and often turn on the Roamers when they set camp nearby. Yet among the Roamers, women are in precarious positions, and a stranger like Kate is a hair’s breadth away from becoming an outcast. And thus the cycle of exclusion perpetuates itself.

In this sense, the strange man who takes Kate’s shadow, Linay, is a fascinating character. At one point I feared that Plain Kate would veer towards romance with someone who’s essentially an abductor, but it doesn’t. Instead, it complicates Linay just enough to make him interesting, and it keeps the focus firmly on the destructive cycle he’s become a part of. Also, I loved that the emotional tie at the centre of Plain Kate is between two girls: Kate and Drina, the girl she begins to think of as her sister. What ensures that Kate won’t become another Linay is the fact that she’s not alone. She finds support and companionship: she has Drina and Taggle. And on that note, prepare yourself for an ending that’s heartbreaking but not in the way you might expect (you wouldn’t be wrong to guess that I kind of have a thing for those). This is a novel where difficult decisions come with a real cost, and where there’s no shying away from the moment when it has to be paid.

In case I failed to persuade you, perhaps Unshelved will? Also, I’m not always the biggest fan of book trailers, but kudos to this one for getting the feel of the novel just right:

They read it too: Steph Su Reads, Bookshelves of Doom, The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia, Chachic’s Book Nook, Fyrefly’s Book Blog


Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

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Apr 13, 2014

Bookish Events: Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue, John Carey and Pat Barker

Cambridge Literary Festival
Bookish Events: Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue, John Carey and Pat Barker
In my new adopted city, the arrival of spring means it’s Literary Festival time. To be honest I feel that to an extent I’ve been spoiled by Edinburgh, because every literary festival I go to makes me wish I were there again. But much like last year, I had the chance to attend some excellent events, and I thought I’d give you a glimpse of what they were like. This year I got to see Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue, John Carey and Pat Barker. It’s been over a week and I did a poor job of taking notes, so apologies in advance for the cursory tone and lack of details. Here are some brief thoughts anyway:

Copies of Frog Music and The Luminaries

The Luminaries paperback coverEleanor Catton is a smart and cool lady whose books I absolutely need to make time for (I’ve started The Luminaries, but reading time was scarce this week and I haven’t made much progress. Maybe I’ll use next week’s long weekend as an excuse to really lose myself in it). She talked about many things, but her point about the overlapping of Victorian and contemporary values in her historical fiction especially caught my attention. She said she was interested in telling a story where the characters were true to the values of their time period, but that doesn’t mean there would be no distance between the narrative and this value system. You can simultaneously write historically accurate Victorian characters and create a story that gives humanity and agency to, say, the characters of colour. To Catton, this balancing act is both the challenge and the delight of writing historical fiction.

On a somewhat related note, Catton discussed her use of a third person omniscient narrator and its disappearance from the modern literary landscape. One of her main ambitions for The Luminaries was to recreate the use of omniscience you usually see in a Victorian novel, but to have it be a kind of omniscience that was grounded in a different worldview than what you associate with nineteenth-century novels. Only a very narrow sect of the population (read: mainly straight white men) would get their voices heard and their stories told then, and she wanted to write a novel that made use of the Victorian bird’s eye view but expanded the range of voices it encompassed.

This raises questions of legitimacy and authority that she’s interested in exploring, and she said she can’t help but spot some connections between reactions to her use of omniscience and the fact that she’s a young woman — and therefore not the kind of person who usually gets to speak for everyone. Some of the strongest negative reactions to her novel seem to have the question, “Who are you to speak for everyone?” behind them. The Luminaries was of course very well received, but when pressed to comment on the media’s hyperfocus on the book’s length and her age (which I wasn’t a huge fan of myself), Catton once again said that she suspected there might be a connection. What people really seemed to be asking was, “Who is this young woman to take so much of our time?”

My e-reader tells me I’m only 4% into The Luminaries, but I’m really looking forward to reading further. I’ve seen it compared to my beloved Wilkie Collins multiple times, and the voice and atmosphere of the first few pages did put me in mind of his novels.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue
Immediately after Eleanor Catton I got to see another author of (mainly) historical fiction. Emma Donoghue discussed her new novel, Frog Music, which is set in 1860s San Francisco and sounds absolutely awesome. Donoghue said she was interested in how so much of what we associate with modern life was already present then: mid nineteenth-century San Francisco was a fast-paced urban environment and a multi-cultural city that attracted people from all over the world. She talked a lot about her research process and how her academic background plays into it. Donoghue said she listed her sources so extensively because she feels that to an extent historical fiction relies on a collaborative relationship with what came before. The primary sources and scholarship she draws on play a huge role in her novels, and it’s important to her to acknowledge that.

Like Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue is interested in how historical fiction allows us to examine different value systems and to think about our relationship with them. She’s interested in the “defamiliarizing effect” historical novelists get to introduce — the little moment when a century and a half suddenly thrusts itself between you and characters you felt quite close to up until then, and you’re reminded that there are real differences in terms of dominant attitudes that have implications in terms of how people live. For example, she expects it will give her readers a jolt to suddenly see some of the characters in Frog Music make reference to the fact that the age of consent was ten, and to realise what this means in regards to how little legal recourse other characters have.

Donoghue was a lively and engaging speaker, and again I feel bad that I’ve read so little of her work. I loved Kissing the Witch (a collection of lgbtq fairy tale retellings that unfortunately I never got around to blogging about) when I read it a few years ago, and it’s about time I stop ignoring the copy of Slammerkin that has been waiting patiently on my TBR pile for over a year.

The Unexpected Professor by John Carey What Good are the Arts? by John Carey
John Carey, whose What Good Are the Arts? I adored, was at the festival to discuss his new book The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books. Carey said that when he was invited to write a memoir, he realised that he was more interested in talking about how he met certain books than in the time he spend among “important” people — so although the title “My Life in Books” was vetoed by his publisher, that’s still the real focus of the book. He wanted to write a book that was “joyful about reading”; a book that focused on the works that have affected him and added something to his life. His new memoir also focuses on how he experienced class as a grammar school boy at Oxford on a scholarship in the 1950s, on how these experience informed his life and career, and on what has changed and what has not.

I liked that Carey called out the chair of the event for referring to What Good Are the Arts? and The Intellectuals and the Masses as “his two polemics”. He did so in a good-humoured but also very no-nonsense kind of way: “polemics” as opposed to “serious books”, he said, as if he were merely being provocative and couldn’t possibly stand by what he says in those works. Yet Carey clarified that he very much does. When asked how he managed to reconcile his belief that aesthetic judgement are subjective with his professional life, Carey very sensibly explained that he has no trouble at all doing so. For him, teaching, reviewing or judging literary awards is not about arriving at an unquestionable truth about a literary work, or about settling once and for all whether or not it’s a “good” work. Instead, it’s about explaining, as persuasively as he can, why a certain work matters to him, so that he can hopefully pass that on. What he hopes is that someone else will want to engage with it closely, and hopefully find the same source of joy and meaning in something that he loved as he did.

Carey also discussed the issue of politics vs art: he used Lawrence, who he finds an extraordinarily moving writer even though he held some monstrous political views, as an example, and said that he especially struggles to reconcile the two and separate the work from its creator in the case of literature. This is because literature gives us tools to think with. Literature is all about engaging with ideas; it’s about being invited to enter someone’s moral world and seeing what it looks like from the inside. The only solution he’s come up with over a several decades’ long career is to accept the invitation, but not leave his critical faculties at the door. Being moved by Lawrence or Eliot doesn’t mean you can’t also appraise and discuss the very troubling political implications of some of their works.

I got a lot out of Carey’s talk — so much of what he said about the process of writing about books resonated with me. It got me thinking about how I discovered his work through Nick Hornby, and how they’ve both been such an inspiration. They have informed my approach to my own modest form of writing about books over the years, and as such they’re very important to me. Having said that, there are two things I can’t not mention. One, Carey talked a lot about books he admires, both classics and contemporary works, and as much as I agree about the excellence of Never Let Me Go, which Carey called his favourite contemporary British novel, I have to say that now I’m slightly terrified that I’ll pick up The Unexpected Professor and find out it doesn’t mention a single book by a woman. Considering that Carey is a nearly eighty year old man, I imagine that his formative influences, the works he was exposed to through his education, are likely to have been overwhelmingly by male writers — which accounts for his memoir’s bias to an extent. But this is the sort of thing I just can’t unsee, and the blind spot saddens me all the same, especially in someone who’s as sensitive to issues of class as he is.

Secondly, sometimes I got the impression that Carey rather wants to have his cake and eat it too: he wants to acknowledge subjectivity and address the dehumanisation implicit to certain forms of art snobbery, but he also wants to say that adults (“grown men”, as he put it) who read Tolkien on the tube are nor inferior, just “very, very different” than he is, and egg his audience on as they laugh uproariously. (Dear Professor: we’re perhaps not as different as you imagine.)

Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker
Lastly, I got to see the amazing Pat Barker, who, in honour of the Great War’s centenary this year, mainly discussed her excellent Regeneration trilogy. Hearing her talk was a perfect reminder of why I loved those books: it was the next best thing to revisiting them, and it left me aching to find the time for a reread this year even though it hasn’t been that long since I read them for the first time.

Barker said that part of the reason why she decided to write about WW1 was her grandfather: he survived the war, and all she had growing up was the knowledge that he suffered due to an old bayonet wound and his silence. As a writer, that was all she needed: a mystery, an unanswered question, a story no one was willing to tell. Her imagination filled in the gaps. She added that she finds it extraordinarily moving that her grandfather passed away in the 1960s believing that the war got him in the end. He died of stomach cancer at a time when no one would say the “C” work and doctors would hide the truth from their patients, so he believed everything he was going through was the result of the old wound acting up.

She also discussed the fact that WW1 tends to be used as a metaphor for all wars, but this, in addition to being an Eurocentric view, doesn’t do justice to the reality of contemporary conflict. In most wars the conflict isn’t far removed from civilian populations. They don’t just suffer the grief of losing loved ones; they also suffer — sometimes to a much greater extent than the armed forces — because they’re in danger or aren’t getting enough to eat. All this to say that while WW1 was horrific, it’s dangerous to think of it as a template for all wartime experiences.

The Great War also interests her because it’s a hypermasculine setting, but also one where men were cast into nurturing roles. She’s interested in those contradictions and in the tensions that resulted from them. The war was meant to be “manly”, yet men at war often had to care for others more vulnerable than themselves. The war also put them in positions of powerlessness, where there was nothing to do but wait and try to make their fellows' lives a little less unbearable than they’d otherwise be. This was directly at odds with what so many of these young men were raised to think their role in life would be. Barker’s exploration of these ambiguities is probably my favourite thing about the trilogy.

As I said, this is only a glimpse of everything that was discussed at the talks I attended — I must do a better job of taking notes next time. It will probably be a long while until I get to go to Edinburgh again, but I have to say that in the meantime my local festival will more than do. Fingers crossed that the excellent programs continue in the next few years.

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Apr 7, 2014

My Mad Fat Diary

My Mad Fat Diary
My Mad Fat Diary is a TV adaptation of author Rae Earl’s My Fat Mad Teenage Diary, a memoir of growing up as an overweight music-obsessed teenager in Stamford in the 1980s. I haven’t read the book (nor any of Earl’s work, though I really want to now), so I can’t tell you how faithful it is, but I can spot some immediate differences from the description alone. The TV series is set in Lincolnshire in the mid 1990s, and, over the course of two seasons and 13 episodes (WHY SO SHORT *sob*), it tells the story of 16-year-old Rae’s life in the months that follow her release from the psychiatric hospital where she’d been following a suicide attempt. Rae continues treatment as an outpatient, and we follow her as she makes friends, falls in love, adjusts to living with a mental illness, and works through the issues that led to her breakdown.

The result is a story that’s every bit as hilarious as it is moving. My Mad Fat Diary has excellent characterisation, warmth and real heart, and lots of feminist concerns that are dear to me at its centre. Also, before I go any further, I have to tell you about the series’ absolutely perfect soundtrack, which won me over from the very first episode. I wasn’t yet a teenager in 1996, but I do have an older brother, and my music taste has always been very late 90s and early 00s. So it’s no surprise that nine songs out of ten played in the series had me squealing with glee, or that I grinned non-stop in the episode where Rae begs her mother for a copy of the newly released Pinkerton. If you like The Cure, The Smiths, PJ Harvey, Eels, Radiohead, Mazzy Star, Beck or Björk, you’ll probably be as excited about the series’ use of music as I was.

I have a lot I want to say about the series, and since the subheadings format seemed to work reasonably well for my Friday Night Lights post, I thought I’d adopt it again here. I’ll try to keep major spoilers to a minimum, but be warned that some will be inevitable. So if you want to remain 100% unspoiled, read on with caution.

1. Sexual Beings

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Finn inside Gush heart
You know that thing I’m always saying? That thing about how I want more stories to acknowledge that while social pressure to be sexually active is a real thing, plenty of teenage girls experience genuine desire and curiosity about sex? Well, My Mad Fat Diary delivers like nothing else I’ve seen before. Rae is allowed to be a sexual being, and this involves not only experiencing desire but actually expressing it by saying things like, “I want him to go down on me for so long that he has to evolve gills” in a completely non-stigmatised way. The series, which does some interesting things with narration and perspective (more on which in later sections), also subverts the male gaze: we see the boys Rae is attracted to through her eyes, which means there’s an emphasis on male rather than female bodies as the focus of desire that’s still rare enough in mainstream media to be remarkable.

We also get an unapologetic first orgasm through masturbation scene, and we watch three major female characters (Rae and her friends Izzy and Chloe) experience sexuality in a variety of ways. The first orgasm scene struck me as particularly momentous, especially when you consider that showing a woman rather than a man experiencing sexual pleasure will often earn a movie a higher rating. Additionally, it’s not often that you see a young woman take her sexuality into her own hands in a TV series. There’s an abortion storyline in the first season, but, as in Friday Night Lights, this is only one among several stories involving sexually active teen girls, which makes it less likely that it could come across as a cautionary tale about sexuality in itself. The abortion is upsetting for the girl in question (for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it takes place in the context of a seriously skeevy relationship with a much older man), but at the same time, it’s not presented punitively or portrayed as life-destroying.

The frank portrayal of Rae’s sexuality is also important in the context of her weight. Overweight girls and women are often perceived as lying beyond the boundaries of acceptable femininity, and because our cultural understanding of sexuality is so tied up with traditional gender roles (as Katherine Angel so well explains in her book Unmastered), you get very few narratives that acknowledge that women of all sizes and body shapes are sexual beings. Thank goodness, then, for My Mad Fat Diary: Rae is allowed to express desire, to experience pleasure, and to live through all the excitements and complications of seeking intimacy with other people.

I loved how sex-positive My Mad Fat Diary was, but I have to say that, because this is a series about a girl struggling with self-esteem issues and recovering from a serious psychiatric episode, I was a little bit worried that it would end up portraying heterosexual romance as the “cure” to Rae’s problems. This isn’t to say that love, acceptance and sexual intimacy can’t be portrayed as healing, but a story where Rae learned to love herself solely because a boy found her loveable and desirable wouldn’t do justice to her struggles.

I needn’t have worried, though. Although the series ends with a loving sex scene (which, incidentally, isn’t Rae’s first time, and nobody makes a big deal about this — hooray!), this comes after Rae makes significant progress towards health. I’ll say plenty more about the relationship between Rae’s weight and her depression in the next section, but for now let me just say that I thought the series captured the vulnerability of sexual intimacy very movingly. Physical nudity and the emotional exposure of sex are sources of great anxiety for Rae, but as the series progress we watch her get to a place where she’s willing and able to risk them.

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Finn sleeping

2. The Meaning of Health

In her post about the series, The F Word guest blogger Lily Kendall said that while it’s great to see a larger teen girl like Rae tell her own story on screen, it’s a pity that weight is portrayed as a source of unhappiness and anxiety for every larger woman you see in film or on television. This is a valid point, and one that makes me go back to my usual mantra of “all the stories, please”. I want to see stories about larger women who are happy and perfectly comfortable in their own skin, because there’s no shortage of them out there. At the same time, though, I’m also interested in the stories of teen girls like Rae: stories about how harmful cultural messages about body size and female beauty can get inside your head, amplify your fears, and do real damage to your self-esteem. It’s a shame we don’t yet live in a world where the two get to coexist.

One thing I really liked was how My Mad Fat Diary didn’t present Rae’s journey towards health as a journey towards weight loss. As the series progresses, we learn that Rae has used binge eating as an anxiety coping mechanism in the past, but this doesn’t mean that compulsive eating is the explanation behind her weight, nor that developing a different relationship with food will have to equal dieting. We also get a glimpse of the many factors that play into Rae’s belief that being fat is an unforgivable sin: the unrealistic standards of female beauty she sees in billboards everywhere, her mother’s own fears and anxieties (which are presented compassionately rather than accusingly), the town bullies who see her as an easy target, the cumulative weight of the many small ways in which our culture’s attitude towards larger women manifests itself.

Having said that, I also liked that weight wasn’t the full story behind Rae’s self-esteem issues. One of the show’s greatest strengths is that it doesn’t try to come up with a single neat answer to the question “why?”. Rae’s best friend Chloe wants to know why she attempted to take her own life, but Rae can’t come up with a simple answer. A dozen hurts, great and small, pushed her to the brink, and it’s impossible for her to untangle them all at a moment’s notice. Working with her therapist, Kester, Rae manages to identify some of the factors that contributed to her breakdown, but even then it’s not a matter of arriving at a definitive answer — it’s a matter of coming up with better coping mechanisms and more adaptative thought patterns to make sure nothing of the sort will happen again.

There’s a clear cognitive-behavioural sensibility to Rae’s scenes with Kester, and the former psychology major in me was quite pleased with that. I did think that, in season one in particular, Rae and Kester’s relationship stretched the bounds of credibility: Rae shows up at Kester’s house repeatedly, and we watch him confide in her about his divorce. However, the thorny boundaries issues this raises are addressed in a painful but necessary episode in the second season. Rae is reminded that there’s a difference between a therapist and a friend, and although the former is part of her support system as she recovers, he can’t be its total sum if she’s to make real progress.

My Mad Fat Diary - cast photo

3. The Truth Shall Set You Free (Or Not)

If there’s one thing that let me down, it was the fact that My Mad Fat Diary framed telling the whole world the truth about yourself (namely in regards to things like mental illness or sexual orientation) in too absolute terms. Obviously I do wish for a world in which depression or homosexuality aren’t stigmatised, but since that’s far from being the world we live in, I don’t think teens like Rae and her friend Archie owe anyone the truth, or indeed any explanations at all about themselves. Telling people can be the right choice for specific individuals, but it’s not an inherently superior choice to keeping quiet, nor is keeping quiet a condemnable form of deceit. Unfortunately, I felt that the series veered dangerously close to portraying it this way.

This is what happens in My Mad Fat Diary: at the end of season one, Rae grabs the microphone at her mother’s wedding and tells everyone in the room that she hasn’t been in France like her mother told them, but at a psychiatric hospital. Then in season two, everyone at school finds out that Archie is gay. This happens against his will, but in the end, even though he experiences some backlash, coming out is portrayed as being for the best. To be clear, I realise that having to be in the closet is not exactly great, but I do think that sometimes it may be necessary for someone’s safety, and I wish the series had acknowledged that self-protection is also a valid choice. Both Rae and Archie go through wonderful healing moments when they open up to their friends, and these were lovely to see. However, I was less certain about the fact that they both experience a sense of relief in regards to the fact that everyone knows, and that this is portrayed as something that will inevitably follow from being out or exposing your history of mental illness.

I don’t want to make light of the fact that it’s hard and awful to live in a world that requires you to pretend to be someone you’re not in order to be accepted, and I can understand their relief when they let go of that. Yet at the same time, it’s absolutely okay for teens and adults everywhere to stay in the close (or keep their psychiatric history private) if that’s going to make their everyday life easier or ensure their safety. This, and not a sense of loyalty to an inflexible notion of truth or of honesty with others, should always be the priority. As this post puts it,
Beyond just personal preference, the pressure to come out can be dangerous for a large portion of the queer community, especially in less accepting and more violent areas. In the eyes of many queer activists, the pressure to “come out” for the benefit of overall society trivializes the danger many closeted individuals face.
I really wish Rae and Archie’s stories had been told in a way that did a better job of acknowledging this.

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and her friends on a school bus

4. Complicating Chloe

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Chloe
If you think I sounded gushy up until now, that was nothing compared to what I’m about to tell you. Rae’s relationship with her best friend Chloe was — much to my surprise and delight — my favourite aspect of the series. I say to my surprise because at first My Mad Fat Diary seemed to be going for the kind of “frenemy” dynamics I don’t always have the time for — not because teen girls don’t have complicated or ambivalent relationships with each other, but because of, well, everything Jodie wrote in the “About” section of The Friendship Zone: there are far too many harmful myths out there about how girls and woman interact, and we need to pay more attention to the many, many instances of us sharing relationships of genuine affection and support.

It made me especially sad that in the first season it looked like Rae and Chloe were going to be pitted against each other because of a boy. Spending so much time competing for a boy’s affection made it look like their relationship was subordinate to the relationships they might form with men. On top of that, there was the huge can of worms inherent to portraying conventionally attractive, skinny and “girly” Chloe as shallow and duplicitous in contrast to no make-up, jeans-wearing Rae’s genuine nature and depth of feeling. I absolutely want more stories that focus on girls like Rae, but I’d prefer it if they were ones where girls like Chloe aren’t villainised (this piece on femmephobia does a great job of explaining why something like this would have troubled me).

Yet once again, I needn’t have worried. As much as I enjoyed My Mad Fat Diary as a whole, I can honestly say that it was the final two episodes of season two that made me fall head over heels in love with the series. In these episodes, the writers complicate Chloe beyond my wildest hopes. Explaining how will require some spoilers: when Chloe runs away from home, Rae finds her diary and can’t resist the temptation to read it, and as a result we revisit previous events in the series, particularly ones that cast Chloe in a bad light, from her own perspective. Not only do these scenes humanise Chloe, but they also reveal that Rae is a bit of an unreliable narrator. The episodes suggest that if Chloe’s account is biased, so too is Rae’s — the truth lies somewhere in the middle. All the moments where Chloe seemed not to give a damn about her best friend were filtered through the eyes of someone who can’t quite bring herself to believe that anyone could possibly care about her.

This isn’t to say that Chloe never let Rae down, but the reverse is also true. When we compare their perspectives, what emerges is a story about two girls who genuinely care about each other, but whose very human failings will sometimes make them unable to tell when they ought to be supportive. Rae’s struggles with depression add another layer of complexity to this, because being so focused on her recovery makes her (understandably, but still painfully to those close to her) very focused on her own hurts. Breaking free of that is a huge step forward for her.

I also really liked how taking a closer look at Chloe gave the writers a way to examine the double bind women find themselves in. Like Rae, Chloe has low self-esteem: while her friend is told she’s worthless because she doesn’t fit conventional standards of female beauty, Chloe is told she’s worthless beyond her appearance. Over the course of the series we watch Chloe get caught up in two abusive relationships, both with statutory rape involved. The story steers clear of victim-blaming as it sheds light on the circumstances that pushed her towards these men, and the initial lack of support that made it so hard for her to get out.

Lastly, I loved how the final episodes reframed Rae and Chloe’s relationship as central to their emotional well-being, as well as to the series as a whole. Initially we think that Rae’s moving rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” is informed by her feelings about Finn’s absence, but then it becomes clear that her emotional turmoil is very much about her best friend. As much as I loved the romance in My Mad Fat Diary, it was wonderful to see the series recognise that the emotional ties girls form with each other are crucial too.

5. “I already have a dad”

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Karim
Last but not least, I want to talk about a small but wonderful aspect of My Mad Fat Diary: the relationship between Rae’s mother and her fiancée and then husband, Karim, as well as the relationship Rae herself develops with him. When we meet Karim, he’s an illegal immigrant living secretly with Rae’s mother, Linda. Although he’s younger and more conventionally attractive than she is, the two enjoy an obviously loving relationship, and there are less than subtle hints that they have a satisfying sex life.

Over the course of the series, Linda says again and again that she doesn’t understand what a man like Karim could possibly see in her, and I was just bracing myself for the awful moment when he’d be exposed as a scheming bastard using a naïve older woman to gain legal entry to the country. But! That moment never comes, and in a media landscape where immigrants are still casually portrayed as troublemakers or flat-out criminals more often than not (Bletchley Circle season two, I’m looking at you), it was such an immense relief to see that Karim is exactly what he seems: a kind man who loves his wife and stepdaughter and who wants his family to be happy.

Also, Karim is from Tunisia and he’s a Muslim. When Linda becomes pregnant, he tries to share his faith with his wife and unborn child, and that’s portrayed as exactly that: not as an act of oppression, but as a man sharing something that matters to him with the people he loves. Again, it was refreshing and absolutely lovely to see.


Time for some parting words: I adored My Mad Fat Diary, particularly because of how the final episodes complicate our understanding of the story we’d been told up until then. There’s a lot I didn’t touch on here (Tix, Danny, Rae’s complicated relationship with Liam, the “Mean Girls” episode in season two), but hopefully I’ve given you a glimpse of some of the show’s greatest strengths, as well as of a few of its shortcomings. If you’re a fan of heartfelt teen shows like My So-Called Life or Joan of Arcadia, this is something you absolutely need to watch. And then you need to come talk about it with me.

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