Jun 6, 2013

More Words: Fifty Shades of Feminism & Strangers in Paradise

Fifty Shades of Feminism edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach
Fifty Shades of Feminism edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach: As the title suggests, this book collects fifty essays on feminism, which highlight all the different things the term means to its contributors. The line-up is quite impressive, including such illustrious names as Margaret Atwood, Alison Bechdel, Linda Grant, Siri Hustvedt, Elaine Showalter and Xinran, and the anthology’s plurality of voices was refreshing.

However, at first Fifty Shades of Feminism frustrated me: a couple of essays in, I thought this was a very 101 sort of book and I felt my interest dwindling. To be clear, this is absolutely not a bad thing in itself — we need introductory feminist texts — but there’s no way around the fact that a book will impact you differently depending on your reading history; as someone who has done some reading on feminism in the past, I thought I might not be the right target audience for these essays. As I read on, though, I realised that this was a bit of a hasty judgement: like most essay anthologies, Fifty Shades of Feminism is very much a mixed bag. The essays are quite short, which doesn’t always leave them room to delve deep, but there are several that manage to be moving, insightful and revealing in only a few brief pages.

Some of the highlights include Laurie Penny’s poem about all the girls and women who want more; Alissa Quart’s essay about making sense of motherhood in her own terms; Sayantani DasGupta’s piece about global solidarity vs western feminism’s saviour complex; and the following two pieces that I want to quote from. First, here’s an excellent paragraph from Siri Hustvedt’s essay:
We, all of us, women and men, encode masculinity and femininity in implicit metaphorical schemas that divide the world in half. Science and mathematics are hard, rational, real, serious and masculine. Literature and art are soft, irrational, unreal, frivolous and feminine. In a paper advising teachers on methods that will encourage boys to read, I came across the following sentence: ‘Boys often express distaste for reading as a passive, even feminine activity.’ Presumably, understanding and manipulating numbers doesn’t carry the same stigma. Since both numbers and letters are abstract signs, genderless representations, the prejudice against reading is nothing short of stupefying until one realises that the bias is associative. Anything that becomes associated with girls and women loses status, whether it’s a profession, a book, a movie or a disease.
Yes. Which is why I don’t think that any solution can be permanent unless it tackles this associative loss of status head on.

Secondly, here’s an excerpt from a piece by Josie Rourke about the damaging ideas that burrow into your head when you live in a sexist world (which we all do):
As a feminist, I’ve always felt that feminism is most crucial in private. In public, there are always people (men and women) to reason and defend the place of women. The discourse is clear, potent and largely active. We’re moving forwards, change is occurring. I do feel that.
The private sphere is where I most need feminism’s ideas. It’s here that we ask ourselves deep and secret questions. Interrogate our hopes, ambitions and desires, find out who we’re trying to please, hold up the current shape of ourselves against the images that formed us. But what if we can’t generate the answers? Not out of any political failure, but because we can’t quite get our personal lives to line up.
Her first point is arguable, I know — the feeling that things are slowly but steadily getting better is not universal — but the second part of the quote articulates something that is very much true to my experience. I can always find support for public-sphere feminist issues, but no matter how many feminist acquaintances you have, it’s very easy to slip into feeling lonely and isolated when confronting possible manifestations of a sexist society in the private space of your own head. You end up second-guessing your every decision and motivation, and feeling like you can never live up to the person you’d like to be. This willingness to self-examine is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can also leave you feeling paralysed. Reading essays like this helps, though — or like Roxane Gay’s brilliant Bad Feminist, which I often return to and which Rourke’s piece made me think of.


Strangers in Paradise Pocket Book vol 1 by Terry Moore Strangers in Paradise Pocket Book vol 1 by Terry Moore

Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore: I read the first two collected volumes of this comic series before spectacularly failing out of the Gender Though Comics MOOC back in April, and having discovered it was almost enough to make the experience worthwhile despite the inevitable feelings of failure and suckitude (totally a word).

Strangers in Paradise is about two twenty-something women, Francine and Katchoo, who have been best friends since high school and are now leaving together. These first two volumes deal with an elaborate story arc having to do with past secrets coming back to haunt Katchoo; but more so than the plot, it was the characters and their relationships that kept me reading. Both Francine and Katchoo are wonderfully layered characters, and their relationship is an antidote to every story that sidelined connections between women or portrayed them as secondary to their emotional ties with men.

I often see Strangers in Paradise in lists of lgbtq comics, so I can more or less guess where the story is going — but so far at least, Katchoo and Francine’s relationship blurs the lines between friendship and romance in really interesting and complicated ways. I like undefined relationships; I like stories where they’re allowed to exist and to grow organically without anyone rushing to make sense of them before the time is ripe. I realise, however, that lesbian romance is woefully underrepresented in fiction, and that a story that blurs these lines has the potential to irritate fans who rightfully want their media to stop being coy about this already. I don’t quite know why I didn’t run into this problem with Strangers in Paradise — it could be because I’m hopeful about what’s coming; or because even though their relationship occupies a grew area the story is not shy about showing the attraction between the two girls at more than a subtextual level; or because I got absolutely no “no homo” vibe from this story (unlike some others I could mention); or because the emotional realism and complex characterisation make the hesitance feel right for these characters. In any case, I’d love to hear what others think of this.

I took terrible notes while reading Strangers in Paradise, so this is really all I’ve got. Hopefully I’ll write a better and more detailed post once I’ve actually finished the series. I’ll finish by saying that I’d definitely recommend it to fans of character-oriented comics such as Dykes to Watch Out For or Heartbreak Soup. Here’s Teresa’s review, and here’s some of the art (in case you’re wondering, SiP started out as a black and white comic, switched to colour for a few issues, and then returned to black and white):

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


  1. Oh my, so much I want to say about that second quote, but I think I shall save it for an email. I'm wondering if this might make a good read for the intro part of Annie's and my "class." Of course I just started reading No Turning Back to see if it would be a good intro book, and I'm really enjoying it. But I guess having too many books to choose from is a pretty awesome problem. :)

    Yep, and you've now made it impossible for me to not try Strangers in Paradise...wow, does this series sound incredible!

  2. Thank you for the heads-up on Fifty Shades of Feminism. This is something I definitely want to read.

  3. I've read the first 50 pages of Fifty Shades of Feminism and had pretty much the same reaction you had. Luckily all the quotes come from essays I haven't read yet. I was almost temted to give up but I'll go on now.

  4. I need to re-read it. I was trying to rip through it to avoid "suckitude" (TOTALLY a word), but I failed miserably. And I need to read the second volume we downloaded for the MOOC.

  5. So, I have to ask- did it bother you that this book was entitled Fifty Shades of Feminism? I feel somehow that it is a manipulative title and it turns me off. It's like going off the whole craze of the shades of gray book while trying really hard to subvert it. I dunno.

    I like that it is a compilation of GLOBAL feminists, though. That is awesome.

  6. I agree with Aarti, Fifty Shades of Feminism is a title that turns me off. I'd expect some sort of gimmick book from it. Did anyone address Fifty Shades in the essays?

  7. Debi: Feel free to e-mail me about it any time!

    Heather: Hope you enjoy it! Like I said it's a bit of a mixed bag, but some of the essays are really great.

    Caroline: I almost quit at around that point as well, but in the end I was glad to have pressed on. They should have put some of the stronger pieces near the beginning!

    Andi: I think SiP definitely gets better as it progresses - the characters become more complex and nuanced, and you just can't not feel invested in them.

    Aarti and Tasha: Yeah, the title is pretty gimmicky. I think they just wanted to be all, "Look, we're in touch with the zeitgeist!". There are allusions to Fifty Shades of Grey in the introduction, but there's no real reason why it had to be called this.

  8. I haven't read much feminist writing outside of a college class I took, so I think these essays would be for me!


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