October 10, 2012

How should women be?


Consider the titles of some of this year’s biggest female-wrought creativity: GirlsHow Should a Person Be?VaginaHow to be a Woman.

These are titles with magnitude, splashed across the front of hardbacks or television screens, and clearly intended to speak to as many women as possible, or at least prompt them to buy, watch or read the thing.

And because of this wide reach, each has been criticized for attempting to speak for all women.

These books and titles, says Laurie Penny in the New Statesmen, have a problem not only of representation, but of presentation. Penny raises this issue in response to Caitlin Moran’s, author of How to be a Woman, response of  “literally could not give a shit” when asked about the lack of diversity on Lena Dunham’s television show Girls.

Not to get into that whole debate, my question is — just as with book covers depicting faceless women at the beach — is this problem the result of the industry’s packaging of “women’s books” and “women’s shows”? Indeed, this year has clearly shown that publishers think there is a highly lucrative niche for telling educated, middle class women the way they are, and the way they could be.

I have no insight into how these particular books and shows were titled, but from my own limited knowledge, titles are usually an involved process including editors, authors and marketing departments. Titles are not only intended to capture the book’s essence, but also to catch the eye and move copies. And by the time it comes to marketing and publicity, the process is almost entirely beyond the author’s strict control.

As Penny says, “Moran’s book isn’t the barnstorming summary of the feminist zeitgeist that it’s been sold as”, and neither is Girls.

“No, it’s not fair. Male writers and directors are usually permitted not to “give a shit” about representation and diversity without the entire internet jumping all over their output. Moran is absolutely right that no man would be castigated for not including characters of colour in his life story, if part of the story of that life was that there weren’t actually many people of colour involved. He would, however, be criticised- and rightly so – if he chose to call that life story ‘Boys’ or ‘How to Be a Man’. There is a metric fuckload of unexamined privilege at play in Moran’s Twitter diatribe, the obvious retort to which is: if you don’t want to be criticised for not speaking for all women, don’t write a book claiming to do just that.

If our notional male writer allowed the story he was telling to be framed and celebrated as some sort of universal answer to the problem of masculinity in the modern age then, yes, there would be a slight issue with the utter invisibility of people of colour therein. Not that it’d actually come up, of course, because men are rarely asked to speak on behalf of all other men – their gender experience is assumed to be the default, women’s the abnormality. Women are so rarely invited to tell the truth of our gendered experience, with all the messy bits hanging loose, that when we do it’s mistaken for the last word in creative empowerment.”

Sheila Heti, for example, the author of How Should a Person Be? provoked a great deal of praise, but also some intense criticism for her novel. If she is required to be talking to any particular demographic, however, Heti seems clearly not to be talking to all women, but rather a subset of young inner-city females who desire fame through their often self-eviscerating creativity. According to Britt Peterson in The New Republic, “Sheila declares in the prologue that she often thinks the answer to her eponymous question is “a celebrity,” suggesting that she’s one of the people who is “destined to expose every part of themselves so the rest of us can know what it means to be a human,” watching the Paris Hilton sex tape and sensing “a kinship; she was just another white girl going through life with her clothes off.””

To some extent, reviewers and media may perpetuate this problem of presentation — but they are responding to the book as it has been packaged. I don’t think Peterson is wrong to finish the review with a nod to it speaking to female issues, for example, it does.

“The rest of the book offers a devastating account of the traps women fall into nonetheless, namely allowing men to act as their sole mentors and sources of approval. It is, in a very new way, the most thoughtfully feminist novel I have read in years—because of its flaws, and not despite them.”

But many other reviews of this book, and of Girls, made sweeping claims about their relationship to western women, and that was always going to be problematic.

Of course Dunham and Heti have chosen to be artists in the public eye, but due to the way Girls and How Should a Person Be? have been presented by production companies and publishers, it feels a little like they have been thrown to the wolves. Not to mention, the packaging of these books and shows, and the way the media responds to them, keeps them out of the hands of men. Out of the hands of anyone really, who isn’t a certain type of female.



Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.