The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

The Countries We Think We See

January 8, 2016 | by

For Lesley Blanch, travel writing offered a chance to explore her preconceptions about a place as much as the place itself.

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Every travel writer is a character in her own narrative, no less a part of the story than the “foreigners” that story depicts. In my own travels, I’ve found that women in countries that discourage mixed-gender interactions often speak to me more openly about culturally illuminating subjects—sex, love, motherhood—than they might to a male writer. My femaleness, it seemed, wasn’t simply a question of perspective; it was a question of action.

When I raised this subject in a lecture last year, someone in the audience broke in with a question. Why did I feel the need to “insert” myself into my narratives at all? She brought up the travel writer Colin Thubron, whom she cited as the paradigmatic example of the quiet, objective observer. “He doesn’t insert himself into his writing at all!” she exclaimed. Read More »

Nancy Drew in Starlight

December 21, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

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An illustration from The Mystery at Lilac Inn.

Who is Nancy Drew, really? The instability of the girl detective.

The writer Bobbie Ann Mason once described the Nancy Drew novels as sonnets, or “endless variations on an inflexible form.” The same could be said of Nancy herself: though outfitted with a few baseline characteristics—her freedom, her wile, her supreme politesse—she’s perpetually shape-shifting throughout the series. Alternately sixteen and eighteen, Nancy Drew is a scholar of ancient languages and an amateur archaeologist; a flawless cook, an expressive painter, and a dynamite prom date. She can dance in a corps de ballet and scuba dive fathomless depths. On separate occasions, her friends have walked in on her tap dancing, learning Morse code, and tap dancing in Morse code. Even her hair color is famously inconstant—from book to book, it flickers from blonde to strawberry blonde to her most distinctive shade, Titian, so named for the rosy apricot color used in many of the sixteenth-century Italian’s paintings.

And yet, there are some things Nancy Drew simply does not do. In her decades-long original run of more than fifty books, she never once goes to the movies or mentions an actor by name. Her only brush with Hollywood comes in 1931’s The Mystery at Lilac Inn, where she meets the diabolical Gay Moreau, a washed-up actress who’s also a Nancy Drew impersonator, committing petty crimes to defame the detective. Nancy approaches the case with some amusement at her resemblance to a “blonde actress,” but things take a turn for the weird when the starlet kidnaps Nancy, binds and gags her, and, to Nancy’s horror, begins to act: Read More >>

What’s Your Sign? And Other News

December 9, 2015 | by

“Aztec zodiac man,” a facsimile of the original painting or codex, 1831.

  • For the cultural critic, astrology is low-hanging fruit: a gimmicky, pervasive pseudoscience that preys on our superstitions, our solipsism, our need to make sense of the unknown. It’s easy to ask people, How can you buy into that shit? But the editors of n+1 point out that “a better question might be why people like it, or whether it’s a problem to subscribe to something in which you don’t believe.” They point to astrology’s redemptive features: “We trust it because it corresponds to nothing; it doesn’t pretend to be true, or demand our belief. Unlike the pernicious pseudosciences of the past, or the scientism and pop neurology of the present, astrology poses little threat of getting serious … As a supplement to other points of view—what’s visible on first impression, say, or what you know of someone from experience—it adds another dimension, pulling some features into the foreground and pushing others to the back, reminding you of a person’s complexity … To consider that the shy person is sometimes wild, the considerate person sometimes duplicitous, is to practice something rather like empathy.”
  • At business schools, meanwhile, they’re teaching something much more treacherous than astrology: literature. At Columbia, aspiring executives can take a three-hour weekly course called Leadership Through Fiction, taught by Bruce Craven: “A four-minute promotional video posted online alongside Craven’s syllabus outlines the rationale for repurposing literature as management shibboleth … These novels, he explains, are ‘narratives about characters in many different professions’ who must find a ‘balance between their professional obligations, their personal expectations, and goals.’ Like real people, fictional characters stumble, and it is ‘through their stumbling,’ Craven promises, ‘that we will learn how to prepare ourselves for the future.’ ”
  • In her Nobel Lecture, Svetlana Alexievich—who will not, one suspects, be auditing Craven’s class—puts forth a more nuanced purpose for literature: “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think—how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don't appreciate it, we aren't surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk ... I love the lone human voice … It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history.”
  • If you really want to steep yourself in “the everyday life of feelings,” look at 108 years of high school yearbook photos reduced to a minute-long video. Researchers at UC Berkeley compiled the images to study the changing face of the American teen: “The regular nature of yearbook photos—schools have been asking students to face forward and be recorded for posterity since the early twentieth century—made them a good candidate for this kind of machine-driven visual analysis, which can catch small variations in repetitive images … The final data set is made up of 37,921 forward-facing portraits. The population represented in the dataset is from 115 high schools, in twenty-six states … The researchers created a delightfully named ‘lip curvature metric’ to measure smile intensity, finding that while everyone smiled more as time went on, girls always smiled more than boys.”
  • As our nation’s smile intensity has changed, so has the valence of its slang. Take the word badass: in the mid-1950s, as Hermione Hoby explains, it was “used for the kind of men whose posturing invited mockery. To call someone a badass was to seek to puncture puffed-up masculine pride.” Today, though, it’s become perhaps the single most nauseating faux compliment: “the phrase ‘badass women’ peaked in 2015. This, in other words, was the year in which badass underwent such a regendering that it became understood as the foremost battlecry of feel-good feminism … If female badassery, as we understand and value it, comes down to maleness in the most basic and anatomical sense, if virtual dicks are now the yardstick for female power, then we have a problem. Because beneath the feel-good female bravura of badass is a decidedly feel-bad notion, namely that the only way a woman can exercise power is to submit herself to the drag (in both senses) of ‘behaving like a man.’ ”

Unseen, Even of Herself

November 17, 2015 | by

Before she was guillotined, the inscrutable Madame Roland wrote a remarkable memoir.

A portait of Madame Roland from Coiffure 1er Republique, a compendium of historical French hairstyles

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems, here.

It could be said that the men with the greatest influence on Marie-Jean Phlipon’s life and legacy were two she never met. She rarely let herself depend too heavily on the male figures she knew: her husband, whom she respected and discretely controlled; the lawyer François Buzot, whom she came to love; and the many men of power whose authority she defied. It was Rousseau who provided “exactly the nourishment I needed,” she wrote, having read his La Nouvelle Héloïse in the wake of her mother’s death. “He showed me the possibility of domestic happiness and the delights that were available to me if I sought them.”

Phlipon—a well-read engraver’s daughter who went on to become a martyr of the French Revolution—defined “domestic happiness” differently than most. Two years after Rousseau’s death, she married Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, whose political rise and fall she explores in the thrilling Memoirs she wrote from Paris’s Saint-Pélagie prison in the months leading up to her execution. Thomas Carlyle, the second man who shaped her reputation, was born two years after her death. When he gave his account of her in his 1837 history of the Revolution, it was left to others to decide whether he “interpreted feelings” that she had had herself: Read More »

Hatched in Prison, and Other News

November 5, 2015 | by

From Gil Batle’s “Jargon” series: carved eggs alluding to the hidden messages that inmates and their friends and families used to avoid censorship by prison staff monitoring their correspondence.

  • The Great and Noble Defenders of High Culture (one of them rhymes with Kansan) would have you believe that books and social media are locked in a mortal battle, and that every time you tweet, an angel-novelist loses his wings. But this is a false dichotomy, Paul Ford says—the best way to read the Internet is to dredge its deep archives of ephemera: “I tweet with the best of them, and I like reading the hard stuff. I have a phone filled with novels, even some experimental ones. But the reality is that the most profound feeling of cultural participation for me comes from trawling databases. I like to look through old scanned pages, search against tags on Tumblr, see how hashtags form discussion on Twitter, or look through the dead-eyed monstrosity of a racist comment thread on Facebook. That sort of stuff constitutes ‘reading,’ for me … The most meaningful experiences I have, the experiences that give me the greatest insight into the operation of culture over time—something over which historians used to hold a monopoly—are the results of database queries.”
  • When Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch came out in 1970, it placed her at the forefront of the feminist movement: she was a bona-fide public intellectual, a celebrity. Why has her star fallen? “Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives … Described by her biographer as having ‘the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy’ to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation … And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant … The possibility of rehabilitating Greer’s public image is not, at this point, interesting or even viable. What remains compelling about Greer is the question of what her irrelevancy reveals about the state of contemporary gender politics, or feminism as we know it … While Greer is undeniably at odds with the goals and rhetoric of today’s complex and often convoluted feminism, women’s liberation as we know it would not exist without her daring in the first place.”
  • When you keep a diary in prison, you write on whatever’s handy, even if that something is ostrich shells … and even if you don’t begin the diary until after you’re out of the clink. “San Francisco native Gil Batle spent twenty years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery … The fifty-three-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a twenty-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with … At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.”
  • For a few years now, the Internet has made a sport of slowing down pop songs by 500, 1,000, hell, 5,000 percent, tapping the rich mineral deposits of ambient beauty hidden in all that mud. But little has prepared us for the gift that is Alvin and the Chipmunks at sixteen rpm. They sound like a doom-metal band. With the holiday season upon us, Chipmunk-ified tunes will soon blare from a storefront near you—gird your loins with the slow version.
  • Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth … the best-selling women writers of the nineteenth century have names that would land them on the Billboard Top 40 today, and yet their books remain neglected. Their often willfully sentimental novels “grew out of the conduct literature that was popular earlier in the century—for example, seduction novels that frightened girls and young women away from sexual impropriety—and was popular among women more so than men. For this reason, it was dismissed by ‘serious’ authors—as when Hawthorne bemoaned the ‘damned mob of scribbling women.’ … Today we recognize that it was a powerful political tool.”

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No Gate, No Lock, No Bolt

October 19, 2015 | by

 

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These images are from the Dobkin Family Collection of Feminist History’s exhibition, on display through Saturday, October 24, at Glenn Horowitz Booksellers’ Rare Gallery, in New York. The show takes its title from a powerful passage in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own about the female novelists of the nineteenth century:

What genius, what integrity it must have required … in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Brontë … They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue—write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-conscientious governess, adjuring them, like Sir Egerton Brydges, to be refined; dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question thinks suitable … It would have needed a very stalwart young woman in 1828 to disregard all those snubs and chidings and promises of prizes. One must have been something of a firebrand to say to oneself, Oh, but they can’t buy literature too. Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

The Dobkin Family Collection, amassed over twenty-five years by the philanthropist Barbara Dobkin, spans five hundred years and comprises thousands of letters, papers, posters, and ephemera pertaining to women’s advancements in all walks of life. It’s intended to help research and writing on the history of feminism. Among the items on display at “No Gate” are Simone de Beauvoir’s working manuscript for The Second Sex; a lighthouse logbook signed by a young Virginia Woolf, who was apparently later moved to write To the Lighthouse by her experience there; Margaret Sanger’s manuscript notebook for Family Limitation; and a letter from Amelia Earhart on Cosmopolitan letterhead naming her as their aviation editor. Read More »