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Megan Abbott writes about female characters in a tradionally male-oriented genre. But does that make them different?

Megan Abbott writes about female characters in a traditionally male-oriented genre. But does that make her novels different from those of her peers?

When I need a bit of a feminist pick-me-up, I love watching Sarah Haskins’s “Target Women.” Because I do this for a pick-me-up, I always try and not commit the grave sin against my poor brain of reading the comments thread. But sometimes I’m a backslider. This week, when checking out the hilarious episode mocking VH1’s “Tough Love,” I came across this comment:

Feminism isn’t dead but it does get drunk and confuse itself with women doing things as poorly as men . A woman doing the same weak version of a job that men do isn’t a feminist, just a hack .

It should have been easy for me to dismiss this comment as someone engaging in the good old “This is objectively bad!” to make themselves feel better for disliking something.  It’s just easier to say, “I don’t like this because it’s bad,” than admitting that it’s just not to your taste (I think we all do this sometimes, when “well it’s just my opinion” seems far too weak to convey how truly bad we think something is. I’m certainly “guilty” of it, if it’s something to be guilty of. And on some days I’m not so sure it’s always a mere defense mechanism.). But the comment wouldn’t get out of my head. It rang and rang in there until I was forced to admit that it’s a thought I’ve had too, though not directed at Sarah Haskins.

I think back to my time as an English major, specifically my time sitting in Intro. to American Literature, slogging through the writings of the Puritans (who, admittedly, didn’t interest me anyhow). As the Great Canon of English Literature has fallen from grace (and rightfully so,) because of its rather homogeneous, white, male voice, English scholars have done their best to diversify the Canon. Some have called this method “Just add minorities and stir,” and it has made many people, progressive and conservative alike, wonder if some writers are now being taught for diversity’s and not quality’s sake. I never felt this more keenly in American Literature, when we discussed the poetry of Anne Bradstreet.

All through that reading assignment, I seethed. I hated her writing–I found it trite, boring. It included the line “My love is such that rivers cannot quench” for Pete’s sake! Why? I thought Why is her poetry so famous? I tried to share the enthusiasm of another feminist in the class to no avail. I felt that I was expected to look to Anne Bradstreet as an inspiration because she was a woman, a Puritan woman, who got published. Instead, I felt she got undue recognition because the Canon needed more women.

I felt terribly guilty for this. I redoubled my efforts to take Bradstreet seriously; I attempted to read her poetry aloud in a tone that wasn’t singsong (I failed miserably. See the aforementioned line.). But nevertheless, I couldn’t help but compare her poetry to her contemporaries and find it lacking. I tried to justify my disdain by pointing out that other women wrote better poetry in the 17th century: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, for example, a Mexican nun who also lived in a culture that tended to see intellectualism in women as no better than witchcraft. But even as my gut feels justified, I know that the comparison is unfair: the women came from different cultures, and just because I think one is a better poet than the other doesn’t necessarily render Anne Bradstreet bad. Just because that, in addition to a few explicitly feminist pieces, Sor Juana writes about everything from the metaphysical, to love, to Greco-Roman mythology doesn’t make Anne Bradstreet automatically boring because, in addition to one incognito feminist piece, she writes about her devotion to her God, her husband, and her job as a Christian housewife (Granted, my problem with Bradstreet is more that I don’t think she wrote about them well, but it’s more thematically powerful in the context of this post if I leave that out.).

Nevertheless, this realization didn’t stop me from feeling self-righteous anger. “Adding women to the Canon because they are women doesn’t further feminism!” I would grumble to anyone who asked me my opinion on Bradstreet. People generally agreed with me. I still don’t necessarily think I’m wrong, and, to this day, I’ve yet to find anything interesting about Bradstreet. It’s the same argument many feminists use (fairly, in my opinion) to remind people that just because Sarah Palin runs for Vice President doesn’t mean we have to support her, and that just because Twilight was written by a woman about a woman (? arguable.) and then turned into a film directed by a woman doesn’t mean that we have to pledge our undying love. But I do think things are a little more complicated than I make it out to be sometimes.

One of the things I’ve written about many times before on this blog is that when women want to write, perform, or otherwise create media, society still sees them as women before it sees them as artists. But there’s more to this than just that: we (and I mean everyone) also judge women for what genre they choose to work in.

Traditional feminist wisdom holds that there are two ways women can make art: we can either appropriate male forms, or we can create our own. The difficulty with creating our own is that, because it deals with women’s issues, men and other women often don’t take it seriously. The difficulty of appropriating male language (…music, painting styles, comedy, etc.) is that audiences are quick to call femininity a gimmick. The problem with creating our own is that it forces us to buy into cultural definitions of what is feminine. The problem with appropriating “male” forms is that it supports the idea that masculine is somehow equivalent with unisex and devalues the feminine. Catch-22. What do we do?

When I first opened this blog, one of the articles I was eager to write was entitled “Writing for Women.” The thesis was to be, essentially, “I hate chick lit. I hate the very concept of chick lit. Any genre that shares its name with a type of gum isn’t literature!” When I was sharing my ideas with my friend, a fellow writer and armchair philosopher whom I respect very greatly, she asked me some rhetorical questions that complicated my very black and white view of the issue (Her favorite philosopher is Socrates. Is anyone surprised?). You see, this friend is a closeted devotee of The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. “It’s not that I think they’re great literature,” she told me, “They’re not. They’re just fun. But it made me realize that chick lit. is a genre used for women to speak to each other. The men in the books were caricatures, cardboard cutouts. They weren’t meant to be real, unlike the women of the book. It’s supposed to be a world men can’t inhabit.”

I thought about this a lot. I still objected to the idea that women’s writing had to be about romance and weight loss, but, at the same time, is it possible for women to write a book about family, sisterhood, and mothers and have it be taken seriously by the book world? I tried to think of a book of the sort that wasn’t treated as either chick lit. or “whiny feminist literature” (a genre that I don’t actually believe exists, but you try convincing some people that Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood have the ability to appeal to everyone.)

Oh I argued with her. I mentioned that there’s no equivalent genre for men. I claimed that the existence of the genre makes it more difficult for women writers because we fear that whatever we write will be stuck in that genre (I still hold this as a possibility.) But I couldn’t shake a lingering doubt from my head that I was calling this writing trite because it dealt with what is the reality for many women who do follow current feminine norms. Maybe it does nothing to challenge it. Maybe it’s poorly written (I don’t know. I haven’t really read it.). But am I being unfair to dismiss it as a stain on all women’s writing?

One of the things we prize most in our artwork is universality–that everyone can relate to it. Shakespeare we hold to be the greatest of authors, and when we question why, the first answer people will give you is “universality” (Anthropologists will tell you otherwise. I don’t think this detracts from Shakespeare’s greatness.). Even as scholars argue whether universality is a myth or not, the reality is that as long as we hold “universal” to be a criteria of good art, art written by members of “minority” groups suffer because people tend to see their art as specific to their group. White, straight, cis, (I could go on…) men writing about men’s issues does not face the same “universality” penalty that others’ doesn’t (I think I’ve mentioned this before) . So one has to wonder that if well-written “chick lit” exists out there, is it dismissed as “chick lit.” for not being universal? Or does its unwillingness to be universal disqualify it from being literature?On the other side of genre fiction, I recently read the book Queenpin by Film Noir Scholar, Megan Abbott. If you want to read a straight-up, hard boiled as Sam Spade eating a hard boiled egg Noir book, I’d strongly recommend it. I, on the other hand, was disappointed.

I had been excited at the prospect of reading Noir from a feminine perspective because the genre is so masculine. Scholars widely regard the Eve-like (or is that Lilith?) figure of the femme fatale as an embodiment of the contemporary fear of female sexuality and “The new woman”: the women who had joined the workforce during WWII, taking over jobs that men once held. These women had both financial power and manipulative sexual power. They traversed into the public sphere with ease. The femme fatale provided a universal scapegoat and outlet. So, therefore, I was excited because Abbott writes from what seems the femme fatale’s perspective. I was excited to see how this would change and rearrange the genre. I was disappointed when it didn’t.

In a set-up so perfectly embeded in the Noir genre, I could see the diagrams my Noir professor drew on the board to describe the inner turmoil of Walter Neff, the main character of the classic film Double Indemity, who must choose between the male influence (a friend of his from the insurance agency) and the evil femme fatale (who convinced him to commit murder to win her sexual favor), the main character must choose between her female mentor, a gun moll who has taught her the art of surival in the masculine realm of the Las Vegas underworld, and the “homme fatal,” a failed gambler who encourages her to betray her mentor. I didn’t find the homme fatal’s charms alluring, but then again, the idea that a femme fatale could actually convince a man to go against his morals because of her beauty is a very strange idea when you look at it objectively. I mean, the old “men can’t control themselves when faced with breasts” is an excuse hurled at everything in our culture, so perhaps having a woman act the same about a man is radical in its own sense, but I’m grasping at straws here.

It’s interesting to take a critical look at my assumptions. Though Abbott is, in fact, a scholar, and particularly interested in gender, I had no reason to assume that just because she was a woman that she would somehow re-invent Noir. She set out to write Noir fiction; the fact that it blended so seamlessly into the genre is to her credit (now whether it makes sense to write pure noir as opposed to playing with the conventions of a really restrictive genre is a completely different, non-gender-related story.). Why should I expect her to stick in feminist commentary? In other words, why was I expecting her to write Noir as a woman? And why was I so disappointed when she didn’t?

When we see women working in genres or realms that are traditionally male-dominated, we still carry expectations of how they’ll approach their work, and that they’ll approach it differently from men because they are women (and not because they are individuals). I don’t know which male counterpart the commenter on “Target Women” thought s/he was comparing Sarah Haskins to. This is partially because I view “Target Women” as at once occupying a traditionally male realm and working within an explicitly female genre. While “Target Women” can be watched and enjoyed by anyone, it deals strictly with women’s issues, the messages we get, and the questions we hold about our own femininity. At the same time, its format is familiar to anyone who enjoys “The Daily Show.” Do we owe it to Sarah Haskins to ask ourselves whether we like her show just because no one else is doing it? I think so. That doesn’t mean I agree with the commenter–I think she does a good job, too (not that I’m the grand arbitor of what is funny or anything like that.)

I suppose you’re expecting me to write some grand proposal of how we should judge women working in gendered genres, but any proclamation I could possibly come up with would be filled with contradictions, problems and pitfalls. I’m certainly never going to become a huge fan of “chick-lit,” but I still mourn the fact that the trend in short story writing these days seems to be to emulate Hemingway as much as possible. I’m not going to suddenly cheer on Anne Bradstreet when I have Sor Juana to fawn over. But if we can learn anything from the way we look at women creating their own genres or trying to appropriate traditionally masculine ones, we learn that it’s still difficult for women to create without facing a lot of “political” questions of what it means for them to choose that particular method. Whew. You probably could have guessed that without reading the whole article. Sorry.

So how do we unisex genres? And do we even want to unisex genres?

To quote a 1950’s instructional video: What do you think?

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From the Cracked Mirror is a blog about culture, both high and low, including art, literature, film, food, and advertising from a progressive and feminist perspective. I’m here to critique, elucidate, wonder, and gush...

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