The “worthiness” of women’s writings

Michelle Dean wrote an article for New York Magazine this week titled “How to Win at the Women’s Memoir Game.” It examines the critical reception of women’s memoirs, work often reviewed as “oversharing.” For some reason, women’s memoirs are commonly dismissed as attempts to tell silly, sensationalized, or simply much too personal stories.

In regards to personal or “confessional” writing, Dean writes:

“The ‘confessional’ impulse has actually never been strictly a Woman Thing — just look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up or Robert Lowell’s poetry, for starters. But the accusation that a writer has taken it to extremes, beyond art into sensationalism, usually is leveled at us alone.”

She cites Lena Dunham and Cat Marnell as two women who have recently scored book deals for their memoirs–works anticipated to be highly personal tell-alls.  The confessional nature of their books, however, makes them targets for criticism, especially in conversations about “serious literature.”


Lena Dunham

More seasoned memoirists such as Joan Didion, Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert, however, have managed to escape some of this criticism. Why? Perhaps, Deen muses, because in their books “the sex is less prominent and the focus tends to be on personal tragedies that are more sympathetic to a wider audience.” In other words, in the eyes of critics, they’re not telling stories defined by their gender, or so clearly written for a female audience.

She concludes the discussion of their success with the observation that “there are, actually, degrees of craft involved in writing yourself, as Nora Ephron put it, as the heroine of your own life.”

Deen’s conversation about the type of critical response that women’s “confessional” or “oversharing” memoirs receive reminds me of the impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people do not feel like they deserve their success.  It’s a common experience among women, and it causes us to question the worthiness of our work and achievements.

The experience of feeling unworthy or untalented doesn’t come out nowhere, though. Women writers are especially scrutinized, and their work often taken less seriously than men’s. For this to change, women’s writing must be evaluated as writing first. And on that note, perhaps we should stop classifying anything created by a woman as “women’s” altogether.



I’m waiting for Wonder Woman

For the last few years, movies about superheros have dominated the big screen. Spiderman, Batman, Thor, Ironman…the list goes on. Classic Marvel and DC comic-book figures have been transformed into larger than life fan obsessions. This summer, the trend continues with new movies about Superman (Man of Steel) and Wolverine (The Wolverine). The trailers look good, and I’m looking forward to seeing them. Still, I have to wonder: When are we going to see an awesome movie about a superheroine?

So far, superheroines have appeared as side acts in otherwise all-male ensembles. Think of Storm in X-Men or Natasha Romanoff in The Avengers.  A little ironically, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz had more screen time, character development, and dialogue in the Charlie’s Angels trilogy than either of Halle Berry’s or Scarlett Johansson’s roles. And then there was Berry’s Catwoman…sigh. I’m tired of seeing superheorines as an afterthought or even worse, as a joke.


Last year I wrote an article about the fantastic PBS documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. It traces the history of Wonder Woman, the Amazonian Princess Diana, since her creation in the 1940’s. The documentary is most moving in its exploration of what Wonder Woman actually means to young women. She stands for compassion, justice, even love. She is strong yet kind.  She is powerful yet fair. And most importantly, she “keeps going,” no matter what. She’s a superheroine, but the best, most admirable parts of her character feel real.


Done right, a Wonder Woman epic could mean the next superhero/ine blockbuster for the the film industry. But for women it would mean much more.

Violence against women: Why are we still watching?

One night a few weeks ago, I saw something on TV that truly disturbed me. It was a scene from the new television series The Following, a show about a cult of serial killers and their leader (I know that’s a vague synopsis, so if you’re really interested look here.) Now, I don’t regularly watch the show, but I’ve stumbled upon it a few times in between channel surfing and leaving the TV on at night as I work around the house. Most of the scenes I’ve seen so far have been sort of silly or just plain far fetched, and the acting is mediocre at best. I’ll put it this way: I’ve never stayed on the channel for more than a few minutes.


But the scene I witnessed that night is something I won’t soon forget. It made me feel shocked, disgusted, and then, somewhat unexpectedly, genuinely mad. Angry. At the world, and at this unethical, insensitive, and just plain careless show.

Here’s the brief version of what I can’t un-see: It’s night time, and two male serial killers are standing behind a parked car. The trunk is open. Inside, a gagged and bound woman is laying on her side, crying and pleading for her life. The men are casually watching her as they go back and forth about who should be the one to kill her. It comes out that one of them ( a serial killer wannabe, I guess) has not actually killed someone by himself before, so the veteran killer pushes him to make this this woman his first kill. The newbe, however, cannot bring himself to do it, so the other guy grabs the knife from him. He laughs and makes fun of him, and we get the impression that he thinks the new guy is “too weak” or “not man enough” to follow through with the murder.

At this point, I thought for sure that the show would cut to a new scene, that we wouldn’t, of course, see what it usually left to the imagination on a prime time cable television show. Call me naive, but I’m used to murders being walked in on after the fact, the specifics surveyed only later in crime scenes and on lab tables. But if this scene is any indicator of future ones, The Following is taking TV murder–and specifically, the witnessed killing of women–to a whole new level. So instead of hearing what exactly happened to this victim in all-business conversations between medical examiners and forensic specialists, I saw it for myself.

I watched as the killer approached the woman, who was really hysterical by this point, and excitedly (yet rather unceremoniously, which may have been another reason why it was so disturbing) stab her over and over and over again. Although he stood in front of her as he stabbed her, viewers could not only see blood spray and soak her shirt, but also hear nauseating cutting sounds. I immediately felt sick and to be honest, a little traumatized.

After getting over the initial shock of watching a woman die (the entire scene was maybe a minute and a half, and yes, I was frustrated with myself for watching the whole thing), I started to feel a different emotion: anger. It’s days later and I’m still angry. And no, I’m not willing to let it go.

First off, I’m angry that there is still a mainstream appetite for violence against women. Every victim that I’ve seen so far on this show has been female. The serial killers themselves are both male and female, but they abduct, torture, and kill women. I admit that my exposure to the show is limited, but what clips I’ve seen have had a heavy presence of female victimization.


Is this unusual in movies and shows about murder? Perhaps not, but on a mainstream channel at a not-too-late hour of the night, I’d expect much milder violence. Certainly not full murder scenes. Certainly not horror-movie quality torture and suffering. And certainly not any of these things to a character who I genuinely feel for. In that brief moment, I felt her fear, and even though she was just a TV character, I feared for her. The problem, I think, is that the scene was much too real. I related to her, and imagined myself in her situation. Why? Because murders like that really happen. The scene was too close to what really happens to thousands of women each year.


In light of recent cases like the chilling trial of the Cannibal Cop and this chef who was found guilty of boiling his wife’s dead body, I’m so, so tired of seeing and hearing about men who get off on not just abusing women, but on torturing them. On shooting, strangling, and stabbing them, and then of disposing what remains of these daughters, sisters, and mothers like trash. It pisses me off that it’s acceptable to nonchalantly watch these real-life horrors re-enacted on TV. What’s more, it scares me. It deeply concerns me that our culture is so desensitized to the murder of women that we can sit down on our sofas and enjoy seeing it played out over and again. And then, that we can defend it.

I won’t make the mistake of watching men hurt women on The Following again. I do have to wonder about the writers of this show, though. Who are they, and what’s their agenda? Because if you were to ask me, it seems like they’re interested in showcasing–and encouraging–a culture of misogynistic violence.

Say something. We won’t judge you (too much).

Although what I’m about to say has definitely been said before, I feel like it’s a feminist topic that needs redress, so here it is: Women judge other women. I don’t like it, but I’ve come to accept that it is, unfortunately, a fact of life. Men judge women, too (and vice versa), but I think we can argue that there is a social dynamic among women based in an active culture of judgement. And whether we realize it or not, we like it. We get something out of it.


A real housewife giving “the look”

An obsession with female celebrities in our society is, of course, a large part of it. We buy magazines featuring catch lines like “Stars without makeup!” and watch reality TV shows like The Real Housewives. We frequent ridiculously critical celebrity gossip sites. For whatever reason–maybe we’re bored, maybe we’re trying to zone out after a stressful day, or maybe we just need some reassurance that all women have physical flaws–we’re attracted to the actof judging.  We’re drawn to the ritual of seeing and evaluating women’s bodies and behavior. The major problem with all of this? (After all, you may ask, do we really care about judging celebrities? Aren’t they putting themselves out there to be judged? Aren’t they making money off it?) Well, the problem is that it subconsciously conditions us to judge all women.

I started thinking about all of this after a conversation with one of my good friends. For some reason we got on the topic of “the Royals,” and then, of course, to the one and only Kate Middleton. First off, let me say this: I like Kate Middleton (Should I be calling her Catherine now? The Duchess?). At least, I like what limited snapshots I see of her in photos and magazine covers. On an imaginary likability scale she scores pretty high. After all, what’s not to like? At the very least, I think we can agree that she certainly does not offend. My friend, however, thinks otherwise. To be fair, it’s not that she doesn’t like her, exactly. She simply describes the Princess as “boring.”

Duke and Duchess of Cambridge 1st wedding anniversary

Boring is certainly not the way I would describe Kate or her life. I imagine to her it’s not boring at all.  Behind that signature smile and those immaculate outfits, I wonder if she’s exhausted. I wonder if she likes the endless duties and image-related obligations associated with being a Royal. I wonder how she feels about being photographed all the time. I wonder how, in a word, she would really describe her mother-in-law.

Still, I can sort of understand what my friend means by “boring.” In this sense, Kate is boring because she seems perfect, because she’s never messed up. But do we want her to mess up? My friend does, but I can’t say I feel the same way. I admire Kate’s image of grace and class. I like that she seems put together and relaxed.  It’s nice to see a female celebrity who’s not on the edge of a breakdown or constantly on the worst-dressed list (yes, I’m guilty of clicking on those photos, too). If boring means stable or reliable, then I guess Kate is quite guilty.


Kate is not a train wreck, and I don’t anticipate her ever becoming one. But for some reason she is still the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism. But why do we feel that we need to judge her–to have an opinion about her? To dismiss her?Why do feel like we have the right to categorize someone who we will never actually know?

To be honest, I do have one criticism of Kate, or a curiosity, rather: I’ve never heard her speak. I’ve never read a quote from her. I have to wonder, is she so likable because she is so silent? I’m sure everything she says and does is highly monitored by Royal family rules and what not, but I’d love to hear the woman say something. Preferably something intelligent or meaningful, but I’d even take something purely candid.  She doesn’t need to be a political expert or a social activist, but I’d like to hear or read something of her thoughts. Why? Because she’s a woman in the spotlight who, among other things, seems to have her life together, and it’d be nice to hear her relate. It’d be nice to know something of her personality, her mind.  More than ever, I think we need smart, sophisticated role models, women who are genuine and if not flawed, at least human.

So why doesn’t Kate publicly speak? I’m guessing she doesn’t say much because she doesn’t want to make herself (and her family) open to negative judgment. But if the world wasn’t so predatory, perhaps she’d have the space to pleasantly surprise us. On that note, perhaps a lot more women would.