Gender Hurts by Sheila Jeffreys

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 12.39.53Whilst there is much to commend this book in addressing the political implications and regressive policies surrounding the social construction of transgenderism, it suffers from poor writing technique, such as the unnecessary use of the word conclusion at the end of chapters and a constant repetition of statements made in the introduction in various chapters – sometimes every chapter. Each chapter was sub-divided into sections that are constructed as mini-essays and divided by headings. Frequently, these mini-sections end in a sentence repeated immediately in the first sentence of the next part. This is simply poor editing, as seen elsewhere in the repetition of phrases:

“ The men who engage in upskirting are a varied group, including male tennis fans at the Australian Open …, male school students who uploaded film of a teacher onto the Internet …, and even a male urologist. In a case in New York in August 2012, a respected urologist extended his professional interest into a new direction, and was arrested for filming up a woman’s skirt on a station platform” (p. 154-155)

As a one-off this sentence would not have bothered me, however this level of repetition did get tedious in a 200 page book. It’s not like there’s a dearth of research into the trend of ‘upskirting’ and the types of men who commit this criminal act (which can be reduced to all men are capable of doing so regardless of class, race, faith, access to education etc).

Another issue is the failure to engage with a wider variety of primary sources, academic research and media coverage. There is simply far too much evidence and theory dependent on Jeffreys own work. This would be acceptable if she were the only person engaged in this type of research, but she isn’t and hasn’t been for several decades. That the work of other women into the impact of transgenderism on women’s rights has been silenced by academic publications and a media obsessed with being ‘right’ as opposed to being truthful is something that Jeffreys could have challenged by referencing all of these works. Instead, there are places that resemble a university reading list by male academics with tenure that list only themselves in the ‘required reading’ section. Perhaps this is unfair, but I do expect more from feminist writers and activists.

When Jeffreys does engage critically with sources, especially whilst reading ‘pro-trans’ testimonies, her insight is excellent. It is unfortunate that more of the text was not given over to such analysis. As it is, careful editing would have knocked the text down to 120-140 pages rather than a 190 giving space for more direct evidence and critical engagement. Chapter 4 – ‘A gravy stain on the table’: women in the lives of men who transgender – written with Lorene Gottschalk is the strongest section in the book as it involves a close reading of supposedly positive testimonies of the lives of women whose male partner are transgender. It is very clear from these testimonies that the emotional, psychological, and financial impact on women is dismissed or erased by academics and writers.

Chapter three entitled ‘Doing transgender: really hurting’, also written with Lorene Gottschalk, and chapter 6 ‘Gender eugenics: the transgendering of children” are equally powerful. I am always shocked by people who ascribe the medical and pharmaceutical industries with concern for the health of transgender people without any discussion of the motive of profit. Or, the theory that the medical establishment is somehow truly honest in their approach to treatments, such as puberty blockers in children, despite the lack of long-term research on the effects or their well-documented history of prioritizing profit over people (development of birth control being a case in point!). I wish Jeffreys had gone further in deconstructing the lack of evidence-based research into treatment, the statistics on suicide post-transition, and the histories of those researchers and scientists pushing transition of children.

There is quite important research and theory in Gender Hurts. It’s unfortunate that Jeffreys spent more time congratulating herself rather than on the research itself. In this poorly written text, there are some incredibly important discussions and questions that simply did not get the space they deserved.

Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl

Screen Shot 2017-04-29 at 09.16.07Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is part of Vintage Hogarth Shakespeare 400th anniversary series, which sees modern writers reinterpreting Shakespeare. Generally, I’m not a fan of Shakespeare finding the desperation to name him the greatest writer ever deeply tedious with an unpleasant under current of nationalism, racism, misogyny and classism. I only came across the series when I read Jeannette Winterson’s retelling of a Winter’s Tale (Gap of Time), which is excellent. I had never read Tyler, but had high hopes based on this description: 

Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but their parents don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner.

Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost.

When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?”

It was a complete let-down.

Vinegar Girl a competent book and rather funny in places, but it suffers from the boring sexism that even Shakespeare questioned occasionally. Having Kate pushed into a green card marriage so her father (an academic with tenure) can keep his foreign exchange student in the US is clever. Keeping the ending in line with the original is less so, particularly when we’re meant to feel that Kate’s father truly loves his girls – despite working 7 days a week in his lab and leaving Kate responsible for everything from making dinner, caring for her younger sister and doing his tax returns. He has no idea about the lives of his daughters but somehow Kate’s meant to give up even more of her life to placate her father’s desires and questionable research. He even has a sulky tantrum when his eldest daughter moves out to make her green card marriage more realistic for Immigration services. As fathers go, Kate’s is useless and selfish.

Pyort seems a decent guy, but marrying the only man she actually knows is dull. Growing up isolated with a mentally ill mother and father more concerned with his mice than his daughters (and who was utterly uninterested in their mother’s illness) isn’t healthy. But we’re meant to believe the marriage is a love match in the end because they have a child and Kate becomes a botanist. ?This is without the ending which is all about how bad men’s lives are – that speech wouldn’t go amiss at an MRA rally.

Frankly, 10 Things I hate about you was a far more successful adaptation – at least the daughters were more realistic and their father genuinely cared for them (despite being a tool).

I’ve never read Anne Tyler before and this book isn’t making me want to rush out to read more.

Sisters in law: Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg

sisters in law

This is a great history of the relationship between two very wealthy and powerful women who ended up on the Supreme Court both of whom had powerful husbands who supported their careers through what is, clearly, a legal mafia of rich friends and acquaintances. Both deserved to be on the Supreme Court, but they both got there by dint of class privilege (and, obviously, white privilege). I did raise an eyebrow at Ginsburg hiring only clerks who she knew via her family and friends networks. It’s not exactly a level playing field in hiring practises if you only hire people you came across either socially or through the legal version of AT&T friends and family plans. This is not to dismiss their accomplishments or their activism in legislation that supports women, but recognising that even The Notorious RBG isn’t quite as radical as rap videos suggest.

I was also surprised by the frequency in which the XIV Amendment to the constitution was invoked as the Holy Grail for recognising that sex discrimination was equal to racial discrimination. Clearly they should both be recognised under the Amendment. However, the Supreme Court’s judgments over the past few decades have eroded the supposed protections under the XIV Amendment making it nearly impossible for individuals experiencing racial discrimination to use the courts for legal redress.*  Expanding the legal protections of the XIV Amendment is only helpful if those legal protections actually exist.

Ginsburg’s recent Dissenting Opinions have become the stuff of legend and are worthy of that status. O’Connor’s interesting voting patterns are equally fascinating. This is a history of feminism in action but also a story on how class and racial privilege can mitigate sex discrimination.

*Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (The New Press, 2012).

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and the labelling of sexualised violence as “erotic” (spoilers)

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 11.17.18Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest The Clothing of Books is both an essay on the art of book jackets and  love story of books from the perspective of a reader and a writer. It is beautiful and thought-provoking essay examining the way in which book jackets impact on how a book is understood and marketed. It is a short read at 70ish pages, but also one of my favourite books this year.

I read The Clothing of Books the same day I started Han King’s The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International Prize (2016). King’s book is also beautifully written. It also exemplifies Lahiri’s thesis on the complex relationship between writers and their books once the publishing company takes control. And, not in a positive way.

The front cover of my copy of Kang’s book includes both the emblem of the Man Booker Prize and a not quite inappropriate quote from Ian McEwan who calls it a “a novel of sexuality and madness”. Unfortunately, I suspect McEwan believes that the two apply to the same character. They don’t.

The blurb on the back is the following:

A darkly beautiful modern classic about rebellion, eroticism, and the female body. One of the most extraordinary books you will ever read.
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The Vegetarian is an extraordinary book, but it’s not “erotic” unless you view multiple accounts of rape as erotic. The book’s central character is Yeong-hye who, following a dream, becomes a vegan. Her husband, described as a “normal man” is abusive before Yeong-hye’s conversion. His abuse increases when Yeong-hye refuses to capitulate to his demands that she eat meat. He ignores her quite clear mental illness and anorexia and punishes Yeong-hye’s “defiance” by raping her on multiple occasions. Yeong-hye’s father also physically assaults her at a family meal for “shaming” her family. Yeong-hye’s husband abandons her after she is incarcerated in a mental institution; as do her parents. Later we learn that the father has a long history of emotional, physical and psychological abuse of Yeong-hye when she was a child.

The Vegetarian is an incredible, beautifully written book but it is not “erotic” since that which is being deemed “erotic” is rape. Yeong-hye, despite being schizophrenic and having anorexia, is read, by those who wrote the various blurbs on the book, as consenting to “allowing” her brother-in-law to paint flowers on her naked body and then “have sex” with her. The brother-in-law, who is already a lazy and incompetent husband and father, uses his position as a ‘trusted’ family member to target Yeong-hye. It is his sexuality and desire that is responsible for the destruction of his own family. His desire is not “taboo” as another comment on the books suggests. It is criminal. He chooses to sexually assault and rape Yeong-hye because he likes the idea of a birthmark on her bum.

In the end, the only person who stays with Yeong-hye is her sister, yet none of the comments on the book jacket mention sisterhood as a theme within. In-hye does everything that is demanded of a women: she is financially successful, the mother of a son, does all the caring and lifework so that her husband, “the artist”, has no responsibilities. She is the quintessential “good girl”. And, is punished, repeatedly, for being so.

In The Clothing of Books, Lahiri ponders if those designing her book jackets or writing the blurbs actually bother to read her books. Reading The Vegetarian, I too wondered whether or not those writing the blurbs had read the book. Or, if they simply failed to recognise the patterns of male violence and its impact on women. As with Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, which is described as “deeply romantic” on the book jacket, The Vegetarian,  demonstrates the unwillingness of readers and reviewers to define male violence as violence.

I gave The Vegetarian two stars on Good Reads. As I write this, I wonder if the number of stars is a reflection of the book itself or a visceral reaction to the book jacket’s definition of the book. There is certainly a huge disconnect between my reading of the text and the blurbs on the book jacket.

Favourite Books of 2016

unknownJeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time

Zen Cho’s The Terracotta Bride

Zadie Smith’s NW

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being

 

 

Kamila Shamsie’s Salt and Saffronunknown-1

Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of the Butterflies 

Janet Fitch’s White Oleander

Kamila Shamsie’s  Burnt Shadow

Celeste Ng’s Everything I never told you

 

Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune

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Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music

Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words  

Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power: A Black Women’s Story

Audre Lorde’s Zami: A new spelling of my name.

Lindsey Hilsum’s Sandstorm

Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race

Warsan Shire’s teaching my mother how to give birth

 

carrie-2

 

I read both of these at the start of the year. And, again at the end. I have all Fisher’s books ( and Pez dispenser but not a copy of Abnormal Psychology).

Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Thinking 

Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic

 

 

 

 

 

Helen Castor’s Joan of Arc: A History

UnknownI was disappointed by Castor’s Joan of Arc but only because I had not realised what it was Castor was writing. I wanted to read a biography of Joan and chose Castor’s book simply because I absolutely adored Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. It was historically accurate, as well as imaginative. There is so very little writing left by the women Castor profiled that any biography would be contingent on teasing out finely spun threads within the misogynist writings of those around them.

Castor’s Joan of Arc is the contextualisation of Joan within the history of Europe. It is about the France that existed in Joan’s beliefsIt contains little of Joan’s own dictated letters or chunks of testimony from the trials. As I wanted to read more of Joan, I chose to read The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc by Larrissa Juliet Taylor next. The Virgin Warrior contained more direct testimony of Joan but engaged in the hero-worship that Castor was arguing against. Equally, without having read Castor’s book I would not have been in a position to understand the historical context in which Joan was living. I knew the basics of the 100 years war and the various Henrys running about, but not enough about the political situation. Taylor’s text in focussing more on Joan does not contextualise her life and accomplishments within the greater political scene.

I suppose what I really wanted was a history of Joan of Arc that traced the myths as well as the history – rather like Bettany Hughes utterly brilliant Helen of Troy. Whilst I haven’t found that (and I’m always open to recommendations). Castor’s text Unknownis a well worth the read. She’s funny, sarcastic, and accurate – a skill set not many historians have. I love the way Castor challenges historical orthodoxy whilst making it clear that how we interpret history actually erases the lived experiences of those we are writing –  making Joan a “legend, icon and saint” but no longer a young girl. Instead, we label Joan schizophrenic without recognising the reality of faith during Joan’s life where talking to saints was considered a gift – not a curse. Castor made Joan real – and that is an essential rewriting of history.

 

And, because there is never a moment when Horrible Histories isn’t a good plan:

Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees

This is the best book I’ve read in ages and I’ve read some pretty freaking brilliant books lately. The Death of Bees was one of my random choices from the Edinburgh Book Festival. I always buy a few books by authors I’ve never heard of but this is the best one by far. It is triggering since it covers the systemic violence against women, particularly against those young girls who aren’t considered “proper” victims but it is also beautiful, funny and full of hope.  It is the story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, struggling to survive in  a Glasgow housing estate without their parents, who they’ve just buried in a shallow grave in the backyard. They are victimised and revictimised in every manner possible and left to self-destruct by a welfare state that doesn’t give a shit about poor kids from the housing estates. After all, when school is only “a convenient way for all of us to congregate in one place”, it is obvious that these are the kids no one cares about (p.47). But, it’s more than a litany of abuse. It’s about surviving, friendships, the meaning of sisterhood and what really makes a family.  I don’t tend to rate books but if I did, this one would have 5 stars. It’s beautiful (as I said when I bored Twitter senseless whilst reading it).

My Favourite Books of 2015!

In no particular order:

Biographies:

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Gabriella Gillespies’ A Father’s Betrayal

Esmeralda Santiago’s When I was Puerto Rican – A Memoir

Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship

Jeanne Theoharis’ The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks

Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life

Fiction

UnknownBucha Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood

Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk

Maggie Harris’ Kissadee Girl

Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their eyes were watching

Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone

Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must GoUnknown

Yejide Kilanko’s Chasing Butterflies

Sarita Mandana’s Tiger Hills

Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy. Snow. Bird

Yejide Kilanko’s Daughters who walk this path

Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride

Tatiana De Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key

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Kiran Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guave Orchard

Padma Viswanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon

Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Selector of Souls

Kamaria Muntu’s A Good Lynching Should be Enjoyed

 

Unknown 1Sunny Singh’s Hotel Arcadia

Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles

Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love

 

 

 

The following by Jhumpa Lahiri’s

Unknown 1 Unaccustomed Earth

Lowland

The Namesake

 

 

 

And, Andrea Levy:

Levy Unknown

Every Light Burning in the House

Never Far From Nowhere

Uriah’s War

The Fruit of Lemons

 

 

(To be fair, I’ve loved everything I have ever read by Andrea Levy)

 

Kathleen Barry’s The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women

Kathleen Barry’s The Prostitution of Sexuality was first published in 1995 and grew out of her work and activism following the publication of Female Sexual Slavery in 1979. The first half of the book, which is just theory, is brilliant. The second half felt outdated as it is based almost entirely on the research undertaken for Female Sexual Slavery. I would argue that the situation is actually worse now than it was even 10 years ago, particularly in relation to rape as an accepted tactic of war. I’d be interested to read an epilogue to the book which examines the reality of women’s experiences of sexual exploitation now and whether Barry thinks it is worse for women or if its just that I’ve become more aware of sexual exploitation.

I cannot recommend this book enough though. Barry’s theory on the global exploitation of women is incredibly important. She destroys the idea that prostitution can be consented to within a capitalist-patriarchy. She clearly proves that the sexualisation of human bodies renders women passive objects and men active participants. Barry challenges the heteronormative construction of pornography and prostitution and the hegemonic nature of capitalism which is built on the bodies of women.

I am adding this book to my list of Top Ten Feminist Theory Texts (in no particular order):

1. Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse

2. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. 

3. Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women

4. Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Women and Men Today

5. Susan Maushart’s Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women

6. Sheila Jeffreys’ Beauty and Misogyny

7. Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue

8. Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics

9. Melinda Tankard Reist’s Big Porn Inc

10. Kathleen Barry’s The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women

Helena Kennedy’s Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice

I love this book. It’s an utterly brilliant deconstruction of the systemic misogyny and racism endemic in the British justice system. Kennedy basically takes a swipe at the hypocrisy, prejudices and ignorance of police officers, lawyers, judges and juries; at those destructive theories of hyper-masculinity and femininity which criminalise women for being women. Kennedy’s main thesis is that “(r)eal equality means treating ‘as equals’ whilst taking account of the context of our lives.” (4): everyone is equal under the law but we treat people as individuals and not as cartoon characters. What she actually says is: “… all I am really asking is that the law should be capable of transcending difference by first acknowledging it.” (11)

I wrote that paragraph last week and then saved a huge pile of notes with it. Obviously, I can no longer remember the clearly erudite statements I was going to make about this book other than it was brilliant and it was very clear not only on the role poverty plays in criminalising women’s behaviour but also how poverty is no longer considered an acceptable mitigating factory for women’s behaviour. (81) Women can be constructed as victims, particularly in the issue of prostitution. Women are victims of the Patriarchy and the physical and emotional damage to our bodies is how the Patriarchy punishes women but poverty is a major reason women are victims. (111) If we talk about poverty, then we have to take responsibility for the structural inequalities which harm individuals and have repercussions throughout society, whereas with victimisation politics we can decant responsibility onto specific individuals. This allows society to deny the existence of the patriarchal structures and rape culture in which we live. Kennedy reiterates over and over again the economic inequalities which punish, isolate and violate the very basis of women’s lives.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book was the discussion of the double oppression faced by Black women in the UK due to race and sex/gender. Kennedy argues that the matriarchal family structures prevalent in Black British families disproportionately result in the incarceration of Black women because the white patriarchal legal system is scared shitless of intelligent strong women, especially intelligent strong women who don’t happen to be “white.” (170-171) The marginalization of Black women within the justice system is simply a travesty. There are no words to describe just how badly Black women are treated, derided and over-punished in the UK. Kennedy’s praise of the Southall Black Sisters is immense but I personally don’t think we can ever commend the work of SBS enough. They are a small, poorly-funded organisation who do incredible work with ethnic minority women within a culture which cares very little for these women.

The only part of the book which I found problematic was one sentence buried in an otherwise important [and incredibly depressing] chapter on prostitution. Basically, Kennedy asserts that there is such a thing as adult consensual prostitution and denying its existence infantilises women. (147) Now, I’m sure Brooke Magnanti engaged in “adult consensual prostitution” but let’s be accurate here: for every “Belle du Jour”, there are literally millions of women trapped in prostitution and other parts of the “sex industry” who didn’t “consent” to be there. What is really perplexing is that the rest of the chapter is a catalogue of the damage and destruction that prostitution does to women’s bodies, the social consequences of prostitution for individual women and the very salient fact that for some women prostitution is the only way to “work” whilst having children. Kennedy is also very clear that “(p)rostitution has been tolerated because of two sustaining concepts: the protection of the private sphere from the hand of the law and an acceptance of male promiscuity which is not afforded women.” (146) The problem is that acknowledging these two points makes the argument that some women “choose” to be prostitutes ridiculous.The quote also contradicted other chapters in the book wherein Kennedy demonstrates that women are disproportionately incarcerated for petty crimes and the amount of abuse and mental illness that women as a group endure before/during prostitution [and prison]. The sentence just reads wrong.

At its heart, Eve Was Framed is a call to arms to rebuild the entire British Justice system so that it is fair for all whilst recognising and encompassing the specific needs of individuals. It is about justice for those who aren’t white, rich and male. Yes, it is 20 years old and supposedly our justice system is more aware of the structural inequities but we all know that’s a crock of shit. Southall Black Sisters, along with Amnesty International and other groups, have been fighting for the “no recourse to public funds” rule overturned in the cases of women escaping domestic violence. The public vitriol, misogynistic bullying and threats that the victim of the convicted rapist Ched Evans received on twitter have gone on without impunity and nothing covers the unrelenting horror of a woman convicted in Wales forperjury after withdrawing her allegation of rape owing to physical threats by the rapist and his family/friends: a conviction that the Court of Appeals refused to squash. Women do not receive real justice in the UK. They never have. We need to change things now and not let our daughters suffer similar fates.