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In celebration of Women’s History Month, The Harvard Coop has dedicated a small display to recent women’s literature. The titles include the latest from the feminist group Guerilla Girls, Bitches Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes, as well as a collection of travel writing called Sand in My Bra and Other Misadventures. Within eyeshot of the display is Betsy Lerner’s Food and Loathing: A Life Measured Out in Calories. I hastily grab all three titles off the shelves and set out to gain some insight into women today, a randomly sampled pop-sociological glimpse into what female authors have to say about themselves in relation to the places they travel, the company they keep, the food they eat and the society that at any given time can either boost them up or knock them down. After a few hours of perusing through these works, I was surprisingly nauseated.
I will attend to the titles in order from most to least disturbing.
First off is the feminist travel memoir Sand in My Bra and Other Misadventures, edited by Jennifer Leo. Indicative of the tone of the collection, titles for the writers’ narratives range from the angsty feminist “Pissed off in Nepal” to the sexually naive “Prude in Patpong.” One woman told of downing tequila shots until dawn with dreadlocked Aboriginals in the Outback while others recount less unconventional tales of European vacations and camping trips. Writer Lori Mayfield discusses diarrhea on safari, while Dr. Jane Wilson-Howarth instructs readers on the ideal disposal of a “turd.” Ellen Degeneres devotes two paragraphs to an airport bathroom story wherein she feels falsely accused of causing a foul odor in the facility. “And now I’ve got to explain that the smell was in there before I went in there,” Degeneres says. “Does that ever happen to you? It’s not your fault.”
It seems as if the newly realized freedom to publicly engage in this supposedly humorous and disarmingly candid discourse is a manifestation of feminism that booksellers like the Coop feel we should celebrate during Women’s History Month. If this is feminism today, I am not interested.
Betsy Lerner’s Food and Loathing: A Life Measured Out in Calories is, as one might infer by glancing at the title, not much more refreshing. Newsday claims that the work is “destined to take its place alongside the classics of adolescent angst, Girl Interrupted and The Bell Jar.”
I am hard pressed to feel genuinely sympathetic when the opening story situates itself in the clichéd 6 grade gym class where the girls stand in line to be weighed. We’ve all been there. But Lerner quite literally forces us into her shoes. “I hate the way the gym shorts cling to my skin,” Lerner writes. “It’s a one-piece rayon suit, and its goal in life is to cling and ride up my ass.”
The book painstakingly progresses month by month, taking readers on a journey of journaling under trees, diet battles won and lost, manic depression diagnoses, multiple suicide attempts, Prozac and a pregnancy during which the author eats “onion rings the size of bracelets.” Is she an ectomorph who eats to live, a mesomorph who eats and lives, or an endomorph who lives to eat? Oh the traumas of the mind in biology class. Sounds more like Judy Blume writing her own version of Prozac Nation than Sylvia Plath’s prose to me.
I wasn’t very hopeful when I started Bitches, Bimbos and Ball Breakers. The pop sociologist in me was initially disappointed by a few unsubstantiated statistics that occupied little subtexts of the book such as the typical “A study found that three minutes a day spent looking at a fashion magazine caused 70% of women to feel depressed, guilty and shameful.”
A thoughtful discussion, however, ensues early on with the authors advancing that gender stereotyping starts very early with the traditional pink for girls and blue for boys. Until the twentieth century the authors argue that portraits of children from infancy all the way to age five were basically indistinguishable by sex. Peering into stereotypes that start in girlhood, the authors discuss favorites such as the “daddy’s girl”—a manifestation of maternal jealousy coupled with an inner drive fueled by a father’s support—and the “tomboy,” who has as a prototype Alcott’s character Jo March from Little Women.
It is not until the end of Bitches that the stereotypes get nasty in their references to race and religion. The Guerilla Girls discuss Sallie Mae, white trailer trash, Lauren, the Jewish American Princess (“What does she make for dinner? Reservations”), Susan, the White Girl Who Goes After Black Men and Tiffany, the Foxy Flygirl with six-inch fingernails. They argue that by laying these stereotypes out on the table we will be better able to disarm them, perhaps removing their power to shock and hurt.
Sadly, as shown by a selection of titles one Sunday afternoon at the Coop, it seems the new manifestations of “women’s literature” have lost their positive power to inspire and enlighten as well.
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