Category Archives: Feminism

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (Review)

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⭐ ⭐ (2.5 Stars)

I had high expectations for Her Body and Other Parties based on the blurb and reviews I’d seen floating around the internet. After I read it, all I could think was “meh” but no, I don’t think this is a bad collection of short stories. It just didn’t work for me. This book has elements of eroticism, queerness, horror, feminism, science fiction and magical realism – a seemingly perfect read for October… 

“Many people live and die without ever confronting themselves in the darkness.”

“The Husband Stitch” was my favourite story of the bunch. I didn’t know this but the story is based on a creepy story called The Green Ribbon. I interpreted this story as a feminist tale having interesting themes like body autonomy and self-worth. The second story “Inventory” is set in a dystopian world riddled with plague in which the narrator recounts her sexual adventures. “Eight Bites” and “Real Women Have Bodies” are horrific explorations of society’s obsession with thinness. Unfortunately, I didn’t ‘get’ or enjoy the other stories in Machado’s collection.

The women in these stories are multifaceted: some are beat down (literally and otherwise) and some rise above their predicaments. Some women encounter ghosts of their pasts or society’s present, and some women get consumed by their own madness. Carmen Machado is amazing at writing and writing ideas but I didn’t adore her plots. Her Body and Other Parties is shortlisted for the National Book Awards 2017, so it’s worth checking out if the blurb piques your interest.

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Television Shows in the tradition of ‘The Female Gaze’

1. Fleabag (Season 1)

Phoebe Waller-Bridge created, wrote and starred in this quirky comedy drama set in London that is like Bridget Jones but not that glamorous and more depressing. I love everything about this show – its awkwardness, the hamster themed cafe (winning), and the fourth wall breaking dialogue. Her life is in shambles and the people around her are a mess but Fleabag is clever, heart breaking and not afraid to get real.

2. Chewing Gum (Season 1 +2)

This is another show set in London but its main character, Tracey (Michaela Coel), lives in a housing estate, where there are a maelstrom of characters. Michaela Coel is also the writer of Chewing Gum: is anyone sensing a theme here? Tracey grows up with a conservative and über-religious African mom and her little sister. With losing her virginity as the number one agenda, Tracey is a rebel cum laude (or she tries to be), Chewing Gum is heartwarming, funny and hilariously awkward.

Michaela Coel interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQPCyb4HoEk

3. Insecure (Season 1 +2)

Insecure (aptly titled) follows the lives of two African-American women who are navigating modern life in Los Angeles. I adore this show so much! Issa and Molly are in their late 20s and have successful careers but they provide a roadmap of ‘how not to fuck up your love life.’ Side note: the men in this show are exceptionally good-looking (*sips tea*).

4. I Love Dick (Season 1)

ILD is what provided inspiration for this post. This is the only show on this list that is based on a novel (of the same name by Chris Kraus). This is intellectualism meet feminism meet art meet relatable & awkward female protagonist. And it somehow worked! Set in Marfa, Texas, Chris, a filmmaker, accompanies Sylvère her husband who is a research fellow at the art institute. Chaos ensues after she is madly infatuated with Dick – the guy who sponsored her husband. ILD really made me think about the male gaze, objectification of bodies, originality (in life, in art, in thought) and is a wonderfully confusing and stimulating piece of work.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Review)

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⭐  ⭐  ⭐  ⭐

I went to the dentist today and had two of my teeth extracted (RIP teeth). What has that got anything to do with the review, you ask? Well, after my procedure (half my face was numb) I read pages 396 and 397 of The Essex Serpent for about 45 minutes. Does that ever happen to you? You zone out of the story but continue to read the sentences over and over again…

Just me? Okay 😂

You are a woman, and must begin to live like one. By which I mean: have courage.

The Essex Serpent is a historical novel set during the 1890s in… you guessed it, Essex! (and, by extension, London). Recently widowed, Cora Seaborne is finally  free to explore her interests in science and moves to a small town with her (feminist-socialist) maid named Martha and son who may or may not be autistic. Through friends, Cora meets a vicar called Will Ransome. They instantly get along and collide – this oddly paired man of faith and woman of reason. An unlikely love story, to be sure!

William Ransome and Cora Seaborne, stripped of code and convention, even of speech, stood with her strong hand in his: children of the earth lost in wonder.

At the centre of this story – which ties everything together – is the fictional legend of a serpent let loose. The town believes it to be an evil that heralds the end of the world, Cora believes it to be an undiscovered beast that still lives on and Will believes it all to be nonsensical fear. Every page of The Essex Serpent is a goldmine. The language is lyrical and expressive. I could describe this novel as being ‘cinematic’ (i.e. I saw the story playing out clearly in my mind) but that would be a lie. I felt not like a reader but a spectator of sorts… as if I was spying on these characters’ lives. Don’t even get me started about the themes! 

Faith and reason, religion and science, cities and towns, myth and reality, love and friendship. This was a really fascinating read, and I highly recommend it to everyone 😸 

Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha (Review)

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Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay is a Bengali author and so far, Arunava Sinha has translated two of her works into English – Panty and Abandon. I can’t wait to get my hands on the latter. I find it problematic that Panty is categorised as “erotic romance” as it is neither of those things. Unsurprisingly, Bandyopadhyay’s writing caused a massive controversy in India. Sinha, guilty of being complicit with her crimes, has also felt the ire of the nation. Panty is a collection of two magical realist novellas, the first being Hypnosis and the second being Panty.

Hypnosis follows Ilona Kuhu Mitra, a 30-something woman who works as a journalist. Recently divorced, Illona spends her life in limbo. She meets Meghdoot a famous musician and they have a strange relationship. In Panty, an unnamed woman moves into her lover’s house. It is late at night and she gets her period and with no fresh underwear, is forced to put on the panties she found in the wardrobe earlier. When she slips on the panties, she slips on the memories of her lover’s ex. Needless to say, both the novellas are very surreal and strange.

Bandyopadhyay’s stories aren’t erotic, but her characters are liberated and sexual women. The stories explore identity, modern urban loneliness, midlife crises, poverty, and religion among other things. Ilona mixes up dreams and reality – an outer manifestation of her internal conflict. She suffers silently. In Panty, the chapter numbers are erratic – there’s a sense of disorientation. Cons: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay tries to fit too many themes into what are essentially long short stories. Hypnosis and Panty had endings that I didn’t  completely understand. Or maybe that was the point…

Read an extract from Panty here: http://tinyurl.com/he4vkdw

Boy, Snow, Bird, Sweetbitter and The Colour Purple (Book Reviews)

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Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: ⭐⭐⭐ (3.5 stars)

All of Helen Oyeyemi’s works are on my radar now. Boy, Snow, Bird was a really pleasant surprise. I went into the story not knowing anything about the plot, and I’d recommend that. It is by no means a retelling of Snow White. There are some fairy tale elements though (which I’m a sucker for). It’s hard to talk about this novel and avoid spoilers. In brief, the story is set during the 1950s in racially segregated America. Boy Novak runs away from an abusive father in the beginning and finds herself in a town called Flax Hill, she builds a life for herself there and meets a man named Arturo Whitman. I loved Oyeymi’s writing style: it is whimsical, magical and explores themes like race and identity. I enjoyed the female characters and how they interact with each other. Pick this one up if you haven’t already!

Interesting article in The Guardian about the themes in Boy, Snow, Bird: http://tinyurl.com/y97bsy4j

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: ⭐⭐

One star for descriptions of food and how restaurants work.

Another star for guilty pleasure sex scenes and bad boy (welp, I forgot his name *quickly googles*) Jake the bartender.

That’s literally it. I did not enjoy this plotless drivel.

The Colour Purple by Alice Walker: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was such a wonderful read. I’ve wanted to get to The Colour Purple since forever. It tells the story of a Black woman called Celie during the 1930s, in a series of letters she writes to God and interspersed are some letters she receives from her sister Nettie. Celie is sexually abused by her father and, after the death of her mother, is sent away to marry a man to look after his children. She strikes up an unlikely bond and friendship with her daughter in law Sofia and her husbands ex-wife Shug.

A little later on, Celie and Shug are involved in a lesbian relationship. It was realistic, and I loved how Celie’s letters are filled with grammatical errors and spellings. Alice Walker has a way of writing: she made the story very believable and real. It’s a classic. I can’t recommend it enough! I plan on listening to the audiobook soon.

The Concept of a “Social Thriller” in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives

Whilst reading The Stepford Wives I was reminded of Get Out, a film I’d previously watched and absolutely loved. Lo and behold I find out Jordan Peele was indeed inspired by the 1972 novel by Ira Levin, which was then made into a film and shot to cult classic status [1]. It is interesting, to say the least, because The Stepford Wives and Get Out are dressed up as horror/thriller stories but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Jordon Peele labelled Get Out as a “social thriller… inspired by movies that are creepy but humanity is the creepiest part at the centre of it [2].” It intelligently critiques ‘Post-racial’ America – which is the idea that prejudice and discrimination no longer hold sway. Cough. In the movie Chris, who is black, is dating a white woman named Rose. Such a delicate name. Spoiler alert: Rose lures unsuspecting black men to her family so they can brainwash and periodically transfer white people brains into black bodies. Why, you ask? So that white people can live forever in genetically-gifted strong bodies.

The white characters in Get Out are not repulsed by blackness, no. They admire and envy instead [3]. The film doesn’t jump straight to the chase like I did. It gradually transforms into a dark and creepy story. Peele was also inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the opening scene invokes the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Get Out paints insensitive white middle-class liberals as the true villains. Chris is visibly uncomfortable in every scene, at every insidious comment. Daniel Kaluuya is a fantastic actor and  the film score was brilliantly crafted to boot [4].

The Stepford Wives can also be interpreted to revel a hidden meaning. Socially aware and politically driven, Ira Levin’s story is about a family who moves from the city to a suburb called Stepford. Joanna, our main protagonist, finds the housewives of Stepford to be rather odd. They are uniformly good-looking, Barbie-like, and spend all their time cooking and cleaning. Turns out, the husbands of Stepford run a secret society and transform their wives into submissive robots.

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And Joanna is next. She fears there is something in the water that makes all the housewives so but it is soon revealed, evil lurks in her own house, and her own husband. Joanna is fiercely independent, sexually confident, ambitious – the product of second-wave feminism – and is frightened at the possibility of losing power and control. Ira Levin is also pointing fingers at modern commercialism and technology, which can be easily manipulated by malevolent forces, in this case misogynistic, murderous husbands.

I believe that allegorical storytelling allows hysteria and paranoia of the main characters to blend into the background and bring into focus real-life political issues such as feminism and civil rights. The real enemy is not the devil or the monster, it is society and in it, patriarchy and racism are the horrifying elements. A carrier for contemporary ideas: these stories convey anxieties of marginalised groups over loss of their identity and power.

[1] Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yh9yM00r9JQ

[2] Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yh9yM00r9JQ

[3] In one disturbing scene, Walter the groundkeeper (aka Rose’s grandfather) runs in the garden at night. He never got over the fact that Jesse Owens beat him at the Olympics.

[4] Opening credits and songs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA-ONNTBteE

Subversive Feminism in Storytelling: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Julia Ducournau’s Raw

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“You are what you eat,” as the saying goes, to which I’d like to add: “or don’t.” As of recent, food has increasingly become a part of identity politics. Anybody on the internet who strongly follows a particular diet has their pitchforks ready for the ‘non-believers’. In this backdrop, Han Kang’s novel [1] about a woman who refuses to eat meat after a nightmarish dream she can’t speak of and Julia Ducournau’s film [2] about a young vegetarian woman who begins to crave meat of all kinds, including human, come across as confusing and shocking pieces of work. The former is set in South Korea and deals with mental illness whereas the latter is set in France and is a coming-of-age drama.

I’d like to argue that the themes of vegetarianism and cannibalism, albeit contradictory, are utilised to serve the same metaphor. These (fictionalised) extremities enable a self-reflection on society that is very, very real. The Vegetarian follows the story of Yeong-hye who lives a passive, domesticated life in Seoul. Her husband, Mr. Cheong works and Yeong-hye does the cooking and cleaning. The story is narrated by three characters, none of who are Yeong-hye. We do not hear her voice, except details from the dream:

“My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.” 

Yeong-hye swears off meat and radically alters her diet. From what I understand, Korean food culture is centred around banchan or multiple side dishes that are mostly meat-based. Yeong-hye quickly loses a lot of weight, perhaps a little too much. Along with meat she refuses to partake in activities that patriarchy dictates she do like wearing a bra, doing her makeup, and being a dutiful wife. In one brutal scene, Yeong-hye’s father forces her to eat meat which shatters every semblance of normality the family struggles to portray.

In part two, Yeong-hye is the sexual object of her brother-in-law’s gaze, an artist in search for some inspiration. He paints flowers over her naked body, has sex with her and films the process. Art. The last section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister. In the mental hospital, Yeong-hye strives to become a tree [3]: “Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…” She stops eating entirely.

And then there’s Raw, which is visually stunning. Justine is a strict vegetarian who enters vet school, where her sister Alexia also studies. At a hazing ritual, Justine is forcibly fed rabbit liver and thus begins her obsession for meat. Her hunger is not satiated until she tastes human meat. Justine’s newfound freedom and desires lend to her agency she never experienced before: sexually and emotionally.

Cannibalism runs in the family. Alexia indulges and encourages her sister’s cravings but Justine decides to control her hunger. This causes a rift between the sisters who literally fight tooth and nail. Justine accepts her dark animalistic side and violence within it, but suppresses her monstrous desires. This caricatures society at large, where the hunger to consume and kill entails unparalleled cruelty and brutality.

Food is a potent device in these stories. Yeong-hye’s refusal to consume meat and ultimately any food, similarly Justine’s taboo desires act as symbols of feminine power and rebellion. They dissent and deviate through their bodies. In my opinion, The Vegetarian and Raw are part of a fresh wave of feminism in art that highlights female sexuality and dynamism [4]. It is uncomfortable to watch. But necessary.

Notes:

[1] Translated from the Korean into English by Deborah Smith in 2015

[2] Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFlXVX2af_Y

[3] Interestingly, there is a Kannada folk tale called The Flowering Tree (translated by A.K. Ramanujan) where a young girl transforms into a beautiful tree when water is poured over her symbolising menstruation and fertility, the  female power of procreation and sexuality. Read here: journal.oraltradition.org/articles/download/12i?article=ramanujan

[4] Movie recommendations: The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, The Neon Demon, Lady Macbeth