TO the hectic tool kit of 1970s feminism, more info Germaine Greer added a device odder even than the largely imaginary practise of bra burning. The site of insurgency, more about however, did remain on the female body. “You might consider tasting your menstrual blood,” she dared those naifs who imagined themselves emancipated.
If in performing this test the revolutionary wannabe felt ill, she had “a long way to go, baby”. But Greer and her peers seemed untroubled. A confidence that baby would go a long way informed this scorching polemic, as it did much of the literature of the time.
Read Kate Millet, Robin Morgan or any of the early handbooks for women’s revolution and you’ll note the swagger: these ladies imagined it would all would be sorted out in a decade. Two at the most. Through good humour and hard work, sexual inequality would soon be a matter for historical study.
The so-called second wave feminists, and the astute Greer in particular, may have anticipated a little opposition en route to equality. What they did not predict was a hostility that would outlast the century. The habit of resenting “ugly” and “man-hating” feminists grew and endured. As Pulitzer Prize-winner Susan Faludi proposed in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, feminism was, and is, seen as the foundation for many social and cultural ills. These include, but are by no means limited to, fat children, erectile dysfunction and the Spice Girls.
Rarely has so much been attributed by so many to so few. And for so long. One might trace Faludi’s backlash to the beginnings of women’s liberation about 40 years past. According to Caryl Rivers, the fear of feminism continues. And she’s had quite enough of it. In Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women, the journalist and Boston University professor does a respectable initial job of updating Faludi’s famous text.
Rivers is at her best when poking fun at a threat broadly imagined by the media. This lively portrayal of feminist girls gone wild, however, quickly makes way for some middling pop sociology. “It’s all bad news”: so begins a book that imputes the breakdown of feminism to reproving media.
According to Rivers, women are scolded and contained by a slick machine. From Fox News to The New York Times, women are increasingly misrepresented. Stories abound about “women who can’t get pregnant, can’t find a man to commit, hate their bodies, are wretched because they are single or divorced, have sexually transmitted diseases, think they are terrible mothers, and on and on”.
Significantly, says Rivers, if one uses news media as a guide, the index of female achievement seems to have changed for the worse. More than ever before, it seems, we revere women for their good looks rather than their substance. To bear this out, Rivers employs some odd logic. In one undistinguished instance she compares news media references to Jennifer Lopez and Condoleezza Rice. Rivers finds that the Latina pop sensation outranks the former US secretary of state by at least five to one.
Instead of arguing that everyone is cheapened by an ever flashier news media, Rivers decides that it is women who suffer. She could well apply her algorithm to coverage of Colin Powell v Justin Timberlake, for example. But she doesn’t. In Rivers’s lopsided media laboratory, men somehow emerge as honoured subjects. Content to use Paris Hilton as a guide, Rivers concludes that the register of a woman’s moral condition is her beauty.
It is not that Rivers is entirely misguided. She’s just not particularly useful. To any reader passably familiar with the ethics of feminism or, indeed, critique of mainstream media practice, she offers little that is fresh.
In fact, a great deal of it is stale. To wit: women are naught but sexual objects and the media is to blame. Even Rivers’ contention that raunch culture has lately diminished feminism’s gains is borrowed from 2006 best-seller, Female Chauvinist Pigs.A real pessimism informs this book. It seems there is no way for women out of the media matrix.
What Rivers does not offer is any kind of theoretical escape hatch; this is a feminist jeremiad. It’s all bad news.
Although flip, Greer’s menstrual test was useful. For her and for other influential feminist theorists of the past 40 years, the body and, by extension, identity were at the hub of discourse. The refusal to relegate the self and its associated flesh to absence was, and remains, a central project of feminism; or of gender studies, as the specialty is now more broadly known.
Greer’s earthy exercise, borrowed from artist Caroline Coon, was enacted to upend generations of theory. Such acts are intended to rock the dualism of pre-feminist thought. Hierarchies such as culture and nature, man and woman or mind and body can be displaced, so the thinking goes, when a vulgar theorist dares to point to her own genitals.
In moving the body to the centre of inquiry, feminism switched from complaint to positive action; from the tradition of binary thought to the deconstructionist difference; from sociology to philosophy. Rivers, however, is bereft of swagger and principally ignorant of more accelerated corporeal feminisms. It is unlikely, for example, that she has much time for cultural theorists such as Judith Butler or Julia Kristeva. While these writers have offered, at the very least, some crawl space for the development of sexuality, Rivers delivers no more than a long whine. She has a long way to go, baby.
Thanks heavens, then, for the untaught smut of young German writer Charlotte Roche, whose debut novel, Wetlands, has sold almost two million copies in Germany and is now available in English translation. Greer’s scholarship was not lost on Roche and nor was her keen populist streak. Wetlands is resonating, it seems, with literate young women worldwide.
We encounter our 18-year-old heroine, Helen Memel, in her hospital bed. She has sustained an anal wound following a particularly rough bout of genital shaving.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve had haemorrhoids,” is the book’s opening sentence. And it sets the tone.
It has been reported that young readers have swooned at Roche’s book readings. This may be due less to the author’s depictions of rough sex, which are numerous, than to the unsanitary conditions under which these acts take place. Refusing, apparently, to be grist for the feminine hygiene mill, Helen eschews all kinds of bathroom convention. Even a young Greer might be shocked at the muck.
No orifice or secretion goes unexamined. Wetlands consists of long passages about Helen’s passages. Her fondness for sodomy, ear cleaning and scab picking are all enunciated. A peculiar feminism is written all over Helen’s body, which may explain the eagerness of some critics to compare the work with Greer’s The Female Eunuch.
Others have been less impressed. Writing in The Times, Joan Smith charged Roche with being “parasitic on feminism”, of “borrowing the vocabulary of feminism” while remaining, “blithely unaware” of the culture by which she’s informed.
It is true that Roche owes a great literary and ideological debt to others. While she may never have read the Marquis de Sade, Susan Sontag or Kathy Acker, she is obliged to all of them. It is also true that 30-year-old Roche seems a bit of a naif. Despite her childish eagerness to shock, she will leave women who have read and followed Greer’s instructions relatively unaffected.
Be that as it may, Wetlands is momentous. There is no question that many young people will be significantly stirred by this text. This iteration of corporeal feminism will almost certainly excite many young female readers.
Older ladies, such as Smith and myself, hardly risk being ruffled. But the book is not intended for readers who have questioned the conventions of grooming and sex, it is intended for the very young, those who have grown up exclusively consuming the sort of hyper-sanitised and hyper-sexed media that is the target of Rivers’s wrath. It is intended for Greer’s granddaughters; those young women grown in the slight shadow of Paris Hilton.
In Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy observed that Paris Hilton is, “sexy, not sexual”. Hilton, referenced intermittently in Selling Anxiety for her archetypal feminine blankness, is perceived as clean and dirty. She is willing, as her widely seen home movies attest, to engage in sex. What she is not willing to do is be mussed by the act.
Perfectly groomed and perfectly detached, Hilton typifies a generation of young women emptied of desire, preoccupied with hygiene and isolated from the matter of their sex organs. It is to these regularly waxed women that Roche addresses her vulgar text. Despite Smith’s gripe, a popular and earthy feminism is again badly needed. Roche delivers to those who might prefer being sexual over sexy.
Wetlands might not be meaningfully post-feminist, but it is certainly a post-Brazilian text.
Like a soiled Bell Jar or a feminised Fight Club, this angry young novel will be cherished by its natural constituents.
Biting Anorexia should also appeal to its own slender niche. Written by slight Sydney prodigy Lucy Howard Taylor, the memoir has attracted high commendation. It was endorsed by the Australian Eating Disorders Foundation. Apparently the organisation is not in the habit of offering approval. This is largely due to the tendency of anorexic authors to glamorise their dysfunction and offer handy hints for starvation.
Howard Taylor, now 20 and a law student at the University of Sydney, does not give details of her lowest weight. Nor does she divulge the secrets of a “successful” anorexia nervosa.
It is not entirely true, however, to say that she refrains from describing her illness with wistful longing. Wistful longing, however, is the province and the right of teenaged girls. And so, of course, is “journaling”. Its commendations notwithstanding, Biting Anorexia is not an entire book but a diary. This is an occasionally charming collection of bric-a-brac. The author offers rice cakes, red dresses and affairs conducted entirely on MySpace. Loose fragments of poetry, recipes and pity for the dull lives of office workers are all suitable topics for the diarist. They have no place, however, in a purportedly important book.
Howard Taylor may very well tender companionship to the ill. The endorsee of several prominent anorexics and bulimics, she has been hailed as one of the most literate memoirists on the subject of eating disorders.
However, she offers little in the way of a narrative and little to assist healthy eaters in understanding the anorexic. “Certainly, the media plays a role in furthering anorexia,” she writes, “but it is by no means a major factor.” She does give us this clue: “[Anorexia springs from] a need to absolve oneself of expectation, of one’s SELF in its entirety.”
If only Howard Taylor was to continue this thought and offer us a reading of the anorexic woman as a cool, clean reflection of a visually inclined culture. The anorexic may be the inevitable by-product of a world that sanctions an emptying of the self; she may outrun the dualist hierarchy of mind and body by destroying her mind and body. Howard Taylor, a promising young writer, hints at these possibilities but does not patrol them. That she supplants much-needed theorising with thoughts on pretty boys, cute dresses and lemon curd is a pity.
Lively and contrarian, Sander L. Gilman is hardly to be pitied. The American academic and author or editor of more than 80 books, he is best known for his works on the cultural history of medicine. In Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity, the literary historian turns his attention to the bodies and waistbands of the world.
The World Health Organisation acknowledges the “global obesity epidemic”. And in recent years science has employed a viral model to explain overweight. Like avian flu or the black death, says Gilman, obesity is seen as a contagion, and that is wrong.
While the author does not refute the hazards of obesity, he does do much to deflate the disease model of fat. Tracing the origin of this understanding to the mid-19th century, Gilman builds an enchanting body of evidence. Dickens’s plump villains, America’s contemporary fat camps and the ethnic and religious bigotry of eugenicists are all called into play.
Fans of writers such as the ethical omnivore Michael Pollan will be substantially challenged by many of Gilman’s contentions. His informed cynicism, for example, regarding the middle-class dietary shift to natural and organic foods is disarming. This latter health food is placed within a context that includes girdles, the cabbage soup diet and tapeworms.
Through his historical fossicking, the author refuses a necessary connection between fat and ill health or between fat and capitalist greed. We are tempted to view fat as something with multiple origins: a gluttonous market; an agribusiness that feeds on the weakness of consumers. Gilman will not allow this sort of simple thinking. Fat is no simple matter. It has become our habit to view fat as the product of a single origin. It carries with it, Gilman reminds us, a swag of unstable social and medical meanings.
It is Gilman’s agility in framing fat men that makes this text exceptional. While many feminist critics have used the female body as a locus for inquiry, comparatively few writers have thought to examine the masculine form. Gilman’s male bodies have been demonised, pummelled and starved. In this book history inscribes itself clearly on the male body. It is via our bodies that we observe and make sense of the culture. Nonetheless, the experience of the body is yet to be substantially written.
In their markedly different ways, Roche and Gilman make a good fist of exploring the dimension of flesh.