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Hit the Books: Five Feminist Novels to Read Posthaste

In books, class, feminism, race, social justice, violence on October 3, 2014 at 6:32 am

Girls Like Giants contributors put our heads together to recommend a few of the best books we’ve read in recent times. What’s on your reading list?

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s searing portrait of life before, during, and after the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), follows the narratives of three radically different characters—the beautiful and upper class Olanna, the houseboy turned child soldier Ugwu, and the white British expat and journalist Richard. There is neither a singular narrator nor narrative but rather a switching back and forth between these characters’ various perspectives, a literary move which heeds her call for the necessity of multiple narratives. As a result, we witness the war and its attendant violence from the perspective of each character. For instance, we see rape as a tool of war twice: once in a threat made against Olanna by a soldier and then in Ugwu’s own horrific participation—after he is conscripted into the army—in a gang rape of a young bartender. In Adichie’s novel there is neither safety nor cover from the casual and everyday violence of warf. And there is no simple resolution to its lasting its scars as it reaches into the depths of our lives. Before the war, there was happiness, fun, and radical politics—the latter embraced and touted by Olanna’s husband, a university professor. Yet, as Adichie makes clear, embracing revolutionary politics is far afield from the masculinized violence and terror of war. Her powerful critique reinforces the fact that there are no winners amidst this violence and that the independence sought is sadly never gained, even as lives are lost and irreversibly changed. I can’t recommend this book enough. From Adichie’s eloquent writing to her formal innovation and political critique, Half of a Yellow Sun is by far the most beautiful, difficult, and empathetic novel I’ve read in a long time. – Phoebe B.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

In the last couple years I have read several excellent books. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane delighted me and creeped me out in equal measure. Booker Prize winner The Luminaries, by wunderkind Eleanor Catton, brought magical realism to a sweeping historical western set among whores, charlatans, and opium peddlers in a New Zealand mining town. But without hesitation, the best book I’ve read recently is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This mysterious novel reminds me of the modernist works I love, with a dash of postmodern instability and feminist exploration thrown in for ballast. It focuses on the many lives of Ursula Todd, a person with the gift (or curse) of constantly rebooting back to birth whenever she dies. We follow Ursula through several noteworthy historical happenings, from the Great War and the contemporaneous influenza pandemic to the Blitz in London during World War II. We also see different iterations of Ursula, a person changed ever so evocatively by the various things that happen to her and then alter the trajectory of her life. I won’t give away any more twists or turns but just urge you to snatch up a copy of Life After Life as soon as possible. It’s smart and entertaining and absolutely ideal for delving into during blustery autumn weather. – Sarah S. Read the rest of this entry »

I Don’t Like Skyler White. And That’s Okay.

In class, feminism, gender, misogyny, Television, TV villains, violence on September 2, 2013 at 1:00 am

Sarah S.

Alright, “don’t like” might be a bit strong but I definitely feel conflicted about her. Shortly before this whole conversation blew up about Breaking Bad‘s Skyler I tweeted the question: do people find Skyler White sympathetic? I wondered if others felt confused about her waffling, her semi-dubious claiming of the high ground, her own forays into unethical and even criminal activity. Were her reactions to these circumstances believable? Does the plot justify the battling loyalty, loathing, and fear she heaps upon Walt (her chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-dealer husband)?

In case you missed it, a lot of people hate Skyler, and I mean HATE, given the number of Facebook pages and websites dedicated to loathing her. In a response, JOS of feministing.com blames sexism for society’s inability to accept a complex female character. The actress who plays Skyler, Anna Gunn, even wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled “I Have a Character Issue.” She describes getting death threats because of how people feel about the character she portrays. Similarly to JOS, Gunn argues that Skyler “has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women.” This description makes it sound as if dislike for Skyler stems purely from misogyny but is Skyler really so uncompromised as Gunn and others make her sound?

***mild spoilers***

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How Great is Gatsby? The Sarahs Respond

In adaptation, books, class, Film, gender, race on May 15, 2013 at 5:30 am

I love The Great Gatsby. It took several readings for me to appreciate its strange genius but now I’m hooked. It’s so rich and weird one can read it again and again and find a different perspective on the characters or an exquisitely beautiful passage. But it’s not a book that would seem to transfer well to film. But then again, nobody factored in Baz Luhrmann, who seemed a great choice to make an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterwork because you knew that’s what he would do—an adaptation—some heady filmic rendering of the novel, rather than an attempt to re-create the novel on screen. So how did Baz do? GLG’s Sarahs gathered their word-nerdery, film hats, and finest furs to find out.

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Sarah S: I thought the movie was pretty interesting on both class and gender, albeit perhaps subtly enough that the average viewer might miss it. I also found any notion that it idealized that world sans critique completely stupid. I have more detailed thoughts but I’ll add them based on what you  think. What say you, Sarah T?

Sarah T: Yes I agree with you on both counts! On the gender front: People tend to hate Daisy because they think she’s just a blonde, glamorous, blank projection of men’s dreams. And she is a projection, but not just a projection. The problem isn’t that she has no personality, it’s that nobody sees Daisy–not Gatsby, not Tom, not even Nick, who prides himself on being observant. They’re all too busy being dazzled by that voice that sounds like money. (Good voice choice by Mulligan, by the way—low, musical, lilting, balmy as a summer day in Louisville.)

But as both Fitzgerald and this movie make clear, Daisy’s actually pretty complex. For one thing, she’s got this sly wit that she gets no credit for at all. (“Tom is getting very profound,” she says dryly after Tom goes on a ridiculous, racist rant. “He reads deep books with long words in them.”) And I loved that scene in the sweltering hotel room where we see how Daisy’s being ripped apart by two men who are each trying to control her, though Tom far more brutishly than Gatsby. I also like the image of the three-strand pearl necklaces that Tom gives to both Daisy and, later, to Myrtle–a handy symbol of the wealth and power that he uses to lure and trap women. That’s why Daisy tears them off when she tries to break off their engagement. Though it turns out that Gatsby is just as determined to use money to get to the girl of his dreams, too.

I also loved Jordan in this movie–so skeptical and breezy but with a new undercurrent of kindness that the book doesn’t give her. She came across as loyal to Daisy, compassionate toward Gatsby. And it’s clear how frustrated she is by Nick’s passivity, which is his greatest flaw, so good lookin’ out, Jordan.

Sarah S: There were a couple lovely scenes with Daisy when she realizes that Gatsby sees her as something to possess, a status symbol, just as Tom does. Gatsby might be nicer but that doesn’t change the essential fact. We see this when Daisy asks to go away and Gatsby insists they live out this public display of a fairytale. And then, as you mention, the room in the hotel when Daisy is literally repeating Gatsby’s words at his command (until she stops). (This scene is performed almost exactly as written in the novel.) The audience has this impression confirmed, too, when Gatsby watches Daisy prancing up his grand staircase and comments to Nick how glamorous she makes his house look. It’s almost as if she’s The Dude’s rug in that she “really ties the room together.” I found this a perfectly plausible way to represent Daisy based on the book and a nice way to push past Nick’s dismissal of her as vain and shallow. We still don’t have much access to Daisy but this twist, combined with Mulligan’s performance, gives us tantalizing glimpses, as if glimpsed through billowing curtains.

As to class, I felt that Luhrmann did an excellent job showing the crassness of Gatsby’s display of wealth, a poor boy’s excessive fantasy of how the wealthy live. When Tom taunts him that he’ll never belong, it’s true, and we know it’s true. When Nick tells Gatsby that “they’re a rotten crowd,” he’s right and, again, Gatsby will never belong with them. Depending on how you think about it, it’s a rather pathetic consolation prize, their rottenness. I also thought the film nailed the “valley of ashes” and the desperate, awful lives of Myrtle and George. No wonder Myrtle embraces an exciting affair with a rich brute (rich being the only part she’s not used to); no wonder George wants to sell that coupé and head west.

One other small thing that struck me was how often intimate conversations went on with servants still in the room–and how uncomfortable this made me, the grossness of ignoring the other humans in the room. In Downton Abbey and the like the family don’t have serious conversations in front of “the help.” So this detail seemed like a really subtle way to drive home the class distinction.

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In the Sky, Lord, in the Sky: Historical Guilt and Bioshock Infinite

In class, dystopian literature, games, gender, race, spoilers, technology, time travel, Uncategorized, violence on April 4, 2013 at 9:30 am

brian psi

Irrational Games’ latest opus, Bioshock Infinite, was released last week, to universal acclaim. Creative director Ken Levine has been making the kind of upscale promotional rounds usually frequented by novelists or filmmakers—rare air for someone who has just made an ultraviolent first person shooter, the most reviled (and most lucrative) subgenre of the most debased popular art form. Like other games of its type, the new Bioshock features plenty of gunplay and gruesome melee finishers; unlike other games in any genre, Infinite’s storytelling, setting and themes explore the most troubling aspects of American history, providing a fairly scathing commentary on the interplay of American exceptionalism, racism, religion and labor exploitation. What really struck me is the way that the game evokes—in its narrative and mechanics—two very different responses to historical guilt, responses which make the game’s politics both fascinating and contemporary.

WARNING: massive spoilers below, including major plot twists and ending!

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The End of Men: And the Rise of Intense Conversation

In books, class, feminism, gender, misogyny, Uncategorized on November 19, 2012 at 6:18 am

Sarah S.

Men are over. O-V-E-R. Or so says Hanna Rosin—journalist, author, founder of Slate’s woman-centric blog “Double X,” and mother to a son she worries about and a daughter that thrives. In The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Rosin claims that patriarchy is deader than J.R. Women have won, men are in decline, and the only reason we (women, men, Americans, global citizens, etc.) don’t recognize this fact is because the reality is far from the egalitarian utopia our second-wave foremothers promised.

Rosin’s premise incited quite the conversation among feminists, including Stephanie Coontz, who takes umbrage at the notion that women’s successes equal men’s decline, and Emily Blazelon and Liz Schwartz, who defend Rosin’s premise and methodology. Regardless of where one falls on this issue (or one’s gender), it’s an important conversation to have for several reasons.

One, it makes feminists quite uncomfortable; if women have actually “won,” and the world is still a cultural cesspool riddled with inequality, then are women just replacing their male overlords? Is a matriarchy doomed to be just as distasteful as a patriarchy?

Second, if newly dominant women dislike the world we see, what do we do about it? How can we take this newfound power out for a spin and see what it can do for universal equality and global improvement? If nothing else, how can we avoid turning the men that we love—husbands, sons, partners, brothers, gay boyfriends—into a new underclass?

Third, are Rosin and her ilk dead wrong? Does Rosin selectively order information in such a way as to make her case while not accounting for real and ongoing gender inequality? Further, does she account enough for race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality in her assessment?

These and other questions are so important that I was excited to have a conversation with members of Girls Like Giants about the book. Alas, most of our crew were too busy dominating the world to read and respond to the book in a timely manner. So the weighty task of leading this discussion fell to me—your humble narrator and hopeful guide.

I would have liked to have had that conversation in order to get into the nuances of Rosin’s argument. Are her uses of individual stories distractingly manipulative or competent ways to humanize the discussion? How about examples from her own biography—honest or smug? And why oh why did she allow a desire to provoke controversy overcrow arguments against such an inflammatory, ultimately lousy title? But beyond these rhetorical choices, Rosin’s main point matters to any thinking person as she articulates a profound, unshakeable shift in the makeup of our world.

However, I don’t want to just review the book or to give a rundown of my thoughts on it. If nothing else, I’m too conflicted by the argument, and frustrated by Rosin’s way of making it, to venture an objective opinion. I thought that, instead, I would briefly summarize each chapter of the book and then open it up for discussion. I’ve also included a series of links at the bottom that highlight some of the conversation that’s gone on surrounding Rosin’s work. After reading the following, what say you? Have we really reached “the end of men”?

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GLG Weekly Round-Up: Hurricane Sandy

In 2012 election, class, Sandy on November 11, 2012 at 9:08 am

This week, President Obama won four more years in the White HouseDonald Trump was horrible (again), four states legalized gay marriage (woohoo!), and efforts to clean up New York after Hurricane Sandy continued. This week’s round-up is dedicated to media coverage of Hurricane Sandy. You’ll also find links with information on volunteering or donating to relief efforts below.

Check out “Everybody Gets Wet” about news coverage of Sandy, by Julia Leyda and Diane Negra, over at Antenna:

“Reporting of the disaster’s impact in places like Breezy Point in the Rockaways is colored by a strong element of mourning for obsolescent, geographically fixed communities, in contrast to the more affluent, gentrified, and relatively transient residents of the areas of lower Manhattan that were also affected.”

An interesting discussion of the role of Twitter during Sandy, via the New York Times Media Decoder Blog

“Manhattan is the epicenter of a number of big blogs, including Gawker, BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, but each had to pivot to Twitter, among other platforms, as their servers succumbed to encroaching waters. (At a conference last year, Andrew Fitzgerald of Twitter wondered about the utility of the platform if the end of the world arrived in the form of an alien attack.”

The Atlantic on how Sandy laid bare income inequality in NYC:

“Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city’s cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home.”

Many people who live in NYC’s public housing projects still don’t have electricity or water, The New York Times reports:

“On Thursday, Mr. Bloomberg expressed the hope that private contractors would be able to restore electricity by the weekend and heat “sometime early next week” to affected buildings. This is hardly comforting news to people huddled in blankets as temperatures drop. There seems to be no clear answer for why it has taken so long to send out temporary generators and boilers to help these residents.”

To volunteer or donate to Sandy relief efforts, here are a couple links with information:

A guide for donating and volunteering, from CBS.

Check out information on relief efforts on the American Red Cross website.

Volunteer opportunities, via New York Cares.

“Nashville”: This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Them. Or Is It?

In class, gender, Nashville, The South on October 15, 2012 at 9:46 am

Firstly, welcome back Tami Taylor! I mean, Connie Britton! You are the best. Secondly, Nashville premiered this week on ABC–a show we at GLG have been super-excited about since the upfronts came out. So we wanted to take a little time to ponder the new series, its leading ladies, and its representation of the South.

What did you think about the Nashville pilot?

Phoebe B: I enjoyed it in part because I sort of love country music and really adore Connie Britton. I am also intrigued by the politics side of things, which appear ridden with mystery and corruption and family drama. I also was intrigued by what seem to be a criticism of youth culture in the music industry and the ways in which female musicians, for example Rayna (Connie Britton), are pushed out in favor of autotune and youth. I also worry, however, about the women in competition with each other aspect but also the show seems to figure that competition as perpetuated by the men of the music industry. Basically, I am excited for more Nashville but also wary of certain aspects of it.

Sarah T: As a fellow lover of Connie Britton and of Nashville (pretty much my entire paternal side of the family lives there), I’m rooting for this show to knock my cowboy boots off. So far I like, but do not love it — but hey, it’s only one episode! The show’s original music is great, and I’m excited to see the relationship and rivalry between the two female leads develop. I am also somewhat confused about whether or not Nashville owes Country Strong a cut of its royalties, since it has the exact same plot minus the older star’s alcoholism. And there are no baby birds in boxes. YET.

Chelsea B: Like both of you, I mostly watched because I adore Connie Britton and had my fingers crossed that her Nashville character would just be Tami Taylor in sequins and with a slightly different drawl. Rayna wasn’t quite that, but she also wasn’t a total disappointment. I also am bummed that the central storyline revolves around building competition between two female leads. I comfort myself (as a long-professed Taylor Swift anti-fan) by imagining that Hayden Panettiere’s character, Juliette Barnes, is actually a direct portrayal of Taylor Swift, despite claims to the contrary. I’m also into the political intrigue, even though Rayna’s daddy issues driving a lot of that conflict are already a bit wearisome. And I’m totally with you on the Country Strong comparison, ST! Leighton Meester could only have improved this show.

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An Ideological Mess or: How I Learned to Not Stop Worrying and Still Love Rock Climbing

In class, gender, race, Rock Climbing on May 11, 2012 at 6:54 am

Guest Contributor Narinda Heng

Iíve been climbing fences, balconies, and trees for years, but it wasnít until January of 2011, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that I went rock climbing for the first time at Malibu Creek State Park. It’s funny that instead of participating in a Day of Service, I went rock climbing. I guess that could be seen as one of the very first moments when I had to grapple with feeling a contradiction between pursuing rock climbing and the many other ideals and identities that I hold dear. And now here I am–here we are– discussing race, gender, and class in rock climbing.

And it feels good. Really good. Even though it’s uncomfortable and difficult. Because I don’t feel like I need to ignore or hide the fact that I think about and experience these contradictions, and what’s more, I’m seeing that there are so many people out there who are supportive of talking about it. And my partner, who has been climbing and dealing with this for much longer than I have, gets to heal a bit from her earlier discouragement with discussions like this in the online climbing community.

I submitted the link to Melissa Sexton’s article Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?”  to Climbing Narc because recent discussions made me feel like there were people in the climbing community who were ready and willing to talk about it. I was also ready to see people be defensive and assert that there’s no race/gender/class on the rock, and I actually agree with that–those delicious moments of just climbing are part of why I love it. So I understand why Guidoprincess said this:

I think the reason many people, including myself, find this offensive is that we turn to climbing exactly to avoid worthless BS like this. While many other public forums are full of this ìracial landscape navigationî nonsense, climbing is a pure activity where everyone can just chill the f*ck out.

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