Rock She Wrote
edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers
2014 (originally published 1995) • 496 pages • Plexus Publishing
Have I ever mentioned how much I love reading women’s voices in chorus? I always love learning about women in community, especially when it involves women that the powers that be prefer to isolate, such as Jane Austen in the Western canon (did you know Jane Austen was influenced by Fanny Burney?) or Dolly Wilde as a footnote in Oscar Wilde’s history. Anthologies of women’s writing can sound a little dry, but something like Women in Clothes can be so astonishing just by the sheer variety of voices it entails. Feminine experience is multifaceted, varied—we’re so often denied this truth in even supposedly progressive media that to encounter it all at once is a choice experience.
Rock She Wrote fights back against the (white, straight) boys’ club of criticism by presenting a sample of over thirty years’ worth of writing on rock, pop, and rap. Editors Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, in the introduction, describe both the motivation for curating the collection and the treasure hunt of tracking down authors, soliciting recommendations, and hunting for lost fanzines. (As someone who dreams of discovering some secret trove of eighties Star Wars slash zines, I can relate.) And, blissfully, it’s not just a collection of straight white female authors—women of color and queer women also have their voices represented here.
The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison
2014 • 256 pages • Graywolf Press
I do hope that all fans of Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar, and Tiny Beautiful Things have discovered the existence of Dear Sugar Radio. That’s right, dear readers, Sugar has taken to the airwaves—both of them, in fact, as original Sugar Steve Almond is along for the ride. Together, and usually with the help of a colleague over the phone, they tackle exactly the same kind of letters people sent to Sugar during her original run.
It’s a wonderful podcast and a regular part of my podcast rotation, but I find myself missing the conspiratorial, motherly, and challenging tone of the original (alright, semi-original) Sugar, who shared her hard-earned wisdom with us just as much as she shared the things that she was still struggling with.
In that light, Leslie Jamison, whom you may know from her searing “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” reads like a younger Sugar, one with harder, pricklier edges. (Which makes perfect sense, given that The Empathy Exams were recommended on a recent episode of Dear Sugar Radio.) Jamison’s theme, as you might be able to guess, is pain: the pain of understanding, not understanding, and not being understood, the pain of suffering an illness that doctors dismiss, the voluntary pain of extreme runners, the involuntary pain of the incarcerated and the wounded, and the pain we co-opt for our own purposes and pleasures. And, with the welcome inclusion of “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in this volume, how to actively engage with female pain when it has been turned into flattening, dehumanizing metaphor for centuries in media.
Women in Clothes
edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton
2014 • 528 pages • Blue Rider Press
I’ve started wearing blue lipstick recently. I’ve also started wearing purple lipstick—true, dark, royal purple, not berry or mauve—but they both get the kind of attention I want. With the warm tones in my face neutralized by how dark and cold they are, I look… different. Women are usually pleasantly baffled by it; men are repelled. Cute shop girls ask me where I get it. I leave fantastical, cosmic lip marks on coffee cups and apples. I actually had a teenage girl timidly touch me on the shoulder at a museum exhibit to compliment me on it, staring at my mouth like she’d simply never conceived of the idea before and found something inspiring about it.
What those lipsticks give me is something incredibly rare: power over the way other people see me. As a femme queer, I have so been long resigned to being visually misread that I’ve reached the point of just not caring and doing whatever I want, since people usually just begin and end with my hair anyway. Stumbling across something that disrupts what I had previously believed to be something completely static feels like finding a magic wand.
The decisions we make about what we wear, no matter how conscious or conscious, speak to how we interact with both the outside world and our inner world. Women in Clothes, a massive project undertaken by editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, explores those decisions by asking over six hundred women (and a few male transvestites) what their clothes mean to them. Largely, they used a survey (which you can look at here), but there are also interviews, diagrams drawn by women about their bodies, maps of the discarded clothes left on the floor, and collections of similar clothing owned by one person, just to name a few.
by Roxane Gay
2014 • 336 pages • Harper Perennial
In Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, you will find three versions of the eponymous essay. The final product opens the collection and two of its preceding drafts close it. They’re different enough that it doesn’t feel repetitive, but bookending the entire collection with them makes perfect sense. It shows how rocky the terrain of our current culture is, humanizes the writing process (which can feel sterilized in the seemingly permanent spaces of either the Internet or print), and drives home Gay’s point: that she “would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all” (318). For Gay (and, I would hope, for us all) being a feminist is an active process.
To be a feminist in the digital age is to be easily able to find both your community and those who would stand against you—even (and perhaps especially) those who also consider themselves feminists but are not committed to the cause as to a version of it that benefits them. There’s always that moment when a new acquaintance brings up Caitlin Moran and I tense up, wondering if they, too, subscribe to the same kind of cissexist feminism that doesn’t believe in intersectionality. To quote Flavia Dzodan, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” I have, in my long time on the Internet, sought out, found, stumbled across, and otherwise just looked up to find myself in complex feminist (and if not explicitly feminist, feminist-minded) spaces that have much more to teach me than I have to teach them. Reading Bad Feminist, I was reminded of nothing more than that online feminist universe that I haunt, to the point that discovering where versions of the collected essays had been previously published in the acknowledgements read quite a bit like my Feedly.
edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older
2014 • 370 pages • Crossed Genres Publications
There are a lot of tired arguments against diversifying media that I hate, but anything that incorporates the words “forced” or “shoe-horned” are in my top three stupidest arguments against diverse media. As if defaulting to cisgendered straight white men was somehow natural and not a product of the fact that most of the people involved in creating mainstream media fit into those demographics. As if stories have to go out of their way to incorporate any other perspective.
As if these stories might not be more poignant in someone else’s shoes.
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman
I was supposed to love Chuck Klosterman.
Hype is a treacherous thing, isn’t it? There’s a fine line between getting excited and getting so excited that the actual thing can never live up your expectations. It’s why I manage so precisely my own exposure to promotional material; I usually limit myself to a trailer or a cover these days. But what can you really spoil with essays on pop culture? (Asks the woman who waited until she read A Year of Flops to archive binge on Nathan Rabin’s titular online column.) After all, I’m a ravenous fan who adores meta and an avid reader of The A.V. Club and Grantland. Nathan Rabin was the first writer who made me text someone in despair over how I could never possibly write like that. Based on that, it’s only logical that I would think Klosterman was directly up my alley.
Best Food Writing 2013 edited by Holly Hughes
While only a few months separate my readings of Best Food Writing 2011 and Best Food Writing 2013, they’re worlds away from each other when it comes to my cooking and my own relationship with food. Providing for myself is quite a different experience from living with my parents or living at school. (There are no endless bowls of apples, for one.) On the one hand, there are some things that I love that I won’t be buying anytime soon, like smoked salmon. On the other hand, I’ve had to get more creative, resulting in baguettes stuffed with veggie puree and almond milk-based curry. (I’m lactose intolerant, so that’s always on hand.) Food is becoming something I have more and more control over, simply because I have to cook constantly. It is no longer a fun hobby I indulged in for friends’ birthdays and the holidays, but something I do everyday.
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
How do you successfully translate a blog into a book? The current model, as seen in My Year of Flops and Hyperbole and a Half, is to collect the best of the original posts and add some exclusive original material. As a method of enticing fans to purchase something they can essentially get for free (although one hopes they’d want to support their favorite creators regardless), it’s not a bad way of doing things. However, this doesn’t deal with the inherent difference between a book and a blog—a book is, more or less, fixed, while a blog is a living, breathing thing. As this profile of Homestar Runner points out, just because it hasn’t updated in years doesn’t mean that it won’t, and my favorite part of catching up on old-school Saturday Night Live with The A.V. Club is reading the comments, something you will never see collected. But perhaps this can’t be dealt with; it’s just the nature of the medium, of putting moving blog to fixed page.
How to Watch Television edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell
While I tell people that I didn’t start watching television “properly” until I was fifteen, it’s a bit of shorthand. It’s not that we didn’t watch television in my house growing up. My mother, a committed Anglophile of a Frenchwoman, watched (and continues to watch) Masterpiece Theater on a regular basis, and I, obviously, had both the time and access to watch I Love the 80s and imprint upon eighties pop culture like a duckling. Otherwise, my parents just didn’t watch primetime television shows, which meant that I was simply never exposed to even the concept. By the time Heroes rolled around and my pop culture junkie destiny was realized, all of my critical background, both taught and absorbed, was in literature. Since then, I’ve been working to expand my critical eye into other mediums. I’ve been paying specific attention to film (hello, Story of Film!) and comics (hello, Understanding Comics!), but seeing How to Watch Television on NetGalley reminded me that it was high time to officially tackle television.
Especially with the five shows I’ll be juggling this season.
Yes Means Yes! edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti
This week makes it a month since I decided to forsake Atlanta for Denver. And in those four weeks, I’ve been harassed on the street more than I ever have been in my life so far. (Not that I think Atlanta is particularly superior in that regard, only that being at a women’s college was a very different context. Although I will say that there is a Hollaback Atlanta and not a Hollaback Denver.) There’s nothing like waiting to cross the street after a long day at work and getting honked at, whistled at, or have someone grab their crotch at you to remind you that, by daring to be female and in public, your very corpse is considered public domain by an alarming amount of men. Between that and the success of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (which I am not linking to), this summer has given me a fresh handle on the concept of rape culture.