Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck is an examination of the media treatment of female celebrities (mostly celebrities, always women) when they go off the rails. Starting from the contemporary examples of Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan (the book was published in 2016 but draws extensively from Doyle’s journalism over the preceding ten years) Doyle examines what might really be happening. The stories created by the media take the same narrative: somehow these women have broken the rules and deserve the judgemental, voyeuristic treatment meted out to them.
First Doyle puts the contemporary examples in a historical context by comparing them to treatment of similarly transgressive women such as Mary Wollenstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte and Billie Holliday. Women who have expressed their humanity by refusing to be nothing more than objects for men to project themselves on to are labelled as crazy and hysterical. All their genius and work is erased by a focus on their sexuality and emotionality. It is, of course, a double standard. Men who have behaved in exactly the same ways are rarely punished for it and Trainwreck provides a number of examples of men whose careers have flourished despite addiction, or mental illness, or even merely expressing grief and anger.
What is it that we are supposed to learn from these examples? They perform the same function as girls in folklore such as Red Riding Hood, showing the dangers that will befall us if we stray from the path. The impossible, conflicting standards women are supposed to maintain are policed by the fear of what will happen when we stop trying to comply. When we speak up instead of remaining silenced.
This is a powerful, erudite and informed critical analysis of a pervasive part of our culture written in an entertaining and accessible way. It will make you re-think how you feel about the women dragged through the press and maybe have more compassion for them. Read it and allow it to make you angry.
I have a new blogging project – MicroRebellions.
It was inspired by the confluence of two things:
1. A quote from Albert Camus “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I don’t think I can immediately become absolutely free, but I can make small acts of rebellion all the time that might lead me to freedom one day.
2. The Microaggressions Project. Proof of the power of the smallest act of resistance.
Tumblr seemed the best way to collect pictures, quotes, videos and text together to inspire and record my MicroRebellions. And to let other people join in with me.
This is awesome. That is all.
(H/T to Dances with Fat for sharing it).
I discovered I could edit on the train so I wasn’t reading for a while. I’ve got as far as I can with editing the current work-in-progress; it now needs more writing and I can’t do that on the train quite so well. That does mean I’m reading again which is no bad thing as active reading leads to better writing.
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison‘s first novel. I wanted to read it as it deals with the impact of cultural conceptions on beauty on people who don’t, and can’t ever, be beautiful on those narrow terms. And Toni Morrison is an important writer whose work I haven’t before read.
In the introduction to the edition of The Bluest Eye that I had, Morrison talked about what she had tried to achieve and how she felt that she’d failed. She’d tried to tell the story of a person who is smashed by rejection, who had no self from which to speak because she had internalised the dismissal and hate. To do this, she used a variety of voices to relate a number of incidents that build up to a picture of the child that results. Morrison doesn’t feel she succeeded. As I don’t know what she was trying to do, I can’t say, but it seems to me that what she wrote was exceptional.
What I particularly took from this novel was the way in which Morrison manages to convey accent and rhythm of speaking with word choice and sentence structure. She doesn’t rely on dialect spellings to give her characters authentic voices, meaning the reader doesn’t need to work out how things are supposed to sound. She uses words that were contemporary to 1950’s Black America and structures her sentences in ways that mimic the rhythm of this type of speech. She allows the world of the novel to be built up quickly without distracting the reader from the story.
The second learning point for me was around structure. The novel has four sections which correspond to the seasons and in each section a part of the story is told by a number of different characters. It isn’t chronological for the seasons aren’t necessarily in the same year. Each event adds another layer to the story of the life of a child until you see just how brutalised she is, and just how unintentional most of it was.
In her introduction, Morrison says that few people were moved by The Bluest Eye – I certainly was.
I’ve been pondering this one for a while. A few weeks ago I stumbled across a radical feminist critique of one of my favourite shows, Firefly. My first reaction was ‘no, say it isn’t so!’ and my second was ‘maybe she’s got a point’. I don’t intend to address the arguments about Firefly, as that’s been done here and here.
What I do want to talk about, and what has been occupying my mind ever since, is what is it I do when I write. How much prejudice of any type is revealed in my writing because I am unconscious of it? I think writers want to show people as they actually are – and that sometimes means characters who are bigoted in various ways. That means characters who think they are not prejudiced but reveal by their words that they are.
Lately I’ve read novels and short stories where characters that are not white are described by their skin colour. It’s niggled at me and is possibly a sign that my consciousness has been raised a smidge. A white male character is just ‘a man’, whereas a black male character is ‘a black man’. It would be fine if all white male characters were described as ‘a white man’. Why does the black character need to be identified by his skin colour rather than some other characteristic individual to him? What it reveals is the (unconscious) assumption on the part of the author that white is the norm and that any deviation from this norm needs to be flagged to the reader.
Of course writers have to describe people and it’s nice as a reader to have some physical information to base their imaginations on. But in most cases does it matter if the reader is visualising your character as white or black, gay or straight? How often is it really relevant to the story or to character development? And when it is, it can be just about the individual rather than applying a label.
The trouble is, people use shortcuts and labels. In order to cope with all the information we process everyday, our brains code things. It’s even better if the people around us use the same codes. This is how stereotypes and tropes and mores get born. It’s why we have misunderstandings – because my word ‘woman’ might have different associations to your word ‘woman’. We need assumptions to get through even the most basic conversation.
I think as a writer, I need to have greater awareness. This is for entirely selfish reasons; I want to control what my words say as much as is possible. I don’t want to be misunderstood because I wrote something lazy, muddled and ill-considered. I think I’ve been a bit complacent about being tolerant and inclusive and that I have a bit of work to do in identifying my assumptions.