Writing Female Memoirs, Not Feminist Manifestos
Difficulties, Disclaimers, and an odd sense of optimism
"Yes, we love the good men in our lives and sometimes, oftentimes, the bad ones too -- but that we’re not in full revolution against the lot of them is pretty amazing when you consider this truth: men get to rape and kill women and still come home to a dinner cooked by one." Sex Object, Jessica Valenti
For my entire adult life I have made every excuse known in English, some in Farsi, Spanish, and even Russian, to push aside the thought that female writing could be anything other than revolutionary. That women could not possibly write with a mind of their own and intention to showcase something feminist without being political or overly ambitious. And in the same vein, I have worked tirelessly to create reasons and excuses as to why and how men have come to be the way they are, individually and as a sect of our human species. I have even gone as far as to believe in the sad concept of a masculine issue, where men too, face social anxieties to be a men and must therefore follow the male-code to survive.
The Hemingway enthusiast in me has always and will always find a reason to forgive my father, my ex boyfriends, and current partner for their overtly sexist behavior, and find only fault in their milieu and, of course, myself. But in two days, I read through Sex Object, by Jessica Valenti, and I found myself shocked to read something which resonated with my personal experiences A small slap in the face, of course I was not the only person living this rouse.
Why was I finding it so difficult to write about though? What was making me shut my mouth about something half the species could adequately understand, if not speak on behalf of. Most likely, as is always the case with me, I felt that speaking towards feminism was in a way, speaking against men. I would like to now change that belief, I can see that this vulnerability was in a way a form of loyalty to the good men in my life, of which there are countless of you, and I love you all, but this isn’t about you anymore. I think it is fair to say, it’s now about me. Is that okay, for the author to come forward and admit, it is she who first picked up the pen, touched the paper, and let herself go?
Within the brief and honest first chapter of her memoir, Valenti goes on to describe how she began to care more about what men thought of herself over her own health and happiness because it was easier. Making jokes about sex and the female body to fit in the with guys who gave her attention; saying I am not a stereotypical girls, because I fuck and smoke and say fuck. I believe Valenti’s love for herself came about through motherhood, or alongside motherhood, and here I urge others to find a form of motherhood which can help them. Birthing yourself, a dog, a fucking plant, I don’t care, but to show maternity is, I think, a real strength in light of such a fucked up world.
Maybe here, maternity is not the right word, but any sort of maternal characteristics, something about giving care and being perceived as someone who gives care might in turn have a large positive and negative effect on a person. I like to think I came up with this all on my own, but it was through harnessing the strengths of Valenti’s words that I could actually start organizing my own thoughts; “While my refusal to keep laughing or making you [presumably the men] comfortable may seem like a real fucking downer, the truth is that this is what optimism looks like. Naming what is happening to us, telling the truth about it -- as ugly and uncomfortable as it can be -- means that we want it to change. That we know it is not inevitable.”
There are moments throughout Valenti’s memoir where I felt others might have gotten stuck as a writer. This is my job, I am analyzing her style as well as her truths. I found that the emission of her sister as a major character was a good stylistic move - my own work can sometimes be too attached to my sibling and how we are who we are because of each other. Valenti, instead, worked around her approach as a breaker of generational sexism, and generational violence. Her approach was from the angle of motherhood, and the concept of a vicious cycle. Through each chapter, beautifully woven tales of sorrow and time, one can see pain coming in and out, as if with age, pain is a necessity. Lines of time shown through acts of violence and our adult numbness to it all, becoming too used to something which is institutional, and seemingly intrinsic.
I may not have connected to all the ideas and concepts, I have been to New York City (yet) and I imagine that the stories of multitudes of penis on subways are not false, and assume they happen worldwide. I have been accosted in the metro in Los Angeles, and on buses, and I too learned to recognize the face of someone ready to say, or do something bad to me. And I too, have practiced all the tricks, learning catty things to say in return, carrying hidden weapons just in case, pretending to be on the phone, pretending someone was my boyfriend for protection, walking other directions, and hiding in stores until I felt safer. This form of public violence seems harmless until you have a population of people too scared to sleep at night because their fathers have convinced them men will rape them in their bedrooms, while the real danger is actually out in the open during the day light, on their way to the world.
How do we go about changing the way people read feminist texts?
I wondered about this memoir for a while after reading it, unable to write about it for weeks because I could not approach the subject without wanting to make many disclaimers. The worst part was, the book involves so much drug, alcohol, and sex content, that I feared any readers would use this as a way to discredit Valenti, but I feel her memoir exits as an object which should be read separate from the human writing it, and rather, read through the feeling of female.
It's more obvious to me now, engaged to be married, and living with my partner, that many times women might fear their readership judging them. I for one am always dumbing down my political views to not offend anyone around me, especially my partner, who is perfectly capable of having a political conversation, and even at times agrees with me. But still, I find it harder and harder to feel feminist while living with men because I am always betraying myself for approval, even when the men I surround myself with never asked that of me.
In the memoirs “end notes” Valenti pulls from various sources who all wrote to her either virtually, publicly, in the news, etc. Almost all the responses are rude, derogatory, misogynistic, dangerous, and obviously sexist in ways which make me wonder if there will ever be hope for womankind, many of the things I read were confusing and scary. Many wrote to Valenti about her physical appearance, as if it affects her writing, that a smile or some makeup would have done her wonders. Most people seem to have been fixated on her breast size, while others decided to make rape/death threats about her and her daughter.
I have an Instagram direct message inbox full of similar notes, when I had tinder I got death threats for not wanted to fuck certain men, I've even had men and women put me down at work for my appearance, as well as patronize me for me femininity. No matter what you say, how you say it, or who your audience, is there will always be spectators who want to watch you fall and there will always be someone willing to put you down merely because they don’t want to like you or what you stand for. But, I feel Gertrude Stein may have said it best; “I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to do”. Positive and negative feedback are both results and without both, a writer cannot grow. Unfortunately female writers get feedback on their gender more then getting feedback on their writing.
It would be awkward read a critic of F.Scott Fitzgerald focused solely on how his masculinity was his biggest oversight in that he could not get over his being dumped and rejected by the popular girl, thus making him fall prey to always writing from an outsiders jaded point of view. Or that Sigmund Freud’s sexist mindset mixed with heavy cocaine abuse from his mouth cancer was the reason for his half-assed Electra Complex and Penis envy. Or that Toulouse Lautrec's depiction of whores was on account of his own upbringing in the red light districts of Paris because he was considered unattractive and his physical handicap shamed him.
Today we can see artists voice in their work and that makes us like or dislike the art, but I want to push for an urgency of detachment from the individual writer and the story. I think that the results of literature should be analyzed in terms of what they effect, how they affect it, and why. I don’t find any value in deconstructing the artist as a way to criticize the work. At times, understanding a writer is valuable for a historical criticism of a text. But this is a totally different form of literary criticism - I feel today's readers mix up schools of thought to give more foundation to their opinions without understanding the disciplines within each school of thought. Feel free to use any lens to criticize when it benefits you, but not when it could benefit the readership - this is why reading is so hard.
Understanding the psychology of a writer, and why they thought a specific way can also help in learning about the history of a matter. Studying the physical attributes of a historical figure can be fun in terms of seeing if their insecurities lead to their mental health - Napoleon's height leading to his inferiority complex - in terms of interpreting motive to their actions. But in the case of, her boobs are too big - there is no science to justify that effecting Valenti’s words or feminism. And here I apologize for focusing again on physicality as my example.
I know it sounds harsh to say, but I think to read a feminist text, one must suspend the concept of the female body and the female and instead understand it through the lens of a female experience - which does in fact include the body. The simple example that comes to mind, think of the sentence - I walked into the bar alone. Now consider the interpretation of this sentence when being said by a female identifying character versus a male identifying character.