Out of the feminist writing I’ve read this year, this was the most individual book I came across – readable, anecdotal, and wry even when the subject matter was upsetting, Ingrid Bengis tells the story of her relationship with men, women, love and feminism. It’s incisive and surprising and very self-aware.

It’s fascinating to read about a woman’s experience of oppression written from outside a feminist framework: she doesn’t call herself a feminist, isn’t straightforwardly straight but doesn’t call herself bi or lesbian, and by away from these familiar concepts she takes a number of easy assumptions away from readers. She defines as ‘man-hating’. She hates and fears and fights this identity, and she watches men closely and slowly finds that this man-hating of hers is born from their behaviour: from abuse she’s faced and the unthinking oppressions she notices when she looks.

It’s not a comfortable book: she talks about being raped, she talks about her own internalised homophobia, she talks about being sexually assaulted as a child. I didn’t find it added many big ideas or concepts to my understanding of feminism, either: what I felt like it taught me was how different women could relate to feminism – Bengis is a glamorous white cis woman from a conservative background who grew up presenting as heterosexual, and I only tick three of those boxes – and how lucky I am to have come to feminism without nearly as many internal struggles as Bengis needed to get where she did.

(I’m not keen on linking to shops, but while found this in a library it looks long-since out of print and probably hard to source. So in case it’s handy for anyone, when I was putting it on my list of books to buy if I ever got to make myself a feminist bookshelf, it looked like the cheapest place to find it in the UK was on AbeBooks: here)

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Continuing my review-writing kick and switching themes and genres pretty dramatically, here’s some thoughts on the dead tree image-free version of Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games and worries about the glamorous film version that I haven’t yet witnessed! This post brought to you by the plethora of interesting writing about the film that’s going around the internet at the moment but not saying quite the things that I thought about the franchise.

 

I’ve just made plans to go and see the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, record-breaking teen blockbuster movie of the year and widely feted rival to the Twilight saga. I’m interested but also pretty apprehensive. It’s already chosen to only solicit auditions from white women for a character a bunch of other people and I read as explicitly biracial , so my hopes aren’t exactly sky-high, but it sounds likely that it’s going to be ambivalent about at least a few of things that normally get taken for granted and presented uncritically in mainstream media.

The book really surprised. I’d borrowed the first two books from a library last summer, having heard the name around for long enough to get curious. It was with a fair bit of trepidation: I remembered visiting a bookshop, reading the blurb and going “no, I don’t think your love triangle’s any more interesting for being set in an improbable dystopia”. It felt to me like dystopian themes were fashionable at the moment and that murderous reality TV shows weren’t novel enough ideas to be anything other than gimmicky plot devices to make a setting artificially bleak; in short, that the books’ premise was the genre fiction equivalent of filtering grainy sepia over the top of your mediocre photography to make it instantly evocative.

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The blogger Clarisse Thorn published a book a week or so ago; she called it Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, and I wasn’t quite sure how much she meant the ‘chaser’ part of the title. The term implies that you’re fetishising a group, often in problematic ways. I haven’t seen anyone claim it in much seriousness.

Besides, the subtitle was ‘Long Interviews with Hideous Men’. That contrast there stays throughout the book: a title that casts her as an eager admirer set against a subtitle that warns a reader off the misogyny of the men she’s after. Kink and fetishisation set against the (feminist) revulsion against the pickup community. I found this pretty fascinating: I wouldn’t want to read about pickup artists except through a feminist filter, and most feminists I know wouldn’t want to research and write about them except to issue sweeping dismissals. Clarisse Thorn has written a lot of things about women’s sexuality that I find incisive and rarely see discussed overtly: a lot about BDSM, about her sex life without orgasm, and about her later deconstruction of that progression, and how she doesn’t see orgasm as the be-all and end-all of sex, and more.

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“Femme is intentionality. When you compliment my outfit, you are appreciating my taste, my resourcefulness, my creativity, my sense of adventure, my liberal application of glitter, my choice to wear sequins with sequins.” — Bossy Femme (in a beautiful lovely article that’s all worth reading, not just this part of it).

I love this idea: it took me a long time to figure out exactly what exactly it was about this ‘femme’ thing people did that make it different to just dressing in a typical feminine way, and well, the difference is in that ‘just’.

(I don’t know if I count as femme:  at the moment, I don’t think I would, ’cause day-to-day I dress like a scruffy fucker who enjoys not having to worry about wrecking shoes and clothes in her messy mucky dusty warehouse of a workplace. But I’ve learnt a lot in the years since I left home without a single dress to my name. Nowadays I think femme presentation’s a thing I’m starting to do, a change from my default, a deliberate choice and one that’s happier for that quality of intentionality.)

From where I’m standing, the differences are all in that just: feminine’s meant to be the cultural default for women. To me, feminine means foundation and styled hair and dresses to formal dinners and leggings to clubs and make-up that’s subtle but somehow a bit of a cultural necessity. Shaving your armpits. Waxing your legs. Plucking your eyebrows to a fine line. Not having hair above your lip. It’s about telling women their natural bodies shouldn’t be seen – I couldn’t go out, I hadn’t put my makeup on yet. I was always quietly but fiercely determined that makeup wouldn’t ever become a norm for me, because fuck you beauty industry I need those extra twenty minutes in the morning before school to do important shit, like read, or later to check my emails and read webcomics that’d updated overnight. I didn’t want feminine because it was an imposition. It wanted me to think it was mandatory.

Saying that they’re feminine is an insult to boys. So’s calling a women unfeminine. Funny that.

Masculine appearance isn’t the same kind of quality, note. Not taming your facial hair is manly, if potentially ridiculous, but at the same time (in Western cultural norms) choosing to shave doesn’t make you laughably unmasculine. The same goes for most kinds of grooming society expects from men: neglecting them don’t actually let them in for much vitriol either way, and the default state of their hair and faces are their own business. Masculine presentation is a broader spectrum, so whereas according to Cosmo or what-the-fuck-ever some degree of careful artificial femininity is a default requirement of being a women: shaved legs and waxed upper lip are so normal that people assume a hairy woman’s a lesbian.  Which I wouldn’t see as an insult, but how the fuck does simply not making a cosmetic alteration from your normal appearance have such significance in our culture that it can be used as a basis from which to assume someone’s sexual orientation

To me, how I see femme, what I admire in femme friends and shoot for when I dress up in that direction, femme’s saying ‘fuck all those basic requirements’ and dressing to show off however you want to. If feminine’s something started when someone buys a baby boy something blue and a girl something pink and grows up through barbies and gossip magazines and is basically no longer a conscious choice so much as a set of assumptions, femme’s making a choice.

Dressing up with punk-pink hair and glitter, or by setting off the lines of sharp-cut suit jacket with bright colours and glossy hair and a fuckton of smoky eyeshadow and heavy jewelry. Dressing down with skirts over jeans, or layers of floofy knitwear over a comfy shirt. Spending hours hunting for precisely the right this or that, be that in a road full of charity shops or through the fanciest streets in London.

Femme’s a choice: intentionality. It’s a skill, and the product of time and thought and self-respect and subversion and hopefully a fair bit of fun and glitter and joy too.

And the way I see it (be warned, I don’t I say this as anyone with a long history of dedication to femme, just as a newcomer emerging out of years of resentment of the feminine), it’s finding and reveling in a style that suits you, not trying to emulate some lifeless ideal skinny-white-bland paradigm of womanhood. For me, stopping any futile attempts to shape my hair with products. Playing around with little plaits and clips instead and braiding parts of it back into secret complicated structural patterns and getting delightfully asymmetrical gravity-defying twisty results. I like this femme thing, the way I see it, which is ‘who the fuck cares if I’ve never seen this in a magazine, it looks fucking awesome!’

I don’t think it’s something I’ve got the inclination to enjoy 24/7, but I sure as fuck can get behind a femme manifesto that’s aware of all the pressures of femininity and still getting pleasure out of making its very own style. So: thanks, Bossy Femme

I don’t think I’ve ever made a serious point of noticing Valentine’s Day before. A couple of times people have expected me to notice it with them, and that’s made me feel touched but also slightly awkward, because I don’t like that it’s a consumerist celebration. The ideal that the media’s going for is: buy your partner one of these Officially Designated Romantic Gifts, regardless of what their actual interests and likes and perspective on capitalism are.  Buy them a card saying ‘be mine’ or ‘yours forever’ or something else cliched and monogamous without real feeling behind it.

But anyway, I’m at home today, and have been browsing the interwebs and been introduced to some of the deliberately cheesy fannish Valentine’s cards meandering past on Tumblr, and, too my surprise, they made me feel like reading the kind of sappy romantic crap I actually like. So, here, WordPress: in honour of the longest love affair of my life, here’s a testament of exactly how fond I am of words. Kwerey’s tribute to Sappy Idealised Lurrrve Day, go. One close reading from John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets.

‘Love’s Growth’

I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if Spring make it more. Read the rest of this entry »

…Aeschylus, Ovid, Cicero, the Pearl-Poet, Dante, Thomas More, Shakespeare, John Donne.

There, the reference points that I’ve got a good two thousand years of European literature and rhetori: Aeschylus died in 456 BC, John Donne in 1631 AD. They and the big names that crop up between them are the groundrock of the degree I did, a degree just called ‘English’ but about a very specific definition of that term.

Each wrote things that I find beautiful and valuable. All these reference points on that mental timeline I have are dudes, though, and that’s not something I can take lightly. I’m a feminist and I’ve spent years and committed to reading and writing; I can’t ignore the massive sex inequality in this tradition I care deeply for.

I’m aware of Sappho, but I haven’t been taught her works and I haven’t yet fancied hunting down a good translation on my own to read them myself. I can’t think of many other women I seen as literary landmarks in those time periods. What I know of women across those years makes them objects, not subjects. Female characters are shown to us as anything from deeply subtle to utterly idealised to misogynistic stereotypes, but they’re all characters: the writing I know from those times was something men did that was sometimes about women.

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This is me taking stock of my life, and it’s not pretending to have any critical value, although because I’m me it comments on social attitudes towards unemployment. Call it reference for whose opinion is that the death of the author is utterly spurious.

Trigger Warnings: None.

Content Warnings: My time dependent on the welfare state. Me being sad and me being angry, which might be touchy if you’re going through the same.

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