Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Five things

I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t be tagged for the five things feminism has done for me meme, because it’s a difficult question to answer. Not because feminism hasn’t done enough for me, but because the things it has done are so utterly fundamental to my being that the best I can do is too make them all into one big point, “being a person”. That isn’t explicit enough, of course, so I must find more concrete (yet less important perhaps) things.

1.When my mother got into medical school she had to convince my grandfather to let her go. My parents (and grandparents!) are proud of my academic achievements, such as they are. In the immediate family, somehow, all the older cousins (21-27) are female. All of us have been encouraged by the family to do pretty much what we wanted to careerwise.

2.I grew up in a family where both parents worked similar hours, made similar contributions to the household income, did similar amounts of housework, and were proud of each other’s successes at work. As a result, I thought that equality and mutual respect were normal in male-female relationships. Not perfect, not utopian. Normal. I know a lot of people who grew up in very different surroundings with very different ideas of what normal was. I’m grateful for mine.

3.The right to vote. This is cliché, of course, but honestly. The ability to participate in ones own government? The right to have a say in what laws are to control one? The right to actually have an opinion and have it acknowledged? It’s huge and once upon a time we did not possess it and now we do. That deserves to be celebrated.

4.Role models. Women are doing everything, they’re heading multinational corporations, taming lions, building up good, solid careers in banks, going into space. And no, there aren’t enough of them and it’s harder for us and that’s why feminism is still important, but it gets easier every time someone is prevented from saying “girls can’t…” because *girls * already have.

5.Female writers. That’s tied up with my fourth point, I suppose, there’s a good deal of overlap. It’s not simply the ability to write and be published (though that in itself has been an achievement) but also to be accepted for it. Women have won all the major literary prizes. If it weren’t for feminism we wouldn’t have Angela Carter or Ursula LeGuin. We probably wouldn’t have Jeanette Winterson.

I haven’t read the posts by any male bloggers (were any tagged for this meme? Link me to any you know of, please) so I’m going to tag everyone else on Sthreeling (both male and female, this is cross-posted there) and also Schez, Supriya, Megha and Annie. And anyone else who wants to, but I'd love to see some men do it too, their responses could be really interesting.

[Also, in the last two weeks my dad turned 50 and I turned 21. Please convince us we are not ancient. yet.]


the wannabe indian punkster said...

oh no!

scherezade said...

Ahem, alright.

roswitha said...

Perhaps we wouldn't have had a certain sort of feminism had it not been for Angela Carter, even.

Also, damnit. this is going to be more difficult than I thought it would be.

annie said...

ancient... at 21!
if you weren't too old for it, i'd give you a little smack for saying things like that.

tag... sigh! okay. let me think about it.

jerry said...

well just the same case happened here, i turned 20 in march and the Old Man 50 last november. going through the same bout of feelin old. but good stuff, i support women-and their rights always! cheers!

Dan L-K said...

I'm here via Belledame; I got tagged too, if you're interested in an XY take on this.

Kinfauns said...

Liver spots go awfully well with mud-green sweaters. FACT.

*adjusts monocle and peers curiously at you* Do you float? Or am I thinking of another kind of potent feminine form that cures warts and threatens male dominion?

Aishwarya said...

Megha - Oh yes!

Schez - Just read it. Admirably done. ;)

Sups - Also. And I know, it's horribly difficult!

Annie - Bah. Agh for my carefree teens.

Jerry - It's always nice to have important birthdays close together, isn't it?

Dan l-k - Great post, thanks!

Shikha - Buh?

scherezade said...

Why doesn't a discussion on feminism merit some applause or even a casual mention of women of color - the Alice Walkers, June Jordans and Angela Davises?? *wonders*

Vishal said...

Hey Aishwarya,

Thanks for dropping by my site. Well, I'm 23 (well, 23 and a half, technically -- eep!) and I remember being 21... it was so long ago... *sniff*. So no, you don't need to feel ancient. Now and then I do get a sudden feeling that it seemed like I was 6 only yesterday, but that, I think, is going to be a lifelong affliction.

Will try to do the feminism thingy too. Like you said, it's hard to quantify what exactly it has done for me without answering, "Everything!"

Re: Jeanette Winterson
I've read Art & Lies (picked it up for 10 rupees on the street) and enjoyed it, although I thought the ending was a little weak in contrast to the considerable narrative steam built up before it.

Perspective Inc. said...

nice! :)

Aishwarya said...

Schez - Well I'm not exactly white myself, you know. Though yes, I wonder too.

Vishal - - Hi! I will visit your blog every day in hopes of seeing it.;) And Winterson is temperamental, sometimes repetitive, but she can be so brilliant that I never actually mind. But 10 rupees on the street? Where on earth were you?

Perspective inc - Glad you approve

Anonymous said...

young people are boring. you should feel good, you are out of the stupid bunch :) 21 is I think legally adult, at least according to the old school. congratulations again! and congrats for feeling ancient too!!

more seriously about the female writers, I still feel there are very few of them and I never understand why. And to make the matters worse very few of them write on gender-neutral subjects or from a gender-neutral perspective! not that it is important or necessary to do so but it is something i find curious. there are many clones of pride and prejudice but very few of middlemarch.

Aishwarya said...

Alok - I wrote an entire academic paper about a year ago that would answer your comment.

Briefly though. Female writers are still othered by the mainstream...how often do you hear someone described as a male writer? I think people from communities that are marginalised in such a way do tend to stress where they're coming from more in their writing...eg. homosexuality might affect your perspective more than heterosexuality would because heteroness is seen as the 'default'.
(I have to wonder, by the way, do men ever write from a gender-neutral perspective, or has the male perspective been touted as the gender-neutral one?)

As for the number of female writers, there might be any number of factors that create that difference. It might also be partly because they're just not marketed as well...I asked a male friend once what female writers he'd read and he was stumped.

...which reminds me of the time I was at a quiz and a question came up about a book Nadine Gordimer had said some very nice things about. One of the other (male, they were all male except me and my partner) participants said dismissively that if Gordimer had said this it must be a woman writer, and then lost all interest in the question. (The book in question turned out to be The Satanic Verses). Misogyny operates even at that level.

And this comment is far too long. ;)

Anonymous said...

Oh I would love to see your academic paper. can it be posted on a blog? I haven't read any feminist critcism, do you know any feminist literary criticism for dummies kind of book?

What I actually wanted to say was that the whole feminism thing should have allowed women to think beyond gender, to completely eliminate gender from the subjectivity and consciousness rather than "I am proud of being a woman" thing...

On the other hand some of the finest creations of female consiousness in fiction were done by men -- flaubert, tolstoy, henry james (haven't read james yet though!)--because they were able to transcend their gender and their being a male of the species didn't affect how they saw the world, contrary to authors like Jeanette Winterson, who are all about belonging to a particular gender.

I wonder, what feminist critics say about Madame Bovary though... does it privilege masculine perspective? or is it gender neutral?

In summary, do you want..

1. a gender free world, a world where gender plays no role in the formation of subjectivity... and where we can have a female Flaubert one day

2. or a world where gender binary exist but women are proud of being women and celebrate their "femininity" (whatever that may be) with complete abandon and we continue to celebrate authors like Winterson.

Aishwarya said...

Reply to Alok part I:

Argh...and I thought my previous comment had been so lucid!

(The paper is rubbish but I'll email it to you if you want it)

Erm. Back to this. You're forgetting that women have had the gender binary forced upon them for centuries, they've always been the Other. That difference has been embedded in society far too long for it to suddenly go away. The patriarchy has defined manliness and womanliness in such black and white terms and lionised one, and before gender can be done away with you have to allow the other side their say.

As a man, on what are you basing the validity of the female consciousnesses created by Tolstoy, Flaubert and James? Do you honestly believe it's possible for authors to transcend their gender/class/race when they write? That's a view that most literary theory abandoned long ago.

Women are also made more aware of their gender by society. When you go out on the street, you're not constantly thinking "I'm a man, I'm a man, I'm a man", are you? Yet women the minute they step out of the house are made aware of being seen AS women. It's possible that this makes the experience of being a woman more pronounced in their literature.

Aishwarya said...

I think a lot of female writers in whose writing gender is prominent aren't going "Womanliness, yay!", they're talking about the experience of being female in a patriarchal world, something that has been forced on them a lot more than maleness has been forced on men. If you read them, there's actually a lot of gender fluidity...look at Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve, or The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, or Winterson's The Passion, sex changes, fluid sexual roles, it's all there. Honestly, I think most women (including myself) would LOVE to do away with rigidly demarcated gender.
I find it a little bizarre that you accuse Winterson of being too female in her viewpoint, actually, I mean, she's actually managed to write a book (Written on the Body) where the gender of the I-narrator is completely unknown throughout the book.

What we have here is an issue of normativity - everyone tends to see their own perspective as the 'normal'. As a male, you are far more likely to see the experiences of male writers as normal and when confronted with something as alien as a female perspective* you're more likely to think it overstressed. And especially since the views and experiences in literature over the centuries have been overwhelmingly male, it's difficult for you to see those works as 'male-centric' rather than gender-neutral.

(One of my friends just IMed me saying she thinks books by women tend to be a lot more gender neutral and less heterocentric. I think it really all depends where you're coming from.)

This discussion really is exhausting.:)

*(And no, there isn't any One Female Perspective or Male Perspective...but people of different genders are trated in particular ways by society and have that as a common experience that inevitably affects their views)

Anonymous said...

thanks for replying at length. i obviously have to read some literary theory...

I have read written on the body (the only book by her that i have read) and felt that it was written in too self-conscious a voice. I anyway didn't really understand what she was trying to achieve.

I wrote the original comment partly wondering why still I don't have any favourite women writers or why I don't feel excited about reading books by women. I like Middlemarch a lot, but even that perhaps wouldn't be in my top 10. I get bored by Austen and find the Bronte sisters naive and un-ironic. I have read Nights at the Circus too but that's the only book by her that I have read and it left me cold. Perhaps I didn't get all the fairy tale references?

Of course I am only talking of fiction here. Poetry is perhaps different. I love Emily Dickinson for example, from whatever little poetry have I read...

This is one sexist comment :))

Do you have know of some literary therapy that will cure me of my biased literary prejudices? :)

Vishal said...

Re: Art & Lies for Rs.10
I picked it up in Bombay. Behind Mumbai University there are a bunch of guys who sell old books on the pavement, and some of them have stacks for fixed prices like 10 or 20 bucks. Don't they have anything like this in Delhi? I remember my dad saying that on Sundays there was this street in Old Delhi that turned into an old book bazaar (granted, this was 25+ years ago...).

Anyway, these Bombay guys' collections usually have lots of tattered, obscure 60s pulp novels, some SF and Fantasy from less famous (in India) names like Robert Silverberg and Steven Brust, and all sorts of odd nonfiction books. I have probably, over the past few years, picked up at least 200 of these (fantastic value for what is basically around $50), including a faded and weathered Art & Lies (the tattered condition, in fact, seems to enhance the book for me).

At 10 rupees one can afford to pick up anything that even remotely catches your fancy. On the whole I find myself drawn to obscure works anyway. I think I should dig through them (most of which I haven't read) and scan the covers of a few of the more interesting ones to post on the blog. Will leave you a comment when I do.

Aishwarya said...

Alok - Interesting, I loved the self consciousness of the narratorial voice in that book. :) As for what she's trying to achieve, I wouldn't presume to say. But she HAS managed some of the loveliest prose I've ever read.

I started reading Angela Cater with The Bloody Chamber. I think that book and The Magic Toyshop might be the best ones for people reading her for the first time, they deal with a lot of her concerns far more directly...Nights At The Circus only draws on them far more subtly. Personally, I think Wise Children is the best thing she ever wrote, and if you ever get the chance to read it, do.

I'm not a fan of the Brontes myself (too earnest for me) but I love Austen. What about 20th century female writers besides Carter and Winterson? Is there honestly no one you like?

Aishwarya said...

Also, Delhi univ has a third year literary theory course for english honours, and it has a section on feminism. How comprehensive it is I can't say (we haven't actually gotten to it in class and I'm too lazy to read ahead), but you could google it.

Aishwarya said...

Vishal - We do...it's called Daryaganj and is the best place in the world. Seriously. Do a search for it on my blog, I've put up quite a few post-daryaganj booklists.:)

Do you still live in Bombay?

Vishal said...

I live in Dubai, and have spent most of my life living either here or Muscat. Despite this I still think of Bombay/Mumbai/Bambai/That **** Place as 'Home'.

Been a while since I went back. Close to a year. I'm experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms. Dubai may have a million fast cars and tall buildings, but any country where a book that sells 1,000 copies is considered a best-seller is not a real or safe place, in my opinion.

Falstaff said...

hmmm...I realise i'm coming to this discussion very late, but it's about books, so what the hell.

Two points:

a) I don't know that I buy the claim that there are 'very few' women writers. Historically yes, obviously, but in the last 50 years? Atwood, Gordimer, Morrison, Lessing, Shields, Munro, McCullers, Robinson, Sontag, Didion, Welty, Smith (Zadie and Ali), Desai Sr., Byatt, Murdoch - and this just off the top of my head - is not a list to be scoffed at. Or take a look at this year's Booker long list - Waters, Grenville, Messud, Hyland. Not to forget Virginia Woolf, who simply screams to be mentioned, not only for her incredible novels (including Orlando, with its gender bending protagonist, so many years ahead of Winterson) but also for a room of one's own.

And notice that many, if not most of these women are not writing only, or even primarily, about women. Murdoch and Woolf are hardly successors to Austen.

b) Also, literary theory or no literary theory, all this talk about 'valid female consciousness' strikes me as mostly bunk. I see no reason to believe that a female character created by say, Edith Wharton, is any more 'valid' than one created by Henry James, any more than I believe that a male character created by Carson McCullers is any less 'valid' than a male character created by Faulkner. Human identity is about a lot more than gender, and I'm sceptical about the existence of an overarching female consciousness, just as I'm entirely dismissive of the idea that there is such a thing as the 'male' point of view. So any discussion of gender-neutral / privileging perspectives begs the question of what exactly a 'female' perspective is, how we define it, and how we measure it. I would argue that good writers can and do transcend their race and gender.

And frankly, who cares? A good author doesn't write about the 'male' or the 'female', a good writer writes about a man or a woman. We shouldn't confuse authenticity with representativeness. Whether or not Madame Bovary is an 'authentic' representation of female consciousness is frankly irrelevant. She's a fascinating character in a great book. She's not a 'type', she's an individual, and who's to say what an individual can and cannot be?

P.S. That said, Alok: On Tolstoy, Flaubert et al and the 'gender-neutral' perspective in male writing (or lack of it), you may want to read Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse. It's a little extreme, but you may find it interesting.

Sigh. Long comment. As if being reminded that some people are just 21 didn't make me feel old, I now feel so much older.

Anonymous said...


"An ancient cadence from the ancient dust" ....Ummm, very interesting.

But bottomline, u hv a nice style of writing with d uncanny ability to add humor.

Nice to land here ..

Anonymous said...

My original comment was based mostly on an impression resulting from my own very limited reading of female authors. I also had this impression that female authors, specially post-feminist movement, flaunt their gender as a symbol of freedom from oppression and that it leads to their pigeonholing.

I will try to address it and also read some of the authors you mention without any preconceived bias. I haven't yet read most of the writers you list in your comment. I am still stuck in the nineteeth century, have been there for the past two or three years!

Anonymous said...

my local library doesn't have that Dworkin book. Do you know anything else?

I would love to read what feminists think of Flaubert. I remember de Beauvoir has a very sympathetic chapter on Stendhal in her book Second Sex (haven't read it, only seen and read about it). In many ways Flaubert was even more radical than Stendhal. So I would be surprised if he is accused of misogyny or even male bias in his portrait of madame bovary.

I see another interesting book in the list from the library, Pornography: Men possessing women, Hmmm. this should be interesting. :)

Aishwarya said...

Vishal - Countries without books and book readers are barbaric and don't our time. It's that simple. ;)

Falstaff - Hi. :-)
Re. your b), note that I never talked about a valid female consciousness. To create a 'female consciousness' and expect all women to adhere to it would go against everything feminism stands for. All I'm saying is that society forces certain common experiences onto most women that men can't share. (This would also be true of women writing about men, I presume. Also of someone writing about people of a different race, economic class, anything. You're right, human identity is made up of lots of things, but gender's a pretty big part.)

To an extent I agree that authenticity shouldn't be the basis for judging literary characters. It only becomes an issue when people begin to accept those portrayals as universal and true.

Alok - I've just realised why you're not a big fan of modern women writers...but it's rather vague and instinctive. I'll email you when I have it all figured out. ;)
Also, pornography's a huge issue within feminism, there's the pro- and anti- groups and if you skim a few feminist blogs you're likely to find some really interesting debates on the issue. I'm deeply conflicted on this point.

Roy - Err..thanks?

Falstaff said...

Aishwarya: Fair enough. My own suspicion is that how well you're able to write about characters outside your gender / race is a function of how well you know people outsider your gender / race. If you're the kind of man who has no women friends and almost never has conversations with women (either because of your own prejudices or because you live in a society that restricts social intercourse between men and women) then you're fairly unlikely to be able to write intelligently about women. On the other hand, if some of your best friends are women and you spend time sharing life experiences with them then I'm not sure why you couldn't 'share' their experiences and write about them. And the same would hold for women writing about men, or for people writing outside their race / socio-economic class. It's all really a question of communication and empathy.

Vishal said...

It's not that there aren't bookstores, it's just they have the same amount of character as the average supermarket chain, and their contents are treated as commodities rather than, well, books (glorious books!).

Any place that has books needs a specific character of its own that is lacking in pretty-much every space in Dubai. Granted, it's a very, very young city, and there's a lot of potential for it to develop character, but it's very frustrating to walk into a place that has a lot of product but no smells or quirks. This is just the writer in me wishing for something to describe.

Sriharsha Salagrama said...

I've taken up the tag on sthreeling and i think that each of the things feminism has done for me is important enough for me and relevant enough for the reader to warrant it's being written as five posts. Please do leave your comments. Thank you.

the mad momma said...

Hey Aishwayra... really enjoyed this post of yours and have linked up with it if you don't mind.