Books By Women: The Red Tent

indexI read The Red Tent (1997) as a first year in high school and I didn’t understand any of it.

The novel by Anita Diamant is a feminist biblical retelling of the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. In a male patriarchal narrative, all we know of Dinah is that she is raped and her brothers decide to welcome in her rapist’s family into their own tribe, circumcise them and then kill them.

We do not hear Dinah’s version of the story.

And then there is The Red Tent, first a novel and now a miniseries (2014).

In this novel, Dinah is the first person narrator. She tells not only her story, but begins even earlier: telling the stories of her mothers Leah (her birth mother), as well as Leah’s three  sisters, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah who all marry Jacob.

This is a novel celebrating and exploring the voices of women. As Dinah says in the first chapter of book:

If you want to know about any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully.

As a reader, you do listen. Diamant does a phenomenal job at taking biblical women and crafting real and complicated people. Leah and Rachel are so distinct and so beautifully flawed in their reality as women, I almost feel I could meet them today, despite the vast cultural divides that separate their world from ours.

The most interesting cultural element is the theme of the incoming patriarchy. The goddesses Dinah’s mothers worship are goddesses which value women and hold menstrual blood as sacred, not profane. To bleed is a woman’s entry into adulthood and it is a time of joy. The red tent is where women go when they are menstruating, where they relax and tell stories and live as women unencumbered by the lives and world of the men around them.

Reading the novel in 2015, there is a definite cis understanding of womanhood and I hope a new edition of the would include an introduction  by Diamant, welcoming transwomen into the fold of womanhood the novel creates. I can only hope.

My one other critique is that while the female characters are fleshed out and envisioned with subtleties and skill, the male characters, especially Dinah’s lovers, are flat and bland. Oddly enough for novel rich in cultural nuance, sexual love is almost fairy tale like with love-at-first-sight syndrome. And while I believe Dinah deserves happiness, I struggle to believe her love because of how uncomplicated it is.

Still, I would recommend this novel. I would also recommend having a basic background on the original biblical story so you do not read blind as I did entering this text as a fourteen-year-old. But with a bit of background and an open mind to believe in the power of women’s stories and hearing women’s stories, the novel is a great read.

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Books By Women: The Poisonwood Bible

There was no way I was going to read The Poisonwood Bible. I wasn’t going to read it. And if I read it, I wasn’t going to enjoy it. My friend who recommended it to me, read it in high school. Why would I read this book after I graduated from college?

I knew all I needed to know about the book from the title and the premise: a white Christian family of missionaries goes to the Congo in the 1960s. It would be a book of searingly blatant themes that THE WEST SHOULDN’T INTERFERE WITH AFRICA, and CONGOLESE TRADITIONS DON’T NEED CHRISTIANITY and LOOK AT THIS SYMPATHETIC WHITE FAMILY BLUNDER IN AFRICA BUT STILL BE SYMPATHETIC.

I was mainly right. The book was blatant about its themes. Yet, I enjoyed it when I promised I wouldn’t. I finished it when I thought I would hand it back to my friend with a shake of my head.

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The novel had its strengths, far more than I wanted to give it credit for. To start, the writing was very poetic and I kept a growing list of lines and quotes in a notebook to remember how Barbara Kingsolver molded language. Her writing is emotionally gripping and her details on Congolese culture and language highlight expertise I had not been expecting when the story appeared so simple and moralistic. The historical details of Patrice Lumumba’s  assassination and the ensuing struggle for Congolese independence under the meddling fist of the United States provides great background for readers unfamiliar with modern African history. Kingsolver even appeased the history major in me by including a works cited page at the back of the book. It also helps that Kingsolver grew up in a missionary family who went to the Congo.

I cared about the characters though I promised I would just read this book to make my friend happy (she had loaned it to me for over a year before I finally picked it up). As it turns out, I am a sucker for a well characterized first person point of view. I am a special sucker for stories with multiple first person point of views (Doctrine of Labyrinths). And The Poisonwood Bible fulfills my need to read books by women, but the story is also narrated by women. Five women to be precise. Orelanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Orelanna brings her four daughters with her when she follows her Minister husband into the Congo to bring Jesus into the lives of the natives. Despite a blatant hit you over the head anti-colonial message which knows no subtlety, this is a novel which does what not many other books think to do: give voice to a whole cast of female characters. 

Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for understanding that women do not need to be likeable but they need to be real and complicated which (for the most part) Kingsolver accomplished.

If it wasn’t readily apparent, I still flip-flop on this book. The writing is strong but overbearing, especially when Kingsolver tries to use extended metaphors. I would recommend the novel to high schoolers as well as readers who have no background in colonial history or African history. It’s not something I would reread, but if nothing else, I’m glad I read it because of the sheer number and expression of plurality of female characters.

Next up: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia.

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50 Shades IS NOT “female wish fulfillment”

Sheri Linden of The Hollywood Reporterwrote a movie review of 50 Shades of Grey yesterday. And in her review, she falls into every trap of encouraging rape culture and violence against women that this series propagates.

Though she recognizes that the novel revolves around a BDSM relationship she does not seek examine how this relationship is portrayed. She takes the story at face value that BDSM is a heterosexual relationship with a dominant man and a submissive woman. She does not make an inquiry into practicing BDSM in a consensual relationship regardless of the sex or gender of those involved.

Instead, Linden describes Christian Grey as “a long-fingered anti-hero” not an abuser. She praises the film for

the breathless way it melds the erotic kink known as BDSM with female wish-fulfillment fantasy

When authors write about sexual abuse as “female wish-fulfillment” they recreate and keep the myth alive that women want rape. That there is no legitimate rape because women ask for it. That deep down all women want to be swept off their feet and onto the ground as the submissive to a dominant man.

We are inundated not just with positive reviews of men and women in these roles, but we are told it is romantic. We are told the abuser is an anti-hero not a rapist. We are told that if you are in a relationship you cannot be raped. Sexual abuse in the name of romance and becomes the norm because, as Linden continues, the movie is just like any other romance story:

as with most mainstream love stories, an infatuated but commitment-averse male is in need of rehabilitation.

This is further problematic, as it places the main female character in the role of manic pixie dream girl–i.e. the woman who is quirky and only exists to fix the main male character and ultimately serves his sexual and romantic desires. The very concept negates female agency and yet Linden expresses the notion that this film is from “a woman’s perspective.” She claims that the movie works against the male gaze (the concept of telling the story from a man’s perspective and that every aspect of the film–especially anything sexual–is meant for the pleasure of men). Except, if the movie were to break from the male gaze, it would have to do a better job than pretending that BDSM is female wish fulfillment and that because the woman gets what she wants out of sex, it negates the notion that the female character exists for the men in the story and in the audience.

The female lead, however, is not in control of her sexuality and it reviews like Linden’s that propagate rape culture and exclaim through media that women want rape, that sexual assault is romantic and the ideal relationship, and that violence against women is sexy.

Piccolo: the Genderless Alien (Man)

Thank you to everyone who has been commenting on my other DBZ posts (specifically The Women of DBZ). I know I promised to write further posts regarding Android 18 and Videl, but right now there’s a different aspect of DBZ I need to address first. In the comments on my post about women in DBZ, I talked about how the goal is not have action girls, who enter a scene fists flying and then politely back out of the way, but women in a wide array of roles. Increasing the number of female characters who are featured would automatically go a long way toward decreasing the likelihood that the one female character would need to serve as a representative of all women. And while I wrote briefly about how it wouldn’t have been any structural changes to the plot of DBZ to create Raditz or Vegeta as a female, I’m realizing that one of the more obvious ways Akira Toriyama could have promoted gender equality was through Piccolo and the Namekian species.

The Namekians are a genderless species. They reproduce asexually and if there are multiple genders or sexes we can see no difference. So why is it that all Namekians are male? It’s not through the way they dress (who’s to say female Namekians have breasts like human females, or that if they do they would need to cover up) or how they act, but that every voice actor is male. By portraying a species of male Namekians the message is clear:

  1. masculinity is the norm and to be genderless is to appear and present as male

I do not believe Piccolo had to be female or that there should have been female Namekians. I do however believe that voice actors should have been chosen who could create a genderless voice for a genderless species. This way, even though for instance, Piccolo appears male (and is basically understood to be male by not having any female identifications) in the manga, the anime was in a unique position. The anime could reshape our understanding of this alien character and in so doing reshape our understanding of an agender society.

There is no reason male should continue to be the norm on the basis that it is identifiably not-female (further fostering the harmful idea that the female body is marked as the other in society). Especially when creating alien races and exploring topics more closely linked to science fiction than action/adventure this is the place for societal commentary! The fact that Namekians reproduce asexually is brilliant, but the fact that they are all understood to be male is problematic. Had Piccolo been an agender character the plot of DB and DBZ would not have been altered, but the ideas of a gender binary would have been shattered. That is something the action/adventure genre desperately needs.