Sunday, 29 March 2015

Personal is Political

There is an alternate universe somewhere in which Roxane Gay and I are best friends. We hang out, play Scrabble, watch bad TV and critique popular culture together. We laugh, we cry, we commiserate. We talk about movies, books, music and about race, class and gender. Yeah, I envy the alternate me because she has such a cool friend.

In this universe, I have just finished Dr Gay's collection of essays, Bad Feminist (2014). I was inspired to read this book when I secured tickets to hear her speak at the All About Women festival in Sydney for International Women's Day and had the good fortune of meeting her at the book signing.

Gay describes herself as a Bad Feminist - a tongue-in-cheek term to distance herself from the feminist icons on their pedestals, as well as acknowledging the imperfections of feminism. She writes

"I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world..." (p xi)

The essays in Bad Feminist are personal and political - a divide that Gay straddles well, making meaning from the everyday and translating it into the bigger picture.

The first section, "Me", covers aspects of Gay's life from her upbringing in America as the daughter of Haitian immigrants, her first year as a professor, and the cutthroat world of competitive Scrabble.

She then moves on to "Gender and Sexuality" and in a serious of essays she covers a range of topics - domestic violence, body image, sexual identity - linked back to popular culture. She writes about The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, Sweet Valley High, Beverly Hills 90210, Girls and much more with an incisive insight. These essays are easy to read, humorous and instantly relatable but at the same time intellectual and thought-provoking.

The section "Race and Entertainment" focusses closely on race issues in Django Unchained, The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and anything by Tyler Perry. These essays were extremely interesting and Gay was very critical of the way in which Hollywood is casually (as well as overtly) racist. Her experience of racism is different than mine, so some of her writing in this section was confronting, making me think deeply. Another challenge in reading this section was that many of the texts and films she was talking about, I have not seen or read, or even heard of.

The final segment on "Politics, Gender and Race" covers reproductive rights, Paula Deen, and much more and serves in many ways as a call to action.

Overall, I really enjoyed Bad Feminist. Gay has given me a lot of food for thought - and a long list of books to read. I like her writing style, and her politics, and I look forward to reading more of her writing. I have her novel  An Untamed State and suspect I will be reading that shortly.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Make It Happen

To celebrate International Women's Day this year I attended the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House with a dear friend.

The theme of IWD this year is 'Make It Happen' which I quite like as a variation of the Picardian 'Make It So'. The question of course is What do we need to make happen? Gender equality? Equal pay for equal work? Reproductive freedom? Equitable representation? Stopping domestic violence? Etc etc. Yes, all of these and more. So days like today serve as a reminder that equality has not yet happened, and that feminists still have a lot of work to do.

There were a lot of sessions to chose from at All About Women, and unfortunately I could not see them all. Here are my highlights:

My day started with a session by Brigid Schulte called 'Overwhelmed: Stop Doing It All". Schulte is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of Overwhelmed: Work, love and play when no one has the time (2014). She began her research into leisure time when her paper was wondering why female readership had dropped. She asked a time specialist who told her she has 30 hours of leisure time a week - which she found hard to believe as she was juggling a career and family and feeling guilty about competing demands. Schultz was funny and open and offered a lot of insight into neuroscience, cultural norms and how to reclaim a bit of time for ourselves. After the session my friend and I got to chat with her as she signed books for us. It was lovely to meet her and I can't wait to read her book.

Next up was a session called Bad Feminist (2014) with Dr Roxane Gay, author of a collection of essays by the same name. I started reading this delightful book last week in anticipation of hearing her speak. I loved this session, and it was definitely the best of my day at the festival. Gay is a really interesting, straight talking, no BS bad feminist. I really liked the way she answered questions and was unapologetic in her views. For example, she was asked if someone who is pro-life can be a feminist, and Gay said no because that person denies the choice of other women. She also stated that women do not need to hold hands and bring men on the feminist journey - she said they need to figure it out themselves.  Gay has also recently released a novel called An Untamed State (2015) which I look forward to delving into.

My final session of the day was 'Women Warriors' looking at women in the military chaired by Catherine Fox, talking with Major Charmaine Enfield, Commander Cath Hayes, Wing Commander Fleur James, and Alex Shehadie.  Fox is author of Seven Myths about Women and Work and I have heard her speak a number of times at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and elsewhere. It was great to hear from these amazing women, but somehow this session fell a bit flat for me. I thought there would be more to it - a bit more warrior - but this was lacking. But the women themselves were admirable.

There were of course a lot of sessions I didn't get to that I would have like to. Annabel Crabb spoke about her book The Wife Drought (2014) and I had the good fortune to meet Annabel at the book signing. Australian of the Year Rosie Batty spoke about domestic violence. Helen Garner was on hand to talk about This House of Grief (2014), which I would have liked to have seen given that this book was my favourite non-fiction of 2014, but it conflicted with other parts of the schedule. I also would have liked to hear from Anita Sarkeesian in her presentation called 'Gamergate and Beyond: Women in Popular Culture."

So IWD is over for another year, but I have plenty of books to keep me occupied until the next one!