Bitch Planet (Vol. 1) by Kelly Sue DeConnick

Available for purchase here.

1984 was written as a warning, but between social media check ins, public surveillance, and the digital trail we leave whenever we do something as innocuous as buy a coffee or share a ride, we’ve used it as a map to guide us in the sixty-eight years since it was written, making the Newspeak and thought police a reality.

Someday in the not distant future, I fear someone, or more likely, a collective of someones, with too much power and too little intelligence, will read DeConnick’s Bitch Planet and see not a scathing indictment of patriarchal oppression but a blueprint to maintain social order.

We are already using shame as a public tool to codify behavior. We de-humanize people for their weight, their color, their sexual and gender identities. We demand beauty but use it as a way to discredit intelligence, depth, creativity, humor, etc. We purport to live in the land of the free, but terms and conditions apply to anyone who falls outside the archetypes that have been forced upon them, usually at birth.

Even though Bitch Planet, a space station prison for women who upend their submissive patriarchal role, provides the setting, the women who landed there by virtue of non-conformity are the characters and the heroes. None are more intriguing and alluring than Penny Rolle, who landed there for the crimes of being outspoken, fat, and black. An entire issue/chapter is devoted to her backstory and deprogramming at the hands of the misogynist women who assume charge, only for her to triumph over conditioning and look to her real, current self as her own ideal.

When proponents of kyriarchy read Bitch Planet and see the absurd logical conclusion that oppression dictates, feminists will read it and see a call to arms to fight back. As the series continues, I have a feeling we’ll win.

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple

Available for purchase here.

I have lived one lifetime, still in progress. A scant two years older than me, Molly Crabapple has lived at least twenty. Drawing Blood is her memoir of her teen years in New York through her time traveling in Europe, modeling for artists of diverse merit, and drawing inmates at Guantanamo, all the while clutching her sketchbook.

Crabapple has gone through life seemingly unencumbered by doubt, or, more likely, living above its influence. When her formal art education left her unfulfilled, she walked away. When she wanted to see the world, she leapt aboard planes to Paris and Morocco, building friendships across cultures. When she needed money, she used her body instead of compromising her art, but most importantly, she hasn’t followed anyone else’s blueprints–her life is entirely a creation of her own.

Throughout her memoir she name drops friends of hers who’ve mixed art and activism, people like Laurie Penny, Buck Angel, and Amanda Palmer. She walks among giants because she is one, even though she has long since internalized the notion that New York, and by extension, life, kills its darlings, taking that which is original and creative and turning it into something corporate and commodified.

Her awareness is what may yet save her–whenever she finds herself falling into a rut, she intentionally finds another muse. The book itself is evidence of such, her first foray into formal writing after years of working through a visual medium. She’s needlessly self-deprecating about her skills in both–her book is frank and  engaging, and her art looks like this.

Crabapple is awe-inspiring to anyone who aspires to live off their art alone; her greatest talents seem to be her willingness to throw caution to the wind and to hustle relentlessly while she does so. She is inimitable–her greatest appeal is her original perspective. No one can be Molly Crabapple but the woman who chose the name, but we can all learn from the example she set.

Spelled by Betsy Schow

Available for purchase here.

I’ve written recently about my fondness for YA literature, and re-worked fairy tales are some of my favorite stories ever, so after I worked through the entirety of The Lunar Chronicles I was prowling the section looking for a decent replacement. Enter the first of Betsy Schow’s Wizard of Oz-inspired series, where Dorothea is a princess who can’t leave her castle in the Emerald City, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are a king and queen who get cursed into Kansas, and all the characters are winkingly aware that they live in a world constructed by story tropes.

As a series, Wizard of Oz differs from traditional fairy tales. Frank L. Baum was a singular author rather than a curator of folk tales, and Dorothy Gale from the original tales was a heroine defined by her pluck and sense of adventure rather than her fragile beauty.

Schow ages Dorothea up to her teen years and introduces her as just this side of spoiled and fashion-obsessed, short-sighted and immature despite being primed to take over the throne of the Emerald City. In short, she’s relatable to the modern teen. She makes a wish on a cursed star which spins the kingdom into disarray and kicks off the plot. While she sets off to right her wrong, Dorothea makes one misplaced judgment call after another, but never backs down from a fight or concedes defeat.

Schow never makes the mistake of equating a strong female character with making her either flawless or kick-ass. Dorothea is naïve and vulnerable–her tenacity is her greatest asset, and her growth is something to watch for as the series moves forward.

Reality Bites Back by Jennifer Pozner

Available for purchase here.

Ever since streaming platforms like Netflix started offering original programming, pop culture aficionados have been calling our current timeframe a golden age of television. Shows are getting more daring, scripts are getting edgier, the faces (and bodies) on our screens are becoming more diverse. So it’s hard to remember that when Pozner wrote her scree cutting away the curtains that shroud the many fictions of “reality TV”, each season was boasting a fresh crop of so-called reality programming that let us view the horrible behavior of brides, models, and man-hungry women.

It’s well-documented that the producers of reality TV splice footage and stage their drama, but Pozner’s research show how thoroughly reality shows reinforce the very worst stereotypes–and there is a definite slant towards making women look bad.

Between product placement and low production values, television executives realized they could create a conceit for a reality show at far less than the cost of scripted programming. No one was demanding a sneak peek into the not-so-rarefied world of wedding planning or modeling gigs, but when networks were airing multiple episodes, people watched because that was what was available. Ratings were up, and that was all the powers that be required to greenlight more and more “documentary” programming.

Producers took advantage of the hours of footage and interview portions filmed months after the initial run to reinforce the worst stereotypes of women: We are mean, shallow, catty, image-obsessed shrews. Never mind that this was the personality type demanded by casting. Never mind that women auditioning for the shows were encouraged to amp up the bad behavior up to eleven. The women were the sole recipients of blame in the court of public opinion, and the negative ideas in the cultural consciousness were exacerbated.

Pozner takes whole chapters devoted to women of color and the unique ways reality TV worked to further marginalize them–makeover shows were offered to white women to make them “prettier”, but to women of color to make them “whiter”. Procedures like rhinoplasty, hair relaxing, and skin bleaching were de rigeur for shows like Extreme Makeover and The Swan.

It is by consistently showcasing the lowest common denominator of humanity, then giving it the misleading name of reality, inflating the numbers and then insisting they were just giving the people what they wanted, producers have been riding their reinforced stereotypes all the way to the bank and back. At the end of her book, Pozner rallies readers to be mindful of their viewing habits. In the six years since its publication, the turn back to nuanced writing and layered characters could possibly be partially attributed to Pozner, although part could be the general ennui viewers felt with the shallow, stereotyped behaviors of reality stars. We are by no means perfect, but we’re better than we were.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Available for purchase here.

Part of the reason I include How to Be a Woman on my list despite having read it years ago is horribly mundane: it was what I happened to be reading when I started this project back in September. But there’s another reason: Moran is all I aspire to be.

Feminism sometimes has the reputation of being dour and humorless (hint: if you believe feminists can’t take a joke, I invite you to examine if the problem, perhaps, is that you are simply not funny). Moran is a one-woman force against that stereotype. Every word of her memoir/instructional guide is the kind of funny that makes LOL a truism instead of a tired non-response. Even abortion, a woefully unfunny topic even for its most vociferous supporters, manages to garner a few chuckles in Moran’s trademark British working-class sensibility.

One of my favorite themes in the narrative is Moran’s general positivity towards other women. She’s not advocating that everyone see things her way, she’s celebrating her way and inviting others to do the same. She gives women permission to laugh at the absurdity of the standards imposed on us, from body hair to weight to our own pleasure. She advocates for erotica that’s actually erotic and suggests everyone mind their business when other people’s eating habits come up.

Moran manages to do the seemingly impossible: be astronomically likable without cutting back her bite, a skill both men and women would do well to learn. Luckily, she has a book for just that.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Available for purchase here.

Yanagihara examines the lives of four young men over 30-plus years in Manhattan: Willem, an actor, JB, an artist, Malcolm, an architect, and Jude, a lawyer. Jude is the de facto protagonist of A Little Life, a book whose title is horrifying in context.

Flashbacks to Jude’s childhood and teen years are slowly unfolded to reveal years of horrifying emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Even in-universe, Jude’s social worker finds the scope of Jude’s experiences shocking. As an adult, Jude suffers from chronic illness, debilitating pain, and deep psychological trauma that leads to self-harm.

Perhaps as a way to apologize to Jude, Yanagihara gives him every luxury in his adult life: scholarship to prestigious schools, cushy job with high earning power, swanky Manhattan apartment, free architectural modifications to accommodate his increased physical limitations, and most notably, free medical care courtesy of an old school friend with a bleeding heart, three friends who love him unconditionally, and even a late life adoption after he wins the hearts of his law professor and the man’s wife.

The story splits two ways with Jude’s fairy tale midlife compared to his nightmare childhood. On the one hand, there are real life Judes who don’t have one deus ex machina after another, some universal rearrangement of the cosmos trying to accommodate them. Real people go without desperately needed psychiatric help. Real people lose jobs because of exploited loopholes that enable employers to dismiss them rather than meet their needs. Yanagihara’s story would’ve been richer if Jude had had to circumnavigate the realities of his conditions, exposing the reality of so many people.

SPOILER

In another sense, all of Jude’s improbable fortunes come to naught. He eventually commits suicide a few years after the loss of his husband to a car accident, and spends most of his life haunted by his past and unwilling to accept the help so eagerly offered him. He exemplifies the quote by Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to raise strong children than to repair broken men.” Jude’s past has him so scarred he can’t recognize love or accept anything less than the most urgent assistance. Sex is traumatizing for him, and he views himself as a burden to everyone around him, even when he demonstrably is not.

Jude’s family and friends make the classic mistake of giving in to him when they should push him. It’s classic enabler behavior that ends in tragedy. Perhaps that’s the little lesson we should take from A Little Life.

Flawd by Emily-Anne Rigal

Available for purchase here.

This book was a library book that I grabbed on a whim one day when the line was unusually long and I had time to peruse. This kind of frenetic self-help isn’t my normal fare, but luckily it was a quick read, more like a particularly long blog post with fun sketches.

Flawd is relentlessly upbeat, cheery to the point of borderline childishness, but since it’s a call to arms for people to stop being so down on themselves it works within the vein of aggressive cheeriness.

To be honest, I’m liking this book against all my natural instincts. When presented with any set of options I choose darkness. I choose cynicism. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, and the sunny-side up Rigal is selling automatically strikes me as disingenuous, but I’m aware enough to realize that tells more about me than the book. It’s a good book for high school and college age girls and women to read, but despite the upbeat message, sometimes I do think that things come too late. For people in their late twenties/early thirties, this book is a reflection of our younger selves.

There is a possibility that Rigal’s brand of “you’re awesome” go get-it-ness will take hold with a younger crowd. Hopefully, that will help them stave off cynicism, at least for a little while.

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

Available for purchase here.

Mindy Kaling is good at skewering the ridiculousness of pop culture. She does it on her show, The Mindy Project, she did it in her first book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, and I assume she did it on The Office, but I never watched so I can’t be sure. The point is, Why Not Me? is more of Kaling’s wheelhouse, and she didn’t need to break new ground to make it topical and worthy.

Hollywood has borderline bizarre standards of beauty, and Kaling makes a point of showcasing just how the unreality is achieved, both in essay and photo documentation. She mocks the inherent celebration of whiteness in our beauty standards, but she’s so playful and silly about it no one reading would have their hackles raised into arguing her point–demonstrably one of her strengths.

Everything Kaling says in her work is an examination of the intersection of sex, race, weight, and their combined affect on show business success, but she’s so airy and friendly in her approach that even as her message penetrates, the first response isn’t to fight, but laugh. Humor is my personal favorite tool for education, but if not done well, it can fall flat. But Kaling is a pro, and she makes her points over and over again.

She refers to herself as having been raised with all the entitlement of a white man and it’s been to her benefit. Her refusal to see her sex and race as detrimental despite so many around her encouraging that mindset is the best takeaway from her book of essays, or, really, any of her work.

 

Gonzo Girl by Cheryl Della Pietra

Available for purchase here.

Cheryl Della Pietra spent a few months of the early 90’s working as an assistant to Hunter S. Thompson, where her experiences created the foundation for Gonzo Girl. Alley Russo, a recent college grad/bartender, gets the opportunity to move to the Colorado homestead of Thompson expy Walker Reade, living a life of forced excess and mounting pressure as she tries to edit and collate Reade’s drug-fueled typewritten screes into a cohesive manuscript.

Reade has clearly bought into his own mythology–half of what he does is because he’s expected to do it, whether it’s sexcapades, drug runs, ill-advised target shooting. He’s better than most but not as good as he once was, which is both a gift and a curse.

The story is not about Reade, though, but Alley. Alley is the only daughter of an apathetic working-class family that doesn’t value ambition. She’s the outlier at home, and an outlier with Reade. She’s alternately annoyed, afraid, and exhausted with Reade, who frequently harasses her and puts her in physical danger, all of which is excused by his sycophantic staff. She sticks out her assignment for the prospect of a massive cash payout if she can deliver Reade’s overdue manuscript, but also, as she puts to her bewildered brother, if she doesn’t care what she’s doing, no one else will.

It’s striking how both Alley and the reader begin to normalize behavior at Reade’s compound. Eventually Alley balks when she discovers that Reade has been violating her privacy and makes the choice to bail on her payout and her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Alley is like any ambitious young woman. She choose what aspects of the game she’s willing to play, and luckily had the presence of mind to stop playing before she became collateral damage in Reade’s. Not everyone who gets caught up in the excess of the powerful is so lucky.

Girl in the Dark by Anna Lyndsey

Available for purchase here.

Lyndsey’s memoir is about her strange condition that makes her, effectively, allergic to sunlight. From sunrise to sunset she spends her day shrouded in a dark room with blacked out windows, listening to audiobooks and waiting for nightfall so she can venture out to other parts of her house and interact with the rest of the world.

She has to live in certain conditions–she had to give up her regular job, she relocated from London to a small town to avoid ambient light, she was had to fight the placement of a streetlamp near her home, etc. Even the light of the computer monitor can be damaging, so she can’t hold a conventional work from home job.

Despite everything, Lyndsey is bright, vivacious, and engaged enough to write an intriguing memoir. She doesn’t present herself as a victim, nor her husband as a saint–they’re people who own the situation that life has dealt them but still struggle with it.

 

Lyndsey’s disability is not common, but she has managed to reach out and find others with a similar condition. In all my reading, the greatest asset people have when dealing with uncommon or marginalized situations is finding others who’ve experienced what they’re going through. Community is strength, and Lyndsey’s experiences will only broaden hers.