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Monday, July 18, 2011

hedda gabler & a doll's house

by Catherine Partin

Two of Ibsen’s best-known plays, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, have as their heroines frustrated bourgeois housewives whose lives are confined to the home and who prove themselves capable of more than is allowed them by societal constraints.  Nora and Hedda seem at first to inhabit separate worlds: one is a supportive wife and devoted mother; the other is a reluctant newlywed and dreads the responsibility of child-rearing; but both seek excitement and fulfillment outside the home and beyond the limited scope of their domestic duties.  Despite their apparent differences, both share a common quest for self-actualization through a rejection of social values and conventions, including a longing for excitement outside the domestic sphere and the idealization of a male character each of them attempts to influence and through whom they attempt to live vicariously.

            Nora and Hedda both challenge the roles they are expected to fill within a patriarchal society, especially in marriage.  Nora takes on the traditionally masculine task of working to bring a material income into the home, but her focus remains concentrated on providing for her family.  In contrast, while Hedda is virtually confined to the Falk Villa, her interest lies in the outside world, beyond the domestic sphere; unlike Nora, Hedda’s longing for independence is not masked by concern for a husband or children.  Patricia Spacks notes in The World of Hedda Gabler that Hedda “rejects the basic functions of women – marriage, motherhood; she rejects the real world of responsibility” (158).  Meanwhile, Nora is willing to devote herself to her role as wife and mother for the sake of the idealistic loyalty that she misguidedly ascribes to Helmer.  “I was completely certain – that you would come forward and take all the blame…it was to prevent that that I was ready to kill myself” (Ibsen, “A Doll’s House” 230).  While Hedda’s death is an act of rebellion against those to whom she is expected to submit, Nora’s contemplation of suicide is motivated by her notion that such an act would be a heroic feat of selflessness, a noble sacrifice to save her family from living in disgrace.  Nevertheless, despite Nora’s willingness to devote herself to her role as Helmer’s wife, she discovers a sense of satisfaction in violating the accepted conventions that discourage women from entering the world of work and business.  “[I]t was really tremendous fun sitting there working and earning money.  It was almost like being a man” (Ibsen, “A Doll’s House” 162).  In reality, the closest Nora and Hedda can get to experiencing the kind of freedom regularly afforded to men is through the idealistic hopes they pin on the male characters of Helmer and Lovborg.

            Both women maintain high ideals of love, sacrifice, and beauty that they initially cannot realize independently, each relying instead upon a powerful male figure to defy social conventions for them, thus fulfilling a romantic fantasy.  Arthur Ganz argues in Miracle and Vine Leaves: An Ibsen Play Rewrought, “Both women are prepared to throw away their lives to preserve the vision of the miraculous, the beautiful, that lifted their selves and their existences beyond the mundane… Each idealizes a man through whom she intends to achieve ‘the unattainable’ and whom she sees only as an instrument for the realization of herself” (11).  Although Nora ultimately does not commit suicide, her absolute faith in Helmer as the heroic figure she imagines him to be leads her to readily accept the idea of giving herself up in order to preserve her husband’s honour.  Nora abandons her thoughts of suicide as soon as she realizes that the cause for which she had been willing to die existed only in her mind as an unspoken desire.  Bereft of her own idealistic vision of Helmer as a loyal husband worth giving her life for, Nora finds herself liberated from the psychological shackles that had kept her captive in her role as a dutiful wife and mother.  She is then free to pursue her own personal and economic freedom.  The threat of poverty and public humiliation are of less importance to Nora than the self-actualization she can attain only by rejecting the role assigned to her by society.  For Nora, suicide would be the ultimate act of submission to the rules that value a man’s honour, not to mention a policy of strict obedience to men’s impartial systems of judgment, over a woman’s moral obligations, no matter how noble her intentions.  Unlike Hedda, whose suicide is a form of protest, Nora ultimately rebels not by seeking escape in death but by flouting social conventions in choosing to claim her life as her own.  Hedda, however, turns to suicide when Lovborg’s death fails to fulfill her vision of what she considers the beauty of free will.  She is so bound by the laws of society that she can see no possibility of liberation in attempting to defy them. 

            The obstacle facing both women in their struggles toward self-realization is the institution of marriage, portrayed in these plays as a sort of contract; women marry not for love, but for purely practical and economic reasons.  “I’d danced myself out.  That was all.  My time was up…and he was so determined…so sure he’d be able to support me…Why should I turn him down?”  (Ibsen, “Hedda Gabler” 41).  The husbands in both plays appear to dote on their wives, but neither relationship is emotionally or intellectually satisfying to Nora or Hedda.  Nonetheless, both women are willing to endure their unfulfilling marriages as long as certain conditions are met: in Nora’s case, her relationship with Helmer is kept intact only by her continued illusion that he is as willing to risk his life for her as she is for him; Hedda, driven by her “obsessive concern with the perception of society,” remains committed to playing the role of a loyal and devoted wife despite her own acknowledgment to Brack that she considers her marriage to Tesman a disappointment and a failure (Ganz 15).  Unlike Thea, however, Hedda does not see the possibility of deserting a dull marriage in favor of a passionate romance as an avenue to liberation.  To Hedda, Thea represents the bleak future of the woman who tries to live outside the constraints of society: she chases after Lovborg but fails to exercise any real control over him, and while she has freed herself from an unsatisfying marriage, she continues to depend heavily on a man for personal and emotional fulfillment but without the benefit of the legal bond that would at least ensure her financial security.  Despite her unfeminine affinity for pistols and her aversion to motherhood, Hedda appears in other respects a model wife: her relationship with Lovborg has never ventured beyond their illicit conversations into physical intimacy, and she refuses to engage in an adulterous affair with Judge Brack.  

However, Hedda’s reluctance to pursue a relationship with either man signifies not any sense of loyalty to Tesman, but rather a refusal to allow any man to exert power over her either materially or psychologically.  Her frustration stems in part from her repressed sexuality, involving fear of, desire for, and curiosity about a man’s world that a young girl “‘isn’t supposed to know anything about’” (Ganz 15).  Both Nora and Hedda are excluded from the freedoms exercised by the male characters in Ibsen’s plays, particularly economic and sexual.  As a result, their relationships suffer: Nora’s financial dependence on Helmer, although socially sanctioned, is a symptom of the distrust that leads to the dissolution of their marriage; Hedda’s unwillingness to accept a submissive sexual role compels her to resent Tesman and to reject both Lovborg and Brack.  Although they share similar desires for power and independence, sexuality plays a different role for each woman in her attempt to assert herself.  Ganz writes, “[Hedda’s] sexual allure has almost nothing to do with her manipulation of Lovborg…Nora is, after all, prepared to use her charms to get money, but Hedda tries to use her will and intelligence to ‘control a human destiny’” (16).  Hedda’s aversion to sexuality is underscored by her preoccupation with the idea of will and intellectual influence as the most powerful means of control, as she observes the dynamic between Lovborg and her envious husband , Thea and her positive influence on Lovborg.  In contrast, Nora recognizes her feminine charms as a source of power and uses them to her advantage, first flirting with Dr. Rank and then using dance to distract her husband.   She also realizes that her appeal will fade with time and age, and is prepared to use her secret as a kind of insurance against the inevitable waning of her beauty, which constitutes her only power over Helmer: “What I mean, of course, is when Torvald isn’t as fond of me as he is now – when my dancing and dressing up and reciting don’t amuse him any longer.  It might be a good thing, then, to have something up my sleeve…” (Ibsen, “A Doll’s House” 161).  Whereas Nora’s sexuality is her primary means of getting what she wants, Hedda resists men’s advances and prefers to exert her influence verbally, through her conversations with Lovborg and Tesman.  Although their means are different, their ends are the same.

            The trait that ultimately unites these characters is the idealistic vision each harbours of the man to whom she links her secret desires and private aspirations.  The tragedy of A Doll’s House is that Nora has spent eight years operating under the false and naïve expectation that Helmer would one day be revealed as the noble and worthy husband she longs for, risking her own reputation in the hope that he would readily do the same for her sake.  Hedda similarly envisions a grand gesture by Lovborg that would demonstrate her influence over his actions and validate her belief in the power of one’s will to overcome socially-imposed limitations.  She manipulates Lovborg as a way of experiencing a vicarious sense of liberation from the social conventions by which she is bound: 

“The vine leaves that she wishes to see in his hair are the symbol of beauty achieved by defiance of society; his dissipated life in the past, the dissipation she urges him toward in the present, represent to her the possibility of escaping rather than submitting to narrow social limits.  It is entirely for her own sake that she manipulates him: not merely for the joy of controlling a destiny, but for the immediate joy of knowing that she has, with perfect safety, with no apparent responsibility, caused a violation of conventional restrictions” (Spacks 158).

Lovborg has already earned a reputation for having led a depraved and self-indulgent past, but is easily redeemed and welcomed back into society’s good graces, but as a woman, Hedda cannot overtly rebel against social conventions without devastating consequences.  To Hedda, Lovborg’s suicide as she imagines it represents the fulfillment of her own desire for autonomy and the triumph of the will over worldly constraints: “All I know is that Ejlert Lovborg had the courage to choose the kind of life he wanted to lead.  And now this, this triumph, this beautiful deed.  He had the strength, the will, to tear himself away from the banquet of life…so early” (Ibsen, “Hedda Gabler” 100).  Lovborg’s death is admirable to Hedda because it suggests a kind of freedom from social pressures and obligations she herself could not expect to find in her own life.  Neither could Nora be considered able or expected to take on the full responsibility of her economic or legal decisions; her forgery must reflect badly on Helmer because she is at his mercy financially.  Both Nora and Hedda find themselves unable to act directly as individuals in the world, at least within the limits of their roles as women, but rely upon men as their representatives.  As Ganz notes, “The ‘miracle’ that Torvald is to perform and the crown of vine leaves that Lovborg is to wear are to have similar effects on the women who contemplate them.  For each of them this act – carried out on her behalf or under her influence – is to justify a life of restraint, conventionality, sacrifice, secret repression” (18).  However, neither heroine is granted this vicarious satisfaction of their desires.  Nora admits, “[W]hen the miracle didn’t happen…I saw that you weren’t the man I’d always thought you” (Ibsen, “A Doll’s House” 229).  Her disappointment over Helmer’s unwillingness to risk violating social conventions and Hedda’s disillusionment concerning the circumstances surrounding Lovborg’s death precipitate their decisions to move beyond idealizing or manipulating men to achieve their ends, and to take control of their own lives for the first time.

            Over the course of both plays, Nora and Hedda’s motivations gradually shift from the desire to control another person’s destiny to their own need for self-realization, propelling them both to their final acts of defiance and liberation.  Nora’s desertion of her post as wife and mother is a necessary sacrifice in asserting her autonomy, and Hedda’s suicide is a powerful statement of protest demonstrating willful control over her own destiny.  Both are a declaration of independence and a last courageous gesture of rebellion.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


by Catherine Partin

Steel beneath your freckles in every photograph that frames my mirror image,
I mailed you the end of a thin thread stretching from here to Rochester, all for nothing,
Sullen silence on your end of the rusty
Tin-can telephone but I holler across cornfields, time zones, the dark shadow in your bed
Every September you blow out the candles and die again
Rowing as far as your boat can carry you

Saturday, June 4, 2011

fasting girls

by Catherine Partin

In Fasting Girls: A History of Anorexia Nervosa, Joan Jacobs Brumberg traces the history of anorexia nervosa from its roots in the fasting demonstrated by medieval saints, through its resurgence in the Victorian era, and into modern times.  Great care is taken to distinguish between different forms of anorexia as the practices of refusing food evolved throughout the centuries, with Brumberg describing the transition from fasting as a form of religious devotion and piety to a symptom of insanity and finally a disorder of its own.  She attempts to explain, through careful historical examination of times and cultures in which food and femininity have been inextricably linked, how anorexia nervosa originated and why it has become so insiduous in our society.   Brumberg outlines three theoretial models of causation: biomedical, psychological, and cultural, the last of which is most relevant to feminist thinking.

             The cultural model of anorexia nervosa asserts that the disorder is caused by what Brumberg describes as “a powerful cultural imperative that makes slimness the chief attribute of female beauty.”  (33)  While eating disorders can be explained in biomedical and psychological terms, this feminist interpretation acknowledges that cultural forces are also to blame.  Brumberg writes, “Before Chernin, Orbach, and Millman, women’s dieting and weight concerns were trivialized or interpreted as masking a strictly individual psychological problem without consideration of the ways in which culture stimulated, exacerbated, and gave shape to a pattern of problematic behaviors.”  (36)  Without dismissing valid medical findings and psychological theories, Brumberg notes that the cultural model provides an additional explanation for anorexia nervosa by recognizing that social factors influence eating habits and disorders.

             Contemporary feminist analysis of disordered eating is based upon scholarly criticism of nineteenth-century women and medicine.  These scholars postulate “that women’s bodies are a locus of social control…and that ‘female diseases’ are socially constructed states that symbolize both the hegemony of scientific medicine and Victorian social constraints on women.”  (36)  Brumberg continues, “Thus, anorexia nervosa is painted as a young woman’s protest against the patriarchy– that is, as a form of feminist politics.” (37)  In this view, the refusal to eat is a symbolic rejection of oppressive social norms.  However, Brumberg takes issue with the classic feminist view of anorexia nervosa as a cultural or political protest on the grounds that it denies the biomedical factor and can lead to thinking of the illness as a conscious choice rather than a debilitating disease, arguing, “Although some earnestly believe that anorexia nervosa is a conscious and/or symbolic act against sexism that follows in a direct line from early-twentieth-century feminism, it is difficult from a historical perspective to see the analogy between the articulate and life-affirming political strategies of the Pankhursts and the silent, formulaic behavior of the modern Karen Carpenters…If the anoretic’s food refusal is political in any way, it is a severely limited and infantile form of politics, directed primarily at parents (and self) and without any sense of allegiance to a larger collectivity.” (38)  In other words, disordered eating may indeed be spurred by generalized dissatisfaction to which oppressive societal demands contribute, but to conclude that anorexia nervosa is then a conscious reaction against authority would be presumptuous.  Brumberg also notes that this way of thinking can lead to what she calls “an interpretation of the disorder that overemphasizes the level of conscious control,” (37); she recognizes the merits of the existing cultural model but argues that it cannot stand alone as an explanantion for a disorder that also has roots in physiology and personal psychology. 

            Brumberg hypothesizes, as many eating disorders experts do, that the causes of anorexia nervosa are intertwined; she posits that anorexia nervosa can be divided into two stages, the first involving a sociocultural framework for food-refusal and the second consisting of the mental and physical disturbances that feed the compulsion to starve.  Brumberg writes, “When we take the long history of female fasters into account, it becomes apparent that there are certain historical moments and cultural settings when a biological substratum could be activated by potent social and cultural forces.”  (42) 

            Fasting Girls mainly concentrates on the Victorian era, when notions of food and feminity were interwined to such a degree that anorexia nervosa emerged as an independent diagnosis amid myriad other variants of disordered eating associated with diseases such as dyspepsia and chlorosis.  Brumberg notes that the historical timing of anorexia nervosa corresponds with the idea that, following the Protestant Reformation, medicine took the place of religion in suppressing and dominating women.   When fasting lost its power as a religious practice, refusing food was then cast as symptomatic of mental illness, specifically hysteria, which in turn had its basis in the inherent weakness of the female body.  Brumberg writes, “The health of young women was definitely influenced by a general female fashion for sickness and debility…In Victorian society unhappy women (and men) had to employ physical complaints in order to be permetted to take on the privileged ‘sick role.’  Because the most prevalent diseases in this period were those that involved ‘wasting,’ it is no wonder that becoming thin, through noneating became a focal symptom.’  Wasting was in style.”  (168)

            Despite the passage of time, wasting is still in style.  Following a detailed analysis of anorexia nervosa’s roots, Brumberg discusses the evolution of beauty ideals from the early twentieth century up to the 1980s.  Her work shows that while cultural settings and expectations have changed, food and appetite continue to serve as a feminine mode of self-expression.  In her conclusion, she observes, “As in many psychiatric disorders, the behavioral symptoms are an expression of prevailing cultural concerns.”  (253)  Fasting Girls is a fascinating examination of an illness that is fed heartily, if not altogether caused, by the myths of beauty and femininity to which we as a society subscribe.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

nesting dolls

by Hannah

The day big sister ran
into the white hall
she was waggling one
oversized sock in the air
we all came rushing
to see the fishhook
staring sheepishly out
of a lumpy woolen
mouth defeated
a sharp little anchor pulled
from its shag resting place.

What a catch! Dad said.
Great-grandma must have
missed it with that wheezing,
green antique she called
 a vacuum, Mom said.
Blah blah blah (baby talk)
said little Brother on her hip.

Their voices bounced off
my back as I high tailed it
to search for bottom dweller
heirlooms in my own aged room
newly aware of my place
as the tiniest wooden woman
buried deep in the belly
of mother after mother.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

sex and the city and postfeminism

by Catherine Partin

What is postfeminism?  Janelle Reinelt defines it in States of Play: Feminism, Gender Studies, and Performance as “[A] time when the residue of feminism is still with us in terms of its history and some of its commitments, but without the overarching umbrella of an organized social or political movement at either grass roots or national levels.” In popular culture, the idea that we inhabit a postfeminist society is clearly demonstrated in the television series Sex and the City.

As most readers of this blog will probably know, the series focuses on the lives of four fictional upper-class white women in New York: Carrie, who writes a newspaper column on relationships; Samantha, a powerful publicist; and Charlotte, an art dealer; and Miranda, a lawyer.  At one point in the series, Miranda muses, “How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?”  As the least fashion-conscious and most career-oriented woman on the show, she is portrayed as the most neurotic because her drive for success at work hinders her in more traditionally feminine pursuits (i.e., dating and motherhood).  But despite her professional success, her personal life is depicted as lonely and pathetic because she does not place the same priority on marriage and children as do Charlotte and Carrie. 

As Suzanne Leonard writes in I Hate My Job, I Hate Everybody Here, “Feminist-inflected discussions of the importance of finding suitable, lucrative, and relevant labor have thus receded in a postfeminist culture far more concerned with reminding women of all the personal and romantic goals their laboring might put in jeopardy.  This shift in tone is also naturalized, thanks to the implicit suggestion that the particularities of work are no longer something with which women need concern themselves.  Postfeminist culture assumes, in fact, that all women possess the requisite credentials to lay claim to the jobs they desire and that once they do so they will be well compensated for their efforts.” (104)  If postfeminism is a taking-into-account of all that feminism worked to achieve, then Sex and the City is a perfect example of postfeminism in popular culture, with work and class as issues that manage to be smoothed over or ignored. The characters lead highly privileged lives, enjoying many of the rights that Second Wave feminists fought hard to achieve, but despite their success and independence, they are obsessed with relationships, and the show revolves around their search for romantic fulfillment.

 The women of Sex and the City are all well-educated, wealthy, and white; their jobs hardly seem to matter, except in Miranda’s case, when it is implied that her interest in a successful law career is the hindrance that keeps her from marriage, children, and the traditional fairy-tale ending that it is assumed all women secretly want.  Carrie’s research for her column on relationships, for example, involves dating, going out to nightclubs and parties, and dining at trendy new restaurants.  In one episode, she explains to an exboyfriend whom she spots on the terrace of a café that she is working, when actually she’s gossiping with her friends and sipping a cocktail.  Any serious work done by the characters on the show (like Miranda’s need to invest time and effort to her high-stress job as a lawyer) is seen as a threat to their romantic and personal fulfillment.

In contrast to Miranda, Charlotte’s career is of little importance to her, but she is portrayed as the most cheerful and optimistic of the bunch because she believes wholeheartedly in old-fashioned romance and is the first of the four women to enter into a traditional marriage.  “In the postfeminist popular media, these celebratory representations of marriage are even less tempered and often take on an additional valence wherein they emphasize that if push comes to shove a woman’s marital status is indeed more important than her career.  Such portrayals frequently emphasize that female employment, far from being the sort of life necessity that feminists advocated, has the potential to be a hindrance to her ‘feminine’ aspirations.  Thus, recent cinematic offerings frequently school twenty- and thirty-something women in the importance of not allowing their careers to overwhelm their marriage or maternal prospects.” (Leonard 103) 

Though Samantha is not interested in commitment or motherhood, she is equally dependent on men, but in a much less obvious way.  Samantha is characterized throughout the series as an empowered and independent woman who enjoys sex free of the emotional entanglements that plague her friends.  Samantha is a smart businesswoman, but her self-esteem relies mainly on her ability to attract men, suggesting that as a woman, her value still lies in maintaining her physical appearance and not in her achievements at work.  Both Samantha and Miranda have successful, high-paying jobs, but Samantha is the happiest and is seen as having more control over her life because she adheres to a stereotypical definition of outward femininity in both appearance and behavior.

The theme of Sex and the City seems to be that, although the characters have all the freedoms afforded them by past struggles undertaken by the feminist movement, a traditional model of romance, marriage and motherhood is needed for women to find personal fulfillment.  Since Carrie and her friends don’t have to fight for their right to work in the business world, to control their reproductive health, or to wear trousers, they’re free to dream of a domestic life as a stay-at-home mother (like Charlotte), to find empowerment through casual sex (like Samantha), and to wear flimsy Jimmy Choos (all four women, but I suppose particularly Carrie).  Does Sex and the City have a feminist message?  I don’t believe so, but fans of the series might beg to differ.  What do you think?

*References available upon request.

Monday, May 9, 2011

a room of one's own

by Catherine Partin

Does writing have a gender, and if so, how can we account for the historical differences in literary output between men and women?  Is there such a thing as masculine or feminine writing?  What is the difference, if there is one, and why have women been excluded from this form of cultural production?  Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own, examines the history of women in literature and attempts to explain how and why women have been largely left out of the canon of Western literature.  Woolf argues that women writers are limited not by biological or intellectual capacities, but by societal barriers that have, for centuries, designated women as the second sex and deprived them of the range of liberties and experiences available to their male counterparts.   A Room of One’s Own identifies the history of women’s oppression, issues of economic privilege or poverty, and men’s interest in maintaining their cultural and literary authority as the determining forces upon which hinge women’s ability to write.  Although Woolf emphasizes the material independence that women have been denied, and upon which rests the intellectual freedom necessary for the production of great literature, as the primary reason for women’s exclusion from cultural production, many societal and psychological obstacles remain, even in the wake of the women’s movement.  Women’s writing continues to reflect the lingering effects of misogynistic cultural memes that have deprived women of a feminine literary tradition comparable to the Western canon of literature produced largely by men.  The woman writer’s creative identity and ways of expression are formed by her experience in a male-dominated society.  Because of the hindrances women have faced, women’s writing is necessarily marked by the challenges with which its authors have been forced to contend, and by patriarchal systems that have historically failed to allow for feminine modes of creation. 

            As the primary basis of differentiation between the sexes, the biological traits that distinguish male from female have historically been cited as signs of women’s inferiority.  The innate fragility attributed to the female sex, based on generalizations about women’s physical strength but extending to morality and intellect as well, has been used as an excuse for benevolent sexism and for the continued subjugation of women.  An ideal world, according to Woolf, would be one in which women were permitted the same opportunities as men. “[I]n a hundred years…they will take part in all the exertions and activities that were once denied them.  The nursemaid will heave coal.  The shop-woman will drive an engine.  All assumptions founded on the facts when women were the protected sex will have disappeared…” (Woolf 40)  The excuse of physical weakness has been used to dictate women’s work and recreation, and to deny women entry to the masculine realms of labor, politics, and education.  It has also played a role in preventing women from partaking in the variety of experiences available to men through work, travel, reproductive freedom, and personal autonomy.  Woolf notes that the works authored by women such as Colette, Jane Austen, and George Eliot “…were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman” (69).  To the detriment of women’s writing, societal disapproval of women’s attempts at those masculine endeavors deemed inappropriately strenuous for the female constitution or intellect has kept women safely ensconced in the domestic sphere, where they would be expected to fulfill a maternal role, to the renunciation of any potential career.   After questioning the failure of her generation’s predecessors to provide their daughters with the educational institutions and funds for scholarship, Woolf’s narrator concludes, “[T]o endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether.  Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children – no human being could stand it”; she later notes that none of the successful female novelists she admires were mothers (22, 65).  Yet aside from reproductive realities and the domestic duties associated with motherhood, women’s bodies have always been belittled as inherently flawed.  Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, describes the ways in which physical features and functions exclusive to the female body are identified not only as variations from, but signs of inferiority to, a norm characterized by masculinity:

“Woman has ovaries, a uterus; there we have the particular circumstances that imprison her in her subjectivity; one often says that she thinks with her glands.  In his grandiosity man forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones, and testicles.  He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world which he believes that he apprehends objectively, while he considers the woman’s body to be weighed down by everything specific to it: an obstacle, a prison.”  (Beauvoir 5)

Where women differ from men, they are considered intrinsically flawed, the perceived shortcomings of the female body projected still further to the mind or immaterial self.  Women’s bodies are seen as a barrier between the self and an objective reality that only men can perceive.  Beauvoir cites saints and philosophers whose theories were nonetheless tainted by misogyny: “’The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ Aristotle said.  ‘We should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’  And Saint Thomas in his turn decreed that woman was an ‘incomplete man’” (Beauvoir 5).  Women are measured by male standards and, like the Manx cat of Woolf’s essay, found lacking in some respect that has been taken as the defining characteristic of the species.  This absence of masculine traits has been used as justification for women’s categorization as the weaker sex not only physically but intellectually and morally as well, and for their subsequent exclusion from the realm of creative pursuits dominated by men. 

            Women’s rejection from male educational and artistic institutions has led to the lack of a substantial feminine literary tradition.  Woolf argues that the one of the greatest difficulties the early women writers faced, beyond practical and material hardships, was that of being compelled to adapt to forms and literary standards tailored to men’s creative strengths.  Describing the style and structure men’s writing took with the development of the novel, Woolf writes, “A book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes.  And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs for their own uses” (76).   Woolf also speculates that the popularity of the novel as the genre of choice among nineteenth-century women writers was rooted in convenience and practicality rather than authors’ creative inclinations.  Women took to novels because they could suffer the frequent interruptions and obligations that divided women’s attentions, they required less concentration to write than poetry, and as the act of writing became possible for women of less privileged classes than ever before, they could easily fetch an income (Woolf 65-67).  Despite this increased literary production, the growing body of feminine literature still failed to express women’s creative capacities.  Instead, it continued to reflect external restrictions encroaching upon the creative process.

            The disparities between women and men in their encounters of the world mean that creativity must be expressed differently between the sexes: women cannot write like men because their experiences are uniquely feminine.  In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf lauds the novelists Jane Austen and Emily Bronte for refusing to emulate a masculine style of writing and instead finding their own ways of writing about the truth, believing that “literature arises when a human being tries to attend to reality with as much integrity and truthfulness as she can muster, and then tries to communicate that vision to others” (Moi 268).  Reality, however, has traditionally been defined by men, who perceive their view of reality as the true and objective one while women must relate to the world subjectively (Beauvoir 5).  The argument that gender should be irrelevant forces women writers to renounce their subjectivity and “to masquerade as some kind of generic universal human being, in ways that devalue their actual experiences as embodied human beings in the world,” but to write intentionally as a woman, Woolf believes, presents and even greater risk because it means sacrificing the integrity of the work (Moi 265).  Only when women can write as men have written for centuries, unconscious of the hardships and disadvantages unfairly inflicted upon their sex, will women’s writing be recognized for its own merits and not because its authors are female.  The fatal flaw that Woolf finds in many novels by women is what she describes as a sense of bitterness and a hint at the desire for self-expression that women have not been permitted to openly articulate.  Women’s attempts to defend or compensate for their gender have shaped women’s writing in ways that lead Woolf to declare, “[I]t is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex…It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman” (103).  Nelly Richard writes in Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference(s) that both masculine and feminine forces “…act together in every process of creative subject formation: it is the dominance of one force over the other that polarizes writing” (21).  This idea bolsters Woolf’s argument that the essence of creativity itself is not gendered, and echoes her assertion that both masculine and feminine qualities can and should be found at work together in good writing, for, “It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties.  Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine…” (97).  Only the androgynous mind is capable of producing truly great works of literature, unaffected by the societal constraints associated with an author’s identification as masculine or feminine.

            The labeling of literature in such binary terms can be useful in a historical context, but as Woolf argues, writers must surpass cultural ideas about gender if they are to write with integrity to their vision; such binary oppositions as male and female “are more than theoretically interesting examples of human cognition, for the processes of defining by negation are sometimes used to justify the political and economic practices of exclusion” (Penticoff, Brodkey 229).  Fixating on the sex of women writers only serves to underscore gender divisions still fraught with tension.  Unless women are allowed to write unimpeded by and unconscious of their sex, they cannot achieve the creative successes that their male counterparts have been free to attain.  Though Woolf occupies herself with questions about women’s writing and its place in literature, her ultimate hope is for a future in which it will be possible to transcend the patriarchal mentality that has imposed such damaging limitations on writers, both masculine and feminine, and their creativity.

Works Cited
Beauvoir, Simone de.  The Second Sex.  Trans. Constance Borde, Sheila Malovany-Chevallier.  New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.  5-14.  Print.

Moi, Toril.  “I am not a woman writer.”  Feminist Theory 9.3 (2008): 259-271. Web.  23 Nov. 2010.

Penticoff, Richard, and Linda Brodkey.  “Writing About Difference: ‘Hard Cases’ for Cultural Studies.”  Writing Permitted in Designated Areas Only.  Ed. Linda Brodkey.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.  229.  Print.

Richard, Nelly.  Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference(s).  USA: Duke University Press, 2004.  Print.
Woolf, Virginia.  A Room of One’s Own. USA: Harcourt, 2005.  Print.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

don't be afraid, gringa

by Hannah

When tortillas and beans
run out and we’re stuck sixty
of us in Wealthyman’s field
and he has gun rage and dog hunt
and police fear in american powersuits-
We are many, Everywoman,
and People do this in your country everyday.

Walk around in my plastic
blistered shoes
it’s no fire ant picnic parade.
None here get a Nobel
or nostalgia or a daily 3 squares.
Our prize is when we die
our souls don’t climb
golden stairs or fly

but dissolve slow
to dirt to birth corn and rice
to feed the belly of the rebel.
This is where my mother went,
why we are strong-
Everybit grows green and wise
and so do we.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


by Bre

You see it all the time.
A girl stumbling off with a man after a night out.
She was sweet-talked into this. Tonight she is beautiful, intelligent
and a purely brilliant girl that is just a pleasure to spend time with.

They will go off into the night and have and hold each other. It will seem meaningful. This all seems worth it.

He cries to you. He says the most beautiful and meaningful things. He makes you feel the way you should every single moment of your life.
This time things are different,        this time things will change.

Now it’s tomorrow
and in tomorrow she is just another whore, a notch on your bed post.

You got a high five. A pat on the back and celebration all around

She’s been called easy, a slut and a whore within the past hour.
She lay on her back and took it like the whore she is.

Why? She’ll lose everyone close to her, he’ll gain a reputation spiked with machismo
  Her reputation is that of a 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

fat is a feminist issue

by Catherine Partin

                A recent blog post by writer Maura Kelly for women’s magazine Marie Claire, a publication often hailed for its progressive coverage of women’s issues, has generated considerable controversy within the feminist blogosphere and amid the mainstream media.  Published online in October 2010, the main premise of Kelly’s article is that the spectacle of the obese expressing affection is a repulsive and disgusting one; furthermore, she claims that television programs such as Mike and Molly promote obesity merely by portraying characters whose excessive weight does not appear a hindrance to their romantic or personal fulfillment.  Her argument boils down to this offensive conclusion: obesity is an abomination, and overweight people should not be entitled to basic human experiences of love and desire.  Beyond its weakness as a work of journalism, “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room?” displays a total lack of feminist consciousness while revealing the disheartening extent of fat hatred in America.

                The offensively-titled “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room?” came to my attention via Jezebel, which published several reactionary pieces following the Marie Claire controversy.  The post begins with the question that prompted Kelly’s protest against the romance between Mike and Molly: Are viewers disgusted by scenes of affection between overweight characters on television?  Kelly phrases her prompt and affirmative conclusion thus:

“Yes, I think I'd be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other...because I'd be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room…” 

Interestingly, the characters that so repulse her are nothing less than sitcom stereotypes: white, middle-class, heterosexual adults whose only deviation from the Hollywood mold is the size of their bodies.  Although they are an anomaly in television, Mike and Molly actually represent the reality of life for an increasing number of Americans, 68% of whom were found to be overweight or obese in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  Kelly’s stance is surprising given her role as a relationship blogger for Marie Claire, which targets young women and portrays itself as a more enlightened and “woman-positive” magazine than its competition (i.e., magazines like Cosmopolitan and Women’s Health) .  While disdain for fat is rampant in our society, the article comes as a shock because of its unbridled honesty in expressing Kelly’s derisive opinion of the overweight.

      The idea of the personal-as-political that arose from radical feminist theory is one that has always resonated with me, especially in light of the crusade against obesity-related diseases, which has become a highly-charged political issue in the United States.  Currently in recovery from an eating disorder, my personal interest in women’s issues has been largely influenced by my own experiences as well as a desire to understand the cultural forces that have historically supported women’s oppression by casting the female body as sinful, dangerous, an entity to be strictly contained and tightly controlled.  Naomi Wolf notes in The Beauty Myth that ideals of femininity remained bound up in fertility and domesticity until the Second Wave of the 1960s and ‘70s, at which point the subjugation of women evolved into a subtler form of oppression: the imperative to remain thin.  As Wolf argues, "The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us."  Although women today enjoy more liberties and opportunities than ever before, the pressure to conform to societal beauty ideals has grown stronger than ever.

                Although Kelly does not directly target women in her hateful criticism of Mike and Molly, the issue is at its core a feminist one, because of both the article’s intended audience and the immense pressure our culture exerts upon women who fail to meet current standards of thinness and beauty.  The collective impact of media messages such as those so explicitly expressed in “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room,” and others more subtly insinuated, cannot possibly fail to affect women’s views of themselves as scrutinized by the male gaze.  Obesity may affect both sexes equally, but eating disorders remain, as always, an overwhelmingly female concern.  The history of Western philosophy is rife with misogyny as well as disdain for the human body; articles like “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room,” merely express the thinking that still permeates our culture in these modern times.  Kelly’s tone is shocking in its contempt only because she dares to openly articulate the subtext beneath every article published by magazines like Marie Claire urging readers to mold themselves into the false ideal marketed to us as the epitome of female beauty.

                The very existence of a television series like Mike and Molly constitutes an audacious refusal to abide by the rules that the patriarchy has established and that women like Maura Kelly have so effectively internalized.  Kelly’s condemnation of Mike and Molly, poorly masked behind her claim that the show promotes obesity, is extremely telling in its blatant intolerance for those who fail to meet our society’s rigid definition of physical beauty.

                Shortly after the post appeared on, the blogosphere erupted in protest, and under pressure, Kelly issued a weak apology.  But by unabashedly declaring her views on obesity, Kelly has spoken only what society has long expressed, albeit in more subtle and perhaps even more damaging ways.  The original article can be read here.  Also check out some of the pieces later published in counterpoint to her argument.  What do you think of Kelly’s reaction to Mike and Molly, and/or the responses her article provoked?  And why has the concept of a happy overweight couple resulted in such controversy?

*References available upon request.

Friday, April 1, 2011


by Catherine Partin

I leaned up against him in the dark, cradling a martini glass in my hand.  A thin wet ribbon of lemon peel clung limply to the shallow sides of the glass.  The taste in my mouth was soapy, alcoholic, stringent and powdery soft all at once.  The cloth of his dinner jacket rasped against my white shoulders, harsh and silky.  I could have easily watched the red end of a cigarette smoldering in the dark, tasted the ash on my tongue, had I had handy a pack, but neither of us smoked.  I kicked off my shoes and curled my stockinged feet up under me.  His fingers played with mine, distractedly.  There was not a single solitary thought in my head, just the night breeze on my skin, the glitter of lights in the square fourteen stories below, the tinkle of glass and distant murmers broken now and then by a muffled burst of laughter.  A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth and I let myself smirk.  What?  Nothing.  I’m just so happy.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


by Catherine Partin

let’s just rehearse, okay? i hit a car on my way here, thinking about you, and then i lost myself in your part of town. mississippi albina, ash ash (you poke and stir flesh and bone there is nothing there?): stumptown coffee ground to a whir in slate-grey cups. flannel linens and a heavy boot, flushed fuchsia like a freshly bloomed bruise. sandpaper your whiskey jaw, ivory bones beneath david crownless king you a hot surprise in top-heavy gravity pull drag into a tomb cold with dew. round stone beneath gentle fingers, a moss-covered log under, inside rushing water but green pillows, musk. "i’m going to do something controversial." a glass dark thick wine, blood nectar spiny butter prickles under the tongue and tart with bittersweet pang between my teeth. we swigged reckless giggles before I pushed you down to kiss. there was a gleam a spark in your wet marble eye, the pulse in your throat - a leap, you cough, I die. my breath caught in your thorns and. fevered brow, shock of lips tingled buzz oblivion - the pointed v of your cotton shirt. those tender shards of glass reflecting beauty cruel and shameless. you noble vulture, you lean leather in blue shadows, rain-streaked city bus window no umbrella dripping forehead lined tan hide, hooded lashes you gentle brute with rose lips and soft eyes.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

meanwhile a woman

by Hannah

Some mornings a man
gets up, eats a chapati
and carries his briefcase
to the Subway
while another man
drinks his no-pulp orange juice
behind the counter and doles
out cigarettes like lottery tickets
   kissing Mary with each sale.

Meanwhile a woman
ties a scarf round her rough hair
the perfectly good one left in room 102
by that no-good painted trollop
and her big boyfriend.
She pretends it’s a tip and tucks
    under the rosette end.

Later each stops by and looks up
to the green woman holding fire over the Atlantic.
Paying pricey respects;
line up, take turns stirring
    the big bronze pot.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


by Catherine Partin

We were eating bratwurst and sauerkraut and whole litres of frothy piss-coloured beer in steins so heavy that my scrawny arm trembled uncontrollably when I tried to lift one to my mouth, nearly knocking over the plastic cup of tart white wine he’d uncorked especially for me.  The paper plate lying abandoned before me was heaped with soft strawberries, untouched because I couldn’t figure out an elegant way of separating the stems from the fruit, and the spiky remains of a bunch of pale green grapes, and a pile of mushy cantaloupe.  It was mid-June and uncharacteristically muggy, but a breeze ruffled the loose edges of the sky-blue tent pitched high above, and there was no heat radiating between the two of us as usual, but only an unpleasantly damp feeling under my arms and on the back of my neck.  He beamed down at me and mused, Whatever are you going to do without me, his eyes shiny black slits above a patronizing smirk.  Drunk, maybe.  I smiled and murmured something to the effect that I was quite at a loss now, simply all at sea as to what I should possibly do with the rest of my summer, the long months stretching ahead of me, arid and oppressive and hopelessly lonesome.  I suppose I should waste away pining for you.  My cup refused to empty and time was ticking, minutes slipping away and becoming vanished hours.  I sipped the wine slowly so that I would not grimace, and said, too quickly, oh yes, it’s delicious, I assure you, when he asked if it was any good.  I pursed my lips and sipped slowly because it was the worst sauvignon blanc I had ever tasted, and I cursed myself for agreeing to a drink at all, a drink poured by a man who doesn’t know how to eyeball a proper serving of wine.  I had to drive into downtown directly after the party.  I had a date, in fact.  We were going to try an Irish pub.  We were going dancing, maybe.

There was a lavish cake on the laundry room counter, a sickly beige colour under the shrill fluorescent light; a tangled mound of tiny painted cups for espresso lay glinting faintly in a wicker basket next to the cake.  Against the opposite wall were a washing machine and dryer and a plastic bin overflowing with soiled socks and boxer shorts, and a grimy refrigerator covered with kitschy magnets.  The toilet seat had been left up.  Shallow lakes of water rimmed by oily-looking soap bubbles covered the counter, half-heartedly absorbed by a wet burgundy towel wadded limply beside the sink.  Here all middle-class suburban homes are the same: cheap tricycles and bright soccer balls litter patchy front lawns while dandelions flourish between the cracks in the sidewalk; the funereal odor of scented candles or musty potpourri pervades every humid bathroom, and the pantry always smells like stale cereal.  These neighbourhoods unnerve me; visits always leave me sad and frightened; but even so there is something almost comforting about the way you can open the kitchen cabinets and expect to find an odd variety of logo-emblazoned plastic tumblers and cheap mugs.  The faucet was a cloudy faux-crystal knob that sent scalding water spraying with undue force into the toothpaste-crusted basin.  I dried my hands on my jeans, and sniffed them; they smelled like cucumber-melon.  Then I shut off the lights on my yellow reflection, walked past the refrigerator, past the espresso cups, the cake, the dirty laundry, back into the darkened kitchen, down the uneven porch steps, into the lumpy backyard grass and across the lawn to where the men in lederhosen were sitting, telling vulgar jokes.

My car was parked around the corner.  He hesitated, and looked at the ground, and scuffed at the gravel with one foot, hands in the pockets of his oversized leather shorts, squirming like a nervous schoolboy.  Am I ever going to see you again? he asked, and his eyes were wide.  Of course, I said, but I was thinking: why don’t you tell me, you spineless worm; that is not my decision; whose idea was this anyway?  The sun had already set and I was going to be late, and I wished I hadn’t drunk that glass of wine, but my head was clear and my heart was cold.

It’s a beautiful day in the country and I’m sitting in the shade on the back porch overlooking a tranquil pastoral scene, like something out of a painting, one of those haystacks by Monet, almost – grasses rustling, cows grazing, jets leaving white trails across the sky.  Of course, Monet didn’t paint jets, and they’re not very picturesque in my opinion, but you know what I mean.  I don’t know if it’s because of the ravine at the edge of our property, or the fact that we’re surrounded by lots of other hills,but if you holler into the stillness you can hear your voice echo a few times, which is probably why I can hear dogs barking and a tractor droning away somewhere nearby and the neighbors’ rooster crowing even though it’s well past noon and aside from the cows I haven’t seen any other signs of life today, yet there seems to be an invisible chorus of birds determined to torment me with their incessant twittering, and thus hasten my inevitable descent into madness, because these noises are reverberating in my eardrums like glass marbles dropped all at once onto a hard tile floor, and the sky is a jarring shade of electric blue.  Someday, I am going to wring that rooster’s neck and eat him for dinner.  I’m wearing sunglasses and a thick blue bathrobe and the T-shirt you so kindly laundered for me, drinking Perrier out of a big stemless wine bowl and fitfully gnawing away at a few bland crackers, which I somewhat regret since I lost four and a half pounds last night and it would be a shame to gain it all back.  I was perusing your copy of Maxim around five o’clock this morning and in it there was this blonde bombshell claiming her last meal consisted of bangers and mash, which I’m sure you must be aware is British code for big greasy sausages and mashed potatoes.  Just so you know, there is no possible way that models in Maxim actually eat huge fatty English breakfasts.  I do feel a little bit like Hemingway, after that cocktail, sitting here with my bitterness and my god-awful hangover.  Stella wants to play tennis with me, but I’m not having any of it, as you would say.  I wish you’d shoved me from the car and yelled “Get it together, lady!” and maybe mentioned that my being drunk stopped being even minorly cute something like six months ago.  I haven’t the foggiest notion what was in those two drinks to convince me of both my complete fluency in French and the dire necessity of being transported directly to urgent care for an emergency liver transplant, but I humbly beg your pardon for last night’s disastrous events, and thank you fervently for shielding me from the passersby when I leapt from the car and began to strip.

Cut to present tense.  My mind leaps to the thick envelope radiating heat from the bottom of my purse, but I leave it there.  We have only seconds to find the right words; we gaze desperately at each other, like fish.  I turn to unlock my car and he is already striding away, a silhouette against a watery orange sky, comically long legs casting surreal shadows on the cooling pavement.  Have fun in Germany! I shout, a mangled cry.  I can’t hear what he says in reply.  I’m in the driver’s seat already, turning the key.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

feminist reading

by Anna Rigles

We were late
                As usual
Because my demons do not allow me
                Entrance into unknown places without

I went to listen to the voices
                Feminist voices
Telling their stories, fables and creative dialogues about their feminist lives
I went with my wife and children
                To meet a friend, her daughter
And to glimpse familiar faces that reawaken me

I wanted to hear the words
                Linked in rhyme or rhythm or prose
But instead I sat listening to my damaged friend
Who does not know that she is an alcoholic
Ramble on and on and on
Because she desperately needs me to hear her
                To see her
To love her in the ways she has forgotten
She needs me to ignore her booze soaked words whispered in my ear
                In class
                At 10am
I listen to her, because she is loud
                And cannot take a hint
That I am looking away from her demanding and yet pleading eyes
Straining to find the people at the front
                Speaking about their feminist lives
Straining to find that glimpse of awareness with another person
                Like myself

She won’t stop talking
                About nothing
                Everything-in her life
Until I look into her eyes and let her see my damage
                My demons
Then she calms
It is the whisper of my past that soothes her tired vocal cords
                There are never words exchanged
Just the knowledge that we share similar monsters
                And there is safety in numbers

The reading is over
The band takes the stage and blares their music louder even than my friend’s desperate cry for my attention
I realize I heard nothing of the feminist voices at the front of the room
I did not find familiar faces and connect

My wife, my children
                My non-toxic intoxicated friend
                Her daughter
Pick up and leave
Not having heard any part of the readings
                But knowing
What I heard
                Was powerful