A deep dive into misogyny in popular culture, from timeless myth to contemporary horror flicks.
The second book by feminist commentator Doyle (Trainwreck: The Women We Love To Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why, 2016) is wide-ranging but operates from a simple premise: Western culture tends to perceive women as unruly monsters who can’t be trusted as girls, wives, or mothers. In exorcisms—and, by extension, the horror classic The Exorcist—Doyle observes a cultural urge to barricade girls from puberty and sexual independence. She draws a throughline from Celtic myth to Romantic poets to true-crime touchstones like the Laci Peterson case, showing how each represents a fear of women and urge to bring them to heel. In the case of serial killer Ed Gein (the inspiration for a host of horror tales, Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs most famously), Doyle notes how the blame for his actions often shifts to his mother, routinely portrayed as “fanatically religious, permanently enraged, a castrating, sexless, son-warping harpy.” The author sometimes approaches her source material, particularly movies, with wit and humor: She revels in rooting for the momma T. Rex in Jurassic Park and roasts Ben Kingsley’s turn in the terrible sci-fi film Species, as he “visibly chokes down every line of dialogue with a barely contained rage that says ‘I played Gandhi, damn it.’ ” But Doyle recognizes how much of our misogynistic, transphobic cultural id is revealed in our trashiest cultural products, and she never loses sight of how the social norms they promote have led to feelings of fear and entrapment at best and countless deaths at worst. The author’s accounting of the death of Anneliese Michel, the inspiration for The Exorcist, is especially chilling. A lengthy appendix serves as both a casebook of her sources and a recommendation list for further research both high (Julia Kristeva) and low (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
After 14 years, a survivor of rape chronicles her interviews with the man who assaulted her, a former friend.
Inside the swirling “zeitgeist” of the #MeToo movement, Vanasco (English/Towson Univ.; The Glass Eye, 2017) decided not only to write about the experience that still gives her nightmares, but also to include the perspective of the person who raped her. Over emails, phone calls, and in-person conversations, the author interviewed her former friend, Mark, and tried to make sense of his inexplicable betrayal as well as her own ambivalence toward him: “I doubt I’m the only woman sexually assaulted by a friend and confused about her feelings,” she writes. At every step of this harrowing process, from deciding how to approach Mark after years without contact to transcribing and interpreting their conversations, the author scrutinizes her own motivations, her compulsive caretaking of Mark’s discomfort during their discussions, and the lasting impact of the trauma that he caused her. Perspectives from Vanasco’s friends, her partner, and her therapist also figure heavily into the narrative, emphasizing how crucial it is for survivors to have wide networks of support. With deep self-consciousness, courage, and nuance, the author reveals the inner universe of her survivorship and interrogates the notion that rapists are two-dimensionally evil. A friend of Vanasco’s reflects, “how can someone who seems so harmless or acts so well or is so intelligent be capable of committing what is understandably kind of an evil act and how can it happen?” Though the author does not exactly answer these questions through her interviews with Mark, her engrossing, complex, incisive testament to the banality of violence is not a desolate narrative. Instead, Vanasco invites her readers to understand the complicated humanity involved in both causing and experiencing harm, leaving the limits and possibilities of accountability and healing as urgent, open questions.
An extraordinarily brave work of self- and cultural reflection.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Harvey Weinstein case as told by the two New York Times journalists who broke the story.
When Kantor (The Obamas, 2012) and Twohey published their 2017 article series implicating Weinstein in a 30-year-long sexual misconduct scandal, it garnered worldwide attention, earned the news outlet the Pulitzer Prize, and briskly vaporized the Hollywood film producer’s career and reputation. In vivid, cinematic fashion, the authors describe the risky investigation from its first probing telephone calls and emails to the challenges of obtaining recorded interviews. Despite episodes of self-doubt, an avalanche of testimonials from victimized women started pouring in. Kantor and Twohey focus on the details of how they doggedly procured sources, chased leads, and obtained enough concrete evidence to blow the case open. As the attestations began to accumulate, so did the trouble, including calculated interference and intimidation from a supposed Weinstein-hired Israeli intelligence organization, which attempted to sabotage the entire endeavor. The authors also examine the nature of wealth and power and how the corruption of privilege infected Weinstein, Miramax, and his expansive web of malefactors, which included employees, publicists, and the corporate machines aligned alongside him who overlooked his reprehensive behavior and supervised his confidential settlements to the women he abused. The authors chronicle the early testimonies from Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd as well as an initially reluctant Rose McGowan, who accused Weinstein of raping her and labeled his notorious behavior “an open secret in Hollywood/Media.” The journalists’ work helped ignite the burgeoning #MeToo movement and inspired a massive cultural sea change, but they also acknowledge the grueling work ahead, as evidenced in the book’s concluding chapters featuring Christine Blasey Ford, who shares her personal insights on the steamrolled Supreme Court appointment of Brett Kavanaugh. Both admirable and suspenseful, the narrative is a fitting testament to the power of persistence and dedication in exposing critical crimes.
Keenly executed, exemplary spadework dedicated to justice for all women caught in the crosshairs of privileged power.
A queer Latina feminist focuses on her ferocious, survivor mother from Tijuana.
In her moving portrait, Moraga (English/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness: Writings, 2000-2010, 2011, etc.), the founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, examines her close but tortured relationship with her now-deceased mother. Elvira Isabel Moraga, who came of age in Tijuana’s golden era in the 1920s, “was not the stuff of literature.” The daughter of an “illusive trickster who shuttle[d] between worlds” and “rode the counterfeit borders of the Southwest with a vaquero flare of Mexican independence and macho bravado,” Elvira and her numerous siblings, born on the American side of the border, were hired out by their father for menial labor, essentially limiting her education (“her inability to read and write well remained an open wound”). As a teenager, Elvira secured work until the mid-1930s as a hat-check–and-cigarette girl at a high-stakes gambling room in Tijuana, eluding the advances of the casino's predatory owner. Ultimately, she met and married a man named Joseph, a “functionary” who operated the South Pasadena Santa Fe Railroad station. Together, they and their children moved east of Los Angeles, embracing the suburban dream that characterized much of post–World War II America. Born in 1952, author Moraga offers mesmerizing details of growing up there and in San Gabriel, a mixed-race community, near her grandmother, who served as the locus of myriad visits by relatives. Coming to terms with her sexuality during a progressive social era almost derailed the author’s relationship with her strict, volatile mother, but in the end, her mother assured her, “how could you think that there is anything in this life you could do that you wouldn’t be my daughter?” The author’s determination to learn Spanish and visit Mexico helped the two bond in her mother’s later years, which were marked by Alzheimer’s.
A sympathetic portrait of Mexican-American feminism (both in mother and daughter) delivered in a poignant, beautifully written way.
The polymathic Popova, presiding genius behind brainpickings.org, looks at some of the forgotten heroes of science, art, and culture.
“There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives,” writes the author at the outset. She closes with the realization that while we individuals may die, the beauty of our lives and work, if meaningful, will endure: “What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust." In between, she peppers thoughtful, lucid consideration of acts of the imagination with stories that, if ever aired before, are too little known. Who would have remembered that of all the details of the pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler’s life, one was racing across Germany to come to the aid of his widowed mother, who had been charged with witchcraft? The incident ably frames Kepler’s breaking out of a world governed by superstition, “a world in which God is mightier than nature, the Devil realer and more omnipresent than gravity,” and into a radical, entirely different world governed by science. That world saw many revolutions and advances ahead of the general population, as when, in 1865, Vassar College appointed as its first professor of astronomy a woman, Maria Mitchell, who combined a brilliant command of science with a yearning for poetry. So it was with Rachel Carson, the great ecologist, whose love for a woman lasted across a life burdened with terrible illness, and Emily Dickinson, who might have been happier had her own love for a woman been realized. (As it was, Popova notes, the world was ready for Dickinson: A book of her poems published four years after her death sold 500 copies on the first day of publication.) Throughout her complex, consistently stimulating narrative, the author blends biography, cultural criticism, and journalism to forge elegant connections: Dickinson feeds in to Carson, who looks back to Mitchell, who looks forward to Popova herself, and with plenty of milestones along the way: Kepler, Goethe, Pauli, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne….
A lyrical work of intellectual history, one that Popova’s many followers will await eagerly and that deserves to win her many more.
A self-critical and heartfelt narrative of the author’s life in China and India and the impoverished women she employed as her nannies and servants.
For the majority of the wealthy, white, privileged women who employ these women, “help is affordable, help is cheap,” and learning further personal details about their servants and nannies seems to be an unnecessary headache. However, former Los Angeles Times reporter Stack (Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War, 2010), a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, has sought to sincerely empathize with and find similarities in their lives and her own life through an investigation of what she terms “women’s work.” The author divides her eye-opening book into three parts. In the first part, she thoroughly engages readers with the story of the birth of her first child, in China. These chapters are beautifully written, informative, and sometimes harrowing as she recounts the joy, fear, and exhaustion of becoming a mother. Her chronicle of how she found her way out of depression offers wisdom that new mothers will find supportive and enlightening. Throughout the book, Stack writes compassionately about her encounters with her nannies, Xiao Li (China), Pooja, and Mary (both from India), as well as her struggle with a “postmodern feminist breakdown.” The author demonstrates how her concepts of gender equality and sisterly connections ran head-on into her need to run her home and control her time. In the second part of the narrative, she relates her time in India and her second pregnancy. By that time, she had found it easier to relegate some household authority to her husband. In the final section, Stack discusses her decision to write about the women who worked for her and provides moving details of her relationships with them.
What women—and men—can learn from Stack’s story is that “women’s work,” in all of its complexity and construction, should not be only for women.
A moving family saga celebrates generations of bold, brave, and determined women.
Award-winning novelist Straight (Between Heaven and Here, 2012, etc.) makes her nonfiction debut with an eloquent, absorbing memoir. Addressed to her three adult daughters, the narrative weaves together stories that transcend time, place, race, and ethnicity to vibrantly portray her children’s rich ancestry. Straight is white: Her mother grew up in the Swiss Alps; her father, in Colorado. The couple settled in Riverside, California, a hardscrabble community of a wide variety of mixed ethnicities, all “dreamers of the golden dream.” When she was 14, she met Dwayne Sims, an African American high school classmate; years later, they married and eventually settled near their families. Straight taught English to refugees and at a city college; Dwayne worked at a juvenile correctional facility. Frugality was a way of life. When her youngest daughter was asked how the family fared, she replied, “Wait—what’s below humble?” They had been poor, Straight admits, finding furniture on the street and living without air conditioning in temperatures over 100 degrees, but “the safety and tether and history” of their families was ample compensation. “The women who came before you, my daughters, were legends,” writes the author, and their journeys—from Africa, Europe, and across the American continent—entailed convoluted “maps and threads” that culminated in her own girls, “the apex of the dream.” Her daughters inherited not only their ancestors’ “defined cheekbones and dimples and high-set hips,” but, more crucially, their beauty, intelligence, and defiant independence. Among those many women, Dwayne’s mother, Alberta, shines: “bemused and regal and slightly mischievous,” a warmhearted woman who unreservedly welcomed her white daughter-in-law. Listening to family stories and mining ancestry.com, Straight recounts the peril and hope, forced migration and fierce escapes, “thousands of miles of hardship,” that women endured. “All of American history,” she tells her daughters, “is in your bones.”