Emily Ratajkowski’s ‘My Body'

Emily Ratajkowski’s ‘My Body’ ★★★¾

Emily Ratajkowski, for those unacquainted, is an actress and model – with the kind of face and body that has defined her whole life. She rose to mainstream fame in Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines video, and has since starred in Gone Girl and graced the catwalk at countless fashion shows. Her body has made her a millionaire, but it has undoubtedly come at personal cost.

These essays, better described as a loose memoir, are her attempt to reclaim the narrative, use her voice, and work through the sticky complexities that come from being in her line of work. Her perspective is fascinating, vulnerable, conflicted. She is articulate about the challenges of selling her image while wanting to retain ownership over it. In ‘Buying Myself Back’, an essay previously published in The New Yorker, she writes about a sleazy photographer early on in her career who took nude photos of her, ostensibly for a magazine shoot, only to publish the rest of the roll of film years later when Emily had risen to fame – in glossy coffee-table style books for which she didn’t earn a penny. The distinction may not be visible to all, but it’s an important one. So what, people might think – she was a willing participant in the shoot, why does it matter what the photos are used for? But it does matter, in a world where the power is so frequently taken from women and wielded by powerful men.

She is unflinchingly honest about her experiences as a victim of sexual violence, writing in a clear-eyed way about the self-doubt and self-loathing that creeps in in the aftermath. In fact, the whole book is unflinchingly honest about all sorts of things: how she felt her mother place her value on her beauty from a young age, how modelling became a vehicle for influence and not just money (against her better judgement), the serotonin boost at seeing hundreds of thousands of likes tick up on a single Instagram post.

‘Through the years, I’d developed a necessary and protective immunity to the frequent disappointments and rejections that came with modelling… I didn’t care if my image ended up on a billboard or in a magazine as long as the check cleared. I wasn’t interested in fame or notoriety, just the cash, or at least that’s what I told myself. In New York, I broke my own rules; I let myself imagine the power, beyond money, that other women seemed to have gained by becoming successful.’

The essential problem is that the money and power necessitates playing the game. However much it is a feminist act to commodify your body and use it to make a living and build a public persona (which I wholeheartedly support – make that money!) you are still essentially doing so within the oppressive white, patriarchal power structures of that industry.

‘The women who gained their power from beauty were indebted to the men whose desire granted them that power in the first place.’

I won’t be the first person to point out where this book falls a little short: it’s her perspective alone, and doesn’t always scratch much beyond the surface. If you’re going in expecting a searing interrogation of western beauty ideals, the (fe)male gaze, and what can be done to make the industry fairer, you’re not going to find it. But it succeeds in being a frank first-person account of a life very few of us will ever truly understand.

I know it gets a bit silly to fractionise ratings in this way, but I went back and forth on how to rate this and so settled on 3.75 stars: not quite illuminating enough to be 4 stars, but well-accomplished as an articulate and thoughtful perspective we don’t often hear.

P.S. I picked up a signed copy of this book in Finsbury Park’s delightful Book Bar. If you’re in London, be sure to pay them a visit! Emily had recently stopped by for a signing and they have lots of events with high-profile authors.

A galvanizing account of the power of female rage: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister ★★★★½

Women aren’t supposed to display rage. While men’s ire is ‘comprehensible’ and ‘rational’, angry women are chaotic, unhinged, unnatural. Of course, we’ve got a lot to be angry about. This double standard is just one more addition to a growing list of rage-inducing injustices. In this powerful, incisive account, Traister traces the history and power of women’s anger, how it has been received and perceived over time, and how it is inherently powerful. Written in the months following the election of Donald Trump, this is very much a book about a particular contemporary moment in American history.

The rage of women, Traister convincingly and meticulously argues, is a catalyst for societal change in the US – despite the disdain, disgust and ridicule that is heaped upon these women. Mamie Till, the mother of lynched schoolboy Emmett Till, insisted upon an open casket at his funeral: the world would not be permitted to look away from the unimaginable racist violence inflicted upon him. Mamie Till, Traister writes, is ‘most often pictured as a grieving mother being held up at her son’s coffin, weeping… What we are never trained to consider is that alongside her sorrow and suffering was a burning rage.’ This was a rage that would help propel the struggle for civil rights and change the course of American history. She also turns to Rosa Parks, often presented in a sanitized way and lauded for her stoicism and refusal to show anger – when in fact she had been a ‘lifelong furious fighter against sexual and racial violence, a defender of black men wrongly accused of sexual misconduct by white women, and an elected NAACP secretary who investigated the rape claims of black women against white men’. As a more contemporary example, she turns to the crusade of the Parkland students, demanding an end to gun violence in the wake of another horrific school shooting. 16-year-old Sarah Chadwick, in a tweet that went viral, responded to Trump’s thoughts and prayers with ‘I don’t want your condolences you fucking piece of shit, my friends and teachers were shot. Do something instead of sending prayers.’ Such rage galvanized Chadwick and her peers towards nationwide protests and resonated with millions of Americans, for whom her anger spoke to their own desperation over the inevitability of relentless gun violence. The year before, the election of a white supremacist and abuser to the White House in 2016 inspired the Women’s March movement and a resurgence of activism for women of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.

In the twenty-first century, it is still ‘unfeminine’ to be angry. To be angry is to be obscene and hysterical, our anger is pathologized. Women in the public eye – particularly those in politics, such as Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris – are frequently discredited for transgressing that boundary: ‘The best way to discredit these women, to make them look unattractive, is to capture an image of them screaming’, Traister writes. ‘…The act of a woman opening her mouth with volume and assured force, often in complaint, is coded in our minds as ugly.’ Ugly, unlikable, not to be trusted. By contrast, white men display rage with impunity, and are often portrayed in a far more sympathetic light – just think of the so-called ‘lone wolf’ perpetrators of mass shootings who are supposedly misunderstood loners or lovesick teens – something Traister explores in a later chapter, using the term coined by Kate Manne: ‘himpathy’.

We have the voices of stalwart feminists throughout – Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem and many more – peppered with Traister’s own personal experiences, lending depth and personality to the essays. I felt seen in her chapter about tears as ‘one of the most frequent outlets for our wrath’ and the depressing truth that they are ‘fundamentally misunderstood’ by the men who witness them. There is nothing more infuriating than involuntary weeping out of fury – except for the fact that men may misread the anger as sadness, something to be pitied.

‘One of my sharpest memories from an early job, in a male-dominated office, where I too once found myself weeping with inexpressible rage, was being grabbed by the scruff of my neck by an older woman—a chilly, hard-ass manager of whom I’d always been slightly terrified—who dragged me into a stairwell. “Never let them see you crying,” she told me. “They don’t know you’re furious. They think you’re sad and will be pleased because they got to you.”‘

She also takes care to explore how anger is not perceived the same across colour lines: Black women must resist ‘America’s cheapest caricature’ of the Angry Black Woman. Quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘for black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted’. Similarly, while white women’s tears – of anger, rather than rage – can be perceived sympathetically by white men (or indeed, weaponized by the women themselves) – the same cannot be said for the perception of a Black woman expressing emotion in the same way. They are not afforded the same sympathy, and suffer to an even greater extent as race and gender intersect.

A large part of the book is spent discussing #MeToo in an impassioned and clear-eyed way, where she turns to her own experience of meeting Weinstein as a young journalist. She describes the movement as giving us a ‘view of the architecture of sexism that had been holding everything up.’ The cacophony of voices speaking out meant that women could no longer be derided and disbelieved: there was safety and power in accumulative rage – and perhaps the beginning of breaking everything apart.

‘If they are quiet, they will remain isolated. But if they howl in rage, someone else who shares their fury might hear them, might start howling along.’

In art, and media, and politics, and justice – female rage can incite change. While we are at a different moment now – both better in some ways, worse in others, reeling from a global pandemic and the fall of Roe v Wade, this book still feels powerful, and galvanizing, and a convincing rallying cry to embrace our anger.

The Hop by Diana Clarke - book review

Book review: ‘The Hop’ by Diana Clarke – a refreshing, propulsive and empathetic story of the modern sex industry ★★★★½

Kate grows up poor, in rural New Zealand, with her unconventional mother, who she adores. To supplement the household income, Kate and her best (and only) friend Lacey start giving kissing lessons at school, and then go to work in the local strip club once they’re old enough.

In her early twenties, running from tragedy, Kate crosses the ocean and lands in Las Vegas to work at a legal brothel, The Hop, under the moniker of Lady Lane – the stripper name she picked with Lacey as a kid, the name of her first pet plus the street she grew up on. She’s tall and thin and white and blonde, and ruffles some feathers when she arrives. The other women working there – trans women, women of colour, older women – know that their pimp, Daddy, has hit the jackpot.

The portrayal of sex work in this book is like nothing I’ve ever read in fiction. It’s not all roses – like any other job, there are good days and bad days – but it’s empowering, and energizing, and it makes Kate feel good. The bunnies at The Hop come from all walks of life, but they are all there by choice. It’s something that society struggles to accept.

‘They want there to be another reason, something deeper, they want to hear that you were unloved as a child or that you were abused as a teen…As if money isn’t enough of a reason to do anything. As if staying alive isn’t enough of an answer.’

The prevailing narrative where sex work is concerned is grittiness, trauma, poverty, tragedy – but this book is nuanced and fiercely feminist. It brims with energy, even as it confronts challenging and harrowing truths. For the women at The Hop, working in a legal brothel presents the only safe option to pursue their profession, with sex workers on the street being murdered, assaulted and attacked on a daily basis.

I loved the structure of this novel. I was daunted at first by the prospect of it flitting between so many voices – it’s a risky move. While Kate’s first-person narrative dominates the story, we hear too from best friend Lacey, pimp Daddy, Bunnies Betty, Mia, Dakota, Rain, the Vogue features editor who’s writing a piece on Kate, a celebrity lookalike of Kate, Willa Jordan… but you know what? It works. The characters are so vivid that it unfolds almost like a play or a documentary, building up a richer picture of the story and context without distracting from the narrative trajectory.

‘”Does it look like I’ve sold my body?” I said, “I’ve had guests who have served in the military and lost their legs. I’ve had guests who sleeved their arms in factories. I’ve had guests whose bodies are failing them, who’ve had to opt out of surgery because of America’s health care system. Does it look like I’ve sold my body?”

It’s propulsive and refreshing and funny, too.

‘It happened soon enough after the #metoo movement … for Lady’s video to become big news. The debate over what constituted assault was at its climax, darling, and not the good kind. Walmart changed their name to #WalmartToo for the month, which was a lot to unpack. Facebook changed their logo to teal, the color of, I guess, sexual assault? Thank god for the conglomerates, darling. Saving the world once hashtag at a time.’

This book sucked me in the same way as Diana Clarke’s first novel, Thin Girls. I wasn’t sure at first, but once the narrative picked up steam I was completely hooked, and sad to part with the characters when it ended. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see what Diana Clarke does next.

With thanks to HarperCollins via Edelweiss for the advanced copy. The Hop will be published on 7th June 2022.

Book Review | Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall

This is not an easy book to read, but boy is it an important, timely book. 

Mikki Kendall meticulously dissects the tenets of women of colour (WOC) womanhood – with a large focus on African American womanhood, as this corresponds to her lived experience. With razor-sharp insight and armed with the facts, Kendall shows us how White Feminism™ – that is to say, mainstream feminism that does NOT take into account the intersections of race, disability, socio-economic status, etc – has failed WOC in the United States since its conception.

It’s sadly a truth pretty much universally acknowledged now that some of the most well-known suffragettes who championed a woman’s right to vote at the turn of the century were also card-carrying racists. While racism isn’t as explicit in mainstream feminist circles today, I think what Kendall is saying boils down in part to Angela Davis’s quote: ‘it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.’ Not explicitly addressing the concerns of non-White, able-bodied, middle-class, straight women actively causes harm and contributes to the structural oppression of other groups of less privileged women. And Kendall is going to show us how, in eighteen chapters that turn the microscope inward.

There is a chasm, Kendall shows, between the concerns of the mainstream feminist movement and the needs of poorer WOC. ‘All too often,’ she writes, ‘the focus is not on survival but on increasing privilege.’ For the women Kendall shines the light on, their biggest concerns are material: ‘food insecurity and access to quality education, safe neighbourhoods, a living wage and medical care.’

There’s a lot to digest from in this sharp, clear-eyed and powerful essay collection. My feminism has most certainly evolved in the last decade, but like most people, I have blind spots. And although of course I’d consider myself intersectional, there’s always so much to learn, and so many women to learn from. It’s one of those books where I grabbed my pen and found myself underlining multiple pages for the succinct, frank way Kendall navigates the collection. There’s a lot to explore, and I really want you to read it for yourself – so I’ll just highlight a few sections I found particularly effective.

In ‘Race, Poverty and Politics,’ Kendall dissects the role of conservative women who campaign and vote for policies and practices that actively oppress and marginalize already marginalized communities of women. They have been, she writes, ‘empowered by feminism to do harm.’ 

‘You can argue that conservative values are at odds with feminist ideology, but ultimately the question has to be not only “what women are we empowering” but also “what are we empowering them to do?”’ 

Further on, she talks about the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, despite the testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford who was sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh as a teen. Here we have a white, middle-class, professional woman – the kind of a victim society will rally around – and yet, and yet. 

‘It might seem shocking that an educated white woman wasn’t able to stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation even with the support of mainstream feminist organisations,’ Kendall writes. ‘But their willingness to ignore the “wrong” victims based on race or gender or class paved the way to their moment. When some victims are seen as disposable (Kendall explores this in the chapter ‘Missing and Murdered’) then eventually all victims are disposable, regardless of white supremacist patriarchal claims to be invested in the protection of white womanhood. It’s not enough to show up for big battles; unfortunately feminism has to show up for every battle, or it can rapidly find itself nearly powerless to prevent moments like these.’ 

The ideas repeat themselves somewhat, with the same concepts layered over each other as the collection builds – but Kendall’s layering of the personal with the political – her lived experience with those of the wider community – is very effective. She also offers a way through, with strategies for supporting intersectional thought and practice, and not just giving the mic over, but sometimes needing to get off the stage.


Book Review | The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

In an essay collection that has the dexterity to be both funny and devastating, Lindy West lays bare the current American cultural climate as one that is built on centuries-old misogyny and toxic masculinity.

The book covers a lot more ground than I was expecting, deviating a long way from the initial premise that gives it its (apt) name. Here, the witches are not the poor, blameless women, slaughtered en masse in an act of mass hysteria in 17th century Salem, but the “poor, blameless” men who can’t put a toe out of line without being set upon full force by the “PC brigade.” And when I say ‘put a toe out of line,’ I mean spout their sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, rhetoric. Because being called out for at best inappropriate and at worst actively violent behaviour is, folks, a witch hunt. Now that’s oppression!

In her opening anecdote, West talks about how her husband sat at a bar one night, while the guy next to him lamented the fact that he couldn’t go dance to his favourite song – banned all because a few nights prior he was persistently grinding on a woman, there with her friends, without her consent. Can’t men even talk to a woman now without being accused of predatory behaviour? My heart bleeds.

And the next logical step in this American horror story is to turn to the commander in chief, President Donald Trump. Trump isn’t, sadly, some kind of random outlier, he is instead an embodiment of ‘apoplectic masculinity itself,’ emblematic of so many men we all have had the misfortune of meeting. He puts a frightening, powerful face to so many of our stories.

‘Every woman knows a version of Donald Trump. Most of us have known more of them than we can or care to recall. He’s the boss who thinks you owe him something. The date who thinks that silence means yes and no means try harder. The stranger who thinks your body’s mere existence constitutes an invitation to touch, take, own and destroy. He’s every deadbeat hook-up, every narcissistic  loser, every man who’s ever tried to leverage power, money, fame, credibility, or physical strength to snap your boundaries like matchsticks.’

In a particularly powerful passage in a later essay, West renders the contemporary American right-wing identity as inextricable from toxic masculinity, the right as the true ‘stewards’ of America, where caring about the environment (e.g. the mocking refrain of the “pathetic liberal obsession” with saving the whales) to caring fundamentally about each other, as all societies should inherently do (why does this even need to be said?) is rendered ‘effeminate and therefore despicable.’

‘If you train people to scoff at community and stewardship,  attending to the needs of others, yes, but also for advocating for oneself – you can do whatever you want to them and they will not complain. You can strip away their ability to earn a living wage, to send their kids to college, to retire. You can undermine their most sacred values. You can allow children to be massacred and they’ll weep for the guns. This is toxic masculinity at its most pitiful.’

‘You can allow children to be massacred and they’ll weep for the guns.’ Let’s just let that sink in for one moment.

By and large, West isn’t saying anything new or anything that isn’t already part of the modern liberal feminist zeitgeist. I am the perfect audience for this book, and yet I’m also not the one who needs to read it. It’s also worth noting that the essays are focussed solely on an American perspective with almost zero recognition of how this patriarchal value system manifests in countries around the world. As a non-American, albeit someone who lives in the US, some of the references – particularly those to 90s celebrities – were lost on me. This isn’t a criticism per se, but international readers may not get as much out of that part of the cultural commentary. There is recognition of some of the intersections – of race, and class – but these could have been drawn on in a deeper, less cursory way.

The collection is a little uneven in its impact and message, charting both pop culture and the political and social landscape, ranging from Adam Sandler movies (a chapter that’s only really interesting if you’ve seen most of them, which I haven’t), to our dire environmental straits with the climate crisis. I was reminded of Jenny Offill’s Weather and the ‘obligatory note of hope’ – how any literature about the climate crisis has to end this way to prevent a reader from sinking it to a pit of despair and gin and never coming out of it. It feels a little hollow to be hopeful about anything right now, while at this ‘low and surreal’ moment in US history. But we have to stay engaged, keep fighting – ‘to believe in nothing,’ West says, ‘is to change nothing.’

What’s important is that when West gets it right, she really gets it right, and the most effective essays are a searing, witty rallying cry. The Witches are Coming is overall an articulate, powerful read that reminds us to keep fighting the good fight.


Book Review | The War on Women by Sue Lloyd-Roberts

Content warning: this book, and this review, talks about violence, including sexual violence.

Women. We make up half the human race, and yet for so many of us, our very existence is an abhorrence. Women’s lives are simply worth less than their male counterparts. Sue Lloyd-Roberts, a masterful journalist, doesn’t shy away from delving into the deeply uncomfortable and deeply upsetting truth. Meticulously researched, referenced and recounted in a precise yet very human way, this is essential reading.

It’s hard to know where to start with this harrowing but necessary book. The course of her career takes Lloyd-Roberts to the front lines of conflict. She relentlessly pursues truth and justice, and she must have had a remarkable gift to have engaged in the kinds of conversations we hear about. From the other side of the world: the imprisoned women of Saudi Arabia, nothing without a male ‘guardian’, to the use of rape as a weapon of war in the DR Congo – to the close to home: the now-notorious Magdalene Laundries in Ireland that imprisoned unmarried pregnant girls, to the horrors of so-called ‘honour killings’ and prevalence of FGM amongst minority communities in the UK.

While all the stories were horrific and heartbreaking, one that will stay with me as perhaps the most stomach-churning was the documented pattern between international aid workers and sex trafficking. It was perhaps naive of me not to know about this: as if it were unthinkable that Western men working with diplomatic passports (and immunity) and “United Nations” in their job titles would be fuelling this terrible underground business. Because that’s what it is: there is big money to be made in the kidnapping, torture, abuse and rape of young girls – as young as 12 – tricked or stolen from rural, impoverished areas and sold into sex slavery. And when UN peacekeeping forces arrive in an area, with the purported aim of helping with stabilisation and recovery, they are consciously, actively implicit in the sexual abuse of trafficking victims. And it’s covered up to the highest levels of power.

Sadly, evidence suggests a sex industry involving vulnerable young women is always likely to follow hard on the heels of a large, male-dominated, international peacekeeping force.

It sounds bleak – and it is. But there are rays of hope, too. The book’s subtitle is ‘and the brave ones who fight back.’ In some of the worst places on earth to be a woman, there are grassroots activists risking their lives to advocate for women and girls. There are remarkable women raising their head above the parapet. Their bravery is astonishing. And slowly, things may be starting to change. But Lloyd-Roberts errs on the side of caution rather than optimism when it comes to a sustained cultural, social and economic shift in the way women are regarded globally.

You’ll be enraged. You’ll be heartbroken. But this is a book that needed to written, and that needs to be read. Educating yourself and others is a small but important first step in fighting against these horrific injustices going on both at home and abroad. Sue Lloyd-Roberts sadly passed away before she could completely finish the book. But she’s left an incredibly important legacy, and reading this account is one way of keeping her powerful voice and mission alive.

Book Review | The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Here we have three stories of Gilead: one from a pillar of the regime, one from a commander’s daughter who has grown up in that society, and one a voice from the outside who comes in. Atwood returns to the world she created in 1985, a world which is as relevant as ever (see my review of The Handmaid’s Tale) and she is coming back to fill in the gaps; fleshing out and expanding upon the dystopian universe that has gripped so many millions of readers.

It’s an immersive narrative, far more plot-driven than I expected and it plays out like a thriller. We know, thanks to The Handmaid’s Tale, that Gilead does eventually fall. Now we have an insight into how and why: the rotting from the inside out and the exposé of horror brought to light from someone once so integral in upholding the system.

“I’d believed all that claptrap about life, liberty, democracy, and the rights of the individual I’d soaked up at law school. These were eternal verities and we would always defend them. I’d depended on that as if on a magic charm.”

These women recount their own lived experiences – in a society where women are forbidden from learning to read and write (even certain pastimes, like the embroidery of symbols, end up being banned – they are deemed ‘dangerously close to writing’) – this is a voice for the voiceless. Aunt Lydia’s accounts were my favourite by far: a three-dimensional look at a revered and feared female leader, whose monstrous indifference and calculated power plays make for hugely compelling reading. At the same time, we have two young girls, who come to learn overwhelming truths about their identities and who will be sent on a mission that could see them lose everything.

“I walked behind her over the uneven paving: it felt spongy, as if my foot could go through it at any moment. The world was no longer solid and dependable, it was porous and deceptive. Anything could disappear. At the same time, everything I looked at was very clear. It was like one of those surrealist paintings we’d studied in school the year before. Melted clocks in the desert, solid but unreal.’

It wasn’t wholly satisfying: the novel seems almost self-satisfied in its denouement, but things are still left unsaid. There is a lot that we still don’t know about the creation, geography and population of this world, and I felt there were missed opportunities for tying in our current global preoccupations such as the climate emergency and toxicities in our environment, and how this might have contributed to the decline in fertility. It was a long novel, and I felt while some of the right questions were answered, some pressing ones were not.

Lacking somewhat the gravitas of its literary predecessor, and veering more into commercial territory with its tone and pacing, some readers will cry in dismay at its position on the Booker shortlist and will feel that Atwood should have left well enough alone. I disagree: a greater degree of accessibility when it comes to hallowed authors is not a bad thing, and I found the novel gripping, intelligently written and a worthwhile read for anyone wishing to revisit the horrifying universe Atwood has crafted so well.

Book Review | The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Gilead: a frightening, theocratic nation-state, a place where the deepest, darkest desires of Christian fundamentalism have come to life. Driven by a literal interpretation of old-testament ideologies, modern-day America has been transformed into a place where obedience is everything; deviation means death. In a world where environmental destruction has caused mass infertility, those who are still able to carry children are known as ‘handmaids’, servants for the upper-classes who are ritualistically raped by their ‘Commanders’ in the hope of conceiving a child and thus continuing their bloodline.

It wasn’t always like this. Offred (denoted only by her status as property of the Commander) remembers a time when she could smoke cigarettes and kiss her husband and play with her daughter and make crude jokes with her flatmate. Those memories are slipping further away, part of a past that is so far removed from the present to make you wonder whether it ever even existed.

‘I’m sad now, the way we’re taking is infinitely sad: faded music, faded paper flowers, worn satin, an echo of an echo. All gone away, no longer possible.’

To be a handmaid is to be forced to relinquish control over every aspect of your life: from what you eat to how you dress. Books have been banned, reading is a subversive act that can earn you a place on ‘the Wall’, a horrifying place of public execution, where bodies are left for days afterwards, for the public to bear witness to the consequences of insubordination.

‘Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.’

This is a book that I had been planning to read for years, but I also approached it somewhat with trepidation. As a seminal 20th century feminist text, what if I didn’t like it? What if it had dated? What if it was overwrought or overwritten?

These fears were unfounded. Decades after its publication, the text remains rightly canonical. Atwood writes with precision and clarity: words are economical and used wisely, the horror of a scene deftly conveyed with the spreading bloodstain over a hanged and hooded figure where a mouth should be. Not only is the writing masterful, but the cautionary tale remains relevant – frighteningly so. It’s no exaggeration to say that it feels prescient, that not only do women all over the world live in societies with little regard for their human rights, but also that hard-won freedoms of bodily autonomy for women in developed nations are only ever one despot away from being revoked.  You only have to look at who is in power in present-day America and the resolve of their closest advisors to bring down liberal democracy. More than thirty years on, The Handmaid’s Tale is as relevant and important as ever.

‘Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment which is not where I want to be.’

Book Review | The Guilty Feminist by Deborah Frances-White

I’ve loved Deborah Frances-White’s podcast, The Guilty Feminist, since it was first released in 2015, and I was reading books about feminism for at least five years before that – so it’s fair to say that I’m the ideal audience for this book. And it did not let me down.

‘Why do women always have to be defined by the most famous person they went to bed with? I don’t want to be defined by Jon Hamm or Justin Trudeau (two men I think we all assume I’ll have a memorable sexual relationship with before I die).’

With her trademark humour, wit and insight, Deborah takes on 21st century feminism in an inclusive, thoughtful way. She doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but alongside exploring the obstacles in our path, she offers practical strategies to navigate situations. I found her unapologetic advice about being a woman in the workplace brilliant in its simplicity.

‘When we speak like that we are undermining our own brilliance. We are saying, ‘It’s all right if you don’t agree with me, because it was only an idea.  There’s no need for a confrontation because I will withdraw rather than fight.’’

‘Women, if you are in a meeting for one hour with six people, you need to speak for 10 minutes over that period. I do not care what you are saying. Practise being heard.’

She’s not one to shy away from difficult topics, nor is she afraid to practise what she preaches, using her privilege to concede the platform to women who have the lived experiences she never will – women of colour, LGBT, disabled women – making this a space for incredibly rich and diverse insights. It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake, but rather a true embodiment of intersectional feminism: bringing awareness of the many varied and valid experiences of women from all walks of life.

In her chapter ‘Enemy Lines’, she talks about men. She talks about the dangerous rise of MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) and their flagrant, violent and alarming misogyny. She also recognises that: ‘Some men are tools of the patriarchy. Some men are victims of it. Many are both.’ In lighter episodes, she also remarks –

‘Some days I don’t know how the patriarchy let us have makeup. They usually get all the good stuff. Most guys have no option for makeup without ridicule. That means they wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and think, ‘Well, that’s as good as I’m going to look all day.’

Deborah has also transcribed some of her most stand-out moments on the podcast, the Brexit speech (that I listened to on repeat in the aftermath of the referendum) and her feminist twist on the famous Once More Unto the Breach speech from Henry V.

‘I am angry about Brexit. I am angry that entitled, smug, privileged, powerful men got in a big red bus and told poor people lies so that they could have even more entitled, smug, privileged power. Even though they knew it would make those poor people poorer.’

She finds a way of expressing and navigating these dark and dangerous times in an accessible way, recognising that we are all a mass of contradictions, that there is no one ‘pure’ feminism and liking Pretty Woman or not knowing the full works of Maya Angelou doesn’t make us bad feminists.

It’s funny, candid, moving – and also instructive, and a rallying cry. It’s everything I hoped it would be.