Friday, January 22, 2010

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

I read Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan this week. I must have put it on hold over the summer after reading a review, not sure.

On one level this book grossed me out. By focusing on four women who meet at Smith College, an elite all-girls school, it presents an upper middle class/rich, white American version of young womanhood as "reality"...I guess that is "reality" for some of us...but what passes for sisterhood in Commencement isn't Feminism with a capital "F", despite Sullivan's lack of consideration of how the rest of us live.

The author also sort of perpetuates sexism in hard to pin down, insidious ways. To get specific with one example, she has her characters talking about the other characters bodies (students gaining weight at an all girls school and wearing PJ's and sweat pants to class because there aren't any guys around) in ways that normalize body image issues and reduce women to their appearance. This is catty and also hetero-normative by assuming that women only "let ourselves go" when men are absent. Ok maybe she is just being descriptive here, but there doesn't seem to be an awareness of the issues. It made me feel neurotic that I was supposed to identify with the young characters hating other women's bodies or something. She didn't make it clear that this was the point of view of the characters. It came across as the point of view of the author. There is little if any consideration of how this rejection of patriarchal norms might be positive or liberating, it's just made fun of and dismissed. It seems like this is Sullvan's ill attempt at humor, the assumption being that the reader is well-versed in the kind of self-depreciating humor that so often thinly disguises female self-hate in the public sphere. (An interview with the author seems to confirm this, as she jokes with a reporter about how she didn't wear make up or concern herself with her appearance while at Smith.)

The basic premise of the book is classist. The generation of young women the characters belong to is described as being the first where women had access to (perhaps too many) choices. Well I hate to bring this up, because it's outside the scope of this fictional reality, but it is only a very, very small portion of the world who have these choices, and within that group there is racial diversity/hierarchies and all kinds of economic factors that complicate the choices of "career" vs. "family" or whatever. Secondly, individual choice is a Western value and not necessarily a sign of progress or an indication of a more advanced society. There are multiple feminisms, but the only kind depicted within Commencement is white, middle class and Western.

To her credit, Sullivan tries to talk about issues that impact poor women, such as sex trafficking, prostitution and urban poverty. Unfortunately she does this without allowing any of these women to have much of a voice within the narrative. No women of color in the story become real characters in the book. Out of the two I can think of who are given names, one is a victimized prostitute and another is a girlfriend whose voice we never get to hear--both are objects rather than subjects.

The interesting part of the plot focuses on April, an activist who is under the spell of a renegade star feminist who exploits her in an unsuccessful attempt to "save" trafficked women. Predictably, this becomes just another rescue narrative of a white woman trying to save the world. It's too bad Sullivan didn't use this storyline to give some of the "rescued women" center stage. Instead we get to see a victimized woman betrayed by a radical feminist with good intentions. Because the radical plan backfires, radicalism fails, while mainstream feminism (one of the main characters works for NOW) rises to ascendancy with the book's sudden, unremarkable yet awkwardly unresolved ending.

Less interesting story-lines focus on one woman's struggle with her own emergent lesbianism/bisexuality (Bree), another's alcoholism and in general flakiness/dissatisfaction (Celia) and a third woman's loss of her mother to cancer and need to find security/family (Sally). If it sounds a little like a soap opera, then you get the picture. Lots of melodrama and sentimentality.

I did like reading about four women who become close while they are away at school and struggle to prioritize their friendship after college. I guess I felt a little jealous of this supposed "universal" reality, as not only was I never sent away to a prestigious school at 18, but I was told I had to live at home if I wanted to go to school or else figure out a way to live off campus and pay my own rent. I know I was lucky that my parents were willing and able to pay my tuition but this situation meant I ended up quitting school until I could afford to pay for it myself, working my way through college as an adult by taking night classes over the years. So I guess on some level I wish I got to experience the going-away-to-school and living-in-a-dorm thing, but not really...because going on tour and playing in bands sounds a lot funner, not to mention realistic. Plus going to night school with working adults provided me an education I would never have gotten at an Ivy League/ish school. I know that if I wrote a novel it would have a solid class analysis for example and hopefully it would be a little more in touch with the way most people live. Anyhow, this world is just not the world I grew up in. None of my high school friends went away to college, I never hung out in the dorms (except in high school I'd go to parties at Evergreen occasionally) and I have no idea what this world of elite, bizarre ritualistic student life is all about. From what I gathered from reading this, it's a little like Harry Potter, but with a lot of same sex making out and crying.

Mostly this book, like bad TV, is mainstream, boring and cliché. It made me realize I need to try harder to find contemporary authors/books...that I shouldn't rely on the New York Times so much. This post-sex-in-the-city world of the professional woman who is really concerned with the fact that she has rich friends and she herself is not rich (yet) is just materialistic and depressing. I realize some women live in this world, but that doesn't mean this is "the real world". It's a very limited, privileged view and these depictions are subsequently damaging. They further mystify and universalize. They perpetuate values that make things worse. But worst of all they have nothing to say.

Besides all of that Commencement is just kind of goofy and not very well-constructed. The story starts with a wedding and the climax is a woman giving birth. Ok, get married, have a baby, even write about pregnancy/ having a baby. That is universal enough I guess given that most women have children and all of our mothers gave birth to us at some point, but really as a metaphor or point of drama, it's kind of obvious and corny.

Confession: I did stay up until 4AM reading this so I guess it's entertaining or maybe I just have a problem and get some kind of weird indulgent pleasure reading badly written "feminist" fiction.

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