Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.

So, this book blew my mind. I realize a lot of stuff in it is kind of dated (it was first published in 1991), and sometimes Naomi Wolf gets a little bit dramatic with her descriptions, but still. It's one of those things where I had some ideas about some of the things she talks about (everything from shaving to age to plastic surgery and in between) but this kind of threw all the facts connected to those ideas in my face. It pushed me to reevaluate my own beauty regimes, thinking about them in terms of what they take up financially and time-wise, and question all of them and why I participated in them. Was it all really for me or was it for everyone else?(and then I stopped shaving). One of the most shocking parts to me was the part about dieting where it basically lists off calorie counts for a bunch of popular diets and then compares then to the calorie intake of that of a starving person in a third world country - and they're pretty much all the same numbers.

The book is broken up into sections: work, culture, religion, sex, hunger and violence. Work delves into multiple court cases wherein women have been fired/harassed/basically whatever other bullshit you can think of for being too pretty, too ugly, too scantily clad, too modestly clad, etc. Basically highlighting that women have been given little to no options when comes to how to "dress for success". Culture expands on this idea of damned if you do and damned if you don't along with introducing the idea of Beauty Porn. Religion and sex of course goes further into the idea of everyone but women controlling women's bodies. Hunger mainly deals with diet culture and violence mainly with plastic surgery.

In a lot of ways this book to me was reminiscent of Backlash by Susan Faludi. It's kind of a thorough look at what the mass media tells us, what that means, what is the truth, and how everything looks if you try stepping back and looking at things logically. Pretty fucked up.

This is a little off topic but makes sense, I was talking with my friend about why in general, drag queens made more sense to us then drag kings. Drag in a lot of ways is playing up the absurdities of gender, and the way society wants women to portray themselves is not only completely absurd but totally alien, therefore it's easier to push these already absurd beauty regimes even further. A lot of this book was basically peeling apart different aspects of what female beauty is supposed to be in order to reveal how bizarre and a lot of times destructive it is.

So, though it was real depressing and kind of dated, it's had a pretty big impact on how I think about the idea of beauty and what it means.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Stoner and Buchers Crossing

From what I've gathered John Williams wrote four books during the course of his life. Two of them, Stoner and Butchers Crossing, have been reissued by the New Review of Books Classics series. Although different in style and plot, both works center on the inability of male protagonists to achieve happiness through their ideals in an unrelenting, brutal world, which puts them in a better position then the secondary characters—-especially the female ones-- who Williams for the most part treats as inherently alienated without the prospect of achieving any ideals or happiness.

Stoner is primarily a book about alienation. It tells the life of a low grade Literature professor in a small liberal arts college in Missouri in the first half of the twentieth century. We see how the main character, John Stoner, holds onto his love of learning through the travails of a life that sees him alienated from his family, his wife, his daughter and eventually his job.
Although, some may read Stoner as championing the humanist ideal of learning, Williams actually complicates this by treating Stoner’s attitude toward literature, and the institution of university, as a refuge from the alienating forces of the ‘real’ world. A theme which is all too dated in our time with the privatization, rationalization and factoryialization of the university. (Just the fact that Stoner get tenure on the basis of publishing one book is anachronistic enough).
While I suspect this story will have little appeal to the readers of the Bumpidee reader, I highly recommend it. Williams fashions a riveting and affecting tale while achieving a perfect union of style, content and structure throughout with taught, well-crafted sentences and flawless transitions from one chapter to the next.

Butchers Crossing, on the other hand, is more ambitious in scope, structure and style. Williams uses the western genre to convey the themes of the quashing of youthful idealism, the elective affinity between the romantic idealization of nature and the domination of nature and the precarious and ruinous affect capitalism has upon human life.
Williams tells the story of a naïve Harvard student, who following his interpretation of Emerson goes west to live a life of self-reliance. Williams work incisively depicts how this ideal functioned in the context of manifest destiny and American capitalist imperialist expansion. To live his Emersonian ideal the youth funds a buffalo hunting party. Without ruining the plot the party slaughter an obscene and unnecessary amount of buffalo, fall prey to the cruelty of nature and get fucked over by the precariousness of the market. While many would end such a disillusioning narrative as one of realization—or the even more trite coming of age story—Williams leaves his characters traumatized, yet somehow still determined to carry on. A predicament, that sadly persists, which is why I recommend this excellent and illuminating work.