Archive for the ‘ Women Unbound ’ Category

REVIEW: “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

The Color Purple

[WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD (among others), 1983]

Alice Walker
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007

CHALLENGE(S): Banned Books Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, GLBT Challenge (mini), Read the Movie Challenge, Social Justice Challenge, Women Unbound Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 16 April 2010

I got an amazing amount of mileage out of this book. It won an Award (Book Awards Challenge), it is frequently banned (Banned Books Challenge), it features a lesbian relationship (GLBT Challenge) and domestic violence (Social Justice Challenge), was made into a movie (Books and Movies Challenge), it is deeply feminist (Women Unbound Challenge) and it’s set in the early 20th century (Year of the Historical Challenge). Whew!

On top of that, it is also a wonderful book that I highly recommend.

The story is told in epistolary style, as a series of letters from the main character – Celie – to God. When the book begins, Celie is being abused by her father, by whom she eventually has two children. Her mother is dead and the only person she can really rely on is her younger sister, Nettie, who is cleverer and prettier and her best friend in the world. When a man she refers to only as Mister ——- proposes to Nettie, however, Celie’s life takes a turn for the worse. Her father refuses to allow Nettie to leave, and offers Celie in her place; to their horror, Mister ——- agrees. Separated from her sister, Celie’s only consolation is her developing relationship with Shug Avery, a beautiful singer who is the mother of Mister’s children.

The storyline gets more complicated as the novel goes on, but I don’t want to spoil it for you so I’ll leave the synopsis there. I will say, however, that there is a lot of musing about God and the nature of love throughout the novel, which I very much enjoyed. It did tend to get a little philosophical towards the end of the book, which kind of jolted you out of the story a bit, and I agree with many other reviewers that the ending was just a little too neat for me to believe completely. However, these flaws aside, some of my favourite parts of the novel were when the characters started discussing the nature of God. For example:

God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.

God don’t think it dirty? I ast.

Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You saying God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

Oh, make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

Yeah? I say.

Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

— pp.176-177.

I really enjoyed the way the characters’ shifting affections and developing natures were used as a sounding board to illustrate the fluidity of love and its connection to God. I may not believe in God, but I did appreciate the warmth and strength with which Walker imbued the narrative, and her fantastic ability to give her characters a unique voice. Celie came across strongly throughout, as did her sister Nettie when we read some of her letters to her sister later in the novel. Even the secondary characters, from whom we do not hear directly, have a vibrant inner life that makes them leap off the page and into your imagination.

The book is also profoundly feminist. Its main theme is essentially humanity, both human beings and the quality of benevolence they show so infrequently towards one another, but it focuses particularly on the strength and resilience of the female characters, how they face the obstacles life places before them and deal with abuse from the men around them. That is not to say it is intrinsically “anti-male”, however; one of the most moving parts of the book, for me, is how Mister ——- and his son change and are changed by the strong women in their lives, eventually coming to see their true worth and nature beyond sex and domestic slavery. It is an optimistic book, at heart: it postulates that both sexes can, given time, come to a place of equality and respect, and love each other for who they are rather than who the world would have them be.

A deserving classic, and nowhere near as intimidating as I had originally imagined. If you haven’t read it yet, then I highly recommend that you do!



REVIEW: “The Purity Myth” by Jessica Valenti

The Purity Myth

Jessica Valenti
Seal Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): Women Unbound Challenge

Finished 25 Jan 2010

This is a book which combines three topics I am very passionate about – feminism, sexuality and religion – so as soon as I heard about it I knew I had to read it. From the front flap:

“The United States is obsessed with virginity – from the media to schools to government agencies. The Purity Myth is an important and timely critique about why this is so, and why it’s problematic for girls and women. Analyzing cultural stereotypes and media messages, Jessica Valenti reveals the overt and hidden ways our society links a young woman’s worth to her sexuality rather than to values like honesty, kindness and altruism.

Valenti takes on issues ranging from abstinence-only education to pornography, and exposes the legal and social punishments that women who dare to have sex endure. Importantly, she also offers solutions that pave the way for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity, including a call to rethink male sexuality and reframe the idea of “losing it.””

I wasn’t aware at first that this was written by the author of the blog, which I’ve been following on and off for some time now – I was recommended it through a livejournal community and was pleasantly surprised when I found out. The book is characteristically direct, and certainly pulls no punches. It is quite refreshing, actually, to find an author so willing to speak candidly about female sexuality and to attack head on the damaging social customs that affect women and girls in that respect. In particular, something she wrote about rape has stayed with me:

“Now, should we treat  women as independent agents, responsible for themselves? Of course. But being responsible has nothing to do with being raped. Women don’t get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren’t careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them.” (p.151)

This quote is basically characteristic of the whole book: it exposes implicit assumptions in both the media and in society about women and their sexuality (in this case, that women are in some way responsible if they get raped) and blows them right out of the water. It was like a punch right between the eyes for me, because I have never thought of things on quite those terms before. As far as rape is concerned, I would never blame the victim – but how often have I said, in correlation, that she shouldn’t have been there, or should have taken better care of herself? “It wasn’t her fault, of course, but…”? I do think that, on some level, given that rapes do occur people (especially women) should try to avoid those behaviours which make them most vulnerable; this seems like common sense. But when it comes down to it, no matter what someone was doing, if she gets raped, it’s because someone raped her. You may or may not have heard about a case recently where a woman’s rapists were acquitted because she had expressed gang rape fantasies online, regardless of the fact that in this case she did not give consent (full story here). This is the sort of thing Valenti is talking about. The blame is being placed on the woman in question, not where it really belongs: on the people who forced her to have sex against her will.

Of course, the book isn’t solely about rape – not even primarily, actually. The main focus is the so-called virgin/whore dichotomy that labels and values women according to their sexual history, and especially the religious influences on the “purity” ideal. Valenti explains clearly how the idea that women should be “pure” (i.e. virgins until marriage) is both incorrect and damaging. For the most part, I already agreed with what she was saying; when I was a teenager, I found a website (now lost to the ether of cyber-space, unfortunately) that detailed the way virginity was actually non-existent except as a social standard. I was a very confused and sheltered teen at that point, only gradually coming to accept and understand myself as a sexual entity, and a lot of my anxiety revolved around the idea of a “virgin,” what one was, how one could tell, and so on. As Valenti argues, in point of fact “virginity” is an empty word, a term that is virtually meaningless. There is no physical way of determining whether a woman is a virgin (and yes, it’s almost always a woman whose sexuality is under the microscope in this way). The hymen, which has historically been used as a measure of this exalted state, is unreliable at best – many women are born without them, lose them through non-sexual activity early in life, and can even grow them back. Without physical evidence, Valenti argues, virginity is reduced to the wishy-washy, “someone who has not had sex.” At which point, you’re left with the question of what constitutes sex in the first place.

Overall, I found the book to be an enjoyable read and I have to admit much of the content made me rage at the sheer stupidity of human society. However. Valenti gives us hope for the future and also helps to illuminate the way forward for women’s rights advocates, which was a much-needed antidote to such things as purity balls and the like. She also addressed the way these issues are damaging to men as well, which I thought was particularly worth reading, as it is an angle often missing in feminist work.

To be honest, I was rather too emotionally invested in the topic to give this one an objective review. I do however believe it is a very interesting, eye-opening book and well worth a read.


More Challenges!

Because I don’t have enough already.

  1. The To Be Read Challenge (original)
    Read a selection of 12 books total from your “To Be Read” list. These can be read in any order – the aim is for 1 per month, but as long as it’s within a 12 month period that’s fine. My chosen books are:
    – Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault
    – The Persian Boy by Mary Renault
    – Funeral Games by Mary Renault
    – The Nature of Alexander by Mary Renault
    – Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brien
    – The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
    – The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
    – The Kite Runner by Khaled  Hosseini
    – Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
    – The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
    – Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
    – The Prestige by Christopher Priest

    A couple of these I’ve almost read before – that is, I’ve made attempts but never finished. Hopefully that still counts. I’d love to start this month but since I’m late and I’ve already got the rest of January’s reading worked out for other challenges, it will probably have to wait until February.

  2. The 451 Challenge
    I’m signing up at Blaze level – read 7 books from the 451 Master List by November 2010.
  3. The “What’s in a Name?” Challenge
    I like this one – easy, flexible, and a nice variety. Shouldn’t be too hard to find books that meet the criteria throughout the year.
  4. The Women Unbound Challenge
    How could I resist this? I’m going for Suffragette level – 8 books relating to Women’s Studies, 3 of which should be non-fiction.

I’ve pretty much picked challenges that allow you to overlap with other challenges, because otherwise I’d never be able to read enough books. I’m probably in over my head as it is, but otherwise where’s the challenge?