Monday, January 19, 2015

The Gender Parity Gap in Three Areas of the Arts: An Overview

The idea of this post is to see how women are faring in three areas of cultural endeavour: writing, popular music, and TV and film. Much more extensive research would have to be undertaken in each area to get a real picture, but even at a glance it's easy to see that women haven't achieved parity in any of these areas of either sales or prestige.

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I absorbed the idea that feminism had already happened, in my childhood. Nothing and no one around me suggested that a husband and children were mandatory, or that working wasn't. By the time I was in my mid-teens, in the early 90s, I had become aware that feminism was still around, and inequality was, too, but I assumed that the latter was left over from before I was born and would soon be gone. Certainly, it would be gone well before I reached middle age.

As I discovered, growing up, that I had a fondness and talent for writing, I had no reason to think that it was something men did. Through early adolescence, female writers came my way with a much greater frequency than male writers. My favourite author of what are now called “chapter books” was Lois Lowry; my 5th grade teacher assigned me a novel by Agatha Christie, whereupon I read almost her complete works; in the 6th grade, a female friend introduced me to V. C. Andrews; as a young adolescent I adored Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, a postcolonial, feminist, and slash fiction-y retelling of Arthurian legend from the POV of Morgan Le Fay, and the (also slash fiction-y) vampire novels of Anne Rice. 

Even when I was reading novelizations of sci-fi series, even though I'd encountered the notion that "women didn't write sci fi," I couldn't get away from female writers – like Star Trek novels writer Vonda N. McIntyre and 'V' novels writer A. C. Crispin – an “Ann,” I was surprised and pleased to eventually find out. Later I understood that prior to the 20th century, the female writers who were taken seriously could be enumerated using one hand: Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson. As frightening a blow as that was, however, there was no reason at all, glancing at the Fiction section in bookstores or libraries, to think that women weren't as successful as men as writers now.  

Whatever good or bad can be said about it, it's internet feminism that, by calling attention to things like the underrepresentation of female contributors in the elite literary journals and the lack of good roles for women in Hollywood movies, has made me aware, in the past decade, that even if it seems like there are powerful female celebrities everywhere, all may not be equal. And it's the internet that makes basic research into this area unprecedentedly easy, providing us with information on everything from album sales to prize winners to the names of the writers and directors of TV shows, all just a google away.


Part 1: Awards

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (formerly The Novel), 1917-2014:

1920s: 5/9 (women/total)
1930s: 6/10
1940s: 1/8
1950s: 0/8
1960s: 3/9
1970s: 2/7
1980s: 4/10
1990s: 3/10
2000s: 3/10
2010s: 2/4

1980s-present: 12/34=35.2%

First female PP winner for the Novel, Edith Wharton
Most recent female Pulitzer winner for Fiction, Donna Tartt

Man Booker Prize, 1969-2014:

1970s: 5/11
1980s: 3/10
1990s: 2/11
2000s: 4/10
2010-2014: 2/5
Total: 17/48=35.4%
1980s-present: 11/36=30.5%

1940s: 2/10
1950s: 3/10
1960s: 2/8
1970s: 3/10
1980s: 3/10
1990s: 3/10
2000s: 3/10
2010-2014: 3/5
Total: 24/75=32%
1980s-present: 12/35=34.2%

Total: 12/34=35.2%

Total: 16/34=47%

Part 2: Sales

(No. of female authors out of total no. of authors per decade)

1895: all men
1896: 2/10
1897: 1/10
1898: 2/12
1899: all men
Total: 5/42=11.9%

1900: 2/10
1901: 2/10
1902: 2/10
1903: 3/10
1904: 5/10
1905: 7/11
1906: 4/10
1907: 4/10
1908: 2/10
1909: 2/10
Total: 33/101=32.6%

1910: 7/11
1911: 4/10
1912: 3/10
1913: 3/10
1914: 3/10
1915: 2/10
1916: 5/10
1917: 3/10
1918: 4/10
1919: 4/10
Total: 37/100=37%

1920: 3/10
1921: 5/10
1922: 3/10
1923: 4/10
1924: 3/10
1925: 3/10
1926: 4/10
1927: 4/10
1928: 3/10
1929: 3/10
Total: 35/100=35%

1930: 3/10
1931: 7/10
1932: 3/10
1933: 2/10
1934: 5/10
1935: 3/10
1936: 3/11
1937: 2/10
1938: 4/10
1939: 5/10
Total: 37/101=36.6%

1940: 2/10
1941: 4/10
1942: 5/10
1943: 3/10
1944: 4/10
1945: 3/10
1946: 4/10
1947: 2/10
1948: 4/10
1949: 1/10
Total: 32/100=32%

1950: 4/10
1951: 0/10
1952: 4/10
1953: 1/10
1954: 3/10
1955: 1/10
1956: 4/10
1957: 5/10
1958: 4/10
1959: 1/10
Total: 27/100=27%

1960: 3/10
1961: 0/10
1962: 2/11
1963: 4/10
1964: 1/12
1965: 0/10
1966: 3/10
1967: 2/10
1968: 3/10
1969: 4/10
Total: 21.5/102=22%

1970: 3/10
1971: 1/10
1972: 2/10
1973: 2/10
1974: 1/10
1975: 2/10
1976: 3/10
1977: 3/11
1978: 2/10
1979: 1/10
Total: 20/101=19.8%

1980: 2/12
1981: 2/10
1982: 2/10
1983: 2/10
1984: 3/11
1985: 4/10
1986: 3/11
1987: 2/10
1988: 3/10
1989: 3/10
Total: 26/104=25%

1990: 5/10
1991: 5/10
1992: 5/10
1993: 3/10
1994: 4/10
1995: 3/10
1996: 3/10
1997: 6/10
1998: 6/10
1999: 2/12
Total: 42/102=41%

[Note: 2000 and 2005 Harry Potter novel excluded from this decade; Twilight books excluded: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008]
2000: 3/12
2001: 1/12
2002: 4/12
2003: 3/11
2004: 1/12
2005: 5/10
2006: 2/12
2007: 5/12
2008: 4/10
2009: 4/10
Total: 32/10=32%

[Note: Adult Fiction and Children's Fiction tallied separately as of 2012; but women also dominated AF with 8/10]
2010: 3/10
2011: 3/11
2012: 8/10
Total: 14/31=45%

The Publishers' Weekly lists are a bit weird. Seemingly they concentrated on adult fiction up until the YA boom of the 1990s, with some exceptions for anomalous runaway bestsellers – like the Eloise children's books in the 1950s. The Harry Potter books were excluded from the lists during the 90s; a couple get into the Wikipedia lists in the 2000s, but the Twilight books are excluded (but Meyer's adult fiction novel is included). The 2012 list above, however, is drawn (as the Wikipedia reference link reveals) from both the adult fiction and children's fiction lists, which I guess is how it's going to be for as long as YA and children's fiction are selling like crazy (or – which may be more accurate – are the categories that still sell print copies).

Nevertheless, the rough picture that emerges is this: Jonathan Franzen was talking complete crap when he complained that in America, reading is considered an activity for women, and therefore books “for men” (and, presumably, by men) don't sell. With a sudden jump in numbers at the turn of the 20th century, female novelists hold steady at 30-40% until a bad dip in the 1950s, from which they do not recover until the 1990s. God knows why, but suddenly in the 1990s female authors are at near-parity even without taking J. K. Rowling into account. With Rowling, they are probably at parity. And Rowling changed everything, paving the way for the Twilight series (which paved the way for the 50 Shades of Grey series) and the Hunger Games series. In the 2000s numbers dip down again, but would probably be higher than pre-1950s numbers if all of Rowling's Harry Potter novels plus the Twilight series were included. And in the 2010s, so far women are at near-parity.

But Franzen's vision of women's petticoats sweeping away serious men's fiction was clearly always a fantasy. Decade by decade, there have never been as many novels by female authors among the Top 10 bestsellers as there have been books by men, and I assume that the Top 10 is roughly representative of what's going on below. It hasn't been 50/50 – and, just sticking to the 20th century, often it wasn't even close. And sure as hell female novelists weren't crowding male novelists – whether serious or frivolous – out of the market.  

Part 3: Literary Journals

The London Review of Books and New York Review of Books have already been called to task by feminists in recent years (as in, 2013) for their extremely low numbers of female contributors. Did anything change in 2014?

Well, if the numbers from last year are an improvement, they're still a joke. The number of female contributors per issue in the NYRB didn't once reach as high as one third, and only three times (out of 18!) reached as high as a quarter. That would be pretty good, if this were the 18th century. LRB did mildly better: out of the 24 issues in 2014, the number of female contributors got as high as a third twice and as high as a quarter six times.  

But these offenders pale in comparison to The Paris Review. Check out the dismal gender numbers for their author interviews:

1950s: 3/25=12%
1960s: 5/37=13.5%
1970s: 8/39=20.5%
1980s: 15/75=20%
1990s: 18/88=20.4%
2000s: 26/66=39%
2010s: 10/43=23%

Holding steady at 20% since the decade of second-wave feminism, TPR only got into the game, in the previous decade. So far in this decade, however, they've fallen back into old habits. And yet somehow we find ourselves talking about a past Dark Age for female writers. Fucking pathetic.  

It's one thing when dinosaurs like the LRB, NWRB, or Paris Review offend. What's really irksome is when sexist attitudes are carried over into a new medium, and perpetuated by young people. This is the case with Scott Esposito's The Quarterly Conversation, an online journal devoted to international modernist literature in translation that I'd like to love, if only it weren't for the distinct odour of machismo presiding over the proceedings. As proof, here are the stats from the past 10 issues, nos. 29 (Fall 2012) to 38 (Winter 2014). These are the number of articles about women out of total articles about a woman or a man (usually an author, but sometimes a filmmaker); so themed articles are excluded. (I also excluded translators as contributors, which is ironic given the nature of the publication, but less confusing.)

Issue 29, articles about women: 5/20
Issue 29, female contributors: 4/21

Issue 30, articles about women: 3/25
Issue 30, female contributors: 11/27

Issue 31, articles about women: 11/31
Issue 31, female contributors: 12/31

Issue 32, articles about women: 2/18
Issue 32, female contributors: 9/21

Issue 33, articles about women: 3/19
Issue 33, female contributors: 4/19

Issue 34, articles about women: 4/21
Issue 34, female contributors: 6/25

Issue 35, articles about women: 11/22
Issue 35, female contributors: 7/23

Issue 36, articles about women: 1/10
Issue 36, female contributors: 4/10

Issue 37, articles about women: 3/16
Issue 37, female contributors: 5/16

Issue 38, articles about women: 3/12
Issue 38, female contributors: 7/14

Total articles about women: 46/194=23.7%
Total female contributors: 69/207=33.3%

So, about a quarter of the articles over the last 10 issues are about women, and a third of the contributors are female. What are we to make of this? Are women, internationally, not writing experimental fiction and poetry? Are they not being published? Are they writing and being published but not being taken seriously enough to be translated? Are they writing and being published and translated but not being taken seriously by TQC?

The links along the right side of the QC website, to articles on the site's contemporary heroes (two of them dead at a young age), McCarthy, DFW, Murakami, and Bolano, so no women, were what made me first start pondering the place of women in serious contemporary fiction. I knew that the traditional heroes of modernism and postmodernism were men: all of the High Modernists except for Woolf, and especially Joyce and Kafka; Faulkner, Beckett, Pynchon. But that was in the past. Surely no one would perpetuate such preposterous hero-worship now that so many more women were writing, and we were all alert to, and on the same page (SO TO SPEAK) about, the injustice of gender bias.

Or then again....

There are of course other, more female-friendly places one can go on the internet to read about serious new writing, such as Jessa Crispin's Bookslut. My quarrel with TQC is not that there are no alternatives to its modernist machismo, but that that machismo is unnecessary and antiquated, and especially disappointing in an online-only publication, which should break with the biases of the past.

Popular Music

For me, the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Reader's Poll is the only bright spot out of all of this research, revealing as it does how the number of women in rock has risen, and the profile of women in rock with it, while the profile of women in pop has also risen, and with it, the prestige of pop. Still, as we get to the most recent poll, only 34% of the top 100 albums have female artists attached to them – and I counted cases where there was even one woman, not necessarily the singer, in the band.

1970s: The website only lists 10 albums up until 2008. In the inaugural year, albums by female artists creep into the 9th and 10th spots: Joni Mitchell's Blue and Carole King's Tapestry. In 1975, Mitchell's Court and Spark tops the list, but there are no other albums by female artists on it, or any women in the bands on the list. In 1974, Patti Smith is the only female artist to get on the list, with Horses, in the second spot. There is obviously already goodwill toward women who are serious songwriters – but not many around. In 1976, Kate & Anne McGarrigle take the 5th spot, with Joni two spots behind. In 1977, only Fleetwood Mac, in the 4th spot with Rumours, features women. In 1978 there are finally none at all, and in 1979 we're back to the initial situation, with Donna Summer's Bad Girls sneaking into the 10th spot, and the B-52s at no. 7.

1980s: Things remain pretty much the same in the 80s. There are no women to be found on the list in 1980, but in 1981, X (whom I confess I've never heard of before) is in the 2nd spot, Rickie Lee Jones in the 5th spot, and The Go-Gos in the 10th spot. In 1982, Richard & Linda Thompson are in the 2nd  spot; X sneaks into the 10th. In 1983 – X again, this time in the 4th spot... and that's it. In 1984, Tina Turner is in the 5th spot; in 1985, Aretha Franklin's at no. 9; in 1986... nothing. In 1987: nothing. In 1988, we're in business again: Sonic Youth at no. 2, Tracy Chapman at no. 3, Michelle Shocked at no. 5. In 1989, Neneh Cherry is at no. 5, and The Mekons and Soul II Soul have women in them, as do The Pixies, at no. 10.

1990s: This is where things change. All of a sudden, a lot of women are being taken seriously across the board, in rock, in punk, in electronica, in country, and in hip-hop, and there are a lot more all-female or female-led bands around. Sinead O'Connor takes the second spot in 1990; Sonic Youth is at no. 4; and Roseanne Cash is at no. 8. In 1991 (the year of Nevermind), there's only The Mekons, squeezing into the last spot. The following year, P. J. Harvey appears for the first time; the next year Liz Phair takes the no. 1 spot (beating out In Utero), Harvey is in the 3rd spot, and The Breeders are in the fourth. Hole take the no. 1 spot in 1994, with Liz Phair in the 6th spot. In 1995, top spot to P. J. Harvey (third year in the row for a woman or female-led band), Elastica is at no. 4, and Bjork at no. 7. In 1996, the Fugees are at no. 2, Sleater-Kinney at no. 3, and Amy Rigby at no. 8. The following year it's Sleater-Kinney at no. 4, Missy Elliott at no. 6, Erykah Badu at no. 7, and Bjork at no. 9. In 1998, it's Lucinda Williams at no. 1, Lauryn Hill in the second spot, and P. J. Harvey at no. 7. The decade closes on a slow year for women, with only Fiona Apple, at no. 7, and Beth Orton, at no. 9; and there's a woman in The Magnetic Fields.

2000s: The 2000s start strong. Year 1: P. J. Harvey (2), Shelby Lynne (4), Jill Scott (9), and Sleater-Kinney (10). 2001: Bjork (3) and Lucinda Williams (9). 2002: Sleater-Kinney (5) and Missy Elliott (10) – but where are the new artists? There are some in 2003: The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (5), led by Karen O; and The New Pornographers (7), featuring Neko Case. But in 2004, there's only Loretta Lynn, at no. 3. 2005 is a good year, with a new artist, M.I.A. bursting onto the scene at no. 2, Sleater-Kinney and Fiona Apple at 4 and 5, and The New Pornographers at 9. In 2006, a Neko Case solo album gets into the 8th spot, with Joanna Newsom right behind it. M.I.A. takes third position the following year, with Amy Winehouse's Back to Black right behind her. 2008: Portishead in the 3rd spot, Erykah Badu in the 5th spot, and Santogold at no. 7. 2009: Neko Case at no. 3, Yeah Yeah Yeahs at no. 4, Dirty Projectors at no. 5., and The xx at no. 7.

Only including bands with significant female content, then, the 2000s hold strong, with female artists making up about 25% of the Top 10s in both the 1990s and the 2000s. That's compared to about 15% in the 80s and around 10% in the 70s. The importance of the 1990s to women in popular music can't be underestimated. But what about the current decade – and the Top 100 albums?

The wondrous Janelle Monae emerges in 2010, taking the 4th spot. There are women in Arcade Fire, and Beach House and Sleigh Bells are male-female duos. Merrill Garbus's tUnE-yArDs take the no. 1 spot in 2011, with P. J. Harvey back in the second spot, Wild Flag in the 4th spot, and Adele in the 6th spot. In 2012 there's Fiona Apple at no. 3, Grimes at no. 9, and Beach House at 10; in 2013, Beyonce's at no. 4, My Bloody Valentine at 6, Haim at 7, Janelle Monae at 8, and Kacey Musgraves at 10. Finally, in 2014, St. Vincent took the no.4 spot, with FKA Twigs (a producer!) at 5, Taylor Swift at 7, and Angel Olsen at 8. For the decade so far, content by (cis) women is at 35.6%; in the Top 10, 40%, a big leap again from the 2000s. 

2008: 3/10; 25/100
2009: 4/10; 42/100
2010: 4/10; 32/100
2011: 4/10; 39/100
2012: 3/10; 39/100
2013: 5/10; 34/100
2014: 4/10; 34/100

Verdict: The 90s were the breakthrough decade for serious female artists in popular music, following in the wake of pioneers like Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith. But although there were suddenly a few dozen female artists and bands of major reputation, the mass of buzzy bands and rappers out there, most of whom will only appear on these lists once, are still overwhelmingly male. Women hover at 35-40% of the total content, but only if you include a lot of bands with only one female members, who is not the lead singer or main songwriter; or a couple of female members, if it's a large collective. If you stick to girl bands, female-led bands, male-female duos, and female solo artists, it would probably be more like 30-35%.   

Part 2: Best-Sellers

In commercial popular music, women have also gained successes in recent years without attaining full parity – as sellers; who knows how well they're paid. If the music industry is anything like the movie industry, which it probably is, there's probably even less parity there, but probably also some gains in recent decades.

I didn't bother to look at prizes for the music section because my time is limited and I'm way more interested in which albums Village Voice readers like than in which albums win Grammys. Whereas although I don't give any more credence to the Pulitzer Prize than to the Grammys, I was more interested in finding out how women had fared with the former than in tracking down decades of year-end best-books lists. So basically, the research I did for this post reflects partly what I happened to want to know about a particular topic and partly what information was (readily) available on that topic.

To get a rough idea of how women in popular music sell, I looked at this Tsort site, which has compiled chart info from worldwide sources.

Out of the 50 biggest chart acts, worldwide, by decade:

1960s: Barbra Streisand (22); The Supremes (23); Aretha Franklin (29); Peter, Paul, and Mary (33); Petula Clark (35); Joan Baez (42)

1970s: ABBA (4); Donna Summer (23); Fleetwood Mac (27); The Carpenters (28); Carole King (42)

1980s: Madonna (2); The Eurythmics (12); Whitney Houston (15); Tina Turner (31); Diana Ross (35); Pat Benatar (42); ABBA (46)

1990s: Mariah Carey (1); Madonna (2); Celine Dion (3); Whitney Houston (7); Janet Jackson (17); Alanis Morisette (20); Spice Girls (21); Roxette (24); Ace of Base (34); TLC (36); The Cranberries (37); Cher (47); Sheryl Crow (48); Shania Twain (49)

2000s: Madonna (2); Britney Spears (3); Beyonce (7); The Black Eyed Peas (8); Pink (10); Avril Lavigne (11); Alicia Keyes (14); Norah Jones (15); Jennifer Lopez (20); Rihanna (21); Mariah Carey (25); Shakira (28); Celine Dion (30); Christina Aguilera (31); Destiny's Child (35); Kelley Clarkson (36); Kylie Minogue (38); Nelly Furtado (39); The White Stripes (40); Evanescence (43); Taylor Swift (46)

In the 1960s, the women who chart highest, making up only 12% of the Top 50, have nothing to do with rock. In fact there are no women in rock, at all, at this point, and the only women on the list that have anything to do with modern pop are The Supremes. In the 1970s, the supreme decade of the rock group, it's worse. ABBA, the epitome of modern pop, get into the Top 10 with two women, and Donna Summer, the queen of disco, is the first female solo artist on the list. There's also Fleetwood Mac, another 70s supergroup of married couples, and, of course, The Carpenters.

Madonna leads the way to the light in the 1980s, showing what a female pop superstar really looks like. Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston are other pioneers, and Streisand comes back strong, but other than Madonna in the no. 2 spot, women haven't made that much advancement.

But wait! We were just warming up. In the 1990s, female solo artists occupy the first three spots, and female acts or acts featuring women make up 28% of the Top 50. It seems as though the 1990s are a breakthrough for women in music commercially, as it was for women in music being taken seriously. Second-wave feminism may have failed to produced any theorists that I wanted to read, but I can't argue with its effects on music. The seeds were sown, however, in the era of first-wave feminism. Patti Smith showed us what a female rock star looked like, and even if The Runaways were manufactured and exploitative, afterwards it was possible to envision a female rock band. By the 1990s there are a lot more women in bands, even if they're usually in bands as vocalists, and Madonna has provided the model of a female pop star who's obviously and unapologetically in control of her image and career. But few post-Madonna female pop stars will give us the impression of control over their careers and personas from beginning to end, and few – certainly none of the white ones – will be allowed to not be girls-next-door, however crossed-with-porn-star their image may be.

And the improvement holds during the following decade, with female acts/female-featuring acts getting up to 42%. This has little to do with women in bands and a lot to do with remaking pop, after the example of Madonna and the decline of Michael Jackson, as exclusively female. No need to fight the perception that the role played by women in popular music is as vocalists and, with few exceptions, eye candy. The exceptions are the true legends, but the standards of appearance for people in the public eye seem to get higher all the time, especially for women, that it's hard to think of Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand becoming superstars now – and it was implausible enough at the time. Reality TV let an ordinary young woman, Kelly Clarkson, become a star, and the internet allowed Adele, a plus-size woman, to become a megastar, and those seem to be the only means. A different, “edgier” style of attractiveness is favoured in the indie rock world, and being too conventionally attractive, like Lana Del Rey, can get you kicked out of the cool kids' club, but the ornamental function of the frontwoman still has few and usually partial exceptions – which is why someone like Merrill Garbus is such a delightful surprise.

Merrill Garbus

Now women seem to be stuck – and men too. Once it was considered acceptable for men to be crooners – neither songwriters nor musicians. Elvis wielded a guitar but didn't write his songs, and was primarily known as a voice, face, and set of hips. A decade on, it had become necessary to be “authentic” and write your own material. But women had a harder time making the shift, and have continued to have a hard time going behind the scenes in other ways – notoriously, as producers and engineers. For one thing, women were going into popular music as vocalists rather than forming bands, so writing their own songs wasn't a natural step. For another, there was no shame for women in being ornamental – at least not yet. Ultimately, this situation – where “authentic” rock or indie musicians wrote their own material but “manufactured” pop singers had their songs written for them – led to an unfair devaluation of the role of vocalist. But perhaps this was also partly because it was so easy to sell a pretty white girl with a pleasant voice.

Despite the huge success of Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill (1995), somehow the notion of marketing female rock singer-songwriters didn't take off, whereas the solo female pop star after the Madonna model became a juggernaut. But then if you look at the albums that are selling in the US in this decade, there are no performers that one would call “rock,” either male or female, while “rap” is only one category among many (and there are even some top-selling female rappers). The favoured categories are male solo performers, female solo performers, and bands, in about equal numbers, and rock and roll might never have happened (whereas the favouring of country acts is an American eccentricity). The female percentage suffers because the all-male band continues to be the norm while the all-female band continues to be an eccentricity.

The idea that there should be more women in rock or rap has nothing to do with women's success in popular music – at least not at this stage. Women are doing great as solo vocalists, probably much better than they did in the pre-rock era, although they'd do better still if there were more women in bands, which appear to be the only legacy from the rock era in the charts. Only hipsters (such as the Village Voice readers) keep rock alive, and increasingly rap as well, it seems. 

No, the main reason to care about women getting into rock or rap has to do with the prestige accorded these genres as originally male genres. Of course women have great reasons to rebel and be angry, and no doubt it's helpful to the cause of feminism for women to show that they can project aggression, intimidation, and power, so it's easy to see why the idea of women in these genres appeals – to women, and to fans of the genres – and why the idea of these genres appeals to women. Still, encouraging women who want to try non-traditional (i.e., “masculine”) things easily turns into denigrating “feminine” things, since our culture is already eager to encourage the latter. And we should be wary of this as feminists, even as we're aware that asserting the awesomeness of Disney princesses is not a sufficient kind of feminism.

(As one example: you still hear well-meaning people bemoan the fact that there has never been a queen of late-night TV. But why is this such a terrible thing when women clean up as day-time hosts? Ellen DeGeneres already out-earns David Letterman. Just because an area is female-dominated doesn't always make it pink-collar. Of course the domination of the daytime talk show by female hosts depends on a lot of women being at home with the kids, at least temporarily. But that's another story.)

Film and TV

Hollywood's problems with women seem to get endless attention without anything ever changing. And I'm just talking about its problems developing movies with female leads or even non-perfunctory supporting female characters, and, when it happens, paying the actresses as much as the actors. Let alone with getting women into a directing role.

I'm sure that many more women are directing now than in my early 20s, when I took it for granted that film directing just wasn't something that women did. (Since I like movies a lot and admire many directors, that thought did bug me a little, but not that much, since I had no interest in directing movies myself.) Even now, though, there's usually only one fashionable female director at a time, and without the help of the internet, I know the names of less than half a dozen that are currently working.

The gender parity gap in the US entertainment industry has been well-covered, so I'm not going to add new information here. I'll just restate some of the points and discoveries that have been made:

Now that TV series creators are starting to emerge as auteurs, it also bugs me that the problem from film seems to belong to the entertainment industry in general. And it's not just the entertainment industry. The problem is also a culture of fandom, criticism, and its overlap – as with cinephiles and auteurists in film criticism/fandom and modernist machismo in literary culture – that perpetuates the idea of the hero-worship of men by men (and sometimes by women) as culture. Hence the hilariously solemn celebration of Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan, or, in geekier corners, the giddier fandom directed toward Dan Harmon (and Joss Whedon and Gene Roddenberry before him). (In fact I'm pretty sure that TV auteurism emerged in sci-fi corners first – didn't it? Not counting British comedian comedy.)

The only high-profile female tele-teurs to date have been Lena Dunham, who also gets a spectacular amount of hate, and Jenji Kohan, who is generally considered to be extremely uneven as a showrunner based on her first series, Weeds. (Which really does suck after the second season.) Among the series creators that one hears less about because they make popular television, the phenomenal Shonda Rhimes had two TV shows among the Top 50 broadcast TV shows of 2013/2014, both near the top; 2 Broke Girls was co-created by Whitney Cummings; Maurissa Tancharoen co-created Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with the Whedon brothers; Gemma Baker co-created Mom with Chuck Lorre and Eddie Gorodetsky; Elizabeth Meriwether created New Girl; Elise Doganieri co-created The Amazing Race; The Middle was, amazingly, co-created by two women, DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler; the now-cancelled (after one season) Super Fun Night was created by star Rebel Wilson; and that, of the 53 non-football shows on the list, sometimes with up to four male co-creators, is it.  

Shonda Rhimes
The one area where we can trace improvement for women, both commercially and in terms of prestige, is popular music. In the mainstream, there hasn't been much challenging of gender norms by women, but in the 80s, the solo pop star regained the ground lost to bands, and female pop stars became a charts fixture, ever-increasing in numbers and stature. Nor should it be forgotten that Madonna's projection of both financial and sexual power as a global superstar was its own kind of challenge of gender roles, and allowed women in pop to have more assertive personas – although that, of course, has now become simply a box to tick (not unlike male rock “attitude”). Among music lovers, the prestige of female artists has steadily grown, and although the 90s burst of all-female rock bands didn't keep up, it's now more common in indie to see female-led bands (but not that common).

Film is still going through a Dark Ages as far as gender parity goes, and TV isn't much better. Presumably women have had trouble breaking into film directing for the same reasons they've had trouble breaking into music production: because it requires combating stereotypes about women and leadership and women and technology. But we notice this more in the area of film, because the director is the auteur, whereas in music, the artist is usually assumed to the be the auteur. Music journalists and critics pay some attention to producers, but overwhelmingly their attention, and the attention of the public, is directed toward the artist. In mainstream music, often producers have more creative control than the artists, but that is precisely the area that receives less attention from music journalists and critics. Only in the area of club music are producers considered auteurs by aficionados.

In literature and fiction, the position of women as either prize winners or sellers hasn't substantially improved since the beginning of the 20th century, and it is notably vulnerable and subject to setbacks. For the past couple of decades women's writing has had a commercial boom, I think largely due to the phenomenon of female fandom, which saw adult women reading YA genre lit and teenage girls reading online erotica, as well as vice versa, and the YA lit becoming online erotica and then becoming a best-selling print erotica series. This boom relies on marketing literature by women to women, but then so did the successful marketing of commercial fiction by men to men for so many decades. In this moribund time for books, publishers have found a way to tap into a thriving market of female readers.

In the area of literary prizes, there's no clear rhyme or reason at all to the fate of women. In recent decades women have won the Pulitzer for Fiction more often than in the 40s and 50s, but less often than in the 20s and 30s. Overall, female writers have won the Pulitzer 35% of the time, which is the same percentage as female winners of the Man Booker Prize – but since the 1980s, which is to say, in the era of modern feminism, women have won the Man Booker only 30% of the time.

Meanwhile, in the Canadian poetry scene, women would appear to be at parity. Now how did they manage that? Was there such an abundance of female poets, or such a dearth of male ones, that women got in control of the prize-giving? And if parity can be achieved in this area, why not in all of them? While it's easy to see how having children could interfere with the career of a TV writer or a Hollywood director, it's less easy to see how it could interfere with the career of the majority of novelists, poets, playwrights, musicians, or indie directors, who make very little money and, accordingly, have low stakes attached to starting late or taking long breaks. I could see the low income of being part of the arts community making a woman put off having children more easily than I can see the choice to have children being a blow to her career. Is institutional sexism the biggest obstacle to women's advancement in the arts, or do most women, whatever else they want to do with their lives, simply prefer to put motherhood first? I don't know, but I don't think we can deny that the combination of the two, and the way they reinforce each other, is the reason that parity seems to be so difficult.

In cinema, not only are things slow to improve behind the camera; in front of it, things may have actually gotten worse. Conventional wisdom attributes this to a combination of late capitalism and competition from TV, which made the marketers panic and decide that they should only make movies for teenage boys. Lo and behold, those teenage boys grew up and became middle-aged men, and still wanted to see the same kind of movies: even better for Hollywood, but worse for women who like movies, and worst of all for actresses. And since corporate filmmaking has no investment in diversity, only in making money, no one wants to make the effort of making action blockbusters with female protagonists, even though at least once a decade someone comes along and proves that they can make money.

I think some blame also has to go to the auteurs and auteurists, though. American independent filmmaking has always been a macho enterprise, led by the Kubricks, Scorseses, Coppolas, and Altmans, and their fanboys. Whatever the virtues of these filmmakers, it is rare for American auteurs to be interested in telling stories about women (the alternative tradition is represented by De Palma, Cassavetes, and Lynch); whereas in Europe, as Molly Haskell has pointed out (with a lot more savageness than I would use, especially with regard to the heroines of Dreyer – and yet I take her point), directors kept using women, but as symbols more than as characters. In any case, in recent years it's hard to find a female protagonist whether you're in the mood for a blockbuster or for arthouse fare.

But what do the execs of publishing houses, movies studios, and TV networks think that women are doing? They don't think we're going to movies; they've only recently found out that we read; and they can't think we're watching TV, since few shows with female main characters can be found there. Of course there are exceptions on network TV: Grey's Anatomy is a soapy monster; Modern Family features upper-middle-class men and women who are in completely traditional gender roles, for which the “clueless,” yet understandably smug, men are endlessly beaten down by the “assertive,” yet economically dependent, women; the female characters on The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother are almost as important as the male characters; there are lots of genre shows with female sidekicks, like Elementary, Bones, and now Sleepy Hollow. It does look like things are a little better for women in front of the camera in TV than in movies, though not great.

Modern Family, a convincing argument for the extreme horror of traditional gender roles (the gay couple included), where no one wins

I'd like to know, however, if female stars ever had the box-office draw that male stars did, and if “woman's pictures” were ever made in greater numbers than they are now. That genre is remembered primarily because the memory the great female stars of Hollywood was kept alive by gay men (definitely not by auteurists), which allowed young women of later generations a point of entry into film history. So as much as I admire Stephanie Zacharek's Kael-influenced critical voice, I can't share her bewilderment and seeming distaste (in an interview on the podcast The Cinephiliacs) at the fact that well-known female film bloggers like Kim Morgan and Farran Smith Nehme have come to share the gay male admiration of these actresses. Men worship men all the time, and women worship men, too, because there aren't enough celebrated women to worship – so we can always do with finding more. 

Presumably the parity gap that remains in these and other areas is the result of a combination of unconscious sexism on the part of men; women being less interested in these areas than men; and the difficulty of combining motherhood and career. Although the basis of one kind of classic feminism is to argue that women would be exactly like men if the obstacles to it were removed, it is also possible to argue that biology predisposes men and women differently and that they should not be forced to be the same or exact parity expected in everything. The evidence, however, is that the number of women in areas once thought reserved for men climb as attitudes toward what women can do change over generations.  

How do attitudes change? Through the actions of pioneering women (and the men who welcome them and even champion them) and through men and women calling attention to sexism. The best way to prevent calling attention to sexism from descending into petty bullying and harassment of men is, I think, to have a movement that's centered on women's achievement: on what women can do, not what is done to them. But that's for a future post. Others think we have to take action, such as by creating special classes or camps for girls to combat the societal message that there are certain things they can't do. Should change happen organically, over time, or should it be pushed along by directing girls into male-dominated areas? I don't have the answers, but I think we should all keep asking questions. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Gravitas Girls: Olive Kitteridge, Lena Dunham, and Sheila Heti

Another post where I find myself thinking about women, and other things, through the lens of a couple of female artists and an anti-heroic female protagonist created by a female author.

I wanted to like Olive Kitteridge, for reasons having to do with womanness. The miniseries is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by a woman, Elizabeth Strout. It stars a woman, Frances McDormand, who also served as executive producer, and one feels for the position of the woman in her late 50s in Hollywood, who may have to turn producer to get good roles. It was directed by a woman, Lisa Cholodenko, and the screenplay was written by Strout and another woman, Jane Anderson (who has the distinction of having written an episode of Mad Men and three episodes of The Facts of Life). And when the story started and it quickly became clear that Olive was thoroughly unlikeable, I thought that maybe all of these women were trying for a female anti-hero, a laudable goal.

There were so many womany reasons to like this miniseries, which was met with universal critical ecstasy. Unfortunately, Olive Kitteridge is absolutely ridiculous. It could almost be camp, except that it's in such good taste (restrained, full of pretty Maine scenery) that it squanders that opportunity. This slice of misery porn is like a Newbery Medal-winner for an adult audience, or like Precious for affluent white people in their 50s and 60s (i.e., HBO's demographic). Full of scatology and both random and deliberate violence, and every bit as misanthropic as its eponymous protagonist, Olive Kitteridge manages to mock both the hick inhabitants of the small town where it takes place (like the woman who sings Olivia Newton-John's “Magic” while accompanying herself on the grand piano at the family restaurant) and the more modern, worldlier outsiders (Olive's son's uptight blonde California princess first wife and his New Age-y second wife, who indulges her bratty little boy). The miniseries has contempt for every human type – except maybe Olive herself. But its affection for her is mysterious.

Longing, Repression, Suicide, and Poop in a Small Coastal Town

I already knew it wasn't going to get better for me after the first (and, in my opinion, best, because least focused on Olive) of the four segments. But after the scene early in the second segment in which a suicidal young man who fears he may be “bipolar,” like his mother, hallucinates (courtesy of CGI) that Olive, seated on the car seat beside him, is an anthropomorphic elephant eating peanuts out of a bag (not a type of hallucination I've ever heard of being associated with bipolar syndrome), I had to keep watching in fascinated horror, to see if the series could really sustain that level of blindness to its own ludicrousness. And to be sure, the most ludicrous bits occur early on: the elephant hallucination and, in the first segment, Olive getting turned on, maybe for the only time in their marriage, by her husband when he boasts to dinner guests that as a boy he could track deer when dad took him hunting by smelling fresh doe droppings to tell if the doe is in heat. But there are subtler gems in the two last segments: Henry and Olive, facing the emptiness of their future when they learn that their son is getting divorced and therefore they probably won't be grandparents, only to go out for dinner with friends their own age and hear what disrespectful little shits grandchildren are, so that life is equally empty either way; or, in the last segment, where after Olive does this show's version of a “meet cute” with an ever-charming Bill Murray and you're waiting for whatever extremely horrible thing is going to immediately happen to him, she learns at the start of their first date that he listens to Rush Limbaugh.

Feces plays a supporting role in two of the four segments and a starring role in one. We also get treated to: an accidental death; an accidental near-death; an accidental death that may be a suicide; a father who committed suicide; a mother who commits suicide (a “bipolar” woman who thinks there are purple snakes in the appliances); two near-suicides (the woman's child and Olive); a boy who commits murder (a former elementary school student of Olive's, glimpsed only once in the series, in detention, drawing a picture of a person holding their severed head); two young drug addicts who brutalize and threaten to kill the sparse staff and the couple of elderly people at the hospital they're robbing; the sudden death of an elderly woman; the bipolar mom taking advantage of the distraction of the elderly woman's sudden death to score some extra Valium at the pharmacy; an elderly man's stroke; and an elderly man's near-stroke. Dying or coming across someone who has died or is dying is apparently as common as breathing in Crosby, Maine. I'd feel safer in Twin Peaks.

The only moments that might almost be good occur in the first segment, which focuses on the only nice characters in the miniseries, Olive's husband, Henry, and the woman half his age (at least) with whom he becomes infatuated, played by Richard Jenkins and Zoe Kazan. Once upon a time I had the idea of doing a sort of Wide Sargasso Sea version of Madame Bovary that retold the story from Charles's point of view, and the first segment of Olive Kitteridge sort of does that. It's completely baffling why, instead of following the titular character's infatuation with a Scottish (or something – Welsh?), alcoholic fellow schoolteacher, which is made to bear a great deal of the weight of accounting for her subsequent nastiness and bitterness, and which could give us a sense of the person Olive might have been if she were happy – instead we're taken into the inner life of Henry. Which – thanks to the astonishing warmth and openness radiated by Jenkins and to Kazan's delicate performance, both of them playing characters who could otherwise have just been caricatures – turns out to be a beautiful place. I think it's Jenkins, not McDormand, who deserves the acting kudos in the miniseries, although that's perhaps because he's at least given the basic materials for playing a human being.

Yet we don't need to know anything about Henry, so the story of the nobly asexual relationship that develops between him and his naive little employee (namby-pamby, Ned-Flanderish Henry would never be unfaithful to his wife, or take advantage of such a young woman) is pointless in terms of the larger story. Strout's portrayal of Olive has a chic postmodern opacity: even on the rare occasions when she convulsively shows her pain, it doesn't make her more sympathetic (to me, at least) because neither the writers, nor the director, nor the actress is able to show its connection to her compulsion to hurt. (I'm thinking, by way of contrast, of Bette Davis's miraculous William Wyler-directed performance in Jezebel.) And if it's not in the performance, it has to be in the writing. We know that her father committed suicide, but knowing what has happened to an unlikeable character in the past isn't as important in making us understand and (ambivalently) root for them as knowing what they want. Emma Bovary wants her life to be beautiful and exciting and meaningful, and can't face the fact that life is not like that; Hedda Gabler wants control over the destinies of other people because, as a woman in the late 19th century, she has no control over her own destiny; Regina Giddens wants to be rich and have fun in the big city, and knows, as a woman in the early 20th century, if she were a man she could get the things she wants rather than having to go through her brothers and husband. Olive, however, isn't even allowed to really want to run away with her Romantic Scotsman (or whatever): when Olive's husband tells her that this was only a fantasy of happiness, she seems to believe him, and so do we, if only because it's impossible to imagine Olive getting along with anyone.

But then, part of the way through the final segment, it suddenly struck me that McDormand was, consciously or not, playing the character as“autistic,” in the pop media sense, and that was why her relentlessly monotonous performance (the same note over and over, as with her character in Fargo, but with the opposite mood) made sense, contrasting unfavourably though it did with the nuances of Jenkins's characterizations. People seem to love this – critics, cult audiences. Although Olive is a kind of pop-autistic sociopath, however, she's neither a genius nor a badass – let alone both, a la Walter White. She's not completely devoid of decency; she's not prejudiced against the mentally ill; and she's not a bigot. But she's a teacher, wife, and mother who appears to have done everything in her power to make her students, husband, and son as miserable as she is.

There's an interesting subject amidst all of the pointless violence and ugliness: how the repression that once kept incompatible couples together, and sometimes does even now, resulted not only in mutual misery, anger, and resentment, but also in entangling them in each other's lives to the extent that they truly were each other's closest companion, albeit perhaps only as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in which the more passive partner is in thrall to the more aggressive one. Although, this show being what it is, the message is that all you get in return for even that boon is the loss of your companion, either directly to death or to stroke or dementia or ongoing illnesses and then to death. And more people than we'd like to think are in Olive's position when that happens: estranged from family and isolated in the midst of a community. At the end the show, like Olive, loses heart, and gives her a fake happy ending, gesturing toward the possibility that she'll get a new boyfriend, repair her relationship with her son and daughter-in-law, and develop a relationship with her grandchild. And in fact sometimes such people do redeem themselves as grandparents. For others (and I couldn't help but think of the Vivian Maier doc, watching Olive toward the end), the isolation only worsens.

Body Bildung

Sometimes glancing back over this blog makes me proud, and other times it makes me cringe – depending on the post, and depending on my mood. There are times when I can't even imagine what I was trying to do, like when I posited a parallel between the HBO comedy Bored to Death and Madame Bovary – something about boredom moving from the provinces to the urban centers – which managed to be both dubious and pretentious. I thought of that dubious and pretentious parallel, however, when I was listening to Lena Dunham read the audio book of Not That Kind of Girl.

Although only in her late 20s, Dunham affects a bored, world-weary tone, both as a writer and in her vocal delivery. It's especially striking when she discusses sex, which she does often. She has been presenting herself this way since she was in her early 20s: that kind of irony and detachment is her schtick, present even in her physicality in front of the camera, which is what made me think of Woody Allen and Elaine May when I first saw her, in the first episode of Girls. It didn't come as that much of a surprise, then, that Dunham actually quotes from Madame Bovary as the epigraph of NTKOG. The passage (beginning “Deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for something to happen”) does not describe Emma's boredom, but rather her febrile state of waiting, as a young woman, for the adventure of her life to begin. I think we can gather from what follows that the reality of womanhood, for Lena as for Emma, is a lot more of a mixed bag than she anticipated.

Although I know it's a thing that people do regularly, I seldom buy a book by a comedian I like. Exceptions include a Jerry Lewis craze and Roseanne Barr's My Life As a Woman, which I think I found second-hand somewhere. I bought both Russell Brand's My Booky Wook and Craig Ferguson's American On Purpose, but didn't get around to reading either of them (or did I just seriously consider buying American On Purpose but had learned my lesson after Booky Wook?). I gave in and bought the audio version of NTKOG because the online controversies about some of the sexual stuff in it made me madly curious. I'll save my take on the Barry chapter, about what she has taken to calling in the media her sexual assault, for an upcoming epic post about feminism. As for her polymorphously perverse early relationship with her younger sister, it's illustrative of Dunham's dilemma: she thinks like a serious writer, drawn as she is to the murky ambiguities and uncomfortable areas of human sexuality, but she is a celebrity, and one who is best-known for working in the medium of TV, which has never been able to handle much ambiguity. In fact that's the reason for Dunham's unique cultural position: she's bringing to TV a darkly comic, provocative sensibility to a medium in which envelope-pushing always stands out because it is so rare.

Girls, although only a cult show, has undoubtedly brought Dunham to the attention of a much wider audience than any novel by a person in their 20s could have reached, and Dunham, while not considering herself an actress, uses herself – her persona, her body – in her work to great effect, so I don't consider it a great loss to the world that Dunham's celebrity probably will never now allow her to develop into the introspective prose writer she might have been. As with many of the brighter men and women in pop culture (e.g. Morrissey, Courtney Love, Russell Brand, Roseanne Barr herself), I think we see in Dunham a need not only to make art, but to be famous; to have an audience react to and think and talk about not only her art, but her, and to make her relationship to the audience and the culture part of her art.

Nevertheless, Dunham's sense of herself as a public person, in NTKOG, often seems to be in conflict with her sense of herself as a writer. She can't just present a series of personal essays, interesting for their insights; as the quasi-self-nominated Voice of Millennials, she has to present herself (as per publisher instructions?) as giving advice to other Millennial women. At the same time, she's forced to be humble and use quotation marks in the self-helpy subtitle, “A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned,'” knowing the kind of shit she'll catch as a famous Millennial with literary pretensions who was raised by rich artists for daring to suggest that she has any wisdom to impart. I guess that's not so bad – why did Brand call his first book My Booky Wook if not to try to deflect criticism for having the audacity, as a person famous primarily for his drug addiction, sexual exploits, erratic public behaviour, and big hair, to think he had anything of interest to say?

In the one interview with McDormand about Olive Kitteridge that I read, she mentioned that one thing that drew her to the part was that Olive was a "full" and "messy" character – who belches, for example. One can see where an actress might get the impression that to portray a “real woman,” in contrast to the kinds of women we normally see on our screens and on magazine covers, means to portray a woman who is both aggressively flawed and aggressively corporeal – even though I can't think of any examples of being treated to a male character's digestive maladies where it's not played for laughs. Dunham's interest to me as a voice and a performer is centered on her obsession with her corporeality: with nudity, with her body's aches and pains and potential diseases, with food, with sex between clueless young people and all of the ways it doesn't resemble its depictions by either Hollywood or pornography, perhaps especially when it's influenced by the latter.

The reaction of many men to Dunham's use of her body as a writer-performer is a reminder that while men's imperfect bodies – like men's bodily functions – are the stuff of comedy, women's imperfect bodies – like women's bodily functions – easily elide into the territory of horror. Olive Kitteridge, too, borders on body horror, in this case not the horror of the young, nude female body that should be desirable (that's it's only function), but isn't, but the horror of the elderly female body, which inspires revulsion because it can no longer inspire desire. Dunham's use of body horror in her comedy, however, unlike Elaine May's, gives no indication of masochism. She doesn't show us the too-corporeal female as an object of revulsion; her offence seems to be, rather, that she doesn't presuppose a male gaze at all. (Nor does she give us a female gaze in its place: there are no sex objects in Dunham's work, except Patrick Wilson in a one-off episode that seems to take place outside the normal universe of the show.)

Don't Be That Girl

In the prologue to NTKOG, Dunham writes about the derision that greets young woman who try to talk about their lives but who, by virtue of their youth and gender, are thought not to have the “gravitas” to make their stories art-worthy. One of the phases I went through as a teenager was an infatuation with Anais Nin and her diaries, probably sparked by the release of the movie Henry and June in 1990, when I was 15. In that movie, Nin takes up, in both a literary and a sexual fashion, with Henry Miller and his wife, June (played by Uma Thurman). Nin is famous for being exotically pretty, for the lifelong project of her diaries (on a volume of which the movie was based), for being part of literary and artistic circles whose members show up in her diaries, and for a general interest in sexual experimentation that included the claim that she had an incestuous relationship with her father as an adult.

Like other teenagers who want to be writers when they grow up, I kept diaries, and the example of Nin made me think that this was a worthy enterprise, up until I read one essay on Nin and her cult that dismissed her with a single word: “narcissistic.” I tended to like the idea of narcissism; I was a fan of Oscar Wilde, who (as in the quotation from which this blog takes its name) used it to push back against bourgeois sentimentality and the cult of self-sacrifice and duty. Yet it was the particular way in which the author (a man, I'm sure) backed up his dismissal of Nin that made me back away from her example. It wasn't just that she nattered on about herself; he pointed out that she couldn't bear to not repeat a compliment. I understood the implication that was she just another vapid, shallow woman who believed that every event that happened to her or thought that occurred to her was fascinating because she got attention for being pretty, and – since I didn't stop keeping a diary (and have intermittently kept one of some kind throughout my life) – for years I tried my best to never record a compliment, at least about my appearance, even when I really, really wanted to.

I thought of that author's comment when, years later, Camille Paglia dismissed Naomi Wolf's Vagina by calling her a “compulsive diarist.” Between the stereotype of the narcissistic woman, left over from when women did not have access to the public sphere, and lingering sexist doubt that women are able to write as well as men do, we have this notion that when women write about ourselves it's because we're incapable of creating art. All we can do is scribble like silly, self-obsessed teenage diarists. De Beauvoir herself provides a good example of this suspicious take on female literary activity. “Thus it is well-known,” she writes approvingly in The Second Sex, “that [the woman] is talkative and a scribbler; she pours out her feelings in conversations, letters, and diaries. If she is at all ambitious, she will be writing her memoirs, transposing her biography into a novel, breathing her feelings into poems.”

Meanwhile, the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has riveted the international literary community by documenting his life in the form of six autobiographical novels published between 2009 and 2011. If ever an author might fairly be called a “compulsive diarist,” surely Knausgaard would be it. De Beauvoir herself wrote four volumes of memoirs and a couple of romans a clef. Nevertheless, even today the female author who writes about herself exposes herself to the suspicion that she is doing it not as a possibly misguided artistic choice but because she cannot, by virtue of her gender, create art.

New Yorker fiction critic James Wood frequently bestows the highest praise on female authors, so there is presumably some reason other than sexism that caused him to write a review of Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? that is deeply distrustful of its interest in drawing directly and openly from the author's life (although he did later claim, bafflingly, that the review was a recommendation), and then, a mere two months later, write a favourable review of the first of Knausgaard's autobiographical novels. It's probably obvious to many that a silver-maned Norwegian guy in his early 40s has more gravitas than a North American woman with whimsical bangs in her early 30s (Heti was 33 when HSAPB? was published), but not to me. Although she's a Gen-Xer like me, not a Millennial like Dunham, the Gen-X Peter Pan (or “puer,” the more exotic term used by Sheila's Jungian psychoanalyst in the novel) probably has more in common with Millennial hipsters than with boomers, which, however, naturally hasn't stopped many Gen-Xers from taking up a stance of hatred toward Millennials. Maybe it's self-loathing.

I thought it was absolutely hilarious that the New Yorker fiction critic distanced himself from the main characters in HSAPB? on the basis of their “privilege”: “They are writers, artists, intellectuals, talkers, and they sit around discussing how best to be. This sounds hideously narcissistic. It is. Who cares about a bunch or more or less privileged North American artists, at leisure to examine their creative ambitions and anxieties?” Really? Is this the same James Wood who went to Cambridge? Is contemplating the art of the novel, which Wood has been doing for his entire adult life, somehow less of a “privileged” enterprise than discussing how best to be? And is Wood upset because Heti's stabs at answering her “religiously important question,” as he calls it in the first paragraph, are shallow, or because having the time to contemplate it is shallow? He doesn't seem to know, but it all makes him uncomfortable.

Two Serious Ladies

Yet this is one of the major questions engaged by the book – and in my opinion, one of the least interesting aspects of it. HSAPB? is deeply concerned with the question of whether the people in it have a right to be making art; whether even making really good art, as Heti's friend, the painter Margaux, does, is a good use of your time in such a troubled world, or whether it inevitably makes you a monstrous narcissist. When an artist takes herself as her subject, she exposes herself (like Francesca Woodman) to accusations of narcissism as an ethical failure and aesthetic limitation; or as an aesthetic failure (as in the case of the female talkers and diarists De Beauvoir describes), meaning that she is shallow, a lightweight. Heti takes on these connotations of narcissism in relation to art, and to the kind of art she is engaged in, but also addresses the possibility that the whole enterprise of art-making is the self-indulgence of the privileged.

At bottom, HSAPB? is the story of two artists, Sheila and Margaux, their friendship and their relationship to art. Warning: spoilers ahead. Sheila, who is spending years trying to write or avoid writing a play that has been commissioned, is having a crisis of faith regarding not only her own abilities but her medium – fiction. Her crisis eventually infects Margaux, who, we have learned, enjoys painting but does not trust the medium: it is not, for her, an inherent good. Wood is right to detect a note of anti-art puritanism in the real Heti's comments in interviews about the motives behind the book's form. Whereas Margaux (as depicted in the book) seems to worry that she should do something useful in the world, however, Sheila is convinced that her own life, and especially her relationship with Margaux, is far more interesting than any fiction she could manufacture.

At one point early in their friendship, Margaux mentions how she has always pined for “a girl as serious as I am.” I found this annoying since it promotes the sexist fallacy that it's difficult for smart, thoughtful women to find similar members of their gender to befriend, which is not a problem that I've ever had. As the book proceeded, however, it became starkly evident that Margaux and Sheila were indeed “serious” in some fundamental, elemental, and rather frightening way (although, interestingly, not in a way that conflicts with finding them “shallow”). Both women seem spectacularly neurotic, though it's Sheila's breakdown we witness. There were moments where Sheila, with her towering writer's block, her indecisiveness and impulsiveness, her simmering self-loathing, and her “puer” syndrome, made me think that this is what it would be like to read Jane Bowles write about herself if she had ever done so in a directly autobiographical way.

For me the best stretch of the book occurs when Sheila, after deciding that she has damaged Margaux obscurely but irreparably, suddenly takes off for New York City and has a couple of banal, random encounters with talkative men: a man in a “copy shop” who keeps trying to gain control of their absurdist conversation about Judaism and gender, and a man in a bar who tries to pick her up and shares a cliched story about his marriage that nevertheless manages to be touching and some thoughts on God. Here Heti shows her skill with dialogue and opens herself up to other people, people who are not like her friends, and the strangeness and opacity and pathos and specificity of the ordinary. Yet while I could have done with more of these sections, and with less of the short, more-or-less impenetrable essay-chapters, the variety of forms employed by the book keep it interesting even as the focus never shifts for long from Sheila's psyche. There are even a couple of long descriptions of Sheila's dreams, which I'm sure many would find obnoxious but which I found both boring and fascinating – especially the second one, which prompts her decision to return to New York, and in which her relationship with Margaux – for reasons the reader will never understand and I'm sure Heti doesn't either – becomes fodder for an epic vision of sexual violence that would make Roberto Bolano blush.

Where Wood – perhaps taken in by the book's marketing, which folded it into the Reality Hunger trend – sees formlessness, I see a tremendous instinct for structuring. In fact, the confrontation and crisis followed by an escape to another location and a return and resolution is the basic structure of many 19th century novels – notably, Mansfield Park (which shares Heti's distrust of theatre). However much she may hunger for “shapeless” reality, Heti can't stop shaping her experience, can't stop finding aesthetic correspondences to her emotions or turning the gathering and relaxation of psychological tension into pleasurable form – just as Margaux, when she tries to make her ugly painting, can't get away from her talented hand. I remember reading some biography of Andy Warhol, or maybe Edie Sedgwick, in which the biographer or interviewee produced the opinion that Warhol developed his method of producing art in a lifelong effort to escape his “talented hand.” Despite what Heti – or perhaps it's only Sheila – thinks, what's fascinating about HSAPB? certainly isn't her friends or her conversations with them, but rather the novel's internal battle between form and dissolution.

How a Woman Should Be

Heti, as if anticipating the kind of response she will get for writing about herself, repeatedly begs the reader to find Sheila shallow, and Wood takes the bait, censoriously quoting her first attempt to answer the question of her novel's title: “I sometimes wonder about [the question], and I can't help answering like this: a celebrity.” Sheila goes on to say, as Wood goes on to quote, that she doesn't really want fame, though, because she wants – in a Jane Bowlesian turn of thought – a “simple life,” which is to say, “a life of undying fame that I don't have to participate in.” It sounds like a strange thing to wish for until one realizes that this, after all, describes how we all act on the internet. The internet wasn't really a revolution in communications technology; it doesn't build on the phone or the printing press. The internet is really a vehicle for giving fame to everybody. In fact the internet can't actually do that, but what it can do is allow everybody to act like they're famous: post pictures of yourself looking cute so friends can envy you and strangers can admire you; blog or podcast about your thoughts as though somebody wanted to hear them. Even if you do develop a following, the kind of fame that the internet has to offer is, in the vast majority of cases, not so great that your life will change. You will not get rich, paparazzi will not stalk you, you will be able to go to the grocery store, and you will not need plastic surgery. Again, however, the more important relationship between the internet and fame is not not that the internet actually makes you famous, but that it allows you to act like you're already famous in public.

And that, I think, is what Heti wants, and what she achieves in HSAPB? (The internet is more of a model here than reality TV, which actually can make you famous enough that you have to “participate in it.”) The quality of fame is the quality of always believing that everyone wants to know everything about you and cares deeply about your crises, and it is in that way, perhaps, that we give meaning to our lives in the easiest fashion in a post-religious world. We've always needed to believe someone was watching us and finding our lives fascinating, and it's probably somewhat less egotistical to imagine that that's the world rather than God. Fame, indeed, may be a large part of how a person should be.

I had a strange experience the first time I saw a copy of HSAPB?, in the Chapters bookstore where I was working. It was the hardcover version with a yellow-and-orange wraparound cover that showed Heti, in almost-full profile, facing another young person, a man, with spiky hair. Although we can only see her face and shoulders and one arm and hand and a small part of the man's face, it looks like they're sitting on a couch, and I assumed that they were at a casual get-together in someone's house. Heti (whom I did not yet know by name but already took to be the author and subject of the book) looks quite young, like in her 20s, and neither pretty nor plain. More striking than the refusals of femininity delivered by the too-short bangs and the strong nose is her expression of slightly disgusted boredom, eyes at narcissistic half-mast, as if she's lost in thought or a reverie in the middle of the party.

I grabbed the book in excitement and carried it all the way across the big-box store to the cash desk to show it to my sister, declaring that I had never before seen someone who looked so much like me. I have had too-short bangs in my life; I have a fair-sized nose; above all, I have worn that expression at parties, and it has been captured in a photo, when I was around the age that the author probably is on the book's cover. When later I learned that Heti was Canadian, it all made sense to me. Canadian women don't look the same as American women; strong noses sneak into public more often; there is less pressure to fit a particular mold. Or anyway, that's the story I told myself to explain why I felt such a strong kinship for this author based solely on a photograph. 

Having now googled Heti, I know that we don't actually look much alike at all, a general indefinable Canadianness aside (and that her book bangs are a trademark, not a mishap).

But upon further investigation, there were other similarities besides noses and aloofness. We both started out as playwrights, and attended the National Theatre School of Canada. We have both struggled mightily to complete commissioned plays. According to Wikipedia, Heti took a decade to complete her play, and it was eventually performed, though not by the theatre that originally commissioned it. The commissioned play that I struggled with after my husband and I broke up (right, Heti and I also both married young and briefly) only took me about three years to write, but it felt longer because I spent way more time not working on it when I could and should have been working on it than I did working on it. The commissioning company weren't even interested enough in the drafts to give it a workshop and we eventually fell out of contact. I did, however, have a couple of plays produced before giving up playwriting. Heti describes her menial post-divorce job of sweeping and shampooing hair at a salon while trying to write her play; I have done nothing my whole life but go between bouts of post-secondary education and menial jobs. Heti is a year-and-a-half younger than me. For all of that, I didn't cry out, “It's me!” when I read the book, as I did when I saw the photo. The thing I identified with most in the book, at this point in my life (late 30s), was the struggle of the author – not the narrator – with questions of form. Not for form's sake, however, but for the sake of asking questions about life that, for a write, are inseparable from questions about representation.

HSAPB? gets a lot of hate on Goodreads. Heti appears to be as polarizing a figure in the smaller world of minor literary fame as Dunham is in the larger world of minor TV fame. It all seems to be young women – and probably some who are not so young and ought to know better – frantically trying to distance themselves from narcissism-by-association, in much the same way that ex-V. C. Andrews fans turn violently critical of her, devoured by embarrassment, when they learn that they're supposed to regard her writing as trash. No one is more passionately devoted to proselytizing about how women should and should not be and think and write than other women, especially young ones. Although there are one-star reviews by men, on the whole the men who do read the book (the majority of reviews, positive and negative, are by women) seem to have a much less conflicted relationship with it – and no problem at all identifying with the “narcissistic” author/narrator/main character.

In addition to making other white women have tantrums about their “privilege” (which I guess covers anyone white with a university education, although Dunham is from an extremely affluent background and became extremely successful at an extremely young age, whereas Heti, as far as I know, is from an ordinary middle-class background and appears to have lived in hipster poverty for much of her adult life), Dunham and Heti also freak people out with their explicit and deeply uncomfortable depictions of sex. If you wanted to make diagnoses about the sex lives of women who were born after second-wave feminism from the writings of these two women, you'd start to be really worried. Luckily, I can neither relate to the misery that Dunham and Heti depict nor tell you whether they're more representative or I am. Certainly, it's laudable to depict the ways in which the sex lives of modern heterosexual young women are not always glamourous, as in the movies, or fulfilling and empowering, as they're supposed to be if you're a good feminist, but the conclusions that Dunham and Heti appear to draw about sex do have me worried about trends. In NTKOG, Dunham presents herself as someone who, in early youth, was hell-bent on having sexual adventures, only to learn that this is not possible for a woman because she'll end up unhappy and possibly abused. In HSAPB?, Heti is definitely in an abusive relationship, and seems to be seeking some kind of spiritual experience through her degradation, just as she does with drugs. The question is whether it's necessary for her to seek it in that way – that is, whether as a woman the only kind of sexual adventurousness open to her is abuse – and whether it's possible for her to experience it that way – that is (as with drugs), whether she's really achieving some kind of transcendence in that way or merely indulging her self-destructive tendencies.

The Embarrassment of the Contemporary

Dunham presents herself as someone who knows better, now: to have self-respect with “jerks” is one of things this young woman has learned. That is part of the book's self-help language and self-help leanings, and HSAPB? has also been marketed as, among other things, a self-help book. This seems to be in order to avoid cross-marketing it as a philosophy book, which would imply hard thinking for no purpose to a general audience (or so, I guess, publishers think), whereas “self-help” implies that the reader's going to get something important out of the book by the end that will help them lead a better life. This marketing ploy does, however, reconnect philosophy with the self-help purposes it has often served historically. What most people, including most first-year liberal arts students, want philosophy to be about is asking the big questions about existence, reality, values, and meaning, and maybe even coming to some provisional conclusions. These questions remain important to people, although our present branches of academic philosophy are not interested in addressing them – neither analytic nor postmodern philosophy.

Unlike Dunham, who gamely tries out the persona of wisdom-dispenser even though it neither suits her as a young person nor plays to her strengths as a writer (the construction of scenes of sexual or comedic discomfort), Heti does not come up with any clear answers. HSAPB? isn't the kind of self-help book whose protagonist gives you answers, but rather the kind whose protagonist asks questions, questions that get projected onto Sheila and Margaux's relationship and played out in that intense, Persona-like drama. Or not even that: it's clear that Sheila is making up much of the drama that takes place between her and Margaux. But not all – Margaux does say some weird things, like when she compares Sheila to a spider that she'll be forced to kill if it comes too close to her, but it's impossible to say, from the little we're given, how she actually sees their relationship. In the end we don't know much of anything at all: why Sheila has such an extraordinary reaction to Margaux; how Margaux sees and feels about Sheila; how Margaux is able to go back to painting after her Sheila-induced vision of herself as an evil Buddha, full of privilege and empty of empathy. But despite how little we know, the spectacle of their relationship is compelling.

One of the novelistic problems that HSAPB? seeks, awkwardly, to address, is how to depict contemporary life and the contemporary subject. That's always the problem of the novel, and it is never less than urgent. Our contemporary problems always seem shallow and trivial – for example, our concern that we seem, and may be, shallow and trivial. This is a particular concern in North America, which is surely one reason why Knausgaard and the equally prolific and trendy Italian novelist Elena Ferrante (who writes using a pseudonym but whose work some have hypothesized to be autobiographical) do not, overall, generate similar worries in critics; that, and we probably always look sillier to ourselves; and Knausgaard and Ferrante are writing domestic narratives, which, while not immune to charges of self-absorption (for those who prefer political fiction about world events, say), are less susceptible to them than a novel about a childless woman who earns money sweeping up hair in a salon, not because she couldn't get a better job but because she's either uninterested in or incapable of having one, if there's a difference, who spends most of her time worrying about the impression she makes on others and how to improve her blow jobs and doing drugs, and who's able to impulsively decide to move to New York City and then change her mind after a few days. Definitely, this is not what we want to think about when we think, with full gravitas, about “close attention to life as it is actually lived.”