Sunday, February 17, 2019

I am an uneducated feminist | Thoughts on Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex

I don't think I quite expected to be confronted by my ignorance to such a stark degree while reading The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir's classic of feminist literature. I am currently reading the version translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, slowly immersing myself in this book I had heard so much about in references, but had never actually read myself. I kept telling myself there would be no reason for me to actually read this "original", second-wave text; after all, I have read so much literature from future generations of the feminist movement. Right?

I'm not a new feminist, nor do I consider myself to be a young feminist. I have followed feminist discourse since my early teen years and I have even actively engaged in it through the women in translation project. Feminism is a key part of my identity and I have long made sure that I read plenty of essays and discussions about feminism. I have often found myself enlightened by online feminists, but almost as often exasperated or frustrated. At times, I've even been angry with mainstream, popular feminist writers and their writing. But I certainly never considered myself uneducated, nor did I think that they were uneducated.

It's hard to come away from reading The Second Sex and not wonder if perhaps many more of us are ignorant than I previously believed: ignorant of the history of feminism, of the literature, and of our own inflated sense of self-importance.

Early in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes about the ways in which being a woman is not the only determining factor in political views or approach: "women as a sex lack solidarity: they are linked to their classes first; bourgeois and proletarian interests do not intersect". The use of the word "intersect" immediately caught my attention. While the translation is modern, it seemed unlikely that the choice of this word was necessarily modern. In essence, it struck me that I was reading a clear reference to intersectional feminism, years before it was canonized as a term by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. de Beauvoir actually has several discussions that are surprisingly parallel to modern intersectional theory, specifically in reference to the complex status that racial/ethnic minorities have in society (i.e. black people in the US, Jewish people in Europe).

I was surprised by these references, though I'm not sure why. Crenshaw is certainly the figure in truly establishing intersectionalism as a concept within the feminist movement, and her status as such should not be diminished. Rather, I use this example to point toward my own recurring ignorance of how prevalent certain ideas have been in feminist discourse long before they appeared on the internet in filtered, shallow versions. Furthermore, my own interest in this specific example emphasized that while I've seen Crenshaw - like de Beauvoir - referenced time and time again in online pieces or essay collections, I had never actually read any of her works or writing on the topic. It suddenly occurred to me that I had been reading watered down versions or reworkings of feminist theory, rather than the original.

There are a lot of things in The Second Sex that are outdated (and not just funny things, like references to Queen Elizabeth... singular, since in 1949 there had only been one). It's understandable that certain norms and psychological understandings would have changed over 70 years. The clearest example of de Beauvoir being a product of her time probably comes from her now-conservative interpretations of gender/gender roles and sexuality. Specifically, her writing would place her on the border of the modern definition of "transphobic", with a sort of closed-mindedness to the fluidity of gender identity that most modern feminists of her ilk have forsaken. The adherence to Freudian psychology similarly feels rather old, and certainly some of the studies are no longer relevant or have been disproven since de Beauvoir's time. She also has a bizarre tendency to over-cite male authors writing about women, as though these are more accurate than women's own accounts. These all make some degree of sense when taken as a product of de Beauvoir's time (and if we view her work as truly revolutionary), though it is still worth pointing out. Even as de Beauvoir goes out of her way to emphasize extremely progressive-for-her-times interpretations of gender roles or sexuality, there are still gaps or interpretations that have simply proven to be false. These, if anything, emphasize the ways in which feminist discourse has changed... and the ways in which it hasn't.

Because ultimately The Second Sex remains shockingly relevant to the modern reader. More than that, it often reads like a more critical, in-depth version of a feminist blog. Topic after topic strike me as those which I still see being discussed today, even if the specific references and studies cited have changed (thankfully). Which makes me wonder... why are there so many feminist blogs of this sort, if it's already been written and analyzed? Some parts even left me embarrassed that I've tried to write about the same topics myself, yet it now becomes obvious that I was missing so much necessary context and history.

What strikes me while reading The Second Sex is that many pop-feminists are just as uneducated as I am. The uncomfortable truth is, for all my "feminist stripes", I've actually never engaged with the canon before this. Yes, I've read plenty of the fictional feminist canon (e.g. The Handmaid's Tale, The Bell Jar), and I've even read Bad Feminist (though some of you may recall what my opinion on the book was...), but I've actually read very little of the canon. Most of what I read of feminist literature is actually regurgitated online pop-feminism, and while this has benefits of a sort, I was thoroughly misled to believe that it was ever enough.

What do I mean by this? Take discussions of "intersectionality". Most online posts that discuss the importance of intersectionality (and I include my own blog here!) do so from a vague, hand-wavy perspective. We can all cite Crenshaw as the originator of the idea because just about every blog post has ever referenced her (almost furiously), but we rarely discuss what it actually means. I've seen countless arguments that center around the idea that intersectionality (or, indeed, intersections) can only refer to the intersection between race and another marginalization: namely, that since it was initially used to describe the intersection between race (specifically, being black) and gender (female). This is an odd claim when it is evident that the concept of intersectionality existed long before the phrase became popularized by Crenshaw. Again, this is not to take away from the importance of Crenshaw's writing (especially since her work focused on the black experience specifically, which is still too often ignored!), but it does remind me how easy it is to reference existing work that you (I) have never actually read or studied and moreover to reference it without any of the work that actually went into the original research/theory.

This is far from the only example. In her chapter on motherhood, de Beauvoir dedicates a great deal of time and words to describing the hypocrisy of contemporary abortion policy. It is almost identical to that we might read today, with the only major difference being that abortion is somewhat more freely available today (somewhat). Yet her descriptions of the limitations placed on it and the moralistic arguments against it could just as easily have been posted to The Guardian last week. I've always felt vaguely uncomfortable with the way that many feminist columns or blog posts feel similar to each other; many popular feminist writers will want to place their own stamp on a certain topic and will write about it, even when it has been explored by other writers. This is not inherently wrong (since personal experience can obviously shape interpretation, and more feminist writing means more exposure to feminist thought!), but it leaves me feeling as though many writers are only constantly rehashing existing ideas rather than exploring new concepts. The Second Sex has made me feel that even more strongly, with the sense that when we have these discussions, we're forgetting for how many years feminists have already been writing about these same concepts (and often with far more depth).

I'm not quite done with The Second Sex yet and I still hope to write a review of it more fully. This, after all, is not a review. I'm not even sure it's a fair assessment of modern feminism, rather than disappointment in my own ignorance. To be perfectly honest, I'm suddenly wondering whether I even have the stripes to be able to comment on pop-feminism - is that even a thing? Have I simply misunderstood what most of the feminist writers I've been reading for years have been trying to tell me?

Here's the bottom line: I like how extensive The Second Sex is, but it's not the compiled nature of the book that makes it important. If a feminist were to focus an entire book on a topic that de Beauvoir covers in only one chapter, it would not make it a lesser work simply because it is shorter/covers fewer topics. Rather, it occurs to me that it's the pseudo-academic style that de Beauvoir utilizes that has been missing from most of the works I've read. While I often disagree with the literal sources that de Beauvoir cites (and occasionally thinks she cherry-picks anecdotes without acknowledging contradictory experience), she is still casting a wide net. She references literature, memoirs, and scientific studies. de Beauvoir is not simply reworking existing ideas through the lens of their existing context, she is compiling a comprehensive study of a wide range of topics as though from scratch. (And do I really know whether this was from scratch? Clearly many of these topics had already been widely discussed...)

It took me a long time to read The Second Sex in large part because I mistakenly assumed that I didn't need to read it. There are few topics that de Beauvoir has covered so far with which I have not already been familiar. Most of the ideas that she cites that I didn't know are ones that are clearly outdated. But that just isn't what makes the book important. At the end of the day, this is a bit like the sciences: I might read a review of a topic in order to generally learn about it and the most recent updates in the field, but if I really care about it, I'm going to have to read the source papers that the review cites.

It's time for me to read the sources.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi | Review

I find myself, once again, at odds with the broader literary community.

It's exhausting, isn't it? You must be saying to yourself: "Why do I even bother to read this book blog, when all the writer ever does is muse about her inability to agree with most readers about whether or not a book is good? (When she even bothers to write at all!) Isn't it obvious that she's just not a very good reader?" And, dear reader of this blog, I wouldn't blame you for a moment if you packed your bags and left these dusty halls forever. Believe me, I'm just as exasperated as you are.

The case of Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone feels a little bit more complicated than most of my recent literary disagreements. To begin with, I did generally enjoy the book! I thought there were a lot of things it did fairly brilliantly, and I enjoyed many aspects of its mythology a great deal. But as I read it, I was repeatedly struck by a rather curious sensation that I was not reading something particularly... original.

If you're rolling your eyes now and declaring me to be an absolute fool, it's okay. I understand. After all, Adeyemi's young adult novel has been touted for its originality in rooting a fantasy story in West African mythology! And I don't deny that for a moment. The ways in which Adeyemi sidestepped the more common (and yes, at this point boring) Western European fantasy tropes was quite refreshing. It speaks to a boldness of storytelling. Yet it wasn't quite enough for me.

One of my favorite book blogs, The Book Smugglers, write in their Goodreads review that Children of Blood and Bone is "a superb, exciting, astonishing mix of Avatar: the Last Airbender and Black Panther". It's the sort of endorsement that should really set my blood pulsing. I have my issues with "Black Panther" as a film overall, but I loved the worldbuilding and the degree to which it played with different mythologies at its root. And I adore the show "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (ATLA).

Perhaps if I had read this review before reading Children of Blood and Bone, it would have more positively shaped my impression. Ultimately, I agree with half of the Book Smugglers' assessment: Children of Blood and Bone most definitely could feel like the lovechild of ATLA and "Black Panther", and it is precisely this that made me rate the novel that much lower.


It occurred relatively early in the book. As the narrative settled down and three POV were introduced, I was struck by several seemingly superficial similarities between Children of Blood and Bone and ATLA. We have a brother and sister from a persecuted class, in which the sister has a previously untouched form of magic and the brother is magic-less. We have a princess with a powerful artifact joining the siblings (quickly becoming a love interest for the brother). And we have her brother, the prince, hell-bent on chasing these three fugitives across a wide swathe of land in order to capture them, though his motivations may actually be more pure than previously believed... or maybe not. Oh, and the trio have to achieve their highly specific goal to restore balance... er, I mean magic... on the date of a celestial eclipse. Which is in less than a month!


With the exception of the princess, does this sound a bit familiar?


Like the Book Smugglers, my first thought was instantly of ATLA. The similarities to the story felt so pronounced that I could quickly guess how the story was panning out. In fact, it even ruined certain plot points for me because I could so easily figure out what they were supposed to be. For an "original" story, Children of Blood and Bone simply felt like a West African inspired version of ATLA, though perhaps a little bit more grown-up. Unfortunately, comparisons to ATLA will rarely end well for the piece of art in question - ATLA is one of the rare shows that works on a stunning range of levels. Few stories have quite reached its caliber, fewer still that attempted to mimic it too strongly.


Children of Blood and Bone does a lot of good things in its pages. Its exploration of racist power structures is obviously important, and there is no doubt that there's a lot to enjoy in the way Adeyemi crafts her world. I was also particularly impressed by her decision to include a meta-question about whether or not magic is inherently good and should be brought back. In the second half of the book, characters are confronted with both the importance and danger of magic. The lingering question remains, with little in the way of an easy answer or neat solution. In fact, the cliffhanger ending almost seems to emphasize the question. And when magic is so clearly linked to ethnicity and cultural expression, doesn't its suppression inherently mean the oppression of those who have it? These are interesting questions that fantasy too rarely explores, particularly when magic is a weak stand-in for real-world prejudices.


In other aspects, unfortunately, Children of Blood and Bone just falls apart. First and foremost, as I already mentioned, the story didn't feel original to me. The overwhelming similarities to ATLA (just swap the roles of a couple characters and you're good!) had me rolling my eyes, rather than delighting in the story as an homage. It's possible that this is simply my own, unfair jaded reading, but I couldn't shake off the feeling the entire time I was reading and I grew tired of constantly comparing certain creative choices with those that so neatly aligned with those from ATLA. It also left me cold whenever the book did diverge, because it felt like too little too late. At the end of the day, it felt too familiar, and not in a way that gave me warm, nostalgic vibes. (Maybe if I had seen ATLA as a child and not as an adult just a few years ago...?) 


It's not just that, though. The book also does a fairly bad job as distinguishing the voices of its three POV characters. Our magical Avatar stand-in (or rather, Aang-Katara mix), ZĂ©lie, doesn't sound all that different from her fierce enemy-later-love-interest (Zutara wish-fulfillment...?) Inan, nor from his sister Amari. I often forgot whose chapter I was reading until a reference to one of the other characters clarified it for me, and that is not the way POVs should work. The characters had such distinct character traits, yet they ended up feeling so similar on the page.


And there's also the writing.

Or rather. The melodrama of the story.

The way every line of moderate importance gets its own punchy paragraph.

But then these are quickly followed by more punchy paragraphs.

The chapters are short and dominated by writing of this style. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with punchy chapter-ends as a concept. I actually kind of love them as a way to build drama. I rather write that way myself, with all my sentences that begin with "but"! But... the insistence on having so many dramatic pauses and paragraph breaks left me tired. It felt like I was reading a book that simply hadn't been edited properly. Rather than feeling focused and tight, every chapter felt like it lost some sort of thread as it tried to sound more and more dramatic.

If it sounds as though I'm being unduly harsh on Children of Blood and Bone, I... don't really mean to be. It's not a bad book! But it's also not as great a book as I was hoping. Even setting aside ostensibly personal things like the ATLA comparison (which is clearly very subjective, since different fans had different reactions to the degree of similarities), I was deeply bothered by the way the romances were written. I thought the pacing was rushed (largely due to the compressed time-scale the book had to work with). I struggled with the writing in many parts. But I also liked a lot, which left me feeling almost more disappointed. I was looking forward to this book more than almost any other recent YA, yet even something so universally acclaimed let me down somehow. Children of Blood and Bone may simply emerge as another example of hype not bearing out, but considering the praise, it's hard not to wonder at this point what is wrong with me specifically.