SARAH: Both of us took some serious umbrage with Emily Keeler’s review of Kate Zambreno’s most recent book Heroines in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and our frustrations with that piece tie rather nicely together with a lot of other conversations we’ve been having lately about public performances of femininity (and the Perils Thereof). I’m not even sure where to start unpacking the review, but I think one point of entry is the idea—which is certainly not limited to a single reviewer—that women’s attention to, and interest in, fashion and presentation is inherently problematic, shallow, and invalidating of our intellectual capacities. That “a glittery silver toenail polish from OPI’s Swiss collection” has no value as a signifier (as opposed to, I guess, a byline in the LARB). (To be clear: I haven’t yet read Heroines, though I’m a fan of Zambreno’s earlier novel Green Girl and her blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister.)
MEG: Clearly there’s about five hundred directions in which we could take this, and I’m not sure where to start either.
As for your not having read the book yet, it seems that Keeler’s criticism is about a lot of ideas beyond the text. I think this was part of our “WTF, LARB” response. It was partially a defense of Kate, whom I know we both think is brilliant and like As A Person too, but also a reaction to what we both find to be a familiar and tired critique of the ladies at large. Emily Keeler is talking a lot about women and fashion and hysteria, more so than about Kate’s book. I find it interesting that she liked Green Girl (which is rife with such “shallow” obsessions like clothes, makeup, sex, etc) but disliked Heroines for these same motifs? I have a lot to say but am still trying to get to the root of what upset me so much.
Keeler writes: “What does it mean to reject the psychopathology offered by Zambreno—as a reader, as a writer, as a woman? To disinvest myself of disorder in my response to this text? To reject hysteria and mania, to refuse the glamor of the broken woman writer?”
Which is not something I entirely disagree with. It would certainly be nice—or at least more productive—to disinvest myself of disorder, to “fix” everything, per se. I don’t think being a broken woman is particularly glamorous; I would like for eating disorders to not exist and I would like if we weren’t fascinated by coked-out tragic starlets in the tabloids. It would be real nice if nothing about being a lady related to the aforementioned psychopathologies. But this simply isn’t how it is, and to ignore (and scorn) the messy neurasthenic (and her wardrobe and makeup) doesn’t make any of us better. We don’t need to refuse or reject the hysteria — but not-refusing isn’t necessarily praise, either. It just is, and it’s worth thinking about.
Keeler also reacts against the rigid gender binaries set up in Heroines (“HIM” and “HER”) which is of course something I’m also down with. But I don’t read anything Kate’s ever written, or any l’écriture féminine for that matter, as an endorsement of those binaries as much as an indictment of that system, a testimonial to how shitty and confusing it can be living in a world that’s set up like that.
SARAH: Exactly, I think that’s the frustration—I’m sure there are valid critical points of contention that a reviewer could have with this book specifically, but “I don’t think women should talk about shopping” isn’t one of them. And it’s so frustrating to still be having this conversation, which we have been having for decades now, that boils down to, you know: WEAR LIPSTICK. DON’T WEAR LIPSTICK. IT’S FINE. NOBODY IS MAKING YOU WEAR OR NOT WEAR LIPSTICK. And, shockingly, I can wear lipstick without it disabling any of my considerable critical faculties.
I do think there are places where frustration with those narratives of feminized pathology—like anorexia and bulimia and the coked-up starlet/Marnell—is productive. It is certainly a messiness that’s more allowed of conventionally attractive, white women—though I don’t think those women fare all that well either, when you look at the larger culture’s reaction to their narratives. And sometimes I think that messiness is presented as the only way to perform femininity, or there’s an assumption that all “female” experiences have to involve self-abnegation and hysteria.
But at the same time, criticizing writing by women as being too feminine is just deeply, deeply problematic. And it totally erases as well the radical potential of the feminine—I’m thinking about the ways in which women (trans/queer/of color) who have historically not been allowed to perform what we read as the feminine (or have been, and are still, physically assaulted and killed for performing what we read as the feminine) have reclaimed those performances in really radical ways. And even for someone like me, who’s privileged in many, many ways, subverting that feminine, appropriating it to my own ends, engaging with it—it’s not at all, for me, participating in a rigid gender binary. And it’s not for anyone I know who presents as femme in any way. That’s a pretty heteronormative assumption, that the only way to present as feminine involves complicity with gender binaries.
MEG: Totally. And even WITHOUT taking into account those infinite radical possibilities (that queers communicate widely through fashion is thing I could go on about for hours) —even when we’re talking about boring ole pretty straight white cisladies with money—I find it very difficult to write off clothing, style, fashion, femininity, whatever.
My blog (well, used-to be blog, now it’s more of a messy tumblr scrapbook) is named Good Morning Midnight after the Jean Rhys book (which I know was also influential and inspirational to Kate Z.). GMM was basically life-changing for me the first time I read it, sophomore year of college in a required-for-major modernism class. It was the first thing I’d read that made the all-too-familiar feminine mundane something utterly compelling, heartbreaking, even terrifying. A gateway into countless other writers and ideas that said: no, this is interesting and fucked up, and we don’t have to not talk about it because it’s silly play stuff for girls.
There’s one scene in GMM which still gives me chills and which explains all of this to me. Our protagonist Sasha is wandering Paris, depressed and drunk, trying to re-invent and fix her broken life, dying her hair, buying dresses, crying in restrooms. She spends two hours in one shop searching for The Perfect Hat That Will Fix All The Things, and the shopgirl says, over and over, “All the hats nowadays are very difficult to wear.” (Here’s the whole passage.)
And we understand, immediately, the depth of meaning behind that one comment, “All the hats nowadays are very difficult to wear.” Hats as a common metaphor for roles and lives, of course, but also as a testament to the difficulties of femininity, the impossibility of ever “getting it right,” especially “nowadays.” (Note that Sasha is pleased with the hat not because it draws positive attention, but because nobody stares. She looks like the right kind of woman, she passes as “normal,” if only for a moment.) Sasha’s paralysis and depression and plight and lack of independence and indecision are all so perfectly encapsulated by this one heartbreaking scene — this trivial experience of buying a hat. This stupid thing that is shopping.
Recording the experience of buying a hat—or of what one’s wearing in a museum, or of what symbolic meaning (or just aesthetic appeal) one finds in nail polish—can be far more than little girls yammering about clothes. Even on a casual level (we needn’t always be critically engaged) sartorial language is something we all use to communicate. And hell, what makes talking about clothes necessarily more shallow than food, or the weather, or the fickle G train? I’m pretty sure you and I became friends because you linked to an outfit post I made of a sweatshirt with a sharpied-on Chanel logo (which somehow lead into email chains about Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick) and I don’t feel bad or depressed that our friendship came out of that.
SARAH: I don’t feel bad about it either; I feel just fine. And our friendship could have come out of any number of other points of commonality, and I have plenty of friends who have no interest in clothes whatsoever. It’s not a zero-sum game. Keeler’s accusation that Zambreno “glamorizes” the “broken woman writer” also seems unfair. There’s nothing glamorous about Green Girl. There’s nothing glamorous about being destitute and fucked-up and knowing the only commodity you have to trade on is your physical appearance, which Jean Rhys writes about incredibly, and there is certainly nothing glamorous about her heroines.
Keeler’s invocation of Madame Bovary is this weirdly apt unintentional meta-ness—I mean, Emma Bovary is a fictive flibbertigibbet constructed by a man who was fundamentally misogynist; you want to talk about the actual process of who is doing the marginalizing, of who is appropriating and sidelining women and women’s desires and women’s work, that’s a pretty neat metaphor right there. I love Madame Bovary, it is a book that never fails to delight me, but Flaubert’s critiquing femininity because he doesn’t like women, not because he has anything astute to say about them. (To be fair, Flaubert doesn’t like anybody.) What he’s simultaneously skewering and admitting to is Emma’s romanticism, which doesn’t seem to me to apply in any way to women who were writing about their own experiences of madness, poverty, survival. Subverting glamor, c’est pas toi, no bigs. But dismissing it altogether seems lazy at best.
Ultimately, my frustration with the review is that it comes off as that tired old move of pointing out how dopey all those dopey girls and their dopey clothes are, when the real intellectual work is being done over with the boys and their important thoughts about important things. “I’m not crazy, I’m not like that, I am not her kind.” I don’t think Emily Keeler, or any single reviewer, or even the LARB, is the problem; the culture is the problem. But I do wish we could move past these kinds of conversations.
MEG: I also want to note that Keeler’s criticism is something I’m not immune to or even not guilty of myself. I still catch myself turning up my nose at girls for doing girl shit: giggling too much or having emotional breakdowns in public or making diaries of their outfits, even though I do those things too. So there’s this internalized fear, too. We’re told that if you’re not that kind of girl you must be smarter, better, stronger, etc.—and it’s hard to break away from that. It’s hard to value those trivialities of performed/required femininity because 1.) we’re told we must do them to be of value to the world and 2.) we’re told that they’re not valuable, and that we’d be more valuable without them. And that’s a hard thing to recognize.
And that’s what I try to disinvest myself of, I think. Not of the disorder, but of the shame or fear of disorder and shallowness. I want to support other women so I can support myself. I want to validate their experiences and writing, the incredible spectrum of talent and lives which that can include. I have to police myself to not be critical of women for being women—myself included. Which is part of what I like so much about Kate Z’s (and a lot of other women’s) writing: I find it validating to embrace that, to examine (or enjoy or loathe) the minutiae of the lives of girls, all kinds of girls, regardless of race, class, gender, etc. I find it the opposite of depressing, and the opposite of shallow. I guess that’s the sentiment I was reacting against so strongly.
There’s that Virginia Woolf quote that I tweeted and that I also use everywhere as my “about me:”
And it amazes me that Woolf and Rhys—these modernists who show up in Heroines—were writing about these same things, and that we still haven’t been able to understand or conquer this internalized fear of ourselves.
SARAH: Amen to that.