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.
Lately I’ve been really into weird concepts of something like failed, desperate, self-conscious deliberate performative femininity? Part of this is evidenced by the fact that I’ve been doing my hair in big curls with my kinda-crappy-blonde-dye-job and wearing a ridiculous faux-leopard coat with ripped tights and messy eyeliner, and part of it comes together more in at least 47 different e-mail conversations about books and movies with “unrepentantly fucked up” lady characters that I’ve been having with at least 5 different people of late. Some of these ideas have been written very eloquently by other folks already, and some of it is obvious and some of it is still vague, and all of it is definitely not “complete,” so, like, go at it in the comments, y’all, I wanna know what you’re thinking.
It begins, I think, with my ongoing frustration that when we are presented with male characters (or personas, or even real persons) who are basically bad people with one redeeming quality (still sleeps with a teddy bear, is a brilliant filmmaker) we let that one redeeming quality, you know, redeem them, and are collectively charmed by their fucked-up-ness. But I have a really hard time coming up with similar female examples: all of the ones I can think of we have opted to either lambast or concern-troll instead. And we always need to redeem them. They always need to learn something or be rescued, which we all know is basically the opposite of how the world really works. Kids, I am a hot mess, and almost all of the women I admire and love and am fascinated by are also hot fucking messes, and I so rarely see that represented in a real, nuanced, and fascinating way. To simplify: I am eternally tearing my hair out over the fact that I desperately want more female antiheroes. In books, film, pop culture personas, whatever. And I’ve been seeing this idea come up again and again lately.
As a brief list of some of what I’m referencing: There’s this Lana Del Rey album review, which is kind of the most astute thing I’ve read on her yet, and which hit the nail on the head of my bizarre, obsessive preoccupation with her and her aesthetic — though it condemned her where I obviously am fascinated instead. There was that Marie Calloway brouhaha, and the fantastic response to it all from Kate Zambreno, which also lead to The Rejectionist’s interview with her here. There were a bunch of folks over at Emily Books who managed to somehow misread a lot of lesbian moralism into Eileen Myles’ Inferno, when I thought it was just a book about, like, someone very funny and intelligent and unapologetic, who also lived a life that reminds me an awful lot of my life now. There was Charlize Theron in Young Adult, who would have been way fascinating if not for Diablo Cody’s frustrating insistence on de-nuancing her characters in favor of twee trope-tastic banter. There’s Cat Marnell at XOJane and the no-nonsense-it’s-okay-to-be-human writing at Rookie. Sarah’s and my Rayanne Project (which sort of fizzled out probably partially because I am a little bit too much of a whacked-out womanchild to coordinate and motivate folks to write me things like that, but the stuff that’s up there is still amazeballs!) The Amy-Winehouse-inspired couture collection that Gaultier showed yesterday. Courtney Love, like, in general.
I am really into this, you guys.
I have to admit I’m a little baffled by my own love of Nina Ricci — the name usually calls up words like “pastel,” “girly,” “frilly,” and “pink florals,” all of which, uh, are not words which I usually call to mind. Maybe even comparisons to Betsey Johnson, if she got old and slow and toned it down a few fucking notches from walking-gruesome-birthday-cake (PLEASE) and lived inside some discarded folder on the hard drive of whoever does the graphic design for Anthropologie, or maybe just in an old abandoned manor on the moors full of weird old four-postered-beds and music boxes with ballerinas, Secret-Garden-style or something, I don’t know. You get the point: this is not the kind of stuff that you see and think, hot damn, that is just so Meg Clark it kills me.
Even since Peter Copping’s even-girlier takeover from Olivier Theyskens’ Victoriana-woodland-gothic vision of the line, I still love it. The somewhat-anachronistic vintage touches from mixed eras — Victorian high-neck ruffled lace blouses, 20s-drop-waist silk minidresses, 30s-tailored long dresses, Edwardian button details, half-size lace, fingerless silk, or elbow-length velvet gloves, and cropped rockabilly leather jackets paired with classic t-strap maryjanes, witchy lace-up boots, ankle-strap pumps… I’m obsessed.
The pastels always seem ghostly and washed out rather than lurid and unnecessarily feminine; the ruffles always seem a little bit dishevelled, rather than tacked on as extra frippery; the hourglass-shaped slim-skirted thick-belted suits in muted wool and tweed always seem more “waiting for some gypsy train somewhere in Europe in the late 19th century or maybe some other world” rather than “frumpy politician,” and the over-the-top ribbons-and-feathers-girliness of it all seems tempered with something almost sinister. I’m sure someone else shares my lifelong obsession with Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (kids, I’m not kidding, I took a yearlong seminar on it and Paradise Lost in college) — Mrs Coulter, in my mind, is always head-to-toe Nina Ricci. (And is definitely not played by Nicole Kidman.)
So it’s no surprise that I was delighted to find these images of vintage Nina Ricci patterns — while mostly it’s just part of my fascination with vintage fashion media, it’s fun to note how some of the silhouettes have been preserved even today.
More after the jump!
Q: Why did you choose “Good Morning Midnight” as a blog title?
A: The hat scene.
• symbolism of clothing: “trying on hats” as a metaphor; Sasha’s social, emotional, economic, etc liminality/alterity as linked to her discomfort with all available options; this in turn as a modernist metaphor for our prepackaged options for life paths and social roles in an industrial world, particularly for women (“all the hats now are very difficult”)
• at the same time, rhys’ critique of male-dominated modernism; literature of alienation (rather than of inclusion, as in, say, e.m. forster)
• clothing and shopping as distinctly coded feminine and socially what this mandates for women; the shop as a “woman’s space” and Sasha’s interactions there - camaraderie, competition, sisterhood, possible sexual tensions, etc. Shopgirl as both manipulative and benevolent.
• the transformative power (or more accurately the usual lack thereof?) of fashion: Sasha will be what she wears. This as a common theme for women in both literature and film (the “makeover” story, My Fair Lady, Cinderella, etc) - what happens when this does not work out as we planned? what happens when the options are to get it right or to get it wrong? what happens when we are confronted with the uselessness of that narrative
• the strong link between clothing and memory: Sasha’s images of Paris as black overcoats, bowler hats, skirts, gloves, etc, identifying + remembering people by their clothes, etc. Consumerism both as an attempt to escape from memory but to create new ones; spending and body politics.
• 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
• so much commentary on modernity + paralysis + feminine performativity [sasha as opposite of flaneur, not an option for the woman, always the object of the sentence, existing to be looked at not to look, the pressures related to that] + capitalism —> this trivial experience of buying a hat. this stupid thing that is shopping, and how much that can say
• importance of clothing and color (the white or the blue dressing-gown?) in ending scene of the novel
• metaphors of thread and fabric as ways to trace motifs through the text
“And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Just because my undying and near-pathological love for my girl Virginia has not come up lately, and because I thought it was brilliant and was so flattered that sylviawrath posted this and linked back to my blog! (Here is a fun parenthetical tangentially related side story: one time in college I got in trouble for snapping at some imbecile who referred to A Room of One’s Own as a “dreadful tome” and got politely asked by the professor to leave and collect myself for a moment before returning to class, I am totally serious and yes I think I am bragging about this, please forgive me.)
In addition to the above lovely little quote we also must of course not forget my OTHER undying and near-pathological love for Jeanette Winterson, who COINCIDENTIALLY has written some very smart things about my girl Virginia, about her books, and about what other people say about her books, such as:
Woolf’s fiction has been overwhelmed by facts. Her diaries have given licence to a kind of perpetual commentary on every aspect of her being, who she knew, what she wore, how many times a week she washed her hair (I am not making this up), if a different Oxford Street would have meant a different Mrs Dalloway, whether or not she had sex with Vita Sackville West. Did she have sex with Leonard? Was she abused? And so on until a play on the facts warps into a documentary of factoids. Under the stress of this tabloid-style scholarship, her books disappear….
…Art into autobiography is bad enough but Critical Theory is worse. If you are very smart, like Ellmann or Julia Kristeva, you can summon up a hypertext that floats over the original like an astral body - connected, clear, unobscuring. If you are not smart - and Theory seems to attract the mentally challenged - then all we hear is a kind of intestinal groaning, length after length of tortured sentences coiled round a fugitive idea.
No one can read this rubbish except perhaps other academics squatting over the same pail. They sign to each other but they make no sense to us. If this was rocket science it might be excusable but the special knowledge needed for art is of the communicable kind. Art is communication.
I felt that while Virginia Woolf’s work needs nothing added, it does need some weight taken away. She has been hi-jacked by so many self-interest groups - feminists, theorists, modernists, historicists etc., that it is difficult to come to the work in its own right, on its own terms.
And now that that’s over, OH MY GOD YOU GUYS HOW GREAT HAS PFW BEEN SO FAR I HAVE BEEN PRACTICALLY IN TEARS OVER HOW GOOD EVERYTHING HAS BEEN OH MY GOD BALMAIN YOHJI RICK GARETH CMG JUNYA GAULTIER NINA RICCI HAIDER TAO GIVENCHY EVERYTHING DYING
While quite a few of them are cringe-worthy (there’s about two dozen “to thine own self be true“‘s in miscellaneous old-english font, a number of mis-spelled cliches, and more Kurt Vonnegut than even my sixteen-year-old superfan former self would have been able to handle) the collection of literary-themed tattoos at contrariwise.org is pretty durn rad. Look! Harriet the Spy!