Asking For It – Louise O’Neill

[spoilers and tw: rape, victim blaming]

Everyone needs to read this book.

For anyone who doesn’t know or understand rape culture or victim blaming, or doesn’t believe it exists: read this book.

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Not only is the book based on O’Neill’s research of true events, but the identifiable nature of high school cliques, popularity contests, laddish boys egging each other on and bitchy girls all wrapped up in a world of social media interactions makes this book all too realistic.

Emma is a popular girl, everyone wants to be her friend, she knows she’s hot and boys want to date her. But after a night out she doesn’t remember, she finds pictures of herself all over Facebook on a page called ‘Easy Emma’. In the pictures she is being abused and raped by four different guys.

Instead of being supported and defended by her friends and family, her dad is so disgraced he can’t look at her. Her mother is terrified of the way it will damage her ‘perfect family’ image. Emma’s friends refuse to talk to her, they blame her and call her a slut, despite the fact she is clearly unconscious in the photos.

In fact, victim blaming is so normalised that Emma actually tries to contact her rapists to apologise.

Because that’s what rape culture is. It’s the culture where any excuse is looked for to place the blame on the victim: the alcohol consumed, the way they’re dressed, the type of person they are.

It’s the culture that doubts the truth of a girl’s story in order to protect the perpetrators.

It’s the culture that mourns the impact of rape accusations on the male because “they had such a bright future ahead of them and she’s ruined it”, rather than the impact the actual rape has on the victim.

People are quicker to believe and assume a woman is lying when she says she has been raped.

All of a sudden, the fundamental justice of “innocent until proven guilty” applies to the perpetrator,  but not to the woman. She is “guilty until proven innocent”. Guilty of “asking for it” or of false accusations, until evidence can prove her veracity.

Rape culture accepts men at their word when they say they didn’t do it. A woman’s word that she was raped is not accepted until proven.

I won’t spoil the ending of Asking For It, but it is heartbreaking in its inevitability.

Victim blaming and rape culture won’t stop existing until everyone acknowledges that they exist in the first place. This book will help people to see and understand that.

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Commuter reads: Only Ever Yours – Louise O’Neill

[As always, possible spoilers]

I had heard so many good things about this book and I can honestly say I was not disappointed. It may have been marketed as a primarily YA novel but I definitely think everyone needs to read and understand this.

Only Ever Yours is an extreme reality of gender roles and the consequences of enforced gender identity and female competition. This book is an exaggerated version of patriarchy at its worst. I was repeatedly shocked at the passive compliance to an inherently misogynistic way of life, and even more so when I realised the entire novel is a concentration of patriarchal voices that unfortunately are still present today.

freida and the rest of the eves live in a school for girls, not at academic school, but a school to teach them how they will conduct their lives in the service of men. The three categories they become reduce women to the sex which serves men. Companions will have husbands and produce as many offspring as possible, but only sons are born as female bodies have been genetically designed so their bodies are taught that a female baby is a parasite. Concubines serve men purely for their pleasure. Chastities are pure and teach future eves how to be perfect for their future roles in serving men.

The thing I love in this book is the detail. Immediately I noticed no female name is capitalised; women are the inferior sex. There are mirrors everywhere; body image is everything, there is a special sickness room which essentially provides the facilities to encourage bulimia after a meal. Hormones are medicated, periods are prevented, outfits are preselected. This is a world based on aesthetics and looks. The girls are rated every morning after they dress by the unknown men watching them from the outside world (hello creepy). These men will select their wives after the 16 years of ‘eve training’. The number one eve holds the most power and the rating system fosters rivalry and the worst kind of bitchy competition between the girls.

This again is another clever exaggeration of our own reality. The rating system is exactly like the ‘lad culture’ that perpetuates giving women a rating out of 10 solely based on their appearance. While it may not seem as extreme to us, women are constantly rated and judged for there outfits and looks in magazines, social media and newspapers. The inescapable idea of the ‘ideal woman’ does leave women feeling so unhappy with themselves that they develop eating disorders or feel the need to compete to be the prettiest, slimmest, best dressed etc

Phrases drilled into the girls minds: “There is always room for improvement” and “Always be willing” are horrifyingly uncomfortable sentences that overtly reveal the aspects of our society that tell women they can be prettier, or the rape culture which normalises victim blaming and the acceptance of male violence and abuse.

The difference between this book and our own world is that patriarchy is more covert for us. Gender stereotypes are in the process of being broken down but they are not non-existent. Louise O’Neill simply, and brilliantly, lays out bare the faults and disgraces of sexism and misogyny at its worst.

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My View: What makes a great heroine?

A while ago through my research around my studies, I came across this article on The Guardian whilst doing some essay research for my Austen and Brontes module. It reviews Samantha Ellis’s biblio-autobiographical How to Be A Heroine:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/08/how-be-heroine-samatha-ellis-review

I found the article very provoking in terms of the ideals that heroines present to their readers in novels. The classic for me is Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. I have always maintained I would have loved to have lived in the romantic Recency era of courtship and gentlemenly pursuits,where morals and behaviour were paramount to a persons’ reputation. Then I received the sudden jolt that comes with being absolutely deceived in any previous misconceptions I had about love. I always knew that gentlemanly chivalry was severely lacking in the 21st-century and I thought I’d re-discovered it when I immersed myself in reading Pride and Prejudice year after year. However, like the classic deceit of the Disney princesses who make young girls believe the first man they meet will be their ‘Prince Charming’, the more I read Elizabeth Bennet’s story, the more I felt like she was letting me down.

Ellis describes a similar moment of anagnorisis when her friend suggests Jane Eyre is a more suitable role model and heroine than Cathy Earnshaw. Although the discovery devastated Ellis’s illusions of true love in Wuthering Heights, I can’t help but feel that Jane Eyre simply plops herself into the same ‘disappointing-heroine’ boat as Elizabeth.

I read Wuthuring Heights at the height of my cynicism about love and relationships and I can only describe myself as incredibly satisfied that what had been described to me as “the greatest love story”, was actually a realistic depiction of the lies and betrayal that occur in a relationship. In my bitter misanthropy I felt pleased that Cathy and Heathcliff never had their chance at real true love together, that both the characters either through marriage or death experienced the loss of each other and the full impact of their mistakes.

On the other hand, we have my complete disillusionment with Elizabeth Bennet, when, after her strong-minded independence and rejection of two marriage proposals despite them being in her best interest, she then proceeds to turn her morals on their heads and live happily ever after. Her complete subversion of everything a 19th-century woman should be is what makes her such an appealing and identifiable character, paving the way for early feminism and the ‘new woman’ ideals.

Then she marries him.
As does Jane Eyre to Mr. Rochester.

Why is it necessary to remove all the values of a heroine which made them so initially lovable to the reader?

As Ellis relates in her book, she hated Dickens for killing Nancy in Oliver Twist. Why? Because she was the female character embodying independence and wit, which made her so lovable to the reader and audiences. So why kill her? Because she didn’t fit that Victorian gender norm? Because her unconventional character would disrupt the ‘natural’ progression and ending of the story.

The reinstatement of conventional behaviour in both Elizabeth and Jane are simply plot devices allowing Austen and Bronte to reconcile their novels to the 19th-century readership. Ultimately, readers could take from characters what they wished. I could chose to take the stories of the Disney princesses as true and realistic. But they aren’t. I can choose to take the character of Elizabeth Bennet pre-marriage OR post-marriage as my role model. But the fact is that the two sides of her character cannot be reconciled in our time. A time when a female becoming their husband’s ‘possession’ is quite frankly a ridiculous idea.

Time and era is essentially what it comes down to then. I choose to take the pre-marriage Elizabeth Bennet as my role model, whilst the Regency era would have chosen the post-marriage Elizabeth as theirs, as an image of prevailing hope for any girl who can’t find a suitable match.

And that is why I think Cathy Earnshaw is a better heroine. Not because of what she does; she still gets married and has children as is expected of her. I think she is a better depiction of a heroine because she doesn’t gain the fulfillment that the reader expects her to ultimately – she never gets to marry Heathcliff and her death renders any chance of that impossible. Subversion of readers’ expectations is what I think ultimately makes a great heroine.

But maybe that’s just my cynicism. What does everyone else think?

Something a bit more serious.

So I’ve been  trying out loads of new stuff this year and one of the things I’ve done is join the Feminist Society at my university and I went to the first meeting on Thursday. My knowledge of feminism has always come from gender politics in relation to literature and I always thought I had a fairly strong stance on feminism but it turns out that there is so much more that I hadn’t even considered and possibly I don’t know my stance on feminism as well as I thought I did.
 
Before anyone thinks I’m an irate bra-burning feminist and leaves, then you don’t actually know what a feminist is.
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So now that’s sorted. Feminists aren’t a raging group of women screaming about hating men. Feminists are talking about the physical, mental and emotional abuse and violence propagated against all of womankind which is often unheard or ignored or sickeningly in the case of rape, dismissed as “what was she wearing? she must have brought it on herself.” No woman ever asks to be raped and that idea right there is the sort of mindset that feminists fight against. Changing the stereotypes of females and what is acceptable for a male to do to them. we don’t live in the 18th century anymore, women are not property to be passed from the hands of their father to their husband at the point of marriage, to become a house wife and a reproductive machine. Women have choices now but that doesn’t mean everyone is accepting or allowing of those choices.
I recently read an article on the feminist society’s blog about marriage in contemporary society and its a view point I’d never even considered:
 
True gender equality is actually perceived as inequality. A group that is made up of 50% women is perceived as being mostly women. A situation that is perfectly equal between men and women is perceived as being biased in favor of women.
And if you don’t believe me, you’ve never been a married woman who kept her family name. I have had students hold that up as proof of my “sexism.”
My own brother told me that he could never marry a woman who kept her name because “everyone would know who ruled that relationship.” Perfect equality – my husband keeps his name and I keep mine – is held as a statement of superiority on my part.
 
Its strange the way you look at something which you think is completely normal, that’s how normalized inequality is. Also something else interesting for you to consider in terms of how a woman is perceived and what photoshop can do to meet those expectations:
 
Makes me feel sick easily deceived people can be and how unrealistic images become the normal expectation of society and put pressure on women to be something unobtainable, consequently making them inferior to something impossible that the opposite sex idealizes.