Women We Read This Week

Rachele Kanigel’s “The Shadow Sex” in San Francisco magazine

On November 4 of last year, Fleischman, who identifies as agender—neither male nor female—was set on fire while sleeping on an AC Transit bus on the way home from school. A surveillance camera captured video of another teen igniting Fleischman’s skirt with a lighter, and the following day police arrested Richard Thomas, a 16-year-old Oakland High School junior, in connection with the crime. Thomas, allegedly provoked by the sight of someone who looked like a boy wearing a flouncy white skirt, has been charged as an adult with two felony counts and a hate crime enhancement; the case is expected to wend its way through the Alameda County criminal justice system over the next few months.

Rachele Kanigel offers up an intriguing profile (with lovely photos by Chloe Aftel) of both Fleischman and the growing visibility and acceptance of the agender movement in America – from the linguistics of being agender to how the identity fits under a larger LGBTQ umbrella. As a country we’ve collectively gotten better in recent years about letting people tick the gender box that feels right to them regardless of sex, but what about getting rid of the boxes altogether and letting people fill in the blanks themselves? That, Fleischman and others in the piece argue, is the next hurdle – and it’s a doozy.

–Rachel Friedman

Wendy Brenner’s “Love and Death in the Cape Fear Serpentarium” in Oxford American

My husband and I are in the dorky habit of reading stories aloud to each other from my Kindle during the regular drives we make around the Ohio countryside, and I can judge the quality of a story by the number of times Jorge stops me and says, “Wait, what?!” I have to repeat, and then we mull over the point together for a moment. This happened at several places in Wendy Brenner’s “Love and Death in the Cape Fear Serpentarium” – for example, here:

The bite of the Central American fer-de-lance feels like having your hand slammed in a car door and then seared with a blow torch. As the placard helpfully elaborates, “THE BITTEN EXTREMITY SWELLS TO MASSIVE PROPORTIONS, THE SKIN BURSTS OPEN, AND YOUR EYES WEEP BLOOD.” The fifteen-foot king cobra, the longest venomous snake in the world, can kill an elephant with a single bite, and is known to rear up six feet in the air, hood flared, and look a man in the eye while growling like a dog.

And here:

He has eleven times endured the bites of potentially lethal snakes, including the cottonmouth that bit him when he was fourteen. “[S]ome Greek said that men give themselves more trouble than is ordained by the Gods,” Burroughs wrote to Dean in 1989. “A parish priest would tell you that your trouble is scruples. Like you make things more complicated than they need to be and more categorical…. So take things philosophic and remember you have reached a point where antivenom is almost more dangerous than snake bite.” Dean claims Burroughs meant this last comment literally, since antivenom really can be as deadly as the snakebite itself. Still, it strikes me as beautiful, Zen-like advice.

Brenner’s essay starts as the story of colorful quirkiness, introducing snake collector Dean Ripa and his Wilmington Serpentarium, but then slowly coils around themes of art, work, rebellion, and obsession. It’s also, refreshingly, funny – I read a lot of essays, online and in print, and more and more I find myself craving humor, any humor, in a form that lends itself to so much over-seriousness and “literary” gravity.

Brenner writes,

Snakes do not seem especially popular around here; the local attitude is perhaps best summed up by a resident of a snake-plagued Wilmington apartment complex, quoted in a recent story in the Wilmington Star-News: “I don’t like those fellows with no shoulders.”

She doesn’t rely on snark for humor, and weaves between deadpan observation and philosophical analysis without a sense of jarring zigzags between lightness and depth. The essay floats. It’s a fantastic model to study, and a great way to pass a long stretch of rolling Ohio highway. –Sarah Menkedick

Olga Khazan’s “‘Pushy’ is Used to Describe Women Twice as Often as Men” in The Atlantic

In her quick-to-read article “ ‘Pushy’ is Used to Describe Women Twice as Often as Men,” Olga Khazan cites Nic Subtirelu’s research into linguistics and adjective use related to gender bias. A Ph.D. student at Georgia State University, Subtirelu has found that the term “pushy” is used nearly twice as frequently when applied to women. Men, on the other hand, are more frequently labeled “condescending.”

Though the piece specifically discusses Jill Abramson’s firing from The New York Times, its point goes beyond Abramson’s specific situation and has further-reaching consequences. What is interesting about this article is that it demonstrates the way language betrays power. Highlighting the differences between the words “pushy” and “condescending,” Subtirelu argues that “‘Condescending’ seems to differ from ‘pushy’ and ‘bossy’ in an important way, namely that it seems to acknowledge the target’s authority and power even if it does not fully accept it.”

–Andrea Spofford


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *