Women We Read This Week

Molly Lambert’s “Porntopia” in Grantland

When my Twitter feed started blowing up with links to Molly Lambert’s long look at the AVN Awards, the porn industry’s Oscars, I was hesitant. “Big Red Son,” the David Foster Wallace classic about the same event, is one of my favorite stories. Hadn’t “our correspondent goes to the AVN Awards” been done? Writers in the “longform” world sometimes talk about the definitive version of a given story – the one that makes it impossible for any of us to follow after. Surely, I thought, “Big Red Son” was definitive.

Turns out I may need to reassess my belief in that whole concept. Lambert’s piece is funny, smart, thought-provoking and distinct. She confronts her longform heritage head on, referencing Wallace’s story repeatedly and noting that the porn industry has changed dramatically since his tour of duty at the AVNs: the world she’s moving through is a different one. Another difference: she’s able to spend a lot more time with the female stars of the industry than Wallace was. “Big Red Son” is largely a story about men. Lambert finds the women. Here’s a taste:

St. James, in her late thirties, is in her fourth year of directing. “There’s not a glass ceiling like there is in Hollywood for women. If there are limitless possibilities for me, why would I walk away?” she says. “In Hollywood, women are fighting tooth and nail for directing jobs and it’s impossible.” St. James is drawn to porn that involves relationships. “I do feel like the narrative is important,” she says. “Even if they’re watching Naughty America, they’re like, ‘I want to believe that that was his teacher!’ Because it is just like, a dick in a pussy is not that exciting to me, but their relationship and the reason they’re having sex is what’s hot to me. The guys seldom get the attention. I’m a woman. I want to see their faces too.”



Tanya Paperny’s “I was a professor at four universities. I still couldn’t make ends meet.” in The Washington Post

Tanya Paperny bravely takes on a topic nobody in academia wants to talk about – the fact that the whole university teaching system is being dismantled piece by piece and farmed out to adjuncts. Universities prefer not to pay professors a living wage, so they hire adjuncts, who they pay as little as possible and offer no health insurance or job security. Paperny describes her life while teaching as an adjunct at four prestigious and expensive universities in Washington D.C. She says, “I taught as many as five classes each semester at four campuses in D.C. and Maryland, crisscrossing town by bike and public transportation during work days that sometimes lasted 13 hours.”

As we know, the cost of university in the US has risen exponentially. But where is the money going? Universities have decided to pursue a business model in which presidents and administrators make CEO salaries and teachers are paid so little they sometimes rely on food stamps. Paperny recounts, “In fall of 2012, I earned $13,600 before tax. The following spring, I made $14,100.”

As an ex-academic, I am all too familiar with Paperny’s story, because it is the plight of many of my fellow Ph.D.s. It shows that we as a country care very little about teaching and even less about students and learning.



Rose George’s “A Very Naughty Little Girl” in Longreads

Blood transfusion as we know it didn’t start until the early twentieth century, despite some (ill-fated) experiments for years before. It’s a procedure we now take for granted. But, Rose George tells us in her Longreads exclusive, “A Very Naughty Little Girl,” it wasn’t until Janet Vaughan came along that someone worked to make it a sustainable practice.

Janet Vaughan had studied medical sciences in the 1920s at Somerville College, one of Oxford’s few women’s colleges at the time. She was from a family privileged with connections, “but not wealthy,” writes George. Virginia Woolf was a second cousin. Vaughan became a physician and worked with many living in extreme poverty.Those patients sparked her interest in Socialism. It also sparked her interest in researching blood, which would revolutionize medicine.

In straightforward prose, George tells us about the woman who “had the confidence to make fissures in patriarchal concrete” to solve medical problems. A woman in the sciences, Vaughan continually faced hurdles: when she made a breakthrough in anemia treatments, a senior professor took the credit; when she won a scholarship to study at the still all-male Harvard, the school refused her use of their mice, as well as the “sourced” Philly mice she procured herself, so she made strides regarding blood’s B12 using pigeons; even once she had established her reputation, her colleagues wouldn’t ask her for advice in person but sent letters, instead. Vaughan was never deterred.

It’s a good thing, too. By the late 1930s, Vaughan suspected another war was coming and knew England would not be prepared. Until then, blood could only be stored temporarily. So, she organized informal meetings in a London flat and there, she and her peers held conversations about blood storage and transportation that would alter modern medicine forever. Thanks to Vaughan’s foresight, the Emergency Blood Transfusion Service’s blood depots were ready just in time for the war.

In this little snippet of history, I learned how much innovation arose from work Vaughan started, work which she continued even during her long tenure as principal of Somerville College, work which she continued into retirement. Her research spanned from the lab to the streets of bombed Britain, even to liberated work camps. And in the ninety-two years Janet Vaughan lived, she didn’t quit.

At one point, George writes, “How I love the brisk nervelessness of this woman.” Me, too.



Andrea Appleton’s “Insectophilia” in Aeon

Andrea Appleton asks, “while Western culture amplifies our perhaps innately human suspicion of insects into distaste and fear, Japanese culture encourages affection, even reverence, for the six-legged. Why?” She observes firsthand how insects have seeped into Japanese culture, from fried grasshoppers to an adoration of the entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, and casts tentative doubt on the argument that humans inherently fear insects because they can be harmful to us.

The article quickly broadens to a larger consideration of how human civilization and “nature” fit together, and how the harmful prejudices of western culture can negatively affect the quality of our environment. Appleton points out, for instance, the startling statistic that “for all their abundance (over 95 percent of all animal species), invertebrates garner around 10 per cent of conservation funding.” She (following a long line of environmental theorists) critiques the idea that nature is somewhere out there, untouched by human civilization, and calls for a more intimate knowledge of everyday organisms, especially the creepy-crawly.

Personally, I’m one of those squeamish westerners who strongly dislike the idea of keeping a beetle for a pet or eating cicadas or even finding a solitary ant anywhere in my domicile. But Appleton makes a good argument for cultivating an appreciation of insects, and even makes me feel a little bit bad for them: “Majestic mountains, redwoods and polar bears sell the calendars. Weevils and crane flies are not invited to the photo shoot.”



Urvashi Butalia’s “Mona’s Story” in Granta

This is one of those pieces whose language and characters will linger with you like a visit from an old friend. Since reading it, I find myself referencing Mona’s stories and returning to the questions of the essay. I am always fascinated by stories that sweep through the terrain of gender identities and leave the landscape rearranged. Butalia’s essay introduces us to Mona and a mosaic emerges of a person who lives at once as a woman, a man, a mother, a member of community, and a misfit. Through Butalia’s recounting of their unlikely and at times uncomfortable friendship, the piece intertwines Mona’s life and journey from male-to-female and Butalia’s reckoning with her own need to define Mona.

““Is she a man or a woman? Ought I to see her as a man or a woman – and did I have to see her as one or the other, when she herself so often switched? ‘But why do you find this so confusing?’ she once asked me. ‘I’m a woman, I’ve always wanted to be one, it’s that simple.”

The beauty of Butalia’s writing is in the weaving together of detail, history, and conversation to draw the reader into the life of the hijara community and Mona’s own non-conformity. Mona’s experiences of leaving home, “undergoing sexual reassignment surgery at a time it was illegal in India,” a joint adoption, and eventual ostracization by both her family and the hijara community bear witness to the sacrifices required to define and defend one’s own identity. The piece also illuminates the joy of finding one’s “family,” the high costs of loyalty and belonging to a group identity, and the ways in which groups punish dissent from norms.

Throughout, Butalia returns to her struggle to make sense of Mona’s experience but she does not give into the temptation to neatly resolve the tensions.

I’d been wondering about what the experience of maleness and femaleness meant for the Monas of this world and how someone like me could understand it. Typically, Mona had the answer. ‘Arrey,’ she said, ‘why do you worry so much about this? What is there to think? I’m human, you’re human, I’m a woman but sometimes I can be a man.’



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