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Women We Read This Week

Anne Thériault’s “Being a Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence” in The Belle Jar

Anne Thériault captures the violence of daily life from girlhood to womanhood in this devastating essay. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of how my own experiences mirror hers, and how, at the age of 34, when I feel like I should be the owner of my own body, I still have days where I am reminded that my body is never my own. There is so much shame tied up in the messages that girls and women receive on a daily basis–the idea that anything that we feel is exaggerated, that “boys will just be boys,” that our bodies simply by being will be interpreted as an invitation. This essay both made me want to weep and to be strong, to weep for all the violence our bodies have been witness to, and to be strong so that I keep speaking, keep writing, and keep sharing the stories of women who are brave enough to create new ways of living, loving, mothering, and educating.

–Alice

Claire Vaye Watkins’ “On Pandering” in Tin House

In an episode from season four of The Office, Jim and Darryl have a ping pong competition. Pam and Kelly watch them play and get competitive over their boyfriends. But when Pam challenges Kelly to a game, Jim and Darryl quickly leave to go play somewhere else. Pam and Kelly are admittedly not very good. But isn’t there something else behind Jim and Darryl’s dismissal of them? Jim is set up as this great guy who thinks that Pam should follow her dreams of being an artist, unlike her fiancé for the show’s first couple seasons who didn’t want Pam to go to art school. Yet even here, Pam cheering from the sidelines and Jim not watching her play, is just the way things are.

It’s this kind of inequality–an inequality that all women are familiar with–that Claire Vaye Watkins’s “On Pandering” reminds me of. Watkins explains that she is thought of as a “girl” or at best a “woman writer” while her male counterparts are just “writers.” Watkins goes beyond the idea of labeling to also explore how she panders to her audience:

Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.

Watkins won awards for her short story collection, Battleborn, which she says she wrote “for white men, toward them.” And this writing for “old white men,” even those who are supportive mentors of hers, is problematic. “She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.”

This essay was originally a lecture, which partially explains the structure—it’s split into sections with titles like “Some Exposition,” “Watching Boys Do Stuff,” and “Some Ideas.” But the structure also supports her overall point in challenging established norms:

Let us, each of us, write things that are uncategorizable, rather than something that panders to and condones and codifies those categories.

Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.

–Rachel

Rebecca Giggs’ “Whale Fall” in Granta

File this one under: Things I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy reading, but really, really did. Rebecca Giggs has written a beautiful meditation on the slow, painful death of a humpback whale that washed up on a beach in Australia several years ago. She was part of a group of bystanders that watched, and tried to help, as the whale died over the course of days, and her own memories and reflections are mixed in with reporting about the hazards that result in beached and dying whales.

Here’s a taste:

I asked the wildlife officer what would happen afterwards and he told me that they’d arranged for two mechanical bobcats to come and collect the carcass. ‘Beach and bundle,’ he called it, the policy. The whale would be chainsawed in half and transported to the Tamala Park tip in Mindarie to decay amid the household waste and disused white goods. After death its putrefaction would generate yet more heat, scorching its bones and burning its organs black: if they didn’t cut it up, it would explode. Was the council concerned a dead whale would attract malingering hammerheads and thresher sharks were they to tow it back out? I was confused about why the animal was destined for the junkyard.

‘This whale is malnourished,’ he offered. ‘We don’t know why. Maybe he’s sick, maybe the mother didn’t feed it right as a calf. Maybe the whale’s consumed plastic or it’s poisoned somehow, with parasites, or too tired to eat. Looks like it’s been attacked before it beached.’ He cleaned salt spots off his sunglasses. I saw his eyes were tired. ‘Killer whales pick off the weak ones,’ he said.

A swathe of silence passed between us, gulls like asterisks overhead. ‘There’s an argument, a conservation argument, not to put a whale that’s been weeded out back in again.’

–Eva

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