QuickRecs: Books About Feminism Edition

I’ve been on a big nonfiction kick lately.

Inside: What Is Obscenity?: The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist and Her Pussy, We Were Feminists Once, Shrill

What Is Obscenity?: The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist and Her Pussy
by Rokudenashiko

Rokudenashiko — a pseudonym that means “good for nothing girl” — is a Japanese artist who was arrested because on her computer she had a 3D-printer file of a plaster mold of her vagina, which she was using to create art pieces and distributing to Kickstarter backers. Her arrest made international headlines, and over the past several years she’s been in and out of jail and in and out of court fighting the charges of obscenity, which are extra absurd in a country that holds a festival celebrating penises. This book is a graphic-novel memoir that explores how and why she started making the art, the complete ridiculousness of the arrest and her time in jail, and the failure of the justice system to understand how the internet works. And misogyny! Lots and lots of misogyny.

Rokudenashiko is an absolute delight. She just has such an amazing attitude about the whole thing and her sense of humor makes the book wonderful even though the subject matter is pretty serious. In fact, I’d be shocked if her magnetism wasn’t a contributing factor to her arrest. She just makes you want to have tea with her. Her story about how amusing it was to force the increasingly uncomfortable arresting officers to say “vagina” over and over while taking her statement was incredible. But most of all, it’s a reminder that we’re only one step removed from this — I’m 100% sure there are people in the US who would support Japan’s vaginas-are-obscene laws. Rokudenashiko was asked in an interview I read whether she’d consider leaving Japan to pursue her art, and her response was that her repeated arrests just make it clear how much she’s needed in her home country. More than anything else about her, her bravery shines through in her work. It’s on sale on Amazon right now, so go check it out.

We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to Cover Girl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement
by Andi Zeisler

If I were going to write a book about the current state of feminism, it would be this one. Zeisler chronicles both the history of the commercialization of the women’s lib movement over the last century-plus, explaining both how and why it got to today’s watered-down, anything-is-okay-if-you-want-it-to-be pseudo-movement. She deconstructs the influences capitalism and Western hyperindividualism have had on a movement that’s supposed to be examining oppressive systems, but has become synonymous with justifying choices we can’t explain in words other than, “But I wanted to!!!” She also looks at how the increased sexualization and hyperfeminity in recent years has left behind gender-nonconforming women, trans women, and nonbinary identities in favor of passing out cookies to the women who perform femininity the best.

While the second half of this book was a lot of me nodding and going “yes yes this is good” the first half about the history of the movement’s co-opting by media and the intersection of feminism and media criticism was really fascinating. The idea in the 1980s and early 90s that feminism was “over” and the deliberate way in which it was pushed by major industries was infuriating, but also kind of hopeful — we got over that hump, so we’ll get over this one, too. Zeisler asks us to make the decisions we want, but to always ask ourselves, all functions of the culture we grew up in, exactly why we are, and what could be done via activism to eliminate those outside influences.

Shrill
by Lindy West

Last but definitely not least is Lindy West’s memoir about what it’s like to be large, both in personality and body, in a world that requires women to be very small. So, so much of West’s exploration of struggling with her body was like reading about my own life (full disclosure: am fat, still not okay with it, working on it). But she’s funny and witty and her writing is just a delight. This book ending up feeling so personal to me, not just because I empathized with her experiences, but because she got through them to the other side and just completely owns herself and her body and her life. I wish I’d had this book when I was like 15 and wondering why I was a size 10 but everyone else got to be a 0 and trying to figure out what was wrong with me. The only answers I had then were the ones society gives: you’re a bad person, you’re morally deficient, you have no value. I think this is an important book, in that it’s really the first time — even as an adult — I’ve seen someone spell out the answer as something different: nothing. Nothing is wrong.

There’s a significant chunk of the second half of the book that deals with West’s time as a comedian, and the misogynistic horror that is the comedy industry. She has been a hugely vocal critic of rape jokes, and I thought her examination of punching up/punching down was super solid, and her willingness to lay into comedians like Patton Oswalt for being complete and utter dickwads about being asking to not lol at violence against women was soothing. She also tackles online harassment, since basically any woman who goes online nowadays has to deal with that.

West also did some cool interviews with Feminist Frequency, so you should check those out too! (Also let me know if that link doesn’t work, it’s a weird one.)

10 Comments

  1. SpoonyViking says:
    Zeisler’s book seems more interesting on a scholarly level, but West’s seems like it would be a more enjoyable read. Shame Amazon’s shipping fees are so exorbitant, especially with the current exchange rates!

    Do you have any recommendations of books about the origins of feminism in academia and gender studies in the sixties, Act? It’s a topic I’d like to study more.

    1. actonthat says:
      I’d be pretty surprised if you couldn’t get kindle editions of both of them, since they just came out!

      Unfortunately I don’t have any off the top of my head, but bell hooks might be someone to look into, as she started writing in the late 70s and early 80s.

      1. SpoonyViking says:
        Oh, good thinking! Amazon BR doesn’t have West’s book, but it does have Zeisler’s (as well as a few of her other books). The price is a bit steep for a Kindle edition, but it’s a lot more affordable than importing, for sure!

        I’ll check Bell Hooks… Oh, it’s “bell hooks”, uncapitalised? I don’t know anything about her, but I assume it’s a statement?

        1. actonthat says:
          Indeed, it’s uncap’sed. It drives me up a damn wall, but I understand her push for accessibility and I respect that she writes it that way. Academics suck and deserve it; I am an unimportant casualty.
          1. SpoonyViking says:
            What? No, they don’t! Even with all the ego and the pettiness and the blasted ivory tower mentality, academia is awesome! :-D
            That said, I’m not going to rage against an author’s choice to not write their name in capitals when it seems to be a deliberate ideological choice which makes sense. :-) I’ll try to find out more about her, see if she’s what I’m looking for.
  2. SpoonyViking says:
    You know, we’ve been discussing in class exactly this sort of issue – the abandonment of the focus on larger social systems in favour of a focus on the individual -, and I’ve been thinking there’s more to it than just hyperindividualism: in theory, isn’t the end goal for society to reach a point where the only choice that matters is the individual’s, not the community’s?

    I mean, I personally believe that it’s necessary to first deconstruct society’s influence (which also means being aware it exists and acknowledging it influences the individual in the first place), but I can see how many would use their individualism as a means to combat societal pressure, not just as an end in itself.

    1. actonthat says:
      Talking about how it would be in an ideal utopia is pretty useless. Obviously, ideally, everyone would live and let live, because no one would ever be judged on anything but their merits.

      But there’s nothing individualistic about regurgitating century-old beauty standards. When people just as vociferously defend the personal choices of, say, butch lesbians, then we can talk about ideals. But it just so happens that the ‘choices’ people go to bat for are makeup and shaving and high heels.

      “You may be doing what you love, but you’re also doing what you’re told.”

      edit: To be clear, the women who make these decisions aren’t the issue here. The social penalties can he high, and socialization is an asshole. Women do what we have to do to get by. The issue is people who coopt language of the movement in order to reinforce pre-existing patriarchal standards by framing highly conformist survival tactics as something we should praise instead of push back on. Whoever came up with this is an evil genius; it’s incredibly effective as a way to silence women who want to dismantle beauty standards.

      1. SpoonyViking says:
        Oh, I didn’t realise that’s what you were referring to. Which was dumb of me, considering we’ve talked exactly about those things before. :-P Never mind me, then!
  3. Socordya says:
    Got Rokudenashiko and Heisler.
    What is Obscenity is hilarisad.
    1. actonthat says:
      It really is. The whole thing is so absurd you have to laugh, but then you remember it’s real and she’s going to jail and it’s so depressing. Her attitude really makes the book enjoyable instead of just miserable.

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