Satire and Solemnity in Adichie’s “Americanah”

A few weeks ago I finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s much talked-about Americanah, the story of a Nigerian university student, Ifemelu, and her transplantation to the United States. I was so impressed while reading the book that I recommended it to my sister, Erin (whom some of you might remember from the post “Words of Wisdom from a High School Valedictorian“) who found a copy for herself and finished it in a record number of days. Despite a few flaws, mainly structural in nature, Americanah is a unique, thought-provoking novel that sharply demonstrates just how prevalent racism (still) is in America. Furthermore, there are seemingly few books written from the middle-class African immigrant perspective — or, at the very least, I am not familiar with many of them — which complicates the frequently recounted immigrant narrative focusing on economic and linguistic barriers to integration. Because we both enjoyed Americanah so much, and had so much to say about it, Erin and I decided to co-write the following review. Continue reading “Satire and Solemnity in Adichie’s “Americanah””

Disturbing Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

This book has floated on the edge of my awareness for quite some time now. When I spotted a copy in the bargain bin at a used bookshop in Wellington, I thought, why not?

Well, shame on me! I don’t know WHAT compelled me to think I’d get along with a book containing “sisterhood” and “ya-ya” in its title. Where was MY divine intervention, to stop me from making such a grave mistake?

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - cover

Despite the fact that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is, for the most part, quite well-written, I felt dirty while reading it because of the blatant racism, classism, and sexism contained within its pages. I was horrified to learn that it sold a whopping 1.5 million copies in the two years following its publication. Who were those 1.5 million people? Why were they duped into thinking that Ya-Ya was a good novel? I think I have part of an answer, but it’s not a comfortable one.

There’s a long history of white women getting away with saying and writing problematic things. I’ve never read Gone with the Wind, but I’ve heard secondhand about how racist it is. Gone with the Wind is discussed extensively in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and it’s clear that author Rebecca Wells drew inspiration from the classic Southern novel. After all, the four Ya-Yas are essentially modernized Scarlett O’Haras, born 75 years too late to witness the destruction of the South. They still glorify and romanticize the hell out of it, though. Someone, somewhere (I can’t remember who) remarked that books and films like The Help end up being popular precisely because they are written by white women, while more critical (and important!) novels by people of color get shoved out of the market. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was a precocious middle-schooler, and I have to wonder what it was about my educational and societal circumstances that led me to think that was a good idea. At 12, I wasn’t shrewd enough to perceive the racism lurking beneath the abolitionist text, but I have no doubt that if I were to return to it today, I’d feel ashamed of Harriet Beecher Stowe. When I think of all of the wonderful stories that Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood probably displaced, it really makes me wonder what kind of stories become popular, and why.

The disturbing elements of the novel are too numerous to name – and far too complex for me to attempt to thoroughly dissect – so in this review I will focus on four main issues: racism as evidenced by the lack of independent black characters, classism as conveyed through the assumption of wealth, willful ignorance regarding mental health, and sexism through the relegation of men to servile, sexual, or absentee roles.

Overview

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - title page

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood begins in 1959 on the Pecan Grove Plantation in Thornton, Louisiana. Siddalee Walker is six years old, and goes mostly unloved by her glamorous, alcoholic mother, Vivi. Vivi’s gaggle of equally-superficial, too-eager-for-a-cocktail friends refer to themselves as the Ya-Yas because of their alleged violations of Southern social codes. They are: tiny Teensy, a Cajun firecracker with a perfect body and a predilection for stripteasing at parties; bohemian Caro, who looks great in clothes thanks to her athletic physique; and mommy-ish Necie, who’s unremarkable apart from her long, beautiful hair. It’s important to note that Necie is the most conventional-looking of the four Ya-Yas, which is directly translated to mean that she also behaves the most conventionally. Physical attributes are directly mapped onto emotional ones, an unwelcome resurgence of the antiquated – not to mention false – concept of physiognomy.

Flash forward to 1993. Sidda is 40, a theater director working in New York. Her relationship with her mother has exploded thanks to an unfortunate feature in the New York Times in which Vivi is referred to as a “tap-dancing child abuser.” Vivi is furious, and refuses to speak to Sidda on the precept that her daughter has ruined her reputation. The problem is, though, that Vivi did abuse her children: she beat them so badly that she had to be institutionalized for a short period of time. Vivi makes it clear, however, that Sidda is the one at fault. Highly distressed, Sidda calls off her upcoming wedding because of the drama with her mother — a decision that, at least to me, makes absolutely no sense. So fractured is her delicate sense of self that Sidda has to retreat to a cabin on Lake Quinault in Washington State which, luckily, a wealthy friend of Sidda’s lets her borrow free of charge. Urged by her Ya-Ya girlfriends to repair the rift between herself and Sidda, Vivi reluctantly mails Sidda her scrapbook entitled “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” The bulk of Wells’ novel consists of Sidda rifling through the pages of the scrapbook, remembering pieces of her childhood, and attempting to reconcile her feelings about her mother. These are interspersed with flashbacks to Vivi’s childhood and the formative years of her friendship with the Ya-Yas.

Racism
Black stereotypes, Cajun glorification, and Indian appropriation

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Ginger and hot chocolate

The portrait that Rebecca Wells paints of Louisiana and the Southern United States is unwaveringly white. Segregation is mentioned several times, but references to the Civil Rights movement are few – perhaps indicative of the way that many wealthy white Southerners ignored a movement that didn’t really interest them. Black women in particular are depicted as secondary to white interests; when the Ya-Yas take their children to picnic at Spring Creek, black women are mentioned only in passing – i.e., they prepare the picnic baskets.

In her discussion of the film adaptation of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Deborah Barker argues that the ambiguous Southern setting invokes a specific kind of nostalgia for an era in which women were not yet responsible for being aware of racism or feminism:

…many of the films are set not only in the South but also in the past, further distancing the audience not only from the 1970s women’s movement but also from the Civil Rights Movement and justifying the emphasis on white women as the subjects of film, while African-American characters play supporting roles. (93)

Sidda herself, allegedly the less-racist contemporary, claims to love both her “white mother” (Vivi) and her “black mother,” Wiletta. She makes the following grandiose claim about a third of the way into the book.

Wiletta, now almost eighty, still cleaned Vivi and [her husband] Shep’s house. Sidda and Willetta still exchanged letters. Vivi’s jealousy of their affection did not keep Willetta and Sidda from loving each other… Sidda cannot think about her mother without thinking about Willetta. And yet she can barely unravel her relationship with her white mother, let alone her black one. (114)

Despite this observation, the vast majority of Sidda’s reflections involve Vivi and Vivi alone. Sidda is not enamored of or confused by Willetta in the same way that she is by Vivi; Willetta, cast in the stereotypical black mammy role, offers uncomplicated love. Vivi, on the other hand, is permitted to develop a unique personality that necessitates deep reflection to understand.

Apart from Willetta, mentions of black characters are scarce. They are not an integral part of the story, but rather hover on the periphery, where, occasionally, they are called upon for favors by the white protagonists. In 1939, at the age of 13, Vivi demonstrates just how ignorant she is about racism in the following exchange. She is traveling with Caro and Teensy to Atlanta, Georgia to attend the premiere of the film Gone With the Wind. Ginger, Vivi’s black maid, is sent along to chaperone the girls on the train ride to Atlanta.

…then there was another knock on the door. And we all thought it was the conductor again, and so I climbed down and opened the door. It was a colored porter with three glasses of milk on a platter for us. I thanked him and he asked if we wanted our shoes polished. We all said, ‘Yes, thank you.’ And I got our shoes and handed them to him. Then he said in a whisper, ‘Ginger want to know if yall be doing all right. She say run two cars down if you in trouble and she take care of you.’ We were all surprised that he knew Ginger, but Ginger gets around, you know she does. I thanked him, and he said, ‘My name is Mobley if yall need anything.’ And so Mobley has just taken off with our shoes and he better bring them back or we’ll have to go sock-footed to the diner in the morning! (89)

This is the essence of Vivi’s relationship to African-Americans: they are there to be polite, to not ask questions, and to do her bidding when she requires it. From age 13 to age 31, Vivi only grows more racist. After giving birth to her fourth child, Vivi temporarily hires a black nurse, Melinda, and is horrified by the prospect that she will have to care for her own children after Melinda moves on. Despite the fact that she is perfectly willing to let Melinda bathe, clothe, and feed her children, Vivi lacks even an ounce of respect for her.

Melinda had stayed for three months to nurse Baylor and then she left me. She had to. She had another baby to take care of…
The monsters were all asleep for once. It was quiet. I could hear that low hum of the refrigerator. I did not want to beg a colored person to help me, but I couldn’t stop myself.
‘Melinda,’ I said. ‘I am begging you. Please don’t leave me. I cannot take care of these four babies by myself. Please, please do not leave me. I will pay you anything you want. I will make Mr. Shep get you your own car. How about that?’
I thought for a minute I had convinced her, thought for a minute she would stay. After all I had done for her and her family, I thought she might at least stay and help me.
‘Miz Vivi,’ she said, ‘they you children and you gonna have to tend them one of these days.’ (262)

Only the spoiled white woman is allowed to get tired of her kids. Not the black nanny who operates as a surrogate mother and gets paid terrible wages, all the while raising children of her own. 

While African-Americans in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya- Sisterhood are portrayed as servile, stoic, and undesirable, other “exotic” cultures are fetishized. Teensy, the dark-haired Cajun girl and one-fourth of the Ya-Yas, is continuously sexualized because of her perfect, petite body, swarthy skin, and French exclamations. So, too, is Teensy’s mother, Genevieve, idolized by the four Ya-Yas because of her beautiful “otherness.”

Teensy had jet-black hair and eyes that were almost as dark. Barely five feet tall, she had an olive complexion and tiny feet, almost like a child’s… Teensy had a perfect body, and we all knew exactly what it looked like. One of her eccentricities (when the gang really got going, when the bourbon was flowing, when the time seemed right, when she received the call) was to stage an elaborately drawn-out, sexy, and very funny striptease… Teensy always wore the skimpiest swimsuits. The Ya-Yas called her the Bikini Queenie and she was the talk of Garnet parish with her risque little numbers. I always imagined that she received those bikinis in the mail straight from Paris. (38)

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - history of the Ya-Ya tribe

Even more egregious, however, is the pseudo-religion that the Ya-Yas construct for themselves using elements of Native American culture. The girls assume that Native Americans are inherently closer to nature, that by engaging in “Indian” rituals they can bring a flash of uncivilized excitement into their lives. How else to explain the bizarre initiation ceremony that the girls hold in the bayou?

Teensy whips the empty oatmeal boxes out of her paper sack, and we all beat on them. And while we drum, we yell out to the night and the woods and the fire that we are now The Ya-Yas. Then Necie, Mistress of Names, formally gives all of us our Ya-Ya Indian names that we have chosen ourselves. Mine is Queen Dancing Creek. Caro’s is Duchess Soaring Hawk, and Necie’s is Countess Singing Cloud… ‘Everybody ready for ceremonial paint?’ Teensy asks, with one of her bad looks. ‘What?’ we all say. This is not in the program, but the Ya-Ya tribe plays things by ear. Teensy reaches into her sack and pulls out a bunch of Genevieve’s Max Factor of Hollywood tubes and pots of color, and pencils and lipsticks… We take turns drawing on each other until we could pass for full-blooded Injuns. (71-72)

It is worth mentioning that the girls are eleven when this scene takes place. Less problematic, perhaps, than the idea of four young girls unwittingly engaging in cultural appropriation is the fact that adult author Rebecca Wells thought this was an inspiring and unforgettable way to convey a close friendship. Bits of Indo-Cajun-religious lore are sprinkled throughout the novel, from frequent invocations on Sidda’s behalf to the Holy Lady in the moon, to ritual lightings of Virgin Mary candles, to contemplations about how walnuts are “food and seed at once.” These pseudo-religious, mother-earth-praising interjections only serve to further romanticize the “natural” South and emphasize the oft-disproven notion that women are inherently more in tune with their emotions. 

Classism: Assumptions of wealth

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Vivi and jewels

Make no mistake: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is all about wealth, and how said wealth allows you to ignore the unpleasant things in life. Everyone with a significant role in the novel is wealthy. Sidda is raised on Pecan Grove, a plantation with a whopping 900 acres. Teensy inherited her money in the form of Coca-Cola shares. So, too, are Necie and Caro well-off, though the source of their wealth is not explicitly stated. Sidda is wealthy; her Yale-educated fiance is wealthy; her theater director friend May Sorensen is wealthy (and oh-so-handily owns that cabin on Lake Quinault). It gets exhausting, to be honest. And cloying. Interactions with the less-well-off are not only scarce, but actively scorned. When Vivi and her friends make that infamous trip to Atlanta to attend the Gone With the Wind premiere, they are forced to observe poor people.

There were thousands of people lined up in a little park in front of the auditorium. Uncle James said they were the people who didn’t have tickets, and that they should have stayed away like Mayor Hartsfield requested. But they were standing out there in the cold, looking like the folks who live at Ollie Trott’s Trailer Paradise at home, with bad teeth and all. When the police gave them orders to move back, they did. We just walked right by them, Necie. Aunt Louise tried to make us hurry, but we all had trouble walking in those hoop skirts. (97)

It’s one thing to write a novel about the South in which you discuss race-based inequalities with a critical edge. It’s quite another to write a contemporary book set in Louisiana that makes the whole place seem like an Angel Food Cake, all fluff and prettiness and prosperity and laughter and friends and fun. It’s Southern romanticism, and it’s a dangerous thing.

Moreover, no description of the Ya-Yas is complete without a commentary on their wealth and appearance. Their physical and material beauty lends them credibility – after all, what’s so exciting about a group of four poor female friends?

To say that Sidda was startled by the sight of the three Ya-Yas pulling into the drive of the Quinault Lodge in a teal-colored Chrysler LeBaron convertible would be an understatement… All three women wore sunglasses… Teensy wore a pair of black linen slacks with a crisp white linen blouse. On her feet she wore a pair of little Robert Clergerie sandals, which probably cost more than her airfare from Louisiana. Necie was clad in a light-blue-and-white-striped skirt and blouse, looking very Talbot’s. Caro wore khakis and a white shirt – she could have been in a Gap ad. The backseat of the convertible was loaded with the kind of luggage that one does not normally see at park lodges in the Western United States. It was the kind of luggage one associates with Southern women of a certain era who believe that it is their duty to make sure that doormen and porters make a good living, and that it is impossible to arrive in a new place without a pair of shoes to match every possible change of clothes. (282-283)

In other words, the Ya-Yas are high maintenance, and painstakingly so. More problematic is that their materialism is a source of praise, a source of whimsy; the commentary about their clothing and luggage stems from the kind of reasoning that glorifies shopping dates and other excursions in which large sums of money are spent by all participants. Isn’t capitalism just a hoot?

Mental health:
The victimization of ViviDivine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Vivi drops her basket

Let’s tally Vivi’s sins: She’s vain, selfish, racist and rude, and on top of all of that, she’s close-lipped about her mental health issues. It is established within the first few pages of the novel that Vivi had a mental breakdown and beat her children viciously, yet clarity on this point is never truly achieved. Thirty years after being beaten by her mother with the metal end of a belt, Sidda receives something like closure from Caro, since Vivi is too proud and ashamed to talk about the episode herself. Apparently, Vivi got a prescription for Dexamyl, then went on a 4-day Catholic retreat. When she returned, she decided the devil had invaded her kids, and that the only way to get rid of Satan was to whip him out. After a three-month stint in the mental hospital, Vivi returns, still shaken, and completely refuses to talk about the episode. In fact, she never discusses it with her children at all. She only refers to it as a euphemism: “I dropped my basket.”

There is never any suggestion that Vivi should own up to her mistakes. Indeed, Rebecca Wells goes out of her way to paint Vivi as a character deserving of sympathy. First, there is the fact that Vivi’s father also punished her with a belt, which left ugly marks on her beautiful true-blonde skin. Then there is Vivi’s mother, a strict, religious woman whose devotion to Catholicism allows her to criminalize her daughter. The reason that Vivi is so fragile, we are to understand, is twofold: First, her true love, Jack Whitman, died when she was 16, and she never recovered. Second, Vivi’s mother sent her to Catholic boarding school for half a semester, where poor Vivi, surrounded by ugliness, severity, and oversalted food, starves herself and ends up in the hospital ward. Physiognomy rears its head again in a letter addressed from Vivi to Caro:

Dear Caro, Every single girl at this school is ugly. I do not mean plain, I do not mean homely. I mean ugly. This is one of those schools where there are two types of girls: (1) the daughters of Catholic nuts; and (2) bad girls who they want to punish. I guess I fit in both categories. They’re all ugly and they stink. The whole joint reeks like sauerkraut and old men’s socks…

My room here is not a room. It’s not even a cubby-hole. It’s a pen, a hole, a cell… I asked the nun who brought me here where my closet was. She said,’ You have no closet.’

‘I need to hang my dresses,’ I said. (210-11)

Are the girls at the school ugly because they are unhappy, or are they unhappy because they are ugly? Poor Vivi, with nowhere to hang her party dresses! The most ridiculous thing about this overwrought scenario is that Rebecca Wells seems to expect that her readers will feel sympathy for Vivi. Well, I suppose a few million did. Wells obviously has her issues with the Catholic Church, and to be honest, many people do. But the way in which she condemns the religion is overdramatic and simplistic at best.

Sidda must constantly be on guard when speaking and interacting with her mother. As a result, their conversations are necessarily stifled, full of one-sided praise.

Afraid to say the wrong thing, Sidda said nothing. She shelled the crayfish and ate. ‘This is delicious.’ 

‘Thank God Louisiana men know how to cook,’ Vivi said.

‘Not as sophisticated in its flavoring as your etouffee, of course’ [Sidda replied].

‘Necie made sure you had some?’ Vivi asked.

‘I had forgotten food could taste like that,’ Sidda said.

‘You really thought it was good?’

‘Good?! Mama, the etouffee you sent up with the Ya-Yas would have made Paul Prudhomme weep over his cast-iron skillet. That man is a short-order cook compared to you.’

‘Well, thank you. I am known for that dish, if you recall.’ (344)

Vivi’s pride gets in the way of her being a capable, loving mother, but her glaring personal defects are supposedly forgivable because of her snarky and vivacious personality. Unfortunately, throwing regular temper tantrums does not a compelling personality make. Referring again to the episode in which Vivi begs a black maid to take responsibility for her children, Vivi subsequently takes off on a four-day jaunt to the Gulf of Mexico dressed in nothing but a cashmere Givenchy coat. She drinks, sleeps, and drinks some more, having left her children – and the caretaker – with zero explanation. Vivi argues that she was not destined to be a housewife, that she was instead meant to be glamorous and famous, and that it is unnatural to expect her to change diapers and warm up bottles of milk. It’s not that Vivi didn’t want children; she did, but is displeased with the reality and the responsibility. Eventually, she convinces herself to return home, but not without “tucking away” a piece of herself first.

I was thirty-one years old. I was still alive. I would take chunks of myself and store them in a root cellar. I would take them out when my children were grown. (281)

As though motherhood is nothing but unmitigated misery. It’s the height of selfishness to describe it that way. Nonetheless, Rebecca Wells is determined to furnish a happy ending, where Sidda weds Connor in a field full of sunflowers wearing her mother’s wedding dress. As Deborah Barker argues, “The happy ending depicts mother and daughter coming together on the porch swing in a scene that is the ultimate validation of the abused child” (110). And, as I would argue, the ultimate validation of child abuse. 

Sexism & Superficiality

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - Connor McGill

In terms of its depictions of men, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is about as progressive as Desperate Housewives. The men in the book, who are very rarely mentioned, fit into stereotypical categories. First, there are the absentee fathers and husbands, who never speak to their wives, let alone help them with chores. Chick, Teensy’s husband, is the glorified exception. Because he worships Teensy’s Cajun heritage – which, as we have already discussed, is a form of racist fetichism – cooks all of the meals, and caters to her every whim, he gets a pass from Rebecca Wells.

A small wiry man of around seventy stepped toward the car. He was wearing a plaid bow tie and a finely tailored shirt, looking a little like a cross between an aging horse jockey and Mr. Peepers.

‘You must be Connor,’ Chick said, giving him a kiss on the cheek in the European fashion. ‘I’m La Teensy’s lesser half.’

‘You darling man,’ [Sidda] said to him, smiling. ‘Where is Teensy? Where are all the Ya-Yas?’

‘La Teens needed her beauty rest,’ Chick said… ‘Sidda, please don’t snitch and tell your amoureaux that I’m a faux Cajun. I can’t help it if I only married into majesty.’ (339)

Husbands are only suitable if they behave as though their wives are royalty. It’s a fantasy, nothing more, nothing less, and certainly isn’t an argument in favor of gender equality. Sidda’s father, Shep, is so glaringly absent from her childhood narrative that even her fiance, Connor, comments on it.

‘I don’t hear much about your dad,’ Connor said, reaching for his cup of latte. ‘He must be a brave man.’

‘What do you mean?’ [Sidda asked].

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘marrying a woman as strong as your mother. Finessing his own way through that band of women. What’s the French word for sisterhood? Communaute de soeurs.’

Sidda helped herself to a slice of cantaloupe. She thought of how much she’d missed her father. ‘He was never around much. I’ve been so obsessed with my mother I guess I haven’t paid much attention to Daddy.’ (329)

In Rebecca Wells’ world, only the (white) women are permitted to be emotionally complex. The men are side acts, ideally there to glorify their wives, to work and provide the cash for the women to spend, no questions asked. Because they could not possibly comprehend (or participate in) the deep, natural connection shared between mothers and daughters, they are completely cut out of the narrative.

The second role that men fulfill in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is sex objects. Connor, Sidda’s fiance, is consistently described in physical terms, and Sidda is repeatedly congratulated for ensnaring such a handsome man. Though he supports her emotionally, it is Connor’s sexual prowess that is perhaps even more important. We are told, again and again, just how well he is able to satisfy her.

[Sidda]’d had two long-term relationships, but it was not until Connor that she felt fully met and deliciously cherished. After they made love that day, they lay naked next to each other, their skin warm and flushed. Sidda sank down into the wide flannel embrace of their bodies, and she rested. For a moment she died a good little death, they died it together. And then her eyes began to fill with tears…When she stopped crying, he kissed her eyelids. Then he asked her to marry him. (22)

Perpetuating this type of fantasy scenario is unhealthy. It’s the prince charming complex dressed up in supposedly progressive terms. A woman can be highly intelligent with a successful career, but none of that really means anything until she finds a preferably attractive man who can satisfy her sexually, and, moreover, who wants to marry her. It’s written like a cheap romance novel by someone who constantly dreams of sexual satisfaction, but finds it in short supply. 

Not to be outdone, the women in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood are also granted legitimacy based on their physical appearance. When Vivi returns from the mental hospital, 10-year-old Sidda is upset not because her mother sleeps all day and barely talks, but because Vivi has allowed her nail polish to chip — a grooming oversight that would normally never be permitted. As the novel progresses and Sidda moves closer and closer to forgiving her mother, so, too, do the physical descriptions of Sidda proliferate. It turns out that she is red-headed with long, luscious eyelashes and a tiny, sexy, petite body. When she finally returns to Louisiana, nobody bothers asking Sidda about her directing career; instead, they are preoccupied with her favorable appearance. 

‘You look good, mother. Really good.’

‘You look terrific,’ Vivi said. ‘I think you’ve lost weight.’

Sidda smiled. Her mother’s highest compliment.’ (344)

Ah, there’s nothing like a trip back home to Alabama to remind me that my university GPA doesn’t matter; it’s all about the hair, the makeup, the clothes, and most importantly, the figure. It calls to mind a disturbing article that I read in The New Yorker recently, in which the daughter of a model recalls the various warped ways that strangers commented on her mother’s beauty. This passage in particular struck me, because I realized that Rebecca Wells was doing the same thing in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

One day, my mom and I were having lunch with our good friend, the Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, whom I’d known since I was born. When my mom left the table for a few minutes to use the restroom, Dorothea said to me, out of the blue, ‘Do you think the reason you’ve loved your mother so much is that she’s so beautiful?’

I was a bit stunned and depressed by this question. The answer was no, definitely not. And yet, once posed, that question troubled me, and made me wonder if, on a subconscious level, my great love for my mother might have been partly caused by her beauty. I hoped not — and I very much doubted it. (source)

Unlike the insightful author of The New Yorker piece, Vivi and Sidda trade off memorializing each other through observations about physical appearance. Vivi, for example, claims that part of the reason she loves her children is because they are beautiful. 

My children were perfect, each one of them more gorgeous than I could have ever imagined. I thank God for not giving me an ugly child. It’s so much easier to love them when they’re beautiful. I made good babies. (269)

Not to be outdone, Sidda hesitates to condemn her mother partly because she is transfixed by her anachronistic beauty. She describes her mother’s body, hair, and porcelain skin several times throughout the book, effectively mythologizing her. 

In those days I knew Mama’s body down to the shape of her toes, her toenails covered in her trademark “Rich Girl Red” polish. Her blonde complexion with tiny cinnamon freckles on her upper arms, on her cheeks… She stood about five feet four inches tall in her bare feet and never weighed more than 115 pounds… She was not like the kind of mother I saw in books and movies. Except for her breasts, which were surprisingly full for her frame, she was not plump or round in any way. (41)

It’s a sickening way for parents and children to interact. Emphasizing the importance of attractiveness often comes at the expense of other, arguably much more important, qualities. One justifiably wonders if Vivi might have grown up to be less superficial, less spoiled, and less inclined to beat her children if she had been expected to become anything more than pleasant to look at. 

Conclusion

If Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood has any redeeming qualities, one of them is that it’s not terribly written, at least not always. It’s a shame, in a way, because Rebecca Wells might have been able to produce something worth reading had she been able to overcome the shortcomings of the society in which she was raised. The novel is also somewhat useful in promoting the idea that beauty is not evil, that desiring and seeking out beauty is not, in of itself, a sinful act. Unfortunately, most of the progress the novel makes in that direction is undermined by its superficiality and obsession with female and male appearances alike.

On the whole, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood romanticizes the South and celebrates many of the things that contribute to its backwardness: the division of wealth along racial lines, the enforcement of rigid gender roles, and the tendency to shove unpleasantries like mental illness under the rug. Its appeal is clear: it offers readers the opportunity to indulge in ahistoricized tranquility, where money, feminism, and racism aren’t real concerns. It’s demeaning and demoralizing, and nobody should read or watch an inch of it.

At least I’m not the only one who reacted this way to the Ya-Yas. This fantastic review by a cynical male moviegoer made me laugh heartily.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is for women who spend their lives looking for surrogates for significance from the Franklin Mint. They’re ladies who think empowerment comes from Oprah Magazine, Beanie Baby collections and soft, fat, harmless men with accents who can cook. They think a shirtless Fabio is sex, and that actual screwing is too messy and smells funny. They don’t allow unhappiness into their lives because there’s no room left in their curio cabinets. They try to believe in words like “closure” and “nurturing” and that the diet in the latest Good Housekeeping really will change their lives if it helps keep reality at arm’s length. (source)

I couldn’t agree more.

Overall rating: 1.5/5 stars

Works referenced:

Deborah Barker, “The Southern-fried chick flick: postfeminism goes to the movies.” In Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies. Edited by Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. Persistent URL

Amanda Filipacchi. “The Looks You’re Born With and the Looks You’re Given.” The New Yorker, 12 December 2014. Persistent URL

Randy Shandis. “Divine Secrets of the Blah Blah Blah Blah.” The Filthy Critic. Persistent URL


Some Thoughts on Emma Watson’s Speech

Emma Watson UN Speech

Source: Mirror.co.uk

I’m going to try to ignore the media backlash/exultation as much as possible, and focus on the content of the speech itself. This is the transcript I referred to, and these are the excerpts that made the strongest impression on me.

We want to try to mobilize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change.

I wish people would stop using pseudo-militaristic verbs to describe activism. “Mobilize” can be used to describe people rallying around a common cause, yes, but more often it’s used to describe troops preparing for battle and countries readying themselves for war. The feminist cause is not a war; nor is it a battle or even a struggle. Ok, maybe it’s a struggle. But it’s not a militaristic one.

…the more I spoke about feminism, the more I realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating.

Based on my weekly consumption of numerous articles from SlateBuzzfeed, and other dubious sources, I have to say that Emma Watson is correct in this assertion.

…feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes.

Correct.

…at 14, I started to be sexualized by certain elements of the media.

Make that basically every part of the media.

I decided that I was a feminist, and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word.

She only realized this recently? I highly doubt it. I would assume that an education from Brown University, paired with more or less constant media exposure from the age of nine, would have lead her to this conclusion much earlier than six months ago when she was appointed a UN ambassador. I’ve known since middle school that it was unpopular to call yourself a feminist. Then again, the atmosphere on a movie set is doubtless much different than that of a rural school in Illinois.

Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one?

That’s an extremely good question, and the primary one that I hope Watson answers throughout the course of this speech.

…if you still hate the word, it is not the word that is important. It’s the idea and the ambition behind it, because not all women have received the same rights I have.

Actually, I think the word is pretty damn important. Otherwise you end up with a lot of cowardly folks who claim to support equality between the sexes, but who aren’t “comfortable” calling themselves feminists. It’s akin to saying that you approve of homosexuality in theory, but you aren’t willing to let same-sex partners get married. Being half of a supporter of a given social cause is almost worse than opposing it outright, because soon that’s the route everyone starts to take — and progress is stymied before the conversation has even begun.

In 1997, Hillary Clinton made a famous speech in Beijing about women’s rights. Sadly, many of the things that she wanted to change are still true today. But what stood out for me the most was that less than thirty percent of the audience were male. How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?

Watson is drawing unsubstantiated conclusions here. The presence of a 30% male audience at Hillary Clinton’s 1997 speech is not evidence that men were not “invited” or did not “feel welcome to participate.” That might be true for some men, but many other men don’t listen to feminist speeches, read feminist texts, or take feminist problems seriously because they are either apathetic or, worse, actively opposed to feminist ideals. There’s a big difference between passive indifference (which Emma Watson seems to assume is the problem) and passive-aggressive opposition, whether silent or perceptible. I’m not saying that Watson isn’t partially correct — there are many men who don’t bother with feminism because they aren’t, well, female — but it’s a rosier view of the world than I have. Giving people more credit than they deserve is not an honest way to launch an allegedly world-changing campaign.

Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.

I vacillate between thinking that this is a calm, clever way to include men in the feminist agenda, and being upset by the fact that this is far too little, much too late. Watson’s invitation is an intentional conceit, a literary device, and it remains to be seen whether it will be effective. I do think that every generation needs a fresh reminder that gender inequality is still an issue, and maybe this method will be successful. By “method,” I mean asking a famous, respected young actress to peacefully address the issue while being backed and legitimized by an INGO.

I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either.We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.

That first sentence pleases me immensely — gender expectations have a negative impact on everyone, and people often fail to realize that. However, the second sentence worries me because of the implied causation. The way it’s structured, it sounds like men must first be freed from masculine expectations in order for things to change for women. I get frustrated whenever I hear versions of this argument; that people have a finite amount of attention/capacity for caring, and that it’s necessary to focus on one thing first before committing resources elsewhere. A common example is when people argue that the U.S. shouldn’t give financial assistance to third-world countries, because there are still poor children in the United States. It’s possible to work towards solving several issues simultaneously. And besides, when you start prioritizing causes, the implication is that someone, or some issue, is less important than another’s.

If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.

Incorrect. Men and women don’t interact as part of a yin-yang relationship. Neither men nor women should perform gender stereotypes, and it’s not a matter of waiting for men to cease being controlling before women can “finally” be free.

Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals.

This is my favorite part of the speech. Gender as a spectrum? Yes.

I want men to take up this mantle so that their daughters, sisters, and mothers can be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too, reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned, and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.

Again, the idea is there, but I take issue with the phrasing. Some men don’t have daughters; some men don’t have sisters; some women don’t want children. I wish women could be discussed without being reduced to common social roles.

You might be thinking, “Who is this Harry Potter girl, and what is she doing speaking at the UN?” And, it’s a really good question. I’ve been asking myself the same thing.

All I know is that I care about this problem, and I want to make it better. And, having seen what I’ve seen, and given the chance, I feel it is my responsibility to say something.

Emma Watson anticipated that she would be on the receiving end of some serious criticism after delivering this speech, and she was right. After all, she’s not a professor or a politician; she hasn’t saved lives or made an important scientific discovery. She’s an actress, and one known for a series of children’s films at that. But she shouldn’t question her right to deliver a speech like this at the United Nations. She has just as much of a right to assert her beliefs as does anyone else. Is she the most credible person to deliver this speech? Perhaps not. But she’s extremely well-liked, and the UN’s decision to appoint her an an ambassador was shrewd indeed. I object to Watson’s need to apologize for her opinion.

15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children. And at current rates, it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education.

Ah yes, the stereotypical examples. I wish she hadn’t included these, especially so close to the conclusion of her speech, almost as though these statistics were an afterthought.

If you believe in equality, you might be one of those inadvertent feminists that I spoke of earlier, and for this, I applaud you. We are struggling for a uniting word, but the good news is, we have a uniting movement. It is called HeForShe. I invite you to step forward, to be seen and to ask yourself, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

The last paragraph is interesting, because although the campaign is called HeForShe, Watson avoids limiting her clarion call to men alone. Instead, she’s addressing all “inadvertent feminists,” who could theoretically be male or female. Nonetheless, I take issue with the name of the campaign, largely because it seems fundamentally disempowering to take the responsibility for equality out of the hands of those who are seeking justice.

When I was at university, there was a student group that quickly and surprisingly grew to prominence. It was called Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault, or MARS for short. I immediately felt conflicted. While I was glad to know that male students at the university recognized that men disproportionately committed acts of sexual assault against women (and other men), I wasn’t sure what the impetus was for forming the group. Were the “good” men in MARS going to oppose the “bad” men who attacked women, thus setting themselves up in the classically sexist “protector” role? Or were they just generally opposed to all sexual assault, and wanted to make their opposition clear by forming a public group, participating in public discussions, and publicly patting themselves on the back for not being bigots? Since men don’t listen to women, were they going to intervene on women’s behalf and talk to their frat brothers and convince them that women really do deserve respect, but we know that since you currently don’t respect women, we, as men, will do the convincing?

No matter which way I look at it, I find something twisted. And that’s sort of how I feel about the HeForShe campaign. The name alone places all responsibility on male catalysts — as though the time has finally arrived for women to sit back and wait for men to improve themselves and then, as an afterthought, women will benefit.

I’m glad Emma Watson gave a speech, because these days it’s unpopular for celebrities to identify as feminists. But I wish, wish, wish that she had done more with the opportunity she was given. She never did bother to explain why the word “feminist” makes some people uncomfortable, besides pointing out that some people assume it’s synonymous with hatred of men.

As for the flurry of articles I’ve encountered tearing Watson down because she’s white, wealthy, and extraordinarily privileged, I just want to say that none of these things bar Watson from having an opinion. Her opinion may be limited and painstakingly palatable, but (and I sigh), it’s still better than nothing. At least it isn’t the same nonsense that gets spewed out by Sheryl Sandberg and the corporate 1% feminists.

Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s in any way sufficient.