Favorite books of 2011, part 3: Feminist concerns

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

What if Lord of the Flies were about a bunch of teenage beauty queens instead of choir boys? That’s pretty much the premise of this novel. It might qualify loosely under what one of my grad school professors called a documentary novel because it includes commercials for the products of “The Company” and other documents that shed light on the action of the novel. There are multiple points of view, and Bray is obviously concerned with interrogating mass media and reality TV and their role in perpetuating gender constructions. The characters are all different, and doing the pageant for different reasons, which was probably a necessary departure from reality, even if it does make the ensemble seem like kind of an after-school special, with token minorities and lesbians. Maybe that’s not fair of me. Is it possible to attempt diversity in a cast like this, without getting that after-school special feel, without making it seem artificial? That’s worth thinking about.

Anyway, this book is laugh-out-loud funny. It really got underneath a lot of gender issues and exposed them with biting humor, which is probably the best way to do it.

I really admire Libba Bray because each of her books have had a very different writing style. The Gemma Doyle trilogy has a 19th century teenage girl first person narrator, and Going Bovine, a retelling of Don Quixote, has a contemporary teenage boy first person narrator. Beauty Queens is told in third-person narration that switches among all of the girls on the island. There is a lot of irony and making-fun in this book, which you don’t see as much in her previous ones.

I’m going to make my 16-year-old sister read this.

Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids and Life in a Half-changed World by Peggy Orenstein

This was the best nonfiction book I read in 2011. It’s over 10 years old, but sadly, the world hasn’t changed that much in 10 years to make it irrelevant. In fact, it seemed more relevant than ever, since some big news stories this year have been about “The End of Men” and women surpassing men in numbers graduating from college and graduate school. The books is also about things that I’m very concerned with in my life now: how women make the decisions in their lives about careers, marriage and children. Especially children.

Orenstein has a tone of genuine searching in this book. She honestly wants to know how other women manage their daily lives, weigh hard decisions about marriage, children, and jobs, and find meaning. She has some opinions about what she finds, inevitably, but for the most part she is compassionate when she approaches judgement, rather than contributing to any “mommy wars.” She decided to write about this topic because she was personally struggling to decide whether or not to have children; her most recent book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, is about the eventual result of that decision.The book’s worst flaw is probably its focus on middle- and upper-middle class women, without giving much time to the perspectives of the working class. This is sadly common among white feminists, and has not changed much since this book was published, as other more recent writing on the topic shows.

The book’s conclusion seemed to be that men and workplaces need to change to keep up with the changes that women are making or want to make in their lives. Masculinity needs to be defined differently, so that men are ok with being a secondary breadwinner, doing household chores, and providing equal childcare, and people need to see a stay-at-home dad as a normal thing, not a hero or martyr, and hold fathers to the same high standards we have for mothers. Employers need to offer more flexibility for both men and women, fathers need to be offered and actually take a long paternity leave, and part-time work needs to be a more viable option. All of that sounds great to me. I sure hope it all happens someday, before I have a child, like within the next 2 years. Wouldn’t that be nice.