In college I loved moments of synchronicity between courses, when I found myself looking at the same topic through two different disciplinary lenses and thus understanding it more deeply. Something similar happened to me this week, when two books I was reading suddenly seemed related: Sarah Morgan’s Ripped and Lucy Ellman’s Mimi.
Sure, one’s a novella from Harlequin’s partnership with Cosmopolitan and the other is a literary novel frequently described as “feminist,” but they’re both funny and both celebrate love and female sexual pleasure. And both, especially together, made me think (again) about the whole question of “feminist” fiction: is there such a thing? what does it mean to call a novel feminist? I find it more useful to think about feminist reading(s)–by which I don’t mean judging whether a novel is “politically correct” (ugh) or “feminist enough,” but reading through feminist lenses and asking certain kinds of questions–than about feminist fiction. Because my response to “Are these books feminist?” would be, “It’s complicated.”
Ripped has been positively reviewed all over Romanceland, and I too thoroughly enjoyed this sweet, sexy, funny story, a skillful blend of chick lit (first-person narration, accident-prone heroine) and Harlequin Presents (rich, sexy, mysterious Italian hero). Morgan’s novella certainly doesn’t proclaim itself a work of feminist fiction, but I think it’s the kind of book people point to when they say romance fiction is feminist: heroine Hayley is an engineer, and the “message” of her romance is that you need a man who loves you for yourself, who doesn’t try to stifle your passions or get you to be a corporate wife instead of pursuing your dream of working for NASA.
But then there is the chick lit style humor. Ripped trades much less in its heroine’s humiliation than a lot of chick lit does, but it opens with the heroine as a bridesmaid at her ex’s wedding, where her “yellow condom” of a dress splits, creating a spectacular wardrobe malfunction (she’s bra-less). Later, in a moment reminiscent of Bridget Jones’ blue soup, she waxes a turkey leg. And much as I enjoyed this book I found myself wondering if the novel didn’t do to Hayley a bit of what her nasty ex Charlie did: belittle her, and deny her skills. She’s an engineer (of some vague kind): isn’t the size of a dress in relation to the size of one’s breasts, and the strength of its seams, basically an engineering problem? I could accept that her pride made Hayley agree to be bridesmaid for her ex and the friend he dumped her for, but does that pride have to extend to not insisting her puke-yellow condom dress is the right size?
I see the arguments for chick lit as feminist: many women, like its heroines, like me, spend a lot of time feeling not good, smart, pretty, sexy, etc. etc. enough, feeling self-conscious and like we’re doing it wrong; we certainly get told that a lot. Chick lit tells us that despite our embarrassing screw-ups, extra pounds, and frizzy hair, even because of them, we’re lovable, we deserve the great job and the hot guy and a happy life–and we do! But still. Do we have to go as far as exposing the heroine’s breasts in public so she can be rescued by hot hero Nico? Can we ever laugh at the hero instead? Could the heroine rescue him from a funny/embarrassing situation, for once?
Reading Ripped made me think about Courtney Milan’s post about how she began writing feminist books. A tweet, she says, made her rethink a scene she was writing:
Why was I accepting this without question? Why was I writing this way? Why was I writing something I didn’t believe, and what did it say that I’d internalized something . . . enough to regurgitate it without thinking?
Those are feminist questions. I’d love to see fewer funny scenes that revolve around humiliating the heroine. Why are we doing that?
Ellmann’s Mimi is structured like a romantic comedy: Harrison Hanafin, a rather hapless Manhattan plastic surgeon, meets, loses, and finds again the eccentric, feminist Mimi, and along the way is converted to a more feminist view of the world (I’m not really writing a proper review here; I pretty much agree with Laura Miller’s). My first note on Ellmann’s book was “OMG the voice is exhausting,” but the bravura, manic narration won me over–rants, lists, italics, sly rhymes, and all. I found a lot of Mimi funny and charming; there are plenty of great observations. And the section where Harrison mourns his sister Bee and is forced to re-evaluate his view of her as a more or less failed artist is poignant and astute.
There are some familiar feminist themes here, like the value of female work/crafts such as jam-making and quilting. Bee’s art focuses on “coziness,” creating spaces of domestic pleasure. Harrison increasingly questions the value of his own work; he began by helping burn victims, but now he’s turning perfectly nice breasts into differently nice breasts, contributing to the body-shaming women are subject to. The novel also ponders the prevalence of violence against women (even Harrison’s female cat is subject to it). But why is Harrison the narrator? He’s so narcissistic that I ended up feeling that the female suffering in the book was all about him and how it affected him.
Is that male narcissism actually Mimi‘s point? Like Christopher Buckley (I know, right?), at the novel’s end I found myself wondering if this was an elaborate prank/satire or simply sophomoric. How are we meant to take Harrison’s “Odalisque Manifesto,” suggesting that men give women all the money and devote themselves to women’s pleasure? Harrison and Mimi aren’t stoned undergrads, they’re in their late 40s. Why haven’t they grown up? Or does that question just show how I’ve been co-opted away from female pleasure by the patriarchy? (Oh, fuck off).
Mimi made me think a bit more carefully about why I expect more from a literary novel than I do from a romance, or rather what more/else I expect. Because I’m perfectly happy to while away a couple of hours with Sarah Morgan celebrating laughter, hot sex and a man who gives you pleasure. Morgan doesn’t pretend to be writing a manifesto of any kind, or suggest that pleasure is more important than other things found in other books. But from a feminist novel that some people have suggested should have made it onto award lists, I expect seriousness as well. And I’m not sure I got that. I felt about Ellmann kind of the way I feel about Caitlin Moran: ranting and laughter and funny rants can reveal truths, and be cathartic, and make us feel good, but we need more than laughter to change things.
Starting with intersectionality, for fuck’s sake: does the Odalisque Manifesto extend beyond rich New Yorkers? Which women are we going to give the money to and allow to run things? Can we really look at someone like, say, Sarah Palin and think that putting women in charge will end wars and violence and fix the environment? Maybe Todd isn’t devoting himself enough to her sexual pleasure? (This has to be a prank. Doesn’t it?).
What, exactly, am I laughing at?
And yes I said yes I will Yes to funny sexy romantic reading pleasure yes but I said there’s more to it than that surely I’m 46 now and you can’t tell me a good laugh and multiple orgasms are enough.