Life, #2: Feminisms

Gwyneth Jones has talked before about the limitations involved in being labelled as a feminist writer, particularly for women writers; her comments have attracted discussion (to which she has responded in turn). Life, as far as Jones herself is concerned, is her last engagement – to date – with feminist sf, which she understands to mean sf that deals explicitly with, as she puts it, the Battle of the Sexes. While I join with L. Timmel Duchamp in disagreeing that the Battle is all that feminist sf is (or should be) about, there can be no doubt that Life places feminism front and centre. Not just feminist issues, but feminism as an explicit, understood and debated body of thought. (As I was writing this, Niall wondered aloud: what other – if any – feminist sf stories feature characters who identify or are identified as feminists? I’d be interested to know if anyone reading this has an answer.)

Put another way, Life is concerned with feminisms, because the novel presents multiple faces of feminist thought and activism – chiefly the wary, accommodationist approach of Anna, and Ramone’s more aggressive desire to clear the decks entirely and start again.

Anna thinks about feminist issues mostly in the breach – on occasions when she has been reminded, beyond the possibility of denial, that the world is not equal, and that she is not, always, judged on her merit ahead of or instead of her gender. Most of time, feminism does not form a part of her life. As Daz Avriti, Anna’s Malaysian contemporary at university, points out to her, the capacity to assume that there is no longer any need for feminism – or that the sum total of feminism is the fight for women to be taken seriously – is a measure of Anna’s (white, western, [struggling] middle-class) privilege. In fact, feminist issues are a continuum; and elsewhere in the world, the issues are about women’s survival:

“Anna, where you and I live, women’s rights is old news. Intelligent women want to be judged on their own merits and find the whole feminism thing embarrassing and whiney. But here, where I live… it’s a can of worms. If you start applying the concept of ‘human rights’ to women, in Asia and Africa, you uncover a holocaust.” (235)

This privilege brings its own layers of complication and difficulty when things do go wrong; it insulates Anna from knowledge of the problem, not from the problem itself. The way Anna reacts to her rape is telling in this regard. Initially she feels only confusion, and a measure of denial: how could this happen to her; she’d always been so careful; how could her control of the situation and of her body be so comprehensively destroyed? “You’re having an awkward conversation with a fellow undergraduate,” she reflects, “and suddenly he comes at you with an axe, I wasn’t prepared. […] I could’t believe it. I’m the one who failed to read the damned body language” (78). Then, thinking about how and why she stopped fighting him off (“he’d never have left if I didn’t capitulate, didn’t withdraw my objection, let him score the point, agree to his version” (78)), she feels for the first time a kinship with others who have gone through the same, shattering experience. She is able to recognise the broader, systemic reasons rape and other abuses keep happening, because she, now, has become a part of that culture:

This is what happens, she thought. Women lie, they keep silent, because no one likes a whistleblower. This is how it all carries on. Now I am doing it. I am part of the machine that destroys women’s chances. (81)

I mentioned the obstacles she faces at work, and her resistance to efforts to change things (for fear, again, that she was be seen as Difficult), in the previous post. But it does not go away, as she hopes it will, when she is older and more established in her career. It takes a few bottles of wine and a comfortable evening with a trusted old friend, but eventually she is driven to vent about the other pressures – subtler, but in their steady, relentless way almost as damaging – that she is subject to as a woman, and supposed to laugh off as just a joke:

“It gets so wearing. They come on to me relentlessly, these male colleagues of mine. I take it lightly, I flirt and act sassy, what else can you do? But of course I know what it means, and it’s not friendly. I’m supposed to have forgotten what ‘fucking someone up’ usually implies, in a professional context? I’m supposed to have not been listening, when a few moments before they were all crowing over the way they shafted some poor loser?” (281)

Still she cannot bring herself to act against these attitudes; she will never be secure enough to stop playing the game.

For Ramone, by contrast, feminism – even if she periodically rejects the concept, or the baggage that goes with it (“Here she was, a fucking professional feminist, basically a sex-worker, a pornographer, making her living out of being female” (222) – is an awareness, a way of seeing the world, that she lives with all the time. It is an itch she can never quite scratch, but can certainly never ignore. Unlike Anna, Ramone – “the rabid one”, as Spence, tellingly, dubs her – can never bring herself to make nice and play the game, because the game destroys women, bit by bit:

As far as Ramone could see, what these women had in common was the same as any woman struggling to have power in a man’s world. The eating disorders, the mysterious illnesses, the hysteria. If you were Albert Einstein and born female in the fifteenth century, you’d end up in some convent fasting yourself crazy, writing liturgical music, and reforming the Carmelites. (73)

She ridicules the notion of feminist history, of finding the women who have been written out of the generally accepted narrative of human progress: “It’s playing into the hands of the enemy to say, see, we were up to your standards all along.” (224) (I am reminded of the stance taken by Caitlin Moran in her new book, although somehow I doubt she put nearly as much thought into her own statement on women’s history.) Where Anna can be optimistic, most of the time, that things are improving for women and will continue to do so, Ramone has no such hopes. The playing field is not and never will be level; the only answer is to abandon it and find something new, “a whole different paradigm” (224).

Ramone’s commentary is disquieting, and it certainly doesn’t win her any friends; even the people who vaguely like her, or at least continue to meet up with her every so often after they all leave university, wonder “why did she have to be so violent, contentious, and unreasonable?” (217). While at times it is hard to avoid the feeling that Ramone takes her feminism to its logical conclusion quite so mercilessly in part because she relishes playing the villain – it beats trying to be liked and failing, or not being seen at all – her fidelity to a truly independent self leads her into such extremes of suffering that it is impossible to believe she’s faking it. Although she relishes the suffering, too, of course; even Ramone herself entertains the uncomfortable idea that her persona is essentially an elaborate method of self-harm.

I don’t think this invalidates what Ramone says, however; her message is liberating and necessary, even if you don’t follow her all the way and despite her cluelessness when it comes to her involvement in the Malaysian human rights protest movement. Both of the times I’ve read the book, I’ve found myself frustrated with her excesses and self-destructiveness, but also with myself, with my own Anna-ishness. Ramone tears off the veil, and there is more than a hint of The Female Man – capital letters and all – to the militant defiance of her thought and expression when she says:

I want to exterminate women, wipe them from the face of the earth. I don’t want to be liberated, I want to be a monster. He didn’t get it. No one ever got it, and Ramone could have straightened them out by saying nobody is born a woman and that what she hated was the way she COULD NOT ESCAPE from the role of second-class person. No woman could, the only escape was to become SOMETHING NEW that had never existed before. And fuck them all; she’d rather be misunderstood than acceptable… But he was impressed by her anger. She saw the alarm coming up in his eyes. It never ceased to amaze her, that fear. For fuck’s sake, she thought, I weigh fifty kilos, that’s about seven stone twelve, o dweller in the shades of departed empire: what do you think I’m going to do? (153)

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