(Chatto & Windus 1997)
Joan Smith’s book about how the world treats women differently, is a little dated – one of the main women she considers as an icon of womenkind, Princess Diana, was to die not long after Smith’s book was published, though in fact some of Smith’s comments about Diana appear alarmingly prescient.
What kind of women fascinate us at the end of the twentieth century? Diana, Princess of Wales, still seems to be the number one pin-up on both sides of the Atlantic, closely followed by Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe… What does it tell us about ourselves, however, if two of the women we most admire are dead and all three are linked with tragedy in its various guises: suicide, assassination, a desperately unhappy marriage?
The first chapter considers Diana’s role, both as wife and ex-wife, and the extraordinary adulation she excited during her lifetime; then Smith discusses the institution of marriage, its former massive imbalance in power between men and women, and the findings nowadays which suggest that women are, on the whole, more satisfied out of marriage than they are in it. The Last Silent Movie Star considers Jackie Kennedy’s extraordinary fascination is partly tied up in her silence about the death of her husband, and suggests that women, if they are maintain public interest, must be seen and not heard. Smith also suggests that:
“Jackie’s canonisation… continues to cast a long shadow over more recent First Ladies and women who aspire, however slim their chances of achieving it, to that position.”
Our Lady of the Test Tubes considers the case of Mandy Allwood, would-be mother of octuplets by artificial insemination, and the furore which erupted around her determination to keep all the babies, despite her doctors’ insistence that so many children were not viable, and that selective abortion was the only way to keep the rest alive (eventually all of the octuplets died). Smith goes from this to considering the exalted status of motherhood which society presses on women, such that women who are childless by choice are often villified, and infertility seen as a problem to be solved.
I’m Gonna Make You… is an interesting chapter about the women who modelled for the Pre-Raphaelite painters and writers, largely from the working classes, most of whom lived with the artists and only rarely had happy or equal relationships (Smith singles out William Morris for his truly egalitarian tendencies). From artists’ models Smith goes on to discuss fashion models and fashion, as well as the strange relationships many designers appear to have with the female body.
The Selfish Jean goes into more detail about the childless by choice (a group in which Smith has chosen to belong), and the assumption by many people that they are selfish and (conversely) missing out on one of life’s greatest joys.
The Lady Vanishes discusses the role of the femme fatale in film noir, from Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Double Indemnity’ to Linda Fiorentino in ‘The Last Seduction’, and the portrayal of women’s sexuality on film. Single, White, Fertile considers the opprobrium heaped on single mothers and working mothers, and the unequal standards to which society holds mothers compared to fathers in bringing up their children.
In The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Smith writes about the sexually explicit novel Histoire d’O, and suggests that, although its author was a woman, that she did not write its scenes of rape, beatings and forced prostitution as accurate reflections of women’s desires, but in order to excite her (male) lover, and considers how women can find a vocabulary of sexuality that is theirs, not borrowed from male terminology. Unnatural Born Killers considers the aberrations of female serial killers, particularly Rose West and Myra Hindley, and the charactersiation of both women as more evil than their male collaborators. Smith argues persuasively that they were dominated by Fred West and Ian Brady, respectively, and that neither should be considered as “masterminding” the gruesome crimes with which both were charged and found guilty.
Finally Smith suggests “five propositions and a conclusion” about the way society treats women differently to women:
- The main difference between men and women in any culture is that women are treated differently;
- Theories about difference, frequently supported by religious texts, are used to create the asymmetry whose existence they presuppose;
- There is far more evidence of a craving in all cultures for gender dimorphism than evidence that it actually exists [an idea which Cordelia Fine debunks in Delusions of Gender, still on my TBR list];
- Being a woman is not just a state but a moral condition; and
- Women are expected to be different from men but the same as each other.
(summarised from pp 153-165)
Smith’s research appears to be extensive and accurate, though I did find a couple of inaccuracies in statements for which she doesn’t cite references – that Clytemnestra’s lover was Orestes (in fact, he was her son: her lover was Aegisthus), and makes the common mistake that ‘Little Women’ was written as two parts, though it was only published as such in the UK.
Otherwise, her book is interesting and well-argued, though it has the appearance of something that was originally written as a series of shorter articles, though the theme of how women are different from men (or at least, how societies see the sexes differently) is considered seriously in most of the chapters. As feminist literature, what Smith is saying is not particularly new or radical, but it is useful to consider; to realise when our own cultural conditioning leads us to impose different expectations on women compared to men; and to fight against those differences.