Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter 11, Part One

Why has it been so long since I updated this readalong? Well, I’ll admit it: I lost the damn book in my book hoard. What, you don’t have a giant pile of half-read books that can completely conceal a large hardback? It’s just me? Anyway, it’s all good, I guess, because we’re coming up to a real disaster of a chapter here. Gave myself a breather and all. And now I’m back to tackle Chapter 11.

The faux historical excerpt at the beginning of the chapter describes the Tearling religion as a post-apocalyptic mishmash of Christian beliefs, shaped by the fear of the death of the human race. Wow, what would such a religion look like? Sounds fascinating.

Well, we’re not going to find out, because the church as depicted is straight out of a David Eddings novel—full of corrupt, evil perverts. Nuanced! Father Tyler, the one non-evil priest, shows up at the Keep and wants to hang out with Kelsea and read Kelsea’s books. He promises not to try and convert the nonbelieving Kelsea, because apparently the church is all-powerful and all-controlling and yet doesn’t give a fuck if the ruler of the country is an atheist. Hey, are any of the people in the Tear religious? Do they mind that Kelsea doesn’t share their beliefs? If the church is so oppressive, is there an alternative religious movement? Maybe atheism is popular?

Oh, I forgot, this is fantasy land, where every illiterate, downtrodden peasant has the tepid religious sensibilities of a 21st-century Western agnostic. Never mind, go on.

Anyway, Kelsea tells Father Tyler that she wants to reestablish printing presses, and he likes that idea, so he agrees to help her. That’s nice.

Afterwards, Kelsea goes through her first court audience. She thinks back to her preparations for the event, when she was hanging out with Marguerite, the former mistress of Evil Uncle Thomas. Kelsea asks Marguerite whether she wants to go back to her homeland of Mort. Marguerite doesn’t care, she’s a victim of fate. There aren’t many women in this book with speaking roles, but it turns out that the ones who aren’t evil are predestined to misery. In Marguerite’s case, she can’t control her destiny because she’s beautiful.

Because of this,” Marguerite replied, running an explanatory hand up her body and circling it around her face. “This determines who I am.”

Being beautiful?”

Yes.”

Kelsea reacts with internal envy. She wants to be objectified, too!

She would give anything to look like Marguerite […] She had already noticed how, on those rare occasions when Marguerite emerged from the nursery, the guards’ eyes followed her across the room. There was no overtly boorish behavior, nothing for which Kelsea could take them to task, but sometimes she wanted to reach out and slap them, scream in their faces: Look at me! I’m valuable too! Eyes followed Kelsea across the room as well, but it wasn’t the same at all.

Marguerite can sense Kelsea’s resentment.

You think of beauty only as a blessing, Majesty, but it brings its own punishments. Believe me.”

Kelsea is unconvinced.

Beauty was currency. For every man who valued Marguerite less because of her beauty, there would be a hundred men, and many women as well, who automatically valued her more.

Jesus. Where are we here? I understand that one woman might be envious of another’s beauty, but this is written like Kelsea and Marguerite are high school girls pining after a jock with sexy anger problems or a mysterious boy with infinitely kissable lips. Kelsea is the plainer one, while Marguerite is the hotter one who will probably come to some sort of sticky end so that Kelsea can get with the secretly-sensitive jock or the outwardly sensitive, long-lashed boy. In short, it’s YA.

But Kelsea’s not a high school student. She’s a queen. Men will definitely desire her, even if she’s not a great beauty, because she’s so very powerful (and in addition, whoever fathers her child has a claim to the heir to the throne). Hell, she’s the queen, she can set beauty standards if she wants to. Actually, since Kelsea is only 19 and very sheltered, I’m surprised that men aren’t swarming around her already, flattering her and trying to be the first to get into her bed. But Johansen can’t seem to get out of the YA mindset, even when it makes no sense, so Kelsea is tragic because she isn’t the hottest in the land and so her crush (the one who told her that she was too ugly to rape) won’t want to sleep with her, ever.

Kelsea’s “tragedy” also seems ridiculous when you consider that when she first saw Marguerite, Marguerite was kneeling half-naked and had a leash around her neck! Oh, and don’t forget, Marguerite was repeatedly raped and forced to have abortions. Wow, what sweet perks! Obviously being beautiful is better than having absolute power!  I guess at least then you can get raped, right, girls?

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In a more subtly written book, Kelsea could express these feelings while still being sympathetic—she’s young, she’s sheltered, and she has normal human desires, which sometimes shade into envy. But it’s written completely straight, as if this is really just as important as war or as traumatizing as continuous abouse. It’s rather like the narration for an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine. Kelsea doesn’t have to confront her reality as a queen, because she’s the protagonist girl and is vaguely YA-like and has YA problems that are the most important things in the whole world, just like Thomas is the protagonist train and is blue and lives on an island of talking trains and none of this makes any sense at all for anyone over five.

I’m not done with this chapter yet—there’s a really problematic scene coming up that I want to tear into on multiple levels. But I need another breather. Almost done, almost done.

Alice + Freda Forever

Just finished up Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever. I thought I would really enjoy this book—it got good reviews, and, you know, lesbians! murder! insanity!—but I found it difficult to read (the chronology of events is confusing, and some of the design choices make it difficult to read on a computer) and, worse, it’s oddly patriarchal in its views.*

The historical event behind the book: In 1890s Memphis, Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, fell in love with each other at school. After Freda moved away, the two made plans to marry—Freda would sneak back to Memphis, Alice would disguise herself as a man, and they would get hitched at their local church. After Freda’s sister discovered their letters, she revealed the plans to Alice’s family and the relationship disintegrated. The heartbroken Alice waited until Freda made a visit to Memphis, then slashed Freda’s throat.

The book covers the girls’ relationship, the murder, and the subsequent insanity proceedings, in which the defense argued that Alice’s same-sex attachment proved that she was out of her mind and not fit for trial. Alice is obviously the more interesting figure of the two, just by virtue of living longer than Freda. But Coe valorizes Alice—a woman who dared to want to escape her mandated future of marriage and motherhood, who would love who she wanted to love, who supposedly screamed “I’m going to do just exactly what I wanted to do, and I don’t care if I do get hung!” as she dashed away from the murder scene. By doing so, Coe whitewashes that Alice’s rebellion against gender roles meant that she took on the worst of what it meant to be a “man,” ultimately leading to her lover’s death.

Alice may have wanted to escape her future as a wife or old maid, dependent on the whims of a man, but she didn’t extend that same freedom to her own lover. By planning on transforming herself into a man, she also planned to transform herself into a patriarch, assuming her rightful power over a wife-to-be. Alice’s letters reflect this view: Freda should be a model wife, a woman who never deceived, who was her spouse’s first and last love, who cooked and sewed buttons for her one and only. Freda enjoyed flirting and dreamed of going on the stage, but after she had promised herself to a future “husband”—whether that husband was male or female—she would have to forsake all others, even before marriage, and confine her dreams to the home. By transgressing those boundaries, Freda became a “bad woman” in Alice’s eyes. As her fiance and the “man” in the relationship, Alice had the right to kill her, a right which she made very clear in her various death threats to Freda, in letters or face to face. When Freda removed herself from Alice’s life, whether by choice or by force, Alice took advantage of her rights and killed her.

Coe’s depiction of Freda reinforces this old pernicious view, that a woman who isn’t fully submissive and loyal deserves to die. Coe describes Freda as “an incorrigible flirt” and states that Freda “callously” wanted to go on the stage despite her engagement. It’s especially troubling because Coe is describing a 17-year-old, barely out of girlhood even by 19th-century standards.

The whole courtship seemed to be a game of youthful dalliance that Freda greatly enjoyed; proposals were like trophies, accolades she enthusiastically accepted without seriously considering what came after. And yet, Freda continuously assured Alice—or rather, Alvin J. Ward, her fiance—that their marriage would inspire fidelity, and she would embrace the virtues of true womanhood. Freda blithely encouraged the transition, never truly grasping the peril the terms of her engagement put her in.

Yeah, no shit, it was a youthful dalliance because Freda was youthful. And she probably didn’t expect that her peril would include her being murdered in the middle of the street. Way to blame the victim, Coe.

I’m being a bit harsh, I guess—it’s not like I don’t enjoy sordid murder stories, I just don’t like sordid murder stories transformed into cri de coeurs for a higher cause. Coe uses the whole affair to argue for the right to same-sex marriage (which, at the time the book was published, was illegal in Tennessee), utterly ignoring what Alice’s treatment of Freda says about the concept of marriage in itself. There have been plenty of committed same-sex partnerships throughout history, partners who uphold our best ideals of Western, modern marriage—a union that reinforces the love between two people. But this particular relationship highlights the dark side of marriage: the idea that partners somehow become each others’ property, and that there’s a “male” power role that somebody has to play. Do same-sex couples now have the same right to destroy their partners as men have over women in heterosexual marriage? Same-sex marriage is now legal in every state, but really… who would want to get married after reading this book? Are you sure that you’re not entering an outmoded institution that oppresses women and all those who have to play the “female” role, the female who must be dutiful at all times, who has to hold up the world but never leave the kitchen? Are you sure that you want to enter this patriarchal death trap? I’m tempted to side with the anarchists of old and declare for free love only.

* Also, there’s some really inept dropping of Foucault bombs, which makes me think that this was somebody’s Women’s Studies 102 final paper before it became a book. Girl, don’t think I don’t know you! With your Madness and Civilization!

Calling All Buffy Watchers!

Confession to make: I never watched much of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yeah, I know, I know. I have watched some of Marti Noxon’s Unreal, however, and have to wonder–I know there was a big fan backlash against Noxon and season six of Buffy. I assumed that the show just changed a bit and people freaked out, and Noxon tookthe heat for Greatest Male Feminist Ever Joss Whedon, but now I’m curious–did Buffy and company suddenly become really, well, victimized in the sixth season? Because Unreal has possibly the most abject female characters I’ve ever seen.

No, You Will Not Die From Wearing Jeans (Of Shame or Otherwise)

Oh, my lord. Women and our clothes. Jessica Valenti is sad that skinny jeans and high heels and purses pose a danger to her health, and wishes that she can wear comfortable clothes, like her child. But she can’t, because otherwise she’d… well, something bad would happen. So she’ll just keep wearing these clothes and probably die of some sort of jeans-related aneurysm.

Before you freak out, I’m here to tell you that none of these items of clothing are looming threats to your health. If you go to your doctor and ask her what you can do to improve your well-being, the last thing she’s going to tell you is to stop wearing skinny jeans. The clothes that Valenti describes aren’t even particularly uncomfortable, excepting certain types of high heels.*

I’m almost certain that anyone who reads this page will about this type of jeans, but just in case you’ve never put a pair of dangerous skinny jeans onto your own trembling legs, I’ll explain them to you. Maybe really expensive jeans are sewn onto the wearer’s body along with diamonds and pearls, but most jeans brands add some stretchy substance to the denim weave, so the jeans cling to the body (the “skinny” look). They’re pretty comfortable and they’re not especially heavy compared to other denim, which is part of why they’ve stuck around for the last 15 years despite not being universally flattering. Granted, if the jeans are too tight, they can cut into your skin, but that’s not some sort of fashion trend, it means that you bought the wrong size. You cannot injure yourself wearing a pair of jeans unless you deliberately make yourself into a human sausage.

You also cannot injure yourself by wearing a purse, because a purse is literally a container with a fastener on it. I mean, you can injure yourself by carrying too much in your purse, or wearing one with an uncomfortable strap, or by buying a purse with spikes on it. But nobody’s going to come up to you and say, “Woman, if you don’t injure yourself by carrying a purse with spikes stuck on, you are no longer a female but some sort of neuter beast. Begone!” It’s a tool to carry your personal belongings. I don’t know, if you’re a guy, maybe someone will injure your sense of masculinity by calling your purse a “murse” or a “man bag.” Oh, it’s a messenger bag, all right then.

High heels are actually dangerous, if you wear them constantly and if the heels are too high or thin. You also need to practice walking in them at first or if you haven’t worn them for a while. However, if you want some extra height, there are short heels and chunky heels and wedges, so you don’t absolutely have to wear shoes that are difficult to walk in. Or, you know, you can just wear flats. It’s not like the choice is between platform stilettos and Crocs.

OK, OK, I’m taking this too seriously. I get it–constructing your appearance is important, especially for women. The process of making one’s self up is fascinating to study, if it’s slightly less fun to actually live out. (Taken to the extreme it becomes blackly hilarious—“Ladies, you may be dying of cancer, but why can’t you put on some makeup? It’ll make you feel better!” Yeah, I’ll use it to cover up my suppurating tumor, jackass.) Wearing certain outfits sends out certain signals–you have more money, more access to knowledge, an allegiance to this or that community. Add that personal preferences to that—favorite colors, fabrics, and so on—and it gets pretty complicated. I care about this myself, I want to project a certain image and I definitely change it according to my surroundings.

I think what gets me is just how prim Valenti is. She thinks that her clothes will harm her body and yet she still wears them! What would happen to her if she wore flats instead of heels? What would the terrible consequences be? Would her friends and family desert her? I mean, what would happen if Valenti took a backpack to work, instead of a purse? Would her boss come in and say, “You know, you write a good feminist line, but that knapsack makes me despise you as a person. You’re fired!” Would that really happen? I don’t think so (and not just because Valenti probably works from home).

I mean, it’s not like Valenti has to wear some sort of professional uniform, official or understood. She’s not a Hooters waitress or a McDonald’s cashier or a courtroom lawyer. Valenti is a professional feminist at the Guardian, for Christ’s sake. Her entire career as a third-wave feminist is based on promoting the personal freedoms of women and she still can’t wear a pair of flats because making that choice would destroy too much of her worth as a person. What hope is there for the rest of us poor saps?

* You know what item of clothing is dangerous? The thong. What’s the point? Oh, I don’t want people to know I’m wearing underwear, because that’s slutty, but I don’t want to not wear underwear, because that’s slutty too! I’ll compromise and wear a tiny strip of fabric that is designed to irritate every single part of my genitals. Oh, and because the thong’s so tight, it transports all the bacteria from my poop into my abraded vagina! Yay, vaginal pain and yeast infections!

** The skinny jean trend finally seems to be ending—flares are coming back in, which no doubt will lead to tales of women who trip on the hems and die. Overalls are also on trend, deliberately marketed as a grown woman’s version of the comfortable children’s classic.

Bears, Beets, Battlestar Galactica Rage (Six Years On)

A friend and I have been watching Battlestar Galactica for years now, a few episodes every few weeks or months, and it’s finally built up and I need to vent before the pressure makes me explode like a spaceship in a season finale. It’s a tough process—I suppose without the weekly suspense, you have time to think out the plot holes (although Abigail Nussbaum found them in her perceptive essays on the show, penned while the show was still airing). The journey to Earth/wherever has become a frustrating slog, and I suppose we’re still watching it because of the sunk cost fallacy.

Let me give you an example of what I’m dealing with here. Continue reading →

Oh, for goodness’s sake…

It’s super right-on of online magazine the Offing to care about the differences between exposure and support…. except the Offing expects aspiring authors to pay $3 per submission. Yes, people are now paying to enter the slush pile! Madness.

Lest we get too upset with the Offing, they may have been suckered as well–they’re paying at least $319 a year for the submission system that collects their fees. There’s no way to do it through Paypal Accounts or Google Pay or some other free system? I suppose it’s cheaper than an employee, though, and it makes the swindle easier.

(What disgusts me about submission fees–besides the devaluing of work, and the bizarre idea that they somehow help the marginalized, in this case–is that they’re so easy to make extremely predatory, extremely quickly. The Offing is an online offshoot of Los Angeles Review of Books, and LARB’s reputation is presumably why someone would bother paying to take a shot at publication. Well, what if I start a site that’s “associated” with a better-known publication, or if I promise that fans will have their submissions read by a big-name writer to encourage them to pay a bigger fee, or [the most obvious swindle] if I promise that writers who pay or who pay more have a better chance of publication, and so on and so on… there are a thousand ways to make this a totally unethical process.)

For more on this ouroborous, a conversation between the Offing and Nick Mamatas at Storify, where I found out about this in the first place.

I Watched This for Free on the Internet: Forbidden Lie$

Documentary Forbidden Lie$ is based on the story of bestselling book Forbidden Love. Forbidden Love (published in the United States as Honor Lost) is the autobiography of Norma Khouri, a Jordanian woman who started a unisex hair salon with her best friend, Dalia. Dalia fell in love with a Christian customer, and Khouri helped her arrange clandestine meeting. When Dalia’s family discovered that she had a boyfriend, they killed Dalia, and Khouri fled Jordan in fear for her life, eventually ending up in Australia and writing her memoir.

Or so the story went until a 2004 article in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that Khouri had never lived in Jordan in her adult life, having immigrated to the United States when she was only three years old. Furthermore, Khouri hadn’t fled to Australia to escape her vengeful family—instead, she had run away from Chicago, where the police were after Khouri for swindling a sick old lady out of her house and savings bonds. The supposedly single Khouri also had a husband and two kids in tow (she claimed that the husband was her American rescuer and that their children together were strictly his).

The heart of Forbidden Lie$ is filmmaker Anna Broinowski’s journey to Jordan with Khouri to find the truth behind Khouri’s story. Broinowski begins with the assumption that “Dalia” was real in some form, even if the exact details didn’t hold up. Was “Dalia” really Khouri’s cousin? Was “Dalia” a pseudonym for honor killing victim Ghada Abed? Is Dalia a representation of Khouri herself? Khouri was involved in a child abuse case during her teens, alleging that her father sexually abused her. Khouri’s father pled guilty, although he now says that he did so only to keep the family from further scandal. Was Khouri retelling her own story of abuse in a more dramatic, money-making form?

We never quite find out. However, the “truth” is less interesting that the sheer volume of the lies. Khouri is a wonderful personality to watch from the safety of the couch–I got the feeling that she’s completely convinced that whatever she does is right, and that anyone who dares question her motives isn’t just morally deficient, they’re deluded about the actual evidence. Of course, Broinowski catches her out multiple times, and each time Khouri has another excuse or another detail to reveal. She’s charming, but she’s dangerous to deal with–especially if you let her get near your money!

This raises the question–why would anybody would want to attempt to vindicate Khouri in the first place? I can understand why someone who was directly swindled by Khouri would want to believe in Khouri’s inherent goodness, if only to save face, but why would anyone get involved secondhand?

The attitude seems to be that, even if Khouri is lying, she’s lying for a good cause–even the journalist who originally exposed Khouri, Malcolm Knox, says that “her heart was in the right place.” The reader who picks up Forbidden Love/Honor Lost probably sympathizes with Khouri when she says that

politicians [lie] all the time and the Jordanian government has been doing it for 200 years […] I lied for a reason. It wasn’t fame and fortune I was after, not at all. It was about the issue. And I apologise to you for lying. I justified it in my head as the ends justifying the means. I hated lying to anyone about anything.

Well, Khouri did get a hefty advance and a lot of interviews, but really, who is the Western reader going to side with, Khouri or some nasty, woman-killing Sheik of Araby, who is presumably twirling his mustache as we speak? (The women and men who work against honor crimes in their own countries never come into it, of course.)

There’s a whole genre of these books about abused Muslim women, many of which have been debunked. But even though the details are incorrect, sometimes flagrantly so (Khouri stated that the Jordan River ran through Amman; in another “memoir,” Burned Alive, victim “Souad” manages to survive horrific burns while starving in a filthy Palestinian hospital), readers are sure that something in the books is true. I suppose that these books create a sort of false dichotomy–by reading them, you show solidarity, and by doubting them, you further oppress these poor women!

Forbidden Lie$ is available on YouTube in a slightly cut form here and in parts beginning here.