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. Continue reading →
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!
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.
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.