Who’s the Bitch Again? Tough Women Against The Stream

Get the book from University of Chicago press — not for free! (click the picture for link)


Instead of highlighting journals and doing my English assignment, I reviewed a book that I just bought from University of Chicago’s Seminary Co-opt Bookstore couple weeks ago. A very lovely place and I highly recommend it. So the title is Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil by Deborah Nelson. It’s a book on women studies, that elaborates the creative process of those great woman writers on the title. The thesis is quite simple, those women; philosophy, art critics, writer (fiction or not), are seen as ‘cold women’. They raised to the social ladder of intellectual circle not just primarily seen by their brilliant capacity and achievements, but also due to their ‘coldness’ in dealing with or analyzing pain, suffering, and (modern) tragedy. This particular character has something to do with masculine gaze in attributing certain psychological and ethical characters in women, especially in intellectual/academia circle. In the modern time (late twentieth century) when emotional expressivity and empathy that required the public sharing of feelings (p. 7) was highly demanded, there were these women who remained “emotionally” detached with the post-war, human rights accountability, civil unrest, etc. However, according to Nelson, it’s not always remained ‘stoic’ against the feeling, but rather they ‘neither sacralized pain nor remained indifferent to it, and in this way they constitute a countertradition that has been mistaken for heartlessness and coldness’ which she then further explained that it would be better to call it as ‘toughness’ (p.7).

Nelson gave many examples from each woman author in this book. In the case of Simon Weil, for her consistent refusal for any spiritual redemption of suffering in the post-war or compensation or suggestion for obligation of justice wasn’t really favored — while churches offered comfort and consolation. As a result, she was called ‘unattractive and absurd’ by Time but the review made sure to patronize her in terms of ‘sainthood’ due to her theological thought and her ‘misery’ (p.20). The pattern of false ‘coldness’ usually took place in the ‘wrong’ time; many of these writers published or wrote certain works that could be easily seen as ‘insensitive’ while simply being counternarration against the mainstream one. Arendt sparked this ironic tone in the publication of notorious (or just famous, basically) Eichmann in Jerussalem: The Banality of Evil. We all (probably not) know the underlying thesis of that work; we couldn’t really call Eichmann as ‘monster’ (Arendt, 1964: 29), and he simply followed ‘rule’ and obeyed ‘law’ that persisted during his time. The root of evil remains questionable and not simply due to Eichmann’s mere hatred to Jew. Nazi after all were people organizations and they are consisted by people who might be psychopathic or not, just like any organizations. In 2016, with the rise of alternative rights and conservative groups, this thesis might make sense (try watch Look Who’s Back or read about Deleuze’s microfasis). However, in 1961 during the trial and afterwards, that kind of preposition indeed wasn’t acceptable.

Aside the ‘bad timing’ and ‘counternarration’, these female authors were also characterized by the tone of their work. Mary McCharty approach to ‘facing reality’ as ‘the aesthetics of common sense’ (p. 75), or Arbus’ demystifying agency on her photographs (p.142) with its “bluntest limitations” (p.137), or Sontag’s attack to exacerbated feeling (of culture) on war, sexual freedom, and her particular interest, cancer — since she suffered from one (p. 70). Joan Didion’s account in The Year of Magical Thinking, although not explicit took a step back and tried to question the self-pity, our feeling towards coping tragedy (the mentioned book is about her husband’s death), and the feeling itself. Rather a sentimentalism, it is more about personal reconciliation about what she felt and other things left behind prior to the grievances such as ambition (p. 153). Didion even rethought about ‘hardness’ when her terminally-ill daughter, Quintana, said that the coping mechanism was “don’t dwell on it”. While Didion didn’t dwell on the hardship and sorrow directly and immediately, what happened was her indictment to self-pity; she dwelled on Quintana’s ‘not-dwelling on’ the loss and sickness (p.171).

Tough Enough might become important books not just because the tone of ‘facing reality’ that is indeed necessarily important in our time. Furthermore, this book makes the reader (or at least me) to rethink the courtship of emotional attribution on women, or even men/any gender. Even in academia, women who top their positions would often get called nasty derogatory name; bitch, crazy, heartless, emotionless, to pay the price of being similar with ‘masculine’ trait of intelligibility (cold, perseverance, distance, rigorous, demanding). Arendt and Weil are the perfect example of this. The way social construction excludes ‘unsentimental’/’insensitive’ in literature or philosophical work is also problematic because it reflects the modern (boredom of) dichotomy in gender system that operates within. And at last, the focus of our unsentimentality/insensitiveness also needs crucial scrutiny; to whom it may address? Is sensitivity heightened towards reality (p. 6) accepted? What  makes these six female authors different from other in her time is at least for their insistence on ordinariness of pain, suffering, and tragedy — nothing really special about it. It doesn’t necessarily means they’re pessimist, but  very realist ones. They took high suspicion of sorrow and tried to examine what is so intriguing about pain that dwell many people on it. Other importance of this book that I just suddenly could recall is to problematize how we see feminist work. Sometimes in feminist circle we’re often confused with what constitute a ‘good feminist’/’feminist/women spirit’ writing, and easily call out some works as ‘patriarchy handmaiden’ or ‘internalized misogyny’. Reading between the lines, Tough Enough supposedly should bring reader to critical point of view on what makes certain works could be considered as ‘facing reality’, ‘sexist beyond belief’, or ‘ironically-clever take on some gender issues’, especially for students of gender studies or feminism.

This book is not really friendly for newcomers in women’s or (English) literature studies, especially ones who are not familiar with the United States’ socio-cultural-political context. However, if you take time to get along because you’re interested in the theme, surely this book is something worth attention. Its order is chronological, so reader wouldn’t get lost or confused in the time frame setting. Other question that keeps bugging me is the fact that all writers elaborated here are white women. Not I am being banal about identity, but I become just curious about the political and sociological nature of emotion implied to women of colors writers due to legacy of different history and set of power. It might be the future idea for anyone who’s interested.

In the time of pretentiousness and near-apocalypse world, these female writers’ sensitivity to reality is exactly the kind of sensitivity we need. Being sensitive and honest about what’s really going on instead of sugar-coating the atrocities with jargonistic approach disguised as heartwarming words. In fact, it’s not sensitive to false anything less than what the “truth” (I quot-mark this to imply that it doesn’t mean ‘ultimate’ truth but rather rhizomatic experience of truth, the partial one, so we don’t fall into short-sighted post-truth nonsense) is. It’s not sentimental to approach someone with some kind of secret bully attitude implying feelings that people might not need it or have the capabilities to come up with. Because perhaps emotional labor wouldn’t help us seizing the means of production. As written on its back cover, “the hurts of the world must be treated concretely, directly, and realistically, without recourse to either melodrama or callousness”.


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