The Fictional Woman set off such a chaos of responses in me I hardly know where to begin this review. I could write pages. I half filled a note book with quotes, reflections, ravings. It’s not that Tara Moss says anything new. The message of this book, that in 2014 women have wound up with the fuzzy end of the lollipop, is a message we are used to hearing. So much so I think the world is a bit immune to it. Which is why this book is so important.
Moss opens with some compelling statistics that demonstrate very clearly how women’s voices and interests are vastly underrepresented, or even suppressed, in Western culture. (I shudder to think what these stats would look like in the Arabic States). This is no surprise. We’ve heard the statistics before. What makes this work so compelling is that Moss digs underneath the statistics to unearth why this cultural bias, favouring masculine over feminine, continues to exist. She uses history, story telling and lived experiences, both her own and that of others, to highlight the points she so saliently makes.
Moss explains the way women are seen, and thus the way we are treated in society, as a result of habitual patterns of thinking, stories if you like, that carry inherent and faulty biases within them. It isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. For the most part people adopt this thinking unconsciously, assuming the structures of power and merit as defined by men are the most valid and valuable. [Which is why women’s work receives less accolades in literary fields, and why women are paid 17% less than their male counterparts, and why domestic violence, reproductive rights, and lack of political representation by women are still not properly addressed.] The lens we have been trained to look though is a male-dominated lens.
‘If it can be said art imitates life, one must conclude that, to a large degree, the life art imitates is that which is experienced by and imagined by men.’ – pg 129
Moss makes it clear we live in a meritocracy, defined and defended by men – because as a demographic white men ‘dominate positions of authority in our broader culture, so their writings [and other activities] continue to carry, for many, a kind of unconscious authority.’ The ‘authority’ attributed to male thinking and power automatically leaves women without any kind of gravitas. Within this pattern of thinking women - their interests, needs, aspirations, potential - are simply worth less than men.
‘People say gender of elected representatives to positions of power shouldn’t matter, and they are right. Except that those who define merit, who create the opportunities, have a vested interest in not appointing someone who might disrupt or challenge their prevailing world view and the power is vests them with.’ – pg129
Amen, Tara. Amen.
This is not to say I wholeheartedly agreed with every assertion Moss makes throughout this journey of facts interwoven with personal experience. It became clear to me that Moss’s view of the world has been somewhat tainted by the glossy, commercial space she has occupied. A professional life lived in the spotlight, a career born under bright lights and cameras where the sole focus is on how one looks, must affect perceptions and experience.
For me this was particularly apparent when Moss talked about the space advertising occupies in popular culture, especially in respect of body image and the representation of women in mainstream culture. What she says is true – you simply don’t see women aged under 35 on commercial television or in magazines or even hear them on commercial radio (unless they are promoting a seniors product). She laments the penetration of advertising and it’s skewed representation of women into every spare space of our awareness, suggesting ‘one solution is to make it at least possible to avoid them’, as though we have no control over the mainstream media we consume. But we do.
As I read I realized, with some relief, I’m not part of the ‘mainstream’. I loath commercial TV, radio and magazines because they endlessly patronize me both as a person and a woman. They rarely represent my interests or views and they usually insult my intelligence, so I don't engage with them. Perhaps if more people did this, advertisers and media moguls would get the message – we don’t buy your bullshit that all women are thin, white, young and play happy wifey - and some of these common fictions about women would die a natural death.
The real danger of the portrayal of women as passively sexy and without power is highlighted by Tara’s frightening encounters with sexual harassment and her horrible experience of rape. These experiences a hard reminders of the perverse relationship many men have with female youth and beauty, seeing women as something (not someone) they have a right to claim or use. Beauty is seen as a valuable commodity in women, something every plain girl who’s ever been born longs for at least once in her life. I see now having relatively ordinary looks has spared me this kind of invasive experience and I’m deeply grateful for it.
What captured my imagination most was the relationship Moss builds between our natural need to tell stories and the many fictions that have grown around women and womanhood. Our tendency to repeat certain stories of who and what women are has bled into advertising, media, literature and film – into culture - and reinforce the limitations we place on each gender. We are all lesser for them. Our vision of the ideal woman as eternally young, perfectly groomed, ever an object to be admired and aspired to, or of mother as soft and nurturing, or of the corporate career woman emulating masculine power – these are all fictions. Falsehoods. And they need to be dismantled and retold if we are to create true gender equality and allow women the kind of freedoms men simply take for granted.
We need books like this to be written by people like Tara Moss. Why? Because her mass market celebrity appeal means her message might reach the very people who need to hear it. Those men and women who adopt without question the prevailing cultural views and attitudes that continue to entrench the many fictions about women and their capabilities.
Stories are powerful. They change people. If told at the right time to the right audience, they can change the course of history. It’s time to for us to stop believing our superstitious fairy tales about who and what women can be. We need to revision our stories about women, allow the breadth and depth of our humanity to determine who we are, regardless of our gender.
Everyone, men and women, no matter social standing or race, should read this book. If you only read one book this year, make it this one.