Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Labelling gender

Tara Moss’ The Fictional Woman is a diversion from her usual literary contributions. It is a semi autobiographical book combined with social commentary on gender issues that acts as an important catalyst for a discussion around these issues.

Tara Moss is more than just a model and a crime writer; she is a mother of a young daughter, a PhD candidate in gender studies, an ambassador for UNICEF and works to reduce violence against women. She has been on the receiving end of violence as well as worked in an industry that thrives on objectifying women. Now she has switched roles and works as a theorist who looks at women from a different perspective and encourages debate.

The first few chapters of The Fictional Woman are about Moss’ formative years and life as a working model. Modelling has a really glamorous image but her story really shows the struggle and the often dangerous situations that people trying to break into this industry find themselves in. But the violence that she experienced and the pressure to be super skinny are some of the factors that have been her biggest influences.

What is in a name?

I wondered why she had chosen the name The Fictional Woman. The cover has many of the labels that women get given such as wife, mother, party girl, bitch and gold digger to name a few.  So this book focuses on the many labels that society uses to create the ideal woman or to describe women when they step outside the boundaries of what is expected of them.  

Women exist to be beautiful

As Tara Moss worked as a model, she knows all about beauty and understands the subtleties and nuances of women’s appearance. She understands that given the context women are expected to be trophies, invisible, “sluts” or appearing to be “asking for it”.  She looks at women appearance from different perspectives such as from Famme Fatale and in juxtaposition to “The Beautiful Man”. She acknowledges that these labels are socially constructed and how women are portrayed in the news media and film are constructed by the male gaze although she does use that term directly. 
She argues that ‘women exist to be beautiful and to compete for the attention of men, without whom they are lost. Women’s looks are their most valuable assets in this quest for a man, an asset they’ll do anything to retain’. The quest for beauty over brains is all encompassing as a woman’s value is derived from how attractive they are to men.

In addition, she discusses how commentators argue that women are to blame when they dress in a way that men think ‘asks for it’. Somehow society has this expectation that women have to look good but when they dress in a way that receives unwanted sexual attention from men, it is women that are at fault. This is in conflict with the idea that adults are responsible for their own actions. Why are women somehow responsible for the actions of men?

She makes an interesting point when she says ‘the problem is not women (or men) in revealing clothes. The problem is the entitlement some people feel over other human beings and their bodies’. As we have seen in places such as Afghanistan and India, where violence against women is high despite a culture of dressing modestly.

Women in storytelling

For centuries, storytelling is an important part of societies everywhere. In western societies Moss believes that woman have been portrayed in one of three ways – ‘the innocent virgin maiden, the temptress who manipulates men with her sexuality and leads them to ruin and the evil knowing witch, embodying the “unnaturalness” and danger of power in the hands of women’.

I agree with Moss who argues that the use of these archetypes serve as a kind of “moralising” or a cautionary tale to those thinking of behaving in the same way. Why do there have to be hidden meaning behind any female portrayed on screen and why are there such a small variety of archetypes? 

It would be really nice to see more a diverse representation of women in film and TV as well as including seeing less from the prospective of the male gaze.        

Why read The Fictional Woman?

This is an interesting book written by a woman who has experienced a lot. She will always be known as an ex model who had to take a polygraph test to prove that she was the true author of her books. Her contributions to the debate are valuable and The Fictional Woman offers an interesting insight into what it means to be a woman in a society that dominated by the patriarchy.  

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