A Pox on the Patriarchy
If it weren’t both creepy and inappropriate (and possibly borderline illegal) I’d be standing outside my local high school handing out copies of this book rather than reviewing it. As concern over female aspiration, achievement and health leaks once again into the public sphere (cue articles asking why young women are so unhappy, quickly followed by articles advising women to shed those ‘extra pounds’ by subsisting solely upon the braised seeds of the kumquat) the most common panacea proposed is that ‘young women need role models’. This, however, is misunderstanding the problem. It’s not that there aren’t wonderful female role models; it’s that young women don’t know where to find them. It misplaces the emphasis, implying that there just aren’t enough inspiring women, rather than acknowledging our uncanny knack of overlooking and marginalising them. When RiRi and Bella Swann are touted as exemplars of strong womanhood, what do we mean when we talk about female role models?
Eve Merrier’s The Brilliant Women Collection comes as a welcome respite from the cultural bombardment of images of women finding empowerment in hotpants. Merrier begins with affirming that there’s nothing inherently wrong with finding pleasure in women’s magazines or in the hotpants they hail as ‘essential’ day-wear. There’s nothing wrong with finding the women who wear the hotpants inspiring, either. But as Merrier’s book argues, it’s what women do, rather than what they wear (or how well they wear it), that should be the litmus test of their suitability to be role models. As an antidote to the depressing – and contradictory – range of women hailed as aspirational figures, Merrier has compiled a list of women who offer rather more diverse attributes than an enviably pert bum.
Merrier’s inspirational women are grouped by the quality they most emphatically embody. This is a lovely approach, as it not only provides female models for a younger readership, but also reclaims language often perceived to be ‘unfeminine’. As Merrier demonstrates, women have long been strong, determined, inventive, political, and co-operative. And the women embodying these traits have been brilliant, complex, and trailblazers – true role models. Merrier’s women are accessible rather than intimidating, a feat accomplished by an enviable lightness of touch (an example of this is her formulation of the ‘Kardashian/Merkel ratio’ – the disproportionate media adulation of female reality TV stars over world leaders – which has prompted me to shout “Yes, but where’s the Merkel?!” at MTV. Pretty sure my boyfriend thinks I’m demanding to see more Lady Parts).
My favourite section is entitled ‘co-operation’. It details women who have worked together to Do Good Things. God, it’s a beautiful thing! Women, working together. Without having to make snide comments to a camera afterwards! A place where women can co-exist without the hair pulling that seems to be mandatory on reality television! In fact, co-operating as women do in reality. Some of the women described in the book are well known (Michelle Obama, for example), and others less so (Jayaben Desai). Although I love Michie O with a passion that few will ever really understand (seriously, call me, Michelle – we should be besties) it is Merrier’s work on the lesser-known female heroes that is the revelation. So many inspirational women are lost to history that Merrier’s research contributes to the larger project of recovering these women’s stories. Done with gentle humour, charming material, and supported by a persuasive argument, this is the perfect text to ‘accidentally’ download onto your younger sister’s Kindle. And then get her to distribute it at her high school. Go, feminist minion!