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Returning the Gaze

Dismantling Patriarchal Narratives of Women’s Lives

ISSUE:  Fall 2018

<em>Landwhale: On Turning Insults Into Nicknames, Why Body Image is Hard, and Why Diets Can Kiss My Ass</em>. By Jes Baker. Seal, 2018. 272p. PB, $15.99.</p><em>Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement</em>. By Janet Dewart Bell. New Press, 2018. 240p. HB, $25.99. </p><em>Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession</em>. By Alice Bolin. William Morris, 2018. 288p. PB, $15.99. </p>

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the recent Women’s Marches is not that they have become an annual event, or that these marches sprung forth all over the globe from Washington, D.C. to Paradise Bay, Antarctica. No, if an alarm should be raised, it’s due to the non-committal response of the patriarchy: a grunt from the woods. 

Male liberal politicians have offered lip service but spent little political capital pushing comprehensive legislation to eliminate the problems that bedevil women’s lives: domestic violence, insufficient health care, and unequal pay. Male conservative operators have predictably been dismissive or patronizing. Media coverage of the marches has consisted of male commentators talking while women are trapped in a small box at the corner of the screen, silenced.

My mother and I are close. She worked in health care for most of my childhood, which is why so much of my own creative work has featured hospitals, clinics, and convalescent spaces as settings. A woman with a genius for storytelling, I have little doubt that my ability to tie a subject to a verb flows directly from her. Yet, I never quite trusted her stories. The males of my house, my father, my older brother, and myself, would sometimes trade knowing looks when she spoke. To this day, she tells a story about how when she was seven, someone lit the dry cleaners next door on fire. I always call this story apocryphal because it came from the woman who warned me to be careful in my telephone conversations since the FBI was probably spying on us. And if you use the restroom in her apartment, be ready to wipe your hands on your pants: she banned hand towels in the nineties. 

Of course, someone would verify that my mother’s family had to find a new house due to a fire. Any modern microbiologist will tell you that even recently washed towels are a good way to catch MRSA. And, yes, the government is spying on all of us. Only it was the NSA who conducted mass collection of phone data and not a G-man in a black sedan as she might have imagined. 

So many of my mother’s strange theories have proven true I now understand I should never have just grunted to move along our interactions. I should have listened. After all, her name is Cassandra.

It’s possible Janet Dewart Bell, author of Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement, had the ignored daughter of King Priam in mind when she decided to collect interviews from the nine women featured in this book and present them in their own words. 

“Very few people have interviewed me,” Gloria Richardson says. Richardson, the fierce leader of the Cambridge, Maryland, Civil Rights Movement was almost ninety-three at the time of the interview and very conscious that her story had been co-opted by others with their own narratives. Richardson was controversial for rejecting non-violence. She believed in armed self-defense, a stance later groups, such as the Black Panthers, would adopt. Regarding modern-day commentators who play down her contentious stance, “now it looks like they’re set. I think they deliberately sanitize stuff.”

A theme of Lighting the Fires of Freedom is the distortion of the beliefs and minimization of the contributions of women. Even as late as a program commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, organizers sought to silence women. Myrlie Evers, widow of Medgar, was there. “I remembered the struggle that women had, and how hard they fought to be a part of that program,” Evers says. “To be recognized. We were still being pushed back. Not only by society, but by our own male counterparts.” 

It’s astounding to think these women could ever be marginalized given how integral they were to the Movement. For every Gloria Richardson or Myrlie Evers, there was also a Leah Chase, doyen of the New Orleans’s culinary scene, who provided the energy for the activists to thrive. “I didn’t think I was doing anything brave,” Chase says. “I just thought I was doing what I was supposed to do. It was nothing glorious. I just knew I had to feed em. When they would come here for meetings, my job was to feed them.”

However, some of the women, like Kathleen Cleaver, took leadership roles when they found themselves to be the last person standing. “The [Black] Panthers,” Cleaver says, “Bobby Seale, most of the people who’d been in the party, were in jail. Huey was in jail. He just got shot in the stomach.” The party was out of money, it no longer had an office, and Eldrige Cleaver was underground. “That’s how I got to be a leader,” Kathleen Cleaver says, “I was there.” Cleaver spent years of her childhood in the Philippines and India. She understood the pretention of white supremacy at a young age. “You can go up in the moon and you can find dirt and rocks, but you can’t find any race. You can’t find it. You can’t touch it.”

The women had a clear sense of why they joined the Movement: to protect their dignity by combating a lie. “When I obeyed segregation rules I felt like I was agreeing to my own inferiority,” Diane Nash, one of the founders of the legendary Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), says. “It was humiliating. So I started looking for an organization that was trying to do something to prevent segregation.” 

Nash was key in the recruitment, training, and protection of women in the Movement. She understood that agency was a critical component to push change. She also recognized she could not fully rely on the men. “Do not depend on elected officials to make the necessary changes in society. I think if we had waited for elected officials to desegregate lunch counters and buses and get the right to vote in the South, now fifty years later, I think we’d still be waiting.” Nash’s approach was one of well-thought out strategy and ownership of change. 

Most of the women were too busy improving the world to become household names. Too busy laying their lives on the line to pose for the camera. A famous series of photos taken of Richardson on a hot Maryland day in 1963 typify the point. The National Guard were called out to squelch the protests. One of the guards threatened Richardson with a rifle to which a foot-long bayonet was attached. Richardson never looked away from her destination. She simply pushed the weapon aside. 

Alice Bolin’s engaging and engrossing debut collection Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession arrives with an intriguing premise: white women have a place of primacy in the American conversation, but only if they’re the silent object of male desire. In an essay called, “The Husband Did It,” Bolin deftly surveys modern novels, television shows, and podcasts that pretend to seek justice for raped and murdered girls and women. Occasionally, the perpetrators are captured, but the women are always rendered mute. First, quoting from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Bolin writes, ‘“Everyone loves the Dead Girl,’ – it’s true.” The dead girls are always cheerful, popular, and, above all, pretty. Yet, “on Serial we hear that Hae was athletic, outgoing, and funny, but after the second episode, where we hear excerpts from her diary, she disappears from her own story.” 

“That’s why we love her: because she’s dead, and her death is the catalyst for the fun of sleuthing. It’s why,” as Bolin says, we’re more focused on “the message written in blood, than in describing [the suspect’s] history of abuse.” By gorging on the salacious details, we cast aside the mundane truth that most murdered women are killed by the men closest to them. The stories are not interested in the women, but the lurid tales that can be constructed from their obliterated lives. The stories’ gaze are essentially male.

Bolin is not afraid to examine her father’s gaze. In “The Daughter as Detective,” she simultaneously tracks the rise of Nordic Dead Girl literature and her father’s obsession with it. Shortly after meeting Bolin’s mother, her father gives her Roseanna, a book by two Swedish writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The dead woman’s biography is somewhat like that of Bolin’s mother. They’re from landlocked states. They’re librarians. The dead woman’s corpse washes up on a beach. However, Bolin’s mother is not murdered. She marries Bolin’s father. 

Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s protagonist, Martin Beck, becomes obsessed with the dead woman, staring at photos of her naked body and interviewing her friends until he realizes she’s not a mythical perfect lover, but that “he had in fact found an ordinary dead woman.” Bolin’s father “has a truly childlike, if not innocent, avidity for graphic sex scenes and actresses’ nipples,” or as Bolin’s mother says, any movie “that has naked people in it.” But Bolin’s father cannot explain why he’s read the entire Beck series of books ten or more times. “Because I love them,” he says without reflection. In “Black Hole,” Bolin collapses the separation between voyeur and killer. Detective Caroline Mabry, the protagonist of a Dead Girl novel called Over Tumbled Graves, is set apart from her fellow law enforcement officers by her gender and her grief. It makes her the perfect observer of the would-be male heroes. The lawmen seem to believe that they must fantasize along with the murderer to catch him and that only men have this ability. But Det. Mabry understands that ultimately “this affirmation of the killer’s inner life will eventually blame the victim.” Mabry’s ability to recognize the murdered as humans with full inner lives is what makes her better at her job and not complicit in the women’s killings.

Bolin is at her best when she shifts away from the Dead Girl premise and engages directly with the inner lives of women. “A Teen Witch’s Guide to Staying Alive” interrogates her “first formal dalliance with witchcraft” when, as a child, she learns that witchcraft is, for some, a religious practice. Weaving through several books that contain magic, such as Teen Witch by Silver RavenWolf and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Bolin examines feminine power: the power of community. “We even now find it difficult to escape abuse and dysfunction, but we create networks of protection, rooted and secret,” she writes. Bolin finds this lesson in Toni Morrison’s Beloved with its “two agoraphobic women haunted by a murder in their family” that creates “a testament to how black women authored the survival of black society after slavery, founding a matriarchy on all the violence and terror they’d been subjected to.” 

Earlier in the book, she retraces a young Joan Didion’s (and her white female characters’) travels around Bolin’s adopted home of Los Angeles. Later, Bolin lays bare her feelings about complicity in the aptly titled, nonfiction novella “Accomplices.” Investigating her willingness to bend to the whims of her boyfriend, she says, “I was able to exist in his world as long as it felt like a game,” and continues, “It turns out this is the mental game many white women play in social (and societal) situations that they benefit from but are ambivalent about perpetuating. My trouble came when I realized that I was playing for keeps—or not playing at all but living my real, only life.” 

She links this recognition to the life of activist Roger Holder, a black man who, with his white girlfriend, Cathy Kerkow, escapes court-martial by hijacking planes to Algeria. The couple settles in Paris where they become a cause célèbre, but Kerkow effaces her criminal past and creates a new identity for herself, an identity in which she wears the latest fashions and speaks flawless French. She leaves Holder, goes to Switzerland, and is never heard from again. Holder is extradited to America. 

As with the Holder/Kerkow example, Bolin expertly juxtaposes privilege and restriction throughout Dead Girls. Her collection is a direct, clarifying take on the double bind many women find themselves in today, a world where women are either dead or playing “the parts given to them in order to survive.” By highlighting these unsatisfactory modes of being, she implies an infinite range of other possibilities. 

By that reasoning, Jes Baker should not be surviving. But as she explains in her new memoir, Landwhale: On Turning Insults Into Nicknames, Why Body Image is Hard, and How Diets Can Kiss My Ass, the part she’s playing is one she’s given herself. Landwhale is exactly what its title suggests: an often hilarious, irreverent, uncomfortable discussion of one woman’s understanding of how her body is perceived by the male gaze. 

The earliest gaze she contends with is that of her father who was alternately an obsessive dieter and binge eater. He imprinted his issues on her. “He saw me as fat, both when I wasn’t as a child and when I gained weight during puberty and beyond,” Baker writes, describing a recent conversation with her father about his apparent hatred of her. He counters that he never hated her, but she does not quite buy it. “Dad, you obviously hated your body but struggled to change for years. Were you just worried that you’d be another failure if you had a fat kid?” He answers directly: “Yes.” 

Baker uses humor to leaven her recollections, such as when she agrees to appear on a television travel program. She arrives drenched in sweat and sporting a bed-bug induced rash only to be greeted by the show host: “seemingly twelve feet tall, svelte, with long blonde hair flowing behind her graceful frame.” What follows is a set piece worthy of Lucille Ball that also proves the point that being a “conspicuous fat chick” and “beauty myth challenger” is not easy. 

Baker self-identifies as a “Fat Liberationist who is unapologetic about health and preaches the belief that people don’t owe their health to anyone and being unhealthy is okay.” But that does not protect her from moments when the pain of perception comes crashing down on her. One day, she, a Harry Potter devotee, decides to go to a Potter-themed amusement park, but is told she likely won’t be able to fit into the rides. “My body had to fit,” she writes. “It must fit. Because if it didn’t, I was a worthless person.” She doesn’t fit. 

During this sequence, she contemplates weight loss surgery. However, she recognizes that there’s no reason why the rides couldn’t be manufactured to fit people her size. In other words, a fat-phobic society doesn’t just manifest in the form of insulting people who are perceived as too big: it manifests in the physical construction of the world around us. Baker notes that fat women who pursue weight loss are often ostracized by the same community of women that once supported them. (She also points out that these attacks are often against women of color like Gabourey Sidibe and Rosie Mercado while ignoring white women like Rosie O’Donnell and Roseanne Barr.) So searching for a way out doesn’t work. Ultimately, Baker’s advice is applicable to all of us: “exist in a world that doesn’t want you to exist,” because as she says, “existing is the ultimate victory.” 


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