Cherchez la Femme: woman’s body and agency in 21st century literature

Alexandra Prochshenko

Presented at the 2019 OutLines Undergraduate Symposium.

Once, my Canadian boyfriend asked me: “Why on earth would women fake orgasms?”

And I said: “Well…”, and realized it was too long of a story to tell.

I grew up in Kazakhstan, a post-USSR country, where sex education does not exist. In Kazakhstan, an average man has a vague idea of what a woman’s orgasm is. He does not consider it separate from his own, or, at best, treats it as a booster for his self-esteem. If a woman has orgasms with him, he is a great lover, but it is so hard for them to imagine otherwise, so women who don’t have them are considered “broken”. An average man can tell me: “My ex, of course, was coming five times a night”.

Of course, she was.

The question my Canadian boyfriend asked me was, in fact, not about sex but about my motherland, my culture and history. I told him that women in my country, myself included, do not feel comfortable or safe talking to men about their desires. I told him that women who demand too much aren’t popular, and it is easier for a man to find someone else, younger, prettier or more cooperative, who is not going to make him work too hard. I told him that post-USSR countries are still traumatized by the crisis of WWII when they lost up to ten million people, mostly men, and since those times many generations of men were treated like kings from early childhood. Therefore, men are used to being in demand, and women are not, and thus men are pickier, preferring more ‘cooperative’ women. This simple fact of one woman faking the climax led to this huge slice of culture, and history, and discrimination.

Recently, I came across someone’s tweet that stated: “If you write a novel about a woman, be sure to include her relationship with her body.” When I read it, I realized how many writers neglect this technique: they call a woman beautiful and feminine, or stiff and old-fashioned, but such characters often fall flat. For good or for bad, most women in 21st century have their entire cultural background stored in their relationships with their bodies. The women are trapped in the middle of an endless fight: on the one hand, society tries to take our right to own our bodies through oppressive laws, objectification or unattainable beauty standards, but on the other we still fight for independence. This invisible war influences almost every woman’s character and lifestyle. Every woman’s body acts as an agency.

When writing a woman character, include her relationship with her body. It can be very different; for example, faking an orgasm is, no doubt, a manifestation of a relationship with one’s body. This adds a new dimension into your work, enhancing the context and making characters more realistic and thus powerful. Describe how a woman feels about her body, and explain why it is so, through the social constructs of the time and space in which the novel is set. I will now provide some examples from contemporary Canadian novels to illustrate how your story will benefit from it.

13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A FAT GIRL

In 13 Ways Of Looking At a Fat Girl, written by Canadian author Mona Awad, a high school student Lizzie already cannot find any language to describe her breasts:
“I have trouble calling them anything even in my thoughts” (3) – because she is already ashamed of her body. She avoids mirrors panicky (35), “gets paralyzed” in front of the camera (37), does not understand the real size of her body (35), and constantly covers herself with hands. You don’t need be a psychotherapist to understand that Lizzie’s self-hatred will destroy her mental health later on if she doesn’t stop. And she doesn’t stop because society’s beauty standards are already chewing her up.

To describe a woman’s relationship with her body means to create a setting. When Lizzie cannot find clothes in her size in shopping malls, the reader sees the unrealistic beauty standards in fashion. When a “creep” (81) on the Internet takes advantage of a girl with low self-esteem, the reader locates the story in history, since the Internet has only been around so long. When Liz cannot comprehend that her husband never wanted her to lose weight, that he knowingly dated a “fat” girl, the reader learns about a common belief of modern capitalist society: liking thin girls is common sense, whereas liking fat girls is a fetish and perversion. How do we know the fault lies with capitalism? Because beauty standards are dictated by capitalism: if women are happy with their bodies, they’re less inclined to purchase single-use goods, which is unacceptable. And capitalism is driven by patriarchy because the target audience for this obsession with shrinking, dieting, using makeup, “hot little dresses” (Awad 141) is men, whose approval women should lust after.

It goes without saying that not all “fat” women are or should be heavily depressed. But in the setting of 21st century English-speaking urban Canada, all women are affected by capitalism. Indeed, every person is affected by external factors, and women are no exception – and it is often reflected in their relationships with their bodies. Recognizing this not only gives your characters depth, but also makes social issues the reader’s issues. Literature becomes public trial.

HOPE MAKES LOVE

But what if you’re not writing a book on women’s body issues? What if you write a mystery, or an adventure novel, or a book about science and love? Even then, this trick might be used for your advantage. I would like to present you Hope from Hope Makes Love by Trevor Cole.

The book Hope Makes Love is, in fact, about Zep, a suspended baseball player in his forties, whose wife left him, and now he wants to get her back. He wonders whether he could manipulate the chemical reactions in his ex-wife’s brain so she would fall in love with him again. So, he stops at UofT to ask a neuroscience researcher to help him with this. Here comes Hope, a neuroscientist with a horrible abusive experience in her past that has determined her entire lifestyle. She was gang raped and injured in her teens, and now she has multiple issues: she only wears dark clothes, trying to cover as much of her body as possible; she never gets carried away by emotions; and has panic attacks and flashbacks. This experience is why she says “yes” to Zep’s proposition, which makes it crucial for the plot, because she does not believe in love herself and she wants to prove herself wrong. The history of her sexuality explains her motives.

Could Hope, as a character, be substituted in the novel by any other neuroscientist? It would require a lot of rewriting, but sure. Would the story still be as good? We don’t know. But Hope is so well-written, that she makes a half of a story at least.

This is just like The Break by Katherena Vermette, where most women’s relationships with their bodies are described: little Emily, 13 years old, “feels ugly and fat most of the time” (17) and believes that no one will ever like her. Phoenix, who assaults Emily with a broken beer bottle, feels fat and ugly as well. Neither of them are ugly: Emily is, in fact, pretty, and Phoenix is not fat but pregnant (and she knows about it). And yet, besides other reasons, the way they feel about their bodies makes them act certain ways.

 RESEARCH

Many writers describe their women characters’ relationships with their bodies, and yet they still fall flat. How is this, you might ask? They forget the important part of it: the research. This sort of relationship should be believable and recognizable. At Trevor Cole’s reading at York University, I learned that he wrote the character Hope based on his friend’s traumatic experience, with her permission. He tried hard not to mess it up, and I think he achieved it, because the book seems wonderful and thoughtful to me.

I included this example because I wanted to expand my advice: “If you write a novel about a woman, be sure to include her relationship with her body, but DO NOT make it up.” If you write about women, you should do research. You should conduct interviews. You should learn about women with the same experience as your characters. This works for both men and women writers: in this case, everybody should do research.

Just last week my friend posted an angry review of a book she read. I found one fragment really appropriate for this discussion: “…If a heroine is gang raped by four men… but then another man saved her? How would she act? She would throw herself in the arms of her savior and make love to him passionately. This is what a woman does after a gang rape, according to the male author.” No matter how great of a writer you are, ask after the real-world wheres and whys of women’s relationship with their bodies. If executed with precision and sympathy, such description can explain their image, lifestyle and motives. And don’t forget, that over 50% of the human race is women, and many of us can read these days.

So if you fake our orgasms, we ARE going to notice.


About the Writer

Alexandra Prochshenko is a Kazakhstani-born poet/writer based in
Toronto. She is a media manager of the Common Readings literary reading
series, and was a participant in many poetry readings in Almaty and
Astana (Kazakhstan) from 2010 to 2014. Alexandra will receive her BA in
Professional Writing from York University in 2019.

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