#20BooksOfSummer No One – Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam (1992)

A copy of Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely. It is a plain white cover with the title a sillhouette of a plump black woman wearing an apron.

Barbara Neely was a lifelong activist and a writer who was best known for her Blanche White mystery novels which feature a black female detective. I didn’t know anything about Barbara Neely until I read an article following her death in March this year. I’d been looking for a new mystery to read and it sounded interesting, so I thought I’d check out the first book in the series.

Blanche on the Lam begins with Blanche being sentenced to thirty days in jail for inadvertently passing bad cheques. She makes a living as a domestic worker for white people, but times have been tough since she moved back to her home town of Fairleigh in North Carolina where employers have been less than punctual with her wages. Terrified at the prospect of prison, Blanche uses a distraction at the courthouse as an opportunity to escape, but then she has no idea what to do next. As she wanders around a wealthy neighbourhood, a white woman mistakes her for the domestic worker she has requested from an agency. Blanche decides to go along with the story. After all, the family’s country house could be a good place to lie low while she waits for her tax rebate to come through. Then she can pick up her kids from her mother’s house and head back to New York.

But Blanche is about to get a lot more than she bargained for. Her new employer, Grace, and her husband, Everett, seem to be trying to get their hands on their eldery Aunt Emmeline’s money. The money has been left to Grace’s cousin Mumsfield, a young man who has down’s syndrome, but the couple seem to have pursuaded Emmeline to change her will. Pretty typical behaviour for rich white people thinks Blanche, but as the days pass, the situation becomes increasingly sinister. Why has Aunt Emmeline suddenly become a violent alcholic? Why won’t Grace let Mumsfield see her? Why is the black gardener, Nate, so cagey about the family? What is the nature of Everett’s strange relationship with the local sheriff? Nobody is quite what they seem. Then someone dies and Blanche must figure out what’s going on before she finds herself coming to the attention of either the police or a murderer.

Blanche on the Lam takes the tropes of the classic ‘cosy’ mystery and turns them on their head to create something quite subversive. In classic crime fiction, servants are often the people who can see what’s really going on, although they rarely understand exactly what they’ve seen, and they sometimes pay a high price when the murderer decides to silence them before they can speak. In Blanche, Neely picks up this trope of the domestic worker who sees more and runs with it, turning the hired help into the detective. Blanche is perfectly placed to investigate. She’s used to noticing things, she has access to all areas of the house, she isn’t taken in by her employers and is largely invisible to them. ‘A family couldn’t have domestic help and secrets’, thinks Blanche on p. 85.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Blanche’s only ally in the house is Mumsfield, the other character who sees things differently and is a lot more astute than people think. Neely has taken characters who are usually marginalised in crime fiction – working class black people and disabled people – and made them central to her story.

Blanche is a tremendous character: uncompromising, intrepid, fiercely proud and independent. She is a mother who didn’t want to be a mother. She is lonely, but chooses to remain single. She fights with her mother, but also depends on her for support. She is a black woman who is relentlessly critical of white supremacy, but who has chosen to make her living working for white people. Her name means ‘white white’ conveying the complexity and irony of her position as she tries not to compromise or abandon herself.

She’d come to understand that her desire was to avoid pain, a pain so old, so deep, its memory was carried not in her mind, but in her bones’.

p. 99

Blanche on the Lam is a lot more than just a cosy mystery. Neely made it clear that she orginally intended it to be a work of social commentary. It’s a book about inner and outer worlds, about appearances and depths. It’s about black women’s lives and how to develop the internal resources and networks to survive in a world that will crush you if it can, a world in which you know you won’t be given an inch. It’s about white supremacy, the legacy of slavery, and contemporary racism and police brutality. It’s also a response (and antidote) to literature that has represented black women as the devoted servants of white people (I noticed the reference to To Kill a Mockingbird on page 70).

While people were reading the book to find out who killed who and why, they were also getting a lot of information about race, class, gender and all the issues that I cared about

Barbara Neely

I’m looking forward to seeing what Blanche will do next and will definitely be reading the rest of this series. A good start to my #20BooksOfSummer.

More

LA Times, Barbara Neely, creator of black female detective series dies at 78

NPR, Remembering Barbara Neely, A Pioneer in Crime Fiction

‘Celebrating the fourth age: mapping menopause with curiosity and love’

Darcey Steinke’s book, Flashcount Diary, sounds fascinating. I’ll be forty-three soon and I’ve definitely started to notice some signs of perimenopause.

Time to start preparing myself, so I’m looking for some good books on the subject.

Review of Darcey Steinke’s, Flashcount Diary: menopause and the vindication of natural life

Mary Dorcey, ‘Kindling’ (1982) #20BooksOfSummer

Kindling is the first collection of poetry published by Irish feminist poet, Mary Dorcey. It’s a short book which you can easily read in an afternoon.

Some of the poems do feel very much of their time, rooted in second wave lesbian feminist politics and culture. They fall into two (linked) groups, poems that challenge the oppression of women under patriarchy (‘the vicious bigotry of all the Pope’s boys’), and poems that explore relationships between women, especially as lovers, friends and mothers and daughters.

There are poems about the position of women in Ireland (‘coming Home’, pornography (‘Photographs’), women’s incarceration in prison (‘Night Protest’) and mental institutions (‘Rope’), and conflicts within feminism (‘Colonised Minds’). ‘In a Dublin Nursing Home’ a lesbian couple have to pretend to be relatives, an experience I’ve heard older lesbians and gay men describe.

They are ambitious, powerful poems, but overall, I preferred reading the more ambivalent, and perhaps messier poems about relationships between women, such as ‘Full Circle’, ‘The Quarrel’, ‘Night’ and ‘Friendship’. These are poems about the unruliness of desire and it’s rather consoling to see that ‘lesbian drama’ hasn’t changed that much in thirty years.

I will definitely look up more of Dorcey’s poetry and will be interested to see how she’s developed since 1982.  

You stretch your hand
to mine
and some ember of the me
that I was to you,
rekindles
and and in silence,
recovers the power
of speech.

‘After Long Silence’

Must read: ‘You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?’

If you’re on social media, I’m sure you saw the photograph of the two women who experienced a homophobic/misogynist hate crime in London being circulated last week. One of the women, Chris, has written a brilliant, deeply intersectional, piece in the Guardian, challenging the media discourse that centres white, cisgender “victims” and demanding that we care about all forms of homophobia and oppression. What a way to turn an awful experience, and an unwanted platform, into something powerful.

A refrain I’ve heard ad nauseum is “I can’t believe this happened – it’s 2019”. I disagree. This attack and the ensuing media circus are par for the course in 2019. In both my native United States and here in the United Kingdom, it always has been and still is open season on the bodies of (in no specific order) people of colour, indigenous people, transgender people, disabled people, queer people, poor people, women and migrants. I have evaded much of the violence and oppression imposed on so many others by our capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal system because of the privileges I enjoy by dint of my race, health, education, and conventional gender presentation. That has nothing to do with the merit of my character.

You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?

Unbearable Weight

Powerful interview, The Unbearable Weight of Fatphobia: A Conversation with Samantha Irby

But let’s be clear, this is about far more than just hurt feelings and humiliation. This kind of body terrorism means that fat people get denied jobs, housing, affordable and adequate healthcare, and various other services simply because other people don’t like our bodies […] Everywhere we turn, everywhere we go, we are reminded about how much people hate us and our bodies, and how much they think we should hate ourselves and our bodies, too. We are continually told, in one way or another, that we are not allowed to take up this space and that we will not be valuable unless we shrink. For many of us, this has been happening our entire lives, or for the vast majority of it. It’s deeply dehumanizing and demoralizing, but for a lot of fatphobic people, that’s exactly the point. They think we don’t deserve to have a good relationship with our bodies. They think we don’t deserve any other kind of existence. They often think we don’t deserve to exist at all. 

Sapphic Link Love #8

Queer Bible, U.A. Fanthorpe

LGBTQ Nation, Meet the Harlem Renaissance dancer who made sure lesbian history wasn’t forgotten

Queer Bible, Natalie Barney

Autostraddle, All Bones and Blood and Breath: Remembering Barbara Hammer

Quill and Quire, The 88-year-old creator of mystery’s first lesbian detective reflects on the character’s return

Lambda Literary, review of My Butch Career by Esther Newton

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton

Sapphic Link Love #6

Ransom Centre Magazine, The Ransom Center will digitize the papers of British author Radclyffe Hall and partner, artist Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge

Autostraddle, Revisiting “Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist” in a World Needing Her More Than Ever

Terri Windling, Hen Wives, Spinsters and Lolly Willows 

iNews, The lesbian ‘blood sisters’ who cared for gay men when doctors were too scared to 

Sapphic Link Love #4

Autostraddle, The Gay Love Stories of Moomin and the Queer Radicality of Tove Jansson 

NPR, New biography of Lorraine Hansberry

Autostraddle, Portraits of Lesbian Writers, 1987 – 1989  (these are awesome)

The Rumpus, The Queer Syllabus: The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye

Folk Radio, Grace Petrie: Queer as Folk review

Sapphic Link Love #3

The Rumpus, The Inadvertent Postmodernist: An Interview with Sarah Schulman 

Julie R. Enszer at Lamba Literary, Lying With Women: Meditations on Barrie Jean Borich’s Writing, Lesbians, and Liberation

Sandra M. Gilbert, The Treasures that Prevail: On the Prose of Adrienne Rich

Jana Funke, The World and Other Unpublished Works of Radclyffe Hall

The Consolation of Genre

I have found that almost all of the romance novels I have read achieve something that sounds mundane, but remains quite radical: they model a form of female happiness and fulfillment still lacking in most canonical works of literature. Imagining stories for women (too often, but not always, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and monogamous) that end optimistically, these novels not only depict relationships that involve negotiation and growth, but also allow female protagonists to experience a kind of personal, sexual, and professional fulfillment that does not feel like an unattainable fantasy.

– Cailey Hall, The Consolation of Genre: On Reading Romance Novels

‘Burning Hot Hope’: Karin Kallmaker on Dorothy Allison

Karin Kallmaker has posted the speech she gave for Dorothy Allison’s Golden Crown Literary Society 2018 Trailblazer Award Golden Crown Literary Society 2018 Trailblazer Award.  It’s a great and impassioned introduction to Allison’s essential work.

The Malignant Melancholy

Individual loneliness is a fickle, nebulous sensation. Like other emotions, it is deeply situational—it makes a difference whether you feel lonely because every time you walk down the street a slur is shouted at you or you feel lonely because the spouse you beat every third night has finally left you. As individuals we are not owed freedom from loneliness any more than we can demand love from those we want it from. But collectively we can recognize patterns of loneliness as symptoms of awful structural injustices. And we can use our loneliness as impetus to work toward systems that ethically meet our social and emotional needs. The way to help alleviate the loneliness of the oppressed is to continue to destroy oppressive structures and support organizing and resistance. The only way to ethically survive loneliness is to look at labor: to ask who performs care work for me, who I perform it for, what systems are viable and where I transmute being abandoned to resistance.

Amba Azaad, New Inquiry

The Many Ways in which we are Wrong about Jane Austen

She never expected to be read the way we read her, gulped down as escapist historical fiction, fodder for romantic fantasies. Yes, she wanted to be enjoyed; she wanted people to feel as strongly about her characters as she did herself. But for Jane a story about love and marriage wasn’t ever a light and frothy confection. Generally speaking, we view sex as an enjoyable recreational activity; we have access to reliable contraception; we have very low rates of maternal and infant mortality. None of these things were true for the society in which Jane lived. The four of her brothers who became fathers produced, between them, 33 children. Three of those brothers lost a wife to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Another of Jane’s sisters-in-law collapsed and died suddenly at the age of 36; it sounds very much as if the cause might have been the rupturing of an ectopic pregnancy, which was, then, impossible to treat. Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband—her money, her body, her very existence as a legal adult. Husbands could beat their wives, rape them, imprison them, take their children away, all within the bounds of the law. Avowedly feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and the novelist Charlotte Smith were beginning to explore these injustices during Jane’s lifetime. Understand what a serious subject marriage was then, how important it was, and all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.

No more than a handful of the marriages Jane depicts in her novels are happy ones. And with the possible exception of Pride and Prejudice, even the relationships between Jane’s central characters are less than ideal—certainly not love’s young dream. Marriage mattered because it was the defining action of a woman’s life; to accept or refuse a proposal was almost the only decision that a woman could make for herself, the only sort of control she could exert in a world that must very often have seemed as if it were spiraling into turmoil. Jane’s novels aren’t romantic. But it’s become increasingly difficult for readers to see this.

My favourite bit from Helena Kelly’s essay, The Many Ways in Which we are Wrong about Jane Austen 

What lady Ghostbusters have in common with 17th-century nuns

I saw the new Ghostbusters with my 11-year-old daughter. It was the first movie she’d ever seen in which a team of female heroes are never subjected to the male gaze—in which they are always the agent, never the possessed. It was the first movie like that I’d ever seen, too.

There is spirit possession in the new Ghostbusters: you’ve seen one scene in the trailers, where one of the Ghostbusters is briefly possessed an evil ghost but quickly saved by one of her colleagues. Female friendship, female cooperation, is enough here to drive out evil. When women’s bodies are the battleground, women just as quickly become the warriors. Nor are women uniquely susceptible to possession: the hunky male receptionist is possessed, too, and must be saved.

The first Ghostbusters movie suggested to boys that if they just hung around long enough, women would see that their other options for possession were far worse than just giving in. The newGhostbusters movie tells girls that there’s another option. They can possess themselves.

What Lady Ghostbusters have in common with 17th-Century nuns

Women & Writing

Women often resist being described as “women writers,” and with good reason. The need to prefix “writer” with a tag suggests that writer really means male writer (or perhaps, more specifically, white, straight male writer). It implies that readers need to be warned; that women are intruders on the default terrain — which, in the pages of many magazines, they are. Similarly, the idea of “women’s writing” provokes ambivalence precisely because it implies that women are writing only from, and about, their experience as women (unlike men, who are asking the big universal questions of interest to all, in their great American novels-to-be). The implication is that women are trapped within their particularity, unable to speak to those who don’t share it, while the writing of (straight, white) men is universal rather than particular. But everyone is shaped by their experience of gender, whatever that experience is; there is no view from nowhere. Men’s experience is no less specific than women’s; it’s just that we fail to see it as such.

Katherine Angel, Gender, blah, blah, blah 

Elizabeth A. Lynn, The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories (1981)

Lynn0001

Elizabeth A. Lynn is not a prolific writer. She’s published a handful of highly regarded books over the last thirty years, including a World Fantasy Award-winning trilogy and two science fiction novels. I’ve been looking forward to reading her work partly because she’s known as one of the first science fiction and fantasy writers to offer positive representations of lesbian, gay and bisexual characters. The famous chain of gay bookstores, ‘A Different Light’, was named after her first novel. The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories is her only complete collection and includes works published between 1977 and 1980. Each story is accompanied by a helpful authorial introduction describing its genesis.

Overall, I’m very impressed. Lynn’s writing is fluid and lyrical. She has that wonderful ability to engage your attention in the opening paragraph and, before you know it, draw you into the worlds she creates. Her stories are often unsettling, occasionally terrifying, and when I consider the collection as a whole, I do notice a recurring concern with death, grief and loss. But if death features heavily in her work, Lynn also places high value on love, friendship and moments of connection between people.

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Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926)

At the age of twenty-eight, Laura Willowes is quite content with her life. She feels no interest in marriage and lives with her father on the country estate, spending her time reading, brewing and indulging her fondness for botany. But then her father dies and she finds herself prevailed upon to move in with her brother and his wife in London.

There she lives passively, tucked away in the “small spare room”, helping to look after the children and being “indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations”. As Laura herself will observe of another woman later in the book, she has become the “typical genteel spinster” who spends “her life being useful to people who don’t want her”.

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RIP Leslie Feinberg (1949 – 2014)

A little round-up of posts about Leslie Feinberg who sadly passed away this week at the age of 65. It’s only through the immense courage of people like Feinberg that our own lives have become possible. We should remember them with honour and gratitude.

My favourite quote appeared in Sassafras Lowry’s Lambda Literary piece Losing our Hero:

“As queer folk, so many of us have been rejected and abandoned that we’ve had to build our own worlds. So many of us have found ourselves so alone when we come out. We grow ourselves up. We build our own families and in a way queer books become our parents, our grandparents, our best friends and families. We curl up with them on cold nights on borrowed couches uncertain of where we will sleep tomorrow, or in bathtubs, our ears ringing with the sound of a lovers footsteps walking out the door a final time. We turn to books to prove that we exist. Books keep us company, raise us up, and give us hope that survival is possible. In a way, through queer books we build a relationship to that book’s author as well. For so many of us, Leslie is more than a beloved author. Zie has been part of our family. Now, as we mourn hir loss, we’re left trying to understand a world that is much darker and colder without hir to fight for us and protect us.” 

Books by Leslie Feinberg
Stone Butch Blues 
Transgender Warriors
Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time has Come 

Website: Transgender Warrior

“Remember me as a revolutionary communist.”

5 Things

I liked Suzanne Heintz’s artistic response to the question Why aren’t you married yet? Fourteen years worth of pictures of herself posing with a mannequin family certainly draws attention to the mythology of white, middle-class family “happiness”. Even though Suzanne is posing with mannequins, these images and the meanings they are supposed to convey (and impose) are instantly recognisable. Perhaps she’s also suggesting that people don’t care who the members of her family are, or what her relationship with them might be, as long as “family” is performed in the correct way. There is even the suggestion that this mythology reduces people to the status of mannequins. Roland Barthes would be proud.

Ludovic Florent’s series of photographs Poussiere d’etoiles (stardust) inspired me after a difficult day. These images that capture dancers interacting with a cloud of flour are a gorgeous tribute to the art of dance and the power of the human body.

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Extract from an interview with Sara Maitland

Jean: “So the act of writing can be an act of pleasure, of reparation?”

Sara: “I’d go further than that and say an act of power. You invent these people, you can make them do what the fuck you like, if you are fed up with them you can bloody kill them off. They’re absolutely mine, I created them and I control them. Writing is a real act of power which I achieve nowhere else”.

Jan Radford, ‘Women Writing’, published in Spare Rib, 76, November 1978.

Judy Grahn, The Work of a Common Woman (1985)

Judy Grahn is a lesbian feminist poet and activist whose work is very much concerned with speaking back to power. Her project is one of radical redefinition rooted in a centering of the lives of ordinary women. The Work of a Common Woman brings together poems published between 1964 and 1977, a period when feminists were fighting to break free of patriarchal modes of representation and wrestle back control of the narratives through which women’s experiences had been mediated by culture. This was a time when one of the top feminist priorities was to get women’s voices out there, which obviously meant finding ways to bypass the gatekeepers of publishing and the media. Grahn was an important figure in this effort, co-founding the Gay Woman’s Liberation Movement and The Women’s Press Collective, as well as making her own work available in an accessible pamphlet form that could be easily circulated by women’s groups.

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The adventures of Crystal Barbie and other stories

I was at my mother’s house yesterday sorting through the stuff I’ve stored there over the years. Being reunited with so many past selves was an enjoyable, if slightly unsettling, experience and the contents of one dusty box were particularly poignant.  When I opened it I found, to my surprise, my favourite Barbie and Sindy dolls from choldhood carefully packed away in there, most of them wearing their now rather tatty original outfits.  I’d assumed they’d all been given away years ago.

My Barbies and Sindys were very important to me and extravagantly loved.  I would pick out the one I wanted months in advance of Christmas or my birthday. My mother would then buy it with her Brian Mills home shopping catalogue credits and hide it on top of the wardrobe until the date came around.   My parents were the sort of back-to-the-land hippies who probably didn’t approve of Barbie at all, but having both experienced neglect in their own childhoods, they wanted to try and give us the toys we asked for and didn’t interfere very much.

Left to choose for myself,  I did not pick the more sensible looking models, such as astronaut or vet Barbie.  No, I always asked for the most fabulous Barbies available, the high femmes with with the biggest, shiniest dresses. I even had the glow-in-the-dark Barbie.  You might not  believe it to look at me now, but I’ve always had an interest in glamour and a liking for shiny things and the Barbies and the Sindys of the 1980s more than satisfied this desire.  As I opened each new doll and carefully removed her from her box, I would swear to myself that I’d keep this one in pristine condition, a resolution that never lasted more than a couple of weeks.

My only noticeable break with convention was my insistence that the dolls lived in a woman-only commune to which Ken dolls were refused admittance (someone did eventually buy me one, of which more in a moment).  We had friends who lived in communes and there was womens’ land in existence near to where I grew up, which may have been the inspiration.  I remember that the womens’ land was viewed with much suspicion in the local community. I didn’t understand the reasons for this suspicion at the time, but it gave it a thrilling whiff of transgression.

The all-time favourite – Crystal Barbie (1983)

Crystal Barbie
Crystal Barbie

Her stoll is in quite good condition, but the dress is sadly worn. It should be shiny all over. I’ve lost her jewelry, which I thought one of the most special things about her. Imaginatively renamed ‘Christina’, Crystal Barbie went on to become one of the leaders of my doll commune, along with ballet dancer Sindy (who later died tragically in a dog attack).  I gave Christina a “daughter” (an appropriately sized Pippa doll), which made her into a single mum because she never had a husband or a boyfriend.  I think this was quite daring.

The second favourite – Masquerade Sindy (1984)

Masquerade Sindy
Masquerade Sindy (1984)

Words cannot describe just how much I wanted this Sindy doll.  I got her for Christmas and wouldn’t put her down for days. I’m sorry I didn’t photograph her with her opera mask because I do still have it.  The hairdo has collapsed and that red and white flower thing is not exactly original (This is how she’s supposed to look).  Her outfit was apparently designed by the Emmanuels (remember them, 80s kids?), the same people who did Lady Di’s wedding dress. I found that very impressive.  Masquerade was renamed ‘Elizabeth’ and was always a bit full of herself.

Jewel Secrets Barbie (1986)

Jewel Secrets Barbie
Jewel Secrets Barbie

Another extremely fabulous Barbie, Jewel Secrets came with a weird skirt that could double as a bag – for jewelry, I presume.  I now think it makes her look a bit like one of those dolls my Nan used to cover up spare toilet rolls in the bathroom.  She did have a second outfit underneath the bag, as demonstrated here.  I was very pleased with Jewel Secrets because she had extra long hair, which I was obviously having fun styling right up until the day she went into the box.  Jewel Secrets did however lead to someone giving me ‘Jewel Secrets Ken’, who was a slightly creepy looking individual.  My mother insists that I asked for this Ken, but I have a feeling it was more the case that someone in my family, concerned about the obvious lack of Ken dolls, persuaded me to accept him.  We ended up making him into someone’s brother and, eventually, the on-again-off-again boyfriend of one of my sister’s Barbies.

Mystery Sindy! 

Sindy doll
Mystery Sindy

If anyone can identify this Sindy doll, please let me know in the comments.  I can’t remember what she was called, but I can see why I wanted her – great fishtail dress, feather boa and diamante necklace.  I think she may have been created to compete with Barbie and the fact that she’s still wearing her necklace shows her treasured she was.

Day to Night Barbie – 1984

"Samantha"
“Samantha”

Day to Night Barbie is the only one of my dolls to make the Muse’s approved feminist Barbie list.  She may have spent all night partying, but she at least appeared to have a job in the daytime.  I called her Samantha (very Sex in the City, eh?) and loved her so much that her original outfits have completely disintegrated.  I obviously still cared about her enough to dress her in what looks like one of Jewel Secrets’s spare outfits (it has one of the weird bag skirts and that’s the sort of necklace Jewel would sport). My partner is jealous because she wanted this Barbie and never got it.

I’m not attempting to defend what these toys represent because it’s reprehensible.  Their existence is symptomatic of sexism, capitalism, consumerism and racism, and that’s just for starters. But finding my old dolls did make me pause and think about the ways in which children will work with what they’ve got, attach meaning to toys and create narratives around them that make sense in the context of their own lives – hence my Barbie woman-only commune.  

Nobody plays with Barbie in a cultural vacuum and I’m troubled by the unacknowledged classism that often crops up in feminist discussions about these toys (“I didn’t play with Barbie because I was too busy out in the back garden building a telescope out of old lolly pop sticks with my Dad etc.”).  You can also end up playing not very helpful games of “more-feminist-than-thou” or “not-like-the-other-girls” which don’t really get to the root of why children like these toys, or indeed why they might be problematic.

Did my Barbie habit do me any harm?  She’s often blamed for causing body-image problems and, while I think my own issues with food had far more obvious causes, I’m sure these dolls did give me bad messages about femininity, sexuality and value of women: in the world of 1980s Barbie, “beauty” equals whiteness, wealth and a completely unachievable body type.  I think children should have access to toys that help them explore adult femaleness and femininity, but it would have been better for me to have had dolls that represent adult female bodies more realistically and with more diversity.

Why was I so fixated on these fabulous dolls?  I think they were so enticing, partly because their appearance was so different to anything I experienced in my daily life.  We lived in a poor rural area and the women I knew impressed me as sensible, hardworking types who always seemed to be digging up swedes or plucking chickens.  People had to be very thrifty and makeup and dresses were strictly for special occasions, if ever.  I admired these women and identified with them far more than I did with my dolls, but I also wanted the fantasy escape offered by Barbie.  So my Barbies did their farm work and them came home and sat around drinking tea in their ball gowns.

I think were was another more profound and uncomfortable reason.  My world often seemed chaotic and frightening and I experienced the regular gift of the Christmas or birthday Barbie doll as extremely reassuring.  No matter how bad things got, the dolls appeared reliably every year.  They meant that my stressed out parents still cared for me.  This reminds me of a little girl who was friends with my sister.  She lived with her mum in a tiny house in the village.  Her father had been killed in a freak accident and they had very little money.  I’ll never forget how proudly she showed us her My Little Pony collection and how she treasured those toys.  The ponies are comforting because they are a group of friends, but for this little girl I think they were also a sign of love, because her mother must have really struggled to buy them for her.  Even as my parents were going bankrupt, my mother continued to save up her catalogue credits to buy us those dolls.

More food for thought:  Gabriel Galimberti, Toy Stories, photographs of children from around the world with their favourite toys  (thanks @infamy_infamy)

Gardner Dozois (ed.), Best New SF7 (1992)

If the stories in 2008’s Mammoth Book of SF 21 were particularly concerned with death, annihilation and endings, the overarching theme in this collection from 1992 seems to be a questioning of the relationship between concepts of nature and normality.  Some of the best stories collected here look into the ways in which nature, as a concept, is mediated to us through narratives and then go on to interrogate the role played by science in constructing these narratives.

Take Ian R. Macleod’s ‘Grownups’, which is one of the most unsettling science fiction stories I’ve ever read. Its world looks a lot like ours, but it’s different in one crucial way; in order to become a “grown up”, all adolescents must undergo a terrifying and painful maturation process.  Once they have grown up, they can get married and have children. Each marriage includes not just a man and a woman, but a third person, known as an “uncle”, and it is the uncle who bears the children.  Two of the young people decide that they don’t want to grow-up and attempt to avoid the process altogether.  Macleod manipulates our assumptions masterfully in this story and the ending packs one heck of a punch.  It’s an allegory about the terrors of growing up, but I think it’s also about childbirth, a painful and dangerous experience that’s considered natural in our society, but which might look horrific and terrifying to an alien with a different reproductive process.  And how often do adults respond to their daughters’ fears about childbirth by telling them they’ll understand when they grow up? I’ll never forget it.

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