Is Grab the Lapels actually feminist?

I started Grab the Lapels in the summer of 2013. I had been reviewing books for years, for e-zines and a couple of national publications. But when I realized that the books sent to me were often by men, I was surprised. I hadn’t thought about it. I hadn’t heard of the VIDA Count or that men’s books are reviewed more, and more men are reviewers. What happened is one particularly egregious short story collection written by a man was sent to me to review, and it made me so hopping mad for his treatment of female characters, that I outright quit. I told local writer Kelcey Parker, “I think I’m going to start a book review site and only review women.” She said okay, and then was surprised when two days later Grab the Lapels was born and I was receiving submissions from authors in the small-press community. I was fighting the patriarchy! I think?

Since then, I believe Grab the Lapels has lost its way. Or maybe it didn’t have a path, only a destination it has yet to reach. Sure, I only review books by women, but is that enough? Reading Mercedes Lackey novels has shown me there are some amazing women in fiction, and now that I’ve read 8 novels in the series, it’s dawned on me that I should, like, talk about how women are represented. And I did just that in my Winds of Fate book review.

Because I had Winds of Fate characters on the brain, I was ragey-angry with how stupid and terrible Katie MacAlister’s novel The Last of the Red-hot Vampires started out: a woman who is scolded by another women for being a single female scientist. When a guy comes along and strangles the female single scientist, we’re supposed to be hopeful that his choking her was in error and he’s really “the one.” I didn’t stick around to find out. But aside from those two books, when do I ever write about the representation of women in my books?

I started looking around at my life and examining the ways I support women. In my small Google Play account, I had but one song by a female artist (Four Non-Blondes). I quickly added four more (3 by Halestorm and 1 by The Breeders). Not having been on the digital music scene long, I thought about CDs I’ve purchased. Several years ago I got Billie Holiday’s greatest hits. Years before that, it was Heart’s greatest hits. And back in 2003 it was Alanis Morissette’s album So Called Chaos. But I mean. Jeez. I’m failing at this. Employers say they would hire more diversely if more diverse people applied, but the argument is the employer should go find those people. I need to have the same attitude about music, or white men are going to keep falling into my purse.

I was born in the 80s, and some great movies were made in the ensuing years. Many of those films had women who shaped my idea of what it means to be woman, no matter how unrealistic. Picture Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer. Her advice on how to get a man is to “Grab him! And take him!” Well, I have lived with that advice in my heart and tended to ask out men more than they asked me out. I’m a dude go-getter. Grace Jones fought with a stick-spear and rode horses and was only afraid of rats.

Here is the “grab him and take him” scene. 30 seconds long.

Think about Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. We find her doing pull ups on her flipped over bed frame, sweating like crazy. She has a bunker in Mexico full of semi-automatic weapons. She will drag herself around with a bullet in her leg to protect the future. Sarah Connor is THE mother; she will shoot a cyborg, stab a psychiatrist, break out of jail, break out of a psych ward, break into a cybersystems company, blow things up, shoot things, and even die — all for her son.

I even love that she’s not wearing a bra.

Kim Cattrall in Big Trouble in Little China is a different story. She’s feminine, wears makeup, has cute outfits — but she’s also an attorney protecting immigrants’ civil rights. She’s nosy and wants the truth, even if it means biting a Chinese demon on the finger when he tries to tickle her chin. When asked by Kurt Russell’s character if she can keep up, she challenges, “Can you??” Awww, yis.

She will run through the rain in the dark to help get the truth out.

Though I hate superhero movies, I tried to support women in films by watching Wonder Woman. I couldn’t help but think that nothing made her uniquely feminine. If the main character were cast as a man, would there be any difference? I don’t think so. . .

I mean, these three examples of amazing women in film aren’t realistic. Or are they metaphors of what’s realistic? I know several moms who will do anything for their children, so are they that different from Sarah Connor? Kim Cattrall sounds a bit like Amal, a civil rights lawyer whose curiosity is reflected in her blog. Perhaps Grace Jones is a high fantasy version of a female solider in the military? Everyone wants her to prove she’s worthy of fighting alongside Conan, and women in the military have to prove their place, too, especially to civilians.

Here’s the puzzle I’m trying to figure out: is my idea of feminist shaped by women who act like men? I also ask, is a woman acting like a man if she’s doing what she wants to do, and that activity happens to be male dominated? When I praised some of the women in Winds of Fate, it was for their sword fighting, war strategy, mercenary jobs, and independence. Aside from independence, that’s pretty masculine stuff.

Mercedes Lackey’s strong women talk about birth control, menstruation, joyfully having sex, and avoiding men if they stop a woman from her duty or desires. This I can get behind! Perhaps that’s why I’m enjoying #ReadingValdemar so much: I can see myself on the pages. If only Talia would loan Elspeth a tampon, or the Vademaran equivalent, it would be super real. Women who are strangers will support each other’s bodies by giving away a product that costs quite a bit. That’s a unique thing about women that my heart always celebrates.

While I don’t have answers to most of my questions, I do know that from now on one of the criteria I write about in every Grab the Lapel review will be “how realistic and fair was the treatment of women in this book?” I hope you notice, and I wonder if it will change the way you think about your own reads.

51 comments

  1. I think you give off more of a feminist vibe than you realise, but re-evaluating is a great idea and one that I think in this case will bear fruit. I will tell you when I feel uncomfortable and you will know you are succeeding.

    As you know, my thesis was on women in (Australian) literature as role models for young women. What I looked for was women who got on with their lives without needing men, and without necessarily doing the sort of things men do – for instance they mostly resolved problems by negotiation, without guns, fist fights or dramatic car chases. I very much look forward to what you come up with.

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    • I know that your focus is women, but I’m now wondering if you’re in the same boat as me: you have a goal, but you don’t focus on it in your posts. I say this because I didn’t realize that your goal was to discuss how women get on without men. Do you think you will address that more pointedly in the future now that we’re having this conversation?

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      • It’s a great conversation, isn’t it. And I’m with LouLouReads, I wish I’d thought to put it like that. I would like to bring my own blog back to its early focus with say 1 post in 3 on early Australian women writers, but it’s all pretty random until I get my (trucking) life under control – I haven’t been home at all since before Easter.

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  2. Interesting post! It makes sense to check whether your blog is living up to its mission, and I also think it’s interesting to read posts that focus on the representation of women in fiction. I would also define feminism broadly to include addressing with the ways systems of oppression are intertwined, and how race, ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and class impact the way characters are portrayed in novels.

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    • PS. On re-reading my comment, I’m concerned it suggests that I think you weren’t living up to your mission. That isn’t the case. To me, feminism isn’t rigid, and it’s perfectly fine to write about whatever you want!

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      • I didn’t read it that way. In fact, I am harsher on myself! I realized that just reading books by women isn’t enough. It’s a hard and fast rule that isn’t adding anything just by following it.

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    • Absolutely. I know when I read A Vow of Celibacy, the author discusses treatment of women, fat bodies, and bisexuality. I wrote about that a bit, but not while thinking it is more of an intersectional approach to feminism.

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  3. Great post! The point you made towards the end is so true: often, the women who are celebrated as ‘strong’ or inspiring are the ones who show physical prowess and qualities traditionally associated with masculinity. Whilst I LOVE seeing women who can kick ass, and think we should celebrate them, there are definitely other kinds of strength, and I wish more female characters (and real women) didn’t have to sacrifice their femininity to be seen as strong.

    Like you said, to me, true feminism means women can be whoever and whatever they want to be.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely post! I think that there is a feminist edge to your blog that you’re overlooking, though, which is your quest to find helpful and interesting representation of women in fat bodies. Even though I know from one or two male friends that they are acutely aware of their weight and appearance, I do think that “being fat” is something that impacts on women in a way that it doesn’t on men, especially straight men. Yours is the only blog that I read where this issue is considered, and I think it’s an important thing – feminism is an enormous topic and it would be difficult to address it all on one blog.

    As to women who “act like men”, this is an idea that I don’t really agree with. I understand that a woman doesn’t have to be an action hero to be a “strong” character, but a woman who is in a typically masculine profession isn’t necessarily acting like a man – I think we just still have such a fixed idea about what women are and aren’t. I really liked the fact that Wonder Woman was a character whose sex wasn’t important, except that it set up a couple of barriers for her to overcome – a woman doesn’t have to have typically feminine interests to be behaving like a woman. (Not saying that this is what you are saying here, but I just think that sometimes comes out in discussions of how to represent female characters).

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    • I hadn’t thought about my reading about fat women having a feminist slant, but you’re right, it does, to some degree. There are books written by women about fat men, and I don’t read those because I don’t need to know the treatment of fat men in fiction to understand how society’s bias is really against fat women.

      I also agree that you are right that women don’t really “act like men.” Well, I think the exception is the “cool girl” as defined by the narrator in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which I’ve brought up a few times lately. It’s the girl (woman) who changes herself to act like a man and like everything he likes for the sake of being viewed as “cool.” She may not even date him, but the end result tends to be sex because he’s so impressed that she’s cool (meaning just like him) that he’s sexually attracted to her. I’ve been looking up books by and about women in male-dominated fields, from musician to military, to give myself more perspectives.

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  5. Kudos to you for taking such an unbiased evaluation of whether you are staying true to your mission and whether you can do more. Like louloureads I think you’ve forgotten about your “reading fat women” thrust. Maybe give yourself more credit for what you have done already?

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    • I think I don’t give myself credit because I’m not sure what makes a “strong woman” other than comparing her to a man. Is a completely broken women, down at the bottom and struggling, still a “strong woman”? I would say yes. She doesn’t need to wield a sword or race cars to be a strong woman. A woman existing in a fat body in society is an act of strength. I think I need to think more about my definition of “strength.”

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      • You must be strong
        sometimes
        people say
        to me

        And I think
        on all that has happened
        – maybe
        I am strong

        Yes, I guess it is so
        I guess I am strong

        Strong people don’t bend
        they break

        and shatter

        (Märta Tikkanen, very poorly translated by me)

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        • Thank you for sharing. There is an interesting twist at the end that has me thinking now. In many cases, we never see the downfall of a strong person in a novel because that wouldn’t be “cool” or “strong,” but in real life the titans fall all the time. Even the story of Tiger Woods could be considered a fall after which he stood again.

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          • I’m sorry I couldn’t to the language of the poem justice but I love that twist, it was the first thing I though of when I read your comment.

            I think one problem is that we confuse two types of strength. In a short-term crisis the strength and courage to push ourselves way past our normal limits may be a good thing, but taken too far it will indeed break us, as it can’t be sustained. Finding ways to deal with a bad situation long-term, without breaking, seems like a much harder skill.

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            • Oooooh, I really like your ideas about strength. The second one, about surviving a long-term bad situation, is a great way to capture a variety of experiences in which a person may not seem strong, but is. I was listening to NPR yesterday on which Terry Gross was talking with two women, both of whom work in and study domestic violence. The one woman had just come out with a book that I’m going to read. But in the scenarios they gave, women often can’t leave an abusive relationship for sundry reasons, and I think that takes a massive strength that can seem like weakness on the outside. Thank you for helping me think about this more.

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  6. It’s really great that you’re evaluating your blog in this way! If only the major media would do the same…
    Interestingly on my blog I tend to review fiction written by women, and non fiction written by men. Often the non fiction topics I’m most interested in (which usually have a science or travel theme) are traditionally regarded as more male oriented topics.

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    • I wish I could remember the name, but there is a blog by women in science at which they discuss what their jobs are actually like, and it’s so horrifying and sexist that it blows my brain (which may be why I stopped following them — things were pretty hopeless for women in STEM on that blog). I kinda of think of it like hiring diversely: you have to go out and find the people you want. Maybe do some more research on women who write about science and space? You never know!

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  7. I always thought your blog was feminist! But I love the self-reflection and I love that you raised the question of how we often perceive “strong” women to be those in traditionally masculine roles. I’m excited to see what you come up with as you continue blogging!

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    • I’ve been looking up books by women in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as military and rock musicians. I’ve also found books by women in prison and those who have been sex workers. I’m trying to seek a variety of experiences. The role that I approach cautiously because it’s so different for everyone, and a role I do not play, is mother.

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  8. Very interesting. I like that you are deciding to be more reflective when it comes to female characters. I ascribe to the kind of feminism that says that women characters should be allowed to be what they want, whether it is traditionally feminine, masculine or a combination of both, but they must feel well-rounded and not flat. I also think it’s important to take into account things like race and sexuality. While we are used to celebrating white women being strong warriors, how often are we exposed to soft black female characters? What might be the perfect feminist icon for one group of women, may not be for all of them. Looking forward to seeing how this new approach influences your posts.

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    • One thing I really liked about the novel Vow of Celibacy, which I reviewed recently, is that it stars a fat bisexual woman who is strong in so many ways, none of them terribly masculine, though people do consider having several sexual partners “masculine.”

      Since I have a background in African American lit and history, I tend to read a lot of books by black women. I see strength all over the place in those novels quite clearly, even in places where I wouldn’t acknowledge strength in a white woman — leaving a challenging marriage, raising kids, going to work. This is something I need to think about more. Once again, thank you for making me think harder about this.

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  9. Why are fighting, swords ect ‘masculine’ I wonder? I have been doing martial arts my whole life, I have done sword fighting with many different swords and I didn’t need to be ‘masculine’ when I did it.

    Trust me, when you are five foot not much, have hair down to your waist and are curvy bordering on plump, ‘masculine’ is not really a definition that fits, no matter how many swords I swing.

    I am reminded of a quote (which I can’t get correctly) from one of Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books where a witch tells a man, who complains than trousers are not feminine enough that; ‘whatever a witch chooses to wear is feminine’.

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    • OMG, YOU ARE SO COOL AND I FEEL UNWORTHY OF THIS COMMENT.

      I think what I am trying to get at is anything a woman does is feminine because she is female, but society has indoctrinated us to think male-dominated means masculine. After I wrote this blog post, I added a load of books about women to my TBR so I can work that particularly poisonous thought right out of my head. I can’t WAIT to get to know more about you! 😀

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  10. I have always appreciated your focus on female authors here. I think you draw attention to authors who might get overlooked by other reviewers and especially mainstream media. I think that encourages women as writers and readers and so I would classify that as feminist. But it can also be helpful to re-evaluate and I’ll look forward to seeing how you approach your book reviews.

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    • Thanks, Karissa. You make a good point. I don’t tend to read many mainstream novels, and I hope that expands my readers’ horizons in a positive way, especially if I introduce them to a book about a fat woman that is done well.

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  11. Interesting points. And I love that gif at the end. 😂 Ironically, I mostly read books that are written by women and listen to female musicians, too. I don’t really think about it—I just naturally gravitate there. But I like your point that it’s good to be thoughtful and aware, and to SEEK OUT female art, in whatever form it takes. I’m definitely going to pay more attention and seek out female authors.

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    • Nothing like shooting some power out of your vagina, amirite? While reading female authors is easy, listening to music by women has proven harder for me. I’ve been going through my CDs and trying to listen to women, but they’re woefully underrepresented. I think THINKING about what I’m doing has made a big difference in how I think about women in general. Like, that question of masculine activities being “not feminine.” I’ve been questioning that crap out of that these last few days.

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      • Ever since I read your post I’ve been thinking about it, too. I think it’s good to be aware. Even just “noticing” is something, an act of trying to make things more equal. Any time you question the same ol’ framework, it’s a move toward more balanced power. I have to believe that’s always a good thing, right?

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  12. I agree with Louloureads – I read your posts about representations of fat women as very much feminist, and they’ve made me think harder about how fat women are represented in books I read.

    I have also always read your only reviewing books by women although you mention you read books by men, too, as a feminist act redressing the balance.

    The thing about men writing books and reviewing them came up for me when trying to face up to the challenge of reviewing Caroline Criado Perez’ “Invisible Women” – my husband, who was very unsure about the value of the book (he did change his mind, having done some research), mentioned that all the reviews were by women and this skewed the public discourse, that women had “chosen” to review it. I did mention to him back that I bet women reviewers were assigned the book because they are women and it’s a minority interest, “women’s” book. Hm.

    I am keeping records this year of who writes the books I read and what areas of diversity they cover. I’ll see what that shows me at the end of the year. I know I read more books by women than by men, but more fiction by women and more non-fiction by men, whatever that says.

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    • It’s true! Women review “women’s books,” whatever that means, and these books are typically shelved in places designated to make the public take the books, and by extension the authors, less seriously. Books by women end up on the young adult shelves when they are not for young readers, and cover artists will create something pink and with a cupcake on the front even if the content is serious (cover artists rarely read the books for which they are designing).

      Thank you for taking the time to think about the types of books I’m reading and to give me feedback. I got into reading about fat women for myself and other fat women, but I forget that the body is the political, and talking about women’s fat bodies is an act of feminist resistance.

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  13. Isn’t it interesting how, when one takes a step back to quantify an aspect of one’s values, how different the analysis can seem? I’m thinking about your glance at your Play account and the questions you’re asking about whether your purchasing backs up your philosophical stance. That’s happened to me several times over the years, when the data turned something that I thought was true about my habits upside-down. (It was my intention to, for instance, read more independently published books but the number of books from mainstream publishers was truly humbling.) In the end, I think it’s the posing of the question which holds the power, more so than the data (but maybe I’m just taking a page from the downtrodden scientists you’ve referred to *snickers*). Here’s to reconsidering and always trying trying trying!

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  14. I laughed out loud at the GIF at the end of this post. If there ever was a perfect GIF representing feminism, that is it!

    To me, feminism is a woman’s right to wear, do, or say what she pleases. If a woman wants to wear suits and be the CEO of a company, she has the right to do it. If a woman wants to wear dresses and stay at home to take care of her children, she has the right to do it. The working woman isn’t any more of a feminist than the stay at home mother is… It’s all about the choice for me.

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    • I agree. I think it’s the way we frame those stories that make it hard for some women to see that choice and equality are found in both positions. For example, I think stay-at-home moms are often called lazy because they don’t work, and that’s not accurate at all. Also, I think a woman has the right to ask her spouse to co-parent even if the spouse has a full-time job. Being a parent isn’t about either caring in one role or providing the money in a different role. Women, particularly stay-at-home moms, tend to volunteer a lot of their time, which is work, and people don’t acknowledge it as work because it’s unpaid. These are some examples of what I mean when I say I think the narratives are framed poorly.

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  15. ::Standing Ovation::

    This post, Melanie. THIS POST. I love that you call yourself out, but you also recognize that this is HARD. The world is always out to convince us to do something or be someone and try to make it as easy as possible for that to be accomplished.

    Regardless, I don’t think there is anything wrong with those amazing movies shaping what you believe a feminist to be today — as long as you don’t discount all the other experiences you’ve had since then which build upon them. We all start with a fairly flat idea of what a real “strong” woman is and what makes someone feminist. As someone who doesn’t watch TV or films much, I developed my own perspective through books.

    The biggest feminist influence on me at a young age? Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness. A middle-grade to YA feminist fantasy quartet. It’s not perfect, but there are some amazing feminist moments in it. If you haven’t read it, please add it to your reading list. I think you’ll really appreciate what Pierce does and how the books are intended to grow with the reader.

    I love that you’re going to more closely examine how females are represented in the books you read. I encourage you to bring in a historical context as well if it’s relevant. We’ve discussed a few times how revolutionary Lackey’s writing is for the late 80s/early 90s. But there are also some less than desirable things she’s brought in from the world at that time, as well.

    I also want to point out you do a wonderful job discussing the authors on your blog. How they got here, how they are represented in the text, etc. You are already being feminist by pointing out the hardships and trials they experienced getting here.

    So yeah. While Grab the Lapels isn’t overtly feminist (you’re no Jezebel.com), you’re still feminist. Because feminism takes up so many mantles. You’re just one piece of the tapestry. A good one. And about to be better.

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    • I love that one commenter challenged my claim that strong women only seem strong because they do masculine things, claiming that masculine activities are only deemed as such because we’ve encouraged men, or even excluded women, from doing them.

      Another thing I’ve thought about since I posted this conversation is that Grab the Lapels is almost “Womenist” instead of “feminist,” because there is no equality here where men are excluded. That’s weird to think about, because it sounds negative, but on the other hand, I think it’s important to carve out female-only spaces when there are so many men-only spaces that already exist and get attention. Sports, politics, religion, even game show hosts. Yeesh.

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