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.
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.
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.
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.