Tuesday, June 5, 2012

taboos & role models: the un-sanitized antiheroine + the next top model

in a recent mail from a friend, i received this note on books with several indirect questions included:

"sort of related to this, we had a friend with us last night, and talked about e-books. "Have you read 50 Shades of Grey?" our friend asked. there is a buzz about that book, mostly among women from what I have noticed. it is interesting what becomes popular. like that book the German girl wrote a year or two ago, for another example."

the note lead to a longer chain of thoughts that include a couple of other books and genres, male and female fantasies and realities, archetypes and comic-characters, and the line between so-called "good" and "bad" literature. i started to type it out, but it kept growing and sidetracking while i wrote - and so i guess the way to take is: step by step. here goes, taboo 1:

Wetlands / Feuchtgebiete, or: the sex-hygiene-buzz

the book of the German girl mentioned in the mail is "Wetlands" - that was in July 2008, and the girl was Viva-videojockey Charlotte Roche, and her provocative take on female sexuality. Charlotte Roche is a popular and attractive tv moderator, at the point of the book launch, she was 30 - with the main character of the book being 18. Roche explained that the motivation for the book was sparked by walks through the long lines full of soaps, deos, shampoos and dozens of other hygienic products in a drugstore, all there to create "sanitized" version of ourselves.

and what if we don't fit into this cleanliness? the book asks in the story of an unhygenic itchy anti-heroine. with  more than 680.000 copies sold, "Wetlands" became the only German book to top Amazon.com’s global bestseller list, which lead to a review in the NY Times with this headline: Germany Abuzz at Racy Novel of Sex and Hygiene. the ending of the direct html-code is quite telling: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/06/world/europe/06taboo.html

the reason for the buzz, as described in the review: "The subject has struck a nerve here, catching a wave of popular interest in renewing the debate over women’s roles and image in society."

a key to understanding the book-buzz probably is that Charlotte Roche described the main character as partly based on her own identity, which brings up the whole theme of media-image of a person and the self beyond the spotlights. plus, it was the time of new controversial tv-formats launching in TV, with the German version of "America's Top Model" and the first cosmetic surgery makeover shows in German television.

in Goodreads, it has over 2000 ratings, with ratings covering the full spectrum from 1 to 5 stars (link). and a thing it seems to have in common with the current Twilight / 50 Shades debate: during the buzz-time, there were both critics and book dealers who felt uncomfortable about the success of this kind of book, and suggested to rather read / discuss other books, or focus on more important topics altogether. which leads back to the question: what comes first - the buzz or the nerve that waits to be struck?

another thing that comes to mind: that one core aspect of art isn't about creating things that are pleasing and decorative, but about exploring the identity of ourselves and the society and world we live in. just like one of the gooreads reviews puts it: "I think the reason why I most enjoyed this book was seeing courage that Roche had to approach the very 'taboo' subjects that it deals with. I've never read anything like this." - or like this review points out: "It blows all sorts of rules about books and characters for girls/women out of the water. There is still such an accepted philosophy in the book publishing, book-selling and librarian worlds that books for girls should be pretty, fresh smelling, hygienic to the point of surgical theater."

the point about how books for girls should look like - it also could be a guiedeline for clothes, games, and girls themselves, no? which connects back to the beauty formats in TV.

.. and now i just checked: the first season of Germany's Next Top Model aired in autumn 2006, about 1,5 years before Wetlands launched. and here's a paradoxon: since the start, in all 9 seasons, none of the finalists ever turned into a topmodel - despite the title of the show. i hadn't realized this. and yet, people keep watching it, and it actually is a rather successful format - and also, one that is controversially discussed. there are several articles listed in wiki that relate to the whole media / beauty / girl theme. so i will follow that theme in a following post to this theme.

Update, 2 days later: there is a related post that just went live in the Rumpus: "Bodies in Bikinis: Are You Buying It?" by Ethel Rohan, who writes, after watching a recent episode of American Idol: "As the mother of two young daughters, the portrayal of women in popular culture has since weighed heavily and taken on greater urgency. I worry at the terrible messages our culture tells my two daughters, and girls and women everywhere."

Update, 5 days later: the next taboo/role model post is now up: taboos & role models: the myths of heroes


Sandra Davies said...

I've just finished reading 'The making of her' -
http://www.linenpressbooks.com/shop/the-making-of-her/ - which I found totally absorbing and intelligent on the subject of how women are perceived..

Dorothee said...

hi Sandra, thanks for the book suggestion - looks very interesting. this theme might grow into a domino of reading & reflecting & reviewing.

Ethel Rohan said...

Thanks for this article and the link to my Rumpus essay. Roxane Gay just wrote another excellent essay on her blog re Magic Mike, taboos, female desire and the female gaze: http://www.roxanegay.com/full-archive-of-posts/

The quest for female empowerment and equality is both personal and political and means different things to different individuals. What's most important, I think, is to keep raising awareness and our voices and keep the dialogue going. Yes, absolutely, taboos around female desire should be lifted and our desire valued, respected, and cherished. It's equality in all areas, including our physical desires, I'm after.