The Stella Prize

Doing It - Women Empowering Women

There are some books that influence you so profoundly that it would be a crime not to share them. My experience with Doing It: A Sex-Positive Anthology edited Karen Pickering, was one such time. This book is a bold and inspiring compilation of essays from a group of fierce and unapologetic feminists who openly discuss pleasure, desire and the important role sex plays in the lives of women. This body of work deconstructs the preconceived societal notions that form our opinions around sex and pleasure. As Karen Pickering says, we hear a lot about what women should be like, or how they can be more appealing as sexual creatures. Women are frequently seen as objects of sexual desire and gratification, but this perception ignores the fact that women are as sexual as men. They are not bystanders to their own sexual experiences. Model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, a vocal feminist and believer in the implicit freedom of sexuality that all women deserve, said this on sexuality: "The implication is that to be sexual is to be trashy because being sexy means playing into men's desires. To me, 'sexy' is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated, one that is wonderfully female. Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up?"

There’s a lot of implied shame around being a woman. Women who are brave enough to expose their true selves to the world are often criticised and put down for acting ‘unlady-like’. Women who dare to approach sex in the way that men do, with empowerment and with the correct belief that their bodies are their own and they are free to do whatever they please with them, are deemed sluts or whores. If they don’t show ‘enough’ interest in sex, they’re deemed prudes, nuns or virgins. Take Emma Watson, for example, and the recent debacle over her cover shoot for Vanity Fair, publicizing the release of Beauty and the Beast. Watson stands on the cover, arms crossed, shoulders draped in a knitted throw, looking totally gorgeous. The pages had barely settled after this edition of Vanity Fair hit newsstands when people started to voice their opinions on Watson’s choice of apparel on the cover. The main question seemed to be this; how can Emma Watson be a feminist is she bares her chest on the cover of a magazine? It would seem to me that the answer to this question is painfully obvious, as Watson herself has said; feminism is about liberation and freedom, the right for a woman to have agency and control over her body. I think a better question would be why shouldn’t a feminist, or any other woman (or human for that matter) be able to express themselves in a way that makes them feel comfortable and, god forbid, sexy? Emma Watson, a talented actress, vocal feminist and activist, and overall an educated and intelligent person, has been cut down to no more than a piece of meat by public opinion for the mere crime of exposing a little bit of under-boob. It seems in this society women can’t take a breath without being told who or what they are, with no ability to control their own identities.

“Women love sex. So why do we have such a difficult time accepting them as sexual creatures?”

The attitude towards women who are in touch with their own sexuality and choose to express it is often to scorn and belittle them. A woman has less of a right to connect with her sexual self than a man does.

Karen Pickering says that her love of building communities for women was part of the impetus behind the book. The safe-space created by Doing It which allowed the contributors and readers alike to share their experiences is one of the most poignant things about this work. Too often are women silenced and made to believe their experience or opinions simply don’t matter. One of the most beautiful feelings was diving into the pages of this book and being enveloped in shared experiences and feelings, realising that a woman is not an island.

I am young, and as such am constantly reminded how much I have to learn about the world, but I think one of the most important things I drew from this book was how much I still have to learn about myself. I have been living with the false mentality that merely existing is to know yourself. My mind told me that simply by being alive I must know myself to the fullest scope; there should be no need for self-exploration or discovery because by being me I should know me. I read this book at a time of upheaval; I had just broken up with my boyfriend of over three years and moved into a house with four new roommates. With all these changes I found myself unsure of who I am or where I stand in my own life. Reading Doing It opened up a whole new can of worms in the self-questioning department. This book made me realize how much more I still have to learn, and to understand that there are parts of myself that I am still yet to explore. When reading this book I began to comprehend how closed off I am about my own sexuality, it was as if a veil had been lifted and I began to see that I was purposely ignoring the sexual components of myself in fear to avoid discovering something I may not have liked, or which may have been judged by those around me.

Talking about sex makes me uncomfortable, in fact, this review has probably been one of the hardest I’ve written, and I felt myself constantly questioning what to discuss and in what manner to discuss it in. Although I still feel as if I have a lot to learn about myself as a sexual being, and have many a bridge to cross before I feel more comfortable with discussing sex. I feel that the multitude of experiences and perspectives presented to me within the pages of Doing It, helped me feel a little more comfortable about the nature of sexuality, and develop a more real and tangible understanding that we are all sexual beings in one way or another and that sex and sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of.

That’s often the beauty of a good book, its ability to give us introspection, to apply someone else’s perspective to our own lives and make deductions based on the new lenses through which we’re seeing ourselves for the first time. Before this book, I would have said I don’t enjoy non-fiction, much preferring to lose myself in a story derived from imagination. After Doing It, I have a new appreciation for the real-life, for books written of experience and the importance of reading things that draw attention to the real world, to the issues that plague the existence of so many.



The Natural Way of Things

After it won the Stella Prize this year, I pushed The Natural Way of Things to the top of my reading list. At this point, most avid readers will have heard of The Natural Way of Things and the huge acclaim it’s receiving for the unique way it discusses the darker elements of society through exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control.

Ten women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in an abandoned property in the middle of the Australian Desert. The girls have no knowledge of where they are or how they came to be there. They are forced to shave their heads and dress in strange uniforms, building a road for the unknown ‘Hastings’. The girls are guarded by Teddy and Boncer, two inept and brutal jailers, as well as the strange ‘nurse’ Nancy. Not long after their arrival, the girls begin to realise what they have in common, in each girls past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. The girls work and wait for rescue or explanation, but when the power is switched off and all talk of ‘Hastings’ arrival ceases it is clear their jailers are as imprisoned as they are, and a new type of life in this strange dystopian landscape begins.

Yolanda and Verla stand out from the crowd of girls. Their friendship a strange and silent trail treading its way through the novel. I found I connected most with Yolanda and the animal nature she lets overtake her. Yolanda’s strength and intelligence is what keeps the girls going through the degradation of the confusing community they find themselves in. Yolanda is the only girl of the group who fought against being brought to this strange place, sensing something horrible to come. Verla, on the other hand, sees herself as separate from the others, as better. She judges the girls as harshly as anyone, not seeing or caring about the likeness of their situations or the sisterhood they are now bound in. Verla becomes obsessed with her white horse, a beast she believes she will ride to freedom, making very few actions to actually go in search of the creature she believes to be her saviour.

I felt as if I spent the entirety of the book waiting for something, for a break or a movement in the story. It’s not as if nothing happened in the book, it was just that I was expecting… more. I feel the issue with award-winning novels can often be the hype that is built up around them. From the reviews I’d read and people I’d spoken to, I had built up an expectation for this book. I believed it would be phenomenal, that the novel would really knock me off my feet. And maybe my expectations were what stopped me from having a stronger reaction?

There’s a deep undercurrent of rage that runs through this book. You feel it dripping from Yolanda as she watched Boncer and Nancy ‘play doctor’ with Verla through her illness. You see it in the way the girls look at Hetty after she offers herself to Boncer in exchange for small comforts. Every line of every page is filled with a dull, un-moving rage, an anger that can’t be dissipated even by the books conclusion. To me, this rage represented the unyielding nature of our society, the endless struggle for things which seem so simple. These girls did not deserve their fate, even Hetty, Nancy and Teddy did not deserve what came to them. It’s an anger at the unprejudiced cruelty of existence. Or, at least that’s how it made me feel.

My biggest praise of The Natural Way of Things was the beautiful way in which it was written. It was very easy and enjoyable to let myself sink into the words. I had a very visceral reaction to Wood’s novel. When Yolanda begins to lose herself to the land, developing her new animalistic persona, I could feel the skins of the rabbits she huddled around herself, smell the crisp air in the morning as she hunted the food which kept their small and strange community alive. But for me, this beautiful style and quintessentially Australian setting was simply not enough. I needed more from the book, I craved it. I closed the last page with the thought ‘is that it?’ I would recommend this book, as I certainly don’t regret reading it, I just wished there was more, of what, I can’t say, but there was an overwhelming feeling that something was missing from the pages of The Natural Way of Things.