Book Review: Tomboy Survival Guide

Last weekend I went to the library to browse through the queer books and I came across Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote. I’ve heard other people say this book is good so I thought I should check it out. Coyote is an accomplished writer and speaker and a queer Canadian icon. Tomboy Survival Guide is their latest book, published in 2016.

Coyote is a talented storyteller who writes in a vulnerable way, heart exposed, and I was drawn in immediately. By the second chapter I already had tears running down my cheeks. The title suggests that this book is a guide for tomboys, but what it actually is is a memoir that is as much about family as it is about gender. The stories are about growing up as a tomboy, being a butch lesbian, and being a trans person, and they are also about being from a loving family from Whitehorse, Yukon—a family that remains important and valuable throughout the author’s life. Western Canada provides a beautiful backdrop for Coyote’s stories, whether it’s the Yukon or British Columbia.

I have been enjoying the book immensely over the past week while simultaneously struggling with the question of how I can review a book by someone who I support on some levels but who has very different political beliefs from me. Coyote is pro-trans, and is against my kind of feminism. Reading through their twitter account recently told me that Coyote calls women “TERFs.”  I cannot discuss this book without addressing this political divide and I can’t get very far into a discussion of their work without making a decision about pronoun use.

Coyote’s pronouns are “they/them” but I do not agree that a butch lesbian should be called ‘they.’ Calling a female human ‘they’ is supposed to imply that she is not female, but is instead somewhere in between, and it disappears the difference between gender and sex. A butch lesbian is biologically female and has a masculine gender. I don’t believe it’s right to imply that a non-feminine woman is not a woman at all—that reinforces the idea that all women must be feminine or else they aren’t women. The idea that all women must be feminine or else they aren’t women is one of the things that harms all of us. I think that when you agree that a masculine woman isn’t a woman, you are agreeing with the bullies who think she’s not okay the way she is.

I believe with all my heart that the way to support a butch lesbian is to respect her masculine gender and her femaleness, and to appreciate them both as integral parts of her that are both significant in making her who she is, and to maintain that being female and masculine isn’t a contradiction that needs to be resolved but something to honour and respect as it is. I think that calling her “they” to erase her femaleness does the same thing that straight women do when they tell her she doesn’t belong in the women’s washroom: it’s kicking her out of womanhood because she doesn’t fit the feminine standard.

With all that in mind, I know that if I were to support Coyote by calling her “she” it would be taken as me not supporting her because she uses “they.” Therefore I am going to use a mix of pronouns to acknowledge both my position and hers. It is my intention here to promote their work and their voice without letting go of my own perspective.

Whenever I read a book written by a butch, I see my own partner among the pages. Coyote’s book really hit home for me because she is a Canadian lesbian and so are my partner and I. In fact, I know that we have mutual acquaintances and some of my friends have seen her perform.

One of the first stories Coyote told of her tomboy nature was being in swimming lessons as a kid and wearing only the bottom half of her bathing suit and allowing everyone to think she was a boy. My partner did the exact same thing when she was a kid, wearing swim trunks to the community pool because that’s what she felt comfortable in, and she kept doing that until the boys were harassing her and the lifeguard told her she had to put a top on. She was not happy about this.

Near the opening of the book Coyote wrote a wonderful description of being a tomboy. It’s not about consciously rejecting the feminine and trying to be masculine, it’s about having something different about you that exists in your personality and in your very bones that you would not be able to change even if you dressed in women’s clothes.

“I didn’t not want to be a girl because I had been told that they were weaker or somehow lesser than boys. It was never that simple. I didn’t even really actively not want to be like the other girls. I just knew. I just knew that I wasn’t. I couldn’t. I would never be. (p14)”

Later on when they described attending college to learn Electricity and Industrial Electronics I saw my partner in the pages again. One of the only two women among hundreds of men, they endured harassment from their classmates despite being excellent in the program.

It can be a minefield navigating the world as a masculine woman because you never know how people are going to interpret you or treat you. Coyote wrote about times when she was “one of the guys” and times when she was “one of the girls.” Although some of their college classmates harassed them horribly, they recalled a positive memory of one classmate asking their advice on how to do something nice for his wife. In that moment, Coyote was not a failure of a woman but an expert on womanhood.

Although it wasn’t the least bit funny for her at the time, I laughed when she recalled the time when a guy managing a tourist destination, hot springs in a cave, made her wear a women’s swimsuit while calling her “sir.” Sometimes people get hilariously mixed up when they encounter an ambiguous-looking person.

Four years before writing this book, and already in their forties, Coyote had top surgery. They called this decision “the healthy, happy thing for me to do,” (p170) even though it caused them to completely lose feeling in their nipples. They describes the numbness in a very poignant paragraph:

“They are beyond numb. They feel nothing. Sometimes I think I can feel the flesh underneath them, maybe I can feel pressure there, maybe. But I can’t feel her fingertips or her tongue, or her teeth. I can’t feel the cold lake or the warm sun either.” (p151)

Is it really a fair trade, to get the chest you want but lose feeling in your nipples?

It’s interesting that Coyote says the following:

“But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. I am not trapped in the wrong body. I am trapped in a world that makes very little space for bodies like mine. (p170–171)”

I fully agree with this. No one is trapped in the wrong body. It’s not their bodies that need to change, it’s the way they are being treated that needs to change. It’s important to locate the problem correctly. Don’t blame something on your body when it’s not your body’s fault.

Throughout much of the book, Coyote doesn’t mention being trans, because in her childhood and young adulthood she didn’t have a trans identity yet. Near the end of the book, the trans issue starts to come up. She wrote about getting hate mail from both conservatives and radical feminists regarding her writing on transgender bathroom use. She reports both groups of people saying the same thing in their hate mail, which is:

“No offense, but, if I had to share a woman’s washroom with someone who looks like you, I would feel…uncomfortable.

And…

“Why don’t you just use the men’s room? (p224)”

Although I am a radical feminist, this quote does not represent my position at all. It’s not what anyone in my own circle of feminists says, either. We don’t want to see butch women kicked out of the women’s washroom, we think all women belong there. We aren’t uncomfortable around butch women. Some of us, like me, love butch women. We also think that single-occupant washrooms are a good idea in order to accommodate gender nonconforming people, or anyone who wants to pee alone. We don’t think that trans people should be kicked out of all the bathrooms. We don’t think women should be forced into the men’s room. I don’t know who emailed her, but they didn’t say anything close to what I would have said. My position is that everyone should be accommodated in washrooms, without forgetting that allowing the entire world into the women’s washroom does not properly accommodate women. Overly-broad gender identity laws that are based on self-declaration and no objective criteria allows anyone to announce they’re a woman and enter the washroom. This is not good policy.

There is another part of the book where Coyote’s pro-trans position bothers me. She printed a letter from a mother whose teenage daughter is transitioning to male. The teen first identified as a lesbian and then identified as trans. Coyote wrote a response to the mother which spoke of her daughter as if she were truly her son and would grow up to be a man. She didn’t leave any room for the fact that this teen could actually be a lesbian. That’s what you do when you believe in transgender politics, is immediately affirm someone’s trans identity and ignore the fact that the person is actually homosexual. Only a so-called “trans exclusive radical feminist” like me can see what is really happening here. An adult lesbian is refusing to call herself a lesbian, preferring to label herself as something other than a woman, and is affirming a younger lesbian who is doing the same. This is absolutely tragic. This is not what I want for the lesbian community. I want lesbians to be able to proudly declare their lesbian identity without falling prey to the ancient homophobic idea that lesbians are really men or that we’re failed women. I want us to carve out space for all different kinds of women to be ourselves without shame, and to show the world that women are diverse and beautiful in our differences. If it were me giving advice, I would have left the door open to this young woman actually being a lesbian and validated what she is probably feeling without jumping right onto the trans train.

For the most part, I loved Tomboy Survival Guide, and I would definitely recommend it. I was very moved by her stories and I thought the book was exquisitely written. I always appreciate hearing about what life is like for little tomboys who grow up to be butch. My criticism is that because of her pro-trans position, her writing is not as lesbian-positive as it could be. What I always hope to see in any book written by a lesbian is a positive lesbian identity and a pro-woman stance.

Book Review: Leaving Normal—Adventures in Gender

This year I want to start reviewing books by lesbians. If you have any recommendations, please send them along!

I am very pleased with the first lesbian book I have read this year which is Leaving Normal : Adventures in Gender by Rae Theodore, who blogs at https://middleagebutch.wordpress.com/.

Leaving Normal : Adventures in Gender is a creative nonfiction memoir that presents scenes from the life of a butch lesbian who went through a long coming-out process. This book is light-hearted and enjoyable to read, and provides an excellent illustration of life as a tomboy and the process of coming to terms with one’s sexual orientation after a period of denial. If you are familiar with her blog then you know that she has a pleasant writing style and sense of humor.

Theodore describes herself as being in between man and woman. It’s not easy to describe the feeling of being unlike other women but not a man either. She describes it in imagery and metaphors, sometimes lonely ones and sometimes cute ones. In one chapter she is a lost Cub Scout in a vast field. There are people to the west and the east, but no one else with her in the middle. In another chapter she imagines that at her mother’s baby shower, when the cake was cut open, it must not have revealed blue or pink cake, but instead rainbow.

She takes us to several scenes from her childhood where the difference between her and other girls was apparent, although she couldn’t name what the difference was at a young age. She paints a picture of the experiences that tomboys and butches go through as they navigate a heteronormative world, such as being mistaken for a boy or man in various social situations and being expected to like girly things and have crushes on boys despite being obviously not the type for it.

She is very good at choosing just the right simile or image to make her childhood experiences appear in full living colour. I found it very charming to read about life in the late 1970s. In some ways it wasn’t so different from my own. While she used to gaze at her Grease poster, presumably looking at John Travolta but secretly looking at Olivia Newton-John, I gazed upon my X-Files posters a couple of decades later, presumably looking at David Duchovny but secretly looking at Gillian Anderson.

Like any lesbian in deep denial, she attempted to date boys and was confused when she felt nothing for them. She described her first kiss like this:

“The kiss is like walking into a glass door. First, there is the impact and then the shock of it all. After it is over, I will inspect my body for marks and bruises. I thought I would fall into my first kiss in the same way I instinctively leaned into my first slide and ended up with a single spiked cleat resting on the second base bag. I stand motionless in the driveway while Dwayne Miller walks to his truck and drives away. I am frozen, rooted to the macadam. My house is only a few feet away, but it seems like miles. I know there is something wrong with me, but I don’t know what. I had gotten what I had wanted, but in the end I had wanted something else. I wonder if this is what love feels like. Or maybe this is what it feels like to be completely lost.”
(p83-84, first edition)

This is such a perfect description. She was expecting to enjoy the kiss but instead she felt like she had walked into a glass door and was left lost and confused. Compare this to the way she felt looking at a pretty girl:

“My attention is focused across the street at a girl in a tight pair of bluejeans. Her back is turned toward me, and my eyes have settled on the curves right below the point of her jean pockets. The pocket points function as makeshift arrows. ‘Look here,’ they seem to shout as if mounted to a billboard and outlined in blinking red lights. But the truth is I would have found my way there without any arrows or makers or maps.
It’s the fullness of the curves that has me captivated. She seems so full that she is on the verge of running over like a pitcher filled with too much liquid. I wait for something to spill out — perhaps a line from a song or a whispered secret—but it never does. Somehow, I know she holds the meaning of life, even though she is just a girl in a pair of jeans standing outside in the rain.
I know that I belong here paired with fleshy softness and ripeness and abundance that can be found on forever-rolling curves of lips and hips and breasts and cheeks. At the same time, I am lost because I don’t know how to get from here to there even though she’s just standing across the street.” (p95-96, first edition)

This description is luscious and wonderfully explanatory and it’s my favourite part of the book. Here are some things I love about this:

  • Although she described herself as “lost” after kissing a boy, when looking at a cute girl she felt she could find her way without a map. (Awwwww ♥)
  • She found existential meaning in her attraction to this girl and could only describe the feeling in poetry. (When wondering who it is you’re attracted to, take a close look at who inspires you to write poetry. If you find that the curve of someone’s body holds songs, secrets, and the meaning of life, that’s who you’re attracted to!)
  • The idea of knowing she belonged among women but didn’t know how to get there was so touching. That’s one of the things a lesbian will deal with when coming out. How to find other lesbians? How to approach a woman for the first time? This is one of the reasons why lesbian community is so important.

When she finally comes out of denial and admits to herself that she is a lesbian, it’s a very touching and beautiful realization. I won’t say how she realized it—you have to read the book! Then she realizes that she has always known, on some level. I remember that feeling too. After I got over the initial shock of realizing that I was attracted to women, I suddenly felt stupid, because I had always known it, I just didn’t want to know what I knew.

Luckily, Theodore is now a happily married lesbian living with her wife and feeling a lot more normal. Another lesbian success story!

This would be a good book for anyone who’s ever struggled to reconcile with her sexuality or who has had to navigate the world while being gender nonconforming. Although I have quoted from the first edition, I will note that the second edition is out now, with several new chapters added. Here is the information for purchasing the book.
Happy reading!

Ghostbusters!

There are already 100,000 posts on social media about how great the new Ghostbusters film is, but whatever, I just saw it and I want to gush about it!

Everything you’ve heard about it is true. It’s a very feminist film that passes the Bechdel test by a landslide and presents women as competent and heroic. It doesn’t sexualize the female characters and you have a feeling the whole time you’re watching it that women are actually people. It’s also generally funny and entertaining.

I’m not gonna lie, one of the things I love about this film is that it stars a lesbian actress—Kate McKinnon. She is a fantastic comedian and her role in this film is dazzling. She is a weirdo genius who invents gadgets to help them capture ghosts and is continuously improving upon her inventions. She also has a sly grin on her face all the time and a really confident swagger that makes her sexy as hell. But let me specify that she’s not sexy the way female characters are usually sexy. She’s sexy the way male characters are sexy, because of her confidence and genius and natural charm. Even though the film didn’t specify that her character is a lesbian, the Internet is buzzing with reasons why it was obvious anyway. She is very cozy with her female friends, almost in a flirtatious way. The first time you see her she’s in overalls. It’s like they were giving little hints. I keep hearing women saying they’re in love with her now—even straight women!

And I also love Melissa McCarthy, of course. She’s adorable and fun and she’s one of the most successful fat actresses ever. She really shines in this role and she does an awesome job being possessed by an evil ghost!

I’m also finding Leslie Jones inspiring. She’s gotten a ridiculous amount of hate on Twitter from butthurt, racist, misogynist crybabies who are jealous of how successful she is. Before I saw the film I was concerned about the fact that the three white women are highly-educated scientists and the black woman is working-class. Like, why couldn’t the black woman be a scientist? But I felt better after watching it because she’s portrayed as smart, well-read, confident and brave. Jones really made her a fantastic character.

The film has a sort of self-awareness about being the first major Hollywood film to star women as action heroes. For example, when one of the women asks why there’s no flashing warning lights on the dangerous equipment, another answers “Flashing lights are for dudes.” Ha! There’s also a time when they shoot a ghost right between the legs—MISANDRY!! (And there are definitely MRAs on the Internet complaining this is the Most Misandrist Film Ever—more incentive for us to watch it!) Also, there is the gender-reversal of their secretary. They hire a really stupid but attractive male secretary who’s completely incompetent at his job but provides eye candy for the women to look at. A deliberate reference to the way female secretaries are portrayed in male-centered movies.

I watched it in 3D and OMG—let me tell you that when a ghost projectile vomited and the vomit looked like it was flying right into my face I yelled some swear words across the theatre! It’s even a bit scary at times, for those people who, like me, are terrified when a ghost is coming around the corner any second now.

I didn’t put this in my lesbian film category because technically there’s no explicit lesbian content, but I am quite confident that 100% of all lesbians will love this film. Watch it like I did, with lesbian friends, in 3D, and high-fiving each other whenever Kate McKinnon does something awesome, which is all the time!

Ten thousand stars out of five!

 

For the love of the female body

So much focus on women who hate their bodies has made me hungry for something that celebrates femaleness. And I have just the thing. Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier, published in 1999, describes the female body with respect, reverence, and joy. This book is hard to classify: it’s full of scientific information, but it’s not a textbook. It’s very entertaining, but it’s not fiction. It’s a fascinating and poignant journey through the female body, from someone who quite loves being female. Angier is an accomplished science writer, and her writing entertains as much as it instructs. She writes non-fiction with incredible skill, using metaphor and imagery with as much artistry as a novelist. I sure wish I could write like she can.

Her introduction begins as follows:

“This book is a celebration of the female body—its anatomy, its chemistry, its evolution, and its laughter. It is a personal book, my attempt to find a way to think about the biology of being female without falling into the sludge of biological determinism. It is a book about things that we traditionally associate with the image of woman—the womb, the egg, the breast, the blood, the almighty clitoris—and things that we don’t—movement, strength, aggression, and fury. It is a book about rapture, a rapture grounded firmly in the flesh, the beauties of the body. The female body deserves Dionysian respect, and to make my case I summon the spirits and cranks that I know and love best.” (p. ix)

I came across this book years ago because it was quoted in the Vagina Monologues. Back in my early twenties I attended the VM on campus several times and that was one of my first exposures to feminism. I was enchanted by seeing women get up on stage and unashamedly talk about living life in a female body. I always came away from the show feeling angry about misogyny yet very proud of being female. I realize that some of the skits have some serious problems in them, but I’m not going to get into that here.

The quotes taken from Woman: An Intimate Geography and used in the Vagina Monologues are some quotes about the clitoris. When Angier is stating that women have never had penis envy, she says “Who would want a shotgun when you can have a semiautomatic?”(p. 58) Later, on the same page, she explains further why the clitoris is the superior organ: “The clitoris is simply a bundle of nerves: 8,000 nerve fibers, to be precise. That’s a higher concentration of nerve fibers than is found anywhere else on the body, including the fingertips, lips, and tongue, and it is twice the number in the penis. In a sense, then, a woman’s little brain is bigger than a man’s. All this, and to no greater end than to subserve a woman’s pleasure.”

I can still remember the sound of the actress’s voice reciting these words in our little theatre on campus. She announced them with joy and pride and well-deserved smugness. She used to repeat the word “twice” several times. “That’s twice, twice, TWICE the number in the penis!”

We women got the body that has an organ fully dedicated to our pleasure, and since that organ has more nerve endings than the penis and can orgasm more frequently, I can state for certain that the female body is the more pleasurable one to have. The reason women hate being female is because of the way females are mistreated; it’s not due to any problem with the body itself.

Now I’m thinking about something I learned in my Vagina Monologues-watching days. The clitoris isn’t just the most fun bodily organ that Mother Nature ever invented, it’s also a metaphor for female sexual self-determination. The woman who believes that her vagina is the center of her sexual life is viewing herself as a vessel for male pleasure. The woman who sees her clitoris as the center of her sexual life is thinking of herself as a sexual agent, the way a man is.

An article by Peggy Orenstein called Our Barbie Vaginas, Ourselves, (which is full of interesting information by the way,) has a paragraph about the effect of women’s genital self-image on our sex lives. Not surprisingly, women who hate their genitals get less enjoyment from sex and masturbate less often. When men treat our bodies like consumer products for them to purchase and use, and convince us that our natural bodies are unacceptable, that systematically reduces the pleasure we can experience. (And of course, it also leads to multiple other human rights abuses.)

The clitoris is fussy and fickle—she can be very sensitive one day and indifferent the next, she can respond with pleasure to one kind of touch and with numbness to another, and she knows which people can please her and which people can’t. At some point around the age of 23 I finally decided I was done having unsatisfying sex with men. No more would I be a vessel for someone else’s pleasure, where the only thing I got out of it was the superficial satisfaction of being deemed fuckable by a member of the male ruling class. You only care about that validation when you’re young. As you get older, especially if you read a lot of radical feminist theory, you realize that validation from men means nothing. Men pretend to be really picky when it comes to women, but they truly aren’t. Men will fuck anything, including women, children, animals, inanimate objects, and holes in the wall. It means nothing when one of them wants to fuck you. What is actually meaningful, for a woman, is pursuing that pleasure which will make her own body happy, and not giving a shit whether the patriarchy approves or not. For me, that pleasure comes from being with another clitoris-bearer. For straight women, that comes from respecting her own body and only being with men who respect it, too. The clitoris may be fickle, but when you give her what she wants, the result is out of this world. Men who think women are just holes to fuck don’t know a goddamn thing about women and have no business being in our beds.

I’m going to dive more into this book, and uncover more beautiful and fascinating things about womanhood, and share them with you. It breaks my heart that some women can’t love their female bodies. I wish they could step into my brain for an hour, and experience womanhood the way I do, with pleasure and delight.

Book Review: What Is Obscenity? by Rokudenashiko

This review contains profane language. 😉

What Is Obscenity? The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist And Her Pussy is a graphic novel (manga) by Rokudenashiko, the Japanese manga writer and artist who was arrested for obscenity over her vulva-shaped kayak. In her book, she documents her arrest and imprisonment as well as the reasons why she began creating this kind of art. She is a brave and rebellious woman with a delightful sense of humor and her book is entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s written in manga style and reads from back to front and from right to left. In addition to her documentation of her life as a rebel artist, it contains information pages about relevant Japanese culture and some photos of her art.

Rokudenashiko, whose real name is Megumi Igarashi, was arrested in 2014 for what was considered a violation of obscenity laws. She had done a 3D scan of her vulva and used that scan to print a vulva-shaped kayak using a 3D printer. She crowd-funded to pay for her creation and as a thank you gift to her donors, she sent each one the 3D scan of her vulva. They can use this digital file to print more objects shaped as her genitals. News of her arrest spread quickly and she now has a fan following around the world. Instead of being just a struggling manga writer she is now a famous “manko artist.”

kayak

Photo source

“Manko” is Japanese slang for female genitals. The translator of her book translated this word sometimes as vagina and sometimes as pussy. I’ve looked at definitions of manko on Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary and apparently this word can mean vagina, vulva, pussy, cunt, or “to fuck.” (It figures that the same word that means vagina also means to fuck. What does that tell you?) Just so you know what we’re dealing with, manko is not a medical term, it’s colloquial and profane, and probably is equivalent to “pussy” in English.

Igarashi started creating “manko art” quite by chance. As she says in her book, she was a struggling manga writer looking for interesting stories to tell so she could advance her career. She was searching on the Internet for pubic hair removal one day and she came across the possibility of vaginal reconstructive surgery. She had never thought of this before and she quickly decided to do it. It seems that she has a rather casual attitude toward plastic surgery. She had no “complex” about her genitals but she thought the experience would make a good story to write about in her manga. Essentially, she got the surgery just for the heck of it and to write about it.

Since she had just gotten a “beautiful new pussy,” (her words, not mine) and since she’s an artist and a quirky character, she decided to make a mold of her genitals. After she created the mold and looked at her plaster vulva, she thought it looked “boring.” A caption in the side of the cartoon says “Would’ve been better with flappy labia, actually.” That was my thought exactly! Maybe if your “new pussy” looks boring, what it actually needed was more labia! (And I’m definitely not trying to put down anyone with naturally small lips. Just saying, you don’t need to cut yours off to make it look “better.”) Since she thought it looked “boring,” she decorated it with flowers and things. Thus, her manko art was born.

A few other people in Japan started noticing her manko art and some women even came to a workshop to make their own. The women in the workshop really loved making art out of their genitals and Igarashi began to see how much she could inspire women with her art. However, she received a lot of negative backlash from people, mostly men, who thought what she was doing was unacceptable. Men’s responses came in two forms: either making vagina art was obscene, or they thought she must be really perverted and wanted random guys to fuck her. It never fails, if a woman appears in public while not hiding the fact that she has a vagina, random men assume that means she wants them to fuck her. (Porn culture! Rape culture!)

Igarashi’s style is not erotic though. Her style is funny, whimsical, cartoonish, and very “pop.” A lot of her designs are consumer products: an iPhone case with a vulva on it, for example. You can see her artwork on her online store and her Tumblr.

My favourite artwork of hers is the diorama where her vulva is the ground and soldiers are fighting over top of it. This feels like a more ‘serious’ artwork to me, and it’s very spot-on. The female genitals are simply the ground that men walk on, and they’re shooting each other over it.

vulva art 3

Photo source

I also like her vulva T-shirt. I would totally wear that.

Her response to getting negative backlash from cranky men was to make more manko art specifically to piss them off. When one commenter said that manko should only be looked at in the dark under blankets, she made a manko chandelier so that it would shine brightly across the room. Ha! When she made her 3D printed kayak, it was because she wanted to make something really big. What she really wants is to make a vulva-shaped vehicle, but since she doesn’t have a driver’s license, she made a kayak, which she can drive without a license. She really did sail the kayak.

When she was arrested, ten police officers entered her apartment without permission, raided her apartment for “obscene” artwork, and handcuffed her and tied her at the waist. Ten police officers to arrest a small, unarmed, female artist! Her excellent sense of humor and her gift of storytelling really come through when she describes her arrest. The police kept picking up art objects and asking her what they were. Nearly every time they asked, she said “it’s my manko,” and they were shocked that she would say this word out loud. She started finding it so funny that she began deliberately using the word as often as possible. There is one cartoon where it’s just a picture of her surrounded by speech bubbles, and each speech bubble says “manko.” That one really had me laughing. The idea of her being raided by the police for obscenity and saying “manko” as often as possible is so hilarious and the way she describes it is just adorable. She kept this up when in prison and in court. Every time she was allowed to make a statement, she said “manko” as often as possible just to piss them off. She even got them to read it back to her during times when they had to read her statement, which made them uncomfortable but amused her.

In her book, she initially draws herself as a person, but eventually she starts drawing herself as a large cartoon vulva, with eyes and a mouth and always a relevant facial expression. I get the impression like she felt it was her vulva that was getting in trouble with the authorities.

Igarashi has identified that there is a double standard in Japan with regards to genitals. It’s fine to mention the penis but it’s taboo to mention the vagina. In addition, men have no problem with porn but they have a problem with vulva art created by women. To really illustrate how far the double standard goes, there is actually a festival in Japan that celebrates the penis. Check this out on Wikipedia:

“The Shinto Kanamara Matsuri, (“Festival of the Steel Phallus”) is held each spring at the Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki, Japan. The exact dates vary: the main festivities fall on the first Sunday in April. The phallus, as the central theme of the event, is reflected in illustrations, candy, carved vegetables, decorations, and a mikoshi parade. The Kanamara Matsuri is centered on a local penis-venerating shrine.”

penis statue

So it’s okay to have a parade where a big, tacky, ugly steel penis is rolled down the street, but if a woman makes a mold of her vulva, she needs to be arrested by ten police officers and thrown in jail.

Igarashi says some feminist things in her book and in her interviews, although she says she doesn’t necessarily call herself a feminist, and she is definitely a liberal, not a radical. She simply identifies a double standard and an unfairness toward women but she doesn’t theorize about patriarchy or name women as an oppressed class of people.

Of course, I have some theories about women as an oppressed class of people. There are lots of men who lose their shit when women try to represent their own genitals in art. It’s not just the men in Japan. Men in all parts of the British Empire have been losing their shit over vulva cupcakes in recent years. When women simply represent a vulva in their arts and crafts and name the vulva as a female body part, men believe they are being subjected to violence or obscenity, and they immediately shut down the female artist. This has to do with male supremacy and male ownership over women’s bodies. We know that men don’t have a problem with porn—they only have a problem with women’s artwork. That’s because men love depictions of women’s genitals when those depictions are created by men for men and when they represent men’s ideas of what women should be. What they don’t like is when women represent ourselves as we want to be represented. That challenges our status as a subordinated class—it makes us seem like autonomous human beings, and that terrifies men. The reason men shut down vulva cupcake parties and arrest female artists for “obscenity” is because those women are insubordinate, and they need to be taught their place. Our genitals are not for us to own or for us to name and describe or for us to represent in art—they’re for men to use as they see fit. Men can represent our genitals in porn, they can get surgery on themselves in order to wear a fake version of our genitals, and they can use our genitals in real life, through rape, incest, prostitution, and marriage, for their own purposes and against our will, but god forbid we actually take control and name them as our own.

Igarashi’s goals are liberal, not revolutionary. She wants to piss off anyone who doesn’t like the word “manko” by saying it over and over and she wants to make female genitals “more pop and accessible,” through the promotion of vulva-shaped cartoonish consumer products. (And speaking of her being liberal, her book makes references to “designated female at birth” and “cisgender women.” I’m not sure if the sparklegender ideology has made its way to Japan or if it was just her English translator, who is American, who wrote it that way.) It appears that her end goal is just to destigmatize female genitals. I applaud this goal; however, I would like to go even further and liberate the female sex class from oppression. This involves not only destigmatizing our genitals but also creating material changes that allow women everywhere to gain control over our own bodies, so that we can control when and how we reproduce, how we express our sexuality, and how we are viewed and represented in culture.

I was really happy to read this book. I devoured it in a couple of days, I laughed with delight all the way through, and I thought about the significance of vulva art. The fact that she’s a liberal feminist doesn’t stop me from loving her art and wanting to support her future work. I hope she does end up making that vulva-shaped vehicle.

Lesbian film: Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007)

There are lots of good things about this film, although I do have one criticism which you will see below. It was created by women for women and it contains lesbian and feminist themes, so it goes on the list of good lesbian films.

The star of the story is Anna, a young lesbian who lacks confidence at the beginning of the film but goes on quite a journey when she meets a group of feminists who are doing illegal activism. When we first meet Anna, she is working at a clinic that does breast implants, her girlfriend has broken up with her, she didn’t get into the college she wanted, and she is rather quiet and unassertive. She runs into a woman, Sadie, who is spray-painting the clinic and Sadie takes a picture of Anna holding the paint can as insurance against Anna telling on her. Then Sadie invites her to a meeting of her feminist group and Anna decides to join. Anna begins learning about feminism as well as falling for Sadie, and her life totally changes. She becomes angry, but more confident, she becomes almost unrecognizable to her family, and she becomes a courageous feminist activist.

One of my favourite things about this film is the soundtrack. It’s full of riot grrrl music which is fitting because of the themes of DIY, punk, and feminist activism in the film. Listening to female punk rock while watching women rebelling against society is very energizing! I find when I watch this film I always end up all excited and wanting to burn down the patriarchy. (Of course, I want to burn down the patriarchy all the time, but you know.) Lots of the music is by Le Tigre, who you should check out if you’re not familiar with them already. Because of this film, I will always hear FYR in my head when I think of feminist activism. And, of course, I also love Rebel Girl by Bikini Kill!

So the criticism I have is that there is ageism in the film. The group of feminists that are in focus are young and energetic but they do mostly punk-style activism: defacing billboards, spray-painting things, yelling at people at protests. They are contrasted with Sadie’s older girlfriend Courtney, who is more mature, has a real job, and works within the system. Courtney is a feminist too but because she is not a young, jobless punk she is portrayed as being stuffy and out-of-date. It’s frustrating to see the disrespect for older women in a feminist film. The young women should see Courtney as a role model and someone who they can work with as a team, not as someone who is inhibiting their progress by being too old-fashioned. In my experience, older feminists are wise, capable, brave, brilliant and badass. They are not at all the way Courtney is portrayed. This element in the film is frustrating and disappointing.

Aside from that, the film is good and I recommend it. Between the excellent riot grrrl soundtrack and the FUCKING AWESOME STUNT they pull at the end, I can’t help loving this film. I own it on DVD but I’m pretty sure it’s on Netflix as well.

Here is the trailer:

 

Kicking off a lesbian film series

This Soft Space asked me to review some lesbian films because she hasn’t seen many, and I think this will be a fun thing to do. Some of the best lesbian films are a few years old though and I’m guessing most of you have seen them already. But it’s probably still worth it to review older films because the new lesbians coming up won’t have seen them and someone has to introduce them! (Also check out the blog category Lesbian Films to see what I’ve reviewed already.)

There is a long tradition of representing lesbians as crazy and unstable in works of fiction, because lesbian characters used to be more of a cautionary tale against homosexuality than respected characters. So any films where lesbians end up going crazy or dying or ending up with a man I’m not going to review. Fuck that shit. Only good lesbians films will be reviewed here.

So to start off I’m going to name the two best lesbian films of all time (according to me.) They are Tipping the Velvet and Saving Face!

Tipping the Velvet is a novel by Sarah Waters that absolutely all lesbians should read. It’s the most brilliant lesbian novel of all time. One of these days I think I want to write a post about my favourite quotes from Tipping and explain why I like them. This story is a drama set in England in the 1890s. The narrator, Nancy, starts off 18 years old and she falls in love with a male impersonator and follows her to London. The two women have the adventure of a lifetime being drag performers and they eventually reveal their love for each other and become sweethearts. And then a lot of other stuff happens—I won’t give you any spoilers, but warning: DRAMA. The film was done by the BBC so it’s FANTASTIC. Excellent actresses, beautiful costumes, wonderful detail—it’s just breathtaking. I’m sure everyone would like this film, even if they’re not a lesbian, because it’s a generally fantastic film. It’s very long and it’s divided into three parts. You might have to watch each part separately, unless you have reserved an entire day for it. I’ve seen it so many times I can sing some of the songs that the two male impersonators sing onstage.

Saving Face is a romantic comedy about a Chinese-American community. The main character, Wil, is a lesbian and she meets and falls in love with another Chinese-American woman. It’s a really adorable romance—there’s even a scene where Vivian standing close to Wil makes her fall down. You just have to see it to understand how cute it is. The whole film is lovely to watch, not just the blossoming romance between the two women. It’s as much about the dynamics of the Chinese-American community as it is about the lesbian romance. Of course, the gossiping and drama that goes on is the same as what would happen in any tight-knit, insular community, but there is something in Chinese culture about saving face, you know, trying to look good no matter how messed up you really are. The ending is a bit cheesy, but it’s a happy one so I’m okay with it. This film is available on Netflix so you have no excuse not to watch it! This is a film that will cheer you up with its cuteness no matter how bad a day you are having.