The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling
Arlie Russell Hochschild
A prescient account of how emotions and feelings get incorporated and exploited in certain forms of employment, particularly in jobs that feature a high percentage of women. Hochschild takes as her test case the flight attendant, arguing that here ‘the emotional style of offering the service is part of the service itself’. Hochschild’s book is crucial for thinking about what the supposed ‘feminisation’ of labour might mean, and for thinking of strategies of resistance to the demand to sell emotional as well as physical and intellectual labour.
Set in a hospital, Wetlands follows the thoughts and strange encounters of 18-year-old Helen Memel, the victim of an unfortunate attempt at intimate shaving. It is hard not to see Charlotte Roche’s rebellion against the unwritten demand that women be (mostly) hairless, constantly presentable and perpetually desirable as, in part, an attack on the television culture that made her name (Roche is a TV star in Germany).
Helen is everything a female TV host cannot be: ill, self-involved and obsessed with obscenity. But Wetlands is more than just a complaint against the sexual double standards of contemporary life. It points to an odd paradox: for all the hedonism of an apparently liberated culture in which women can drink and screw with the best of them (think Sex and the City), the language we use to describe this behaviour and these unleashed desires is profoundly outdated or, more often, simply absent.
The Dialectic of Sex
A visionary account of woman’s historical oppression (what Firestone calls ‘sex-class’, which underlies economic class) and of how technology will bring about what she calls ‘cybernetic communism’, the complete emancipation of women from childbirth and the negative dimensions of female embodiment. Firestone is unusual for making sexual difference her starting point (as opposed to starting with the ‘constructed’ nature of gender, for example), but gives us a vital indication as to how serious and wide-ranging feminism can be.
Heartbreak: The Political Memoirs of a Feminist Militant
Dworkin was a brilliant, crystalline writer. Whatever disagreements you may have with her positions (her campaign against pornography, for example), there is no doubting the strength and the rigour of her arguments, as well as the passion for her cause. Heartbreak is a short, compelling book that details, often in a humorous way, her encounters with injustice in childhood, adolescence and then as a campaigning and outspoken adult. Her white-hot anger against violence towards women in all its forms burns from the page.
King Kong Theory
This is a half-polemic, half-memoir in which French filmmaker and writer Despentes takes to task French hypocrisy about sex and her own experiences of prostitution. She writes that undesirable women ‘have always existed. We just never feature in novels written by men, who only create women they want to have sex with. … Even today, when women publish lots of novels, you rarely get female characters that are unattractive or plain, unsuited to loving men or to being loved by them.’ It is an angry cry for the recognition of sidelined women everywhere.
The Piano Teacher
Jelinek explores the darker regions of the female psyche and sexual desire, linking repression and perversity to broader social and political conditions. The book is about the self-destruction of sexually repressed Erika Kohut, a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory. But it is also about obsession, desire and having a weird relationship with your mother. It frightens, but in a good way.
Little Tales of Misogyny
Highsmith, a gay, drunk crime writer who famously hated women but couldn’t live without them, had a tough, eerie style that generated true psychological anti-heroes. In this short story collection, a Women’s Lib meeting ends in murder at the hands of a can of beans, marriage ends in an arranged heart attack for the husband and little girls grow up far too quickly into back-stabbing women. Highsmith’s refusal to ‘play nice’ is her greatest strength.
Smile or Die
Ehrenreich addresses class, employment, gender and in Smile or Die, a history of the self-help industry. Her first real encounter with this billion-dollar hot-air cloud comes through her own experience of breast cancer and exhortations to ‘think positive’. She points out that if we spent more time looking for a cure, rather than demanding sufferers go on a ‘personal journey’, then we might not need so many pink ribbons.
Nina Power is the author of One Dimensional Woman and blogs at infinitethought.cinestatic.com