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Tara Moss, The fictional woman (Review)

February 17, 2015
Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

In terms of feminist argument, I’m not sure that Tara Moss told me anything I didn’t already know or believe in her first work of non-fiction, The fictional woman, but that didn’t stop me enjoying her take, her approach. Moss is an interesting woman. Her careers as a model and a crime writer meant she wasn’t really on my radar for the first twenty years of her working life, but that changed a couple of years ago when she began appearing on commentary shows I watch like Q&A (see an appearance here) and The Drum. I discovered that she’s a woman of wide interests and many talents. Here are some of them: UNICEF Ambassador for Child Survival, Goodwill Ambassador; UNICEF Australia Patron for Breastfeeding for the Baby Friendly Heath Initiative; Ambassador for the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children; and a PhD candidate in the University of Sydney’s Department of Gender and Cultural Studies.

So the book. Her main thesis – born of her own experience – is that women’s lives and roles are subject to an inordinate number of fictions that contradict reality, and that this helps perpetuate ongoing inequalities for women in representation, status, value. The book starts more like a memoir, telling us how she became a model in her early teens (“The Model”), her experience of being measured by her body (“The Body”), how she survived some early experiences, including rape (“The Survivor”), and her transition to being a writer (“The Writer”). She then moves on to discuss wider topics such as “The ‘Real’ Woman”, “The Archetypal Woman”, “The Beautiful and the Damned”, and “The Crone”, though in these too, she often uses her personal experiences. To illustrate the fictions women live under, she tells of taking a polygraph test to prove that she, a “dumb” “blonde” “model”, could actually have written a successful novel.

Moss supports her discussion of the fictions she identifies with an impressive array of statistical and other evidence. The book is extensively foot-noted (or, is that end-noted), as you would expect from a PhD student. While the points she makes aren’t necessarily new to me, much of her evidence is – and that’s worrying because her evidence is recent confirming that things haven’t changed as much as I’d have hoped since I first started thinking and reading about feminism in the 1970s.

I won’t elaborate the multiplicity of fictions she explores, the way women are simplified into virgin, whore, witch, crone, for example, because we all know them. Even the male readers here know them, I’m sure. Rather, I’d like to talk about some ideas that I found particularly interesting.

One of these ideas relates to the issue of beauty, which comes up in several chapters, but my focus here is “The ‘Real’ Woman” in which she discusses the various campaigns for/promotions of “real beauty” which encourage women to show themselves au naturel. No, I don’t mean naked, but without makeup, and other enhancing products and processes. Having lived my life this way (little or no make-up, no hair-dyeing, no waxing, etc), I was feeling comfortable in this chapter, until I reached her suggestion that these “campaigns” can be “like a beauty pageant, only with different parameters”. In other words, once again, we are asked to “judge” women on the basis of their appearance. She writes:

I see some disturbing similarities between the kinds of appraisals of women’s appearance that we commonly view as misogynistic, and appraisals that present themselves as ‘pro-woman’.

I take her point. “Using images”, she argues, “to make the claim that you are freeing women from the prison of image is a tricky thing to pull off”. I found this chapter the most confronting because, unlike the others which tended to cover more familiar ground, this one forced me to think more deeply about the complexity of how we “see” women. It’s not surprising that she loves John Berger’s excellent work, The ways of seeing.

She explores some of the underlying structural causes, particularly the way our market-driven society supported by the media contort and distort “reality” through stereotyping, simplifying and then generalising. She argues that women’s visibility in the public sphere is dominated by/limited to those “images” needed to sell products. Advertising has become “so entangled with mainstream culture … so entangled with female identity in particular”, she argues, that we do not see the real diversity of women’s engagement in society.

For many people, “gender” and “feminism” are tricky concepts. Moss unpacks them both with excellent clarity. Her definition of feminism is exactly mine. Feminists want

equal opportunity, equal rights, equality for women. (Equality = same value or status. They want to be equal to, not the same as, men).

Yes! How often do we need to repeat this? “Equal” does not mean “same”. And just because you don’t agree with some feminists doesn’t mean you’re not a feminist if you believe in equality for women. Moss understands, though, women fearing to own the term. She tells of once being asked on ABC TV whether she was a feminist, and admitted she felt

an actual ripple of fear. Part of me was afraid of the vitriol I would be subjected to for publicly identifying with the very movement that had given me the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to work and earn my own pay.

How can that be?

And this brings me, in a way, to another theme that pops up through her book: the way women undermine each other. She discusses, for example the “mummy wars” in which working mums are pitted against stay-at-home mums, and breast-feeding mums are pitted against formula-feeding mums. And yet, she also debunks the fiction “that all women hate each other” or that “women are their own worst enemies”, not only by confirming that for many women, other women provide their greatest support, but by exploring how society, and particularly the media, “read” female behaviour and interaction to put this spin. She tells how a joking comment of hers was read as “a swipe at Miley Cyrus”. Again, the main point of her argument is the social construction that supports these “fictions” about women.

In her final chapter, she discusses what she sees as the wider problem which is that the world is not “a fair and balanced place”. We do not have equality – across gender, race or class. This is what we need to address, and she calls us all to action.

Occasionally I worried that Moss was drawing a long bow or skewing her argument a little by her own experience, but in fact I found her thesis and thinking to be clear and logical, intelligently-framed, and forceful without being judgemental. It’s a good read – and provides much for us to contemplate.

awwchallenge2015Tara Moss
The fictional woman
Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014
328pp.
ISBN: 9780732297893

(Signed copy received from my sister-in-law)

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2015 3:24 am

    It does sound like a good read and from someone who has been in the beauty business herself I can imagine she has an interesting perspective to offer, like those real woman ad campaigns. I find them vaguely wrong and now I know why. I’ll have to see if this is available in the US. I’m so happy that there have been so many feminist books published in the last couple of years. Gives me hope!

    • February 18, 2015 8:38 am

      Yes, Stefanie, she has quite an insider’s perspective on the beauty business and on how the media treats beautiful women. It worried me that this skewed her thesis somewhat. I think it does in the sense that these are her main prisms, but on the other hand these probably are the main, even if not the only, prisms through which inequality is enacted/conceived/justified/revealed etc.

  2. February 18, 2015 7:37 am

    seeing as I’m just about to embark on reading “Damned Whores and Gods Police” (Anne Summers), you have intrigued me enough to add this to the collection of “to be read”.

    • February 18, 2015 9:10 am

      Yes, it would be interesting for you to read this too, Jane. Moss refers of course to Summers, as she does to many feminist writers from the past.

  3. February 18, 2015 7:44 am

    Wow. I understood ALL of this !
    At no point was I left struggling for comprehension of high-falutin’ phraseology or wanky|hip descriptions that left me with knitted brows.
    But it’s about feminism: doesn’t that automatically mean no-one should be able to grasp what either the author or the reviewer means …?
    :-}

    • February 18, 2015 10:05 am

      Oh you, o-venerable-one! You are clearly reading the “wrong” feminists! Very glad you could understand it all. I’ve done my job then. And, anyhow, I’m not very good at high-falutin’ language. I’m a simple person at heart so like to keep me writing simple too.

      • February 18, 2015 10:43 am

        I know, I know … it’s just that I’ve come across so much tricksy nonsense on the topic that I had given up trying to read it (until I found you writing about it) …

        • February 18, 2015 11:06 am

          There’s tricksy nonsense about most things I’ve fond o-venerable-one. I agree it can be very off-putting. So glad I wasn’t one of those off-putters!

  4. February 18, 2015 7:47 am

    Really interesting review, Sue, thank you. I must read this as I feel a great debt to Tara. I don’t think I would’ve met you or any of the AWW team without her post commenting on gender bias in her wrap-up of the 2011 Sisters in Crime conference. She really is a champion!

    • February 18, 2015 10:00 am

      Thanks, Elizabeth. Darn! When I started the book weeks ago, I remembered that regarding Moss getting you going, but forgot when I cameto write the review! Thanks for making that point. All the more reason to review it for the Challenge, eh?

  5. February 18, 2015 8:46 am

    This review has made me want to bump The Fictional Woman to the top of my To Read pile. At the moment I am copyediting Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police for a 40th anniversary edition. It makes for fascinating reading because while some things have changed, much has not. And that’s quite frightening.

    • February 18, 2015 9:56 am

      Oh, you, o-venerable one!40th edition. Wow. Yes, Irma, as I felt reading Moss’s book, too much remains the same. There are changes as you say – but not enough, and not enough that feel secure, for us to relax.

      • Irma Gold permalink
        February 18, 2015 10:04 am

        Absolutely. My feeling is that this 40th edition will be a clarion call. Too much remains entrenched.

        • February 18, 2015 3:10 pm

          Entrenched is the word, Irma, isn’t it? It’s a worry. I think I might look out for this 40th edition. I read my Mum’s copy!

  6. February 18, 2015 10:02 am

    I really should read it, too. And she is right: I owe a large debt to previous generations of feminists who battled on my behalf, but long before I was born, so that I could enjoy a professional career AND be a mother AND have all of the other rights I have. Yet I have great difficulty saying I’m a feminist because of the stereotype—of a militant, opinionated, man-hating, bra-burning woman. Yet, if I believe in equality for women, and I certainly do, then I am a feminist, and I should be proud to say that. You’ve given me food for thought …

    • February 18, 2015 11:26 am

      That’s great Louise – I feel I’ve achieved something. I’m a feminist. And I’m not man-hating or militant, though can probably be opinionated at times, but that’s not reserved for feminists I think! I would love it if all women (people) who have enjoyed the benefits of what feminists have achieved and do achieve, and who believe in equality, to stand up and be counted. Face down the naysayers!

      I’ve always seen feminism as a broad church. Like religions (or any “ism” I suppose), you have your extremists and your fundamentalists, your conciliators and middle-of-the-roaders, your hangers-on, and so on. You find your spot and you go from there keeping your eye on the principle. I suspect you’d find the book a good read.

      • February 18, 2015 5:03 pm

        I felt like a traitor to ‘the cause’ when I wrote my comment, but I have been reluctant to verbalise my feminist ideals, believing I’m doing enough just by living them—going to Uni, having a career, then a second career, being my own person and not being dictated to, all of that …

        I think it is a broad church as you say, and there are people all along the number line, from one extreme to the other.

        Thanks for the review and I’ll look forward to reading the book …

        • February 18, 2015 10:53 pm

          Thanks Louise. I understand, but you weren’t a traitor making the comment, you were being honest and open. The first thing is to live it, as you say, to behave as though you expect to be treated equally. But, there is value in owning the name/in identifying as feminist, if you feel able to. The more of us who do it, the more others can see just how broad a church it is, that it is a belief for all, not just for a radical few. It also means you have a say in the agenda (indirectly or directly). What do we want the priorities to be right now?

  7. February 18, 2015 10:06 am

    It does sound an interesting book; and I do like the definition of feminism. I was infuriated by an article I read recently about an advertising firm using a “real size 16 woman” – but it turned out she was six foot two! Well if size 16 is suitable for a “real16 “that’s why they’re all far too long for me!

    • February 18, 2015 11:05 am

      Oh dear, crlbth, a “real size 16”. What on earth does that mean?! As for feminism, that’s always been my definition, so I loved the clarity with which Moss stated it and presented it. People get so caught up in what individual feminists or feminist groups do, that they miss the main point. As Moss says, the goal is the same, it’s how we get there that disagreements occur.

  8. February 18, 2015 11:27 am

    Great review WG. I read (and reviewed) Moss’s book last year. I enjoyed it but, like you, wondered to what extent Moss was preaching to the converted. Moss already has a wide fan base for her crime novels so perhaps some of them will follow her to this new book. Maybe they’ll learn something along the way.

    But so what? Is awareness raising enough? While I’m pleased that the term misogyny seems to have entered into common usage, is talking about it enough? I already know women are discriminated against, although Moss’ meticulous research gives me some ammunition for the next time a client tells me that “All the hiring decisions here are made on merit.” Spare me!

    I think I’d really rather see a call to action. To her credit, Moss does make a start in this direction during her final chapters. However Annabel Crabb does it much better, I think, in The Wife Drought.

    • February 18, 2015 3:14 pm

      Thanks Michelle. Re preaching to the converted, I know at least one person for whom it was a real eye-opener, who said she wished she’d known all this a long time ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were others who read it because Moss is known to them through channels they’re in (like fashion and crime).

      As you say, she does do some call to action at the end. I’ve read about The wife drought of course, but was wondering if I “needed” to read it – perhaps I do. (I probably would have decided I didn’t “need” to read Moss if it hadn’t been given to me, but I’m glad I did – an interesting update).

      I didn’t realise you’d reviewed it. Will go look.

      • ian darling permalink
        February 18, 2015 9:21 pm

        In a world where women are either objectified as much as ever (the West) or subject to a sort of backlash restriction on basic rights (so much of the rest of the world) feminism is in no danger of fading into irrelevance. The challenges do seem scarily daunting in the eras of turbo capitalism and religious fundamentalism.

        • February 18, 2015 10:42 pm

          Oh well said Ian … they are distressingly daunting aren’t they. We have not progressed in equality for all as far as I rather expected we would have back in the 1970s.

  9. February 19, 2015 5:38 am

    Sounds like a wonderful introduction to an inclusive feminism; one that seeks to correct some misconceptions about what feminism is at its core. We need such books–as the comments make clear. Thanks for telling us about it.

    • February 19, 2015 8:09 am

      Thanks Marilyn … Yes that’s a good description, it clarifies feminism at its core, which is important.

  10. February 19, 2015 8:19 am

    I admit I have been guilty of judging Moss (women undermining each other – oops!) not on her work but because of her looks. A terrible thing, really, when I was similarly accused during a television interview for the launch of my book. Why should looks have anything to do with it? Very simply, they shouldn’t.

    Your review reeled me in and made me want to pick up a copy, however, the cynical part of me wonders: hasn’t she built a career and platform on her image and profited from the very machine that she denigrates? Isn’t it a bit like Russell Brand protesting against bankers as he arrives in his chauffeur driven car?

    Cynical me aside, I did find her points valid especially as someone who grew up when it was embarrassing to say you were a feminist and that these issues are more current than ever. Your review shows that one should never judge a book by its cover!

    • February 19, 2015 9:14 am

      Thanks Alex … for your honesty and your good question. I was thinking about this again in bed this morning. Her complex involvement in media was the issue that I feared at times skewed her arguments – either by an over focus on the issue or by her involvement (and therefore complicity) possibly undermining her thesis. I don’t think she can fully escape that, but in the end I did find her points valid. I love how the comments here have helped us tease out a whole range of reactions and issues – and it’s all be done respectfully and thoughtfully. Wunderbar.

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