Tara Moss, The fictional woman (Review)

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)