Review: Reality Bites Back by Jennifer L Pozner

Reality Bites Back coverTitle: Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV
Author: Pozner, Jennifer L.
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Culture
Publisher / Year: Seal Press / 2010
Source: BookDepository
Rating: 4.5/5
Why I Read It: Great reviews by Cass and Kim, fellow non-fiction readers.
Date Read: 04/30/13

Anecdote one: When reality television was first beginning to be a ‘thing’ and Survivor started, I remember my mother rolling her eyes at the “reality” aspect, commenting that obviously it was fully staged. If it was “really” surviving, there wouldn’t be cameras there. She was my first educator on media literacy and critical watching. Of course, I really wasn’t allowed watching much television, so it was more critical listening to the news articles about it and what friends were saying…

Anecdote two: I had a roommate for around two years, a few years back, who loved reality television… and when I say loved, I mean: she watched it constantly. Whatever reality television show they thought of, she was watching it. And let me tell you, there were some pretty terrible shows. Many of those shows are discussed in this book; some were bad enough they aren’t even mentioned. The residual effects of that alone were enough to turn me off of television pretty much fully, even though I’d escaped the ‘no television’ rules of the parental home mentioned above…

Book thoughts: Pozner has written a compulsively readable (much more addicting in my mind than the shows she is writing about) book about the stereotypes, prejudices, and flat out lies that hide behind the reality programming taking over TV. The research behind the book included countless hours of watching reality TV, as well as advocacy work educating youth about the power of media, reading, and more. While we like to think we are smart enough not to be tricked into believing everything we see, Pozner outlines how the shows actually do have an effect on viewers.

No matter how independent we might be as adults, how cynical we consider ourselves, or how hard we’ve worked to silence external cultural conditioning, decades of sheer repetition make it extremely difficult to fully purge societal standards from our psyches. -pg 47

Each show, to succeed, as Pozner shows brilliantly both with examples and with actual quotes from producers, plays on pervasive cultural stereotypes and ingrained biases. They denigrate women, they play on racial fears, they rely on stereotypes of consumption and class, and are written around advertisers requests. Consider shows such as The Bachelor promoted as ‘fairy tale romance’… how many of the fairy tales actually last? How much diversity is in the cast members, comparative to the diversity in actual marriage statistics? How are women and men treated and shown relating to each other? Is the consumption flashy and over the top, but aimed at realistic and ordinary? When we see only short clips, how do we know that we are seeing a full truth? And etc.

Despite having only seen a few episodes of a few shows (as outlined above, *shudder*), I didn’t feel lost or left out as when shows are first mentioned enough description is given to understand the premise. While reality TV producers like to say that they are simply providing ‘what the public wants’ the truth is that many reality shows are extended despite lackluster viewing because they don’t cost much (or anything) to produce, and are often paid for by marketers and corporations to promote products. The descriptions and discussions of the industry itself, from executives to producers to advertisers, were fascinating and disturbing. The amount of say they have in shows is incredible, as is the amount of product placement and the costs paid for this airwave time; time that isn’t even billed as actual advertisement.

Pozner in this book is not arguing against watching reality television – in fact she reaffirms that she still watches it – but she is rather asking viewers to be critical media consumers. Consider what you are watching, be aware of stereotypes and prejudices, as well as advertiser messages. Educate yourself, and advocate for better shows with better premises that show life more as it is, including its diversity, equality, and respect for others. Try playing ‘Backlash Bingo’ or a drinking game when you next watch reality TV – with helpful suggestions for play included in the book! (Though you may want to consider completing the drinking game with non-alcoholic beverages, for the sake of your health, considering the shows…)

Review: A Question of Choice by Sarah Weddington

A Question of Choice coverTitle: A Question of Choice: Roe v. Wade 40th Anniversary Edition
Author: Weddington, Sarah
Length: 315 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Publisher / Year: Feminist Press / 2013 first published in 1992
Source: Feminist Press Subscription
Rating: 4.5/5
Why I Read It: With all the debate on abortion these days, it seemed a fitting read.
Date Read: 05/10/13

Weddington successfully argued and won Roe v. Wade at only twenty-six years old, and the win was seen as a victory for women and for reproductive choice. Now, forty years later, we’re still arguing many of the same points as we were before, and seem to be constantly under threat of reverting to the status of pre- Roe v. Wade, when illegal abortions were common (and incredibly unsafe). In this book Weddington recounts her life prior to and after the case, talking about how she became involved, all those that assisted and played a part, and why it is so important as a historical victory and as a basic right.

A Question of Choice was really interesting as a memoir of a successful woman, and can be recommended for that reason alone. Weddington’s journey into law school, through advocacy, in elected office, and all avenues of her life was very readable and engaging. For any woman, especially one who would like to go into law, her stories of professors and classes, as well as her triumphs, would prove a compelling read. Beyond that, she would be a fantastic role model of success for any of us looking to succeed in whatever path we choose. Her dedication and drive were remarkable.

Beyond that, though, is the full discussion of the status of reproduction choice pre- Roe v. Wade, the advocacy work by individuals and groups, the health risks and personal stories of those who suffered, and the timeline of attacks ever since the case was won. As a historical source, Weddington makes clear the challenges faced by women in controlling their reproductive lives, and the health hazards they had to live through historically. For all of us who didn’t personally experience these times, it is especially important for us to realize what the absence of legal abortion means. A lack of legal abortion does not actually lead directly to less abortion; it leads to unsafe abortions and so many more deaths and complications. The (perhaps unfortunate to many) truth is that abortion is something that exists in all countries, no matter the legality of it.

One especially fascinating part of the reading for me was when she discussed the many arguments against her case in the Supreme Court. I was amazed that many of them are ones we are still hearing now, but that have somehow become more accepted or mainstream. Many of the arguments that were dismissed are now back stronger and more forceful than ever. History, in this case, hasn’t moved in a straight line but has rather circled around to the same place.

Personal side note: While abortion itself seems to be a touchy subject for many, what is important to remember is that abortion is but one small piece of women’s wide range of reproductive choices. These choices include the vast array of options for controlling one’s life and caring for a family – having a family, managing illnesses, and taking care of yourself. The current debate seems to focus single-mindedly on abortion while ignoring that for each fetus, there are corresponding needs that will come along such as care, shelter, and nourishment. Without a strategy that focuses on this, a strategy remains as anti-choice, not in any way pro-life. Pro-life would indicate that the strategy also encompasses families, mothers, fathers, and the children themselves after they are born.

Whether you agree with abortion or not, the fact is that it is a necessary tool for many in controlling their health and their lives. The death of those requiring medical treatment because doctors won’t perform abortions is but an extreme example. For this reason, I am unwilling in the comments to discuss the fact that you might not agree with abortion as an option. Instead, I would ask you to read on the facts of life for women pre- Roe v. Wade and think about what reverting to that time would mean for the health of women, and of their babies and families.

Further Thoughts: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels coverTitle: Tender Morsels
Author: Lanagan, Margo
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher / Year: Knopf / 2008
Source: BookDepository
Rating: 5/5
Why I Read It: I had heard too much about it, and too many bloggers I love and trust recommended it.
Date Read: 21/11/12

I’ve already reviewed this book in detail here, and I do recommend you check out that review if you haven’t already. I really loved this book and think it is an incredibly important addition to the shelves of young adult literature. We need books like this that deal with sensitive topics with which teens deal. Desperately need.

What I want to do here is discuss a specific aspect / string of events of the book that I’ve been mulling over. If you’ve not ready the book, you may want to skip the thoughts below. If you’ve read it, I would love to know your thoughts.

I’ve been considering this morning the bears in the novel.

Through the course of the novel, as the boundaries between the two worlds begins to grow holes, a couple of boys end up accidentally in the world of the girls as bears. They are said to be among the best men in their communities as they were chosen for the event during which they accidentally jump through and end up in the wrong place. While there, however, the bears act quite differently.

I’m thinking of this as a critique of the “boys will be boys” type mentality. Lanagan shows vividly that while boys and men may end up in very similar circumstances, they can (and do) act in very different ways. Despite being thrown into the same scary and different world, and being stuck in the skin of a bear, the boys in fact have completely different mentality because of how they were raised and what was taught to them.

We are taught in our culture that the correct responses to rape are to question the survivor and her actions / clothing / life, and the idea that what a girl wears should have any bearing on the validity of her story. Many feminists are constantly pointing out that questioning a girl’s appearance or setting rules on what girls should wear is in effect claiming that men can’t control themselves. That rather than being sentient human beings in control of their decisions and actions, they actually are simply animals acting on instincts they can’t control. Lanagan here shows through the actions of the bears the idea that men aren’t one monolithic group who can’t control themselves. She shows that instead there are a range of responses by men and boys on a continuum from terrible to fantastic – and that these responses are a choice.

One is respectful and kind, another tries to take advantage of one of the girls against her will. Clearly not all boys or men are terrible, and this is a beginning of Liga’s learning process and a part of their safety structure when back in the real world – they’ve already learned that some bears (and thus some men) are good and know how to be respectful, and this helps them to deal with those who aren’t. The difference is very much nurture over nature in the way these men behaved in the ‘safe world’ of Liga and her girls.

Thoughts?

Review: The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper

The Hanging of Angelique coverTitle: The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Montreal
Author: Cooper, Afua
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: Harper Perennial / 2006
Source: Chapters Indigo
Rating: 4.5/5
Why I Read It: I heard about this book from Marilyn of Me, You, and Books who has a great review on her site.
Date Read: ?/12/12

An examination of slavery and race in Canada via the historical documentation of the trial of a slave woman in early Montreal, accused of setting a fire which burned much of the city in 1734. The book provides an important voice for early slaves, as the trial was during a time before any currently acknowledged written slave narratives.

The main focus of the book is the life, what little is known of it, of Marie-Joseph Angelique. Through various historical records Cooper was able to pull bits and pieces together, though the main of the details come from the trial transcripts. Through these documents she is able to pull together an engaging story not only about the life of one woman, but about the status of slaves in the early colonies, and the running of the early colonies themselves. The story of Angelique is interesting, but doesn’t provide enough in itself for the entire book. Instead Cooper has used it as a narrative frame around the larger historical issues that the story brings to light.

While race isn’t often a focus of public conversation and study here in Canada, that doesn’t mean that we have achieved any kind of ‘post-racial’ society. As well, just because we like to argue that slavery was ‘better’ or ‘easier’ in Canada does not erase the fact that slavery did exist, and that it was as brutal as it was elsewhere on the continent. Throughout this work Cooper examines the documentation around slavery in Canada, lays out the laws governing slavery, and the misery of those who suffered under them. The fact that slavery isn’t a part of the narrative of Canada is one that Cooper seeks to redress.

For example, in talking about the ways in which Angelique’s story is told in present day by historians she talks about how the silence around race issues causes a distortion of the facts:

“Trudel and his cohorts are all modern Quebec historians, and they may have been influenced by the fact that today one does not examine (publicly) the race question in Quebec unless one is talking about the French and English. These historians refuse to see that Angelique was an enraged woman who wished to run away from enslavement not because of Thibault [romance], but because of slavery itself.” (Page 289)

Through quotes like this, it also a critical examination of what we have previously read or what we encounter written on race relations in Canada. We have to consider – is what we are writing accurate to the historical documents? Could it be clouded by our current perceptions of the past? And so on. Cooper has made a very important contribution to our history shelves.

Highly recommended to all Canadians, and anyone interested in the history of slavery.

Review: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels coverTitle: Tender Morsels
Author: Lanagan, Margo
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher / Year: Knopf / 2008
Source: BookDepository.
Rating: 5/5
Why I Read It: I had heard too much about it, and too many bloggers I love and trust recommended it.
Date Read: 21/11/12

Rape, abuse, incest, and other traumas – these are things that young adults deal with, but they are also topics that we rarely discuss with them. Think of the statistics: 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted, 44% will be under 18, and of those, 93% knew their attacker. In reading, we all want to see ourselves and learn about life, about ourselves, and about how to cope. Sexual assault is a huge area around which we are largely silent, especially in our literature for teens. In this book, Lanagan has taken on these topics and explored themes surrounding sexual assault, helping to fill an important gap.

Liga, like many young victims, doesn’t understand what is happening to her, and only later comes to realize what exactly her father was doing and what it means. Her understanding grows, and along with it, her knowledge that she will also bear the shame and disgust of the villagers. The second assault examines the way that others often respond to and treat victims of abuse. When she tries to end her life, she instead has a magical encounter that allows her to escape. The result of this is two young children, Branza and Urdda, and, we come to find, a safe place.

For many who are assaulted (most?) there are stages that must be worked through. At various times, there are dreams of revenge, at others, the only thought possible is to escape. Using fantasy, Lanagan has explored these ideas. The dream of escape comes first. Rather than ending her life, Liga is taken to a magical world where she is safe. The villagers are kind and caring rather than harsh and judgemental, her children are safe, and she can slowly learn to cope with what has happened to her.

Through this ‘safe space’ fantasy, Lanagan is able to show Liga’s slow healing, and how slow it actually is. It gives a way to work through the escape desire and show the benefits as well as the flaws. Liga is safe, but she is also lonely. And despite being safe, she still has the memories and associated triggers affecting her that keep her on edge. The impossibility of true escape and safety is highlighted, as well as the myriad dangers surrounding isolation and a lack of knowledge of how to act and the needs of protection.

With the eventual return, Liga eventually tells Urda, the younger daughter, some of the events of her life. This leads to the revenge fantasy. In this part, Lanagan uses the fantastical element of the story line to have cut out men assault Liga’s assaulters, getting ‘revenge’ for their original acts. Here we see how empty revenge truly is. Neither Urdda nor Ligga get anything from this, they are still in the same position they were before, with the same feelings, though now Urdda also feels some measure of guilt.

The language that Lanagan uses was just off in dialect, which forced extra concentration and closer reading, ensuring that each point was delivered. The book was truly fantastic, and it tore me apart reading it. The Feminist Texican summed it up best when she called it “emotionally exhausting, but awesome”. For anyone looking for a different and interesting fantasy read, one that explores difficult and emotional topics, this is a book you won’t be sad you read.