Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: The Twisted Sisterhood by Kelly Valen

The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female FriendshipsThe Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships by Kelly Valen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is important subject matter that merits more thoughtful treatment than it receives here. One might think that Valen is just the person to write on this issue, given her painful experience of being blamed by her sorority sisters for her rape. But I think that may be what handicaps her: the issue is just too painful for her, and she lacks perspective. Whatever the case, this is less a nuanced look at a complex issue than it is a generous helping of familiar mean-girl, queen-bee and green-eyed-monster stereotypes, padded with a lot of tiresome ranting and unsuccessful attempts at humour.

First comes a chapter on how wonderful female friendships allegedly are. It's unnecessary and outside the book's purported mandate, but it's there because Valen is scared that women won't like her if she doesn't put it in; after all, she was flamed online after writing of her sorority experiences, and is understandably nervous. It strikes me that if there'd been more here on this female fear around not being liked, and the inauthenticity it produces, this would be a better book.

But Valen deals only with nastiness, not excessive niceness, and thereby misses half the female equation, in my opinion. There is some interesting, in fact horrifying, information about female bullying and the damage it can do, from various sources as well as the author's own survey. What is lacking is insight on what created this state of affairs, and how it can be bettered. Valen makes it clear that we can't just blame men—much ranting is expended on that issue. Fair enough, but patriarchy is something that men and women both participate in and keep alive, and I would have liked to see some thoughtful exploration on how it might be contributing. What, after all, must it do to girls to be told explicitly that they can be whatever they want, while receiving the message implicitly that they must first and foremost be beautiful and desirable? Is this not confusing and disturbing, and might it not explain some of the strange behaviour girls exhibit towards other girls that they perceive as too pretty, or not pretty enough?

But Valen is tired of "blaming men," which is what she thinks feminism is all about. She even suggests that feminism may be part of the problem(!). "How is it..." she writes, "that we can progress into a new age of female competence and greater equality... only to find that our competitive spirits have deepened and we're tearing down one another as much if not more than ever?" The evidence that we're tearing down one another as much if not more than ever is nowhere to be found. We are expected to take it on faith.

Subtlety and insight are in short supply. Valen can't seem to decide whether she should be outraged, appeasing, or attempting to diffuse tension with humour, and so we are treated to sentences like this: "Maybe you're among the legions of women I heard from who were traumatized or marginalized in school, in girls' summer camp, sororities, at work, or in the cotton-pickin' sandbox because you were fat, Jewish, poor, acne prone, dressed like a dork, boasted a confidence, brain, or beauty that threatened others, or did something that managed to trigger an estrogen-laced, Lord of the Flies-like wrath." There's a lot to cringe at in this sentence, but what tops the list for me is "cotton-pickin'." Good grief, lady, you're writing a book about how women should be more sensitive to each other's feelings. How about showing some sensitivity to other races while you're at it? (The author is white.)

I think ultimately Valen is too close to this issue to see it clearly or analyze it well, and this sinks her book more than either her questionable writing abilities or her questionable sense of humour. Still, I admire her for having had the courage to write it.

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