Bearing witness, again, Louise Wareham Leonard

That F word: Growing Up Feminist in Aotearoa
Lizzie Marvelly
HarperCollins, $35.00,
ISBN 9781775541127

There was an Empress of Austria named Elisabeth – many called her Sissi – a beauty and horsewoman and wife of Franz Joseph, and she was assassinated on 10 September 1898 by an anarchist wielding a knife so small that Elisabeth didn’t notice its cut, until she saw the blood from it, and swiftly died. As subtle as this knife is “the patriarchy” – the system of largely unspoken rules, beliefs and prejudices that arrange, in particular, women’s subjection in the world. It can be decades before any of us – of whatever gender – identify how the patriarchy has worked in our lives.

Let us credit, then, Lizzie Marvelly, a now 29-year-old singer originally from Rotorua, for not only noticing the sexism she found in the world, but for naming it and attempting to rid herself of it, piece by splintered, poisoned piece.

Ms Marvelly first came to the world’s attention through her singing and beauty and the packaging of both – men, she notes, named her singing persona “Elizabeth”, though she prefers and now goes by her nickname, Lizzie. She also shed that skin when she began to write for the New Zealand Herald and presented, a site and media platform pointedly for young women, but also for all of us. It gives education, on the personal and the sexual. It launched Marvelly’s #mybodymyterms campaign demanding respect for difference and consent in sex; it presents a series of videos of New Zealanders expressing ways of being that were barely thinkable even a generation ago.

Now comes Marvelly’s book, That F Word: Growing Up Feminist in Aotearoa. For sure, it’s not Germaine Greer’s professorial Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility. It is not the finely tuned Middlemarch by George Eliot, nor The Chimes by Anna Smaill. It is a work written in the language of the schoolyard: “There is plenty of horrific shit that has happened well within recent memory”, so-and-so is a “scumbag”, “perhaps we should all just shut the fuck up about other people’s bodies.”

As if following a North American trend in fiction for being as gross as possible (Ottessa Moshfegh, Lisa Locascio), Marvelly restrains herself neither from profanity, nor from matters generations of women have felt private – masturbation and menstruation, in particular. But Marvelly’s bluntness is perhaps her own personal rebellion against the good old British Commonwealth verbal sophistication and its trickery. You will not trip up Marvelly with feigned misinterpretation.

Marvelly’s central issue is how she has been looked down upon and lessened by men: how her upbringing in New Zealand taught her that to be a girl was to be less than. She posits male sexuality as derisively overwhelming: “If you listen closely as you post a bikini photo, you can almost hear them orgasm.”

The real problem, however, is when, from Marvelly’s producers in the music business, to the frat houses of Yale, men weaponise their lust. I watched a Wellington cricket game once with dismay and then shock as a group of drunk men chanted, in an effort to whip up the bowler, “Yeah, you fuck her in the old school gym.”

That’s right. It was 2003.

Marvelly says her New Zealand upbringing taught her what was female. Disney and fairytales and magazines and romantic comedies taught her how to be in the world (all the same old – nice, pliant, gentle, married and so on). She attended school in Rotorua and, for two years, the more elite King’s College. Her tertiary education she mentions only glancingly. 

It was somewhat depressing for me to read her say, “Magazines provided me with a guidebook as to how to be a woman.” Even more depressing was her being “head-over-heels-in-love” with that warped vision of “women freedom” and vulgarity found in Sex and the City. Surely not all New Zealand girls are raised in this way? I know I was not. But then I grew up in a double world, in between New Zealand and New York City, in a patriarchal New Zealand family that feigned support while neglecting and sabotaging its daughters (and also, though perhaps less obviously, its sons) to guard its own power. “It’s a man’s world”, my mother liked to say – and for her it was, as her power came through men. 

Marvelly gives an excellent account of women’s steps toward greater power in New Zealand: the vote, The Equal Pay Act etc. Yet, oddly to me, and in a glaring omission, she neglects the area in which New Zealand women are perhaps most successful: literature. A country’s literature represents its culture, and along with John Mulgan and Maurice Gee have always stood Janet Frame, Sylvia Ashton Warner, Katherine Mansfield. And what of today? Of Dame Fiona Kidman and other female writers who have achieved international and celebrity status? Of Ashleigh Young, whose essays I just bought in rural North America, and Patricia Grace and scarily brilliant Alice Tawhai?

While “anti-feminism” is about holding women back, Marvelly might also note how forcefully, right now in the world, it is also tied to racism and fear of immigrants and change. It is tied to backlash. A woman where I work shares stories about the “death of the white man” and the hateful superiority of the “educated” (her quotation marks). Both in rural New York, now, and while working in the outback of Western Australia in 2010, I felt compelled to ask colleagues about their scorn for university education. A university education, at least in the humanities, does not promote any belief, so much as question beliefs; it is about exposure.

Marvelly says that her platform of inclusivity and freedom of sexuality has been met with a terrifying, mostly anonymous, vitriol on social media. I, too, have known backlash from the “reptilian brain” when I wrote a dissection of the men in my life (in 52 Men). I, too, have taken twitter beatings, in my case from the followers of that “Bad Feminist” Roxane Gay, for speaking “out of turn”.

Men are threatened by women turning the gaze, claiming power. Men and women fear vast shifts in society. Many people are just jealous, that old schoolyard emotion. Take the attack on Eleanor Catton for a political comment – was that really an attack on that issue, or an opportunity for the shamed to lash out at her for a success they had not achieved?

Marvelly wants all people to be free, to be individuals. But, in this, without perhaps realising it, she is speaking as an artist who wants us all to be artists. But not everyone can be an artist, let alone exceptional. Many people fear being individuals and artists and exceptions.

It is a beautiful hope that we all embrace each other’s differences. And yet, not everyone is the embracing kind, nor does everyone wish you well. Look at family dynamics. Look at human nature itself. As Marvelly says, “Pornography is not the problem. The problem is us.”

It reminds me of when a cousin and I, in our early twenties, planned to move to Hawai’i from Upper Hutt. A few days later, my cousin’s father came home with a gift for her – a lovely car – that she had to pay off to him. She was so touched that her father had “bought her” this car, she abandoned the idea of leaving Upper Hutt for Hawai’i. That is how sly patriarchy can be. And how easily a woman can be fooled into feeling that a father’s action is one of love, rather than control. 

Women, too, as said, often support the patriarchy: particularly women who have learned to use it for their own gain, whose source of power is the men in their lives. Such women, yes, often fail other women. Who knows who they would be if left to rely on themselves? To be honest, I don’t care, and nor perhaps should Marvelly.

I read Marvelly’s book the day Dr Christine Blasey Ford testified that Judge Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her in high school, and he vehemently denied it. On the same day, a 22-year-old Instagram star, not entirely unlike Ms Marvelly, was gunned down and killed by motorcyclists as she sat at the wheel of her white convertible in Iran. 

Like Blasey Ford, perhaps, like Marvelly, she was outspoken and free; she had bucked the norms for women in her society to follow fashion and be single. She was also only one in a group of such “free” women assassinated this year.

Find your truth, or your truth of the time. Bear witness to it – and waste not any time on those gnashing their teeth or keyboards. The price of speaking out is isolation – but there are other brave people who are also isolated, and together these become a tribe.

Louise Wareham Leonard’s last book is 52 Men.

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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review
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