Genre and Gender

Reviewed by Lucia Lorenzi

Forty-five years after feminist writer and activist Carol Hanisch popularized the phrase “the personal is political,” scholars continue to emphasize the importance of connecting individual lives and private experiences with public identities and sociocultural movements. Julie Rak and Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant explore this issue from rather different perspectives: Rak’s book investigates the rationale behind the surge in the production and reception of popular memoir, whereas Goodyear-Grant focusses on electoral politics and their relationship to gendered representations in Canadian media. However, both works make a powerful argument, namely that the stories that we tell (as well as those that are told about us) are more than just stories; rather, they are the very mechanisms by which citizenship is produced and reproduced.

While autobiographical theory has always concerned itself with the connections between public and private lives, Julie Rak’s Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market discusses an oft-ignored aspect of these texts, namely how private experiences are transformed into public commodities. It is this embeddedness of narrative production within capitalist structures, Rak argues, that shapes how memoir is subject to generic expectations and regulations. This commitment to interrogating the material conditions of memoir (as well as its aesthetic merits) is clear in the methodological approach that Rak takes, which is to pay careful attention to the publishing history of life writing. Her chapters move from a broader analysis of the memoir boom and the publishing industry, to the role of bookstores and booksellers, to a focus on memoirs released by two popular American presses (Random House and HarperCollins), and a chapter dedicated to controversial memoirs. Of particular interest is Rak’s chapter on “exceptionally public memoirs”: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis 1: The Story of a Childhood and James Frey’s infamous Million Little Pieces. Through a careful examination of Satrapi’s memoir, which details a coming-of-age story in the Iranian Revolution, and Frey’s memoir, whose memorable backlash on the Oprah Winfrey Show raised questions about trust and the American public, Rak argues that memoir also has the capacity to make connections to world events, and, perhaps more importantly, to question existing narratives of national identity and international relations.

While Rak addresses the process of meaning-making and politics throughout all her chapters, the reader is left with a profoundly political message after reading the conclusion, entitled “Citizen Selves and the State of the Memoir Boom,” in which Rak leaves us to ponder how we, as readers and citizens, are woven in the social and political fabric of community life. While it is easy to see memoir as entertainment or intrigue (and, thus, to characterize consumers of memoir as merely interested in the personal) Rak’s argument emphasizes that the boom in memoir is also a boom in “personal stories of all types that continue to explore—and upset—the balance between public and private, personal, and political.”

Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant’s Gendered News: Media Coverage and Electoral Politics offers both a refreshing and a particularly cogent approach to politics and gender, a topic that continues to bear importance in Canadian electoral life, be it civic, provincial, or federal. While thoughtful commentaries about women’s political lives are increasingly popular, Goodyear-Grant’s thorough study is heavily backed by both quantitative and qualitative research.

Like the work done by other feminist organizations who seek to demonstrate an imbalance in representation, Goodyear-Grant’s research blends hard data with analysis, an approach that makes starkly visible the sheer numbers of gender inequity in Canadian political life and media coverage of electoral politics. While Goodyear-Grant explores a wide range of the various structures and strategies that limit or impede women’s representations, of particular note is the typology of identities and roles that female politicians are slotted into: the sex object, the mother, the pet, the iron maiden. Like Rak, Goodyear-Grant argues that stories and identities are most readily reproduced by limited or identifiable genres. In doing so, she offers a helpful pattern of identification that can help citizens and news consumers to better analyze and critically approach how politicians are presenting or being presented.

It is, of course, all-too-easy to simply assign blame to the media for poor or biased coverage of women in Canadian politics, and Goodyear-Grant’s work staunchly resists this easy conclusion. Rather, in studying the role of the media, and the perspectives of female politicians themselves, as well as our reception of these stories, she argues that the issue of equitable representation is one that is only able to be managed and resolved in common. As she writes: “the relationship between politicians, newsmakers, and citizens is triangular and dynamic: all three sets of actors bear responsibility for the media’s informational deficiencies, as well as for the remedial action necessary to correct current imbalances in coverage.”

Both Goodyear-Grant and Rak’s works are timely pieces of scholarship, especially as Canadians gear up towards the next federal election, and as readers continue to consume texts from the seemingly never-ending stream of memoirs that are released each year. Rather than arguing that texts or narratives simply work on the reader or the consumer of media, Goodyear-Grant and Rak’s books suggest that consumers hold great amounts of power—as well as great amounts of responsibility—in helping to shape both the literary and political landscapes.

This review “Genre and Gender” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 158-60.

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