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Book Review: The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss

One of the most thoughtful and erudite books on the female experience I have read in a long time. Rather than being exclusive or looking to apportion blame, Moss tackles the sometimes divisive subject of feminism and females through inclusivity and such a depth of understanding of culture, society and the various forces that shape us all.22309219

Part memoir, part treatise on the way women are labelled and stereotyped and then read accordingly (and men as well), Moss patiently and cleverly deconstructs a range of assumptions, using a mixture of theory, excellent research, personal experience and anecdotes.

Commencing with herself as subject, she then goes on to explain her objectification – as model, a body, a survivor and even as a writer. Having entered the fashion industry at an early age, her desire to be a professional writer was delayed but when she finally did have her first novel published, she found that the “tag” of model and the negative (and at times crushing) social and cultural assumptions of this profession haunted her aspirations. Not one to let this deter her, Moss unpacks her slow acceptance by the literary scene with humour and stoicism, and uses it as a case study through which to examine the ways in which women are constructed in mainstream culture and why this happens and, more importantly, why it’s essential to critically examine these reductive representations and understand the limitations they impose on subjectivity and female agency.

Lucid, entertaining and always engaging, Moss briefly considers the female experience through history, thus providing a context before discussing topics such as “gender wars”, male and female beauty, the notion of the invisible and visible woman (the latter through marketing and advertising) as well as how the social and cultural roles of mother and father, among many others, impact, define and either elevate or reduce us.

Moss gently but very persuasively argues that while we have a tendency in society to target individual women (and sometimes men) for harsh criticism and worse, we’re actually failing to identify and thus change the greater forces that work to uphold and restrict women’s agency. Complicit in patriarchal culture we might be, but that doesn’t mean we cannot step outside its constraints or work to change it. Her message is strong and beautifully and succinctly delivered. Her chapter on “The Feminist” had me cheering.

Moss also tackles why we need to deconstruct and critically think about the images that bombard us, the labels that we so readily bestow. She discusses the value we assign to women’s appearances and how these are also connected to morality, redundancy, conformity and a great many other emotional and psychological hurdles and burdens. Citing statistics and a great many studies, she demonstrates the lack of female representation (and diversity) in everything from parliament, politics generally, Hollywood, workplaces, education, role-models, to the dearth of meaningful representation of women of all ages, shapes, sizes and talents, in culture generally. Women are still rendered as object (often domesticated) and the power of our bodies lies mostly in their ability to arouse desire or open wallets – in other words, female bodies are most often used to sell – even the idea of competition to each other. But what Moss also investigates are the ideas our bodies both sell and perpetuate in the limited representations available and what the labels thus assigned do to our standing and understanding or ourselves and others – at the individual, family, relationship, social and political level.

The tropes of maiden, mother and crone as well as “Madonna” and “Whore” enjoy a great deal of scrutiny throughout the book, and the power they have had historically, socially and culturally to shape an understanding of women – through popular culture and beyond – is explored.

A powerful book but without being preachy, I could not put this down. If I was still lecturing at university, I would place it on my courses. As it is, I can only recommend that people of all ages, both sexes, read it. It’s an enriching, thought-provoking experience that I for one am so glad I had and will do so again.

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