Difficult Women Book Review

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Difficult Women is a collection of short stories by Roxane Gay that explores the lives of different women living in the United States. I chose this book because of my love for short stories and also because I thought it would be interesting to review a collection of multiple stories instead of just one.

As the title suggests, these women are not what one may think of as average or normal. In all of the short stories, there are women who find themselves in difficult situations that allow the reader to see why these people act the way they do. These stories are very hard-hitting and touch on sensitive, emotional topics that some readers may not be comfortable with. The story “I Will Follow You” describes two sisters who were abducted, as children, by a man who raped them continuously over a long period of time. This plot point is not immediately obvious but is brought up later as we see how the adult sisters continue to cope with their past trauma. Another story, “La Negra Blanca”, shows the conflict between a young stripper and an older, rich, white male who is far too pushy.

These more realistic short stories in Gay’s collection cover main themes of violence, sexual trauma, and loss. Gay writes about these events in a way that doesn’t use people’s trauma for entertainment but provides explanation and insight. She writes very bluntly at times, which I think helps to deliver these tough topics in a way that feels genuine. In most of the stories there are descriptions of sexual encounters between people, and while I think it makes the lives of women more realistic and bold, I sometimes feel that this structure is used too much. There is also a great balance in these stories between the past and the present, and Gay weaves these two together well to leave the reader trying to figure out what will happen. In these more lifelike stories, I find that this form, while well-balanced, is sometimes repetitive.

That being said, Gay breaks up these more realistic stories with a style of magical realism. After the incredibly heavy opening story, “I Will Follow You,” is “Water, All Its Weight,” which describes the sad life of a woman who has an unusual problem. No matter where she goes, she is followed by water that leaks through the ceiling above her and creates mold. Others in the story find it hard to be in her presence because there is a constant dampness that seems to seep into their bones and drives them away. Another, “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” follows the life of a couple, the glass woman and the stone thrower, who live together in a glass house with their glass son. My personal favorite was the longest of these mystical tales, “The Sacrifice of Darkness.” The narrator is a woman who is married to the son of a coal miner who was filled with so much darkness from his profession that he flew up and consumed the sun. The narrator falls in love with the son, who is ostracized for being related to the man who took the sun away. There is hope at the end when their child is born and light begins to return to the sky.

I enjoy the impossibility of magical realism in Difficult Women. Gay writes very convincingly in this style and uses it as another way to tackle heavy topics. The writing, particularly in “The Sacrifice of Darkness” is fairytale-esque and pleasant to read. I felt that for these more mystical kinds of stories, there was never a clear ending. I understand that short stories do not need to be clear cut and tied up by the end, but there was too much openness at the end for my liking.

Overall, Difficult Women was a great read. While I sometimes had to take a break after more intense stories, I was always excited to pick it up and keep going. The stories were not meant to simply justify why difficult women act the way they do, it is an acceptance of all kinds of women and their situations in this modern world. This book would be good for someone who wants to read about well developed female characters and unusual scenarios. I would not recommend this book to someone who may be sensitive to topics of sexual assault and rape, or someone who cannot read graphic descriptions of sexual encounters. I would recommend reading this book with feminist ideology in mind because some of the stories are more about commentary on how things are rather than how they should be.

Difficult Women

Roxane Gay

258 pages. Published by Grove Press. Hardcover $25.00

An Analysis of Body Language in The Bald Soprano

Body language is an important part in any production because it can help communicate the tone to the audience. In this production of The Bald Soprano it was used to maintain a level of pseudo-serious comedy. UMF students put on the play with a clear comedic angle, which was enhanced by the kinds of body language used.

The first moment where body language stood out to me was the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Martin. It is not noted in the written play, but on stage the actors mimicked the body language of each other. For example, when Mr. Martin said a line and took a step forward, Mrs. Martin would say her line and take a step forward as well. They acted as mirrors of each other, which was an interesting addition to their complicated relationship. It is also a great use of body language to further exaggerate that they are essentially copying what the other says as well.

Watching carefully, I noticed that there was a place where the exact mirroring broke off, which makes sense in the context of what they were saying. All along, everything had been the same. They were in the same train car, from the same town, and lived in the same place. When they started talking about the child, Alice, things began to differentiate. Mr. Martin pointed at Mrs. Martin, but then she only proceeded to hold her arm out, etc. This was a subtle indication through body language that things were not truly the same, as Mary points out. They do not have the same daughter and are not who they each think they are. It’s amazing that the actors were able to indicate these differences on such a minute level.

While no other particular instance of body language displayed such critical information as this, there were other moments that were used to their advantage. Mrs. Smith seems like a drab character on paper, and even at the beginning of the UMF production. She, like the rest of the characters, talk about nothing of importance. However, when she opens the door to her home when the doorbell rings, she does so in such a dramatic way. She continues to have slightly over exaggerated body motions, especially after the Fire Chief enters. This use of body language displays how her character is secretly craving drama and attention that neither her husband nor lifestyle can give her.

The Fire Chief himself also used body language to his advantage. The actor onstage made the character come to life as he walked around like he owned the place. The Fire Chief came off as very confident and as someone who uses the knowledge of their attractive qualities to their advantage. When he interacted with Mary on the table in the front, he was clearly very into her in an exaggerated way. Whether or not the actress playing Mary was supposed to act not as interested, it created an awkward kind of comedy that was nonetheless successful.

The Bald Soprano reads as a confusing, boring play on paper, but can truly come to life when acted out onstage. The use of body language throughout the production lent to both its comedy and my personal understanding of the play.

The Uncanny in “Scary” Media

Belanna Morales

Blog Post #2

As a part of psychoanalytical theory, Sigmund Freud writes about “The ‘Uncanny’”. While it is commonly used as a word that describes “dread and horror”, the concept is far more complicated (825). Freud summarizes this simply as a “class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (825). Like many psychological topics, this specific kind of fear has its roots in childhood but also stems from the deeper well of general, primal human fears.

Another word that encapsulates “uncanny” its German counterpart, unheimlich. This too, seems complicated, as it “means what is familiar and agreeable” and also “what is concealed and kept out of sight” (827). The feeling of unheimlich occurs when that which is concealed, usually behind the familiar, comes to light. Typically, what is concealed is within the unconscious, like wishes, fears, desires, and primal fears. Unheimlich is also translated to the English “unhomely”, which again relates back to the concealment of unconscious thoughts behind what is familiar.

Uncanniness is commonly found within the paranormal category of horror, or scary, media. In class, the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was used as an example. While I did not watch that show as a child, I did watch Lost Tapes, which, as it sounds, is a show about cryptids shown through “real home tapes” about the creature. The episode “Vampire” scared me the most as a child. Watching it now, it is very clear that these are scripted tapes that are filmed with bad cameras, but even so, there is a sense of fear that can only be described as uncanny.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp966raSo5Q#t=6m40s

In this scene, we see the vampire creeping up to the child’s bed. While it is clear that the vampire is a man wearing a costume, that is not what makes it scary. One primal human fear is to be attacked, and humans are most vulnerable to attack when sleeping. I’m sure many of us have woken up in the middle of the night, unsure why, knowing only that we are afraid of what could be in there with you. Watching the creature about to harm this child, in his own home, is uncanny.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp966raSo5Q#t=12m21s

This scene is demonstrative of the unheimlich. The vampire has its nest within the home of this family, making this situation unhomely. It is an unseen creature, coming to light although it should not have. It is uncanny to think that this family shares its familiar space with something unfamiliar and dangerous. The unknown is living among the known. Earlier in the episode, the vampire rips open and takes part of the boy’s stuffed teddy bear. In this scene here, we can see that it used some of the fluff to add to its nest. Again, the familiar and pleasant teddy bear is used in an unfamiliar, fearful situation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp966raSo5Q#t=16m49s

In this final scene, the primal fear of helplessness is the unhidden that has come to life. It is common to have nightmares about something coming after you and being utterly helpless to stop it. Especially for this child, this fear is intensified because not even his parents can stop it from breaking down the door and chasing them.

These Lost Tapes, while clearly not scary in the conventional sense, produce real discomfort among viewers because of the uncanniness created by primal fears coming to light and the unhomely living space of the vampire.

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Steak and Masculinity

In Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, he writes about “Steak and Chips” in France. Much like his essay on “Wine and Milk”, steak represents much more than a hearty meal. If wine is the national drink of the French, then steak is its counterpart, a meal that binds the culture together. Barthes believes that, in its essence, “to eat steak rare therefore represents both a nature and a morality” (62).

This idea embodies what steak represents in French culture. In present day America, steak holds a similar place in our hearts. For one, there is an economic connection. Steak is connected to class. It is a more expensive cut of the cow, and through purchasing a steak one is stimulating the economy in a positive way. It is “the best possible ratio between economy and efficacy” (63), in the words of Barthes. It is beneficial for the economy, for the cattle farmer, and is a good meal for the person who buys it.

The morality aspect of steak can be seen in this commercial for Longhorn Steakhouse:

Clearly, the advertisement is very masculine. The narrator is male and has a low, rugged voice. Barthes argues that “full-bloodedness is the raison d’etre of steak” (62), which is a sentiment expressed by many Americans. The more rare one orders their steak, the tougher and more manly they are thought to be. When a steak is cut open in a commercial, it is always pink on the inside. The image of the bloody piece of meat roasting on the grill is very evocative of masculinity. Men are supposed to be hunters, and hunters cook and kill their own meat. The rarer the steak, the heartier the man. The cow, a part of nature, that the steak comes from is also masculine. Cows are known to be sturdy, and bulls to be strong. By eating the flesh of a strong animal, the person is also thought to be strong.

The ad also features a dark, masculine color scheme. The lights are not very bright, and the focus is on the food, as there are no people shown.  The music is also very masculine. Like the narrator’s voice, it is rugged and deep. All of this combined with the guitar riffs gives off the image of a tough place, a place for “real” men.

(https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/03/48/53/af/longhorn-steakhouse.jpg)

The other prominent idea in this ad is the theme of Longhorn Steakhouse: the cowboy. Throughout the video, the symbol for Longhorn, the longhorn cow skull, is shown in flames. Inside the actual restaurant itself is also a western theme. There is a lot of wood, which is reminiscent of a saloon, and there is a star evocative of the “Lone Star” idea. Cowboys, naturally, are very masculine. They are tough and live their lives in the tough way of the old, wild west.

The video also features Longhorn’s slogan, “You can’t fake steak”. The idea of something being false is more closely associated with women than with men because of ideas of makeup and being socially fake to have friends. American men aren’t supposed to be fake. A man is a fact, while a woman is more of an idea. The presence of man is not supposed to be subtle, it is very real. There also seems to be an underlying, sexual message in this slogan. It suggests that while other things can be faked, if a man eats this meaty steak, he will have more sexual capabilities. A man cannot fake sexual attraction, just as you can’t “fake steak”.