Thursday, January 5, 2017

More than a Pretty Face

It is very difficult for writers, especially women, to move beyond the stereotype of "chick lit." As a reader, I don't approve of this term because I feel it devalues novels with female protagonists. Yes, there are the formulaic stories that bore us to tears about the "traditional" American housewife: the drama, the terrible husbands, the ungrateful children, the pies in the oven. If the novel has too much stereotypical intrigue, it becomes a Lifetime Original movie. Too little plot and it becomes a pretentious overview of American gender roles, so thinly sliced in its mockery that it is unclear whether or not it would make a decent sandwich (see what I did there?).

American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis subverts the expectations of women's literature and presents us with absurd, clever, and wholly suburban short stories that will terrify us in its familiarity and engross us in its complexity. The volume is slim, slightly under 200 pages, making it a fun afternoon read with a cup of tea (I have tested this theory for your convenience, furious readers).

I don't want to give away too many of the short stories, but I did pick out my favorites that deserve a mention:

"Dumpster Diving with the Stars" - After setting the tone of absurd suburban living, Ellis explores pathos in her third story. Most of the narrators in this collection are writers, or struggling writers, or - in the case of this story - one-time writers who are searching for their next inspiration. "The Writer" agrees to be on a reality TV competition where contestants choose old antiques with hidden value. Among the contestants are John Lithgow and Mario Batali (who are portrayed as the down-to-earth, kind celebrities that we hope they are), a tennis star (who in my head, I imagined as the glamorous Serena Williams), a Scientologist movie star couple trying to prove that the husband isn't gay, a made-up reality TV star (but the premise would easily work in our world), and Mitzy, a Playboy bunny who ends up being the heart of the story. Without going too much into the plot, Ellis explores the rules of reality TV and the monsters who manipulate them (and the audience), so the housewives at home can have a good show. I always love a story when the "pretty bimbo" (another damaging stereotype that devalues female protagonists) turns out to be legit. This is one of my favorites in the collection since the story itself is very plausible as I feel our culture would watch this, manipulative host and all, in a binge fest on TLC.

"Hello! Welcome to Book Club" - Told in the breathless tone of the nosy American housewife who doesn't let her guest (the reader, who gets to experience direct POV through stream of consciousness dialogue) get a word in, this dark, creepy story is one worthy of Margaret Atwood or Daphne du Maurier. As the reader, you continue to listen to this woman's prattle, knowing with each turn of the page, that we are heading for something very sinister. When you get to the end of this story, you won't be disappointed.

"The Fitter" - This story answers the age old question: what would your life be like if your husband was blessed with the gift of being able to fit women into their perfect bras? Part of the story reads as a scandalous, "don't steal my husband" housewife story, and the rest raises the quiet question of what our lives would be like if women leaned on each other more and acknowledged the complexities of the female body. It would be, to quote our narrator: "Good enough."

"My Novel is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax" - Creativity and capitalism find themselves at odds as the terrifying people of Tampax hold a writer prisoner so she can complete a book that Miley Cyrus wants to be made into a film. Yes, you've read all that correctly, but feel free to read it again. Or aloud. You won't be able to look at those blue boxes again without hearing, "On behalf of Tampax..." This piece closes out the collection and it is a great horror story about the "joys" of writing.

Since the popularity of Mad Men, American housewives are still having a moment. Between the new HBO event based on Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies (I read the book last year towards the end of my reading year and it was absolutely delicious - much like reading a friend's diary. The trailer looks just as scandalous) to ABC's new series American Housewife (starring the hilarious Katy Mixon; there has been controversy over the fat-shaming content of the show, which I found troubling as well, but the show hits its stride with episode 7's "Power Couple" so I am hoping for a comeback in sharp storytelling), we are seeing a character beyond the June Cleaver/Donna Reed/Stepford wife that both thrills and terrifies us.

Out of all the new TV/film versions of the housewife, I still recommend spending time with Helen Ellis and her version of the American housewife. It is the closest version we have of providing women with the agency they deserve in a culture that asks them to give up everything - their dignity, their dreams, their ability to see beyond their external self - for the sake of the home.

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