24 June, 2013Issue 22.5Non-fictionPolitics & Society

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The Gospel According to Hadley

Grace Egan

Be AwesomeHadley Freeman
Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies
Fourth Estate, 2013
272 pages
ISBN 978-0007485697


Hadley Freeman’s Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies is, to use one of Freeman’s favourite coinages, “zeitgeisty”. Although it is not Freeman’s first book, it reads much more like a series of blog posts than a thematically consistent monograph. It is wedged awkwardly in the gap between the media of print and internet, and this makes for a sometimes frustrating but ultimately surreal and interesting read. Perhaps because, as she points out, “you can’t read a blog in the bath”, Freeman has tried to translate the “quick smarts” and “immediacy” of “internet magazines and blogs, such as the Vagenda, Jezebel, the Hairpin, Feministing and so on” into book material. It is a strange move, in some respects, because despite making use of the printed medium to have “fancy footnotes”, and to pile addendum upon addendum, Freeman’s style is tailored to online jousting. Be Awesome raises the question of whether “pop feminism” can appear in print, when popular culture is increasingly digital.

The first few chapters suffer from a lack of narrative structure, as Freeman, revelling in the lack of immediate backlash from Comment is Free, casts about for an appropriate beginning for this larger project. Despite the strident title, there is no obvious theory of awesomeness, or promise of one to come. It may look like a self-help book on the outside, but it is more akin to a memoir, or even a commonplace book, filled with Freeman’s favourite tidbits of pop culture and unabashedly opinion-forming anecdotes. It is hard to gauge Freeman’s idea of her readership, as she dwells excessively on ’80s films, and sometimes talks about the internet as if it will be unfamiliar to her readers (but this may be part of a rhetorical stance). She isn’t interested in carefully formed arguments, designed to win over those who disagree with her on the key issue of female bodily autonomy (nor should she have to be). Feminist infighting, for her, is “boring”, and those who are drastically to the right of her on the political spectrum are of “lesser intelligence”. Fair enough: this is an extended opinion piece, in some ways designed to answer (or build upon, or jump on the bandwagon of) comedic tracts of pragmatic feminism such as Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (2011). Freeman is under no obligations to re-write A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Her strengths lie in the details she brings to debates about feminism in everyday life.

Freeman’s default is extended passages of elaborately constructed sarcasms (a habit she says stems from her teens), which can degenerate into tired observational comedy about Hollywood, friends’s children, office culture, and the state of modern dating. But occasionally these constructions result in refreshingly funny analogies, and the juxtaposition of glamour and the everyday can be almost as beautiful as Nabokov:

But whereas the synchronicity between the cinematic and the reality is seen as proof of Manhattan and Paris’s miraculous aesthetics, with skyscrapers that twinkle in the night like promises and elegant cobbled streets lit by Beaux Arts street lamps, it is seen in a somewhat less affirmative light in regard to the office, with its aisles of filing cabinets bedecked with three-month-old Styrofoam coffee cups with odd semicircle chunks ripped out along the rims.

While the topics she covers are nothing new, Freeman adds to them with her sense of life’s bathos and her willingness to bring her own experience to debates about women and the media. Instead of trotting out the same old rant about the Daily Mail‘s tendency to label women either anorexic or obese, Freeman becomes slightly more analytical. She points out that to reduce anorexia to “nothing more than a woman’s body, and her silly-billy obsession with it”, is to misrepresent a serious mental illness. Moreover, the newspaper’s condemnation of fashion magazines, according to Freeman, perpetuates the problem, as it enables the tabloid to point the finger elsewhere. However, because the book is somewhere between autobiography and social commentary, it can feel as though the Daily Mail and its ilk are being targeted because of the tribalism that tends to be expressed by columnists on both sides of the broadsheet/tabloid divide. Freeman does talk about her own past illness delicately and equivocally here, though, and concludes her defence of fashion with a characteristic flash of self-reference: “cultural factors […] play a part, and many more play a part than the media will allow. But they are not the cause. Unfortunately, some things are too complex to be explained by lazy space-filling first-person journalism”.

It’s questionable whether these moments will be enough for some readers to dispel the suspicion that Freeman’s brand of feminism is troublingly self-serving. But then we are instructed not to assume that “a woman who writes an emotional memoir is a self-indulgent narcissist”. Other personal insights include the fact that women’s magazines are interesting because of the narratives they construct, turning minor celebrities into Dickensian caricatures; meanwhile, the other-worldly essential products flogged by women’s magazines have less to do with the readership and more to do with the dependency of the publication on advertising accounts. At times it can feel like Freeman is using her celebration of personal choice to present her own preferences as feminist gospel. While she does differentiate between “women’s magazines” and “fashion magazines”, it could be argued that fashion’s coat hanger woman aesthetic is, if “not about sex” (as Freeman claims), nevertheless not healthy.

Her points come across most powerfully when she satirises the tabloids she so loathes by taking on their style. Rather than trying to account for her point of view, or establish a consistent feminist philosophy (which she tries to do elsewhere in the book), Freeman uses the language of the newspapers in “A day in your life in Daily Mail headlines” to expose its scare-mongering and body fascism. In “How to read women’s magazines without wanting to grow a penis”, Freeman writes an interview with herself as the celebrity interviewee, in which she brings together many of the hypocrisies she has been railing against in the previous chapters:

[…] as you have spent approximately 93 per cent of your waking hours reading women’s magazines, Hadley, you seemed like the person to talk to about this. “Well, certainly the sycophantic celebrity reviews that dominate so many of these magazines don’t help their cause. You know the ones: in which a female celebrity is described so gushingly it would make a Mills and Boon writer blush … Oh THANK YOU,” she says sweetly to the waiter as he clears away the remnants of our scones and he nearly faints dead away.

The result may seem somewhat self-indulgent, but there are signs that Freeman is self-aware enough to recognise this, and she challenges her readers to accept the book, “meta” warts and all, without judging her more harshly for her self-indulgence than they would a male counterpart.

Pop feminism is something to be welcomed, as it has the potential to make theories of intersectionality more widely understood. When it is applied to television, film, video games, and magazines, pop feminism allows people to understand their cultural environment better. Freeman is by no means revolutionary in her common-sense approach; she advocates personal preference over dogma, and the tolerance of different approaches to being a feminist. Because of her very individuated style, though, Freeman sometimes veers into intolerance. In praising Gloria Steinem, she dismisses “the tedious academic theorising that bogs down so much feminist discourse”. Surely there is a place for “academic theorising”, even within pop feminism? Much of Freeman’s analysis of films and novels is based on the practice of close reading, which is a large part of research in the humanities. This, in turn, contributes to feminist arguments about texts and the damaging gender stereotypes which they often contain.

Freeman often returns to the Bechdel test as a guide to whether or not a film can be said to be “awesome”. To pass the test, there needs to be at least two named female characters in the film, who talk to each other about something other than a man. In recent months, the work of Anita Sarkeesian on her blog Feminist Frequency has received a lot of attention, after she launched a Kickstarter appeal to fund a series of posts about feminism and gaming. Sarkeesian, like Freeman, is a fan of the Bechdel test, but Feminist Frequency is far more thorough and consistent than Be Awesome. Sarkeesian is fond of what Freeman might label “academic theorising”, as she explores tropes in films and games, their cultural history, and their social implications. For example, she elaborates on the tropes of the “Damsel in Distress” and the more recently coined “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, as part of the systemic underrepresentation of women in culture. Sarkeesian is not afraid to acknowledge other pop feminists of the moment; she often quotes other people’s blogs in order to sum up a point. For Freeman, by contrast, quotable feminist figures (Decca Mitford, Miss Piggy) seem to exist in the near past, to be venerated and collected in a kind of motley feminist statuary.

The blogs that Freeman lists as resources of “women’s-oriented stories […] written in a smart and funny voice”, when taken together, espouse a similar philosophy. Their stance is critical of the media’s relationship with women and in particular with their bodies. Yet said blogs also celebrate women’s fashion, and celebrity culture. The two are not incompatible, but neither is academic rigour incompatible with approachable feminism. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Skepchick.org, which has expanded feminism into the vital territory of scientific debate and has challenged sexism in the secular community. It is necessary, as we are exposed to a variety of media, not to be “passive consumers”, as Freeman puts it, and this also applies to works of pop feminism. If anything, the internet is a good medium for maintaining a sceptical yet inclusive viewpoint, because it allows readers to graze on a balanced diet of fashion and FEMEN, rather than gorge on the musings of a single author (however awesome she or he may be).

Grace Egan is reading for a DPhil in English at Wolfson College, Oxford.