Women’s Satires: Lisa Alther’s “Kinflicks” and Lexi Freiman’s “Inappropriation”

Sometimes we forget women are accomplished satirists.  Satirist is not on the approved list of women’s roles:   daughters, caregivers, friends, confidantes, girlfriends, sluts, wives, housekeepers, mothers, good listeners, and wage earners. And so we find ourselves saying to a shoplifter,  “There, there.”  Baffling, isn’t it?

And we turn to satire.

I am rereading Lisa Alther’s underrated Kinflicks, a riotously funny novel about women’s changing roles and sexual identities in the 1950s and ’60s.  And I am also reading Lexi Frieman’s new novel,  Inappropriation, a satire of identity politics.  These books have more in common than you would think.

Let me start with Kinflicks, published in 1975.  The narrator, Ginny Babcock, has returned to her hometown, Hullsport, Tennessee, because her mother in the hospital.   The mother and daughter have a complicated relationship:  both have plenty of complaints.  But Ginny is the real protagonist, a refugee from the South who hasn’t found her identity yet.

As Ginny drives around her hometown, she has flashbacks to the past.  She has morphed from a flag-waving cheerleader to black-clad girlfriend of a motorcycle-riding delinquent to intellectual at a women’s college to lesbian feminist to cheating wife and ambivalent mother.

Her father, the Major, was always trying to straighten her out, and, ironically, his controlling personality drove her away from home.   After a motorcycle accident, he pressured her to apply to a women’s college,  Worthley College.  She tried to get herself rejected at the interview.

In a last-ditch effort of defiance, I wore a black, too-tight straight skirt; a black cardigan buttoned up the back with a Do-It Pruitt pointed bra underneath; Clem’s red dragon windbreaker, the tatters of which I had carefully stitched together upon finding them among Mother’s cleaning cloths; black ballet slippers; and Clem’s huge clanking identification bracelet.

But no matter what Ginny does, she succeeds, and she found herself at Worthley.  Whether she’s studying philosophy or living in a commune, she gives it her all.  But Alther is a wicked satirist.  When Ginny’s overbearing lesbian girlfriend is decapitated in a snowmobile accident, it is irreverently funny–plus accidents like that are common.

I am about one-third through Lexi Frieman’s new satiric novel, Inappropriation. Is it Kinflicks for Millennials?   Ziggy, the Australian Jewish teenage heroine, has just started attending Kandara, a girls’ school whose class hierachy disappoints her. There are the Cates (a clique of rich, entitled debutantes), the rugby players, whom she describes as “hypermuscular Anglo-Saxonites,” the brilliant Asians and the cool, homework-averse Asians, the “unsalvageable spinsters,” and “the large-boned unpretty.”

Soon Ziggy befriends two girls, Tessa, who has a prosthetic arm and “identifies as cyborg,” and Lex, who wants to be a rapper and is banned from school recitals.  After their first  conversations, Ziggy researches genderqueerness at Wikipedia. And after chatting and posting all night at a queer social media site, she decides “the only category she can commit to with any confidence is bisexual gender queerness.  A kind of placeholder….  If she is genderqueer, Ziggy doesn’t need to take hormones or wear a baseball cap or even call herself a he.”

So far the character who gives the best advice is Rowena, a trans woman in Ziggy’s New Age therapist mother’s annual menarche workshop. (Rowena cannot menstruate but experiences the symptoms; Ziggy does not menstruate.). When Ziggy corners Rowena,  she advises Ziggy to be herself and not commit to someone else’s definition of identity.

Inappropriation is comical, but it is also stark.  It lacks the joy of Kinflicks.  I am not sure I’ll have time to finish this, but I am quite sure some of you would love it.

Prudery & Promiscuity: In Which Juvenal & Comedians Take on the World

The Folio Society edition, translated by Peter Green & introduced by Simon Callow

“It is difficult not to write satire,” Juvenal wrote.

Yes, but where is it?  Who’s writing it?

Satire is rapidly vanishing in the U.S.  There’s not exactly censorship, but there has been a weird suppression of stand-up comics and comic actors:  flocks of them have been accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct and  banned from their careers.  And where are all the modern satiric poets and novelists? Are they banned, too? Are the publishers rejecting satirists? The pressure to quell voices has come from both the Left and the Right: if a book triggers a sob or a bad memory, if a comedian offends (and which doesn’t?), if a point of view is unpolitically correct, you must shut up the babblers. 

The poet Juvenal, who was exiled during Domitian’s reign of terror, began to publish his outrageous satires in 110 A.D.  In the introduction to the Folio Society edition, the actor Simon Callow writes about Juvenal’s outrageous stand-up comedy.  He writes,

I have a rather unusual qualification for introducing this edition of the Satires of Juvenal: I’ve been him.  This surprising manifestation occurred on the London stage, in 1976, in a one-man show called Juvenalia, and it proved to be the surprise sensation of the Fringe season that year, lauded with rare unanimity by all the major national newspapers.  The triumph was essentially Juvenal’s.  His scabrous commentary on his own times was perceived as startlingly pertinent and laugh-out-loud funny, filthy and deeply, gloriously unpolitically correct, even for 1976, when the concept had yet to be articulated.

Juvenal is hysterically funny in his unpolitically correct lampoons of Roman life.   He satirizes the decadence and depravity of Rome, pretentious poets, the allure of breads and circuses, the nouveau riche, the ubiquity of Greek immigrants, houses collapsing because of bad construction work, transvestites, eunuchs getting married, women who poison their husbands, homosexuality, legacy hunters, lawyers… Is there anyone or anything he didn’t satirize?

There must be an American Juvenal:  I don’t know him or her.  No, so instead I will make observations about two comedians.

Amy Schumer in “I Feel Pretty”

Critics are fond of the comedian and comic actor Amy Schumer, or so I’ve heard. But why are throngs of male critics bashing her silly summer movie, I Feel Pretty?  Having seen the trailer, I know it’s the kind of trifling entertainment you watch in an air-conditioned cineplex when it’s 90 degrees–not the kind of film to be reviewed in The New Yorker.

But this goofy satire of male-defined beauty has infuriated male critics.   Richard Brody at The New Yorker censures Schumer and writer-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein for wasting their talent.  He hates the plot, which centers on an overweight woman who, after falling down at spinning class and bumping her head,  hallucinates that she’s actually beautiful.  Naturally, she becomes more confident.  He writes,

It’s easy to see how the stereotypical view of beauty that’s satirized in “I Feel Pretty,” which Renee faces and then overrides, could have meshed with the persona, and the themes, that Schumer has developed on her own, but Kohn and Silverstein aren’t sufficiently lucid about the implications of the comedic premise. Schumer should simply be writing her own movies—and working with directors whose artistry matches her own.

Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian manages to demolish the film in three paragraphs.  No, it doesn’t work for him, and the third paragraph tells us why.

Actually, Schumer is pretty, and the casting wouldn’t work otherwise, but despite the disconnect between how she is portrayed and how she feels, she is never really abashed and there is no comic friction. In fact, it is more a parable of how celebrities like Schumer, on becoming successful, suddenly get an inkling of how beautiful people have always felt. I Feel Famous would be an alternative title.

Ouch!  So he says Schumer cannot satirize male-defined beauty because she’s pretty–and then he stabs her in the back and says she only feels famous.  Bitchy, Mr. Bradshaw.

Aziz Asani in “Master of None”

At our house we are fans of Aziz Ansari.  His brilliant Netflix comedy, Master of None, is not only hilarious but insightful: in one episode, he explores the issue of racism against Indians (his American-born Indian character is  offered acting roles in which he must play an Indian with an accent) ; in another episode, he delightfully satirizes The Bicycle Thief (his phone is stolen in Italy, and the episode is even filmed in black and white). But after Ansari won a Golden Globe for lead actor in a comedy, he was accused of “sexual misconduct” by an adult woman who said she felt uncomfortable about having had mutual oral sex with Ansari.  All I can say is:  At least you didn’t get pregnant!  Because it is harder to get an abortion than you think these days.  (And don’t date celebrities, and especially don’t go home with them on dates, if you feel it’s going too fast!).

If all the comedians and satirists  must shut up because they (a) make us uncomfortable, (b) they are nasty people, or (c) they are too raunchy, where will we be?  This is America, where we have free speech. Do you think Lenny Bruce or Joan Rivers were nice people? Lighten up, people

Meanwhile, I’m rereading Juvenal’s satires.   They are funny.  Try Peter Green’s translation, in the Penguin or the Folio Society editions.