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Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann.

June 10, 2013

Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann.  Bloomsbury USA (2013), Edition: 1, Paperback, 352 pages.

An extremely clever and well-written book narrated by a male plastic surgeon who becomes convinced that what women need is for men to give them more respect, more money, and better sex.  Mini, his zany girlfriend, helps him reach this conclusion. This is a humorous book about feminism, but not a feminist book.

Lucy Ellmann has crafted a witty book that some people probably adore, especially if they share the affluent elite lifestyle of the book’s major characters.  In her review of Mimi, litlov notes that many reviews have said it is “the best feminist book” of the decade or new century. I disliked the book, perhaps because I was looking for something recognizable as feminist.   Whether deliberately or not, I found that Ellmann trivializes and attacks feminism at the same time she attacks chauvinistic male behavior.

There is vast difference of opinion about what is feminist, of course, but there are also some limits beyond which what is being proposed is no longer feminism.  For me, the basic proposition of feminism starts with women speaking and being heard.  Feminism is a movement that must include private and public understanding for the betterment of all women regardless of race, class, sexual choice, or anything else.  It is not about the success of any one elite woman.

The fact of a male narrator was my first clue that this was not a feminist book.  Of course there is a place in feminism for men, but it is not in telling us who we are and what we need.  We need to stop permitting men to define us, especially men who are smug, self-satisfied know-it-alls like this narrator.

In addition, we are no longer talking about feminism when the bottom line is what men must give us, especially sexually.  This book celebrates heterosexual pleasure.  OK, I am heterosexual. I agree that men can and should give women sexual pleasure, but I refuse to accept as feminist any book that blatantly claims that women need men to be fulfilled, sexually or otherwise.  The fact that some women are lesbians is important.  If we give up this point, we are right back into the Freudian dependency of the 1950s. 

Finally, Mimi, the doctor’s lover, is not a feminist.  She is sexy and a wild free soul who spouts feminist ideas, but she is a ball of fluff with no social awareness and not even any real employment.  If she is independent it is only because she has money, not because she has earned it. Her seminars on public speaking have not made her financially secure or politically powerful.  While she talks a good feminist line, she shows no real commitment to other women who lack her very privileged position.  

Of course, women need more respect along with fewer rapes and more money.  The doctor’s claims that all men are terrorists are a bit extreme, however.  While I agree with some of changes the doctor eventually advocates, overall I found his ideas simplistic and misguided.  There is no vision of how society is to achieve the improvements he puts forth.  There is more to social change than money and sex.

I have always been slow to categorize any novel as feminist.  I see novels as primarily concerned with private feelings and interactions and seldom able to deal with issues of larger social change.  Novels can provide readers with women’s viewpoints and experiences and offer a way for women to share their anger and pain.  They may show how women experience social disruptions like wars.  Novels can raise feminist issues and allow women readers to imagine new roles for themselves, but women’s strengths and their pains alone are not feminism. I expect feminist novels to offer some social vision of both private and public alternatives.

The only novels I am willing to call feminist are the ones in which women are envisioning and experimenting with alternative social structures.   Some of my favorite feminist novels are fantasies.  Those I have read and enjoyed since I started blogging are included below.  Links are to my reviews.

Remember the Tarantella, by Australian Finola Moorhead, has my vote for the best recent feminist novel.  It features a lesbian community, but makes room for all of us.

Herland, by Charlotte Gilman, is a classic, dated in its style and ideas, but still fun.

Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran, by Shahrnush Parsipur.

Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith.

The Gate to the Women’s Country, by Sheri Tepper.

Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall.

Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran, by Shahrnush Parsipur.

The Fabulous Feminist,by Suniti Namjoshi.

There is nothing visionary or even feminist about Mimi.   Nothing but a very skilled author making us laugh over the silliness of both male chauvinism and feminism.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2013 3:46 am

    Well that was fascinating. I know I didn’t read it that long ago, but I’m struggling a little to recall my impressions now. I remember I certainly didn’t agree with the reviewers that it was the best feminist novel of the century (so far!). I remember it as being simplistic, as you say, and heavy handed in it’s approach.

    When you talk about feminist novels as envisioning and experimenting with alternative social structure, do you mean that across all time, or just for contemporary literature? I only ask because feminism has been through so many stages of development and certainly back in time, in late 19th or early 20th century texts, the struggle of the individual woman within her marriage, say, or against the rule of her parents, would have constituted a pressing feminist topic. I like it very much as a definition for contemporary novels that seek to have a feminist purpose, though.

  2. June 17, 2013 10:25 am

    I’d say you don’t get specifically feminist fiction before Gilman in the 1890s. In the 19th century, those involved with the women’s right movement did not overlap with the women who were writing domestic romance novels. After getting the vote in 1920, any mass women’s movement suffered a backlash as the daughters wanted to be flappers not activists. Alice Paul and the Women’s Party were a small, elite group without much following. Until the 70s, there was little link between the good writers who were emerging and any women’s movement. At least that’s the US story. Britain might be different.

    Some people argue that “scribbling women,” as Hawthorne called them, were feminists, but I have trouble calling anything as feminist if the solution for the woman is to marry or die in the end.

    Rather than quibbling over what is feminist, I prefer to ask if books are woman-centered.
    Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, Age of Innocence, Their Eyes Are Watching God, and many more certainly focus on aspiring women, but they call for personal change not to change society.

    Sorry if I ranted too much in my review. I just got angry and should have let it simmer before posting it.

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