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April 7, 2017

Book Notes - Kelly Jensen "Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World"

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The important anthology Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World (which includes contributions from Roxane Gay, Liz Prince, Sarah McCarry and others) is accessible, informative, intelligent, and entertaining.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"A progressive antidote to the ancient teen health textbooks that mull over the dry basics of teen identity . . . a stellar collection . . . An embarrassment of riches."

In her own words, here is Kelly Jensen's Book Notes music playlist for the anthology Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World:

One of the unique things about Here We Are: Feminism For The Real World is that it's packaged like a scrapbook. So in addition to having an array of essays exploring myriad facets of feminism, the anthology also has things like top ten lists, art, comics, photographs, and other ephemera. Kody Keplinger, one of the 44 contributors, created a really fabulous playlist in the collection that's worth checking out not only because of the song selections but also because of how it sort of captures a lot of the feel of the anthology without her ever knowing what the pieces look like.

It's neat how an anthology where contributors all worked in a vacuum managed to convey so many similar messages and feelings.

While I didn't create a specific playlist that I worked to while editing, I did create a number of playlists that captured the feel of the book and the sorts of things I hoped readers would take away. I used them for everything unrelated to writing and editing that still managed to spark something for the process, even if it wasn't with specific intent.

Worth noting: this isn't necessarily a "feminist playlist."You can find those on Google and frankly, most of them have the same songs on them, along with a bunch of comments about the songs not included. I've instead highlighted specific songs that reflect themes and ideas among the essays in the collection. So while I'm bummed there's no Rihanna here, and there's no Spice Girls, no TLC (though those ladies are name-dropped in at least one essay!), and there's no Dolly Parton, I needed to make some Hard Choices.

I want to make a joke about how it's hard out here for a bitch (ty, Lily Allen) but...well, looks like I've made the joke now and can't take it back.

"Can't Pin Me Down" by Marina and the Diamonds

I could name any number of songs by Marina, but this one really strikes me as fitting Here We Are. It's about being unable to easily "pin someone down"as a certain type or attribute an easy label to them; but it's more than that -- it's about the tone of the song, the way it's being sung, that really makes this one fit. There's a tiny edge of sarcasm that comes through, particularly in a line that many fans find to be really disconcerting: "Do you really want me to write a feminist anthem? I'm happy making dinner in the kitchen for my husband." Where many saw it as Marina rejecting feminism for the sake of traditional gender roles, in the context of the song and in the intonation, it's absolutely clear that as a complex female human being, she is able to be any and everything she wants to be. She doesn't need to reject things like cooking dinner for someone else if it fulfills her, and it doesn't mean she's not a good feminist for doing so.*

I can't help but see how well this song fits with many of the pieces in the collection, but it especially resonates with those pieces that highlight that "traditional femininity"is okay. Constance Augusta Zabar, for example, talks about being a trans woman who loves makeup and isn't ashamed about it, and Jessica Luther's essay highlights the ups and downs of what it means to be in a long-term, committed relationship.

"It" by Christine and the Queens

I've been preaching the gospel of Christine and the Queens since I saw her in late 2015, and It is one of those songs on constant loop in my house. This is 100% a song about gender identity and the ways in which people are boxed into one identity by society and how it's not up to society to make those choices for another person. "No, I've got it. I'm a man now. And there's nothing you can do to make me change my mind. I'm a man now."

This is another song that could correspond to a bulk of the essays, but perhaps Rafe Posey's essay about discovering and acknowledging he's male and living as his true self is one that really pairs well with this song. I'd also pair this one with Liz Prince's comic about coming to terms with the word "feminism"and owning it as part of her identity.

"Giants" by Matt Nathanson

I grew up on Matt Nathanson's music. It was the soundtrack through my teen years, and I've followed his career from wayyyy back in the day. So when I asked him out of the blue if he'd consider writing an essay for Here We Are, imagine my surprise when he said yes . . . and more, the way I thought about how my teenage self would think about how I got to work with one of my favorite humans professionally in my adulthood.

Though any number of songs by Nathanson offer up feminist themes and ideas, the one that really struck me and one that I've been seriously consider getting a tattoo in honor of, is Giants. The song is about how much better our world would be if we were able to ignore the ideas of one side vs. another and instead embrace, acknowledge, and respect the differences that exist among us. That rather than being made small because of those labels, we'd be made into giants. I could quote any number of lyrics that get my heart in my throat, but the one that really hits hard is "We're only hearts and bones and blood, but we are giants."Because it's really and truly that simple. Maybe also "Everybody's scared of things they don't understand and all of the living that they don't do."

Would it be cheating to say this song pairs with Nathanson's essay about why he as a straight white guy needs feminism? Because I'm cheating and saying that. But more, this piece also cuts to the core of what Daniel José Older writes about when he had his big awakening to feminism, while also tying nicely into Siobhan Vivian's personal exploration of experiencing love and romance after first choosing to reject them as powerful parts of one's life.

Matt Nathanson and Kelly Jensen

"***Flawless" by Beyonce (featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

Perhaps the most obvious song on this list is the power anthem from Queen Beyonce, but I see it not only because of what it says about the power girls have. What really works for this song and why it's included is because of the very beginning: we get a short introduction from back in Beyonce's days as a member of "Girls Time."We hear the very beginning of her career and how she came from modest means in Houston to go on, pursuing her artistic career, no matter what got in her way.

For me, this song is the essence of Malinda Lo's piece which opens Here We Are. She talks about the ways her grandmother influenced her, even if she didn't expect her grandmother to label herself as a feminist. It's also about the books she read as a child opening up her world and inviting her to become the storyteller she is today. I'd also lean toward including Alida Nugent's essay as one that this song speaks to, too -- her piece, which is chock full of humor, talks about how she wanted a nose job in high school so she'd better fit in with her white suburban peers. But, when she goes to Puerto Rico on a trip, she discovers how beautiful and colorful and shapely everyone is there and it really made her understand her own uniqueness and embrace it as flawlessly her own.

"One Chance" by Modest Mouse

I love Modest Mouse. I consider them my "wall of noise"and when I am having Feelings Of Any Kind, blasting them makes me feel good because I will never be that angry or loud.

This song, though, is one that's unexpected and moderately quiet. The lyrics speak to being a box in a cage, about the way society traps us into different molds and that it's up to us to make the difference in our lives, as well as the lives of others. The last part of the song really nails it, though: "We have one chance, One chance to get everything right. My friends, my habits, my family,
They mean so much to me. I just don't think that it's right. I've seen so many ships sail in, Just to head back out again and go off sinking.”

As a whole, I hope this book helps give people the buoys they need to hop off the sailing ship, stay afloat, and find their way to the places they deserve. IS THIS NOT CHEESY AND HOKEY? It's true, though. And I found a way to shove cheese into my explanation for a Modest Mouse song.


"Little Plastic Castle" by Ani DiFranco

I think I first heard this song when I was a freshman in high school and it kind of changed my life. The lyrics that did it, and the lyrics which make this one fit Here We Are, are these: "People talk About my image, Like I come in two dimensions, Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind Like what I happen to be wearing, The day that someone takes a picture, Is my new statement for all of womankind."The song is about how quick we want to box people in and take every single thing that they do as a grand statement for their beliefs. DiFranco says that doing so flattens us all and keeps us from being unable to become fully functioning, messy human beings.

"Bad Feminist, Part 2"by Roxane Gay is a reprint I got for the anthology and obviously, I couldn't pick a more fitting piece-song pairing. But even beyond Gay's tremendous essay, Sarah McCarry's take on friendship and the idea of not being "like other girls"digs into the ways that we're (female-identifying people primarily, but also certainly other genders) socialized to believe girls are all one kind of thing and best to not be befriended.

I'd also easily see this song fitting the themes that Mikki Kendall talks about in her essay about how you have to find your own feminism and that making a judgment about how one person practices feminism is a knock against the movement as a whole. More, one person's feminism cannot and should not speak for the feminism of others, particularly of communities that are marginalized.

*I see so many echoes from this song in the Marina and the Diamonds song listed first.

"Bravado" by Lorde

If we take the song to be about anxiety and fear -- "I was fighting off every little thing that I thought was out to get me down, To trip me up and laugh at me, But I look not to hold, The quiet of the room with no one around to find me out, I want the applause the approval the things that make me go oh"-- and then we get to the crescendo of the song "And I can tell you that, when the lights come on I'll be ready for this, It's in your bloodstream, A collision of atoms that happens before your eyes, It's a marathon run or a mountain you scale without thinking of size,"then it's hard to ignore how this song could fit the themes of many essays throughout Here We Are, including my own.

I'd also easily pair this song with Nova Ren Suma's essay, wherein she talks about an experience she had with a high school teacher who never assigned women writers in his excellent literature from around the world course. This angered her and set her off on a path to discovering the amazing voices of women in her personal reading life. Perhaps I could also suggest this song going with Shveta Thakrar's piece about finding her own voice and Kaye Mirza's essay about how her faith helps her feminism.

"Stronger" by Britney Spears

Britney Spears is a queen and anyone who disagrees can see themselves out. This song is such a power ballad about self-love, about learning how to be herself, and how her past self helped her become the person she is now. Her independence is important to her, and even though she's dealt with hard stuff, she's taken that to make herself who she is today.

Both Wendys in Here We Are deserve this anthem for their pieces. Wendy Davis for her gut punch of a piece about how sometimes it just sucks to lose...but you get up and get back into the game because that's how you keep on playing. Wendy Xu whose comic explores a relationship she had where her identity became a fetish for her partner and, from that relationship, she was able to learn how to value her own self and identity and not allow others to take it from her.

"Extraordinary Machine" by Fiona Apple

On the surface, Apple's song about an independent woman could easily relate to many of the essays in the collection and, perhaps, much of the overall tone of the collection. But this song very specifically talks to the idea of living one's life for one's self, even with others who do or don't approve. "Be kind to me, or treat me mean, I'll make the most of it, I'm an extraordinary machine."

This song speaks perfectly to Courtney Summer's piece on the unlikable female character and the way we judge the motivations and decisions that so-called "tough"girls make. Her piece says essentially the song does: people like to judge a girl who is living her life if she's not doing it within the neat lines society's drawn for her and yet, she's still going to do her thing. I also see a lot of the piece Kayla Whaley wrote here, too -- her essay, which is a letter to her younger self, talks about the horrible experiences she had as a disabled girl in a wheelchair, being overlooked and being told she "doesn't count"as a person. The letter, which speaks to those hard moments, also offers up those incredibly moving moments of tenderness, wherein Older Kayla tells Younger Kayla she matters and she's loved and to keep on with her badass self.

Kelly Jensen and Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World links:

the editor's website

Kirkus Reviews review
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review
Publishers Weekly review
Teenreads review

Chicago Tribune profile of the editor
School Library Journal profile of the author
Teen Vogue interview with the editor

also at Largehearted Boy:

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