Sarah Hepola’s revelatory debut memoir Blackout tells a similar story: hedonistic, boozy blonde falls into bed after bed. When she gets drunk, she gets mean, and Hepola is unstinting in the way she describes acting badly toward friends, acquaintances, boyfriends, strangers, and even her beloved cat. Here she is describing her hunger: “I was all mouth. I want Taco Bell now. I want cigarettes now. I want Mateo now.” Good girls don’t demand junk food and vices and sex. Good girls know beauty is more than symmetry and skin tone; it’s as much about acting appealing as it is looking appealing. It’s what I’ve called the tyranny of the flattering, and Hepola shrugs that off like a tight coat.
Memoir teachers everywhere tell students they must be hardest on themselves, but few writers manage to reveal their own ugliness while simultaneously avoiding falling into the tar pits of self-pity. Hepola manages it. She isn’t trying to shock us, though her book is one part gross to four parts engrossing; she is merely painting an honest Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Drunk. And then, without the help of either Prince Charming or Jesus, she saves herself, for no other reason than because it’s time.
Other pop cultural phenomena from this year give me hope that 2015 will be remembered as a watershed moment for feminism, for women in media being treated as real, flawed people, rather than pretty girls. Take, for instance, the much-lauded new series UnREAL on – of all stations – Lifetime, recently praised on Slate as “the first antihero show that is created by women, stars women, and at times brutally satirizes women.” And as The Hairpin recently noted, some women in the spotlight have stopped shaving their armpits, in thrillingly flagrant disregard for the male gaze.
But perhaps the most encouraging example of all is Netflix’s prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black. The show has always been remarkable for its diversity in terms of cast members’ race, age, size, gender identity, and sexual orientation. And its most recent season seems less concerned than ever with whether male audience members find its khaki-clad protagonists a turn-on.
Over Season 3, when certain inmates doll themselves up to get attention, they are using sex appeal to cheat, steal, manipulate, and, in one heinous case, get an innocent man attacked. Otherwise – with the exception of Sophia, who runs a beauty parlor now that, as she once put it, “I finally am who I am supposed to be” – our heroes are often indifferent to their appearances, focused instead on a) survival, b) revenge, and c) the heartbreaking question of how one can parent from prison.
Beauty is valuable, even vital, but it cannot be demanded of anyone, and certainly not of half the population. Women are not national parks; we cannot expect them to remain forever groomed for our visual pleasure. Especially when, as movies like the recent crowd-pleaser Magic Mike XXL make clear, there are plenty of men out there willing to shoulder their share of the burden of being hot for a living.
In OITNB and several other mainstream cultural properties, we are able to track society’s progress in real time, as female writers and characters increasingly define themselves through their human struggles, not their specifically feminine ones. The more we build on those examples – and allow even women in the public eye to benefit from the freedom they make possible – the richer our culture will be.