Thursday, September 7, 2017

Review: All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers

The fact that all of my siblings ventured back to school this week, and I'm back to spending all my time by myself, is forcing me to confront the fact that summer is officially over. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of books I've read since June, that just haven't made their way onto the blog yet! 

So, here's to the spirit of catching up: I read this book a little less than three months ago, but it was still one of the best things I picked up from the library all summer. 

Everyone has at least one celebrity they follow, identify with, or otherwise enjoy. Whether it's seeing the latest Tom Cruise movie opening weekend, buying the September issue of Vogue because Jennifer Lawrence on the cover, or regularly keeping up with the Kardashians more than you do your own family, these famous figures factor into not just the media we regularly consume, but also, the ways we, by extension, define ourselves. 

Thanks to the rise of social media in the past decade or so, it's never been more easy to feel closer than ever to your favorite idol. By making the intangible more tangible, these once-godly figures have been brought down a little closer to plebeian orbit, factoring them into personal perspectives more than ever before. And the lives of those most remarked upon by tabloids, news sources, chat rooms, and more, those most widely followed on platforms like Instagram or featured on E! News and Access Hollywood, are by far, those of female celebrities. 

In the essay collection All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, by Alana Massey, she explores what this intimate relationship - between the famous and their followers - means, not just for those who see famous women as something they have a personal connection with, but for the women who are placed on these pedestals. From Amber Rose to Courtney Love, from Anna Nicole Smith to the Olsen Twins, to Nicki Minaj to Sylvia Plath, the door is opened to all kinds of critique, like what entails the status of a diva, how we perform body politics, whether female musicians are allowed to be angry or female authors are allowed to be emotional, and how the iconography and vulnerability of girlhood is monopolized by movies.

First off, this book was not what I expected, but only in the best of ways. Maybe because I spend too much time reading half-hearted cultural commentary on the internet, or because I've been burned by the vapidity of celebrity-worship books before, but I was coming in with a completely different destination in mind as to where these essays would lead me. While I was ready for commentary on the status of female celebrities in our current cultural sphere, what I wasn't prepared for was the sharp and insightful nature of Massey's voice - which was swift, eloquent, and unyielding - nor the scope of the celebrities and pop culture figures deemed worthy of her reflection, which was arguably vast.

Not just varying and fresh topics, either, but focused ones: personal fave chapters involved Britney Spears and America's relationship with her bodily autonomy, an ode to Sylvia Plath and a condemnation of her emotion-averse male detractors, and the ruinous class distinctions involved in the downfall of Anna Nicole Smith. Others included the morbid fascination with damaged girls at the heart of horror films, the intrinsic duological nature of Mary Kate and Ashley's twin-fame, and the manic attitudes of Courtney Love and the implied retribution of Kurt Cobain's death. Even the relative anti-feminist characterizations at the heart of Sofia Coppola movies - like the tragic Lisbon teens serving as immaculate objects of lust in The Virgin Suicides, and the lost identity of Scarlett Johansson's character in Lost in Translation - don't escape commentary. That's a lot of ground to cover, and that's not even half the essays available in the collection.

Because of this breadth, I feel like it filled out my knowledge in the most nuanced of ways, offering these women the context they deserved above everything else. Sure, it's easy to follow a celebrity, but it's just as easy to villianize them, too (especially because it seems like they're worshiped just as much for good behavior as they are for bad sometimes, like with the recent Taylor Swift single). One of the most notable ways the collection does this is in the context of abused women, from the infamous Lorena Bobbit to TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez. Featuring these often tragic figures alongside the rest of the story the media doesn't always feel like including is empowering... and notable for how much main stream gatekeepers feel like excluding from the narrative.

In terms of the scope of cultural commentary and intersections of feminism within that field, there are several notable authors to compare Massey to, but I'm most tempted to call it something like "Roxane Gay Lite." While feminist interpretations of her subjects were at its focus, Massey herself was as much a figure in the proceedings as the women she wrote about, interweaving each essay with pieces of her own life (something you could probably glean from the title). Unsurprisingly, Leslie Jamison - who wrote another one of my recent favorites, another collection of personally informed essays, The Empathy Exams - wrote a glowing blurb for the jacket.

And because I just can't help myself, here are some of my favorite quotes from the book. One of the only downsides to this reading experience, was that a library copy wouldn't allow me to underline... so instead, I resorted to papering the pages with enough post-it notes to turn the whole thing into a pinata:

  • Courtney Love plays her part in "narratives that dismiss female rage as symptomatic of a juvenile character, rather than the logical response to a hostile world." (pg 94) 
  • From the chapter "Public Figures," involving the destructive body politics of the popular tabloid convention of a starlet losing weight to "get her body back" : "This phrase is not about a woman getting back something she lost, as much as it is about our approval that she has returned to something we want her to be. What is meant by this phrase is 'We got her body back.' We got the body we felt entitled to. In the case of Britney, that is the impossibly lean and limber body of a teenage girl, a body that was enthusiastically characterized as 'insane.'" (pg 18)
  • The ridicule of Anna Nicole Smith and public condemnation of her lifestyle and behavior "demonstrate our hatred for anyone who dares to pursue the American Dream using skills from their own class and culture of origin." (pg 154) 
  • discussing the strangely significant gender-influenced disparagement of Sylvia Plath as a literary figure, specifically referencing two of her most iconic quotes ("I am, I am, I am," and "I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart") : "I struggle to think of any line of thinking more linked to being a socialized female than to consider the declaration of simply existing to feel like a form of bragging. But that, of course, is the plight of the feeling girl: to be told again and again that her very existence is not something worth declaring." (pg 50)

Final Verdict: Pop culture commentary and feminist conversations about the celebrities that make up our contemporary American cultural sphere have never been cooler, or more carefully articulated. I can't wait to see what Massey does next!

Do you like to read cultural commentary? What female celebrities do you follow regularly? Let me know, in the comments below!

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