International Women’s Day: Wicked (?) Women

When I was younger, I used to get excited about celebrating International Women’s Day every year. Receiving bouquets of flowers, hearing enthusiastic discourses on TV and radio praising the achievements of girls and women everwhere made me feel motivated and appreciated. But as I grew older, I started to really experience the difference between that romanticised discourse and the actual day-to-day situation of women. I started to question the stereotypes about gender and gender roles that I’d imbibed while growing up.

Today, I view International Women’s Day more as a sobering time of reflection. Here is what I see, as a woman living in the U.K. in 2023, when I look around me. Among 4,000 surveyed women, 67% say they experienced workplace penalties (missed pay rises, blocked career progression) due to the fact that they had childcare duties to attend to. In the U.K., the gender pay gap between heterosexual partners with children who both have higher-level education is the largest it’s ever been since the ’70s.

In the West, women of colour, in particular, experience erasure in the workplace, as they continue to be marginalized, silenced, and treated as interchangeable. Around the world, 1 in 3 (!) women have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime. In 2021, 65% of the trans people responding to a YouGov-supported survey said they did not feel comfortable disclosing their gender identity at work.

It’s a tough road to navigate if you’re a woman, whether cis or trans, or if you do not align with a cis/white/straight worldview. It’s hard to celebrate or feel celebrated when your’re constantly negotiating an obstacle course, and you run the risk of being labeled as difficult no matter what you say or do, or how you present.

So today, I’ve decided to go back to a little initiative I had at the start of the pandemic, my little #3goodservings project, in which I suggest three works of art and culture – a book, a film, and a game or music album – sharing a theme. Today, that theme is “wicked (?) women”, and all the recommended works were created by women, as well. My hope is that these three works will offer a constructive means of reflecting on gender stereotypes, whether society has evolved at all in terms of gender equalty, and what we want or are able to do to shift the status quo. Here we go.

Book: Catherynne M. Valente, Comfort Me With Apples

Comfort Me With Apples is a novella that you could easily read in one sitting – not because it’s short, but because it’s gripping. I would call it a kind of Gothic fairy tale that mixes Biblical, mythical, and fairy tale elements to conjure a world that is both strange and disturbingly familiar in many ways. A parable of patriarchal oppression, Comfort Me With Apples reflects on what happens when a woman seeks the truth about herself and those that came before her, what happens when she questions the status quo and defies the comfort of prescribed rules.

Catharynne Valente is an amazing storyteller, known for her layered, unapologetically original approach to fantasy and sci-fi. I have not yet read a book by her that I did not thoroughly enjoy, and this one is hands-down one of my absolute favourites. You should be able to order the book online in all the usual places.

Film: Elisa & Marcela (Isabel Coixet, 2019)

This film broke me when I first watched it. Shot entirely in black and white, it’s based on the true story of  Elisa Sánchez Loriga and Marcela Gracia Ibeas, two women in late-19th, early-20th-century Spain, who fell in love and fought to preserve their relationship. In an act of tremendous love and courage, Elisa took on a male identity and married Marcela in church. Their story of perseverance and survival against all odds is as harrowing as it is beautiful, and I think Coixet did a wonderful job of bringing out her characters’ immense strength as well as vulnerabilities.

The black and white rendition gives the film that faraway, long-ago feel that might suggest this sad story is relegated to the past, but given the huge backlash to LGBTQIA+ rights around the world, even in countries that had been touting their “liberal views”, Elisa and Marcela’s trials will hit all too close to home.

This one is available to stream through Netflix, and you can watch the trailer in English here. Be prepared to cry a lot, and to be haunted by this film for a very long time.

Game: The Path

The Path is an immersive experience game for the PC, created by Auriea Harvey in collaboration with Michaël Samyn, and originally released in 2009, part of their Tale of Tales game development project.

They call it a “horror video game”, and it is quite obviously inspired by the “Little Red Riding Hood” we are all familiar with. When playing this game, you can choose to be one of six “red” sisters, each with their different personalities. The premise is simple: you start by being dropped off on a path that traverses a forest. You are instructed, in no uncertain terms, not to stray from the path until you reach grandmother’s house. What you choose to do is entirely up to you. You can choose to be “good” and follow the path, for what seems like an endless period of time, or you can choose to wander into the forest, collecting small glittering flowers and coming across places and things that will trigger memories of the past, and of encounters with a mysterious “Wolf.” Each girl’s memories are different, and they each have a different “Wolf.” Depending on how many such memories you unearth, and which girl you’re playing, your experience once you reach grandmother’s house will also be different.

The game is unsettling, yet there is little to no action unfolding – the premise of all Tale of Tales games is that the experience is created through immersion, exploration, and personal reflection rather than through a traditional plot progression. You can watch the game trailer here, and you can download and play the game on Steam.

I have waxed lyrical about Tale of Tales games many a times, and I even wrote an essay about the Gothic mode and the quest for meaning in The Path and other Tale of Tales games. They are splendid, and more of an immersive, interactive work of art than anything, so you can enjoy them time and again.

What would your art recommendations be for International Women’s Day – and every day?

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