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Our Violent National Game

The great hockey debate continues

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

Taylor Swift and Other Pawns

Seeking substance in a digital echo chamber

Tara Henley

Girls, Interrupted: How Pop Culture Is Failing Women

Lisa Whittington-Hill

Véhicule Press

200 pages, softcover and ebook

At the emotional centre of Lisa Whittington-Hill’s new essay collection sits a single question: What is an unmarried, childless, middle-aged woman for? It’s Gen X’s version of the second-wave feminist Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name”— and a timely issue to contemplate.

North American women now enjoy more freedom and more autonomy than women in any other period of history. Mainstream culture encourages us to cast off societal expectations and to embrace our independence. A great many of us are not getting married, and, as Canada’s plummeting birth rate attests, fewer and fewer of us are having children. But critics like Louise Perry, author of The Case against the Sexual Revolution, and Mary Harrington, author of Feminism against Progress, have persuasively argued that we are not necessarily happier for it. Lydia Perović captured this collective angst in her recent memoir, Lost in Canada: “A forty-seven-year-old who is not married, not a parent, and a freelancer not attached to a company by full-time employment will have to take a lot of decisions every week, anew and anew, some deadly trivial and others more demanding, like what is my life about this Thursday?

So Whittington-Hill, also the publisher of This Magazine, an alternative journal in Toronto, taps into a vital debate when she reflects on the lead‑up to her dreaded fiftieth birthday. She finds herself perpetually awake at 3 a.m. and trying to make sense of her life. “I’ve always been an introvert who enjoyed a lot of time alone,” she writes, “but now my independence, once a source of pride, resembles something closer to loneliness.” Women who don’t conform to the traditional scripts of marriage and motherhood, she explains, are “largely left out of our stories.” She can’t help but wonder if she’s a failure because the path she’s charted has been an unconventional one.

A lifelong fan of pop culture, the author naturally turns to the world of movies, TV, music, and media for answers. In doing so, she meditates on representations of famous women, from Lindsay Lohan and Winona Ryder to Jennifer Aniston and Amy Winehouse.

Maybe pop culture isn’t the problem.

Jamie Bennett

Whittington-Hill’s writing style is lively, her subject matter wide-ranging and engaging. Her personal perspective, on topics such as mental health, is particularly poignant. Unfortunately, the critical lens she applies throughout Girls, Interrupted reads as somewhat stale. The political ground staked out here is characteristic of a largely online progressive feminism — a digital echo chamber that has not evolved much over the past decade, aside from becoming more extreme in its knee-jerk condemnations of “toxic masculinity” and more insulated from outside influences (such as the heterodox feminists mentioned above).

This blinkered frame of reference leads to some odd conclusions. It’s hard to square, for instance, the idea of Taylor Swift as victim with the reality of her immense star power. Whittington-Hill quotes the singer, approaching age thirty at the time, describing our society as one in which “women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard at 35.” While Swift is arguably one of the most influential and profitable pop stars in the world — showing no signs of slowing down — any celebration of her success, Whittington-Hill insists, “is also tinged with a kind of defeat.” After all, Swift has complained that female artists are forced to reinvent themselves more often than male ones.

Whittington-Hill’s analysis of celebrity memoirs proves similarly puzzling. Her emphasis is not on the profound human suffering and alienation often expressed in this genre but on the notion that the media is less critical of troubled celebrity men than it is of troubled celebrity women. Female con artists, too, pose a problem only insofar as they are afforded less complimentary press. Thus the notorious fraudster Anna Delvey is awkwardly shoehorned into an internet-inspired girlboss discourse. “True, much of that girlbossing was criminal,” Whittington-Hill concedes. “But this was precisely its appeal: she flouted the rules of capitalism.”

The failings of such a rigid ideological lens are most pronounced when it comes to Whittington-Hill’s writing on Courtney Love, enfant terrible of ’90s rock, lead singer of the female grunge band Hole, and the widow of Nirvana’s front man, Kurt Cobain: “She fought critics, conspiracy theorists, and Cobain lovers, stage-diving headfirst into all of them and emerging the ultimate survivor. There is nothing more heroic than that.” Oddly, in this book’s telling, Love ceases to be a woman struggling with a profoundly destructive drug addiction and the loss of her husband by suicide and is instead “the original tabloid target,” underappreciated for having “smashed the stereotypes of how a front woman should act.”

It’s also worth pointing out that there is no acknowledgment here of the crisis modern men are facing, with declining employment and educational achievement and with skyrocketing suicides and overdoses. Nor, for that matter, does Whittington-Hill consider its reflection in pop culture.

All told, Girls, Interrupted proves ill-equipped to probe the complex causes of the societal dysfunction that we’re currently experiencing, the deep unhappiness that it generates for both men and women, and the role that pop culture may play in perpetuating it.

One has to ask: What if self-actualization is not the answer to what ails us? Has pop feminism’s obsessive focus on individualism really served women of our generation well? Might it be that shrugging off familial obligations in favour of career ambitions, in a ruthless twenty-first-century labour market, has rendered us socially disconnected and lonely? Could it be that the bonds we’ve cast as burdens are, in fact, what gives life meaning, purpose, and joy? And what if the drink-male-tears brand of feminism has blinded us to the pain of the men around us, making cooperation and collaboration increasingly difficult? And, crucially, is it possible that pop feminism’s me‑first framework works out fine in one’s healthy, energetic prime — but has less to offer in middle age, when we tend to need others more?

Girls, Interrupted makes the case that pop culture has failed women. But a more interesting question to contemplate would be whether pop feminism has.

Tara Henley is a current affairs journalist, podcast host, and the author of Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life.