"They said I was a nympho-psycho-lesbo"

January 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Coming in at just under 120 pages, Myrtle of Willendorf by Rebecca O’Connell ended much too soon for my liking. I would have gladly spent more time in the company of the main character, Myrtle. She has a spirit and a wit about her that kept me engrossed throughout. Myrtle is hilarious, witty, strange, and utterly compelling. I didn’t want to leave her at the end of it.

Recently, I’ve begun to realize that I’m always pleasantly surprised by books I’ve never heard of before. I wouldn’t have found out about this book if it wasn’t for a review I randomly stumbled upon here, and true to most ‘undiscovered gems,’ this one is quite a sparkler.

Besides Myrtle, there’s Margie, Myrtle’s very good friend (she just isn’t aware of it yet) whom I also covet as a friend. The book is peopled with characters I would love to know in my actual life, and those that I would love to run away from with glee. That in itself doesn’t make a book good, necessarily, but in the case of Myrtle of Willendorf it was absolutely charming and helped make a solid book that much stronger.

Margie dabbles in paganism. Maybe that’s understating it. Margie lives it. The agnostic I am absolutely enjoyed reading about the idea of the Goddess as the ultimate embodiment of female energy, as expounded by Margie in various passages. Instead of sounding loopy and weird, when Margie talks about the power inherent in the female, it just sounds right. Or maybe I’m just at this point in time in my life where it seems right. As Sam, one of the characters in the book, said, “Can’t argue with that logic.” All that talk about female energy being at the centre of the life force, and similar theories, could come off shallow and stupid. But Myrtle has more depth than that, and seen through her eyes, it was at times irreverent and amusing. But we’re able to also sense her yearning for the sanctity and comfort of Margie’s brand of paganism, the power it imbues in women – especially the marginalized ones.

Consider what Margie tells Myrtle after Myrtle has been rejected by various boys as her dance partner in gym class for being too large:

“You are the beloved of the Goddess. You are the goddess. You are a formidable woman. Those boys didn’t want to dance with you because they feared your power. Your size, your womanliness, is something they both yearn for and fear: yearn for because it is beautiful, fear because it is so different from themselves. They cover up their fear with jokes and taunts.
Don’t let the words of ignorant boys make you feel estranged from the Goddess. Aphrodite is not only the goddess of romantic love; she is Venus, identified with creativity, growth, power, and all the mysteries of the Goddess.”

Couldn’t we all have done with a Margie on our side in high school? After Margie gives that speech to Myrtle, I’m a believer.

Myrtle has an iron core of strength in her, despite her obvious self-esteem issues. While art is ultimately the form of expression that allows er to be who she is, from the beginning of the book we learn that Myrtle uses humour to cope with the shitty situations and people in life. Pretty much anything seen through Myrtle’s eyes is funny and spot-on. Her humour is her armour and weapon, and she especially comes out with a few killer zingers in her interactions with her perfectly feminine roommate, Jada. As Myrtle says, “That was the difference between Margie and Jada. Margie thought there was a goddess in every woman. Jada thought that inside every fat woman there was a thin woman crying to get out.”

Ah, Jada. We all know one, or god forbid, several Jadas. Shallow Jada is a strong contrast to odd but loyal Margie, Margie who never had an unkind word to say about anything or anyone, ever. God, I love Margie. Every girl needs a friend like her. Possibly, every girl also needs a friend like Jada to make her appreciate the Margies of the world.

I love how the book treats the Big Questions without at all making it seem like Big Questions. Does Myrtle want to look attractive for men? Yes and no. Does she hate make-up? Yes and no. Does she like the process of putting it on, the whole ritual of adorning the body? Yes, clearly. But that does that mean she needs to succumb to what’s the ideal standard of beauty? The questions are there… the answers are not so obvious.

This brings to mind what Laura Kipnis writes in The Female Thing: “The main reason that feminism and femininity are incompatible is that femininity has a nasty little secret, which is this: femininity, at least in its current incarnation, hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy. Feminism, on the other hand, wants to eliminate female inadequacy, to trounce it as a patriarchal myth, then kick it out of the female psyche for good.”

Maybe this seems overly-simplistic, or maybe it’s one big “Duh” to most people. But it’s the central tug between these two extremes and many are being stretched out thin on either side. I think a book that honestly and intelligently acknowledges this struggle is valuable for girls and young women. (Myrtle of Willendorf is marketed as a young adult book.)

The highlight of this book on a personal front was learning more about the Venus of Willendorf. I hadn’t heard about it until I read this book. I found this essay to be a really interesting source of information, not least because it brings to light the discrepancies inherent in the name ‘Venus of Millendorf.’

Venus – the ideal embodiment of Classical Western female beauty and femininity.

The Willendorf Venus – not so much. Drooping breasts, rolls of stomach fat, pudgy thighs. Everything about her is untypical of what constitutes ideal beauty. Also, she is faceless, which is interesting. My first reaction was that she looked so comforting – which, I suppose, is one way of looking at her, as an embodiment of the Earth Goddess / Mother Goddess figure of abundance and fertility.

This essay explores the possibility that it was possibly carved by a woman instead of a man, which is also pretty interesting. Even while the possibility of an obese woman would have been extremely rare in the hunter-gatherer societies of the Stone Ages, it’s also simultaneously interesting and absolutely unfathomable for us to assume that a man would have found her beautiful or fascinating enough to sculpt. It makes sense for modern scholars to assume instead that a man would not have found a woman like that beautiful, even in pre-civilisational days, and therefore conclude that it had to be sculpted by a woman.

I bet Margie would have quite a lot to say about that.

Myrtle of Willendorf is tender, funny, and quietly rebellious – the perfect antidote for all the dross that we subject ourselves to when we read Elle or Vogue or any number of magazines and books that continue to require its readers to conform to unrealistic and ridiculous standards of female beauty.

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