Telling Stories

Heather McDaid & Laura Jones (eds.), Nasty Women: A Collection of Essays + Accounts on What It Is to Be a Woman in the 21st Century

404 INK, 240pp, £8.99, ISBN 9780995623828

reviewed by Thom Cuell

Conceived in the wake of Donald Trump’s infamous comments about Hillary Clinton, and subsequent election victory, the essay collection Nasty Women was launched via Kickstarter on New Year’s Day 2017, with a target of £6,000. This goal was reached within three days, and after receiving support from the likes of Margaret Atwood on Twitter, the publisher 404 Ink went on to raise a total of £22,156 from over 1,300 supporters. The turnaround time was amazing: the anthology was commissioned in six weeks, funded in four, and then published less than six weeks later to coincide with International Women’s Day. This tiny imprint was also able to draw on contributions from women around the world, giving a platform to members of many groups which are routinely silenced within the mainstream.

There is some precedent for the success of a crowdfunded, issue-based literary anthology. Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant (2016), funded through Unbound Books, bought together British writers from BAME backgrounds to discuss their experience of race and immigration. The Good Immigrant was endorsed by JK Rowling, and doubled its fundraising target. Others will follow, starting with Dead Ink’s Know Your Place, an anthology of working class writers due later this year. There’s something zeitgeisty about all of these collections: not the tech platform that supports them, but the fact that each is influenced by the growing awareness of intersectionality, providing multiple points of view on a single issue, and reflecting a diversity of experiences within an individual category. Thus, in Nasty Women, we read the experiences of women from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds, varied sexualities and ages, developing an awareness of how these various identities intersect with and impact on one another.

So, what is a nasty woman? Contributor Kristy Diaz, in ‘Why I’m No Longer a Punk Rock “Cool Girl”’, defines the term in opposition to the concept of the ‘cool girl’ presented in Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl:

'Men always say that as a defining compliment, don't they? She's a cool girl. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don't mind, I'm the Cool Girl. Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they're fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl'.

A nasty woman, by contrast, has a voice, and opinions, is visible and takes up space. Maybe, like Hillary Clinton, they even seek power, daring to compete against rich and powerful white men.

In her keynote talk at Grrrl Con last month, author Monique Roffey declared that ‘if women don’t write their true stories, then we have a hole in culture.’ The importance of having a voice, being noticed, and finding a place in a community, is a recurring theme throughout Nasty Women. Claire L Heuchen, in her essay ‘Black Feminism Online: Claiming Digital Space’, relates how, 'with the advent of digital media, it became much easier to access content and to participate in conversations relevant to me as a Black woman.’ Living in Scotland, Heuchen felt that women of colour were ‘treated as anomalies . . . if our presence is a simple one-off, then Black women and girls don't need to be recognised as a group.’ 'The plurality of the internet,’ by contrast, ‘makes it a viable space for women of colour.’ Through social media, Heuchen was able to create a platform for herself, and her website Sister Outrider, connecting with feminists around the world and helping to fill in one of those holes in culture. Before the internet became omnipresent, as Laura Waddell explains in ‘Against Stereotypes’, women from marginalised groups could find themselves deeply isolated: 'I have read a lot of fiction straight from luxurious writers retreats; I have read almost none from housing estates such as the one I grew up on. These stories are missing from the shelves, and from the record.’  

As with any public space, the behaviour of women online is heavily policed. In her 2013 essay ‘Cybersexism’, Laurie Penny described a generation of women who had found their voices online and discovered support networks across the world, but who now face a backlash from increasingly organised men’s groups. There are plenty of examples of this hostility in the news each week, from revenge porn to the ‘women eating on the tube’ tumblr and, most strikingly, Gamergate. For women from minority backgrounds, the scope for online abuse is wider. In ‘Independence Day’, the collection’s opening essay, Kate Muriel discusses the impact of being referred to as a ‘spic’ by a pro-Trump family member, and the silencing effect this had on her in the past: 'she had discovered in the past that aiming this slur at me was an effective way to silence me and years ago, when she first threw the insult, I was indeed silenced. For a moment, when she again referred to me with this word, I felt the same hurt, the same fragility. But only for a moment.'

Less dramatic than cyber-bullying and doxxing, but equally debilitating in the long-term, are the ‘microaggressions’ that projects such as Everyday Sexism have been documenting in recent years. Many of the contributors to Nasty Women discuss the process of first learning to recognise, and then speak out against, these casual oppressions. In ‘Adventures of a Half-Black Yank in America’, Elise Hines speaks out about white students touching her hair, and store detectives following her through the aisles of a grocery – all subtle signals designed to mark her as Other because of her race. Belle Owen, in ‘Resisting by Existing’, talks of people who react to her disability by assuming that she needs their help with basic tasks; their actions may be well meaning, but also serve to diminish Owen’s agency, and come with an expectation of gratitude. Owen states that 'understanding microaggressions and naming them as such solidified my position and my resolve to change assumptions'. What is clear here is that an academic term, originally coined in 1970, has become more widely understood through social media, and has had a noticeable impact on people’s lives.

Whilst we may not be surprised to read of these aggressions (micro or overt) taking place in mainstream society, the contributors to Nasty Women are also not afraid to interrogate the conventions of subcultures which they may participate in. In ‘Touch Me Again and I Will Fucking Kill You’, the musician and activist Ren Aldridge describes the work done by the Salvage Collective, documenting gendered violence, or the ‘range of acts and behaviours that are described by survivors that fit on a continuum of everyday harassment and intrusions to criminalised forms of sexual violence including sexual assault and rape.’ Aldridge argues that in many cases, 'activist and punk circles claim to counter mainstream society whilst reproducing the exact same power dynamics, focusing their efforts outside whilst not concentrating on what's happening inside.’ More worryingly, there is a tendency to weigh up the value of an individual’s contribution to the group against any criticism of their behaviour - 'a worrying implication that someone's creative output gives them more worth than a survivor, or more sinister still, that this creative output is in itself somehow more important than the lived experience of survivors.’

There are many more examples of this oppression within subcultures, often based around appearance. Kristy Diaz notes that women in punk are constantly required to defend themselves against suspicions that they are ‘fangirls’ or ‘poser’. This negative reading is also discussed by Kaite Walsh in ‘The Rest is Drag’, in which she discusses a generalised suspicion of femmes within lesbian subcultures. The Salvage Collective, along with many other grassroots projects, plays a role in fighting back against this marginalisation by giving a voice to women and other survivors. The phrase ‘described by survivors’ is key to their definition of gendered violence, and their work gives survivors a platform to stand against individuals who occupy privileged positions within their network. In this case, activism is helping to plug a hole in a subculture.

So, what is the significance of appropriating the term ‘nasty woman’? In an interview for Minor Literature[s], contributor Laura Waddell said ‘I enjoy the mockery inherent in women taking up the Nasty Women moniker for themselves, and think it's a potent and enjoyable way to challenge old fashioned ideas about how we should behave.’ The power of labels is apparent, especially to people who have been victimised by patriarchy. As Nadine Aisha Jassat states in her essay ‘On Naming’, 'We know what it is to be the bogeyman. And for those of us who cross multiple strands, the threat we pose to the white patriarchal status quo, and the danger we face from it, draws on multiple strands of our identity that cannot be separated. Paki bitch. Angry black woman.' The term ‘feminist’ itself carries cultural baggage, too often ‘misrepresented as a dirty word.’ Nasty Women continues a project to reclaim gendered language, which in recent years has included SlutWalks and pussy hats.

For Jassat, 'the names we are called matter: they define how we sit within our society.’ For internet strangers, Jassat’s name disqualifies her from discussing child abuse, despite her history of working in child support. Joelle Owusu cites an anecdote from the actress Uzoamaka Aduba: at school, a friend asks her if she can change her name to Zoe, as her classmates can’t pronounce Uzoamaka; her mother responds that if they can learn to pronounce Tchaikovsky they can pronounce Uzoamaka. They are othered by their names – as the poet Fatima Ashgar succinctly puts it: 'America's got no keychain for my name.’ Once again, a hole in culture is identified, and discussing the issue is the first step to filling it.

A common problem within progressive politics is that identifying a common enemy is much easier than identifying a solution which can be agreed on by all; in his study on the anti-globalisation movement, Paul Kingsnorth termed this phenomenon ‘One No, Many Yesses’. Throughout Nasty Women, there are further examples of microaggression, oppression and denial of opportunity throughout the collection, touching on the experiences of trans women, working class women, fat women, Muslim women and many more. Despite this diversity, though, there is some consensus around how to fight back. Silencing tactics and segregation must be met with a determined voice of resistance – stories must be told to fill the holes in our culture.

For Kate Muriel, the answer is to embrace the aspects of her identity which mark her as Other: 'every day that I embrace the parts of myself that I have been denied is my day of freedom from oppressive rule. Every day that I turn the word “spic” over my tongue, I claim another day of liberty’. For Belle Owen, her mere visible presence in an act of defiance: ‘my greatest act for change is not retreating to the spaces designated to me by society.’ Mel Reeve, in ‘The Nastiness of Survival’, prioritises the integrity of her voice: ‘it's so important to me not to sugar-coat my experiences, to speak honestly.’ It’s a huge and important achievement that a small independent publisher has provided a platform for these stories.