Books

Lucy Ellmann
Things Are Against Us

This collection’s first essay laments those eponymous THINGS. THINGS unscrupulous, lugubrious or mutinous. Zips, needles, devilish duvet covers and feckless hot-water bottles are ready to snap, flap or vanish, scald, burn or prick. It is “the anarchy of THINGS. The enmity of THINGS. The conspiratorial manoeuvrings of THINGS”.

This is a relatively benign THING with which to preface the collection’s furious exploration of other things, including America, environmental destruction and Donald Trump, who, among other things, “considers himself an indispensable judge in an ongoing notional beauty pageant taking place in his own head. The guy critiques every female body that comes his way, including his daughters’.”

Ellmann catalogues the ways women are thwarted by violence and distractions, including patriarchy, rape culture and bras. “Three Strikes” springs from Woolf’s 1938 “Three Guineas”, a critique of patriarchy intensified by growing European fascism. “Three Strikes” is heavily footnoted. One footnote stresses the fact that “footnotes are the outsiders within a text, and make obliging underdogs in an essay about female subordination”.

Alongside a “global rape crisis” and the murder of women and children is the “multitude of malignant jibes and threats” faced by any speaking woman. As Mary Beard says, women “pay a very high price for being heard”.

There’s the bludgeon of normalised “beauty” with its strict standardisation of the ideals of female appearance and associated discriminations and surgical procedures, including labiaplasty to correct “abnormal labia tissue”. There’s the fact that every cosmetic procedure “puts pressure on other women to submit to body enhancements”. Women are smothered under “a deluge of photoshopped celebs” while “narcissistic homocentrism” shapes the world to satisfy the male gaze with a definition of beauty “based on class and race privilege”, which keeps capitalism afloat while women barely tread water. With these disparate but not unconnected forms of abuse, “MEN HAVE RUINED LIFE ON EARTH”.

Like Woolf and Swift, Ellmann has suggestions about how to improve THINGS. A “three-year ban on the male voice in public” and a year’s paid recuperative vacation for anyone whose life has been blighted by war, including “all military personnel, their families, and their victims … [and] anyone who’s paid their taxes (so, count Trump out, sorry)”. We could revive the planet by rediscovering “The Lost Art of Staying Put” instead of rushing to travel during a pandemic, convinced that life is elsewhere: “We’ve been fed a great big bunch of flimsy reasons to travel, by evil geniuses determined to use up all the oil and gas as fast as possible.”

To repair the collective neurological damage caused by Trumpist verbal habits, Ellmann suggests a “five-year ban on verbal abuse”, though not before offering an eviscerating portrait of “that big fat loser of a president”, complete with 28 descriptors pulled straight from his own dialect. She suggests three strikes to achieve female supremacy: a work strike, a labour strike and a sex strike.

Ellmann’s bravura polemic blends Woolfian hypotheses with Swiftian satire and her own rhetorical signatures. There’s the casual-sounding suggestion: “How about indulging women in the belief that we look okay, or that we’re okay mothers and daughters, or that we have okay things to say or do?” And then the bon mot: “Most of the attention we give people’s looks is wholly unnecessary unless you’re a police officer in search of a suspect.”

Mary Ellmann, Lucy’s mother, published Thinking about Women in 1968. She highlighted stereotypes about women and the lazy thinking that produces those stereotypes. “Phallic criticism” exists when men cannot see women as anything but women.

While Lucy Ellmann sustains her mother’s focus on women, drawing on the rhetorical power of binarism, Woolf saw liberation in critiquing it. There’s an exhilarating nascent gender abolitionism in Woolf’s argument: “The androgynous mind is resonant and porous … naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.”

Ellmann flags another signature at the start – schtick. Her deadpanning, her asides to “darn a cheap sock” or “caress husband’s cheek” – because there is such a THING as a mensch – her blazing diatribes and comedic energy fuel the purposeful lamentation of these hilarious and potent essays.

Felicity Plunkett

Text Publishing, 208pp, $22.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 3, 2021 as "Things Are Against Us, Lucy Ellmann".

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Reviewer: Felicity Plunkett