The Importance of Teaching the #MeToo Memoir

By | December 1, 2021

This week, in a series of blog takeovers, we’re looking at #MeToo and Literary Studies with posts from the collection’s contributors. This is the second post in the series.

Guest post by Elif S. Armbruster, PhD

On October 5th, the New York Times ran a 10,000-word article that centered on a long drawn out and vicious catfight between two women writers: “Who Is the Bad Art Friend? The Curious Case of Dawn Dorland vs Sonya Larson.” In some ways the aftermath of the article has been more explosive than the essay itself. Within days of publication, new hashtags appeared on Twitter such as @kidneygate and #dorlandvslarson, and thousands of people took to reading and commenting on the posts, trying to determine whose side they were on and which of the two women was most at fault. The brouhaha made me rethink the importance of teaching the #MeToo memoir, the subject I wrote about in the new edition #MeToo and Literary Studies, edited by Mary Holland and Heather Hewett (2021).

This fall, while teaching my first-year seminar “Rebel Girls and Nasty Women,” it suddenly seemed especially important to bring the conversation around to the topic of female friendship, something we typically do, but which in light of the recent creative writing fracas, seemed even more pressing. Given the dismay my students felt after reading Robert Kolker’s Times piece, stemming from the lack of loyalty or sisterhood between Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson, we used the article as the impetus to look at the #MeToo memoir and women’s writing in general from a new angle: one where women, instead of fighting each other, do the opposite. They empower each other and help each other bring their stories to fruition. What we found in our readings is that women more frequently behave as “good art friends” to each other than bad ones.

When we delved into Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness (2014), we noted the powerful bond with another trans woman, Wendi, that enabled the author, Mock, to embrace her identity as a woman of color and pursue sex reassignment surgery at the age of eighteen, as well as face the pain of innumerable sexual abuses against her. In an interview in the New Yorker, Mock asserted that Wendi was “literally was the passage—the Underground Railroad of transitioning.” Once through the passage with her friend, Mock was able to leave her home state of Hawaii to attend New York University and begin her career as a journalist, her childhood dream.

We also read and explored the remarkable sisterhood in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) where three protagonist women, Celie, Shug, and Sofia, are each subjected to sexual violence, but keep each other alive and inspired to improve their life’s circumstances. Through their sororal bonds, they manage to establish an apparel company that makes pants—the source of their eventual financial independence. “Every stitch I sew will be a kiss,” Celie writes to her sister Nettie in Africa, reinforcing the literal labor of love. In her own life, Alice Walker, a creative writer of extraordinary power and productivity, found a similar fellowship with women, who encouraged her in the pursuit of her creative dreams. Walker sums up the significance of female friendship when she asks, “Is solace anywhere more comforting than in the arms of a sister?”

The Color Purple

We even reconsidered Little Fires Everywhere, a novel by Celeste Ng, an author with a minor role in the debacle between Dorland and Larson. Instead of focusing on the palpable hatred between Elena Richardson and Mia Warren, we decided to focus on the key role that women play in Mia’s life such as Bebe Chow and the artists Pauline Hawthorne and Anite Rees, who mentor and enable Mia’s eventual career as a successful photographer.

Little Fires Everywhere
Little Fires Everywhere — “The Uncanny ” – Episode 106 — In 1981, a young Mia begins studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where she meets the captivating photographer Pauline Hawthorne. Struggling to pay her tuition, Mia makes a decision that will change the course of her entire life. Meanwhile, in Ohio, a young Elena questions her life with Bill as they await the arrival of their fourth child. Pauline (Anika Noni Rose) and Young Mia (Tiffany Boone), shown. (Photo by: Erin Simkin/Hulu)

These books, characters, and writers enabled my students and me to place a contemporary scandal between two women in perspective. They urged us to focus on the good relationships women have with women in the literature we read. Dorland vs Larson may be a case of women behaving badly, a fact which made them well-suited to a course on “Nasty Women.” But, as my students and I have found, not all strong women are mean and self-serving. Some are “nasty women” because they stand together and hold each other up. Like Janet Mock and her best friend, Wendi, in Redefining Realness; Celie, Shug, and Sofia in Walker’s novel; and Mia and Pauline in Little Fires, some women are not only the good art friend, but they are the liberator of our best selves as well.

#MeToo and Literary Studies cover
Elif S. Armbruster is Associate Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, MA. Her research interests focus on women’s writing, women’s studies, ethnic literature, and immigrant literature. She is the author of Domestic Biographies: Stowe, Howells, James, and Wharton at Home (2011). Recent work includes “Dwelling in American Realism” in Keith Newlin (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook to American Literary Realism (2019) and “Ants Become Giants: The
Pioneering Perspective of Laura Ingalls in the Little House Books” in Dewey Hall and Jillmarie Murphy (Eds.), Gendered Ecologies: New Materialist Interpretations of Women Writers in the Long
Nineteenth Century

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