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A Witch's Brew of Vulnerability, Anger, and Admiration: All The Lives I Want
Words by Erynn Porter
If you like reading about celebrities and you like discussing culture than All the Lives I Want by Alana Massey is the perfect book for you. Massey mixes the guilty pleasure of gossiping about celebrities and turns it to cultural critical gold in her essay collection. We as a society already hold celebrities on top of a high pedestal. They are the standard for success, beauty, and what living life to the fullest really means. Massey uses our predisposition to see them as idols to amplify the issues our society has with women. She creates a series of feminist conversations that are powerful, jolting, and easy to grasp. The celebrities that Massey discusses ranges from Nicki Minaj to Sylvia Plath. Massey will become a big voice of cultural criticism and feminism with this collection.
Massey doesn’t hold anything back in the first essay of the collection “Being Winona: Freeing Gwyneth”. This essay is all about female on female hate and unhealthy competition. It all starts with a theory that there are only two types of white women:
“One lives a messy but somehow more authentic life that is at once exciting and a little bit sad. The other appears to have a life so sufficiently figured out as to be both enviable and mundane. Gwyneth Paltrow is, of course, the latter.” (2)
Massey identifies herself as a “Winona” and writes about how an ex-boyfriend left her for a “Gwyneth” and the frustration of constantly competition with that type of woman. By the end of the essay Massey not only releases her anger towards the “Gwyneth” women but she also releases the idea of “Winona and Gwyneth” women. That having these categories really restricts and flattens women, including the celebrities they are modeled after, and forces them to compete more. Winona becomes this sad sack that can’t keep a man and is a trouble maker, when in reality, she was sick and needed help. Massey points out that male celebrities have violent outbursts and crimes and no one bats an eyelash, Winona’s reputation never fully recovered. Gwyneth becomes a woman wound so tightly that she can only focus on the image she portrays instead of herself. But in reality, that is a very lonely life to lead. In the end she ditches the theory and makes every woman involved human again: “The truth about the women who are forced to play these interesting chapters is that they are doing so in the memoirs of men who never deserved them. That the really good story, the story worth telling, has been theirs all along.” (9)
In “Public Figures” Massey uses the public’s obsession with Brittany Spears and transforms it into a discussion about the policing of women’s bodies. Massey uses Brittany to talk about how women can’t really own their own body, including Massey herself. At the beginning of this essay, Massey discusses her own weight, hinting at an obsession with her own body and having an eating disorder.
“As I write this, I weigh 110 pounds, It is a number that I am not uncomfortable with, but I prefer to be from one pound to four pounds lighter, between 106 and 109. The circles on the six and the nine are deceptive roundness, seeing as the body they represent is mostly defined by straight lines at this weight. The zeros in the middle of the number serve as numerical thigh gaps: a space to house the coveted nothing that I hunger in the direction of.” (11)
She then goes on to mention how men think low weights are normal, that what they think is average is significantly lower than the real average. This discussion then goes further out to talk about different bodies and everyone struggling with how they look because they are comparing themselves to others. Then enters Brittany Spears. Massey goes into detail of Brittany’s VMA performance in 2000 and how everyone was analyzing not her moves or singing but her body. Massey talked about her peers talked about Spear’s body and how it started to mold Massey’s idea of what her body should look like. Massey then points how public quickly turned on Spears when she started to have kids and her body started to change. Maybe the most important aspect of this essay is the idea that magazines constantly talk about how women “get their bodies back” like they lost their body, like they never fully occupied it unless they were thin. In reality, it’s the public that “got their body back.”
My personal favorite is the titular essay “All The Lives I Want” which is about Sylvia Plath and young women who are sad and figuring out how to express themselves. The essay discusses how society wants young girls to be more likable than being themselves which is why so many self-harm and find a connection with Plath. Massey also points out that it seems that only with Plath is there a snobbery to her suicide, that people make jokes about stick their heads in ovens. Meanwhile male authors like Hemmingway are just tragic one off instances. Many even believe that Plath is somehow encouraging these girls from the grave, that she will forever be a bad influence. Because she died young she is entrenched in mystery and that is what attracts young girls. Massey notices that Plath is similar to a young woman taking selfies and calling herself fat. She is trying to prove that her existence is real despite that everyone is telling her she is not. That she wants to be seen but doesn’t like what is showing. What was most intriguing was how Massey found herself falling into line with these girls but by the end seeing them from other side, she had survived. Now these girls brought out a maternal instinct in her because she wanted to protect them. “‘I must bridge the gap between adolescent glitter and mature glow.’ This is a fallacy, a lie intended to kill the spirits of girls so they might become what we have come to expect of women.” (54) She wants to protect the glitter inside them.
My only wish is to see more of Massey because when she opens up about herself, everything she is talking about seems to be amplified by the empathy of shared experiences. Throughout her many essays, readers keep getting glimpses of Massey through the celebrities she writes about. You learn that she has a stripper when she writes about Amber Rose’s rise to fame and as Massey dissects the songs she danced to. When discussing The Virgin Suicides, she writes about wanting to disappear in the male imagination, wanting to be define but her body’s absences. She even compares having her body change during adolescence to those of girl’s body changes in horror movies. Both involve a loss of innocence. In “The Queen of Hearts” is when Massey really starts to let the reader in more. Massey discusses why she has such an attachment to Courtney Love:
“Now I when I conjure the outsized Spector of Courtney as a venomous witch, I see the woman I aspire to be rather than the clumsy girl I have often been. I do not know if I was naturally inclined to trip over myself or if I was rendered this way. There was being labeled a tease by my sixth-grade teacher for holding hands with a boy whose grades weren’t as good as mine. Or the time I was called a condescending cunt by a male friend because I told his drunk friend, in no uncertain terms, that he was out of line for saying he would love to hear the sound of his dick breaking my hymen. Or when at twenty-three I felt my own twisted sense of gratitude that the investment banker who raped me had abated when I pleaded that he not penetrate me anally.” (95)
It’s not the content that creates the intimacy rather than why she looks up to Courtney. Massey went through a lot of trauma and survived. So did Courtney. They not only survived their trauma but they took control of it. They are not victims, they are not survivors, they are witches that refuse to die. The mix of soft vulnerability and hard anger is refreshing. Maybe if the reader got more of Massey then maybe the author herself wouldn’t feel as elusive as the celebrities she writes about.