The Sentimental Garbage Season 4 Reading List is Here!

Hey Garbage babies! I hope y’all are enjoying the brief podcast hiatus while I pick the dirt from under my nails and attend the gym with frightening regularity. New episodes will be back from early-to-mid-October, depending on how badly I’m avoiding my book edits. You know how it is. I haven’t settled on the order the episodes will run in yet, but load up these babies on your Kindle and prepare to get your rocks off to some hot, sweaty Garbage.

Sweet Valley High: What Jessica Wants with Jessica Pan

I read a lot as a kid, but not necessarily stuff you might have heard of. Ireland in the late nineties had a penchant for making history real for kids, like really real, like Darren Aronofsky real. It was all Brian Boru and choose-your-own-adventures stories where the only available endings were “died of starvation”, “died in a workhouse” or “died on a coffin ship”. As a result, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of American fiction, except for maybe Goosebumps and the Babysitters Club. I had heard of the Sweet Valley High books, but assumed they were, y’know, sweet. Having recorded an episode on them with author Jessica Pan, I can assure you they are not! People are always dying in motorcycle accidents, or dying in drink driving accidents, or putting each other in comas?? Obsessed.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas with Jennifer Cownie

The unwieldy sounding A Court of Thorns and Roses (or ACOTAR for short, and thank God for that) is a sub-section of garbage that we haven’t talked about yet on the podcast, which is high-fantasy, extremely horny garbage. This first book in the series is a Beauty and the Beast re-telling with a Hunger Games vibe running through it: your typical girl who is hardened by poverty and has to go live in The Weird Place, where everyone is decadent and no body gets her. Until… there’s a huge, pagan orgy? And there’s all this incredible sex-positive feminism, and a giant worm, and then a TWIST?

Ugh, I loved this. It’s my favourite kind of garbage, in that it’s incredibly stupid and even poorly written at times, but also… extremely smart, and very, very horny.

The Fortnight in September by RC Sheriff with Andy Miller

Complete key change here, from high garbage to high sentimentality. The Fortnight in September is, essentially, a 300 page story about a family who go on holidays to Bognor Regis and have… a nice time? That’s it. That’s the tweet. I implicitly trust the taste of Backlisted’s Andy Miller, but I also know that what we both want from books can be different. This is probably best summarised by the fact that when he picked up Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, he went on a year-long Brookner binge; and when I found my dog chewing on an early edition of the same book, I just sort of carried on and let her.

With The Fortnight in September however, I think it’s fair to say that both me and Andy completely fell in love with it. It’s this incredibly tender, deeply funny story that has the linguistic simplicity of a Puffin book and the emotional devastation of a Chekhov play. Reader, at this risk of sounding like a total luvvee: you simply must.

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough with Caroline Kepnes

The Thorn Birds is one of those books where, for years, I could never remember whether I had read it or whether I just had extremely strong memories of my sister reading it. It’s one of those books. It sucks entire households in. For the uninitiated, or for those who didn’t have a television in the eighties: The Thorn Birds is the story of the Cleary family’s rise through Australian society in the 20th century, but chiefly, it’s the story of how Meggie Cleary falls in love with a priest, locking the two of them in a lifelong grudge match for one another’s hearts. It feels like a timely moment for the world to rediscover this book, what with everyone shouting “Kneel!” at poor old Andrew Scott.

Riders by Jilly Cooper with Jojo Moyes

At last! At long fucking last! We are doing Riders! What else is there to say! I read all your emails! We’re doing Riders!

Geek Actually by Cathy Yardley, Melissa Blue, Rachel Stuhler and Cecilia Tan, with Kirsty Logan

This is an interesting one! So basically, Geek Actually is by a publisher called Serial Box who are trying to bring back serialised reading by releasing stories an “episode” at a time. They recruit authors with niche or genre audiences, then pair them up to flesh out a story. I bought the complete series on my Kindle, and man, I was impressed. It’s your standard girls-in-the-city chick-lit arc, the difference being that the women are gamers, fantasy readers, cosplayers and board game buffs. Y’know, nerds. They’re nerds. But they’re nerds who bang, who have real jobs, real problems, and deal with stuff I have genuinely never seen dealt with in commercial women’s fiction before. I love that feeling that chick-lit can give you: when you go “oh, I’ve met that woman, but I’ve never actually seen her anywhere in literature, until right now.”

Less by Andrew Sean Greer with Phil Ellis

This is probably the biggest outlier on the list, in that no-one in their right mind is going to call Less garbage. In won the goddamn Pulitzer. But behind the gold badge is fun, and love, and romance, and sentences that make you want to tear your hair out in envy. Once a day I think about Arthur Less, and how “he kisses—how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you.”

Why Mummy Drinks by Gill Sims with Adele Parks

Some books I cover on this podcast because I love them, and I look for a guest who is a perfect fit; some books get covered because the guest loves them. Mostly, those two things intersect! While reading Why Mummy Drinks, I have to admit I didn’t love it. I liked it, it made me laugh in places, but on the whole I found the main character a little depressing to spend time with. However! I had such a brilliant time with Adele Parks, who had so much to say about how motherhood is represented in fiction, that I can’t wait for everyone to hear this one. She’s so funny and she’s written so many damn books! I loved her.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret with Louise O’Neill (live at the Cork Podcast Festival)

If you live near Cork you can come to this one! It’s on the 11th of October! I’m excited for this one, because while the story of a pre-teen girl and her obsession with religion is alway pertinent, it feels even more so in the context of doing it on an Irish podcast stage. I know me and Louise were both pious little so-and-sos as children, so I’m excited to learn about the many religions we both almost converted to. We’re also going to talk about the impact of Judy Blume more widely, so there’s something for everyone here.

The Queen Of Pop is Dead II: The Salamander Blinks Twice

Previously.

Beyoncé

The queen clutches the silver headband her sister once wore. “I was the sun,” she says, turning it over in her hands. “And she was the moon.”

Beyoncé has not cried since Solange’s disappearance three days ago. She has not shouted. Her behaviour toward her cabinet has been unchanged: she is still asking after babies, husbands, grandmothers. Only the inner circle know how deep the queen’s grief goes, and how much deeper her fear. If she loses Solange, she will lose the point of fighting this war in the first place. Ruling with Solange was the point.

“What news, Kelly?” she asks as Captain Rowland enters the room. “Do we know who has my sister?”

“The arrow bore Rihanna’s insignia,” Captain Rowland replies.

“So we go after Rihanna.”

“I would exercise caution,” Captain Rowland says warily. “If Rihanna wanted to take Solange, she would take her in the night and we wouldn’t know until breakfast the next morning. There’s a showiness to this that doesn’t feel like her.”

Beyoncé smiles at her trusted advisor. “You’re saying it’s Cher?”

“I’m saying we should check if it’s Cher. Send an envoy to her court. Get the lay of the land.”

Capitan Rowland turns to her second-in-command. “Michelle, can you handle this?”

Taylor Swift

“Your Highness, three men have died in the mustard gas experiment your ordered. Do you really need us to continue?”

“I’m baby,” Taylor Swift replies, beading a friendship bracelet for her boyfriend.

“But Taylor…”

“I’m baby.”

Rihanna

Her advisors were right: you don’t so much as lead a Disney Army as you do hire them. In fact, hiring them wasn’t even a guarantee of their compliance.

“Selena,” she says through gritted teeth. “When I hired you, I thought I was getting a bloodthirsty Disney army. Instead I have a dozen moping girls.”

Selena Gomez watches her new leader steadily. Sure, she’s a sell-sword. But in absence of loyalty, Selena finds dignity. And she will not allow that dignity to be questioned by anyone.

“My army is in mourning,” she spits. “Demi Lovato has had her throat ripped out by Kesha.”

“Kesha,” Rihanna laughs. “Kesha is alive?”

“Great. Keep forgetting she’s a threat. That’s what she wants, you know.”

“I’m sorry you lost one of your best, Selena. Truly. But Kesha’s bunch of laughing hyenas are none of my concern. They’re not big players. And anyway, the woman is impossible to find, and I’m not scouring the desert trying to look for her.”

“Just send me,” Selena says tightly. “Just send me.”

“Why do you care?”

“I made a promise to Demi Lovato on the set of the Princess Protection Programme. One I don’t intend to break.”

Rihanna regards the young knife thrower she rescued from near-starvation. She had come to like her. “Fine. Go. But Selena: this is a fact-finding mission.”

Selena smiles. “I’ll keep my hands to myself.”

Ariana Grande

Ariana feeds her pet pig Piggie Smalls mints from the flat of her hand. “You have to keep your hand really flat, Piers, so he can eat properly. Like a pony, you know?”

Piers Morgan screams in agony as the first drop of boiling oil falls on his forehead.

“Piers? Would you like to boop his snoot?”

Cher

Cher sits on a throne that, from a distance, looks like black diamond. Michelle Williams gasps as she approaches it, forgetting momentarily that she is here as envoy to Beyoncé. “It’s not diamond,” rasps Shirley Bassey, dragging her forward. “It’s ash. Concentrated ash.”

“Ash from what?”

Silence. Shirley Bassey only smirks. Michelle trains her eye on the throne’s gleaming white arm rests. Bone. Solid bone.

“Not… not people?”

Bassey’s smile widens. Michelle, a religious woman, tries to hide her disgust.

A low warble echoes from the black throne. That voice, Michelle thinks. The voice all the pop divas had known since they were babes in arms. It was like someone trying to calm down a horse underwater.

“Woahhh, Michelle.”

A deep curtsy. Cher casually traps a salamander between her thumb and forefinger.

“I know why you have come,” Cher says, breaking a fingernail through the lizard’s spine like a knife through a sealed envelope. “And Solange isn’t here.”

Michelle gasps. News of Solange’s disappearance has been tightly controlled. Only the inner circle knew. Could there be a mole? In Beyoncé’s court?

She bit her lip. A betrayal like this had never happened. Not to the Knowles family. Not since Jay-Z. Were they losing their grip? Did it only seem like she was in the most powerful political clan in a century?

Cher chugs on the lizard, wiping its dark silver blood from her mouth.

“I know who has Solange, and I’ll tell you.”

Never make a bargain with Cher, Kelly Rowland had told her. Not unless your life depends on it.

“In exchange for what?”

Cher elegantly eases her hand into the newly cleaned lizard’s body, its skin shaping around hers like a glove.

“You leave your court, and join mine. I’ll even pay you. Handsomely.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because I’ll see Solange is murdered if you don’t.”

Michelle’s mouth falls open. “So you’re not giving me a choice?”

“I believe I’m giving you a very clear choice,” Cher says, her nostrils flaring. “Who is more important to you – the woman who has loved you your entire life, or Beyoncé?”

Lorde

The thin, icy mist that separates the mortal world from Lorde’s realm is touched tenderly by a sleepy-eyed woman, as though it were a harp.

“Sister Lana,” Lorde whispers. “Do you mean to leave us? This safe place? This blessed coven?”

Lana murmurs indistinctly and goes back to her chambers.

Selena Gomez

The red clay walls of Kesha’s underground lair are slick, and almost impossible to hold onto, but Selena finds a way. Using her twin knives, she plunges each into the high roofs of the winding tunnel, scaling the labyrinth from above. Her feet are the problem. She kicks each shoe deep into the roof, mud falling as she does.

A guard wearing a goat skull for a helmet stops at the droplet of mud.

Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t fucking look up.

Goat Head looks up.

Before Goat Head can sound the alarm, Selena has thrown a dagger through the guard’s throat. She falls from the roof like a cat, rips the blade out and then cleans it against her leg.

“You made me do that.”

So this was Kesha’s labyrinth. Selena had only heard the rumours. You could lose your mind in here, if you didn’t know the way. She had to find the way. She owed it to Demi to avenge her needless death. It was long known that all Disney warriors swore an oath to protect one another, but she knew it was different between her and Demi.

Selena cocks her ear. A smooth, soulful melody echoes through the walls. Selena follows it, cautiously. This is not Kesha’s battle cry. This is not a sound Kesha has the range for.

The song leads her to a high beehive-shaped cave. There, dangling a hundred feet in the air hangs a golden birdcage, swaying precariously.

It is only then she recognises the voice of the songbird.

“Solange,” she gasps.

The Thing They’re Paying For Is Not The Thing They Want and other lessons learned from Josie and the Pussycats

A "Caroline likes the wrong movies" update

This weekend we watched Good Vibrations, a movie about a man who invents punk and solves Northern Ireland. It’s a good movie, I liked it, even though my enjoyment of it was somewhat tempered by the fact that it ticks off almost every stereotype on the Walk Hard List. Items on this list include:

  • A seen-it-all record exec and/or studio manager who is exhausted and jaded by the very concept of music until he hears the era-defining, expectation-smashing, genre-defying song, at which point his eyes light up and he announce it has “restored my faith in the Jewish people”.

  • A shrew wife who is permanently pregnant and resentful of her husband’s success.

  • A hit single that not only captures the spirit of eternal youth but also encapsulates a major political and extremely time-specific conflict.

  • A dozen characters who the lead character is constantly hugging or disappointing. You watch these people for 120 minutes until eventually you realise that if someone put a gun to your head and asked you what the bass player’s name was you wouldn’t have a fucking clue, and that actually, this movie truly has no characters aside from the lead era-defining, genre-defying muso at the centre of the story.

  • Cocaine! and so on.

I don’t resent movies for using this formula, but I don’t respect them for it, either. Walk The Line, Ray, La Vie En Rose, Control, A Star Is Born, La Bamba… they’re all the same fucking movie. Really. They all suffer from the same illness. They all go out of their way to emphasise to you that whatever music you’re hearing is important, and that the people who made it were important also. Which, in my opinion, is sort of a losing battle before it even begins, because you’re relying on a visual medium (film!) to convey the weight of an audio phenomenon (music!). So, most music movies consist of showing you something that you need to just feel, and they show you by including scene after scene of screaming fans, overdosing geniuses, and shrill women.

One movie that relies on very few of these stereotypes is Josie and the Pussycats.

Josie and the Pussycats is a 2001 film with an Metacritic rating of 48% and was labelled “brainless pre-teen fodder” by the late Roger Ebert. It is also my favourite music movie. It is camp, and girly, and incredibly strange – Alan Cumming is a secret albino for no reason! Seth Green is in a boy band and their hit song is about anal! – and the soundtrack absolutely bangs. Rachel Leigh Cook has that one short spiky bob we all went to the hairdressers looking for when we were 14, only to come out with a mom-cut an hour later. Tara Reid is a drummer. This world is upside down, is what I’m saying.

The deal is, The Pussycats are a band who play at bowling alleys until Alan Cumming crash lands in their town of Riverdale (!) after murdering his boy band (!) and offers them a record deal.

This is thrilling news, because as the audience already knows from the opening number, The Pussycats slap. Their songs are sung by Letters to Cleo alumni Kay Hanley (who 10 Things I Hate About You fans will recognise from their I Want You To Want Me cover), and the soundtrack includes writing credits from Adam Durritz of The Counting Crows and EGOT nominee Adam Schlesinger. It’s important to stress here just how much work went into the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack, creating a record that sounds like the radio-friendly version of riot grrrl that should have been popular, but never really was. The Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack is the record we would have gotten had the cultural climate of the early noughties allowed for there to be more than one Gwen Stefani, or more than one Courtney Love.

(This is also why I adored Sarra Manning’s Guitar Girl as a teenager, because it allowed for a world where a British girl pop-rock group really could have a number #1 single and be on the cover of NME, instead of having to settle for a ‘Single of the Week’ mention before promptly disappearing.)

To reiterate: by the time Alan Cumming’s character Wyatt shows up, we already know that The Pussycats are great. But Wyatt doesn’t know that. And Wyatt never really finds out, either, because despite the fact that he has offered The Pussycats a record deal, he has never heard a second of their music.

“Just think Christina Aguliera times three except one of them is incredibly tan...” he explains to his boss Fiona (Parker Posey! This movie, man!). “Or else T.L.C. with two white chicks... or, um, Hole!”

Wyatt has no fucking clue what The Pussycats sound like. What he does know is that they’re young, and hot, and play perfectly into his record label’s campaign to fill their music with subliminal messaging to trick their fans into buying crap. (This movie…. this movie is basically Spice World meets Fight Club and I love it.)

“They're selling stuff through our music,” Josie gasps when she realises the scam. “They're selling US through our music! I knew there was a reason we were so popular!”

There’s something strangely invigorating to me about a music movie that presents a band who are extremely good, and yet how good they are is besides the point. Because a huge part of the creative profession is constantly wondering whether the thing your publisher or editor has paid for is not actually the thing they want. That they don’t want you, they want your Twitter following; they don’t want you, they want the high-profile publication you work for; they don’t want you, they want the timely, presentable, soft-mouthed white feminism angle they think you represent.

It is possible that this is a woman thing. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Josie and the Pussycats is the only “oh, we don’t want you, we want…” music movie I can think of, and is also a movie about a girl band. I think women spend a lot of time clicking the abacus beads of their own worth back and forth, back and forth, reassuring themselves that they are good, but also wondering whether anyone cares.

My other favourite music movie, That Thing You Do!, does a good line in this. It’s about a band called The OneDers (the oh-needers!) and later The Wonders, who record a one-hit wonder and then promptly fizzle out after their first hit dies and their lead singer walks out on them. It’s a good movie about how you should never let the record label take you out to lunch, but an even better movie about how all musicians are just losers. Also, Steve Zahn is really funny in it.

Anyway, in sum: music movies are better when the movies goes out of its way to tell you how unimportant the music is. Because then, the soundtrack becomes background noise, and only then, can you as an audience member have the freedom to think “hey, actually, I really like this”. Y’know, the way people actually enjoy music.

Anyway, that’s just what I think. If this theory had any weight I would be able to say “that’s why everyone remembers the lyrics to That Thing You Do and no one remembers the words to Shallow!” But that’s just not true. I still don’t like A Star is Born.

Potential Plot Lines for Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn's 1995 movie "The Coat"

a "we have a lot of fun, don't we?" update

Me and Gavin have a lot of fun seeing movies together but we have a lot more fun not seeing them. I am sure Netflix have a marketing term for people like us. The Indecisive Elder Millennials: the people who want to watch a movie, in theory, but are exhausted by the concept of trying, so instead just flick aimlessly through various streaming services while quietly chatting about which A-list actors are squandering their potential on what we deem to be lesser projects.

Every now and then, of course, one of us will see a movie we like, or think we’d like, or, worst of all, have read a lot about. “This is supposed to be good…” we will say, trying not to sound too hopeful, lest we repel the other person completely. . The other person will respond with “sure, let’s put it on the maybe list”.

I don’t know why this ballet has to be so ornate.

After another 45 minutes of scrolling, we will return to said ‘maybe list’ which will consist of three films. These will be:

1) A film I want

2) A film he wants

3) The Mummy

The film Gavin wants will either be an 80s action movie, a 70s arthouse movie, or something about space.

And the film I want will be The Coat.

The Coat is a 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn that Gavin has invented to taunt me. It is, supposedly, the ur-movie of my cultural interests. Gavin never clarifies what, exactly, The Coat is about, instead breaking it out whenever I talk about films to annoy me.

Example 1: We are walking home from watching Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Me: “And do you know what ELSE sucked about that movie?”

He: “That it wasn’t The Coat, starring Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon?”

Example 2: I have just walked in the door from seeing a movie with friends.

He: “How was the film?”

Me: “It was good, it was–”

He: “As good as The Coat, starring Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon?”

My assumption is that Gavin invented The Coat (1995) after five years of walking into a room where I am watching either Practical Magic, Postcards from the Edge, Steel Magnolias, Working Girl, or The First Wives Club. Usually I am with another woman or a gay man, usually we are holding one another.

Over the last few weeks, I have started asking Gavin to clarify on what, exactly, he imagines The Coat to be. His answer is that it is a post-Thelma and Louise box-office disappointment that has developed a cult fandom since everyone started realising that the nineties were both a) stylish and b) kind of a shitty time for women. It is strictly a two-star film, with, as he puts it: “two good restaurant scenes, some great-looking food, and John Candy has a really nice small role as a taxi driver.”

That’s all I can get out of him. And since the joke doesn’t seem to be dying, the only thing I can do is dream up plots for The Coat (1995) starring Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon.

THE (FUR?) COAT

When animal rights activist Susan Sarandon decides to break into ageing starlet Goldie Hawn’s wardrobe to destroy her fur coats, she accidentally kills Goldie’s philandering mobster husband Marty. A convoluted plot twist involving John Candy and a case of mistaken identity means both women are now on the run!

The film flops, mostly because the plot twist makes no sense no matter what John Candy tries to do.

THE WINNING LOTTERY TICKET COAT

When pick-pocket and city slicker Goldie Hawn accidentally picks up a fancy Armani coat at the dry cleaners, she couldn’t be more thrilled. Until she finds out that her own beaten-up coat contains today’s winning lottery ticket! She only has 24 hours to track down businesswoman Susan Sarandon (with the help of John Candy!). Susan is in her own financial trouble – and has no idea the solution is in her very pocket.

Honestly I can’t see why this film would flop as I think it’s a genuinely solid concept, so I can only assume that the director absolutely sucked.

THE PRICELESS FRESCO COAT

When recently divorced Susan Sarandon buys a villa in Tuscany she’s ready to start over, but when she alienates her Italian neighbours on day one (no thanks to John Candy!) and she’s forced to hire the kooky Goldie Hawn to oversee renovations. Their budding chalk-and-cheese friendship grinds to a halt when they discover a priceless fresco in the old farmhouse, and Goldie wants to make Susan’s house into a museum for the people! What is this crazy old fruit thinking?!

The cinematography in this movie is genuinely excellent, and you really get a good sense of Tuscany, but the writing is poor and its portrayals of Italians extremely offensive.

THE OSCAR BAIT COAT THAT WENT PROFOUNDLY IN THE WRONG DIRECTION

This moody, atmospheric film set in Mongolia follows Susan Sarandon as a jaded journalist who wakes up after a snow storm covered in a stranger’s coat. It is thick, heavy, and she has no idea why someone would give it to her. The act of kindness restores her faith in humanity and The New York Times commissions her to track down the coat’s owner. When she eventually does, it belongs to a nomadic Mongolian woman played byyyyyyy… Goldie Hawn.

Goldie Hawn’s people market this as a bold move and everyone else in 1995 is a mixture of perplexed and outrightly horrified that a blonde white woman is playing an Asian woman in an Oscar bait movie that otherwise has no memorable scenes apart from one where John Candy is a taxi driver.

THE COAT: TWO TIME TRAVELLERS TRY TO FUCK THEIR OWN DADS

Goldie Hawn is a kooky thrift shop owner who wears a see-through purple visor and has exactly one friend, the uptight lawyer Susan Sarandon. When she calls Susan away from a merger to bail her out of jail, the two end up getting drunk like old times in the shop.

(Note: at this point in proceedings, this all started sounding a little familiar, and then – only then! two months into this bit! – Did I realise that The Banger Sisters is already a 2-star rated movie starring – yes!!!!! – Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn. Gavin’s face! You should have seen it! We were screaming!)

Anyway the gals end up getting into the same gross coat and go back in time to the 1960s, where Goldie Hawn wants to stay so she can harvest some BIBA and Mary Quant that she can sell for five times the price in the present. This is when Susan Sarandon goes off on her own and finally meets the love of her life, taxi driver John Candy. She decides to stay in the past until she realises she is fucking her own best friend’s father and may in fact be pregnant with her own best friend.

The movie is badly received, mostly because people are more than happy for time travelling boys to almost fuck their own moms, but no one wants to see a time-travelling woman falling pregnant with her own friend.

I fucking hate Jo March

Or: why I like The Lion King 3 better than I like Little Women

The new Little Women trailer dropped yesterday, and it looks good, and I’m excited to see it. Like many other book-admiring woman, I have had the ghost of Louisa May Alcott pushed on me like a high fibre diet. And, like many woman, I don’t so much as enjoy Little Women as I enjoy taxonimising people based on where the fall in the Little Women rubric. “Which Little Women are you?” is a good enough game to play when “Which wife of Henry VIII are you?” runs dry (which it never will).

But even that’s not very satisfying, because Little Women isn’t really about women. It’s about Jo March, and how she turned down her hot neighbour so she could invent feminism.

I think this is what irritates me about Little Women the most: that it purports to be about the complex bonds between four very different sisters, but really, it’s about how one kooky fruit just refused to obey social conventions, and golly, in hindsight, don’t we all agree that it was a solid move? Meg and Beth aren’t really characters. Meg exists so Jo can be horrified by her conventional life; Beth exists so she can die, and so we can see the tender side of Jo.

Amy is the only other interesting March, because she hates Jo, and is brave enough to do so. Little Women is not a book about the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood. It is a book about an endless grudge match between a fantasist and a sociopath, and I would respect Little Women so much more if it were just honest about that.

As you can probably tell by my finely-tuned rage, this is not the first time I have engaged the internet with such discourse. It has never gone well for me. Inevitably, a bunch of women will land in my Twitter mentions to tell me that Jo March inspired them to be a writer, that Jo was a representation of an ambitious young woman in literature, blahblahblah.

First of all: I would wager that the women who were encouraged to become writers because of Jo March probably didn’t need all that much encouragement in the first place. Sorry, but it’s true. If you’re already reading Little Women as a child or as an adolescent, a boring and old book, I imagine someone has already enrolled you in a creative writing class or a gifted student programme. You were fine.

Second, these women are always like, thirty years old. Lady: there were tons of books about ambitious girls when you were a kid! Tracy Beaker! Matilda! Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web (“a great friend, and a good writer”)!

The thing that I hate the most about Jo March, or rather, the cultural legacy of Jo March, is that it encourages a kind of vile Main Characterism that is very irritating to be around. You know what I mean. There is a certain kind of adult person that, for whatever reason, has had their inner monologue indulged a little too much, and has overestimated their position within the scheme of things. These are the people who start conversations with “well, as a child…” and who, at a market in a foreign country, will announce “I simply adore just seeing the produce!” It’s the sense that everything exists so it can live in relation to them, that their story is always the centre one, that their dearest friends and family only exist so they can be “ah, my dearest friends and family: look at the qualities in myself they serve to highlight!”

We all have a little of this. Everyone’s allowed suffer bouts of it, even bad bouts. But believe me when I tell you that some people, and yes, a lot of these people are in the Online Book World, are just this. People who meet you, and they might as well say: Hello, it’s me. The main one. I’ve arrived. I’m the main one.

Jo March encourages Main Characterism. So does Carrie Bradshaw, but for some reason I’m more tolerant of her, because the narrative knows Carrie is prone to doing this – other characters bring it up constantly.

On Sunday I went over to my friend Jen’s house and we put on The Lion King 3, sometimes called The Lion King 1 1/2: Hakuna Matata, a film that Jen inexplicably owns on DVD. I have known Jen for six years, and she has brought up her love of The Lion King 1.5 at least a dozen times. Which might not seem like a lot of times, but it is for a straight-to-VHS threequel to a Disney film. I finally gave in and watched it with her.

The opposite of Jo March is not Amy March.

The opposite of Jo March is The Lion King 1 1/2: Hakuna Matata

The premise of the movie is that Timon and Pumba tell the story of The Lion King from their point of view. It begins with an origin story about Timon, whose family dig tunnels, and who is bad at digging tunnels, and eventually leaves home to make a life elsewhere. He falls in with Pumba, they find a perfect place to live, then Simba comes along and turns them both into parents before they are ready to, until Nala shows up and Simba has to return. The film must have been incredibly cheap to make, because it has whole scenes lifted from the original Lion King. It is extremely silly, and the joke rate is sky high, and by the end, I was bawling my eyes out.

What The Lion King 1 1/2: Hakuna Matata understands that Little Women doesn’t is that everyone’s life, everyone’s journey, is inherently infused with purpose, with bravery, with vigour, with action, even if they are clearly not the main character. In fact, it rejects the idea of a main character. There’s even a bit where Timon, when listening to Nala tell him about the Scar/Mufasa/Simba triangle that he asks her to start again, with just the relevant information “not that your childhood wasn’t fascinating.

In the end, Simba ascends Pride Rock and tells Timon and Pumba that “I couldn’t have done it without you”. Which is a nice line if you have only watched The Lion King, but is an excruciatingly beautiful and painful one if you have just watched an hour and a half of a warthog and a meerkat trying to raise an emotionally damaged baby lion club with great difficulty. The lions are the Jo Marches, and Timon and Pumba aren’t even the sisters, they’re the cooks bumbling around, wondering why the fuck Jo has sold her hair. And they matter just as much. Disney has played a few nasty tricks on the human psyche, but my god, in that moment, I forgave them everything. I forgave it all.

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