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a Book Discussion at North Regional/Broward College Library in Honor of Women’s History Month by Gwen Williams March 2011
Welcome. Today’s monthly discussion is titled, “From Audrey Hepburn to Michelle Obama: What is a Modern Woman?” It seems to me there are three points of departure for such an ambitious discussion topic. Firstly, our discussion takes place during and in honor of Women’s history month. So welcome and thank you for joining me in celebrating women’s history here at North Regional/BC Library. As a side note—and don’t everyone rush from the room at this moment— please know I have also organized a book display in honor of Women’s History Month: my book display is on the 2nd ﬂoor and it’s titled, “curious? you came to the right place.” My book display honors scientists and mathematicians by displaying books about notable scientists and mathematicians and books written by scientists and mathematicians—all of whom are, or were, women. So please browse this display if you’d like. Check out the books, please. Back to this topic, and the second point of departure for our discussion here, “From Audrey Hepburn to Michelle Obama: What is a Modern Woman?” As advertised in our library ﬂyers, a recent nonﬁction book by Mr. Sam Wasson titled, Fifth Avenue 5 AM: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, is to serve as a point of departure for our discussion. So I hope some of you have read the book. For those of you that have not, please know you may borrow copies from our library and I can assist you with that at the end of our discussion. Let me return to Mr. Wasson’s book in a moment. The third point of departure for today’s discussion has been given a most intriguing title, “From Audrey Hepburn to Michelle Obama: What is a Modern Woman?” Let’s think on this. We have named in our discussion’s title two illustrious and quite famous women, perhaps
iconic or emblematic of their particular historical moments—or perhaps not. Maybe we can decide that after today’s discussion, or after reading all the books I have listed on the reading lists I have compiled. Or maybe we might simply like to dwell on these two radiant women, Hepburn and Obama. Within our discussion’s title, we also have the construction of a philosophical puzzle: I am speaking of our question, “what is a modern woman?” We recall from our analytic philosophy courses that analytic deﬁnitions begin from a question posed as What is X, wherein we proceed to deﬁne sufﬁcient and necessary conditions in deﬁning whatever X may be. X, in this case, is “a modern woman.” So, “What is a modern woman” is analyzed by starting with the statement, “A modern woman is P if and only if P” is. . . and so on with our philosophical analysis. We may also recall from our analytic philosophy courses that we wouldn’t want to spend too much time working out sufﬁcient and necessary conditions as we may have determined there are many more pleasurable ways to spend an afternoon. But nonetheless we have, Audrey Hepburn, Michelle Obama, and this question about “what is a modern woman” before us. I recall from my wonderings about men, women, gender, and formal university courses that agency was an important concept for considering “woman” and “woman questions”—in particular, one may say, if the one wondering about women’s agency happened to be a woman. In fact, many canonical writings about “woman” and “woman questions” center precisely on the agency of women to marry or not, to divorce or to divorce again, to pursue one’s own educational or professional goals, to vote, to own property, to enter into legal and binding contracts, to speak. To speak. In other words, as we know, many persons have posed similar questions around this idea of agency by asking, in some form or another, do women, in a particular time and place, possess agency in their own lives—if so, then how and in what ways; if not, then why not? As we know the agency to speak ﬁgures prominently in written works by women and about women, so you may be wondering why I have not been exercising more agency in my comments about today’s title, “From Audrey Hepburn to Michelle Obama: What is a Modern Woman?” You may have noticed I have been speaking passively of the
title of my own discussion today. I have spoken in passive voice. Can I share a secret with you? Or, I should say, I will share a secret with you. It’s not my title: it was a title that was given to me as a sort of puzzle to work from (I suppose I could say it that way): it was a puzzle based on the book by Mr. Sam Wasson. But, I think it’s been a good puzzle, because it’s enabled me choose my paths through the library collection—I’ve had to plot and think and seize this bold and forlorn title as my own—which have led me to compile a reading list I believe is interesting for readers intrigued by Mr. Wasson’s book, by today’s discussion title itself, or by the great tradition of monthly discussions with librarians at North Regional/ BC Library. I believe I’ve compiled a reading list that may interest at least some of you, and if so, then my mission was accomplished. And you may mark the Holds Please handout I passed around, too. Or check some of these books out today! At any rate, let’s return to what I named, the second point of departure—Mr. Wasson’s book—and then we can come back to the more fascinating point of departure: Hepburn, Obama, and this puzzling question, “what is a modern woman.” Can we answer it? We’ll ﬁnd out, I suppose. On to the book, then:
Who has read the book? What did you think about it? Describe three words that come to mind when you think about this book. Anyone. Would you like to share with us, or would you like my honest reaction to this book?
I must say that a famous classiﬁcationist and hero to librarians, a Mr. S.R. Ranganathan—his name means nothing to anyone but librarians and patrons of the libraries in India—once famously wrote, “Every book, its reader. Every reader, his book.” So lets enjoy this idea —it’s a grand one, I think—that every book has its own special reader— a reader who will repose, daydream, dwell, read, re-read and simply love it; likewise, every reader possesses or believes she possesses completely a beloved book. Or maybe possesses more than one beloved book! By possesses, I mean of course, loves.
Bearing in mind the clear and simple wisdom of Ranganathan, I say to you with sincerity, Mr. Wasson’s book was not the book for me, nor am I its ideal reader. I have grown into a sort of selﬁsh reader who desires to read what I ﬁnd pleasure in reading: perhaps you are like me in this respect. There are so many books on my desired reading list, I shall never be able to ﬁnish them all. However, I would tell you that this book, Mr. Wasson’s book, is the ﬁrst book in a long time that I have plowed my way through out of sheer ﬁdelity to duty. I used to have to do that for my university studies--read books out of a ﬁdelity to duty. Do you know what I’m saying? You do. So I ﬁnished this book dutifully, for I had this discussion to lead and I had this intriguing question about “what is a modern woman” to ponder. As political scientists can attest, duties and rights always go together, so having fulﬁlled my duty to read this book, I am seizing my right to discuss it with candor. And let me tell you this: having ﬁnished the book, I then discovered two key things I think I knew all along. One, book reviewers can be lots of things, including maybe not always candid. And two, Mr. Wasson’s book seemed not to live up to the promise of its title. Firstly on the candid—or the not so candid—book reviewers: Mr. Wasson’s book did receive good reviews from many quarters, including two mentions by Maureen Dowd of the NY Times. Visit his website devoted to this book and you shall ﬁnd links to the many favorable reviews his book received. Well, so, hmmmpph. One wonders. Moving on to the title, Fifth Avenue 5 AM: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, we have here the promise—or the threat—of Mr. Wasson tackling a most ponderous topic: the modern woman. And not only that, we anticipate that Mr. Wasson will illuminate the dawning of the modern woman—and that he will do so by examining the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Audrey Hepburn’s role as Holly Golightly. Mr. Wasson—or the book’s editor, if the editor decided on the title for the book—has set a very high bar, indeed. Now, let me say that if you wish to read a light and frothy chronicle of minor and so-so melodramatic moments that went into the making of the ﬁlm, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, then this may be a book for you. If you are in the mood to relish tidbits about the making of a
famous romantic comedy, then this may be a book for you. If you wish to golightly, then this may be a book for you. But I don’t think you should believe that you may discover the dawning of the modern woman in this book or in the portrayal of the men who made the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Perhaps it’s because I am not of the generation for which the character, Holly Golightly, represented a wowser sort of young woman on the big screen. Maureen Dowd opined all young women wanted to be Holly Golightly. To which I can only reply, huh? I have always known women to wear blue jeans, or slacks as my mom would say; I have always known girls and women to play on athletic teams and attend universities and wage political campaigns and weld metal and manage the never-ending maintenance of their own cars; in other words, I am of Michelle Obama’s generation—generation X, for which I have also organized another 2nd ﬂoor book display, so do check that one out, too. You may be surprised to learn how illustrious and industrious generation X has been and is, and how different the generation of our current First Lady and President is from the generation proceeding us—from the baby boomer generation. At any rate, I’m not sure that Wasson’s title is even a suitable title for any book about the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the great Audrey Hepburn’s role in it. I am sure that Wasson has not delivered on the title which his book trumpets. Unless he’s joking! I don’t think he is. Now, if you want to experience a charming weekend, and you really liked the movie the ﬁrst time you saw it, then I recommend you watch the movie again, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (we have it on DVD, of course), and read the Truman Capote novella, or long short story, on which the movie is based, together. Read it and watch it in the same weekend. Both are good experiences, and then, you will be able to compare the novella and the movie, which is interesting to do. Capote’s novella is much more daring—Holly Golightly is clearly a call girl in the novella, and she doesn’t go back for her cat nor for the man: she moves along to other conquests, and escapes the long arm of the law, which in the movie hovers rather darkly, unresolved, in the end. Of course, in the movie she’s got the cat and the man: as for her future beyond her posting bond from the pokey, well, the movie ends and we are left to wonder. I’m not sure I like the Holly Golightly in the movie who seems she’s going to rat out everyone after the credits roll. And
the man she returns to in the end, in the movie, certainly doesn’t seem to be the type that would be able to spring her permanently from the big house. I shudder to see Holly Golightly in prison stripes. Okay, I’m embellishing here, but you know, the movie ends and we are left to wonder. . . Request both the movie and the novella today!
Who will share with us their impressions of the movie? Of Audrey Hepburn? Of the character of Holly Golightly? Has anyone read the Capote book and seen the movie? What do you think of the differences between the book and the movie?
For you movie buffs, who also happen to be interested in the history of women in ﬁlm, I have three other non-ﬁction works that may prove stimulating reading for you. For these three books can be considered to examine, chronologically, the changes for women in ﬁlm. By women in ﬁlm, I mean the actresses and the female roles played, and later, the move behind the camera that we are seeing today. I do think that what I have read about the Holly Golightly character on ﬁlm, and perhaps, the public persona of Audrey Hepburn herself, mark a particular change from previous actresses and their roles and relationships to studios and audiences. The three books that may illuminate the changes for women in the ﬁlm industry are: The Golden Girls of MGM: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, and others; Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film; and There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond. It seems to me that for readers interested in examining the agency of women in the ﬁlm industry over time, that one could make an interesting start from any of these three books, or from reading the three together.
Who will share your thoughts about the differences between say, Lana Turner or Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn? What were the impressions audiences had of these three actresses? What kinds of roles did they play?
It seems that I have been steering the discussion back to the third point of departure, and the one I found most fascinating, this bold title for today: “From Audrey Hepburn to Michelle Obama: What is a Modern Woman?” Let’s take this up directly. Let’s begin with the word, modern. What is it to be modern? If someone is modern, what exactly do we mean to suggest about that person? Thoughts? It seems to me that modern is deﬁned in opposition to traditional, or that modern is deﬁned in opposition to tribal. That is, to be modern seems to mean to be different than the expected norms and social mores, in particular those we may consider traditional or tribal. I also suppose that it depends on who is deﬁning the modern, and when. For example, Machiavelli’s Discourses and The Prince are widely recognized as among the earliest of modern books because of his particular approach to the problems of governing: Machiavelli did not aim to glorify current rulers to the point of claiming divine natures, nor to write treatises on how men ought to behave; rather he adopted a modern stance that sought to depict men as they did behave as political beings, the governors and the governed. Some scholars may say he was the ﬁrst political scientist; others may argue he was the ﬁrst modern man; still others may say he was of a historical time and place in which nation states and militaries were rising in Europe and that was why he wrote how he did. Regardless, if one reads Machiavelli‘s works and then reads, say, Plato’s Republic, or St. Benedict’s Rules, one realizes how different Machiavelli’s works were from his predecessors—how different his works were from the traditional or tribal thoughts about governing. This is not to veer into and dwell on Machiavelli and his place in modern literature, and we should end that now, but it is to point out that for the last ﬁve or six hundred years now, we will continually encounter works and persons—men and women—for whom the adjective, modern, has been supposed to be their ultimately deﬁning characteristic. Who is modern? Well, it depends. Who is asking, and by modern, what historical time and place do we mean? You will notice on the ﬁrst page of your handout images of ﬁve women, arranged chronologically from left to right. You can see Audrey Hepburn and Michelle Obama—both wearing little black dresses, I might say. I have chosen the other three women for they, too,
may be considered modern women for their historical time and place. All ﬁve represent successive generations. Of course your handout includes works about our two leading ladies, Hepburn and Obama, but let me brieﬂy mention the other three women. Colette appears because I discovered she met Audrey Hepburn, and because she led a most fascinating and modern life. You may read about Colette’s life and work in Judith Thurman’s biography that was nominated for a National Book Award. I also think this photo of Colette is emblematic of what being a modern woman meant during her historical time and place: it meant baring ﬂesh on stage and baring it quite well, I should say. It meant unconventional lovers, men and women, and husbands sometimes quite a bit younger. Between Hepburn and Obama I have placed Nancy Pelosi for two reasons: Nancy Pelosi, 60th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, held the highest political ofﬁce ever held by a woman in our country; and she has a recent book with a great title that could sum up, after all, our enchantment with Audrey Hepburn and Michelle Obama—Know Your Power. That is to say, perhaps Hepburn and Obama are such alluring ﬁgures because they carry themselves as if they know their power. Perhaps this is what makes a woman seem modern. It certainly makes a woman beautiful. To the right of Obama is an interesting young documentary ﬁlmmaker and writer of a beautiful memoir, Kym Ragusa. In The Skin Between Us: a Memoir of Race, Beauty, and Belonging, Ragusa writes about the relationships she had with her two grandmothers, and how her grandmothers came to know each other, through their love for their granddaughter. One grandmother Italian, the other African American, Ragusa’s story is a common story for many in my generation and those younger. For as our society has adopted more modern attitudes toward interracial relationships, and has become populated by more biracial people, we see, I think, different discussions and experiences around race and possible relationships between people becoming possible. And Ragusa, as you can see by the photo on your handout, is the ﬁlmmaker. She is holding the camera, calling the shots, narrating her perspectives. The ﬁve photographs seem to me to act in concert as a spectrum of women and evolving meanings of agency.
Know your power. Know your power might well serve as a segue into the other two groups of books on the reading list. One group of books concerns ways that modern women—those women throughout the last ﬁve or six hundred years who have been declared as possessing a modern disposition—seem to have projected power, and perhaps something Hepburn and Obama share in common: a beautiful presence, one marked with style and glamour, a singularity of a sorts. For readers wishing to read about glamour, beauty, and the female body, you might like to check out, Glamour: a History; The Style Strategy by Nina Garcia; and Adios, Barbie: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity. These books, like the ﬁve generations of women on your handout, represent different generational perspectives on physical beauty as it pertains to women. The other group of books concerns ways that modern women have and continue to exercise political power. Whether it be through holding political ofﬁce, writing political critiques, or engaging in collective actions, modern women seem to be women who continue to engage in political acts, large and small. These three books are: The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present; We Will Be Heard: Women’s Struggles for Political Power in the United States; and Feminism and Pop Culture.
Let’s talk about Michelle Obama and Audrey Hepburn, and the resources on your reading list. Let’s start with our current lady of the moment, our own First Lady, Michelle Obama. Obama currently occupies a world stage, among the most prominent of her generation— the post-baby boomer generation—the GenXers I mentioned earlier. Paul McCartney sang Michelle to Michelle, and like a select few remarkable women before her, Michelle might just end up owning the singular name Michelle forever. It’s quite exciting for me, personally, to experience for the ﬁrst time in my life a President and First Lady my own age, from my own generation—all of us reach this stage at some point, I suppose, at least those of us who live long enough do. For generational experiences and memories are key deﬁning qualities to our lives: perhaps this is a legacy or effect or reﬂection of modernity— to share speciﬁc experiences, values, mores, expectations, desires, dreams, disappointments, and calamities so ﬁrmly with one’s own generation. GenX: we’ve always known the existence of nuclear
bombs for we were born into a world whose men had already created and detonated them; we’ve learned of the terrible trials weathered by previous generations, but we do not share common personal memories of Korea, or Vietnam; we’ve assumed the right to education for women and men, and we’ve paid dearly for it—my generation of women and the one following are the most educated ones in our history, and the most indebted ones—we’re educated, but poor; we began our adult lives bubbling over with sensual and erotic energy only to learn that sex can kill you, literally kill you. I am speaking of course of HIV AIDS. We’ve mobilized multitudes for political and social action through the networked technologies and tools we’ve created and launched into the world: no small measure of this success was the campaign and election of this country’s ﬁrst GenX President, Barack Obama; and of course we have most recently been given the story of the Google executive in Egypt, which reminds us to remember that browsers, search engines, synchronous and asynchronous tools like Twitter, Google, Wikipedia, eBay, amazon, PayPal, and the Colbert Report are all inventions of this generation, GenX. So, it’s exciting to have placed before the world and before my generation a woman so sure and conﬁdent as Michelle Obama. She has presence. If you are interested in researching Michelle Obama, please note the various ways you may learn about her public life. . . . [go over the resources]
And then we have Audrey.