Debunking the ideal of the perfect woman isn’t necessarily a subject that lends itself to a ninety-minute live audience discussion. For a start, there is the problem that talking about these issues can feed the beast you’re trying to slay. The analysing of a woman’s role in society and the family has become so prevalent in recent years that it works to give life to the myth, no matter what side of the debate you’re on. There is a danger too of intellectualising the topic on the one hand, or perhaps worse again, overpersonalising to a degree where objective argument recedes.
Any such fears were swiftly allayed at Smock Alley this afternoon with novelist Emma Hannigan’s brave and admirably matter-of-fact opener about her returning cancer paving the way for the honest and engaging discussion that followed. In conversation with journalist Róisín Ingle for the Dublin Book Festival event The Myth of the Perfect Woman, Hannigan spoke with great humour on everything from her illness (like the time she was asked by a radio DJ if she felt mutilated by her double mastectomy), to her surprise first pregnancy (how she told the doctor who tried to mollify her that she would have gone to Disneyland if she was after ‘an experience’), to her belief that women need to define to themselves by what they do and think instead of what they look like (have a guess which of the two posters she prefers on her teenage daughter’s wall – Katie Taylor or Rihanna?)
Joining Hannigan on the panel was writer and journalist Emily Hourican, whose recently published memoir How To Really Be A Mother is a funny and candid account of the inadequacy and subsequent strain Hourican felt when measuring herself against cripplingly high standards of motherhood. “I thought my many failures in that regard meant I was short changing my kids,” she said as she spoke of her past fears that she was not meeting these standards. One such benchmark was the World Health Organisation’s view that mothers should breastfeed their children until the age of two. An extract from Hourican’s book entitled Breast is Breast showed the ‘lip-smacking’ monster child this created, and the audience laughed along to her description of being blanked on the Dart by a well-known musician as her son tore at her top and screamed: ‘Want a feed!’
There were serious notes amid the humour with Ingle’s well-timed questions nicely moving things along from motherhood to the murky waters of female friendship, pointing out en route that men don’t have the same tendencies to analyse and judge each other. Cancer, which Hannigan has beaten eight times, taught her not to sweat the small stuff and made her discover how much easier life could be when you ask for help: “It was like the hamster wheel ground to a halt.” Her book on the illness, Talk To The Head Scarf, was written because she wanted an ordinary person’s perspective on ‘all the things you want to know’, and her assertion that it was not a misery memoir was easy to believe from the moment Hannigan opened her mouth. With a smile she noted that cancer had a cheek to keep coming back, later using the illness as a metaphor for bad friendships that break down once things get serious: ‘People for whom you’re never thin or pretty or smart enough. If you’re not supplying them, you’re superfluous to requirements so they fall away.”
Women helping themselves and helping each other was something both speakers, and interviewer, were clear on. Noting that perfection is by definition a dead-end, something that can’t be improved upon and therefore extremely boring, Hourican said she is inspired by women who are struggling and brave enough to talk about it. Contrast this with the hashtag #thighgap an audience member spoke of when the floor was opened up, a social media hyped measure used to judge women’s weight and attractiveness. In an image-obsessed modern culture where the pressures on women are only getting worse, it was a reminder why events like this one are needed to expose and ridicule such nonsense.
Review by Sarah Gilmartin
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