Bodies by Susie Orbach

PhD is keeping me über-busy, but I have to admit I have never been this happy. However, my reading time has been cut to a quarter of what it was two months ago, and I’m struggling to find the will to read in my free time when I have spent the day reading and writing about my PhD, which is also on crime fiction. So, where does my personal reading stop and where does professional reading start? That could fill a post, so let’s leave it for now. But ,what I did notice is that I am in a mood for non-fiction, probably because I spent most of the day reading non-fiction and my mind has become too lazy two switch literary genre preferences by 10 p.m. So, while visiting the Feminist Center at my school, I decided to borrow a non-fiction book I had long wanted to read: Bodies by Susie Orbach.

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From Goodreads:

Esteemed Psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach diagnoses the crisis in our relationship to our bodies and points the way toward a process of healing.

Throughout the Western world, people have come to believe that general dissatisfaction can be relieved by some change in their bodies. Here Susie Orbach explains the origins of this condition, and examines its implications for all of us. Challenging the Freudian view that bodily disorders originate and progress in the mind, Orbach argues that we should look at self-mutilation, obesity, anorexia, and plastic surgery on their own terms, through a reading of the body itself. Incorporating the latest research from neuropsychology, as well as case studies from her own practice, she traces many of these fixations back to the relationship between mothers and babies, to anxieties that are transferred unconsciously, at a very deep level, between the two. Orbach reveals how vulnerable our bodies are, how susceptible to every kind of negative stimulus–from a nursing infant sensing a mother’s discomfort to a grown man or woman feeling inadequate because of a model on a billboard. That vulnerability makes the stakes right now tremendously high.

I first heard of Orbach thanks one of my favourite professors. She is interested in how bodies are represented in fiction and she brought us an excerpt from Bodies to analyze. What first called my attention is that Orbach is a psychoanalyst and that she treated Princess Diana. So, if you completely dismiss psychoanalysis from the beginning, this book is not for you. However, if you read it as one of the many ways in which to approach your body, then, you will find this book very interesting. I love applying psychoanalysis to literature, but I am quite reluctant to apply to my psychology, especially since Mr.B&R is a die-hard behaviorist and I have attended some of his lessons. So, let’s say this is a book to take with a pinch of salt, but a fascinating book anyway.

If you are a woman, have you counted how many times a day you reject your body? And how many times a day do you worry about the food-excercise combo? I have to admit, pretty much. Even though I wear a size 6 and I am a healthy and happy person. Orbach takes this conduct and exposes it for what it really is: a social construction that is undermining our relationships with our bodies. While reading Bodies, I discovered that we separate our minds from our bodies, as if your minds – ourselves – were something fixed and our bodies were completely fluid. Fat rolls? Go and join a gym! Wrinkles? Save some money for months to get Botox injections. And so on and so forth with every body feature of yours that you do not like. Well, it’s not so simple: according to Orbach our upbringing, our location and our minds reflect on our bodies and how they are constructed. I have to admit, I am not at easy with this theory, but I do support the idea of not thinking our bodies plastic anymore.

So, I would totally recommend Bodies. If you are not sure this theory will work for you, borrow it and skip the sections that blow your mind. However, it makes some great non-fiction reading and it partly alleviates the stress that comes from having a female body that – we are constantly told – needs to be fixed, bettered and embellished.

Gone Girl (2014) Directed by David Fincher

Finally! One of the most anticipated bookish movie adaptations is here. Produced by Reese Witherspoon, directed by David Fincher and adapted to the screen by its author, Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2014) stars Rosamund Pike as Amy and Ben Affleck as Nick. And it is one great adaptation. I will keep this short and talk about some key issues. Please beware this review contains spoilers.

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The movie follows the book’s structure: the first third is Nick’s version of the story; the second third is Amy’s and the third one is a common narrative, the Dunne’s dialogue. And, regarding early reports, Flynn has not changed the controversial ending, so, as it happened with the book, either you will love it or you will hate it.

_DSC9269.NEFRunning at 146 minutes, the movie is a faithful adaptation of the book. Although I read Gone Girl some time ago, I could identify the key scenes and I was in awe at Affleck’s – and above all – Pike’s execution. Their acting is just perfect, even though at first I was not at all convinced by Pike. I had seen her in Pride and Prejudice (2005) and some other British movies and I doubted whether she could as dark as Amy’s character needs. I am happy to report that she does, and I do hope she gets an Academy Award for this role (same for FIncher and Flynn). Affleck, on the other hand is as insipid and as common as Nick’s character needs him to be. The best part of the movie? When he smiles in front of her wife’s missing poster.

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While doing promotional appearances recently, Affleck revealed Fincher filmed him coming out of the shower, implying full frontal nudity. Well, there is not such scene, but there is nudity and a few professional sex scenes. Affleck quoted Fincher saying he wanted Gone Girl to be like a European movie, where nudity would not be a scandal, but totally integrated in the narration. It works perfectly and you never feel nudity is free, it is there to serve the plot and tell Nick and Amy’s story.

However, I was not really happy with the ending, even though it is supposed to be the same. I remember when I read the book, I felt Nick stayed with Amy because although Amy was slightly more psychopathic, he is not innocent either. But in the movie, Nick is portrayed as trapped with Amy – and his sister cries with anger and pain at seeing him like this – and has to stay with her because of the pregnancy. I think this victimization does not match the character study the book is.

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But, above all, Gone Girl is both an amazing movie and an amazing adaptation of a controversial book. I cannot wait til its Blu-ray release so that I can re-watch at home and delight myself in Amy’s evil intelligence and masterful manipulation. I am short for words because although I could write 1,000 words on the movie, words cannot explain the feeling you get when you actually hear Amy disses the cool girl image, or the ambivalence when she returns home covered in blood and Nick hugs her and insults her. If you loved the book, I think you should watch the movie. And, then, this in-depth interview with Rosamund Pike. Enjoy!

Her by Harriet Lane

If there was a poralizing book around this summer in your blogs, that was Her by Harriet Lane. Some people loved it, some people hated it, but what could not be argued is that this was the book everyone read this summer. So, I asked for a review copy, pretty confident that this would be a book that I would love. Well, as I have said, it is a controversial story.

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From Goodreads:

You don’t remember her–but she remembers you.

On the face of it, Emma and Nina have very little in common. Isolated and exhausted by early motherhood, Emma finds her confidence is fading fast. Nina–sophisticated, generous, effortlessly in control–seems to have all the answers.

It’s easy to see why Emma is drawn to Nina. But what does Nina see in her?

A seemingly innocent friendship slowly develops into a dangerous game of cat and mouse as Nina eases her way into Emma’s life. Soon, it becomes clear that Nina wants something from the unwitting Emma–something that might just destroy her.

The first thing that called my attention when the book arrived was its size. I expected a chunky edition, but Her is a small hardback with 235 pages. I was surprised at this, because taking into account what I had read, the idea could very well be expanded for at least 500 pages. But not with Lane’s approach to narration. Actually, once I finished reading the novel, I thought the size was perfect: Lane shifts the narrative between Nina and Emma so that, sometimes, you read what is seen – from the outside – as the same event twice. But, is there such a thing as an objective account of a scene? Her shows that there is not. The same little detail told from Emma’s perspective differs very much from Nina’s account of it. This technique is fantastic so that we realise there is not such thing as truth, and probably we can recall the last time we argued over a matter of perception with a beloved one, thinking ours was the right way to see it. However, in narrative this can be a little bit tiring, even when Lane makes a great effort to highlight that each scene has two narrations.

But, what really lies behind Her is the idea that the Other is always better. Nina believes Emma has the perfect middle-class, late motherhood and even though she sometimes pities her, Nina actually believes Emma’s life to be better. The same happens the other way round, since Emma sees Nina as a sophisticated, Bohemian-yet-uper-class artist. None of the women’s perceptions fits the other, but they react and build their relationship through these perceptions. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence has taken new meanings in the 21st century with social media. Via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, we are able to expose our lives, to show off how much fun we had, how cool that night downtown at the movies was. But this differs from reality: our lives are both lived and imagined. Lane has taken this theme to the extreme to create a psychological thriller based only in two women’s perception of each other.

Lane also explores motherhood through Emma’s character. I have always been suspicious of perfect portraits of motherhood, but Lane takes it a step further and highlights the difference between what is expected and what a mother really feels. Emma is, in Nina’s words, ‘incapacitated by motherhood, like a Victorian morality print’, crying ‘the housewife’s lament’ and always trying to keep her children quiet and safe. Lane focalizes this criticism through Nina, who also claims repulsively that Emma is always touching their children, highlighting the importance of bodies in motherhood. But, when focalizes through Emma, her ‘housewife’s lament’ is only a little articulation of the stress, the chaos and the overworking she suffers. She is busy ‘with the unimportant details that no one else bothers with. The questions no one else can answer’ and is happily reminded by her mother in-law of how lucky she is to have her husband, Ben, cook her dinner every once in a while, because it does taste good, doesn’t it? ‘I think of all the little meals that fall to me, which are eaten without anyone really noticing the crispness of the potatoes or the bite of the green beans: the modest everyday dishes that pass entirely without comment, completely executed and palatable. Isn’t Ben good? I suppose he is.’ So, Lane’s deconstruction of gendered domestic roles through Emma’s sad and almost desperate ironic comments is food for thought, for every time we were children and sat to have lunch taking it for granted.

So, Her by Harriet Lane is a psychological thriller, but I think it is much more. She deconstructs gendered assumptions in society and Emma’s scenes and inner monologues about motherhood could very well fuel a whole evening in a book club. However, you may get a little bored by the middle part. Do not worry, Lane will come full force in the next chapter.

Sun Storm by Åsa Larsson

After quite a disappointed reading experience with Camilla Läckberg’s Erika Flack’s series I somehow thought Åsa Larsson’s books were similar and decided not to try them for a while. Also, some comments I read online about Larsson were not very positive, which did not help. However, Larsson herself published a very interesting article on dead women in crime fiction. It was such a good piece that I knew I had to read her detective fiction series. So, in mid-September I bought the first in the Rebecka Martinsson series and it was the perfect back-to-school reading.

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From Goodreads:

On the floor of a church in northern Sweden, the body of a man lies mutilated and defiled–and in the night sky, the aurora borealis dances as the snow begins to fall….So begins Åsa Larsson’s spellbinding thriller, winner of Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel Award and an international literary sensation.

Rebecka Martinsson is heading home to Kiruna, the town she’d left in disgrace years before. A Stockholm attorney, Rebecka has a good reason to return: her friend Sanna, whose brother has been horrifically murdered in the revivalist church his charisma helped create. Beautiful and fragile, Sanna needs someone like Rebecka to remove the shadow of guilt that is engulfing her, to forestall an ambitious prosecutor and a dogged policewoman. But to help her friend, and to find the real killer of a man she once adored and is now not sure she ever knew, Rebecka must relive the darkness she left behind in Kiruna, delve into a sordid conspiracy of deceit, and confront a killer whose motives are dark, wrenching, and impossible to guess….

Sun Strom starts with Rebecka on her flat in Stockholm, unable to sleep and deciding to go to work instead. As you can imagine, she got me here. She is a young, independent woman who loves her job and wants to prove she is good at it, but she is still seen as a young woman rather than the incredibly good attorney that she is. So, Larsson makes a good point at highlighting sexism in the work place and how Rebecka deals – masterfully, in my opinion, with it. She is also a very complex character, sexuality and body included. Even though it has become normal to create complex and complete characters in crime fiction, not much attention is devoted to these characters’ bodies. Rebecka’s is a reflection of her stress, her social status can be appreciated in her clothes and, in the flashbacks, Larsson pays special attention to the teenage female body and her sexuality.

And the crime? Well, needless to say that like great Scandinavian crime, it was dark, complex and closely related to social issues. Without giving anything away, Viktor, a religious leader is found dead in his church. Rebecka knew him when she was younger, so that both the crime and Rebecka’s past are interwoven. As more clues are discovered about Viktor’s killing, more and more we learn about Rebecka. However, being Sun Storm the first in the series, her past is not quite clear and Larsson makes it so that you read the following book.

But, there is another female character that needs mentioning: Anna-Maria Mella. She is a pregnant policewoman in Kiruna who – everyone has decided – cannot do her job, so she is supposedly doing office work. However, her male colleagues are not half as good as she is, and she eventually solves the crime. However, the image of a pregnant police woman who is calm, who has everything in control while she sees, half laughing, how her colleagues cannot even grasp at what she is thinking reminded me of office Marge Gunderson from the 1996 movie Fargo, by the Cohen brothers. A crime fiction classic that I highly recommend.

Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996)

Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996)

So, if you are late to the party like me and still do not know about Larsson’s crime fiction books, go ahead! Rebecka has become one of my favourite feminist crime fiction characters for now, slightly behind Dr. Kay Scarpetta. However, I do think that Rebecka is a much more complex character and her paying special attention to the female body is something that the Scarpetta series lack. I cannot wait to read Rebecka Martinsson #2 this month and discover more about her and her past.

September Reading

September is over and I can’t believe it. It has been a very interesting, very challenging and very busy month:

After quite a boring August, I decided to start working my PhD on the 1st of September, and it felt great. For some time now, I have felt that I found my place, professionally speaking. Doing a PhD in literature would not be the safest bet for many people – you can also read Naomi’s change of life here – but, I think -and I feel and I know – it is the best thing I could do in life. So, I started very passionately to collect books on crime fiction (any surprises on my topic? I don’t think so ;) ) and I got 11 amazing titles that I know I need to read, but when I handed in the list to my lovely professor, she very politely told me it was too much. I am supposed to read until December/January 2014 and then write the very first chapter. So, 11 books cannot be done. We both agreed on the 4 most important titles and I already read one this September: Murder by the Book? Feminism and Crime Fiction by Sally Munt. Needless to say, it was amazing.

 If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting. 
- Katherine Hepburn

“If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting” 
- Katherine Hepburn

Doing academic reading is a little bit tiring, especially since I need to take notes and create diagrams including my own thoughts, so I only managed to read 4 books in September, but I am positive one of them has only made me fall even more in love with crime fiction. Can you believe I had never read Asa Larsson? Well, I bought Sun Storm (Rebecka Martinsson #1) in mid-September and it only took me a week to read it. I love the main character, Rebecka and I want to be friends with her. I want to be her! She is the perfect feminist crime fiction heroine. And the best news is that my local library owns all the books translated in the series until now – in Spanish – so that I will be able to use my library again.

I also read Her by Harriet Lane, a book you have all been raving about and that I loved as well. I couldn’t believe the ending! What did you think?

Because I could not allow myself to start a PhD in crime fiction without having read two great classics, I finally got my hands on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie and Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers. They were both good, I was not as impressed by Roger Ackroyd as many people are, but I loved Dorothy L. Sayers because her work has the perfect combination between a good mystery and a charming and funny main character. Again, I found myself wanting to be friends with Lord Peter Wimsey, but who doesn’t?

So, plans for next October? I hope to keep my 50-to-60 hours a week working schedule, although I have to admit that sometimes I feel overwhelmed, but nothing that an hour of TV cannot fix. The Puppy also helps a lot, because e is always up for a walk, and I am always thankful for his energy. I also plan on returning to blogging, but I blame my absence on the amount of time I have spent on filling in forms, writing articles and studying. I really miss writing here and reading your reviews, so don’t worry. I’ll be back as I ease into a routine. Please bear with me.

And you? What have you been up to this past month? How are you feeling about going back to work/school after the summer holidays?

 

Banned Books and Women

Banned Books weeks is happening right now and as I was browsing all your posts and Tweets, I realized that there is a close connection between banned books, feminism and women, and after Emma Watson’s speech (‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’) I realized it was high time I wrote about it. Because I cannot even imagine what it is to be banned from reading books, or getting an education or reading stories about women who transgressed social rules, defying what was expected of them and being banned by society.

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So, to start, let’s look at what banned books are. It certainly sounds like something from the past, right? As with gender equality, it is still an issue even though some people choose to think otherwise. The Banned Books Week Website explains the origins of the week and goes on to challenge the supposed freedom we enjoy nowadays regarding books and narratives:

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982 according to the American Library Association. There were 307 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2013, and many more go unreported.

So, are almost 12,000 banned books in the last 32 years enough to make us question our freedom as readers and writers? And what did women have to do with all this? The Banned Books Website also lists the 10 most challenged titles of 2013, four of which were written by women: Toni Morrison, Suzanne Collins. E.L. James and Tanya Lee Stone. Not a bad percentage, but quite high when compared to the number of women writers reviewed in some newspapers I would rather not name. So, why is this?

Mary Wollstonecraft paid special attention to women's education in 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' (1792).

Mary Wollstonecraft paid special attention to women’s education in ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), since women were banned from getting an education.

Women have historically been linked to restrictions. For centuries, women were subjected to the patriarchal system embodied mainly – but not exclusively – by their male relatives, the church and the state. This resulted in women being banned from accessing the knowledge that would stop limiting them to their roles as wives and mothers. I am not a historian, so I cannot dwell on how women were restricted and banned from accessing knowledge in depth. However, Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) is a marvellous example of this, a must-read to understand why and how women have been subjected to the system of patriarchy. Need one example? Lerner explores how female sexuality has been constructed so as to subject women and ban them from the public sphere: “For women, sexual exploitation marked the very definition of enslavement, as it did not for men” […] women has been the very mark of women’s class oppression” [Chapter IV].

But, women’s exclusion from knowledge has been overt and it has also been pseudo-scientifically proved. The University of Cambridge allowed women to access higher education for the first time in 1869, however, these women were not taught the same subjects as their male counterparts. Such an old and conservative institution only started to accept women in the very same degrees men were getting in the second half of the 20th century, which is probably the same period when many of you were born (and so was I). The University of Oxford is proud to dedicate three paragraphs to the question ‘Who was the first woman graduate?’. They admit they cannot answer this question, because before 1920 women were allowed to attend lectures but were not given any kind of degree. After 1920, women were admitted. However, all this information begs the question: What kind of women were able to enjoy this? The quick, easy answer is upper-class women belonging to liberal families, since studying was even thought to dry up the ovaries – because all the blood went to the brain – and leave them useless, that is, useless as wives and mothers. If you are interested in this period of women’s history and the role British sufragettes played,  Lyndsey Jenkins is your woman. To include someone from my home country, Spanish writer Concepción Arenal disobeyed her parents and entered law lessons  as an unregistered student at the Complutense University of Madrid in 1841. She will later on become a specialist in law, a writer and an activist for women’s right to education. For a long time, it was rumored she dressed up as a man in order to be allowed into law lessons. However, this idea has been challenged and questioned in the last years.

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Spanish writer, lawyer and activist Concepción Arenal.

So, what about banned books by women? Well, I would say there are two categories of banned books by women. Can you name a female mathematician? Or a more than three female philosophers? And what about a female scientist that is not Marie Curie? As you can see, women and their works have been banned from entering the field of knowledge. Of course, they were first banned to learn, so the number of female thinkers is not the same as the number of male thinkers, but there were still many and they are famous for not being included on education curricula. The following are some examples that have stuck with me:

  • Hildergard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) was a German composer, philosopher and abbess, and the author of some very progressive medicinal and scientific writings.
  • Katharina Von-Bora (1499 – 1552), Luther’s wife, played a key role on her husband’s religious enterprise.
  • Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (1596 -1662) exchanged letters with philosopher Descartes and he wrote Passions of the Soul (1649) as a consequence of their dialogue.
  • Émilie du Châtelet (1706 – 1749) was a French physicist and mathematician who introduced Newton’s ideas in France.

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I chose these four examples because I think they are the most relevant, meaning they were women close to very important historical moments and/or people, yet their names are quite difficult to find. Luckily, as women were allowed to access higher education, they were able to see their works being influential, even though this happened little by little.

The second category of banned books by women is, as the name literally indicates, those works that were written by women and banned when they were written. The reasons were many and varied, but most of them appealed to the general’s public sanity and morals. These women writers were seen as corrupters of the established order and they were criminalized. Obviously, the reason their texts were banned are directly linked to the ideas the text contained, so that was easier for an extreme liberal woman to see her work banned when published. Two favourites of mine have been banned and I can see why. Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar under the pseudonym ‘Victoria Lucas’ in 1963 (why she needed to use a pseudonym is already a clue) and the book has been banned several times ever since. For the Love of Words has a great post about the book and why it has been banned. I can only add that Esther’s doubts regarding which path to take on her life – motherhood or a professional career – easily resonate with modern readers. Her suicidal attempts when feeling the suffocation of the patriarchy, telling her to stay at home and become a mother and a wife, and her own desire to break free were certainly key motives for the book to be banned in the most conservative historical periods following its publication.

But, my personal favourite is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) which you can find free at Project Gutenberg.

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This book was banned right after being published and, later on, censored. Chopin’s main character, Edna Pontellier, is a complex and realistic female character. She belongs to the upper-middle class of Louisiana and sees herself trapped in a marriage where she is not happy and with so many children that she feels suffocated. She later on feels a sexual attraction to a local and younger man, the starting point of Edna’s fall into disgrace in the conservative Southern society. She even leaves her husband and children to live alone while trying to live out the life she could have had as a single, childless woman. However, society bans her behavior and Edna’s only way out – as it was custom for this women – was suicide. This ending was applauded by conservative audiences, but it did a lot to portray the socially cul-de-sac women were forced to live in as wives and mothers. I read this book when I was only 21, but it changed my life because it showed me that life as a wife and as a mother is not everyone’s dream, and that was fine. The Awakening is not a book on the horrors of being a mother and a wife, but more an experiment on the possibility of choosing whether to get married and have children or not. For Kate Chopin’s contemporaries, this possibility was still a dream and Chopin chose to use literature to both experiment a what if and to inscribe women’s silenced sexuality and lack of options in life.

So, women have long been related to banned books and banned knowledge. However, as time goes by and gender equality starts to resonate with everyone – see Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations if you have not – I hope that this connection disappears. Meanwhile, it is important to keep in mind that by not reviewing women’s books, they are being banned. By talking about ‘chick-lit’ or ‘women’s books’ we are being banned from entering the so-called ‘general literature’ world. If you are interested in joining the talk about banned books, here are some resources:

Banned Books Shortlist 2013 – 2014

Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st century

Worried about your library? Check this Challenges to Library to make sure you are not being censored.

Join the #ReadWomen2014 campaign to make sure women authors get the attention and praise they deserve.

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Emma Watson is a Feminist (and so should you)

I am sure you have already seen this, but if not, here is Emma Watson – UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador – calling out to stop feminism being the f-word. Defining herself as a feminist, and spreading the word about what feminism really means, for both men and women. I love that she highlights the importance of feminism which means nothing more and nothing less than fighting for a gender equality that is till not accomplished. She has launched the campaign #HeforShe to make people aware that men also need feminism to fight against the rigid gender definitions that still constrain their lives and their identities. Oh, and did I tell you that she acknowledges her lucky position and even refers to herself as ‘this Harry Potter girl’? And that she has decided to take advantage of it and fight for equality? I’m in love.