“Telling people not to do as Sylvia Plath did is universally understood as a good-natured suggestion that a writer not put too much of herself into her creation- lest she accidentally write about something as ordinary as being a woman.” This quote appears in Alana Massey’s essay entitled “All the Lives I Want: Recovering Sylvia Plath”. And it manages to preface the entirety of her book as Massey takes on the most ordinary topic in the world: womanhood.
Alana Massey wrote a collection of essays that illustrate the harsh realities of the coming of age for millennial girls. She writes her essays like a memoir of her life, intertwining the mistreatment and misrepresentation of female celebrity icons with her own deeply relatable struggles with the feminine identity. Massey is following a recent burst of women writing feminist memoirs and personal essays like best sellers, “#GIRLBOSS” by Sophia Ambruso and “Not That Kind of Girl” by Lena Dunham.
However, what separates Massey from her predecessors is that her essays consider the perception and identities of celebrity women from the past and the present. and how they are represented in relation to how average women experience the world. It also examines how women see themselves reflected in how the world sees celebrities.
While her book’s essays are anthological they are in a sense still completely connected and sequential, as they string together Massey’s personal relationship to each woman, despite having never met them, and by the reader’s connection to the shared experience of femininity. Like a constellation, each essay is its own star in an all encompassing and somewhat overwhelming masterpiece.
Massey went to NYU for her undergrad and graduated in 2007, she went on to graduate from Yale with a masters in religion. Massey has also worked as a stripper, a career that is often stigmatized. Massey’s feeling of ostracism after being a sex worker is candidly explored in her writing. She first began publishing her personal essays in 2013 when she published “I’ve Never Had an Orgasm and I’m the Only Person That Doesn’t Care” on Janexo.com. Massey’s trademark relatability and candor lead to her immediate success.
Massey’s most infamous essay, “Being Winona In A World Made For Gwyneths” was published in 2015 by Buzzfeed and later inspired and published again in her book as “Being Winona; Freeing Gwyneth”. The essay delves into her personal feelings of inadequacy following the end of her toxic relationship, and is her public acknowledgment of her past career as a stripper. The bones of the story is truly not specific to Massey but really is about the overarching tropes of womanhood that we fall into and the celebrities that represent them. Massey explores the duality involved in womanhood, and while society has predetermined that one ‘type’ of woman is better than the other, Massey does not allow herself to fall into this pattern, despite how easy it is. She may be a Winona, she doesn’t want to be a Gwyneth, but that doesn’t make her better than someone who is. Massey stipulates that you know if you are a Winona or a Gwyneth, and more often than not you are happy with your choice. No one type is better than the other because women are multifaceted and are more than just one thing.
This idea is then discretely followed throughout the book as Massey discusses multiple women that have inspired millennials. The development of these celebrities help contribute to the destruction of the ideology that was originally dubbed the Madonna and the whore complex and is modernly reframed by Massey as her “Winona in a world made for Gwyneths’ complex”. But Massey’s theory allows for a sense agency and helps get rid of the notion that women are just one thing.
Massey goes out of her way to create a connection with her reader through the use of iconic and beloved women that millennial women have idolized since adolescence. By understanding them, we understand ourselves better and the labels we are given. As teens, we see our favorite celebrities as extensions of ourselves.
A common thread in mundane and celebrity lives is the moniker of the crazy ex girlfriend. Massey brings up some of the most notorious ex girlfriends; Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez, who famously burned down her boyfriend’s mansion, Princess Diana who had the most public divorce of the 20th century, and finally Taylor Swift, a name that requires no explanation. Massey illustrates the double standard of “crazy exing” citing two infamous examples. “Diana filled a trash bag filled with a Prince of Wales china set set and smashed it with a hammer in a fit of the symbolic and real destruction of her marriage,” and Diana’s deliberate decision to grace the cover of Vanity Fair on the one year anniversary of her divorce. And Lopez’s accidental burning of her boyfriend’s mansion after years of suffering domestic violence. Massey juxtaposes these violent acts with the stereotype that violence in masculinity, like punching a wall in rage, is considered normal and even attractive at times.
In the 21st century, Taylor Swift has been vilified in the industry for writing songs based on her personal relationships and consequently become the most famous crazy girlfriend. Swift’s ex-boyfriend, John Mayer, claimed he was “humiliated” by the song Dear John, which was supposedly written about him. However, Mayer himself is a musician who has famously written songs about ex-lovers, including Your Body Is A Wonderland which was written for Jennifer Love Hewitt. All three of these very different women were demonized for their reactions to heartbreak instead of commended for their accomplishments in life.
The most particular being Sylvia Plath who shows the contrasting double standard that women experience. Massey quotes Sylvia Plath saying that she is “rigidly circumcised by my inescapable femininity”. This quote describes the experiences of every woman discussed in the book and every girl who will read it. We are all bound by the invisible chains of femininity and how that will always skew our identity towards negative or overly simplistic labels.
Massey’s writing is feministic in the sense it is all inclusive and explorative of the successes of many different women while it showcases the obstacles that they had to overcome or that overcame them. It expertly illustrates the anxiety of the feminine identity that haunts women, even still in the 21st century.