This is not a book that I normally would have read. But when I got Bitterfittan (The Bitter Cunt) as a gift, it was duly read.
The book deals with the expectations our society put on women and men - what we should and shouldn't do - in the context of a woman (Sara), who, as a new mother, feels that the traditional family values and rules have become a prison. The book starts there, but goes on to describe the different kinds of oppression she has suffered through her life. Even though the book is written in the first person, it is a novel and not a documentary.
A topic such as this is not something that is easy to write about. When we think of "oppression", it is easy to think of things like slavery or North Korea, where the oppression isn't just obvious to an observer, but codified in law - just in case someone thought black people being whipped by whites in the American south was a statistical fluke. It is also the case that it is much easier to observe a culture from the outside. Just as even the most mentally disturbed person views themselves as completely sane, it is very difficult to look at one's own culture and not, at some level, think that it is obvious that things should be the way they are - and even think that things indeed always have been the way they are now. Finally, we tend to consider ourselves "good", and by extension our culture "good", which makes it difficult to acknowledge its flaws.
Given this, how do we approach the problem of unwritten, invisible oppression? Let's start by stating that oppressed is not something you are, oppression is something that is done to you. This makes it difficult to look at a single observed outcome in isolation and draw conclusions as to whether it is part of a greater pattern of oppression. Without a number of outcomes, and without an exploration of the context in which these outcomes take place, we are left with three options:
Write it off as a statistical fluke or just the way things are.
View every single outcome as proof of oppression.
These three choices are all unsatisfactory: We started off with no knowledge, so if we accept alternative (3), then we're no better off than when we started. Alternative (2) results in paranoia - if every single problem faced by women, no matter how minute, is the result of oppression, you end up with a conspiracy that is so subtle, so overwhelming, that we might just all give up and die. The first alternative is the most popular - but it results in willful blindness. If we keep writing things off as isolated events, we fail to see the greater patterns required for understanding. Even without a conspiracy, we may see that women face certain problems that are either wholly unique to them or much more frequent than we would normally expect.
Unfortunately, Sveland isn't very helpful. The book is very much a list of evils being done to Sara. One could say that the book is a one-inch stack of victim cards. As she writes,
women give and men take. The book rarely rises above that level, being little but a list of the evils endured by Sara. Something comes along, something bad happens, the patriarchy is blamed, and we move on. A more specific description of how the patriarchy operates is not just required to complete the argument, it would also be very helpful.
Female oppression does take on certain defined shapes in our society, and it is possible that by being aware of those shapes - in particular what they look like on the level of person-to-person interaction - we can recognize them and do something. As I wrote above, the oppression isn't encoded in law, it exists in our social codes. Let's say that you are the manager of a small group. You see something happen - a male employee says something to a female employee. You may get a vague feeling that what was said wasn't really nice. Now, you can dismiss it by reasoning that people say nasty things to each other every day. However, what if you knew that this particular statement played on very powerful social codes? Would that not put the statement into a context where you can better understand what was going on?
The second big issue I have with the book is its one-sidedness, which makes it very difficult to draw conclusions from the isolated events that are described. We are told that someone has wronged Sara, and we are told what they have done. What isn't explained is why the action was wrong, besides that it made Sara mad. The book is overall very short on anything resembling reflections on Sara's own actions, and with little in the way of explaining the moral and ethical framework underlying them. They are presented as being correct with no further motivation, and with no attempt at trying to explain why other people are acting the way they do. For a book and a topic that demands of its readers to critically reflect on their own actions, this inability is bordering on an insult. An example to illustrate this is found in the chapter Ny Tideräkning, which deals with the aftermath of the birth of Sara's first child, Sigge. Sara has problems breast feeding Sigge, and one day her mammary glands get infected. A call to the hospital confirms that she has to come in. Her husband Johan suggests that he and little should stay at home, but Sara just can't be without the little boy. Johan objects, but ultimately gives in. Sara asks him if
[He] understands that she'll never, ever forgive him for that.
Let's look at that. Imagine if a sick father, with an infection that is bad enough to completely knock him out and make him partially delirious, demanded that his wife and newborn kid had to move in with him at the hospital, because, hey, he wants his kid there. Never mind that it may be easier to take care of a child in one's own home, instead of in a hospital room. Never mind that the child would be exposed to the hospital environment. What would we think of such a man, when he says that he'll never forgive his wife for having the opinion that she should stay at home with the kid? Irrational tyrant doesn't quite cut it, does it?
Let's look at that again. Imagine a father, getting a new job in another city, asking his wife and kids to move with him there. Still a tyrant? Possibly, but does it seem as outlandish as the previous premise to you? It doesn't to me. To me, this seems like the situation in the typical 50's nuclear family. What Sara is drawing upon and recreating in her demands that the child stays with her is the traditionally female gender role.
What Maria Sveland keeps returning to is that Sara only wants what is fair, but what is fair is defined by her as "what Sara wants". As we see, she has no problems using the power of the mother-child bond, demanding that the child be with her at all times, no matter what; yet her husband is (rightfully) vilified for his inflexibility in his traditional role as the breadwinner of the family, which he uses as a catch-all excuse for horrible behavior. Sara thinks it is perfectly fine that the child goes where she wants it to go and is with her when she wants it to be - not for the child's best, but for her own. She uses her gender role to get her way without a second thought. The whole discussion, so familiar for negotiators, of what is fair, is simply lost in the bitterness she feels when the same is done to her.
Which is a shame, because the gender roles are a prison, and Sara is right in wanting to abolish them. But in movement that strives for fairness, discussion of the concept of fairness can't be avoided nor limited to stating that it is lacking. Sveland says she wants to reclaim the words
cunt, but the contents of this book is indistinguishable from the current vulgar meaning of the title. For a better read I recommend Harvard Business Journal's When People Are the Problem[b], a book that manages to say more in twenty pages than the 220 pages of Bitterfittan.
For examples of this one need only look to the refugees on the Balkan during the 90s - Serbian family is driven away by Croatian. As soon as they reach Serb territory they promptly forcibly evict a Croatian family, which is left to wander back to Croat territory. So quickly can the oppressed become the oppressors. Tagging one group as the offender and one as the victim is impossible - individuals of both groups alternated between both roles.
Think of it as "the cause of all female oppression". It is a horrid word that conveniently leaves out the role women play in perpetuating gender roles, but it is what the book uses and I don't want to get sidetracked.
For my American readers, a parallel is the email showing a watermelon garden in front of the White House[a]. I understood it wasn't flattering, but what was the deal? Are they really into organic food? It was only when the connection between "watermelons" and "food for black people according to racist stereotype" was explained that I understood the meaning of the email.
People working in hospitals rarely miss out on pandemics.