The Finishing Touches
I consider myself a feminist yet I read chick lit like it's going out of fashion—is that strange? I'm aware this genre is often problematic from a certain feminist point of view, but it also provides ample material for a proper discussion. Hester Browne's The Finishing Touches really brought out the feminist in me and made me think about how things have changed—or have they?
The Finishing Touches is an incredibly witty and adorable story that I nearly stopped reading after the first few chapters. What bothered me so much, you ask? The novel is mostly set at Tallimore Academy, a finishing school in London that is running out of business. Prior to this reading, I was unfamiliar with finishing schools and I got my education as I turned each page. At finishing schools, young girls were taught how to be the most ladylike, perfect wives, which was to be their main purpose in life. This might sound terribly old fashioned nowadays, but this book puts a modern spin on the matter.
Our main character Betsy is called to the rescue; her adoptive parents own Tallimore Academy and she grew up there. Betsy's father asks her to save the school from its sure demise, and so she decides to update the courses to meet the needs of modern girls. The new classes include money management, parking properly, looking good in photos, walking in high heels, dressing for various occasions, and behaving well on dates. I think the reader was meant to be appalled by the original concept of finishing schools, but are these new courses really so different? Or are they just an updated version of old sexist ideas?
I'm sure you'll agree that mastering the above mentioned skills certainly can't hurt in today's shallow society. Personally, I find myself divided on whether I should be offended or consider them a clever idea (in a way). I certainly think these courses could be aimed at both sexes; after all, it's not just girls who need lessons in parking and relationships. I'm aware that these courses do nothing for female emancipation as a whole, and while a part of me rejects them immediately, another part asks, "Why not?"
The truth is that "being yourself," while a worthwhile goal, will often get you nowhere in our superficial society, so why not adapt? Why not make the best of your looks, get yourself noticed, and then show people what you're capable of instead of being dismissed before even getting a chance to succeed? Should a feminist stay true to herself by focusing more on intellect than appearance and counting on this being enough to reach her goals? Or should she make yourself as pretty and likable as possible (maybe even with the help of courses similar to those in this book), even though she knows the rules of this game are dictated by men and consumerism?
Personally, I've tried both. And I've been forced to do the latter quite often because I've found that the first method just doesn't seem to be enough. Nonetheless, I like to think I'm not betraying my feminist beliefs, and I feel that paying attention to my appearance gives me a confidence boost that helps me succeed. Maybe that's the trick: maybe it all just comes down to confidence. How confident are you to be yourself?
The Finishing Touches is an escapist read, and thus meant to be taken lightly, but it did a pretty good job of making me think about the predicament of modern women.