Critique of “Unbearable Lightness”

12 Feb

I didn’t want to like this book.  I did not really know anything about Portia De Rossi (PdR) except she came out of seemingly nowhere to become Ellen Degeneres’ wife, then upon looking her up on Google, seeing she had played a few bit roles as a sorostitute-type.  I knew nothing else.  When I found out PdR had been on “Allie McBeal” and that she was one of the actresses with an evident, yet unacknowledged eating-disorder, I felt disdain for her.  That show, with it’s unattainable images of what a women is supposed to look like, did a lot of damage to impressionable females.  But many times, I’ll watch a documentary or read a biography of someone not very likeable and come away with understanding, sympathy, and sometimes even a changed opinion about them.  So I bought the book and gave PdR a chance to redeem herself.

Details are given about how PdR loses and maintains her low weight. This is problematic because it gives women ideas of how to diet, starve, binge, and purge. Also, the details devulged are talked about as if they’re completely normal line of thought and activity. There is no sense that what PdR is disordered, which normalizes the events to the reader.

This book made me disappointed in L’Oreal.  Throughout the book (through the lens of anorexia) they are seen as uncaring, unsympathetic, and uncompromising of the type of women they portray.  The company made PdR feel fat and ugly and immoral, with its horrible fitting of small gray dresses, it’s fancy meetings at the Four Seasons, and the morality clause in the contract.  PdR showed that despite their slogan of “I’m worth it” they are implicitly sending the message that only a narrow category of women (slim and straight to start with) actually ARE worth it.

I thought the L’Oreal stuff in the book should have been accompanied by details about “Allie McBeal’s” culture of eating disorders or left out all-together.  L’Oreal was villanized (rightly so it sounds like) while the issue of competition between actresses was carefully skirted.  PdR is VERY careful not to mention the other celebrities on the set with evident eating disorders that must have furthered her own eating issues.  If L’Oreal is fair game, why shouldn’t Callista Flockhart get mention?

I absolutely loved that with the doctor’s bad news of all the internal damage done by starving, pictures were shown of what she looked like at the time.  It sent the implicit message that though Hollywood, and the world at large demanded thinness, and it may be misconstrued as beautiful, it came with consequences.  It was very dramatic.  My favorite part of the book by far.

Somehow more weight (pun intended) was given to Ellen Degeneres, who barely appears in the book, then to PdR’s sexuality, though the homosexuality is said to be the root of the problem.  The fear of exposure, repression, desire of women, and her mom’s “acceptance” of her were only briefly mentioned.  I think she could have done more with those themes.  Yes, the book’s focus was the eating disorder, but I thought the lesbianism should have been dramatized more.

And I did not like the “Ellen saved my life” stuff.  Firstly, PdR doesn’t give herself credit for her recovery at all.  Can it be called recovery then?  It makes me wonder how far she’s actually come.  PdR thought of Ellen as some sort of hero throughout the book–from the time she was young.  I don’t really think their relationship could be balanced or equal because of that. Reading other reviews of the book, or even descriptions, I noticed how Ellen is mentioned in all of them.  Though she didn’t even know PdR during her seriously disordered eating phase, and really isn’t IN the book.  PdR will forever just be Ellen’s wife and submissive/passive/arm-candy.  Her third name-change says it all.  First PdR changed her name for Hollywood and this book details the fall-out of her trying to adhere to Hollywood’s idealized images of beauty.  Now she has changed her name for her wife.  Doesn’t this women know who SHE wants to be?  The end of the book just shows how the situation for PdR’s self-esteem hasn’t changed–just the focus.

And of course, I absolutely did NOT like how PdR ignorantly berates the dairy and meat industries at the end of the book.  She uses PETA-type jargon as if it’s the factual truth, saying that farm animals are treated inhumanely, and not healthy for human consumption anyway.  I wish celebrities would keep their mouths shut if they can’t share actual information.  It was an aside that wasn’t needed and was very judgmental in its pro-animal rights stance.  How hypocritical for a heavy smoker to be disdainful of the ill-effects of milk and meat!  Smoking and how she wanted to do it all the time, or was taking drags everywhere, is a large component of the book.  The restrictive diet actually reveals how she must still struggle with her food, too.  It takes a lot of discipline and effort to cut out entire food groups from your diet as she currently is being vegan(?)/vegetarian (?).

Though I had some problems with the book, and still don’t really like PdR, it WAS a riviting read.  I only half believe PdR wrote the book by herself, because the image she has cultivated for herself (or that the media has cultivated for her) is not observant, smart, wry, or perfectionist.  The language in the book was so advanced and varied–I was impressed!  Either way, I found myself putting aside my homework and tearing through the prose in just 3 days–while working nine hour days and attending class.  Well done, on such a page-turner.

 

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