The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss
Harper Collins RRP: $29.99
Most people know two things to be true about Tara Moss: she is a model and she writes crime novels. Many people probably think they know a bunch of other things too; it goes with the territory of being a public figure. In The Fictional Woman, Moss uses stories about herself – the facts and the fictions – as a touchstone for examining the assumptions we make about other people’s lives, and the ways in which we interact with stereotypes and prescribed social roles, particularly when it comes to our understanding of womanhood. Moss shares anecdotes from her fascinating and complicated life, and slots them in amongst academic theory, carefully researched statistics and popular cultural myths to shake up some of our most deeply engrained assumptions about female identity.
I’ve come late to the Tara Moss fan club. I was aware of her (let’s face, she stands out in a crowd) but I knew very little about her until I saw her standing her ground against politicians and bureaucrats on shows like Q & A, and standing up for people whose voices never make headlines via her work as a UNICEF ambassador for Child Survival. “Surely this brave, articulate, intelligent woman isn’t just a model?” I caught myself thinking (I’m ashamed to say) – and I’m not the first. Moss has had to defend herself regularly against the assumption that being ‘conventionally attractive’ (as she, herself, calls it) negates the ability to speak intelligently on issues of importance. She is the first ‘legally verified’ author, having taken a lie detector test early on in her writing career to prove that she had not employed a ghost writer for her fiction. It’s a sad truth that beauty and intelligence are often seen as mutually exclusive – but why? When did this errant way of thinking come about? And why do we do so little to challenge it? This is just the first of many fictions about women that Moss tackles in this autobiography-come-thesis. With plenty of humour, buckets of pathos and smart, succinct writing Moss shows that being assigned one sex or the other at birth is only the tiniest part of what makes you a modern man or woman.
Moss began modelling in the ‘80s at the age of 15, and by her late teens was travelling the world, far from her Canadian home, in a whirlwind of agency demands, fashion fads and dubious characters. She had some harrowing experiences, but this is no woe-is-me story; rather, Moss uses her unique insights into the fashion industry to discuss how certain ‘looks’ become trends and how these dictate the acceptable shape of the female body.
As Moss’s star rose over the years, she found herself the subject of paparazzi snaps and gossip mags. Again, she is able to give an insider’s perspective on the impact such headlines have on the individuals involved, as well as on us as a society. One illuminating example centres on the very recent links made between Miranda Kerr and James Packer – who may or may not have had a ‘thing’. Moss also had a ‘thing’ with Packer, except that she didn’t. It’s hilarious to read Moss’ examples of the times when she was photographed randomly standing next to someone and soon found her ‘new relationship’ splashed across the tabloids. And so, Moss looks at quotes, like this one from the Woman’s Day: “Miranda may come across as an Earth Mother but she loves the high life and James can provide the sort of lifestyle and security very few could give her…” Why would Kerr, herself a successful millionaire business woman, need a man to provide for her? The passive reader might flick past this story in the hairdressers and pause for a minute to wonder about its veracity – but does anyone stop to question the way this headline actually shapes our broader perceptions about women? Moss shows how even the fluffiest, popular texts (indeed, those moreso than others) spread tentacles of influence into our perspectives on women’s bodies, abilities and power relationships.
After some initial chronological life stories, chapters with titles like ‘Gold-diggers and Mean Girls’, ‘Playing Mothers and Fathers’, and ‘The Gender Wars’ give Moss a forum to present historical research about the evolution of gender roles: from the little things, like the fact that baby boys used always to wear pink, to the big ones , like the politicisation of sexual violence. Marital rape immunity was only written out of Australian law in the 1980s, for example, to quote just one of many startling stats in this book. Tara Moss, this fierce and mighty girl, has experienced sexual violence herself. Here she is talking about the issue on Q & A. Hear her roar.
Moss is a daughter, a mother, a wife, a feminist, an activist and a beautiful women in the public eye, giving her a range of speaking positions from which to launch her investigations, whilst never claiming to speak for all women (or all men). Importantly too, her writing is easy to read! It is intelligent without being intellectual, therefore making difficult subjects accessible to a range of possible readers.
And speaking of investigations, if there was ever a doubt about whether or not Moss writes her own fictional novels, one need only check out some of the things she’s done in the name of research! In order to write authentically about crime, the criminal mind and the victim experience Moss has been set on fire, choked to unconsciousness, learned to ride a motorbike, studied forensic science and visited many high security prisons, morgues and crime scenes. This is not the work of someone who is scared to break a nail, or who outsources her writing, as so many have accused her of doing.
I was thrilled to see Moss speak on issues around internet security at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival. She was enviably elegant, for sure, but also focussed, informed, broad minded and cool as a cucumber in the face of really challenging questions. When asked about her reputation as ‘Teflon Tara’ who no longer flinches in the face of online vitriol or ignorant headlines, she made a powerful case for the privilege that comes with having a public voice. Every time she is criticised or people make assumptions about her intelligence or family life, she reminds herself that she is lucky enough to have a forum to speak out against them and be heard. There are many women around the world who, for all kinds of reasons, do not have that sense of agency, and Tara appreciates its value.
As with any outspoken woman, not everyone is on Team Tara. But whether you love her or hate her, this ability to blend the worlds of popular culture and lofty debate, and make them easily comprehensible to a range of audiences, might just make Moss one of the most important social commentators in Australia right now. This is a book for high school reading lists, undergrad analysis and the bedside tables of socially engaged men and women anywhere.