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'Eat, Pray, Love' thinking a 'feminist challenge'

'Eat, Pray, Love' thinking a 'feminist challenge'

Published: 26 Nov 2010 13:09 GMT+01:00
Updated: 26 Nov 2010 13:09 GMT+01:00

While there are certainly benefits to positive thinking, Swedish feminist Jenny Sonesson argues that women might not have the right to vote today if suffragettes had been satisfied writing gratitude diaries.

Elizabeth Gilbert's autobiographical book "Eat, Pray, Love" has sold millions of copies worldwide. And it is primarily women have devoured Gilbert's inner and outer journey from a claustrophobic marriage in New York to orgies of food in Rome and to an ashram in India, where she ends up in a man's arms in Bali.

Oprah Winfrey has invited the author to her popular television show several times. The film version, starring Julia Roberts, drew over 70 percent of US female moviegoers during its opening week.

The fundamental idea in the book is that the divine dwells within us and by looking inwards, we find happiness. But "Eat, Pray, Love" is only one part of a larger contemporary phenomenon that is a billion dollar industry.

The positive philosophy insists that we choose our thoughts and therefore we can literally think ourselves to success. Many self-help books in the genre, not least the best seller author of "The Secret", pay tribute to the law of attraction. Positive thoughts attract positive people and events. Negative thoughts have the opposite effect. Those who dwell on illness have illness, those who focus on wealth becomes wealthy.

The gospels of positive thinking have not only conquered gemstone healers, but have also gotten into the corporate boardroom. The film "Up in the Air" portrays this phenomenon with irony. George Clooney plays a redundancy consultant who continually dismisses desperate employees with the mantra: "Look at this as a new start! Anyone who has ever built an empire and changed the world has sat where you sit now."

The problem is that if getting well, getting a new job or avoiding welfare is your own responsibility, then failure to do so is also the individual’s own responsibility. It paves the way for a cynical outlook. The American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich examined the positive philosophy after being confronted with the it when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Ehrenreich was infuriated by the claim that you can think yourself healthy. Patients she met had embraced the view that cancer as a gift that change their attitudes and were convinced that worrying would make the tumor to grow faster.

A growing trend, preached by Oprah Winfrey, is the keeping of gratitude diaries. Gratitude diaries are now even available as iPhone applications. One of the prophets, Sarah Ban Breath Nach, testifies to her personal experience of keeping a gratitude journal:

"I started by giving thanks for everything: daisies in a jam jar on a windowsill, the sweet scent of my daughter's hair."

In short: be grateful for what you have instead of fretting over it you have not.

Yes, it’s certainly useful to think of positively instead of burying oneself in grievances. This is shown by the success of cognitive psychology. And yes, it can give spiritual harmony and inspire good actions.

But history teaches us that it’s critical thinking and anger at injustice that brought the world forward and increased humanity’s collective happiness.

Revolutionaries such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Martin Luther King and Lech Walesa were not grateful. Democracy fighters who I met in Cuba, in Belarus and in Somalia are not grateful. And we should be happy for it. The World Values Survey research project shows that the main factors behind the increase in happiness are democracy, tolerance, freedom and global economic growth. We cannot achieve things by just sitting behind ashrams walls and meditating.

This optimistic philosophy has gained particular support among women and it is a feminist challenge to respond to it.

We appreciate that female suffrage exists, and are thankful to the fact that suffragettes wrote glowing pamphlets instead of gratitude diaries. Many of the victories of feminism are still ahead of us.

In the country where Elizabeth Gilbert's guru lives, in India, millions of female fetuses are aborted, for example because of the dowry system. And a frightening one quarter of the world's maternal deaths occur on Indian soil. Holy wrath is a force that can bring the world’s happiness forward, rather than gratitude.

Jenny Sonesson is the president of the Women’s Association of the Liberal Party (Liberala Kvinnor) in Stockholm.

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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Your comments about this article

20:46 November 26, 2010 by zircon
Family rule: first human than female. In better circles for men, mostly with historically military honours, this is also the rule for men, to be first human than man. Second rule: it is imperative for women to be absolutely beautiful since the world of men is harsh and never a paved path for golden dreams (roses are not for the poor of mind or ugly). And in Sweden all these golden dreams so far have come from women with the same primary desires as any other (to get or have a man), but to find the complete package they seem to go through a twisted sense of being wealthy... If social cohesion is about improving the standard of living for humanity, it is rather a dumb rule when only being discussed by so called 'equals'.
08:28 November 27, 2010 by Baldric

I hear you (zircon) say that women in your home should put their female issues second, and strive to look good. Plus some incoherent ramblings.

Be happy with what you got, and unhappy with what you do not. Life rose from a will to improve ones position. The species that were content were defeated by the species that weren't. I think that a person is only happy when they experience transcendance, going from A to B where B is better than A. Rising that gradient is the very goal, not the checkpoints themselves. Because once you get to B you rejoice for a while and then proceed to C which is better than B. Deny people this and they get depressed.

Thus, it is very sound and proper for both women and men to look at their place in life and see what can be improved. And women have a lot to get improved compared to men. Not saying that men live in paradise either.

Paradise would actually suck when I think of it, as it is a stagnant state. At least as it is imagined what with clouds and harps and whatever.
09:23 November 27, 2010 by calebian22
Positive thinking is fine and dandy for mental health, but the notion that positive thinking affects the environment around a person is nonsense. The Secret is no secret. It is just a ploy to get gullible and desperate people to plunk down 250 kronor for a book that tells them what they want to hear. How does indulging wealth fantasies suddenly make the lack of ambition to succeed or plain laziness the key to fullfilling one's dreams. Hard work, good ideas, and timing/luck are the keys to success in life, not some wish granting life force around us.
12:18 November 27, 2010 by zircon
You can't beat primary rules.
22:56 November 27, 2010 by Dalia1
zircon what the hell are you talking about?
12:44 November 28, 2010 by zircon
Good point, what the hell is it that I'm talking about. Exactly.
03:54 November 29, 2010 by Swedemom
I don't think gratitude is about subjugation of women. I think it is a very real way of looking at life in perspective that allows one to live with peace through trials. Just because we can be grateful for trials and circumstances does not mean that we don't work hard to change those circumstances. Finding gratitude doesn't mean we wallow in our trials, But that we find meaning and purpose in our struggles. And finding meaning in those hard times gives us strength to push our way out of our darkest days. It gives us hope that we can endure and that we will be stronger because of our challenges.
12:38 November 29, 2010 by RobinHood
Jenny Sonesson has taken a very narrow and immature attitude towards "gratitude". I can assure her that contrary to her opinion, suffragettes, Mary Wollstonecraft, Martin Luther King and Lech Walesa were indeed very grateful. They all enjoyed spring mornings, the fruits of their labours, cuddling their grandchildren, and time with their families, just as the rest of us do. Their gratitude for what they had, in no way interfered with their anger at what was wrong, or their desire to put it right.

If keeping a diary helps any particular person with their issues, man or woman, then good for them.

Jenny clearly fears the future of feminism is threatened by women who are so grateful for what they, they will be less likely to ask for more. I think women are much better than that Jenny. Don't be so condescending. And stop writing nonsense about "holy wrath". Deal with people as they are (grateful for some things, and wrathful about other things), not how you want them to be.

Perhaps a bit less "holy wrath" in your own life, and a bit more time thinking about the good things might help you too. You can't be angry all the time, take a day off.

Good luck with those future victories.
18:32 November 29, 2010 by zircon
One more thing, L.S.- What have we learned so far from transparency? Who is more egalitarian and who is not? And that doesn't stop at marriage. If the majority of mankind wants to turn their personal 'things' into charity shops, where it should otherwise have been family or life between two people, no one can help that one on this side. But when on our private side I expect to see better from intelligent you...
19:02 November 29, 2010 by Tusker
So Jenny Sonesson is a feminist...........oh that's so cute!
22:06 November 29, 2010 by redfish
"Revolutionaries such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Martin Luther King and Lech Walesa were not grateful."

What was the difference between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X? One channeled their frustration with injustice in a positive way that appealed to people's better natures, and the other became hateful.

Also understand that while someone like MLK Jr can build bridges and someone like Malcom X can divide, while there are feminists that have built bridges and others that have divided people... ie, Gloria Steinem.

Lets also not forget all the men who fought for women's suffrage, and all the women who were against it. For example, in the US, President Wilson was supportive, while his wife was against it. For his wife, it was a generational thing -- a lot of older women were happy with traditions. Don't make this into some grandiose narrative about war between the sexes. Most people aren't irrational, and if you're right about your beliefs you should be able to persuade them. At the same time, consider that you may be wrong and be persuaded yourself.
11:19 November 30, 2010 by Kevin Harris
"Revolutionaries such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Martin Luther King and Lech Walesa were not grateful."

Does Jenny think Mary, Martin and Lech spent all their time roaring at the world? They spent their fair of time, "sitting behind ashrams walls and meditating" too, and might even have written an early version of a gratitude diary, every now and then, as well. In Jenny's eyes, her heroic revolutionaries have ascended to Godlike status, while she warns us mere mortals against human weaknesses such as "gratitude".

No thanks Jenny, I'll stick with being a human being, and be grateful whenever I want to be. Don't be so impertinent; it's enough to put someone off feminism if this is how they behave.
12:52 November 30, 2010 by Dalia1
swedemom: women have always been taught to be grateful. be grateful that you have a husband, be grateful that you can bear children, be grateful that you can vote! be grateful that you're in sweden where your partner isn't allowed to hit

you, and be grateful for your paycheck that is 80% of what your male equivalent is earning, because in other countries it would have only been 50%. gratitude is indeed and always has been a part of the subjugation of women.

we shouldn't endure, we should fight.

robinhood: have you ever heard the term "the personal is political"?. this whole new wave of gratitude, positive thinking and self help products is aimed precisely at eliminating this idea. we are told that our personal is personal, and

anything that is wrong with our lives is in our hands. it sounds inspiring and positive, the notion that we can take control over our lives, but the truth is that our control is very limited, and if we look too much into ourselves, we'll forget to look at our society and our government and the influence and responsibility they have on how our lives look.

to quote Carol Hanisch again, "Understanding that our oppressive situations were not our own fault — were not, in the parlance of the time, "all in our head" — gave us a lot more courage as well as a more solid, real foundation on which to fight for liberation."

redfish: most people are irrational, and we are all, each of us to a different extent, products of our society and culture. there are men and women on both sides of the gender struggle, although let's not pretend to be naive. walk into a university classroom where a feminism related course is being held, and you'll find maybe 4 men within the 60 women listening to the lecture. it's not such a far-fetched idea, that the social group who's on top, the one with the most power, shows little to no interest in changing this power distribution.

kevin harris: i don't think jenny thinks you should be walking around angry all day long and never be grateful, no. i really can't see how that was understood from the text.

in fact, to all of you, i don't understand why all your comments involve personal attacks at Jenny Sonesson. is it really THAT terrifying and enraging when a woman talks about feminism?
13:55 November 30, 2010 by Marc the Texan
Powerful points made Jenny. Best article I've read on the Local.
14:51 November 30, 2010 by Kevin Harris

This piece isn't about feminism at all; it's a demeaning, bullying Orwellian lecture about the dangers of gratitude. I don't give a rat's arse if the author is a feminist or not. Who's she to tell me which emotions I should prefer at any given time.

Optimism, gratitude - "it is a feminist challenge to respond to it." Are there any other positive emotions I need to address to avoid any further feminist challenges? I go through several dozen other emotions a day, I wouldn't want to upset anybody with these outrageous thoughtcrimes.

Any person who doesn't like being told what to think, and what not to think, would do well to avoid Jenny Sonesson and re-read George Orwell's 1984 instead.
15:01 November 30, 2010 by zircon
Okay, fair enough. We didn't read the article as well as should. I too am guilty of personal spewing. I think that the author was merely trying to make a point and the intention is positive thinking in a world of mind negativity. In fact not just mind negativity but global mind negativity. Since she has mentioned India and aborted fetuses/ dowry system. That is a serious matter. But how can any private person or organisation change India? Good luck will not be enough.
15:26 November 30, 2010 by Dalia1
dear Kevin Harris,

i fail to find a place in the article where jenny tells the readers how or when to think. she's writing about a phenomena, the "the secret" phenomena, and the way it can harm the feminist movement.

as i wrote before, there's a saying that stands as one of the base points of the

feminist movement which is "the personal is political". put in the context of the 60's, that saying basically means "me being beat up by my husband, raped in the street, not being able to voice my opinion - are not personal problems that should be dealt with on a personal level, they are POLITICAL and SOCIAL problems and should be dealt with as so".

i wasn't beat up because i was a bad wife, but because i live in a society where it's okay to slap your wife.

i wasn't raped because i dared walk in the street after dark by myself, i was raped because i live in a society where rape is punished by 6 months in prison and thus isn't considered a major offense.

you get the point..

this new wave of books, programs and approaches like "the secret", are saying the exact opposite - they are saying that the personal is personal. they promote the notion that if i don't want to be raped i should think positive, or worse, not go out by myself at night.

this should anger not only feminists, but anyone who suffers the injustices of society, because it is basically telling them that it's their fault, and theirs to deal with - with positive thinking and gratitude for what isn't shitty in their lives!

jenny isn't telling anyone how to handle their emotions, she's pointing out that there is a new phenomena, a new wave of thinking, that is being pushed on us from every direction, and that this way of thinking can be numbing. and she's right!
00:16 December 1, 2010 by eZee.se
"Feminist" - just another word that has the same meaning as "moron".
01:43 December 1, 2010 by redfish
@Dalia said.. "redfish: most people are irrational, and we are all, each of us to a different extent, products of our society and culture. there are men and women on both sides of the gender struggle, although let's not pretend to be naive. walk into a university classroom where a feminism related course is being held, and you'll find maybe 4 men within the 60 women listening to the lecture. it's not such a far-fetched idea, that the social group who's on top, the one with the most power, shows little to no interest in changing this power distribution. "

Who said its the women who are right and the men who are wrong? Many women today also believe that we live in a post-feminist world and we need to move on to broader issues, not ignoring womens rights but also involving mens rights, like in cases when they can be falsely accused of rape. You may disagree with that POV, but please make your arguments, and don't talk with some self-righteous sense of superiority.

And who said the older generation of women in the 19th century opposed to suffrage were somehow irrational and the newer generation were rational? The demand for women's suffrage was more about the times changing than anything. In the 18th century most men couldn't vote either, because the vote was restricted to property holders, and by the 19th century more and more women were becoming involved in urban life and becoming independent from men. The great demand for womens rights and suffrage was in fact precipitated by the issue of widowed women who no longer had a husband and no longer had any political or legal representation.

The problem with how the movement towards womens rights is presented in many classes is that its depicted as some great ideological gender struggle, where the righteous and rational people who supported suffrage were pitted against the wicked and irrational people who were against it and an evil, domineering patriarchal society. But in fact, the story was much, much less Manichean than that. Society was changing, and the laws have to adjust to a changing society. Many of the women who were against it were reactionary, and their reaction was instinctively against it because a lot of the women who were for it, by the end of the 19th century were also into social revolutionary politics on a lot of other fronts. Remember, its the Suffragettes who eventually brought us Prohibition.
08:45 December 1, 2010 by Kevin Harris
Dalia1 said:

"i fail to find a place in the article where jenny tells the readers how or when to think."

Jenny said:

"Revolutionaries such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Martin Luther King and Lech Walesa were not grateful." (What rubbish).

"Democracy fighters who I met in Cuba, in Belarus and in Somalia are not grateful. And we should be happy for it."

"…it's critical thinking and anger at injustice that brought the world forward and increased humanity's collective happiness."

"…We cannot achieve things by just sitting behind ashrams walls and meditating."

"This optimistic philosophy has gained particular support among women and it is a feminist challenge to respond to it."

"Holy wrath is a force that can bring the world's happiness forward, rather than gratitude."
17:39 December 1, 2010 by Dalia1
hey guys i haven't forgotten you, it's been a busy day, will answer you all later
04:30 December 2, 2010 by Swedemom

I think you totally misread my comment or completely misunderstood it. I see the value of gratitude for both men and women. Just because you are grateful for the good things in your life, doesn't make subservient, unable to cope with life, or oblivious to reality.

I have lupus, which is a totally sucky disease. I hate it. Will I ever go around being grateful that I have lupus? No. But I am grateful for the lessons I have learned. I have learned not to take good health for granted. I've learned to grab life by the horns and live. When I feel good, I rejoice in it and enjoy every single moment of it. I am grateful for everyday that I am alive to spend time with my family, enjoying the many pleasures of life, and doing the things I enjoy. I've learned lessons from having lupus. But that doesn't mean that I just take a blind stance to it. No, I am active in helping raise money for research. I work hard to raise awareness for this disease.

Having gratitude for your life can give you the courage to push forward out of hard things. You can be grateful for a good job, but you can also work hard to get a salary raise. You can be grateful for the sacrifices of all the women and men who did so much to improve the station of women. Then, you can press forward in the fight to further improve lives of women.

Now, if you feel differently, that's fine. We all have different feelings about life. And we tackle issues in different ways. You don't have to think the same way I do, but you don't have to diss my philosophy either. Those who have a philosophy of gratitude are not ostriches sticking their heads in the sand. They choose to their lives in a deliberate way. It may not be your way, but that doesn't make it wrong or stupid.
14:25 December 2, 2010 by Dalia1
dear redfish,

as long as women worldwide are not granted equal rights to those of men in their societies, we do not live in a post-feminist world. there is NOT ONE country in the world where women earn an equal pay to men, or receive an equal representation in power positions.


the feminist movement is a complex, broad movement encompassing many points of view and social classes, and in it's essence is multi-cultural and self

reflective. of course there have been and still are branches who take an elitist approach, but that is a small, criticized part within the movement. try browsing

this website http://feministing.com/ and let me know if you find any elitism, any

mocking. or rather, will you get a picture of a community very aware of it's times, aware of the political atmosphere in the world, and concerned with many other inequality and injustice issues that are not directly regarding women.

as for men being falsely accused of rape, did you know that of all reported

cases of rape, 2% are false allegations? i can email you the research if you'd


dear kevin harris,

as i said before, making this into a discussion on whether or not jenny sonesson is plotting to mind control us all, is SO unrelated that i'm going to leave it right now. it's total nit-picking on semantics in an attempt to avoid the actual interesting subject of her article, over which i am more than happy to debate.


gratitude, positive thinking, and hopefulness are important elements of our mental health, and i believe nor i, nor jenny, claimed otherwise.

i quote her article "Yes, it's certainly useful to think of positively instead of

burying oneself in grievances. This is shown by the success of cognitive

psychology. And yes, it can give spiritual harmony and inspire good actions."

i never wrote that being positive, happy and grateful is stupid, did i?

i believe that it's necessary to hold a good stance anywhere in the middle between content and discontent, as both complete optimism and complete pessimism are numbing. and i think you feel the same way, as you describe your fight against lupus, with a positive mindset.

i don't know if you've read "the secret" and others like it (which is what jenny is writing about). it's a completely different story. this multi-million industry of telling happiness has taken the wisdoms of psychology, religion and culture,

and compressed them all into one socially numbing approach. these books tell you that you're to blame for all your sorrows, and that you should battle these sorrows with positive thinking and gratefulness, rather than, lets say, protest against unfair government policies. and that, is what jenny is trying to bring across.
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