The Favorite SisterThe Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll
My rating: 3/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne Star

The last thing the world needs is one more woman with principles. What we need is women with money. Women with money have flexibility, and nothing is more dangerous than a woman who can bend any way she wants.

this gets three stars because i didn’t like it as much as Luckiest Girl Alive, and i gave that one four stars, so ta-daa – computation. i always feel like i have to explain that three stars is not a negative rating. in fact, this book has quite a lot going for it – it’s a fast, twisty read, it’s very au courant with its intersectional feminism angle, and it makes some smart, and probably unpopular, points about oorah sisterhood and the state of modern feminism.

but it’s also a reality show murrrrderrr plot, featuring the cast of Goal Diggers – Season 4, a show where successful young female entrepreneurs middle-finger the expectations of the patriarchy, support each other in their endeavors and inspire their female viewers with their accomplishments achieved in the show’s empowering, pro-woman environment.

that’s the pitch. but what’s a reality show without conflict?

for all its lofty ideals, Goal Diggers is still a show that encourages and rewards self-promotion, which means staying in the spotlight, which means giving the camera something to film, which means drama. so the cast and their nearest-and-dearest; these sisters, besties, rivals, mothers/surrogate mothers, daughters, lovers are being handled, massaged, groomed, their behavior amplified for ratings, and they are incentivized to lean in to confrontations to keep their place on the show, strategically forming and reforming their alliances, always on guard, watching their backs, scheming, paranoid that others are scheming, fostering an environment of lies and betrayals escalating into increasingly desperate ploys and coverups building to murrrrrderrrrrrr.

the only reality shows i watch are the one where people make dresses and the one where people make food. and there’s plenty of posturing and competitiveness, but there’s also an actual game at the center. conflict for conflict’s sake has never much appealed to me, on teevee or in life, but this book is kind of fascinating, giving some insight into the behind-the-scenes of these “unscripted”, controlled reality programs, and all that goes into a show’s construction; the filming chronology, the politics behind who sits where, the shifting of alliances, the management of public v. private selves, and the power of who knows what about whom.

there’s also a nice nesting effect here, in how the book presents reality and Reality, and how the lines between the two get smudged. for example, in Reality:

On a show with four to five players, any more than one gay woman and it becomes a lesbian show, any more than one woman of color and it becomes an ethnic show, and then advertisers start to worry about alienating the audience.

and in reality:

Black women in a white milieu are notorious infighters. It’s a risk to align yourselves. One of you is a gentle breeze of difference. Two is a twister, everyone hiding in their basement.

even outside of the structures of the show, there are rules and codes for women, which only intensify as the circles narrow from gender into race, income, sexual orientation, age, weight, an endless vigilance directed towards navigating the expectations of others, an impulse that follows the cast whether on-camera or off, the inherent competition between women causing a beautiful, successful thirty-five year old woman to feel a sense of relieved delight in cataloging the physical imperfections of a twelve-year-old girl. there are so many poisonous moments where i personally felt a pang – jen and her rescue dogs, stephanie’s publicist’s horrible advice, layla’s observed eyeslide/loss of innocence, much wincing in this one.

it’s full to the bursting point with toxic rivalry and miscommunications and ways in which tragedy could have been avoided, and none of it feels like the “fun” kind of catfighting that reality TV seems to cultivate – so much of this is directed inward, women self-assessing, feeling like they’re not measuring up in some way, ironically by having those feelings in the first place – a modern woman is not supposed to have doubts, have body issues, judge other women, etc…

the tone is reflective, but also often sharp and angry, particularly towards lip service sisterhood; the commodified, instagram feminism of easy slogans but no real follow-through because there’s just not enough opportunity to go around; competition for those opportunities again collapsing the walls between reality and Reality.

”We can make this right, can’t we?” Brett pleads. “Come on. You know I always support you. Real queens fix each other’s crowns.”

My disdain takes my breath away. Real queens fix each other’s crowns? This is the equivocating claptrap that passes as feminism these days. Just another Instagram idiom that assigns responsibility to the less effective party. How about, Real kings promote women? Or, I don’t know, Real kings pay black women the same as they pay white women? Real kings pay all women the same as they pay men? That we task women with helping other women in a society that places us in systemic competition with one another is why feminism has failed. Do not recruit me to link arms with my sisters until more than 2 percent of positions at the top are occupied by women, until her success does not almost certainly guarantee my failure. Do not tell me I’m not a real queen when another woman catches a fish and I am too starved to cheer.

it’s a fast-paced, juicy thriller, but there’s also plenty of message. like i said, this book has a lot going for it, but there are some weaknesses – the characters are somewhat flat, they don’t always feel like people so much as mouthpieces or outgrowths of a situation, and some of their choices seem to be more tied to serving the narrative than reflecting human behavior. but it does get its hooks in you – i started reading this on saturday night and i just…kept reading straight through the night without a wink of sleep until i finished, when everyone else was just waking up for their sunday brunchies and i regret nothing.

read my reviews on goodreads

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