Humor, sharp observation, and magic are all effective tools for combating insidious gender oppression. Cecelia Ahern utilizes these devices in her collection of 30 short stories ,Roar. In this work of fiction, she exposes the pervasiveness of gender inequality faced daily by contemporary women. Her stories and characters demonstrate the fundamental capriciousness of the injustices rendered by systematic gender inequality. But it’s not enough for Ahern to merely illustrate the commonality of gender oppression, she goes further to firmly establish each of her characters’ personal and social growth.
As the stories unfold, the characters identify the sources of their oppression then actively pursue their agency. Already green-lit for screen adaptation by Nicole Kidman’s production company, Roar is apt to raise-consciousness and induce a few chuckles. Roar‘s strength is found in its depiction of empowered women, yet Ahern mistakenly centralizes a normative vision of feminism while reiterating the patriarchal control, that silences her female characters’ voices.
Each story is centered around an unnamed woman, a signifier of gender oppression’s universality. Ahern showcases an array of gender inequalities including imbalances between professionalism and motherhood, gender policing, and the ubiquity of the accepted social conditions concertizing sexist language.
In “The Woman Who Spoke Woman”, for example, Ahern describes a political government entirely composed of men. Faced with dwindling poll numbers and disaffected female constituents, the male politicians determine they need to find a woman. They believe that only she can speak to other women in a specifically female vocabulary and timbre.
It’s an evocative reflection of the GOP’s use of Kelly Ann Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders or even Sarah Palin as the party’s token female mouthpieces. Little do these fictionalized myopic men realize, though, that their chairperson is actually a woman disguised as a man. Wearing a bald cap, she effectively leads these delusional souls without their knowledge.
“The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin” portrays a mother whose body is slowly being taken over by bite marks after her maternity leave ends and she returns to work. Slightly heavy-handed but still effective, the woman is consumed by the guilt she feels from her inability to devote fully to either family or career. She eventually realizes she must “return to herself. Celebrating everything, guilt free” (43).
Throughout Roar, each unnamed main character experiences an epiphany where the injustices become evident. She then embarks on a path towards transformation. Ahern doesn’t delineate the radical change but leaves it for her readers to reimagine an equal society. Ahern’s ability to exhibit women’s emotional growth is Roar’s power.
In “The Woman Who Was Swallowed Up By the Floor and Who Met Lots of Other Women Down There Too”, the author adroitly describes the need for women to overcome their insecurities, to unify in fortifying each other’s confidences. Evoking elements of magical realism, the story depicts a woman who is terrified of her CEO.
During an important presentation, she accidentally farts in front of him, then jumps into a comforting deep black hole that “opens up between her and the boardroom table” (59). She wallows in humiliation and is convinced she will spend the rest of her life down there, hiding from her shame. She slowly notices other women around her who are all experiencing similar displeasure. They form cooperative bonds, supporting each other in processing their mortification while empowering one another to return to reality.
Despite Roar‘s ability to harness women’s strengths, the collection lacks diversity. The women are predominantly heterosexual. Both “The Woman Who Returned and Exchanged Her Husband” and “The Woman Who Was Kept on the Shelf” are painfully heteronormative. Whereas Ahern attempts to subvert dominant narratives, the stories still reinforce standardized heterosexuality.
“The Woman Who Grew Wings” is the singular example of the intersection of race and gender. In this story, a Muslim woman refugee must contend with a gaggle of judgmental white mothers. Rather than providing any substantial devices for dismantling racism, the protagonist sprouts wings and flies away. This is a flippant way of opposing racism and a cowardly way to deal with an acute and profound topic.
Confusingly, and disappointedly, several of Ahern’s women are led to clarity by men. For example, “The Woman Who Wore Her Heart on Her Sleeve” features Dr. Nita Ahuja, a prominent woman of color. She creates a medical instrument so advanced it enables a woman to wear her heart externally. Despite the doctor’s revolutionary medical contribution, the discovery is imperfect. It is her son who fine-tunes the device, thereby fulfilling his mother’s lack. Here Ahern pens an allegory reaffirming patriarchal control.
Likewise, in “The Woman Who Thought Her Mirror was Broken”, an older woman only accepts her physical changes after a male artist condones her beauty. In an agonizing misstep, the avowal of the patriarchal voice undermines Roar‘s entire purpose and dehumanizes these female characters.
Roar has some high-quality narratives mixed in with poorly-executed tales. Ahern’s ability to imagine characters who find empowerment after hardship while exalting other women is refreshing. Yet her tendency to reaffirm dominant patriarchal narratives is cringe-worthy ultimately marring Roar’s goal.