Full disclosure; I requested this book from Hachette because I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or not. How can I resist reviewing a book called ‘Woke’? The name alone strikes me as controversial because some people would gladly use that adjective to describe themselves, while others find it offensive. Woke by Titania McGrath is a quick read, one that left me with a shaking head and mixed feelings, and overall, more questions than answers. It’s written in the style of a social justice manifesto with short chapters dealing with hot-button topics like race, gender and religion. Interspersed are Titania’s outrageous poems, many of them using disturbing imagery as shock value.A cursory web search quickly confirms that the book is written as a satire and McGrath is a character created by the comedian Andrew Doyle. He’s also well-known for his other internet-famous character Jonathan Pie.
I typically avoid research when preparing to review books because I don’t want to be swayed by other opinions, but in this case, I wanted to know Doyle’s intentions in creating Titania and writing this book in her voice. Was he sick of liberal whining? Does he believe we’re all turning into snowflakes and freedom of speech is being trampled on? I’ve included just one of the many video clips that feature Doyle explaining himself and his message, which helped me view this book through a different lens.
According to urban dictionary, ‘woke’ stands for: “The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue”. And to give Doyle credit, this is what he claims he rails against in his book; Titania is a privileged, upper middle class white woman who wants to teach everyone to be more like her and more aware of all the injustices that go on around us. Titania’s lack of self-awareness is supposed to be what’s funny in this book; she claims she is a victim herself, simply because she is a woman. But my problem with the book is this; by satirizing women like Titania, and giving her these extreme views, it serves to erase all the people with similar, but more moderate and reasonable views. For instance, ‘she’ says outrageous things like:
“I had been breastfed for the first six months of my life. Did my mother not realize that I was a vegan? Did she even care? Either way, this was abuse” (p. 6).
I’ll admit this sentence is funny, I laughed when I read it, but I hate how the satirizing of one group of people serves to undermine their efforts. It feels like Doyle’s pointing to Titania’s privilege as a reason why she shouldn’t speak to the injustices of others,
Am I not allowed to consider myself a feminist because I’m middle class and white? I don’t identify as a victim, in fact I’m often referring to my privilege to others on a regular basis (especially during a pandemic, never have I been more grateful for my house and backyard!). But when I declare myself a feminist, it seems to come along with this unspoken sense of victim-hood or man-hating sentiment, which I wholeheartedly disagree with. I don’t understand Doyle’s belief that it’s wrong to use someone’s privilege or platform to help raise awareness of issues for marginalized people. Titania isn’t an embodiment of social justice warriors that I care to align myself with, but I refuse to criticize people who speak up for those in need. Drawing attention to problems in the world is the only way we can move forward as a society, so I agree with Titania’s intentions, but not her actions.
Despite this misgivings, there are things I appreciate about this book, mainly, its attempt at injecting humour into these divisive issues. I strongly believe in the ability to laugh at oneself; there’s nothing worse than people who take themselves too seriously, and in an indirect way, I think this is what Doyle is trying to get at. The very fact that at first I was unsure whether this book was a satire just goes to show how overblown the discourse around social justice has become. We need to find common ground with those we disagree with if things are ever going to improve, and actively seeking out books that challenge your existing opinions is an efficient and non-confrontational way of doing this. The ability to have a laugh in the process never hurts.
Wow. I have to say I’m glad you included that video so I could hear how thoughtful he is and how much he can considered the issues around identity politics. I was afraid that he was just someone trying to make light of important topics to minimize them. But I don’t think he’s doing that. As you say, just because someone has privilege doesn’t mean they can’t work for social justice. As Glennon Doyle wrote about in Untamed, sometimes a privileged person might want to listen and learn more before trying to take the lead in an issue (her instance was pertaining to racism and feminism.)This certainly seems like an interesting book!
ha yes, interesting is a kind term for it. Some parts upset me, but it gets the conversation going which is always a good thing!
This seems weird to me and a little bit frustrating. As a white man, the author is exactly the type of person who can more easily have a platform to shine a light on these issues that effect others. But he’s using it to poke fun at that platform instead? This sort of feels like he’s taking the easy way out.
I’m with Karissa, and because he’s a white man, there’s also a sense that he’s punching down with his comedy. Who is typically termed “woke”? Men and women of color, LGBTQ people, people fighting for metal health and talking about how it relates to poverty. I do see the people who claim they are a victim (and a victim of their own making; in fact, these are the people I rail in my review of Why We Can’t Sleep!), but those people have to be smaller in numbers than actual activists. . . . Don’t they?
I sure hope so!!! In one interview I watched with him he’s questioned about ‘punching down’ and ‘punching up’, so I think he’s more aware of what he’s doing then he lets on, but he’s trying to justify the satire in an unfair way.
“Punching down” is a good way to describe it. I do often hear the term woke used to describe those who go over the top with social justice but I too would hope that those people are less common than actual activists.
Doyle is gay so calling it “punching down” due to his white maleness is more due to a red herring.
Yes, it’s problematic for many different reasons. Thank god he never said anything like ‘it’s a war on the white man’ or that sort of nonsense which seems to be coming up more and more these days.
And let’s hope he never used the word feminazi either!
Thankfully, he didn’t LOL
My major objection to using the word “woke” in this context is not that I find it offensive but that it’s ungrammatical. It must surely be possible to be a social justice warrior and use English correctly… 😉
hahaha SO TRUE
Well, one thing this review did for me is help me understand better the term “woke”. The interview with him was interesting – he seems, like everyone he was talking about, well-intentioned.
I think you’re brave for reading and reviewing this book!
haha I was a bit nervous to review it, believe me 🙂
Another video to check out is Andrew’s lecture on satire in the digital age: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBJGDk8BviQ
It examines why it is important for satirists to poke fun at those who set themselves up as moral arbitrators in any age, not just the one we are living in. He also eloquently discusses the importance of free speech, and why it is critical for progressive movements such as the gay rights movement of the 1960s, centrist and conservative arguments equally.
thank you for the link!
There’s a young woman at work who could be the living embodiment of Titania McGrath. Young, white, entitled and privileged, fresh out of university (not that an undergraduate degree impresses me these days). She’s always going around telling people what they cannot say, complains of being ‘visibly shaken’ by the things people say, because she doesn’t listen, doesn’t understand, and has no empathy. She recently accused me of homophobia. This would have been funny if it wasn’t a serious complaint. The reason? I’m gay. Her failure to listen and her utterly blinkered view of people and society, combined with her ‘I know best’ attitude warps everything. In this case, I was discussing my very real experience of prejudice and discrimination, during the early days on HIV and AIDS. People would lose their jobs, not just because of a positive HIV result, but just because they were gay. People at work would say ‘what does GAY stand for? Got AIDS Yet’ or ‘queers should be gassed/put up against the wall and shot’. Somehow it would seem in her mind this translates into, he said it, so he must agree with it. If you don’t learn from history, you’re bound to repeat it.
Well I’m sorry you’ve had to put with this person at your office. Listening and learning seems to be a skill few and far between these days.