Alix Kates Shulman's black feminist comedy Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen still has the power to shock, fifty years after it was first published.
It's 1950s America. Sasha Davis is beautiful, smart and not short on boyfriends. Despite having it all, she's on an anxiety spiral. Twenty-four years of age, it won't be long until she's thirty when she's sure she will have lost her looks. As a woman, she knows all the cards are stacked against her. It's either marry, have children, play second fiddle to a second-rate husband, or face economic ruin and social ostracism. Sasha marries Frank, an academic, and agrees to work mundane jobs to support his burgeoning career. Eventually she can stand it no longer, travels through Europe, has an affair and decides to leave Frank, only to end up in more financial, romantic and reproductive jeopardy.
First published in 1972, the blackly comic Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was a runaway hit, clearly hitting a nerve with readers. The story is told in a convoluted way, the novel opening with Sasha leaving her husband, then describing her childhood, growing up and finally becoming prom queen, with all its resultant problems with boys. Sasha does hit the dreaded age of 30 and finds life doesn't get easier, especially if you're a woman.
Alix Kates Shulman doesn't hold back in describing all the inequities and horrors facing women and young girls. (One memorable scene has a group of young boys virtually abduct a young Sasha and pull her underwear off in a ritual humiliation). For women in the 1950s and 60s, there are limited job opportunities, sexual harassment, the drudgery of bringing up children and financial insecurity. Women's reproductive issues are brought up in some of the novel's most confronting scenes, with language so coarse (and funny) it can't be repeated here. The depiction of an abortion, and its aftermath, is a true horror, with images that will stay in the mind forever.
Both rancid comedy and feminist call-to-arms, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen may not be to everyone's taste. It's dark, brutal, caustic and funny. It's also a rollicking ride of a book, a take-no-prisoners account of 1950s womanhood and still reads as remarkably modern. An important document of the times and a marker of how much progress still needs to be made.
Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, by Alix Kates Shulman. Published by Serpent's Tail. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books