Ensoulment, based on a documentary by Loris Simon Salum, is a series of interviews with gender experts from a range of different disciplines across North America, in an attempt to get at the root of gender disparity in western society. Its focus isn’t simply on men and women, but on a more amorphous topic – the feminine principle. The book spends a while trying to nail down what exactly “the feminine” is. Salum – along with her many sources – makes it clear that it’s more than any biological or psychological difference between men and women. Most simply, it’s an idea forwarded by the psychologist Carl Jung, who proposed that every unconscious mind has a balance of feminine and masculine traits. In the most general sense, “feminine” applies to traits of emotion and spirituality, where “masculine” applies to traits of independence and assertiveness. The terms are interpreted broadly and find many definitions in many voices before the end of the book.
Throughout the book, Salum’s goals in collecting these interviews evolved over the course of the project’s creation. Its main function is to act as a wide net of information collected from a variety of extremely knowledgeable resources. Some of the sources’ testimony is aligned; others contradict each other. Some of them even contradict things that most would consider to be feminist: in one interview, a successful businesswoman recommended playing into established gender roles for greater success and harmony in business interactions. The interview goes on to explain the why and how and ends up uncovering an alternative line of thinking that would have been unthinkable to me prior to reading this book.
The role of masculine and feminine traits in the political sphere was referenced by a fair number of sources as an easy example at one of the highest levels of power. Hillary Clinton was referenced often, but because the book was released in 2016 and compiled throughout the course of three years before publication, most references are examples that took place before her 2016 presidential candidacy. Though this was nothing the author or series of experts could have predicted, I imagine that many of them would have had a thing or two to say about the circumstances of the 2016 election, and I’d be curious to hear their impressions.
One of the most enjoyable qualities of the book was Salum’s own impressions about the process of finding sources and conducting these interviews, which was a family affair. Each chapter begins with a short biography of the interviewee’s accomplishments, followed by a short paragraph explaining how Salum first encountered each expert and her personal impressions. It struck me during reading that this style in itself was a very feminine/masculine balanced practice – beginning with a more “masculine” factual list of accomplishments and ending with a more “feminine” intuition-based personal description. This is exactly the kind of book that would stir oodles of discussion in any women’s studies, gender studies, or communication class. While reading, I became nostalgic for my own gender studies projects, which included a senior research project about how the average reader perceives masculine and feminine language patterns. This book would have been an invaluable resource to me because it covers so many aspects of gender and communication so broadly – including the role of the feminine in religion, the falsification of matriarchal history, the potential harmful effects of male emotional suppression, and everything in between.
Though I am not sure Ensoulment would be the best introduction to someone exploring these topics for the first time, this is a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in gender studies or a curiosity about the way gender works at its most basic psychological level. I hope to see Salum drill down even more on some of these topics in her future projects.
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