Roiha, Taija: Producing the Relatively Average Self: Deconstructing the Politics of Mediocrity in Women’s Contemporary Autofiction

Saara Turunen’s Sivuhenkilö (“The Bystander”, 2018) is an artist novel written by a recognized Finnish author and director-scriptwriter. It is a description of one year on its protagonist’s life, beginning from the publishing of her debut novel and ending on the novel being awarded with a prestigious literary prize. The back cover of the book clearly suggests the novel to be read as autofiction, as it is stated to be a story of “a year on its authors’ life”. On paper, this particular year sounds like a successful one, with its book launch and award. Yet the protagonist does not experience is as such, but constantly feels herself as the “bystander” of her own life. The protagonist’s life is described as very ordinary, lacking any glamour often associated with success. Why so, and what are the political implications of such an emphasis given on ordinariness?

In recent feminist (popular) culture studies, the concept of postfeminism has been central. Postfeminism has been described as a sensibility attached to the cultural landscape of neoliberal capitalism, in which femininity is being highly valued while questions of gender inequality are simultaneously dismissed. In postfeminist culture, successful and exceptional young women are often presented as ideal subjects, in which the promise of change and progress become embodied. (E.g. Gill, 2007; McRobbie, 2009.) In literature and literary studies, the analysis of postfeminism has largely focused on chick lit. However, as suggested by Yanbing Er (2018), women’s contemporary autofiction also serves as an important location for both the production as well as challenging of postfeminist ideals.

Based on such premises, this presentation aims at answering to the following: What are the political implications of “ordinariness” produced in contemporary women’s autofiction, and how are these implications related to the production or challenging of the postfeminist ideal subject? As my case in point, I will focus on the construction of the authorial subject in Turunen’s novel Sivuhenkilö. Based on my analysis, I argue that the performance of ordinariness carries within two contrary forms of political meaning. First, pleading for ordinariness can work as a refusal and a critique towards the postfeminist ideal subject, which requires individuals to constantly perform themselves in the best possible light. Second the performance of ordinariness can also work as a means for downgrading one’s privileged position in terms of for instance social class.