It is a simply stunning and warm sunny day, though the air is slightly cool. J and I go to dinner at 6PM at Cadiz before we watch the season 2 premiere of House of Cards. When Frank and Claire ran off into the darkness, we groaned. February seemed forever away and now, of course, it’s here.
Sunday I fly to New York for 19 days and because I hate to return to a pigsty of a vehicle, I got a great carwash and feel very organized (with all material objects accounted for, a rare condition in my life).
I saw Gloria Steinem last night at the Arlington and was on the fence about whether or not to blog about it. Beyond the crucially vital point that a woman’s freedom, power, and self-determination reside in controlling all aspects of her body–including reproduction–I find I have less and less sympathy for this particularized, shallow, facile, reductive feminism even an old Second Waver like Steinem peddles to younger women and peers alike.
Many times during the lecture, I had to control the urge to shout at the top of my lungs. I ended up talking to myself on the 15 minute drive home. Had a police officer pulled me over (oh, I never did get the new DMV tags and did get a fix-it ticket for 10 bucks in Montecito yesterday), he would have tested me for alcohol and found me to be well under the legal limit.
I’m sure that any trace of the Grenache at Olio Pizzeria two or so hours earlier was neutralized by the desire to scream: “What kind of nonsense is this? ‘There is no masculine or feminine?'” I did no better with the re-hashing (to gushing applause) of the dumbest line in Obama’s recent State of the Union address: “When women succeed, America succeeds.” What kind of idiocy is this, I repeated silently to myself throughout the rest of the lecture.
Feminism was never about women succeeding or thriving at the expense of men. At its best, it was both about mutuality, respect and collaboration on the one hand, and choice on the other. Hillary was much and unfairly maligned for her crack about baking cookies. My mother, a legal superstar on the short list to be Bill Clinton’s Attorney General, ate donuts with Bill and Hillary in their Little Rock kitchen and she never baked a cookie or a cake for my birthday because she didn’t much cook and she never baked.
As she once joked, it was “an act of love” not to bake me something from scratch, as I was always eager to please and wary of hurting anyone’s feelings (clearly, I got over both of those compunctions). She was therefore sparing me the need to lie, as well as any internal conflict or discomfort that might create. And whatever issues my mother and I had (entirely about my difficult father), no one is more nurturing, kind, gentle and giving than Andrea. She can’t, however, cook much more than (great) French toast and basic chicken and vegetables, cooking steak “scares” her, and she doesn’t sew, garden, knit or do anything else domestic.
Please note that the views here expressed are entirely my own and should not in any way be taken as those of my illustrious and wonderful mother. In fact, Mom is fairly horrified that I asked a critical question and after I finished my rant over the phone, her response was: “I bet they were happy when you sat down.” “Oh no,” I clarified, “I was the second to ask a question at the mic in the front and promptly departed as one more minute in the theater might have spontaneously induced hives of frustration.”
Mom and I are on the same page about violence against women, reproductive freedom, and equal opportunity, but we pretty much part company there. Reproductive freedom matters not just to bourgeois or poor American women but to women all over the world having babies in unfathomably inhumane conditions. Pregnancy is a leading cause of death in the Third World (LDC if you’re one of those PC types).
It’s not that Gloria isn’t charming, and if she cut about 50% of her talk last night (the dumb 50% of course), I would have enjoyed it much more. She’s as beautiful as ever and quite sexy really. Her voice is mellifluous and graceful. And at her best, her passion is sincere and moving. I believe her heart is in the right place, then and now.
She began her speech with a confession: like many women of her generation, who as little girls saw show business as a way out of poverty (the way boys view professional sports), she was overwhelmed by seeing her name on the marquee of a “movie palace.” As a child, she imagined she’d tap her way onto the big screen, though she conceded she hadn’t quite figured out how this would happen.
I wish she spoke more in this vein and given that she’s famous for equating the personal and professional, one would think she might speak in a more self-reflexive mode. It might have been nice for her to address her decision to marry in her 60s and explain how this could be understood in light of her comments years ago about marriage. But the lecture was no more than an extended plug for her new book, so she confined her remarks to The Longest Revolution.
When the philanthropist responsible for much of the UCSB Arts and Lectures series’ success gave the fawning, formal introduction and insisted on picking out the worst sentence in SOTU, I knew it was going to be a long evening. I have often blogged about my year-long trauma at Westlake junior year in Intro Calc which managed in one year to dispel all the good feelings my nice Christian Science 10th grade Algebra II and Trigonometry teacher had instilled in me about the discipline. It’s been about four years since my last Ms. Morrow nightmare, in which Yale revokes my early admission and I don’t even graduate from high school because I failed the final. Sometimes I don’t go to the class for a semester and fail the course.
But if 50% of Americans are women and the 50% who are male are currently succeeding, then it’s hardly a newsflash that if that female 50% succeeded, all Americans would succeed. 50% + 50% =100%. I don’t need to consult any of my math whiz Facebook friends like Peter Shalen, a tenured professor and grandpa in Chicago with a doctorate and undergraduate degree in math from Harvard.
What Obama meant (I hope), is that when women experience favorable conditions under which to raise families (affordable childcare is of course a major problem), they can both contribute to society in the workplace and also raise decent, human, ethical citizens who will contribute to America’s prosperity and sustain other values we hold dear. But the way he said it (and someone else, no doubt, wrote it), this particular sound byte made him sound like an idiot stating the obvious, and worse, like someone who thinks American women are idiots governed exclusively by emotion and devoid of the critical thinking skills to notice that he just said a lot of nothing.
I won’t here take up the statistics about equal pay, namely, the 77 cents on the dollar figure we hear so often. I’m not an economist and I don’t have the patience to sift through the research on this, but I read a lot on Facebook among erudite conservatives which lead me to believe there is more to equal pay than the “77 cents” figure would have us suggest.
Steinem claims that if women received equal pay, it would stimulate the economy because women would spend more and therefore jobs would be created. I can’t remember (and didn’t write down) the figure she cited but based on the rest of her speech and its general lack of rigor, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that her grasp of economics is roughly equal to her grasp of pornography. She did quote a think tank, but I have a strong hunch that this is a left-wing outfit and I wouldn’t assume anything she quoted was uncontroversial on that score.
Along these lines, Steinem is fond of a book called Sex and World Peace put out by Columbia University Press, which she believes “proves” the thesis that violence against women in a nation is predictive of its military aggression. Immediately, the critic in me objected to her choice of verb. What happened to the more modest “argue,” “claim,” posit,” “hypothesize,” or “seeks to establish?” Some outlier foreign policy thesis by a group of scholars from Texas A&M, BYU and University of Minnesota at Duluth–which on her account downplays geopolitics in the nuclear age and focuses exclusively on this gendered premises–would be better served with a humbler verb. As acting coaches say, less is more.
Things got considerably rockier when she said that she hoped after the speech, people would come to the microphones not to ask questions of a lecturer in a conventional Q and A format–God forbid we leave any conventions in place–but rather to form an intimate circle instead of hierarchical rows. (She’s big on circles and hostile to right angles, which she says don’t appear in nature, a point I never understood.) You get where I’m going with this, I trust. Hierarchy, she said, is patriarchy and patriarchy is bad. Ugh. Just painful.
At Yale, I heard some students complain about lectures, whether given by male or female professors. They preferred seminars of 20 or so people, where everyone sat around a large wooden conference table and exchange ideas in a more collaborative way. I first heard this in 11th or 12th grade in New Haven. The debate star of her year, Amy Waldman (now a successful author who graduated from Westlake three years ahead of me in 1987) showed me, the debate star of my year, around campus. At lunch before a seminar on Virginia Woolf, Amy told me she didn’t like or love the lecture to which she’d brought me earlier. I thought it was spectacular and after the visit, I was even more certain Yale was the place for me.
But I often preferred lectures to seminars except for the ones where the professor did 80% of the talking (and luckily that was most of them). If I wanted to hear other students talk, I’d initiate a conversation at the dining hall. Isn’t the point of paying an arm and a leg for college brushing elbows against the proverbial best and the brightest? And as someone who took classes at UCLA, UCSB and Yale, I can without hesitation say that the caliber of discussion at Yale (both at the undergraduate and graduate levels) was light years from the caliber of discussion at both my UCs. But even the most brilliant senior at Yale is not going to hold a candle to a member of the junior or senior faculty at Yale.
Leaving aside the fact that humans are not egalitarian by nature, I’m not sure hierarchy is altogether bad. When unqualified leaders assume positions of power, it’s obviously bad. But it’s not the phenomenon of hierarchy, per se, that is the problem. Of course this is all part of Steinem’s garbage about sexuality not being about domination, or at least not ideally about this. Tell that to the CEO and shareholders of Barnes and Noble. Their first profitable quarter in a long time came when Fifty Shades of Grey became a veritable sensation in America. And the New York Times has been on quite a marriage and relationships tear of late, most recently this last Sunday in Does A More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?
Surprise, surprise: egalitarian marriages are better, stronger and happier than marriages which aren’t, but sex in such marriages is less good and/or less frequent. No one’s talking about a pre-Betty Friedan marriage structurally analogous to, but qualitatively dissimilar from, the popular 1950s shows which idealized a model of domesticity which seemed to capture little of the experience of women Friedan described in The Feminine Mystique. I reread that egregiously written but culturally significant tome when the anniversary edition came out. Anna Quindlen’s introduction was the best part of a book which was at least four times too long.
Still, Friedan–who was not even close to middle class and who may or may not have abused her husband, though she for years claimed it was the reverse–captured an essential truth about the experience of American women. Interestingly, my mother, one of 12 women out of 350 or so men in the UCLA Law class of 1965, never read it. She was working her way through law school and realizing the Women’s Movement in real time, so she had no time to read about it. Nor, she told me, did the few women in her circle, when it first hit the shelves.
That I can be militantly childless and in a longterm relationship of 3.5 years with a wonderful man I live with 7 months a year only is in part a tribute to Friedan. Women like me–secular, well-educated, confident, emotionally independent, openly sexual, highly feminine and very outspoken–were outcasts. In Salem, I would have been burned at the stake as a witch. Of this I have no doubt.
But the New York Times, among other publications, has focused much attention on the large number of longterm marriages which the author of Marriage Confidential called the “low conflict melancholy marriage.” Somewhere between not great but not good enough to break up and decent but boring, seems to be the topic du jour.
Just a few weeks ago, the editor of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times wrote an excellent and funny piece, “Good Enough? That’s Great”, which is part of a book-length project about his years as editor of this popular weekly column. The takeaway was that sexual attraction and passion seems to wither when men and women share household work and other family duties beyond a certain point.
One woman admitted she finds her husband sexiest when he is just back from the gym and his muscles still glistening with sweat. Women find men who can do male tasks (fix things around the house) sexy and while they claim to want a man to do laundry, this doesn’t seem actually to get them in the mood. One woman admits that her husband pulling out the vacuum killed the sexual vibe.
Women have firefighter and cop fantasies for a reason: there is something, which of course feminists never want to admit is biological or hard-wired, sexually compelling for many women about a man with a tool belt. In Ted Demme’s excellent Beautiful Girls (1996), Matt Dillon plays a snow plower with his own small business. His ex-high school sweetheart, wickedly portrayed by Lauren Holly, is “mean as a snake” in the words of the fat boy at the 10th high school reunion say when he sees her improbably alone.
Dillon’s character has a beer with Holly’s white collar husband (and father of her daughter) with a new BMW. The husband asks, “What is it about girls? They always get wet around a guy with tool belt.” Vulgar, perhaps. But true oftener than a “liberated” woman might like to believe. Men who can fight and shoot are sexy and I’ve never been attracted to men with wimpy, puny shoulders. Women have to do a lot to look pretty and sexy–and it costs a small fortune after the fillers, creams, hair products, color appointments, haircuts, clothes, makeup, jewelry and other accessories–but men just have to pump iron and stay in shape to be sexually appealing.
Steinem wants to go back 600 or 700 years (or far beyond that) to claim that humans really don’t crave hierarchy and further, that masculine and feminine don’t exist except as a construct of our minds. I don’t know if she says this in the sold out book she was plugging, The Longest Generation, but I have it in my notes. She has this off-the-wall notion of human nature which doesn’t match anything I ever studied at three universities in literature, history, or philosophy. Of course, I was a big fan of the Western Canon so I studied a lot of “patriarchal literature,” not some third-rate tribal poetry of minimal aesthetic significance or literary value.
(Of course, if Steinem were a literary critic rather than an activist, she’d be the worst Cultural Studies drone ever, and object to the very idea of “literary value” and the discussion of form. To people determined to make everything about race, class, gender and sexuality, it’s not merely incomplete or insensitive, but violent, imperialistic, sexist, and homophobic to read a text from a predominantly formal or aesthetic standpoint. Denying the category of the aesthetic is a given with these people.
My dissertation about George Eliot, arguably the greatest female novelist in English–much deeper, more serious and philosophical than Jane Austen–made nothing of her gender. Why? Because Eliot didn’t want to be seen as a female author: the real violence to her texts would be reading feminist principles into them. Such critics do more “violence” to the text by their impositions than someone like me does by respecting the terms on which the author hoped to be judged.)
In fairness, Steinem acknowledges much that is base and instinctual in human history and argues that this has been the obstacle to equality (and the reason the Women’s Movement has 60 or so years to go). To Steinem, those who claim the Women’s Movement is “over” because it achieved its goals–“a polite form of opposition”–are the enemy. We have work to do and in Santa Barbara County, more women are living in poverty than men. Santa Barbara is one of the most expensive places in America and it really is a marvel that anyone–even with some modest public assistance–living on minimum wage manages not to be homeless.
The prevailing sense I got was that as time has passed, Steinem has moved further and further out of touch with the realities of human nature (which of course any feminist theorist would call “essentialist” and then spew pages of illegibly written jargon to explain why essentialism is bad). Yes, I paid my feminist criticism and theory dues and it’s a miracle I didn’t take up drinking just to get through it. Donna Haraway and other feminists I had to read in graduate school really were that mind-numbing and irritating.
Too, Steinem peppers her talk about gender with vaguely anti-capitalist critiques. She claims that Obama’s stimulus did nothing for women and everything for bankers. Uh, shovel ready jobs was the stated intention and those who believe Obama’s stimulus failed because it was too small (Paul Krugman, say) didn’t generally make the point that the stimulus package explicitly (or implicitly, to my recollection) about saving bankers.
Just as she thinks masculinity is either a fiction or something to be repressed, though mercifully, she doesn’t trot out the insane Dworkin view that all penetration is essentially rape and in fact claims not to be anti-sex as long as sex remains focused on mutual pleasure rather than domination, Steinem seems to think that we’re all born socialists. Try getting two toddlers to share a toy: it will not end with hand-holding and kisses. Any child analyst or therapist with half a brain understands the developmental significance of “mine” in a child’s vocabulary.
My question to Steinem after the speech concerned an earlier distinction she made between pornography and erotica. Since she didn’t elaborate, I wanted to understand how she distinguished between the two. She had also noted that root of the word “pornography” was “slave.” Though I received a grad fellowship at UCSB after Yale, I never took Latin or Greek so didn’t know this tidbit about the etymology of porn.
But I’m guessing the average consumer of porn, whether the sort of man Denis Leary sang about so memorably in his megabit “Asshole” from No Cure for Cancer, or the Goldman Sachs banker who finds watching porn less trouble than wining and dining a quality girl who doesn’t do booty calls, doesn’t know this. So how, I wondered, does the etymology of a word few if any male consumers of porn actually know translate to the atrocities of sex trafficking and gang rape?
She didn’t have much of an answer. She said merely that if we substituted a racial or homophobic term for sex or woman, and imagined an art form based on white men beating blacks, there would be an uproar. The problem of course is that Gloria Steinem appears to know less about porn than I do about plumbing.
A short digression is in order. In 1998, I decided I needed to spruce up my dreary one-bedroom apartment I often refer to as Death Gardens. It was a decently-sized one-bedroom, 660 feet or so. After I successful installed doorknobs and cabinet pulls, I decided to go all out and buy beautiful brass towel racks and shower fixtures. The man at Home Depot in Oxnard didn’t ask me if I knew how to install these things, nor did he lead me to believe that it was any harder than replacing a doorknob. This is one of J’s favorite Victoria stories. I simply thought I’d unscrew the tub spout, shower fixture and drain and replace with the ever so much more lovely brass fixtures I thought would vastly improve my dreary graduate school apartment.
My grasp of plumbing is roughly equivalent to Steinem’s knowledge of porn. Admittedly, I know a lot more about the porn business than most girls of my background. I became acquainted with a very famous nude photographer with his own website who had been a senior editor at Penthouse in the Guccione era. I had never seen an issue of Playboy, much less Cheri or Hustler, until 36. I certainly never saw porn film, though when I gave up Cinemax many years ago, I noticed that there seemed to be fewer and fewer clothes on these actors whose terrible films ran after Letterman. But in 2008, I did become acquainted with some women who worked in that industry (including one who did extensions for Vivid models).
Steinem did not give me an example of erotica but her examples of porn (pierced labias and door handles jammed up a vagina) convince me she could not give you even a basic sketch of the categories of nude photography or film. Most industry people, at least the photographers, do not consider what they produce to be pornography. Porn is sex on camera. Put simply, if there’s no fucking, it’s not porn. Solo girl masturbation videos have become a fixture of sites like Digital Desire as well as Penthouse Forum (the online version I think).
Steinem can’t even distinguish between a photograph of a girl by herself and a photograph of a girl with a guy, so what chance is there that she will be able to distinguish between a picture and a movie? Or different kinds of fetish porn, not all or which are of the BDSM variety which isn’t in any case a monolith?
As with extreme gun control advocates who have no idea how a gun actually works, having never shot one, held one, or studied one even in diagrams, the anti-porn feminists seem not to have the foggiest notion of what’s out there, much less who is watching what and what percentage of the American market might be termed “hardcore.”
My former acquaintance told me that Americans drive the really sick and perverted porn market, while the Europeans and Asians as a whole (this was 2008) have a more sophisticated and aesthetic sensibility. I’ve heard from Germans I know that this is nonsense and that Germans like the sick and twisted images just as much as the lowbrow American male who may also live in the Bible Belt where such desires are so far repressed, that when they do at last emerge, the desires are more twisted and sick than they ever would have been were it not for the sexual puritanism which still dominates the South in and out of politics.
I didn’t get to ask my second question: What does Steinem think of Nation piece about toxic feminist Twitter wars? My mother hates what she regards as the total absence of civility in political discourse. She cringes at the things I report having written on Facebook–small potatoes next to the shit feminists hurl at one another in 140 characters or less–so she felt downright ill reading the piece I emailed her.
Nor did I get to ask Steinem what she makes of the tendency of America’s far left feminists to downplay the human rights atrocities of Muslim countries. This is often the same crowd quick to condemn Israel’s perceived human rights violations and look the other way every time a Palestinian does something bad. Much to my surprise, she didn’t sugarcoat the horrors of countries governed by Sharia and I preferred to press her about pornography, on which she is very weak.
On balance, Gloria Steinem’s crusade for reproductive freedom makes her an American heroine, if a very irritating and often misguided one. Contrary to smug fiscal conservatives and social liberals who say there is nothing to worry about on the score of abortion, safe and legal access to abortion is very much in danger throughout much of America.
Vigilance is necessary because pro-lifers are aggressive and some of them do nothing in the world but raise kids and march in rallies or write blogs with fetuses plastered everywhere (you’d think one would be sufficient to make the point). Abortion is also not a “single issue” in the sense people claim. It is the single most economically determinative factor in a woman’s life. To call it a “single issue” is to say that food and shelter are “single issues.”
I’m often asked, especially since in four weeks at the age of 42, I will be blissfully, deliberately infertile, why this issue matters so much to me. For readers following this saga, I decided to go for the tubal ligation instead of the partial hysterectomy and to live 24 hours a month on Vicodin when cramps disable me on the first day of my period instead of endangering my metabolism, skin and hair, all of which matter a great deal to me because I’m extremely vain and attached to my appearance. I know none of that should change if you leave your ovaries, but I am a fit, youthful 42 with no health problems. It seems extreme to yank out most of my female plumbing just to avoid 24 hours of pain every month.
But supporting reproductive freedom isn’t about a girl who attended exclusively private schools and never worked or thought about tuition or any other bills until graduate school. A woman from the upper middle class or above can always find a clinic in another state or country. Reproductive freedom matters for women without high-powered careers, inheritances, wealthy spouses, or some combination of the three. And if “sisterhood” means anything, women of means should care about the plight of those in less fortunate situations.
The I can discuss my period and hysterectomy deliberations openly on the internet is yet another freedom we owe the pioneering feminists. I just wish Steinem and her heirs were less grating and more rigorous. Ultimately, I have to put up with all the nauseating nonsense about patriarchy and hierarchy that makes me want to scream in the middle of a lecture at the Arlington because reproductive freedom–a profound human rights issue- is just that important.