The Female Thing

The Commotion About Gender Roles
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 6 2006 1:38 PM

The Female Thing

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Hi Laura,

I feel I should be introducing myself, except for the fact that I also feel we've met somewhere before—in another life, perhaps, or in the unspoken communications that go on between writers who read one another and recognize bits of themselves. I am referring to what appears to be your impatience, which I share, with prescribed cultural attitudes—whether they arrive by way of the patriarchy or by way of feminist or post-feminist (or, for that matter, counterfeminist) authorities. In your recent book, The Female Thing, you question the latest P.C.-ish manifestations of the sexual zeitgeist—"the commotion about 'roles,' " as you put it, that we seem mired in these days—and adroitly hold it up to the scrutiny of your not quite ridicule but rather clear-eyed amusement.

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 I found myself whizzing through your reader-friendly prose (it's frequently overly casual, to my mind, and detracts from the seriousness of your underlying arguments, but I'll get to that shortly), smiling at your epigrammatic pronouncements ("it's always Value Day at the multiple-orgasm store") and witty descriptions, like the summation you provide of an episode of the painful-sounding British reality TV series Sex Inspectors: " 'She's a little bundle of insecurity,' diagnoses the perky female half of the therapeutic duo, studiously regarding a taped oral sex interlude featuring Charlotte hiding her head under a pillow while Jamie burrows away.' " Similarly, I admire your ability to state the inherent (but mostly unnoticed or unremarked-upon) glitches in a given stance in pellucid terms: "What's problematic about women's scorn for men," you quietly observe, "isn't that it's necessarily undeserved, it's that it's so steeped in disavowal. Disavowal not only takes a lot of useless intellectual effort that could be devoted to other things, but is self-deceiving." And then, in a deft shift, you move on from the issue at hand to a larger psychological truth: "Self-deception is deforming." Way to go, Laura, if I may sound like you for a moment.

Indeed, it's hard to imagine what self-respecting "gal" wouldn't warm to the way you poke holes in the largely unexamined assumptions and unconscious conflicts that inform so many of the media-manufactured trendlets of revisionist thinking that pass for wisdom in the present cultural discourse, particularly as it pertains to relations between men and women. It's hard to imagine, except for the fact that there are women—including, undoubtedly, Alexandra Jacobs, who reviewed your book in the New York Times—who don't like to be referred to as "gals." Or "chicks." I don't much care for it myself, truth be told, and devoutly wish that you would lose some of your more strenuously (not to mention irritatingly) breezy locutions in your next book. But I, unlike Jacobs, am willing to overlook your populist twang—which I attribute variously to you and your publisher's hopes for landing you an Oprah slot and to your being an academic specializing in media studies (which can't possibly be as flimsy a specialty as I conjecture it to be) rather than, say, gender studies (which would bring on a whole other unbearable vocabulary of "queering" and "privileging" and spotting "tropes" right and left)—to the unpopulist mind that lurks beneath.

So, here's the good and bad, as I see it. I like the way you tease out the flavor-of-the-month ideas that are taken as brilliant sociological insights rather than the most recent evolution of the cultural narratives we tell ourselves. (The notion of constructing narratives or stories out of our experience, the better to understand it, is one of your favorite conceits.) We need cultural critics like you, who pay close attention to low-brow appropriations as well as high-brow articulations, who recognize that ideological scripts can't leap over the "abyss between desire and intelligence" (although I'm not sure you really mean "intelligence" in this context so much as "rational thinking" or "the more evolved parts of our brain" or whatever it is that we place in opposition to our unmediated and resolutely unprogressive libidos), no matter how much we'd like to believe otherwise.

The problem of making cerebration intriguing to an elusive female audience who may prefer to watch Sex and the City reruns is one I'm all too familiar with as a commentator on books and culture for Elle, where I'm always worrying that I'll lose prospective readers to the more immediate gratifications of Jimmy Choo ads and Beyoncé interviews. But in being so intent on luring in the masses, you sell your thinking at too low a price of admission—if I may mix metaphors—with the result that you end up shoving some of your curvier (or, if you prefer, knottier) qualifications into footnotes or passing over them in haste, so the reader won't notice the less glib references—to "compensatory" mechanisms, say, or to "category violations" (a concept I've always been fascinated by)—between the many allusions to vibrators and G spots. It is also to this end, I assume, that you insist on peppering your text with a Cosmo-like seasoning of italics and exclamation marks. (Do you know that Helen Gurley Brown once said that exclamation marks were the sexiest form of punctuation? Don't you just love it?!)

Let me wind up this dialogue-in-the-form-of-a-monologue—more akin to the much-touted but intractably solitary pleasures of masturbation than the complex but (to me) preferable pleasures of sexual intercourse—at least for the moment by saying that your book identifies fascinating quandaries (between the fears of our inner female, who frets about untight abs, versus our outer feminist, who believes men should just fucking grow up!) and asks necessary questions (is it possible or even desirable to mandate sexual equity?). But The Female Thing left me with an overwhelming sense of foiled expectations, perhaps because it seemed more like a prelude to a conversation than the conversation itself. That said, I'm curious to know what your own views are on all this—why are women so afraid of implicating themselves when they write about sex?—and wonder why, given your carefully egalitarian it's-just-us-girls-talking-among-ourselves tone, you retain a Sontag-esque opaqueness when it comes to your own experience. I'm not asking for confessionalism, merely for a few illuminating personal anecdotes. Finally: Do you really believe anyone looks at Naomi Wolf's oppressively self-regarding piece in New York as paradigmatic of anything other than itself?

Looking forward to hearing back from you— 
Daphne

P.S. Just for the record, I don't know about G spots, but Germaine Greer is dead wrong about the "myth" of female ejaculation.

Daphne Merkin is the author of a novel, Enchantment, and a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler. She lives in New York City and is at work on a memoir, Melancholy Baby. 

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