The Female Thing

What Makes a Genuine Subversive?
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 8 2006 3:56 PM

The Female Thing

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Laura,

Not to beat—or spank—a dead horse, but I think this is the perfect moment for me to point out that context matters, in writing as in life. The piece I wrote on spanking appeared in The New Yorker, let's recall, and not a women's magazine or Playboy. Part of the reason it created and continues to create the frisson it did was: 1) that I wrote it (and as much as you like to focus on my confessional impulses, I'm known more for the rigor of my thinking on everyone from Freud to W.G. Sebald, and everything from the place of religion in a secular culture to child abuse, than I am for revelations about my erotic preferences); and 2) its venue. I will only add—if for no reason other than for the point-scoring side of the record, which seems to be one of your implicit concerns here—that if everyone were so goddamned comfortable with admitting to liking a good spanking now or then, or with discussing any other tiny sexual deviation from the norm in a public forum—especially in "straight" publications that pride themselves on the seriousness and intelligence of their writers—you wouldn't be stuck on that long-ago piece in the way you are, clutching at it as evidence of my fascinating but disturbing tendency toward self-disclosure.

This brings me to something else that occurred to me both when reading your book and again when reading your responses here, something that I think trips you up on your way to getting the kind of critical response you would ideally like. It seems to me that you confuse violating the formal rhetoric of a discourse, by employing tough-guy and/or chick-lit diction, with actually challenging its assumptions. Let me explain what I mean by asking you a simple question: Do you really think about sex in your own head in terms of "getting laid" or not "getting laid"? Aside from the fact that I have no idea how you got from the subject of parental disappointment to my piece in the TimesMagazine in the first place (and, again, context is everything: It was written in response to Gail Sheehy's ridiculous proclamations about octogenarian babeness), I don't believe in the second that the piece "scared" you for even a minute—given that it said nothing that you must not have observed yourself, namely that as they age, women become less desirable as sexual objects. I'm stymied by your insistence on using, well, irritatingly juvenile locutions like "hot sex" and "getting laid" and "kinda" on the one hand, and professing to admire the don't-touch-me-I'm-with-Sartre prose of someone like Sontag on the other.

That said, I don't believe anyone, male or female, suffers a reduction in intellectual gravitas by choosing to enter the conversation personally, especially when it's a charged one. That kind of thinking leads to the worst sort of macho journalism, where any psychological insight is seen as threatening to the patriarchal status quo because it suggests that everyone, including the writer—and the editors behind the writer!—has an inner life that impinges upon his or her reported observations. Acting as though you are indeed that famous fly on the wall—without your own reasons for seeing things the way you do—leads to disingenuous writing at best and obtuse posturing at worst. It has nothing to do with exhibitionism or blowing smoke about expanding the sexual horizons of womankind. (Although who, I might ask, has ever written anything without the hope of finding an echo, unless you're keeping notebooks in an isolation booth?)

Finally, I remain convinced that you would have given your book a greater resonance if you had dared to implicate yourself in the whole raging confusion about roles. Surely you yourself must have grappled with finding men immature or disappointing or whatever it is they are. And I don't think it clarifies anything, by the by, to wonder whether it is realistic or "feminist" to call men childish (of course it isn't feminist—it's as old as the Wife of Bath). But all this, as they say, is what makes horseracing, to return to the opening image of this entry. One woman's idea of being a genuine subversive is another woman's idea of letting it all hang out too much, just as your idea of maintaining a critical distance might be my idea of being unreflective. So, I'm off. It's been fun, kinda, although what began on my part in a spirit of generosity seems to have ended in something of a ... what does girl culture call it when the mutual claws begin to show? A catfight?

Daphne

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.