Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The "Man's Woman," the "Woman's Woman," and Other Apocryphal Ladies

These women look suspiciously alike, eh?

Some years ago, my then-boyfriend said that Drew Barrymore was the ultimate “woman’s woman.” His reasoning: She stars in romantic comedies (née “chick flicks”), she seems like she might be vaguely feministy/ish (because of Charlie’s Angels, I guess?), she has her own cosmetics line, and her production company is named Flower Films, for crying out loud. Most of all, he claimed, “no men like her.” 

Now, I was willing to buy most of this, even though it was clear that by “no men like her” he simply meant he didn’t like her: A chronicle of one rando dude’s quest to go on a date with Drew Barrymore became a successful documentary, she was perpetually on those “Hottest Celebrities” lists from various men’s websites until she “aged out” by hitting thirtyish. But I understood the larger point. Drew catered to women in her work, and she didn’t seem to need to cater to men. She could be pretty and charming and normal-ish and not particularly worry about being sexy—partly because she is sexy, but mostly because she’d already tried on the vixen persona in her earlier years and found it wanting (Poison Ivy, anyone?). So, sure, she’s a woman’s woman.

I recalled this exchange years later, when talking with a friend about what exactly the term “man’s woman” meant. I defined it as a woman who had an undeniable sex appeal regardless of her physical beauty, but I’d recently heard it defined as a woman who impresses men by eating the whole cheeseburger basket while appearing to stay effortlessly thin (and, presumably, hot). This friend then defined it as someone who seemed likeable enough and attractive enough that pretty much any straight guy on the planet would be happy to take her out, without being intimidated by her. As an example of the prototypical "man's woman" she chose—you guessed it—Drew Barrymore. 

There’s plenty more to be said about Barrymore, but let’s give the poor lass a rest, and instead look at the larger question here: What is a “man’s woman”? What is a “woman’s woman”? We hear these terms being thrown around, and perhaps we’ve used them ourselves, but what do they mean?

I started poking around for the historical uses of these terms, and it turns out I’m hardly the first to seek out their precise definitions. “There are certain questions... [that] reappear at more or less irregular intervals, like comets, to throw the challenging gauntlet at the feet of every thinker not totally devoid of intelligence,” wrote an anonymous editor in an 1891 volume of Current Literature. “Of these queries none are more persistent and aggressive than that which concerns the difference between a ‘man’s woman’ and a ‘woman’s woman,’ and none have, from the woman’s point of view, been more weakly or illogically argued.” Even in those ’90s, the question was a stumper. 

According to that editorial—which is a thoroughly fascinating and remarkably relevant read—the “man’s woman” is a naturally charming woman who is “interested intelligently and sincerely in the things dear to the heart of man,” though she mustn’t be too knowledgeable about those things, lest she outshine him. The “woman’s woman” comes in two breeds: the “sympathetic” type, who, with her knowledge of needlework and social niceties, seems a mix of Martha Stewart and Jacqueline Kennedy, and the “strong” type—the “poet, thinker, leader, reformer” that inspires women and girls to go beyond the domestic sphere. Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was listed as the classic example in 1891; today it would probably be someone more like Gloria Steinem or, hell, Lady Gaga.

So we’ve got the “man’s woman” and two types of “woman’s woman,” loosely defined as the Cool Girl, the Good Wife, and the Badass. But indeed, like a comet, the question keeps coming back, and over the past 120 years plenty have given it a stab. Over the years, curious readers have learned that the “man’s woman” may be spotted by her candor and fondness for playing rough in friendships—or she may be spotted not because men like her all that much, but because women don’t like her at all. Or maybe you identify her by the way she sits “listlessly” among other women, but when a man comes along, she’s suddenly able to “brighten up and in a moment become brilliant and beautiful.” Maybe you know her because she’s Melanie Griffith, or Debra Winger, or Keith Richards’ girlfriend. Perhaps you recognize her because she quietly marries and doesn’t cause her husband any trouble—or because she’s a wretched wife who makes her husband miserable.

As for the “woman’s woman”? She is docile, inconsequential, perhaps meek—or she’s a bigger threat to the patriarchy than a man’s woman could ever be. She has unique skills in the workplace—hire a “woman’s woman” on your sales team and you have insight into the heart of all women; put her on television and you’ve got yourself a successful talk-show hostess. (Note that this essay, penned in 1971, is about the lack of female hosts on late-night talk shows. Sound familiar?) She is a hero, not a heroine, or maybe she’s just plain gay. Hell, her appeal to other women might lie in the fact that she’s more like a man than a woman. She is Eva Mendes, Kimora Lee Simmons, Pattie Boyd—who, let’s not forget, is primarily famous for marrying famous men. She is Taylor Swift.

Ah, but then! What of the woman who is defined by falling outside these (handily ambiguous) parameters? Eva Peron was neither a man's woman nor a woman's woman; Julie Christie is both; Nicole Kidman is both—well, unless you ask Nicole herself (she thinks she’s a woman’s woman). And wait—if People magazine says that Debra Winger was the man’s woman of the 1970s, then why was the high-profile documentary about the paucity of women’s onscreen roles titled Searching for Debra Winger? Could Winger be both too?

Actually, there’s nothing extraordinary about Winger in this regard, just as there’s nothing extraordinary here about Drew Barrymore, or Nicole Kidman, or Eva Peron, or any of the women who can’t be easily pigeonholed into one category or the other. In truth, neither the “man’s woman” nor the “woman’s woman” exists. But the fact that we keep coming back to these terms despite never quite agreeing on what a “man’s woman” or a “woman’s woman” is reveals that collectively, we want them to exist, or at least we want the types to exist. Not just because we like to talk genderstuffs, but because we like to talk about women: Pit the “man’s woman” against her counterpart—the ladies’ man—and she becomes even more amorphous. We know exactly what a “ladies’ man” or a “man’s man” are, even when the particulars of their guises vary. Maybe it’s harder to pin down women’s women because women are supposedly so, you know, complicated

But we can’t pin down the “woman’s woman” or her sister, because a formal classification of the two would end the conversation—and maybe that’s the top reason that we keep coming back to the question. After all, whenever the moniker is used, it says less about the woman in question, and more about the speaker (and we never tire of saying things about ourselves). And again, this isn’t a new thought: “As a matter of fact, the expressions...will nearly always be found to be based upon the contempt that one sex has for the judgment and powers of discrimination of the other…”—this from another journal printed in the 1890s. For a woman to call another of her kind a “woman’s woman” indicates an elevation of sorts, not only of the woman but of womankind—a “woman’s woman” is the prime example of her species, and what on earth would men know about women anyway?

Maybe we learn the most about the “man’s woman” and the “woman’s woman” when we look at the only thing that each of the varying definitions of the terms has in common: a belief that there’s something men want, and something women want—and ne’er the twain shall meet. It’s uncomfortable from a gender-binary perspective, naturally. But it’s just as uncomfortable from where I’m sitting, as someone who firmly identifies as female and who has plenty of traits associated with femininity. For whenever I’ve tried to puzzle out which camp I might belong in, neither one has felt satisfying. The “man’s woman” and the “woman’s woman” are each reactors, not actors in and of themselves. Each of these women fills the needs of others, even the heroic sort of “woman’s woman” who inspires other women—she’s still cast in the terms of others’ needs, not her own. 

That’s how humanity works—we all react to one another, we’re social creatures—so in some ways it’s not all that problematic. But the fact that we’ve come up with dozens of ways to figure out how women might fill the needs of others by being a “man’s woman” or a “woman’s woman” says that we’re still more willing to cast women in supporting roles, not leads. That’s changing every day, of course. Now let’s let the “man’s woman” and the “woman’s woman” be part of that change by disappearing.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Laurie Penny's "Unspeakable Things"

There are two reasons it’s taken me longer than it should have to write out my thoughts on Laurie Penny’s newest book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution. The first is technical: I’ve been ostriching from pretty much everything for the past couple of months while working on other projects, and am only now coming back to things like blogging and social media and leaving the house. 

The second is personal: It made me mad.

At this point, for readers who—we’ve all done it—prefer not to voyage beyond the first two paragraphs of a piece, allow me to assure you that Penny’s book is excellent. But it might make you mad, and not only at the patriarchy. If you’re a good girl, it might make you a little mad at that very fact.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Instead, let’s begin where Penny begins in chapter 1: a treatment ward for women with severe eating disorders. Much of what has been written about feminism and eating disorders frames these diseases inaccurately, linking a girl’s refusal to eat to her wish to be more like the skinny ladies in all the magazines, the takeaway being that an unrealistic beauty standard—which, yes, is a feminist concern—is to blame. As Penny puts it about the cultural puzzlings over eating disorders, “The best answer we seem to have come up with is ‘magazines.’ This says rather more about what society thinks goes on in the minds of teenage girls than it does about the cause of an epidemic…” In fact, when I went through an outpatient treatment program for my own disordered eating, I had a definite idea of the kinds of women I would find there. They would be smart overachievers, sure, but they would be caught in the tragic game of trying to be what our culture expects of women—thin, pretty, docile—and isn’t it a shame that they don’t recognize their own potential? They wouldn’t be feminists, they wouldn’t be rebels, and they sure as hell wouldn’t be politicized. And I sure as hell was proven wrong on my first day there. 

I don’t want to glamorize women with eating disorders for their rebellion any more than I want to glamorize them for thinness. But when I read one particular passage from Unspeakable Things, the chill of recognition slithered through me: 

“In Italy, there is a tradition called ‘sciopero bianco’—the white strike. In English-speaking countries, it is known as work-to-rule. Workers who are not permitted to strike fight their bosses by doing only what is required of them—to the letter. Nurses refuse to answer phones that ring at 17:01. Transport workers make safety checks so rigid that the trains run hours behind schedule. Eating disorders and other forms of dangerous self-harm are to riots in the streets what a white strike is to a factory occupation: women, precarious workers, young people and others for whom the lassitudes of modern life routinely produce acute distress and for whom the stakes of social non-conformity are high, lash out by doing only what is required of them, to the point of extremity. Work hard, eat less, consume frantically; be thin and perfect and good, conform and comply, push yourself to the point of collapse. … We all followed the rules, sufferers seem to be saying—now look what you made us do.”

Penny understands eating disorders as a form of rebellion because she’s been there, and not because she was quite literally dying to be thin. Her clear-minded thinking that cuts to the quick allowed her to regard her time in treatment as instructive in the politicization that now characterizes much of her work. And it’s important to understand that the rebellion of eating disorders is not in refusing to eat, but in its angry nod to the good girl. You want me to be a good girl? Fine, I’ll be a goddamn perfect girl. Fuck you, I’ll disappear, how’s that? It’s a warped logic, sure, but eating disorders are warped. It’s logic all the same.

So at some point around here in my reading I began to get mad. I got mad because I’ve spent years trying to understand my own eatingstuffs and my own warped logic, and had come to categorize my improper behaviors as symptomatic of my chronic good-girl-ism: rule-following to the extreme, but with compliance, not the whiff of rebellion, as the goal. Good-girl-ism had become a part of my own personal mythology to the point where I didn’t question it anymore, which means, of course, that I have an investment in protecting the good girl. For I still think of myself that way—a good girl, despite being 38 years old, which should tell us something about exactly how much power we believe the good girl can ever truly have. I do what is expected of me, and indeed, of women in general. I cooperate, I play nice, I am a member of the getalong gang. And part of this shows up in the dress-up clothes of my own politicization: I couldn’t get on board with the whole “ironic misandry” thing because so much of my energy as a feminist over the years has gone into turning cartwheels for men in an attempt to prove to them that feminism isn’t the big, bad, scary monster their bro-friends might have painted it to be. No, feminism can be friendly! Feminism is concerned about men too! Feminists give better head!

And, you know, all of this is true (ahem). But the ring of recognition I felt upon reading Penny’s idea of eating disorders as a “white strike” against the constraints placed upon women’s social roles was too true to ignore. If a beating heart of anger and rebellion—not, as I’d construed it, good-girl-ism—was underneath my own disordered eating all along, then what did that say for the good-girl ways I’d championed feminism for years?

What Laurie Penny calls for in this book is mutiny. Mutiny against the mythology of “falling apart elegantly,” as we’ve constructed eating disorders to be; mutiny against the careful persona curation of social media, which so many women have mastered because we’re so used to being thought of as commodities. Mutiny for sex workers and men who are tired of the patriarchy too and for women who question the institutionalization of “love,” and all of the other people whom Penny addresses in the bulk of the book—which is about far more than eating disorders and good girls, and functions much as a primer on where feminism could go if we want it to. Mutiny against the idea that for queer youth, “It Gets Better” should be sufficient protection in a world where it should be better now. Mutiny against feminism as a show pony strictly for women who have the time, money, and social platform to be the public face of feminism.

I’m a believer in the idea that it takes all types to create lasting social change. It takes palatable feminism, it takes unpalatable feminism. It takes radical feminism, it takes theft of the master’s tools, it takes the servants living in the master’s house who realize how nice it is once their quarters are dismantled. It takes “bro feminists” and humanists and sassy little girls, and the quiet ones too. It takes mutiny. Reading Unspeakable Things didn’t make me think otherwise, not exactly. What it did do was make me question the connection between “good girl feminism” and “good girl”-ism itself. Specifically, what our love of the good girl means for those moments when feminism becomes hip enough to, say, be a focal point of something like the MTV Video Music Awards. I’ll always be glad to see pretty much anyone call themselves a feminist, and as Penny writes in a section that serves as a treatise on The Slut, I’m wary of drawing distinctions between “good” and “bad” women, feminists included. 

But when you immerse yourself in the possibility of mutiny—even if only for as long as it takes you to read Unspeakable Things—it makes you a bit testy at the limits of what face of feminism is likely to be beamed onto the main stage. And it might even make you a little bit testy at the ways you’ve been complicit in those limits, without ever having intended to do so.