Friday, July 22, 2011

Cinderella Ate My Sister

In an attempt to expand my literary horizons this summer, I have read several novels by Philip Roth and John Updike, both central figures in twentieth century American literature that I had up to now neglected. I am a new and ardent fan of both.

I may not have noticed the way they portray women had I not read six of their novels and a short story in so rapid succession. In any one novel you only see the portrayal of one or a few women. But in six novels you see patterns and themes. And even these I may not have noticed if it weren't for other books I happened to read (e.g. Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein and Household Words by Joan Silber) and other events in my life in the last few months. This has unwittingly become my summer of--hmm, what to call it? Feminism awareness? Or something like that.

I remember, as a very young and already very devoted reader, feeling a strange combination of shame and pride in my realization that I didn't like female authors. I changed my mind in high school when I read Toni Morrison and Flannery O'Conner, but still basically saw them as exceptions to my rule, which holds with only a few more exceptions even now.

At Georgia Tech, the low fraction of women at the university and role of women in the sciences was the issue that wasn't. It was constantly brought up, but only as a source of twisted survivor's mentality pride among the women or sexual frustration among the men. The female students were never truly bothered by being in the minority. It didn't provide any noticeable barriers and it made us feel special.

In the first year of grad school I led a discussion on women in academia at a conference for undergraduate scholars, started attending Berkeley's new Women in Economics group, and even started listening to Slate's DoubleX Gabfest. In grad school women's issues become much more of a reality although they are still poorly defined and difficult to exactly pinpoint. There is so much more to an economics PhD program than just objectively succeeding on exams. So much of it is the way you present yourself, the way you assert yourself, the types of goals you set and commitments you make, and your relationships with peers and professors. None of that is a distinctly "woman's issue," or at least we feel unsure whether we can say it is.

Here is just a small example. I once had a professor tell me that the research I was working on was cute. He didn't mean anything wrong by it I'm sure, but it still seemed like a demeaning remark for an older male to make to a younger female. I highly doubt he would have used that word to a male student. And when I told a male friend closer to my age, he didn't get why I had a problem with it at all.

My professor, Roth, and Updike grew up and at least started their careers before the second wave of the women's movement. Roth and Updike were both criticized for their portrayals of women: "unflattering representations that served merely as passive and vapid backdrops to the more complicated, albeit neurotic, male protagonists." Updike later tried to improve his portrayal of women in The Witches of Eastwick (1984) and S. (1988) which he described as "a very determined attempt to write about women who did have careers of a sort." S., the first Updike novel I read, is an epistolary novel in which we are privy only to the correspondences sent by Sarah, a woman who has flown from domesticity, leaving her husband and daughter and joining an Ashram. A reviewer writes:

As written by Mr. Updike, these letters not only seem oddly contrived -he has Sarah refer to her gender so frequently that she starts to sound like a broken record of Helen Reddy singing ''I Am Woman'' - but they also reveal a decidedly unlikable person. Sarah is, by turns, castrating (she refers to her husband's ''microscopic ridiculous sperm''), bitter (''Did I not labor for you twenty-two years without wages, serving as concubine, party doll, housekeeper, cook, bedwarmer, masseuse, sympathetic adviser, and walking advertisement'') and manipulative (''I feel you, out there, as a dark packet of wounded maleness spitefully taking any tack to 'get at' me, even if it means ruining your daughter's fragile young life''). Apparently she is also stupid or willfully naive: though it's clear from her own descriptions that the ashram she's joined is thoroughly bogus, she persists in defending its mission, helping to bilk others out of their money and their faith.

The flight from domesticity, of course, has long been a favorite theme of Updike's, but it's interesting to contrast the treatment he accorded it nearly three decades ago in ''Rabbit Run,'' and what he does with it here. Whereas ''Rabbit'' gave us a carefully shaded portrait of a difficult and incomplete man, torn between his yearning for freedom and his need for roots, ''S.'' simply gives us a satiric picture of a careless woman, eager to shuck her family responsibilities for a fling with self-fulfillment.

The tone of the novel is comic, but oddly sour and brittle, as though Mr. Updike wanted to keep as detached as possible from his heroine. We never feel that Sarah has thought seriously about the consequences of her decision to leave home; and instead of gaining an understanding of her conflicts as a woman, we are given magazine cliches about the woes of being a housewife, noisy diatribes about piggish ways of men.

S. was funny, well-written, and thoroughly enjoyable, but Updike is delusional if he thinks it serves his purpose as "one attempt to make things right with my, what shall we call them, feminist detractors.'' In Run, Rabbit (1960), the other, better-known Updike book I read, all the women are domestic (even the prostitutes), and every time Rabbit looks at his wife he thinks of how stupid she is. She spends her days watching a Mickey Mouse show for children. S. merely takes the same woman character and shows how pathetic-- pathetically cute-- is her botched attempt at self-improvement.

This is not to say, let me emphasize, that I dislike the books or the authors. Like I said, I'm a big fan and enjoy the excellent literary talents of the authors. I don't blame them, or my professor, for their failure to entirely "get it" about women. Everything in context.

But what about today's context? What about my context? My generation, whatever it is called, has a strange vantage point for feminism. For my male peers, the women's movement is ancient history. Young women today, maybe especially those pursuing high-powered careers, shy away from the feminist label and its connotations of all the bitterness and delusions that Sarah embodies. The men don't get it and the women don't get it either because we don't want to or don't know how to discuss it.

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