Discussions about gender are often framed as either/or propositions. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, or so we are told, as if this means we’re all so different it is nigh impossible to reach each other. The way we talk about gender makes it easy to forget Mars and Venus are divided by only one planet, part of the same solar system, held in the thrall of the same sun.
Books I’ve read lately have given me a lot to think about in how we approach gender, and how, all too often, we treat discussions of gender in isolation, as if gender exists in a cultural vacuum.
If women’s fortunes improve, it must mean men’s fortunes will suffer, as if there is a finite amount of good fortune in the universe that cannot be shared equally between men and women. This is certainly how I felt while reading Hanna Rosin’s interesting, intelligent but ultimately frustrating, The End of Men and the Rise of Women. What does it even mean to suggest that the end of men is explicitly connected to the rise of women? There’s no denying women are doing better than they ever have but is that really saying much? When you consider what life was like for women before suffrage, before Title IX, before the Equal Pay Act, before Roe v. Wade, before any number of changes that made life merely tolerable, most any success women encountered would seem like a rise in circumstance.
Rosin has clearly done a great deal of research and makes compelling arguments. I particularly appreciated the way she tried to advance the conversation about gender by upending our expectations. So often when we talk about gender, we have tunnel vision, where we can only understand the lives of women as being grounded in disadvantage. Rosin complicates that notion by revealing the many ways women are gaining the upper hand in education, industry, and in the culture at large.
I was skeptical as I read The End of Men but Rosin made it easy to respect many of her ideas. At the same time, it’s pretty easy to frame an argument convincingly by being selective in the data presented. No writer or critic is free from this selectivity but at times it stood out as problematic in The End of Men. In the chapter, “Pharm Girls: How Women Remade the Economy,” Rosin discusses the rise of women in the pharmaceutical industry. She notes that, “In 2009, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who continue to hover around 50 percent.” This is an encouraging statistic and an important one but women still earn 77 percent of what men earn and that cannot be ignored. We make up half the workforce but pay a pretty steep price for that privilege.
Throughout the chapter, Rosin highlights the great strides women have made as pharmacists, how they are practically dominating the field and it is truly inspiring to see how far we’ve come in a field once entirely male-dominated. At the same time, this is only one field. For every argument there is a counterargument. Women are doing well in pharmacy, but the statistics are starkly different in, say, the sciences and most engineering disciplines.
One of the recurrent themes throughout The End of Men, is that of female ambition—women are working harder, are more focused, and willing to do what it takes to fulfill their responsibilities, both personally and professionally. At many colleges and universities women are the majority while men are choosing not to enroll or not finish their college degrees. Rosin doesn’t do enough, though to explore why this trend has emerged. She highlights that there was a time when men didn’t have to go to college—they could work in manufacturing or earn a trade and make a good living for themselves and their families. As more manufacturing jobs have gone overseas and the economy has collapsed, however, nothing has replaced these jobs. Men haven’t adapted. What goes unsaid is that women might be more ambitious and focused because we’ve never had a choice. We’ve had to fight to vote, to work outside the home, to work in environments free of sexual harassment, to attend the universities of our choice, and we’ve also had to prove ourselves over and over to receive any modicum of consideration. Women are rising but Hilary Clinton, the Secretary of State, must still answer questions about fashion. CNN feels comfortable publishing an article suggesting women’s votes might be influenced by their hormones.
And then Rosin discusses violence, the increase in female aggression, and notes that, “women today are far less likely to get murdered, raped, assaulted, or robbed than at any time in recent history.” This is excellent news but there’s a curious aside when Rosin continues, “A 2010 White House report on women and girls laid out the latest statistics straightforwardly, to the great irritation of many feminists,” but doesn’t provide any evidence of this supposed feminist irritation. It is hard to swallow that feminists would be irritated that there’s a decline in violence against women, as if the rise of women is somehow antithetical to the “feminist agenda.” So much oddness is always placed at the feet of feminism. Rosin goes on to cite several other statistics without acknowledging how much abuse and sexual violence goes unreported. The truth is that we’ll never have a truly accurate statistical count for the violence women, or men for that matter, experience. We can only make best guesses.
Another advance Rosin touts is how the “definition of rape has expanded to include acts that stop short of penetration—oral sex, for example—and circumstances in which the victim was too incapacitated (usually meaning too drunk) to give meaningful consent.” This has been a critical improvement in acknowledging the breadth of sexual violence but we also have to consider the many different kinds of rape we have learned about over the past year as conservative politicians blunder through trying to explain their stances on sexual violence and abortion.
Richard Mourdock, running for the Senate in Indiana, said, in a debate, “I struggled with it myself for a long time, and I realized that life is a gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.” I’ve been obsessing over these words, and trying to understand how someone who purports to believe in God, can also believe that anything borne of rape is God-intended. Just as there are many different kinds of rape, there are many different kinds of God. I am also reminded that women, more often than not, are the recipient of God’s intentions and must also bear the burdens of these intentions.
Mourdock is certainly not alone in offering up opinions about rape. Missouri Representative Todd Akin believes in “legitimate rape” and the oxymoronic “forcible rape”, not to be confused with all that illegitimate rape going on. Ron Paul is a proponent of “honest rape,” turning a blind eye to the dishonest rapes out there. State Representative Roger Rivard believes some girls, “they rape so easy.” Lest you think these new definitions of rape are only the purview of men, Senate candidate Linda McMahon of Connecticut has introduced us to the idea of “emergency rape.” Given this bizarre array of new rape definitions, it is hard to reconcile that women are rising when there is still so much in our cultural climate, working to hold women down. We need more than statistics and anecdotal data to determine if the lot of women has truly improved. We need to consider the cultural climate, and right now, certain parts of that climate seem bleak. If this is what the rise of women looks like, there is some comfort, I suppose, in knowing we don’t have that far to fall.
In Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, she suggests that historically speaking, women haven’t accomplished much at all, that women have not yet risen. Moran says, “Even the most ardent feminist historian, male or female—citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies and Cleopatra—can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck-all for the last 100,000 years. Come on—let’s admit it. Let’s stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man.” According to Moran, women simply haven’t had the chance to achieve greatness the way men have because of a number of socio-cultural factors that have favored male dominance.
How to Be a Woman is a memoir cum feminist text also approaches gender matters in a selective manner, one grounded in a narrow brand of feminine experience. This is a book where the main thesis revolves around asking if men are worrying about the things women worry about. It’s a catchy idea. One of the most oft-quoted excerpts is, “And it’s asking this question: “Are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time? Are the men told not to do this, as it’s “letting our side down”? Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating, retarded, time-wasting bullshit?” Who wouldn’t want to be on board with this succinct philosophy? Of course we have to overlook the use of the word retarded. We have to pretend that word choice is okay because Moran’s philosophy is witty and nicely applicable to many situations. We have to believe cultural ignorance is totally fine in the face of “refreshing” feminist ideology.
There’s so much in this book that demands we reconcile casual insensitivity and narrow cultural awareness for the sake of funny feminist (albeit dated) thinking. Again, we have to deal with selectivity because while people love quoting this question, “Are the men doing it?” they ignore what Moran says further down the page about her stance on burkas. “It was the “Are the boys doing it?” basis on which I finally decided I was against women wearing burkas.” This is an odd, glaring statement because I’m not sure what Moran’s stance on burkas has to do with anything. Laurie Balbo notes in an article about an Egyptian newscaster choosing to wear the hijab during a newscast, “There’s no difference between forcing women to wear hijab and forcing them to not wear. The ultimate decision must be that of the individual.” Western opinions on the hijab or burkas are rather irrelevant. We don’t get to decide for Muslim women what does or does not oppress them, no matter how highly we think of ourselves.
In How to Be a Woman, Moran also says, “I want to reclaim the phrase ‘strident feminist’ in the same way the hip-hop community has reclaimed the word ‘nigger.’” This is a baffling statement because there is simply no reality where the phrase “strident feminist” can be reasonably compared to the “N-word.” I am fascinated by the silence surrounding this statement, how people will turn a blind eye to casual racism for the sake of funny feminism. For the most part, lavish praise has been heaped on the book. The New York Times raves, ““How to Be a Woman” is a glorious, timely stand against sexism so ingrained we barely even notice it.” More than one review has noted the dearth of humor in feminist texts given, you know, that we love the narrative of feminists as humorless. As such, they are that much more appreciative of the humor in Moran’s book. Once again, we can overlook cultural ignorance so long as we’re made to laugh. Time and again Moran undermines her ideas by thinking she should apply her outlook to cultural experiences she knows nothing about. She undermines herself, by privileging feminism as something that can exist in isolation of other considerations. Her feminism exists in a very narrow vacuum, to everyone’s detriment.
But then there is writing about gender that is unapologetically sprawling, that reaches both backward and forward, and tries to explode the vacuum of cultural conversations. We should start at the end of Heroines where Kate Zambreno writes, “For my criticism came out of, has always come out of enormous feeling.” What intrigues me most about Zambreno’s writing is how it so richly embodies the ethos she espouses. In her latest book, Heroines, Zambreno has created a hybrid text that is part manifesto, part memoir, and part searing literary criticism. This hybridity is the book’s strongest feature and the way she moves between these different ambitions works very well. Not only does she try to elevate the conversations we have about gender, she leads by example.
Her criticism rises from emotion. It is appealing to see a writer so plainly locate the motivations behind her criticism. All too often, criticism is treated rather antiseptically under the auspices of objectivity. There is no such distance in Heroines. Zambreno revels in subjectivity.
Zambreno shifts between the personal and the political at a brisk pace but the narrative style works because it so clearly embodies what Zambreno calls for at the end of the book when she says, “A new sort of subjectivity is developing online—vulnerable, desirous, well-versed in both pop culture and contemporary writing and our literary ancestors.” The nature of the book also rises out of how much of the book comes from her blog, Frances Farmer Is My Sister, where Zambreno chronicles certain aspects her life and her cultural and critical interests.
They say every writer has an obsession and in Heroines, that obsession is reclamation or, perhaps, breaking new ground where women can be feminist and feminine and can resist the labels and forces that all too often marginalize, silence, or erase female experiences. She discusses her personal life, relationship, the challenges of acclimating to Akron, Ohio where she moved with her partner, what it meant to follow her partner and intersperses these personal observations with examinations of women writers and artists who have, in various ways, been marginalized, silenced, or erased.
Zambreno also notes the disparity between how books by men and women are read and received. “The texts of the woman writer,” she says, “will be read, not as existential, but in starkly autobiographical terms. A woman is read so close to the body/skin.” She examines the critical reception of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, and how the book enjoyed the interpretation of the protagonist’s anxiety as existential while a similar book by a woman would render the same anxiety as “pathological.” Zambreno also says, “It’s infuriating to think how coming-of-age-novels about the feminine experience are read and dismissed as chick lit or school girl books or YA, etc. when Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, surely also a very unformed Bildungsroman, is still considered great literature.” She goes on to suggest, “As if the female coming-of-age-experience is somehow more frivolous or less rending than the male one.” Ultimately, Zambreno calls for an alternative canon, and a more intelligent reading of women writers and artists, that doesn’t always render them as tragic, mentally ill, or unduly toxic.
Heroines is not a perfect book. There are silences, particularly surrounding race and class and heterosexual privilege. What does it say when the majority of a woman’s heroines are white, heterosexual women? No book can be everything to everyone but it would have been nice to see what Zambreno, with such electric thinking and writing, would do if she extended her reach, if she exploded the vacuum of cultural conversations even more.
I have been conflicted about Junot Diaz’s latest collection, This Is How You Lose Her. There is no denying Diaz’s talent. The man can write exceptionally well. His stories are vivid and memorable, intelligent and intense. He understands how to work within the short form and brings a real elegance to the structures of his stories. Diaz grounds his writing in a rich cultural context and is able to capture the authenticity of his characters by allowing them to be unapologetically flawed. These nine interconnected stories follow Yunior, his family, the women he has loved, lost and scorned, and how, in the end, he ends up alone, amidst the ruins of his misdeeds. I have been conflicted about this book because I loved these stories, the richness of the details, the voice, the way the stories pulled the reader from beginning to end. These are stories with gravity. They hold the reader in place.
“Otravida, Otravez,” about a woman who works as a laundress and is in a relationship with a married man, Yunior’s father, speaks so beautifully to the immigrant experience, to the choices women make in love, to what they tolerate from men, to how closely they hold their hopes. The narrator, Yasmin considers her friend Ana Iris. “Ana Iris left her own children back on the Island, hasn’t seen her three boys in nearly seven years. She understands what has to be sacrificed on a voyage.” “Otravida, Otravez,” is, without a doubt, one of the finest stories I have ever read
There is something to admire in each story. In “Invierno,” I could not forget the description of a long, desolate winter when Yunior, his brother, and mother are first brought to the United States, what snow felt like on Yunior’s bare head. In “Miss Lora,” Diaz makes it easy to sympathize with both Yunior, sixteen, and mourning the loss of his brother and Miss Lora, the middle-aged women he has an affair with. The collection ends with the title story, one filled with regret and sorrow as Yunior details the years after his fiancée breaks up with him because of his serial cheating. The story is naked, intensely confessional, a rending of the self, Yunior trying to purge himself of his wrongdoings.
Then, there is the sexism, which is at times virulent. In an interview with NPR, Diaz says he grew up in a world where, “I wasn’t really encouraged to imagine women as fully human. I was in fact pretty much—by the larger culture, by the local culture, by people around me, by people on TV—encouraged to imagine women as something slightly inferior to men.” The influence of that world is plainly apparent throughout This Is How You Lose Her. Women are their bodies and what they can offer men. They are pulled apart for Yunior’s sexual amusement. There’s nothing wrong with that, the fact that Yunior is a misogynist of the highest order, that he is a product of a culture that routinely reduces women, that he is unable to remain faithful to his women, that none of the men in this book are very good to women. This is fiction and if people cannot be flawed in fiction there’s no place left for us to be human.
Still, I keep coming back to the relative impunity with which the men in This Is How You Lose Her get to behave badly, and to the tone of the critical reception to these stories, which are not only stories but confessions, lamentations of wrongdoings. We have all been influenced by a culture where women are considered inferior to men and I would have loved to see what a writer of Diaz’s caliber might do if he allowed his character to step out of the vacuum he grew up in and that we all still live in.
These limited ways in which we talk, write, and think about gender, these vacuums in which we hold cultural conversations, no matter how good our intentions, no matter how finely crafted our approach, I cannot help but think, this is how we all lose.