The books that read women

SPRINKLED AMONG the novels and political tracts I received for Christmas was a clothbound piece of candy called “The Female Thing.” It was written by Laura Kipnis, a Northwestern University professor best known for 2003’s “Against Love: A Polemic,” and its cover is a frontal photo of a woman’s toned, depilated thighs, hips and belly, one hand posed sassily on her hip and the other holding a thin leaf over her privates. Naturally, I plucked it from the stack immediately, leaving Richard Ford and Jimmy Carter to lay in pitiable wait.

It’s not my job here to review books, so I won’t get into too much detail about the contents of “The Female Thing.” Which is probably good, because while I found it a little bit fascinating and a little bit exasperating, I’m not entirely sure what the book is trying to say. Its frequent refrains about the tension between “femininity and feminism” puts it squarely in the camp of woman-centered punditry that makes me want to throw books against the wall, then instantly retrieve them and fret that I’ve lost my place.

Dozens of books like this are published every year. You can spot them by their tendency to juxtapose references to boob jobs and Manolo Blahnik shoes with words such as “subjugation.” They like to use the word “bitch,” strictly in a “take back the vocabulary of our oppression” sort of way. They appear to be targeted at a reasonably intelligent (i.e. NPR-listening, HBO-watching, buying-the-Jimmy-Carter-book-but-not-reading-it-right-away) audience. An intelligent female audience, that is. I’m not sure whether any man on Earth has ever read one of these things, but if he did, I suspect he’d make the very wise decision to turn gay.

According to this literary genre, contemporary American women are conflicted, confused, vain and bitter, not to mention (choose one; we’re all about choice) undersexed or oversexed, underemployed or overworked, man-hating or desperate for a man. We are also apparently even more obsessed with dirty socks than were our Stepford forebears.

This is not the kind of stuff you brag about on your resume or in an online personal ad. So why have so many women -- cultural critics, novelists and self-help gurus alike -- built their careers on this humiliating form of advertising copy? For all the lip service we pay to the opportunities born of feminism, why does our most impassioned rhetoric come from a place of weakness and frustration?


The simple answer is that some of these characterizations are true, particularly of women who have enough disposable time and money to ponder their lots in life. In a world in which wrinkles are unacceptable, women are getting Botox (and breast implants, liposuction and eyelid lifts). In a world in which “raising kids” has had a job-title change to “parenting” (an executive position that seems to require advanced degrees, an airtight schedule and, for the lucky few, a support staff), women do wonder whether they should bother trying to make law partner. As for marriage, hasn’t it always seesawed between mildly amusing and downright stultifying? Who are we to assume that things should be any different because it’s 2007 and couples can talk to each other about all the fascinating blogs they read?

So, yes, women are kind of messed up. But the degree to which these books are true is equal to the degree to which they’re not true. For every wife who complains about dirty socks, there’s another whose husband insists on neurotically folding them into perfect spheres. For every fading ingenue whose self-loathing and insecurity (or is it self-entitlement and ego?) drive her to the plastic surgeon’s office, there’s one (actually, more than one) who sees no shame in extra-large sweatpants. And for every marriage that looks like a tour through hell, there’s one that looks like stratospheric bliss -- sometimes these poles can exist within the same marriage on the same day.

Yet we’re gluttons for bad news about ourselves. Publishers know this, which is why they don’t commission a lot of books that say, “Hey, everyone’s different. Don’t look here for sweeping cultural statements based on cherry-picked statistics and drunken rant sessions lifted from a bachelorette party.” They know that readers want exactly the thing I was looking for when I selected my post-holiday reading last week. I wanted to be told who I was. I didn’t want the equivalent of years with a shrink, figuring out my own pathology; I wanted an hour with a palm reader telling me my misery wasn’t selfperpetuated, but controlled by cosmic forces to which I was not accountable.

It can be exhilarating to see complicated personal issues dressed up as trends. We devour these books because they blame history or politics or anatomy for problems we might not even know we have, and they remind us that we’re members of a vast group in an important era. They assure us that we’re not alone. Unfortunately, they also suggest that we’re all the same. I may be a sucker for these screeds, but I still wish someone would come along and say, “If the Manolo Blahnik doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.”