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Erica Jong's monthly column
in the New York Observer

Ally McBeal and Time Magazine Can't Keep the Good Women Down

This column ran on page 19 in the 7/13/98 edition of The New York Observer.

The New York Observer
The Front Page

Whenever Time magazine runs one of its "Is Feminism Dead?" cover stories (there have been no less than 119 articles in the magazine sticking pins in feminism during the last 25 years), you can be sure we are in for a resurgence of feminism even though the f-word itself may be out of style. Its not just that Time has an infallible knack for missing cultural trends, but also that women get so ticked off at its condescension that even if feminism weren't hot, it would heat up almost instantly in the wake of a Time story about the movements demise. The June 29 cover of the magazine gives away the game: Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Ally McBeal? The bulk of the exegesis is, of course, about Ally McBeal. A fictional sitcom heroine is compared to three historic women leaders and found wanting. This is news? We learn that Hollywood sitcoms--even those created by Michelle Pfeiffer's talented consort, David E. Kelley--demean women. This is given as proof that feminism is dead. The rest of the story is equally silly--featuring Spice Girl lyrics cheek by jowl with Camille Paglia-esque analyses of the "iconography" of Courtney Love, Bust magazine and the now-departed Spice, Ginger. Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem get short shrift. Neither Eleanor Roosevelt nor Hillary Rodham Clinton is even glimpsed. The Equal Rights Amendment debacle and the fortunes of contraception and abortion in America do not rate a mention. Nancy Friday--whom writers gleefully attacked in Time's pages until her husband Norman Pearlstine became the boss--comes in for some unctuous felches. Now she is "a sex-positive feminist if ever there was one." (They used to call her a harpy). And Helen Fielding, Elizabeth Wurtzel and Deborah Garrison seem to be among the few young female writers Time has heard of.

I don't know about the guys who run Time Warner Inc. and CNN, but I thought the way to change the world was to follow in the footsteps of the suffragists, not Mary Richards. When will this kind of flimsy reasoning and intellectually vacuous reporting stop posing as cultural commentary? And when, oh when, will all the ink-stained wretches at Time (and elsewhere) let up on retrograde stories that accuse women of "self-obsession"? "Self-obsession" is code for women concentrating on women when we ought to, of course, be concentrating on men.

Time's female journalist, Ginia Bellafante, probably doesn't even know that her employer has run scores of stories like this long before she was born. Or that she's been made part of an old shtick at Time: Find a woman to attack other women in the hopes of establishing her byline, and the status quo will remain untouched. The thing is: The trick usually works. Editors at Time and elsewhere in the media can always find benighted women journalists who are delighted for the chance to attack other women. They just don't get it. The poor dears think they're furthering the cause of equality by trashing other women. From Clare Boothe Luce to Ms. Paglia, women writers have gotten famous for attacking other women, but it's still a cowardly and stupid thing to do. Its the way of the world. The old world. The patriarchal world. The Time-CNN world. Women are still tokens there, not chief executives. They can write, report, even edit, but the boardroom is still a men's room. The majority of people with the private jets have cocks. Let's hope they use them both for something fun.

Women think they have no choice but to trash other women in print. I myself always cringe when some sweet young journalist comes knocking at my door, telling me she loves my work and grew up reading me. I know then that I'm in for it.

Why Women Dish Women
I've thought long and hard about why so many women think they have something to gain by dishing other women. Envy only partly explains it. Susan Cheever said to me, "Women turn on women because they have nowhere else to turn. Women have all this intelligence and all this energy-but there are not enough rewards to go around. So they're like rats in a cage when there's overpopulation in the rat community. Women attacking women is a form of gender-based road rage. They're angry at men and children, but it's not safe to attack them, so they turn, out of frustration, on other women. Watch out who you lie down next to at an Upper East Side exercise class. You literally take your life in your hands at Lotte Berke."

In a world in which women are set up as tokens and rivals, our thoughtless impulse to attack each other is an evolutionary throwback we can ill afford. It merely perpetuates our second-class status, leaving us out of the club of power forever. Men don't like each other, but they know when to line up behind the alpha male and kiss his ass. They know how the world works. Women are still in the dark ages, however, thrashing about and striking out at other women who dare to do what we wish we could do ourselves. I've been observing the kind of punitive responses automatically evoked by women writers who dare to tell their personal stories as if a woman's story could ever be important. Watching the female firing squad journalists from Entertainment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The New York Times Book Review, even Janet Malcolm on the Internet line up in front of Kathryn Harrison (for The Kiss), Lillian Ross (for Here but Not Here) and Joyce Maynard (for a not-yet published memoir of a youth that included a sojourn with J.D. Salinger), its impossible not to think that women are prohibited (by each other!) from telling their own stories. Ms. Maynards memoir was attacked fully nine months before it was due to appear (which, according to the Picador USA catalogue copy, is this October). Nobody had seen it, yet already they hated it.

Critics are currently falling all over each other to trash Lillian Ross for having the audacity to present William Shawn as a lovable man. How could she expose this private person? they rage. He must be turning over in his grave. The fact that Miss Ross knew him and they didn't hardly keeps them from claiming superior knowledge. A similar cry has gone up about Ms. Maynard's memoir, At Home in the World. She knew Jerry Salinger, lived with him, in fact. Her critics never even glimpsed him. Does the story of a love affair belong as much to a woman as to the man she shared it with? Apparently not. These women have no rights to their own histories. Male memoirists spill their guts (Frank McCourt, Philip Roth, Frank Conroy) and women reviewers swoon. Why do we give so little leeway to our own gender? Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times has had a very good year. Following her scandalous attacks on women writers, she won a Pulitzer. (The method still works). Lately, she has savaged Ann Beattie, Miss Ross and Joyce Carol Oates. What is this capo mentality? The Times finally has a woman reviewer who hates women even more than her male predecessors. This is an ancient tradition. Get a woman to do the dirty work. She'll never notice she's being used.

We Got Smart And Time Declared Us Dead
Ms. Bellafante, listed as a senior writer on Time's masthead, dismisses 25 years of women's writing with backhanded slaps at Kate Millett, Ms. Greer and Ms. Steinem's Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. Naomi Wolf is trashed for pointing out that sexuality for women is still not as acceptable as it is for men. Katie Roiphe who critiqued the theory that all intercourse is rape in The Morning After is herself raped by Ms. Bellafante for appearing in a Coach ad.

Time concludes that feminism has hit the skids and its entire literature is over, as if there had never been any books by Toni Morrison, Cynthia Ozick, Marge Piercy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Mary Gordon, Susan Cheever, Anne Tyler, Amy Tan, Edwidge Danticat, Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forche, Ann Beattie, Carolyn Heilbrun, Annie Dillard, Alice Hoffman, A.S. Byatt, Julia Alvarez, Nadine Gordimer, Christa Wolf, Kathryn Harrison, Fay Weldon, Doris Lessing, Gail Godwin, Hortense Calisher, Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood--I could go on and still forget plenty.

Courtney Love's Versace shoot "proves" that Simone de Beauvoirs books have fallen on deaf ears. Current feminism is "self-involved" (a word always used about women who refuse to be victims) and petty darn tacky, too. It's also dead. The Spice Girls minus one now prove this, as Madonna plus one now proves it. Women are just in love with glitz and themselves. Where once they debated intellectual theory like Platonists, now they're "lipstick feminists" or "do-me feminists" or "material girls" or "Spice Girl feminists." All the very real changes of the last 25 years are ignored. But the real crux of Time's tirade seems to be that the Old Girl Network failed to trounce Bill Clinton for getting it on, or whatever he did, with Monica Lewinsky. What happened to us? Did we get so mellow our brains just fell out? Ms. Steinem defended the Big Creep in The Times, and I let him off the hook in The Observer. Soft in the head we are. We clung to the only guy with the guts to veto something misnamed "the partial-birth abortion bill" and to appoint Ruth Bader Ginsberg to the Supreme Court.

This makes us sellouts.
For years, people wanted to know when women would get politically savvy. We got politically savvy and Time declared us dead. It doesn't take a George Eliot or an Emily Dickinson to point to a few superficial singers in sequins (and writers who strip for their book jackets) and hastily conclude that the womens movement has failed. But such reasoning is utterly specious. Every movement has its ugly excrescences and its commercial exploiters. This proves only that the world favors ugly excrescences and commercial exploitation. They always get more attention than truth and beauty. This is news?

Of course the word "feminism" has been devalued. Every word that describes something female gets devalued sooner or later. But feminism, though constantly morphing, is hardly moribund. Both its successes and its failures have changed it. We are in the midst of an unfinished revolution. The older troops are exhausted and their replacements (our daughters) are just getting the hang of it. They are about to reframe the debate and shape it to their own uses. They are about to turn the revolution around and make it new. This is good. It also takes time.

'Revenge Was Never the Purpose'
Young feminists not only have to decide what to call themselves, they have to get old enough to realize how deeply unequal our society is. "If a woman is bright, educated, able-bodied, attractive, childless and in the professions she can live very happily indeed," writes Fay Weldon, the British novelist. "And just as well, because this seems to be the kind of woman like poor, nervy Ally McBeal; poor, all-over-the-place Bridget Jones--who these days has to do without a man." But bring a baby into the equation and suddenly equality is all over except for those paragons of young masculinity who write endpaper essays for The New York Times Magazine. They love diapering babies and later even pat themselves on the back about it on TV. (Who's watching the baby while they do so?) Babies are still unequally cared for by moms, but many of our daughters are not moms yet. Rest assured, they will grow more radical with age (as Ms. Steinem predicted), and then we will see a feminist revolution that Time will actually have to acknowledge. Or is this merely wishful thinking? I hope not.

We won the right to speak of sexual desire (and sometimes even to indulge it-if we could find a willing partner). Naturally, the rockers and rappers appropriated this as rockers and rappers are wont to. (It wasn't the Spice Girls, but the African-American blueswomen of the first half of this century who first put female sexual power into music--Ida Cox and her contemporaries, Bessie Smith and hers.) My generation came along and won the right to enter law school in large numbers, medical school and the Supreme Court. We won the right to be mothers and also write books--something unthinkable in Virginia Woolf's day, not to mention Jane Austen's.

Of course, there are miles to go before we sleep, but it's not as if nothing happened. Above all, we've raised feisty daughters who won't take No for an answer and sons who are used to strong women-possibly even turned on by them. Those two factors may have the greatest impact of anything we've done. Time's idiotic cover story on feminism is, in short, a symptom of what's wrong, not an analysis. Most women are not Ally McBeal and most women share Susan B. Anthony's passion for justice whether we apply the f-word to ourselves or not. Semantic slicing and dicing is the antithesis of reasoned argument.

I am actually quite sanguine about the future of feminism. What distresses me is that male bashing has become as ugly as female bashing was 25 years ago. Women now routinely mock men in public discourse and men submissively take it lying down--as if this were all that feminism meant. In order to make any progress here, we need a truce, not a war between the sexes. I find cheap attacks on men disguised as "grrl power" counterproductive (though I understand why adolescent girls may cheer). Still, this isn't what we fought for. Nor is censorship of sexuality. The spectacle of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon playing ring-around-the-rosy with right-wing opponents of free speech in the name of female purity is also not what we fought for. Claiming that all penetration is rape is certainly not what we fought for. We craved equality, not the right to treat men as badly as men once treated women. We fought to create new paradigms of power, not to turn the tables on the opposite sex until they ran screaming from the bedroom clutching their balls and their bottles of Viagra. As Fay Weldon also said, "Revenge was never the purpose of the woman's movement."

The only way to put a stop to this charade is to call it as we see it. Women attacking women is a way to maintain the status quo. Carolyn Heilbrun says that "power consists in deciding which stories shall be told." By continuing the calumnies of the Old Boy Network, we are only enforcing our own inferiority. When a woman attacks another woman, all she really proves is that she hates herself.


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Copyright 1997-2009 Erica Mann Jong