|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
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.