Chapter 8 of The Beauty Experiment is entitled “Pretty Mind.” It was a difficult chapter to write, not for reasons of exposition, but because achieving psychic equilibrium–and maintaining it even in the midst of life’s chaos (read holiday madness) is damn hard. I’m very honored to have a selection from Pretty Mind excerpted in the excellent online journal At Length:
For those who don’t know At Length it’s a cookie jar of prosy, poetical, and musical delights, and perfect for when you need to slip away from the crowd for private media consumption. Enjoy!
I missed the legal thriller Damages when it came out in 2007 and only just got hooked on Glenn Close’s reprehensible super-bitch lawyer, Patty Hewes. Patty is powerful as few women characters on screen today are. She’s got a host of traditionally “female” strengths– a (falsely) nurturing demeanor, an instinct for emotional manipulation, a great beauty package [wardrobe, grooming, interior decor]–but these are mixed in a venomous and compulsively watchable brew with “masculine” professional aggression and bravado.
I think part of my fascination with Patty’s suberbitch is that she’s a Halloween version of the reality Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests in the Atlantic article that freaked American women out so badly: “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Patty emphatically doesn’t have it all: her second husband is a minor character, her son a troublesome regret, her professional colleagues either jealous or murderous and her underlings a set of pawns. In this way she reconfirms a subconscious personal, cultural, or familial bias that many of us have been trying hard to shake: that there are good choices for women to make and bad ones. If a woman makes the latter, well, then she’s the type that would have a key witness’s dog murdered to frighten that witness into testifying. (Read: Bitch.)
The gist of Slaughter’s essay was that a high-powered 80-hour-a week office career like Patty’s, or the the one my husband has, is in direct conflict with pretty much everything else in life, from responsive parenting to an involved marriage to civic participation. I largely agreed with Slaughter, particularly her calls for school schedules to match work schedules and the end of office “macho” facetime, all-nighters and unnecessary travel. But Slaughter’s article enraged a friend of mine, who felt it sold short her professional successes as a corporate lawyer asking for flextime and a nursing room, and her personal success at re-examining, with her husband, the management of family and household labor.
While I do love Close’s Patty Hewes, I think many of us–my angry friend, my own husband, all of us struggling to loosen the tie of corporate America while fortifying its heart–are ready to move beyond manipulative bitches who half-heartedly wish they’d been better mothers, as well as greedy assholes who frequent strip-clubs to win business deals. We need Millenial villains, and may even be ready for a character in Patty’s exact situation to be a hero, however flawed. Next up on the list of programs to watch while John and I fold laundry? Borgen, about an ambitious Danish Prime Minister and the man who loves her.
It’s probably telling that I had no interest in women’s studies in college. I was so young, so ambitious, and felt so many avenues open to me that studying only half the world seemed limiting. My disinterest was a sign of progress, I thought, suggesting that this kind of scope was a thing of the past, or more accurately a thing for those who were still struggling to have their identities and choices accepted by the mainstream.
I didn’t think I had one—a gender agenda.
Then I got married and gave up my job so my husband could take a better one. We got pregnant and I gave birth in a hospital where hopes for a natural childbirth were laughed at. I breastfed that baby in a country where it is still uncommon among the middle and upper class. I struggled to find childcare that did not offend my sense of what is fair and responsible as an employer and human being. I took on wholeheartedly the management and maintenance of a family and began to feel my identity slipping, sometimes in the direction of a wiser, kinder, more empathetic self but usually in the direction of a harried, brittle, lonely one. I cried a lot, thinking about my mom, the decades of meals and laundry she’d waited through until she could take up painting again.
One night, sick to death of the inflexible schedule of meals, baths and bedtimes I had constructed, I stayed up late watching a movie, reading books, thinking and writing. The time alone was narcotic; I couldn’t couldn’t stop using it. Just as I was crawling into bed with my clothes on, drunk on the life of the mind –the baby began to cry. I was tired past the point of reason but I had done it to myself. For my own stupidity, for my selfishness, for my utter indulgence, I slapped myself across the face.
And that’s how I discovered my gender agenda.
If you haven’t read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, you might want to check it out.