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Posts Tagged ‘erica jong’

Everyone else seems to be. They’re talking about women and sex and “Girls” and sex and feminism and sex and HBO and sex and the sexual revolution as failure and the sexual revolution as success.

It feels a little weird to be writing this, honestly, being that it’s 2012 and all. But with whom and where and how and how often women are doing it remains a hot topic. As it should. Sex, after all, is hot. And our sex lives are as integral to who we are as our professional lives — and collectively, every bit as much of a barometer as to what’s going on with women as salary surveys and graduation rates and polls about who’s doing the housework.

Of course, as is generally the case in discussions about women, women and our changing place in the world, and/or women and sex, there lurks just the faintest whiff of  judgment. In a piece entitled “The Bleaker Sex” in Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Bruni takes to the Opinion pages with his thoughts on Lena Dunham’s upcoming HBO series “Girls”:

The first time you see Lena Dunham’s character having sex in the new HBO series “Girls,” her back is to her boyfriend, who seems to regard her as an inconveniently loquacious halfway point between partner and prop, and her concern is whether she’s correctly following instructions…

You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of “Girls” engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What’s happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess…

In a recent interview, presented in more detail on my Times blog, she told me that various cultural cues exhort her and her female peers to approach sex in an ostensibly ‘empowered’ way that she couldn’t quite manage. “I heard so many of my friends saying, ‘Why can’t I have sex and feel nothing?’ It was amazing: that this was the new goal.”

First, not so fast, Bruni: while salaries may be better and Congress less choked, the numbers are still far from impressive. While clearly we have made progress on those fronts, I challenge anyone to make the case the work’s been done, equality achieved. The numbers certainly indicate otherwise, as we’ve pointed out from time to time.

Now to the sex: While yes, I’ll give you that sexual scenes painted in this and other previews of “Girls” (I haven’t seen it; the show premieres on April 15) do indeed indicate a bit of a muddle, if not a mess, I don’t see that as problematic. On the contrary: I’d argue said muddle makes perfect sense. And I’ll raise you one: I think said muddle is an apt metaphor for what women are going through in every realm.

Women today are raised on empowering messages: from the time we’re little, we’re told girls can do anything boys can do. (As we should be.) We come of age in the relatively safe, comfortable confines of school, believing in this message and in its natural conclusion–that feminism‘s work if over, its battles won. So too do we believe in the natural conclusion of that other message–that “girls can do anything boys can do” also means that we should do things the way they do.

And then, buoyed by the beliefs that feminism is old news and that men and women are not only equal but basically the same, we smack up against the realities of the real world: the judgments, the biases, the roles that don’t fit, the obstacles to changing them. The inequities. The shoulds. And we think there must be something wrong with us–that we’re alone in the muddle. When the reality is that the world still has not caught up to the messaging we’re fed, nor does the messaging necessarily have it right. Women are wandering uncharted territory. And, without a map, everything looks a muddle. We’re feeling our way through.

As Hanna Rosin wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal,

The lingering ambivalence about sexuality is linked, I think, to women’s lingering ambivalence about the confusing array of identities available to them in modern life.

Exactly (and I’m not just saying that cuz I wrote an entire book about it). The doors have opened, but the trails have yet to be cleared.

And then, of course, there’s this (I can only imagine the backlash I’m gonna take for this one, but I’m gonna say it anyway, because I make the point often in the context of work): women and men are different. There’s neurobiology and all kinds of research to support this idea–and yet, it’s an idea that’s traditionally been seen as dangerous. And it’s seen as most dangerous by women: the worry being that to say that men and women are different, we do things differently, we experience things differently, must necessarily mean that one way is better, one’s worse. As though to claim a difference would be to set us off on a slippery slope of regression, inevitably sliding right back onto Betty Draper’s miserable, unempowered couch. Or as though to recognize a difference is to divide everyone into two overly simplified extremes, opposite ends of a spectrum–men are dogs and women just want to be monogamous. People are too complex for generalizations (generally speaking). So I guess my real question is this: Why is sex without feeling anything the goal? What exactly are we aspiring to there? Who decided that’s what empowerment looks like?

I mean, isn’t feeling something kind of the fun of sex?

And back to those messages: isn’t it ironic that women today are raised on the message that it is their right (hell, their responsibility) to (enthusiastically!) embrace their sexuality–and that one’s sexuality is indeed one’s own for the embracing–even while this very notion is again (still!) under attack? Not only is our sexual and reproductive freedom–the freedom to express our sexuality outside the confines of marriage without threat of banishment (let alone death by stoning, a freedom not shared by many women walking the earth) or biology–staggeringly new, it’s tenuous. Something we’re raised to take as a given is something that still needs fierce defending. Every step we take, we battle anew.

It’s tempting to buy into the idea that the fight is over, as tempting as it is to put a cheery, tidy spin on what came before. In that piece of Rosin’s that I mentioned earlier, she refers to the success of the sexual revolution, attributing it to, among others, “sex goddess Erica Jong.” Jong penned a response at The Daily Beast, which she kicked off with a quick anecdote and the line, “That was the way we weren’t.” Here’s a bit from her piece:

Of course I was delighted to be called a sex-goddess and bracketed with Dr. Ruth Westheiner, whom I adore, but when Rosin said the ’70s were all about the sexual revolution and that the sexual revolution was one of the props of women’s current success, I felt a chill run down my spine. ‘Dear Hanna-you just don’t get it,’ I wanted to say. ‘If only you’d lived through some of the things I have–being trashed as the happy hooker of literature, being overlooked for professorships, prizes, and front-page reviews because it was assumed I was–’tis a pity–a whore, you might see things differently. And then, if having lived through that, the pundits now said you were rather tame, you might wonder whether women could ever be seen for what we are: sexual and intellectual, sweet and bitter, smart and sexy. But I am grateful to be a sex goddess all the same.’

…As a young and even middle-aged writer, I used to attend pro-choice rallies with GOP women. No more. Will my daughter’s generation now believe that feminism, like democracy, has to be fought for over and over again? We cannot be complacent about birth control, abortion, the vote, or our daughters’ and granddaughters’ future. Just when things look rosiest for women, a new Rick Santorum will be waiting in the wings. And his wife recruited to put a new spin on his misogyny. Just when colleges graduate more women than men, and women are beginning to be paid a little more than a pittance, the press and publishers trot out female quislings to announce that the woman “problem” has been solved. Rubbish.

The fight goes on. There’s plenty to battle against. So again, that muddle? Seems pretty clear to me.

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When it comes to the way we choose to live our lives, how free is our will, really… and how much has to do with the way mom lived hers?

I got to musing on this particular question after reading an interview in the Guardian with both Erica Jong–author, writer, sexual revolutionary and coiner of the term “zipless f*ck”–and her daughter Molly Jong-Fast, a self-described prude. Who else but the daughter of Erica Jong would choose that word, of all words, to describe herself?

The piece was tied to the recent release of “Sugar in My Bowl,” an anthology of sexual memoir edited by Erica Jong, and to which her daughter Molly contributed an essay. It’s title? “They had sex so I didn’t have to.”

It’s the Alex P. Keaton effect: the character, from the 80s sitcom Family Ties, was the eldest son of hippie parents. He wore a three-piece suit at all times, and loved Ronald Reagan as much as he loved the smell of money. I have a friend whose story is similar: she spent several years of her childhood on an ashram in India, returning to the San Francisco Bay Area where her home was often the meeting place for her mother’s meditation group. She told me recently about how, growing up, all she wanted was to shop at Talbots.

Rebellion, of course, is a natural–and healthy–part of growing up, individuation in psychological speak. The more extreme the circumstances of our upbringing, the more extreme our rebellion may in fact be. And the pendulum of social norms tends to swing from one end to the other, from generation to generation, too. Here’s a bit from the Guardian article:

Molly maps out the gulf between young and old in more detail in her essay, writing that while her mother grew up in a culture where sex was secretive and tightly tied to marriage, she grew up in a sex-obsessed era, with Britney Spears, for instance, constantly on-screen, ‘pulsating in a bikini, musing on her virginity.’ They each reacted against their circumstances, and against the mores of the previous generation–as did many of their peers. As Erica writes in her 1994 memoir, Fear of Fifty, ‘rebelling generations follow quiescent ones, quiescent ones follow rebelling ones and the world goes on as it always has.’

As it is across generations, might it be across the individuals that make up the generational branches of a family tree?

It’s contrary to the conventional wisdom that assures us that, with or without our consent, eventually, we will become our mothers. Which, upsetting though that may be to some, makes perfect sense: in addition to the matter of shared DNA, there’s also the fact that, in all likelihood, our mother was the person with whom we spent the bulk of our formative years. (Likely the very reasons the relationship is so notoriously intense.) And many of us do emulate our mothers. And yet: whether we model mom or the anti-mom, well, mom’s got top billing.

Maybe it seems too trite, too reductionist, too Freudian. Maybe Molly and my Talbots-coveting friend and the rest of us are just out to become our own people, making sexual or sartorial choices based on who we are as individuals, without giving any thought to what mom would do.

But. Even for an extreme case like that of the Jongs, it seems that some similarities are downright inescapable. The essay leaves the reader with the impression that mother and daughter are two sides of the same coin: hilarious, outspoken, confident–just with different views on stuff. (And whether those similarities are due to nature or nurture, does it really matter?) And sometimes, even the stuff falls into line: That friend of mine spent last Thanksgiving at a silent retreat, subsisting on raw juices and enjoying morning colonics.

And my mom and I? I fought becoming a writer–though that was exactly what I’d always wanted to do–for as long as I could, thinking it lame to just blindly follow along in mom’s footsteps. And yet. We spent the last two years of our lives writing a book… together.

So not only are we both writers, clearly we’re both insane.

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So have you heard about the big dust-up caused by the Wall Street Journal essay written by Erica Jong in which she castigates what she calls “motherphilia?”  I’m sure you know exactly what she means, but let’s let her spell it out:

Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you know that we have endured an orgy of motherphilia for at least the last two decades. Movie stars proudly display their baby bumps, and the shiny magazines at the checkout counter never tire of describing the joys of celebrity parenthood. Bearing and rearing children has come to be seen as life’s greatest good. Never mind that there are now enough abandoned children on the planet to make breeding unnecessary. Professional narcissists like Angelina Jolie and Madonna want their own little replicas in addition to the African and Asian children that they collect to advertise their open-mindedness. Nannies are seldom photographed in these carefully arranged family scenes. We are to assume that all this baby-minding is painless, easy and cheap.

Ms Jong, she of “the zipless f*ck fame” then goes on to talk about the new mommy bible, “The Baby Book” that advocates attachment parenting.  Not just a clever phrase:  Your baby is your life.  Back to Jong (we love her, by the way):

You wear your baby, sleep with her and attune yourself totally to her needs. How you do this and also earn the money to keep her is rarely discussed. You are just assumed to be rich enough. At one point, the [authors of the book] suggest that you borrow money so that you can bend your life to the baby’s needs. If there are other caregivers, they are invisible. Mother and father are presumed to be able to do this alone—without the village it takes to raise any child. Add to this the dictates of “green” parenting—homemade baby food, cloth diapers, a cocoon of clockless, unscheduled time—and you have our new ideal.

All of which reminded me of a thank-you note I received from the daughter of a friend for a baby gift of green baby stuff that noted, just slightly sardonically, exactly that:  you not only have the obligation to be a good parent these days, but you have to be environmentally conscious while you’re at it.  Whew.  Another ideal to live up to and other way for women to be judged.  But that’s beside the point.

You can surely predict the fallout to Jong’s essay.  Over on the Motherlode, the responses were hot, heavy and not at all surprising.  This came in, an essay cowritten by Katie Allison Granju,  the author of “Attachment Parenting”, and mommy blogger Jillian St. Charles:

Jong’s stock in trade as a writer and a cultural observer has always been to provoke outrage via the outrageous. These days, however, her ability to shock via suggestions of sexual boundary-pushing have become more than a little passe. Thus, she’s apparently now decided to attempt to stir the pot by singing the praises of some sort of detached, Jongian-style “zipless parenting,” in which — as she says — “there are no rules.”  It’s a convenient position from which she can throw bombs at any target that doesn’t reflect her own choices.

Okay, point taken.   As for the “no rules” part,  wait for the punch line.  But what made me cringe was this:

I do not sleep with my baby because some “guru” told me I should. In fact, lots of experts continue to tell women that we absolutely should NOT do this very thing. No, I sleep with my baby because after a day spent away from her at work, I enjoy feeling her snuggled next to us at night. And while I feel guilty about a whole lot of things as a mother — as Jong admits she  also does in her essay — I don’t feel one iota of guilt about my decision to breastfeed or spend plenty of time with my kids. I am not imprisoned by my parenting. I enjoy it, most of the time.

Sleep with my baby? After a day spent away from her at work? That’s what made me think.  Is all this trophy parenting, this uber-attachment, this need to spend every sleeping moment with your baby, the inability to spend any time away from your child when you get home from work,  a reaction to the fact that our culture, our policies, our work-life structures have not evolved to the point that there’s time for both work and life over the course of daily life?  That mom is still the one doing it all and doing it obsessively?  And where the hell is dad?

All of which led me back to a “big think” interview with the glorious Gloria Steinem a few weeks ago, where she said, as always, a lot of smart stuff.  But check what she says related to this issue, specifically:

For instance, we’ve demonstrated in this and other modern countries or industrialized countries that women can do what men can do, but we have not demonstrated that men can do what women can do therefore children are still mostly raised, hugely mostly raised by women and women in industrialized modern countries end up having two jobs one outside the home and one inside the home. And more seriously than that children grow up believing that only women can be loving and nurturing, which is a libel on men, and that only men can be powerful in the world outside the home, which is a libel on women. So that’s huge step we haven’t taken yet.

Right?  Don’t get me wrong.  I loved having kids, and (ahem, fishing here), I think I did a fairly decent job of it.  One reason may have been that I also gave myself permission to have a life that was attached to neither work or parenting.  But back to where we started.  Let’s give Erica the last word:

In the oscillations of feminism, theories of child-rearing have played a major part. As long as women remain the gender most responsible for children, we are the ones who have the most to lose by accepting the “noble savage” view of parenting, with its ideals of attachment and naturalness. We need to be released from guilt about our children, not further bound by it. We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules.

Amen, sister.  I’ll be happy to say it.   Do the best you can.  There are no rules.  And that, dear readers, goes for everything.  Not just parenting.

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