Friday, March 13, 2009

Fifty Is Not A Four-Letter Word

I read a novel recently that is not so much an example of post feminism as what I'd have to call phoning-it-in feminism. I requested a copy of Linda Kelsey's Fifty Is Not A Four-Letter Word from Hachette Book Group a few weeks ago because it sounded interesting; I was hoping for an Olivia Goldsmith-type novel. Something about a woman with ambition. What I got was another version of Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It, except with a grown child who has been the center of his mother's universe, to the exclusion of his father. That makes the novel sound like a fictional case study for Caitlin Flanagan's Disneyland-loving parents in To Hell With All That, and that is not it, that is not it at all.

Hope, the protagonist of Kelsey's novel, is a feminist of my mother's generation; one of the women who went out and fought some of the battles so their daughters wouldn't have to. And it's worked; women of my generation have not been informed that they couldn't have a fellowship that had already been awarded "because you'll just get pregnant and drop out of graduate school," as my mother was told in 1959. Women of my generation were not necessarily asked to type the notes for any meeting they attended or bring the food. And women of my generation were not referred to as "faculty wives" after years of working as part-time faculty and fighting to be hired full-time.

And yet, here I am, a part-time adjunct Professor with plenty of ambition but unwilling to sell my soul to a university in exchange for a tenure-track position. Working two part-time jobs, bringing up two children, and writing about what I read in my spare time. Where has feminism brought women my age? I can't possibly sum up what's being called post- or even post-post feminism here, nor will I defend the position I've taken in the mommy wars.

What I will do is tell you what bothered me about Hope, whose name is surely meant to be symbolic. She's obviously autobiographical, to some extent, since she does two of the five new things the author says she's done each year since she turned 50. She's not overly bright or articulate. When she's fired from the job she loves, editor of a magazine, her response is to shriek "Fuck you, you stupid bastard....You stupid, stupid, stupid bastard...You dumbed-down advertising salesman in a Savile Row suit....You pathetic philistine who has read only two books in his entire life--and both of them by Jeffrey Archer...You, you you complete and total fuckwit..." Although I give her some credit for realizing that she isn't being particularly articulate, I don't like or sympathize with Hope. She's overly concerned with her clothes and hair and weight, despite the fact that she eventually makes the politically correct decision against having plastic surgery ("I thought it immoral to encourage women to undergo dangerous surgery in order to conform to male standards of beauty? Well, sod that. Times have changed.") She's jealous of her mother's freedom from domestic chores and even her mother's attention to her father. She betrays her best friend by telling the father of the friend's baby that he is, in fact, the father, which turns out fine because eventually the best friend accepts Hope's dictum that the baby needs a family, rather than a single mother. Even when Hope commits adultery, she is thinking as much about how nice her new underwear is and keeping the lights off so he doesn't see "the real me. The me that's fifty" as she is about the fact that she is being unfaithful to her husband.

Hope's old-style feminist stance on the mommy wars is spelled out, early on: "When Olly was born, yummy mummies hadn't been invented. Mummies went back to work and did something called juggling. Some still do, but not this lot, that's for sure." She goes through her life, even after being fired, and even after her husband has left her, with the smug assurance that she knows and does what is best. The smugness reaches a peak with the "yummy mummies" comment, which is followed by "you do know they're mothers because they're sitting in Carluccio's on their cell phones, and issuing instructions to their au pairs about what Skye or Mia or Orlando should be having for lunch. Since most of these lunches seem to consist of jars of ready-made mush--organic, of course--I'm not sure why the au pairs can't be left to decide between the chicken and rice or the turkey and carrots on their own." And to top off the culinary criticism, she says she feels "like an interloper in a warren of chic rabbits, all nibbling happily on rocket leaves with a touch of balsamic, while I clumsily tuck into scrambled eggs with bacon, field mushrooms, and fried tomatoes." Because it's important to criticize women for what they feed their children and what they eat. One of Hope's priorities in her day ends up being the regular creation of gourmet dinners coupled with walking for miles to keep her figure trim.

So I'm anticipating a total reversal for Hope, cooking to get her husband back or some such nonsense. And then she surprises me. Rather than falling in with the plans of a couple she's met through a walking group, she actually takes the initiative to create some plans of her own, based on what and who she knows from her former magazine career. And it doesn't turn out that she earns more money from this new career and magically feels more fulfilled, either. There's a realistic turn to the story when she says "I'm happy to open my contacts book and hit the phone, but this is a huge commitment, and we need to call in professional event organizers."

Hope starts thinking seriously about what she valued in her marriage and her career and what she wants to retain from them:
"I know a lot of what's gone wrong between me and Jack has been my fault. And yet I'm not prepared to take all the blame. My so-called brilliant career, before it slipped away from me, afforded us the kind of lifestyle that Jack's laid-back physio practice never could have supplied. And it's not as if Jack didn't enjoy the luxuries my job allowed us. Holidays wherever we wanted, dining out in the top restaurants without having to select the cheapest items on the menu, the best seats in the house at the theater. I'm not saying Jack needed all this stuff, but he did participate with enthusiasm.
For me, it was always about so much more than the money and what it could buy. I loved my work, looked forward to it almost every single day until my year of approaching fifty. And there was something about being economically independent, mistress of my own purse strings, that I never wanted to let go of. The thought of having to ask a man for money, even now, makes me shiver. Early feminist imprinting, I guess.
A high-powered full-time job, a small child, a home to run. Is there any way in those circumstances that a relationship isn't going to become a victim of neglect? It's so easy to simply stop paying attention to each other. I was so busy I didn't care. Jack was so easygoing, he didn't seem to mind. Except he did. And as I became ever more anxious, more manic, more self-absorbed, more wrapped up in what I regarded as the hideous notion of turning fifty, the more the distance between us grew.
Maybe I should have been less honest about the sense of loss I've been feeling about Olly leaving home. How would I feel if it were the other way round and Jack were acting like it was a death in the family? Wouldn't I be thinking, Yes, it's natural to feel it as a wrench, but hey, you've still got me. Me, your wife, remember her?
I still won't accept that to have a truly strong marriage, you have to put your partner first, above everyone and everything else."

The problem with Hope, as with old-style feminism, is that she believes there's some general principle that can guide a woman to having "a truly strong marriage" or anything else. She doesn't allow her friends or family to work out ways of living that work well for them.

By the end of the novel, Hope has become a caricature of a woman whose husband has left her and who has discovered her very feminine strengths--she's all excited about planning the wedding of her former secretary, oh I mean executive assistant. In fact, we've come so far from the Olivia Goldsmith-type heroine that Hope has "no interest in gloating over the demise of Jasmine and of Mark. Helping to plan Tanya's wedding seems to me an endeavor far more worthy of my attention." She makes up with her best friend and is allowed to hold her baby, a girl named after a Jane Austen heroine. The only caricature that is left out is that Hope doesn't decide to start her own catering business. In fact, her decision at the end is left ambiguous, as a relief to the active reader who was tired of being dictated to, if something of a disappointment to the passive one anxious to find out what Hope knows best.

I fervently hope that the days of a black-and-white approach to feminism--which I will characterize in relation to Hope as the high-powered, full-time job and neglected marriage and in relation to Caitlin Flanagan as the stay-at-home-mom who doesn't call herself a housewife but has a marriage with "a commitment to the other person's well-being as much as to one's own"-- are over. If Feministing and Bitch Magazine have anything new to say, what they're saying is based partly on the idea that pro-choice includes having a choice about the proportion of time a woman spends on her marriage, on her children, and on her job, and that "me" time for a woman does not necessarily equal time spent at work outside the home, time spent "working" on her marriage, or time spent scrapbooking pictures of the kiddies and making cupcakes with faces.

Do you sometimes find yourself judging other people for the choices they've made? Do you occasionally find your parental role leaking over into other parts of your life, or your relationship role, or your work role? What's hardest about juggling everything you're trying to keep up in the air?


Anonymous said...

I've had this post open on a Firefox tab for days, trying to think of what to say. Please forgive my lack of coherence, but there is just so much emotion brought up by this subject I just can't even get a handle on it. I'm sorry to wimp out and not give you more than that, but at least I wanted to tell you that this post had an impact on me.

Hope you & yours are feeling better.

Jeanne said...

Siren, you're not alone; my stat counter tells me that lots of people read this one. Silently. I think maybe the questions I raised are too big to answer, so I'll have to mull them around for a while and come back to them one at a time.

Alison said...

I've been in the same boat as greeneyedsiren, trying to come up with an adequate (or really any) response. Academia has always struck me as a peculiar case of institutional sexism. I remember having a conversation with Lemming about it when I was pregnant with the Munchkin. There is such an expectation that we will get our PhDs, publish, and get tenure-track jobs early in our careers, creating a fairly arbitrary deadline for success that happens to coincide with a biological deadline for having children.

Jeanne said...

Alison, good point--and still a sore one for way too many of us.

Luanne said...

Jeanne -I'm glad that someone else found this book and character appalling. I was thinking I was alone in my thinking - but boy you said it so much better ( and deeper!)