On Women’s Culture and Literary Cockblocking

Last week I dropped a flippant one-liner on Facebook about wanting to write a piece of novelist fan fic wherein Jennifer Egan beheaded Jonathan Franzen in a gladiatorial spectacle. People seemed to enjoy that comment, and someone told me I should write the story, and I did. Reveling in the silliness of the premise, I also tried to honor the sentiment behind my original comment. The actual beheading was more of a punchline than an event.

Immediately after posting it and sharing it on Facebook, I felt overwhelmed by a mix of pride and terror. My first action was to hurriedly comment that it was written in the style of The Hunger Games. This was not true at all, though the books had undoubtedly been on my mind. It was my way of simultaneously disavowing the violence of the story and beating to the punch all the imaginary readers in my head who would think it was derivative. Like lots of women, I have a habit of prefacing my words with the phrase “I’m sure this isn’t very original, but . . .” and punctuating them with an apology for excessive feeling.

So I’ve been thinking about why I wrote the story, and the uncomfortable amount of rage I’ve been feeling lately—as in, my whole life—about women. Or specifically, being a woman in a patriarchy, with all the constant threat of violence and ridicule and just being ignored that it entails.

It’s wonderful of the Grand Old Party to wage a war on women right now, in a way. It seems to have kicked a lot of Americans in the gut, not to mention the womb. Now no one can pretend that misogyny is dead, that women are truly treated as equals to men, that the goals of the women’s movement were achieved long ago in the fuzzy past. It’s a mystery to me how anyone who’s been alive through the last four presidential administrations, which is about how long I’ve been noticing presidential administrations, could think that in the first place. But now that no one can deny that men in high places are trying to reassert control over women’s bodies and silence their voices, I feel a strange relief at the thought that now the battle is actually on.

The skills I bring to this fight are reading and writing and critical thinking. I’m not an activist, to my shame, or a lawyer, thankfully for everyone, or a policy maker, except in my nightmares, or a documentarian, which sounds hard. As a reader, writer, and former grad student, I’m fixated on the softer misogynies that create the climate in which the overt misogyny can thrive. To my mind, the relationship between creative production and structural inequality—between stories and legislation—is no less troubling for being indirect. It’s just harder to quantify, because it happens in our off-hours, when we read and watch movies for pleasure, during our playtime, as it were.

Here’s a story about playtime. My niece and her twin brother just turned eight years old. At the age of three my niece started refusing to wear pink. At six, she demanded a boy’s haircut. Without knowing the complicated thoughts that take place inside her intelligent little brain, I can only imagine what would compel a girl who has a twin brother to make these choices. Could it be that she noticed, as soon as she was old enough to notice things, that boy stuff was just valued more than girl stuff? That she was encouraged to play with trains, maps, and other stereotypically boyish toys, which we progressively think of as “unisex”; but that boys were not encouraged to play with dolls, kitchen sets, and other stereotypically girly toys? Can she really have noticed at the age of three that things associated with girls were not considered worthy of little boys’ attention? In case you don’t think that’s likely, here’s another story: when she was four or five years old, she announced during play time that she didn’t want to be a princess, because princesses just sat around waiting to be rescued. She wanted to be a knight instead.

A recent trip to Disneyworld acquainted her with the consequences of this attitude. In a land of princesses, my niece was mistaken for a boy more than once. She can only have felt deeply ambivalent, or whatever the 7-year-old version of that looks like, when the waitress dressed as Cinderella came back around with an embarrassed smile on her face to offer her a fairy wand instead of the sword she had been “mistakenly” given at the door. It’s not always easy being a knight.

The stories we tell affect our cultural beliefs about women. And, to get to the point, so do the stories we tell about those stories.

Because even after they’re all grown up, boys still don’t want to play with girls’ toys, which is what Jonathan Franzen fatally expressed in that decade-old gaffe on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. (Well, fatally for the Jonathan Franzen in my story, anyway). Franzen starts off by acknowledging the well-supported fact that women are the primary readers of novels in America:

 So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator . . . I continue to believe that . . .

It’s easy to misread this quote as Franzen denigrating a certain class of Americans. Elitist Author Knocks Beloved Talk Show, Calls Oprah Watchers Dumb. Perhaps it would be too much to expect the next sentence to be something about how great it is that someone is buying American novels at all, thereby keeping Franzen in tweed blazers. But in the next sentence, Franzen not only fails to acknowledge the value of his low-brow, Oprah-watching female audience, but actively reveals his craving for their low-brow, football-watching husbands:

. . . and now, I’m actually at the point with this book that I worry . . . I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in book stores that said, “If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women and I would never touch it.” Those are male readers speaking. So, I’m a little confused about the whole thing now.

Boys won’t play with girl’s toys, and this is “confusing” to Franzen. (It’s not confusing to me, but whatever.) He cites direct, anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon. He is careful to point out that this is male readers speaking, not him. He cites the evidence.

He doesn’t mention whether women approached him at these book signings, or what they said if they did.  He expresses no interest in his potentially vast pool of female readers, in their potential reactions, in whether they will identify with his well-written female characters. He only expresses concern over the fact that their having bought the book will drive those men in line away. Not concern over the noxious sexism their comments revealed, but over the possibility of losing them altogether. The fact that women were reading Jonathan Franzen’s book wasn’t ever going to make them look more intelligent or perceptive. It made the book look like it was “for women,” and therefore unreadable by men. The role of female readers in this narrative can be summed up in one word: cockblockers.

In a really great 2001 interview in BOMB Magazine, Franzen told writer Donald Antrim that The Corrections was part of a general turn away from masculinist modes of fiction currently in fashion and toward the domestic fiction associated with—you guessed it—Edith Wharton. He said this to Donald Antrim, a highbrow postmodernist author who exemplified the style Franzen was rejecting. Franzen is a sensitive intellect despite that ludicrous Wharton article, and I believe he meant what he said. But that is what makes his other words, spoken in conversation with the most recognizable and respected female voice in National Public Radio, so disheartening. Somehow it’s always worse when a smart man says it. It’s more of a betrayal. It makes you feel so hopeless.

There are plenty of worse types of oppression for a woman than being told you’re not valuable as a reader of Jonathan Franzen. Like all women, I know women who’ve been raped by strangers and acquaintances, women who’ve been bullied and harassed at work and on the street, women who’ve been physically threatened on first dates and by live-in boyfriends, women who’ve been passed over for promotions or discovered their pay was not commensurate with their male peers. This is not any one man’s fault, and it certainly isn’t the fault of poor old Jonathan Franzen, who does not have an Oprah-like sphere of influence, no matter how many NPR interviews and New Yorker articles he botches.

But the crimes of misogyny are propped up by the culture of misogyny. And the culture of misogyny is perpetuated by literary fiction as much as by sitcoms and television ads, by The New Yorker as much as by Maxim. The culture of misogyny is perpetuated by smart, creative, well-intentioned, and fundamentally good people, as well as by Rush Limbaugh. I don’t really want to chop off Jonathan Franzen’s head, obviously. But as a woman watching the contemporary literary scene I was for a long time afraid even to be invested in (hence my retreat to dead authors in grad school), I confess I do want to see women get their comeuppance. When Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize last year for A Visit from the Goon Squad, I had very complicated feelings about it, including delight, of course, but also sadness that her earlier, more female-centric novels had never pulled the critical attention that her novels that explored men’s experience did.

Franzen’s Freedom was published in 2010, and Goon Squad won in 2011so that particular gladiatorial spectacle was not to be. But a girl can dream.

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8 thoughts on “On Women’s Culture and Literary Cockblocking

  1. Katie says:

    your niece’s anecdotes brought two things to mind:

    1) i have a friend with a 20yr old daughter – when her daughter was a child she took her to see a movie about a family and their dog. the movie ended and she asked her daughter to get up so they could leave the theater. her daughter responded indicating that the movie had not finished b/c no one had gotten married. her daughter had internalized (probably based on disney movies and the like) that movies have happy endings – and a happy ending is the princess getting married to her prince.

    2) my mother relaying to me that when she was young she wasn’t let in to see the holiday train set in a downtown christmas display b/c she was not a boy. she told me that that is the moment she became aware that it was a man’s world.

    my mom is a nurse. a few years ago, my brother relayed to me that our mother told him that when she was younger she wanted to become a medical doctor, but didn’t pursue that path b/c she didn’t think she was smart enough. we both shared a moment of sadness, knowing that, though our mother continues to have a fulfilling career as a nurse, there was no doubt in our minds she is more than smart enough to have become a doctor. so, instead of pursuing the (at the time) male-dominated doctor path, she became a nurse.

    did the above-mentioned story have anything to do with her not thinking she could become a doctor? i am a nurse (one can assume b/c she was my role-model). does the above-mentioned story have anything to do with my chosen profession?

    • amyegentry says:

      I think you’ve told me before that your mom wanted to be a doctor. No wonder she didn’t think it was possible if she couldn’t even look at a freaking toy train. God. Re #2: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “marriage plot,” how important it is in Jane Austen, and what did it mean for women then and women now, etc. But that is just so literal. Wonder how old the daughter was?

      P.S. My niece started getting teased about her hair over the past year. A bunch of kids in class were asking why she looked like a boy. The teacher brought the normal lesson to a screeching halt and proceeded to spend the whole afternoon on a lesson about “being different,” emphasizing that boys and girls don’t always have to look a certain way. The teacher, by the way, is a lesbian. Go Alexandria public schools!

      • rachel says:

        Our mothers grew up during a time that’s so different from now that it’s not understandable by us in any realistic way. My mother insisted I take typing instead of computer science in high school, because that’s of more use in finding a job (read secretarial job, that women can do). She never had a positive thing to say about an art major, despite the fact that my art degree has kept me gainfully employed for the last 10 years. During my recent bout of unemployment, she mentioned that she hoped I would get out of jewelry (one would read, into something more steady and reliable, like secretarial work?), and also nearly insisted that I go to a placement agency. She doesn’t understand the difference, apparently, between a temp agency and the headhunters that used to approach my dad when I was younger. And my mother is very supportive, for the most part!

        But this is an example of how most people’s attitudes become fixed at the time of their greatest emotional development and then stay the same for the rest of their lives. In my opinion, if we can keep old white bastards from making a total hash of things, all we have to do is wait for them to die off and we’ll see a big change. But in the meantime, making any change to this won’t-die cultural mysogyny is a huuuge uphill battle. Want to assassinate some disney princesses this weekend?

  2. Gale Kenny says:

    I think your point about Franzen not being willing to see women as smart for reading his book (and that when Oprah’s watchers like his book it devalues his text) is spot on.

    I have a hypothesis about this point, and I’d be curious to know what you think:

    I wonder if/how Franzen was shaped by the academic turn of rediscovering noncanonical women’s novelists. My outsider understanding of this (and you know more than me!) is that feminist literary critics showed how popular women writers were far more widely read (by men and women) than the Hawthornes and Melvilles. They were also addressing social issues – class, race, slavery, gender – and, of course, women’s experiences. But to our twenty-first-century sensibilities, many of these non-canonical novels by women (but certainly not all!!!!!) were sentimental, not serious, and otherwise lacking in literary heft. AND: few scholars defended the remarkable prose or “seriousness” of these novels in the same way that certain people will defend, say, _Moby Dick_, until the end of time. The “lost” women’s novels were found, but not praised as “good.”

    As an unanticipated consequence, women’s lit became separate but (not really) equal to the heavies of American lit. They were recognized as existing (just like how Franzen recognizes the existence and numbers of women readers), but not seen as entirely legitimate. If we imagine a canon made up of people, Lady Readers are a separate group, voluminous like trade paperbacks and romance novels, but certainly not as desired as the Serious Man Readers that Franzen desires as a validation for the seriousness of his own domestic fiction.

  3. Alice Castle says:

    Amy,
    A number of years ago I was working as an international accountant and detangled a problem we had at our Italy location. I asked to go to Italy to follow up. My boss took me into his office to explain to me how it wouldn’t be fair to send me to Italy,(a plum assignment)because he would never send me to our Nigeria office. So because he was protecting me from possible violence in Nigeria,(where no one was scheduled to go in the near future), I couldn’t travel to any good locations. Of course, he went to Italy himself with my workpapers.
    The different ways of being marginalized never fail to amaze me.
    Alice

  4. Alice Castle says:

    Amy,
    Repost
    Read your story, about the author fight-to-the death match. Poor Franzen, did he really have to die? No chance for a draw? No possibility of some future book which might redeem him? No crowd response to save him? No emperor to champion him? Is it all or nothing in this fictional world, and is it always men vs. women? I definitely think Enid was the real hero in the Corrections, so not entirely a male chauvinist pig. I did like your story very much, keep on crafting.

    I’m wondering if the Oprah commments might not have some element of cultural elitism to them. Maybe the Oprah Book Club is too Middle America for Franzen. I think it might be more culturally acceptable in the USA (where we pretend no class bias exists)for Franzen to say that he wanted to attract more male readers(less women). How un-PC to say that he preferred his readers to be New Yorker subscribers.

  5. mikegentry says:

    Don’t think that I don’t think, and worry, constantly about what you describe with Nora and Nick. A few weeks ago we took them shopping for new bikes. The store had just the one model for them to try out, so they both sat on it and got a feel for it. They both liked it but Nick seemed troubled by something. After a lot of coaxing, we got him to admit that he liked the color and style but would rather have a “boy’s bike.” I realized for the first time that the bike’s tag identified it as a “girl’s 24-inch 10-speed.” We reassured Nick that when we ordered the actual bike online, we would make sure his was the boy’s model.

    Never mind that they were both sport/mountain bikes and you could barely tell the difference. (I think we actually got a boy’s model for Nora, too.) My first thought was annoyance that bikes still made that arbitrary distinction. Then bemusement that Nick had already started picking up on that distinction. Then worry that I was just reinforcing that by “reassuring” him that he wouldn’t have a stinky old bike for stinky old GIRLS.

    (We ended up, as we often do, talking to both kids about it on the way home from the store, explaining that it is silly for bikes to have that distinction at all, but assuring Nick that there was nothing wrong with him expressing a preference.)

    Ramee and I tell ourselves that if Nick liked dolls then we would totally encourage him, and although in practical terms we seem to be safely insulated from having to put that to the test, I still think it’s true. With Nora there are so many more complicated layers. Of course Ramee and I are both happy that Nora eschews dolls and other frilly toys–because neither one of us ever liked them, either. (Me for obvious reasons, but where did Ramee get it from?) But by encouraging Nora to look upon “girly” pursuits with disdain, did we end up teaching her to see girls the same way? I don’t know. Well, I suspect maybe a little. What I definitely don’t know is how one ought to thread that particular needle.

    Fortunately Nora seems to be growing out of it. She still insists on short hair, but she socializes very well with other girls her age. She will readily tell you that Princess Leia is the coolest character in Star Wars (or at least in the top 3, depending on the day). Recently she started rewatching her Avatar disks, and one of the extras that she watches again and again is “The Women of Avatar,” which celebrates the awesomeness of Kitara, Toff, and Azula.

    On the other hand, she still always chooses a male character when she plays Skyrim, but you know. Baby steps.

  6. This is such an excellent exploration of the small ways misogyny retains its hegemonic hold over culture. Sigh… Thanks for writing. Off to read some of your more recent thoughts. (Found your blog through an insightful comment you left on an old Feminist Fiction post about “The Marriage Plot.”)

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