Misogyny in popular contemporary literary fiction
Misogyny has been a component of literature
for as long as literature has existed. Katharine Rogers has said
that "(m)isogyny, a prominent theme through all periods of English literature,
can be traced back to the ancient myths of the Jews and the Greeks" (x).
Rogers has traced the most common patriarchal story, in which women's 'irrationality'
is played against male 'rationality,' through the ages from Ovid to Aquinas
to Donne, and then from Spenser to Swift to D.H. Lawrence. She has
noted the prevalence of another misogynist story, perennial competition
between women, from Plato through Robert Herrick. A more recent sexist
story, in which a mixed-up man finds redemption through the love of an
emotionally wise and patient woman, is hinted at in Chaucer's Clerk's Tale,
but becomes common from nineteenth century authors, such as Dickens, on
through George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, and John Irving.
Nearly two millenia have passed since the Greek stories were written. One hundred and fifty years have passed since the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments was read at Seneca Falls. Thirty-five years have passed since Betty Friedan published The feminine mystique. Twenty-nine years have passed since Kate Millett's doctoral dissertation was published as Sexual politics. Surely, one thinks, things are different now. Surely, with all the political and social strides made by women in the twentieth century, women are shown greater respect. In some senses, this is true. Female characters in recent fiction commonly hold jobs and find varying measures of material success. They have intellect, and they use it. Their social and emotional skills are met with respect from male characters. And yet common patterns of patriarchal stories persist even in the most contemporary fiction.
Pat Conroy's The prince of tides is one example of this type of novel. Susan Lowenstein, the major female character, is a highly intelligent, well-respected, and financially successful psychiatrist who openly identifies as a feminist. She challenges the worldview of the protagonist, Tom Wingo, in a number of ways; very early in the book Tom says that he knows "this woman was more than a match for me" (51). Yet despite the fact that Tom himself identifies as a feminist, he continues to treat women poorly, to ridicule his sister's feminist friends, and to play out the old stories of redemption through the love of a good woman, Susan, and infidelity, pitting Susan against his wife in competition for his love. Conroy himself has participated in feminist political work; an alumnus of the Citadel, he lent his name and influence to Shannon Faulkner's campaign for fair treatment at that institution. He is supposedly a friend to feminism, and his work still falls into patriarchal patterns. Even fiction of the last ten years, written by men who grew up on images of Gloria Steinem and NOW, still falls prey to these antifeminist notions. In this paper I will examine the fiction of two such authors, Douglas Coupland and Nick Hornby, with the purpose of showing the sexism in the images of men, women, and the relationships between them, as presented in Coupland and Hornby's fiction.
My particular feminist approach
My critical approach comes mostly from Helene Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Fetterley. Cixous's notions of the binary oppositions basic to patriarchal culture describe the common and opposing associations with and ways of thinking about the masculine and the feminine (Cixous and Clement 115). Naturally, in a binary system, one cannot describe one part accurately without also describing the other part. One differentiates the two in terms of presence and absence; one part is x, the other part not-x. Thus Cixous gives the following oppositions: Activity/Passivity; Sun/Moon; Head/Emotions; Intelligible/Sensitive; Logos/Pathos; Father/Mother (Cixous and Clement 115). Within this framework, the masculine is associated with activity, the sun, the head, intelligibility, logos, and paternal power, while the feminine is associated with passivity, the moon, the emotions, sensitivity, pathos, and motherhood. Thus women, as feminine, are passive, powerless, emotional, sensitive, and sentimental; as Other to the masculine, they are also not-intelligible and illogical. The location of power is always with the masculine.
Clearly there are some problems with Cixous's binary genders. Other feminist critics have criticized her essentialist approach, including Julia Kristeva. She argues that the feminist struggle must be seen historically and politically as three-tiered, encompassing the following three positions: liberal or equity feminism, in which women demand equal access to the symbolic order; radical feminism, in which women reject the male symbolic order and exalt femininity; and a deconstructive position (which is Kristeva's own) in which women reject the binary opposition between masculine and feminine as metaphysical (Kristeva, 1981). She further states that though she holds the third position, she believes that it is still politically essential for feminists to defend women as women in order to effectively fight patriarchal oppression which denigrates women as women. She points out that nothing prevents one from holding any set of the above positions simultaneously. Thus while I believe as she does that viewing the relationships between the sexes as dichotomous ultimately fails philosophically, I also believe that the dichotomy remains as a social fact, and that we as feminists must deal with it.
Judith Fetterley offers an approach to feminist criticism that incorporates these insights. Taking as her premise Elaine Showalter's ideas about patriarchal fictions immasculation of women and its alienating, Othering implications, she declares that "...the first act of the feminist critic must be to become a resisting rather than an assenting reader and, by this refusal to assent, to begin the process of exorcising the male mind that has been implanted in us" (1979). Feminists critics should take this action with the purpose of changing how we read, foregrounding the power relations between the sexes instead of allowing them to remain naturalized.
Why a feminist approach to contemporary literary fiction?
One may ask what may be discovered by applying feminist theory to contemporary fiction written by men. Feminist theory has been applied to better-known work that has heavily influenced Anglo-American culture, and much has been learned from that analysis. Within the discourse of feminism itself, many writers have questioned why feminist critics should work with texts by male authors at all, when there are so many women authors whose work is neglected despite its complexity (Moi, 1982). However, we must remember that feminist criticism is not merely the application of an alternative aesthetic, or a route for women authors to achieve greater recognition and prestige. Feminist criticism is also a political endeavor (Moi, 1982) aimed at undermining the hegemony of patriarchy; this endeavor has quite obviously not succeeded at dismantling patriarchy yet. It is useful to keep in mind Loraine York's warning about "narratives of progress;" there is no reason to believe that men born late in the twentieth century will automatically include significant feminist insights in their fiction (or in their lives). Since hegemony by its very nature makes periodic shifts which serve to mainstream and dilute marginal analysis (Hebdige 1979), it is necessary for some feminist criticism to focus on the current conditions of women in social and cultural life, including images of women in art. That is to say, feminist criticism must continue to expose patriarchal hegemony even as mainstream culture incorporates some feminist insights; otherwise feminism will be merely another casualty of hegemony. So it is especially important for feminist critics to pay some attention to fiction by men because it seems likely that they will reproduce their privilege and the unequal power relations with women to which they are probably accustomed, in their art.
Why Coupland and Hornby?
Coupland and Hornby are both authors whose work has enjoyed critical acclaim and excellent sales. Sources as respected and varying as The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and Details have praised their work. All of the books considered in this paper were bestsellers. According to its cover, High Fidelity was named a New York Times Notable Book. In Seattle, not far south of Coupland's native Vancouver, Life after God was outsold only by the blockbusters The celestine prophecy and The bridges of Madison county. So these books are all both widely read by the general public and approved of by the literary establishment. They thus have a wealth of cultural power and a breadth of influence that makes it imperative that we understand the kind of influence they have. Hornby especially seems to have a kind of grasp on contemporary male experience that should compel feminist attention; the back cover of the paperback edition of High fidelity contains the following quotation from the Details review: "Keep this book away from your girlfriend - it contains too many of your secrets to let it fall into the wrong hands."
Clearly, then, it is important that as many 'girlfriends' understand this as possible.
Critical responses to their fictions
No academic attention has been paid to Hornby's fiction. Very little academic work has been done on Coupland. Searches of major databases return less than ten sources. What sources there are focus mostly on his first novel, Generation X, and on technical or religious aspects of his writing (Lainsbury, 1996; Kopkind, 1993; McKelly, 1996); no feminist criticism has focused on his work.
However, magazine and newspaper critics have paid a great deal of attention to both Hornby and Coupland. Coupland is widely acclaimed as an author with a gift for capturing time and place (Silverman, 1995; Jacobson, 1995; Richardson, 1994; Kakutani, 1994; Newsham, 1994; Heller, 1994; Lenhard, 1992). (It is often noted that he is the man who, in the title of his first novel, coined the term "Generation X," a phrase which has become so much a part of the cultural landscape that searching for information about the book more often brings one articles about the economic or social life of the twentysomething folks to which the terms refers.) Reviewer Bronwen Hruska states that in Microserfs, "Coupland paints a vivid landscape and captures the flavor of a historical moment as few writers can" (1994). Writing for The New York Times about Microserfs, Jay McInerney remarked that Coupland "has the makings of a latter-day Tom Wolfe" and "continues to register the buzz of his generation with a fidelity that should shame most professional Zeitgeist chasers" (1995). Coupland is also frequently praised for his humor (Jacobson, 1995; Silverman, 1995; Jones, 1992; Gardner, 1992; Richardson, 1994) and his intelligence. Toronto Sun critic Heather Mallick has called him "the smartest young man in Canada" (1994).
Probably the most common criticism of Coupland's work is that he sometimes fails to walk the tightrope between irony and sincerity as smoothly as reviewers might wish, and falls off to one side, sentimentality, or the other, sly cleverness. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times found Life after God, a more serious work than any of his others, "cloying (1994)," while Elizabeth Lenhard denounced Shampoo planet's "self-conscious cleverness" (1992).
Like Coupland, Hornby is praised for his ability to accurately and entertainingly portray contemporary life. James Sullivan of the San Francisco Chronicle notes that "there's something giddy about writing that captures the tenor of the time in such fine detail" (1998). The Guardian's Suzanne Moore called High fidelity "a pop book in the best sense of the word" (1995). As previously mentioned, Hornby's skill at rendering contemporary male characters was often noted. Writing for the New York Times, Mark Jolly called High fidelity's Rob "a figure of Prufrockian pathos" (1995). Tobias Hill of London's Observer states that "(j)ust as Helen Fielding describes a particular kind of young woman in Bridget Jones, Hornby Man is an instantly recognisable social phenomenon: Esquire-reading, alphabetical CD-collecting, reconditioned-but-not-New-Men ... who move(s) through life in the blissful hope that he will never have to grow up" (1998). Moore broadened her approach and called Hornby's characters "people so instantly recognisable you could hum them" (1995).
In another similarity to Coupland, Hornby is frequently praised for his humor. Michelle Huneven lauded High fidelity for the protagonist's "funny, sharp.. internal musings," (1995) while Moore called it "totally charming" and "laugh-out-loud funny" (1995). Kakutani commended Hornby's "quirky comedic instincts" in About a boy, calling it "entertaining, funny, and ... affecting" (1998).
Hornby is criticized for occasionally explaining his characters' lives instead of letting their thoughts and actions speak for themselves. Kakutani comments that this "writerly tic" has a way of making his work seem "even more schematic than it really is" (1998).
The irrational woman is perhaps the most cliched figure in patriarchal literature. Despite Coupland's usually innovative fictional style, he frequently falls prey to this cliché. Even intelligent, independent female characters are often portrayed as emotionally off-kilter, while few comments are made about male characters.
Shampoo planet is the worst of the offenders. The only real episodes of bonding between female characters deal with food and body image. The first of these, the only one discussed in any depth, occurs in a restaurant when Gaia, a friend of the narrator's girlfriend Anna-Louise, cavalierly mentions her bulimia.
"God, I wish they'd install urinals in the ladies' room," says Gaia... "At chest height. So when you did the one-two-three purge you wouldn't always mess the knees of your pantyhose on the bathroom floor."Remarkably, the men simply continue their conversation. In the next line, Harmony, one of the male characters, says that Pony, a friend, met his social worker that day (the reader has been told that Pony's mother had their family declared dysfunctional by the county so that she can qualify for free therapy and free computer classes). Thus it is explicitly pointed out that while these two women have serious mental illnesses, the men have no such problems, and will simply ignore mention of such problems. It is worth noting that the particular problem the women have, bulemia, is firmly rooted in the body. This heightens the contrast between the intellectual, rational, mind-governed men and the emotional, irrational, body-focused women. Further, in calling the ladies' bathroom "Planet Purge," Tyler, the protagonist who narrates the novel, implies that such behavior is expected of many or most women, not just Gaia and Stephanie.
Stephanie's gaze is riveted.
"Hi Steph [sic]. And don't look at me like I'm a freak or something. It's not like I purge professionally," Gaia confesses. "Today was only some red-flavored Jell-O and half an onion bagel. Catch me around Thanksgiving. I'll be, like, a walking landfill. Come on. I'm going to the bathroom now. I'll give details."
Stephanie eagerly rockets off to Planet Purge, the ladies' bathroom, to swap bulimia tales with Gaia, leaving the rest of us at the table in a cone of silence (1992).
Jasmine is earnestly trying to tell Daisy and Murray about her youth: "Sure they were freaks, but we honestly believed the freaks had keys."
Blank, uncomprehending stares.
"Look at it this way. We thought freaks had access to magic secrets. Your father was a freak, Daisy."
"What kind of secrets?" asks Daisy.
Jasmine goes silent a moment: "Secrets of what was on the other side. Of the possibilities of perception."
More blank stares.
"Oh, all right. Look at it this way: when I was your age, people only used shampoo to wash their hair, and conditioner wasn't even invented."
Audible gasps of disbelief. I hear Jasmine stand up. "You kids are driving me crazy."
"Your mom's the hippest, Daisy."
"Isn't she great? Mom, do you ever have flashbacks" (1992)?
Despite Jasmine's clearly stated discomfort, Daisy continues to press her. At no point in the book does she behave with greater depth than this.
For her part, Jasmine isn't very stable. She's presented as an unregenerate hippie throughout the book, yet somehow, in "an era when Jasmine experimented for the first-and-hopefully-last time with crepe soap-opera dresses, makeup, and scampi hors d'oeuvres," she ends up married to Dan, a land developer who steals parking spaces from the handicapped (1992). The book begins with Dan penning D-I-V-O-R-C-E on Jasmine's forehead in mirror writing, and Jasmine spends most of the rest of the book being almost totally self-absorbed, trying to restructure her life after the end of the marriage. Tyler comments that "Jasmine was an earth mother back in the 1960s. Sometimes we call her this... But more often than not we just say earth to mother... earth to mother..." (1992). The closest she comes to providing any useful advice during this turbulent and difficult time in her children's lives is to write Tyler a letter while he is living penniless in Los Angeles. The picture we are left with is a defeated, passive woman whose ideals are gone, who chooses romantic partners obviously unsuitable for her, and who is alienated from her children. The last image we have of her, an episode near the close of the novel in which Tyler saves Jasmine from a physical assault by a drunken Dan by beating him up, does nothing to change this image.
Microserfs echoes these themes of body image problems and instability. Out of five major female characters, two, Karla and Dusty, have had serious eating disorders. Karla had a near-fatal bout with anorexia a few years before the book begins, during which, she says, she "weighed about as much as a Franklin Mint figurine" (1995). Her illness was spurred on by her parents' refusal to acknowledge her intelligence and talent, and their favoritism of her less intelligent brother simply because of his gender. Much to her credit, Karla begins to eat more often and to work out, and is able to say that she likes her body by the end of the novel. But this development is offset by Dusty, whose relationship to her body is consistently strange. At one point she makes a "Bulemia Top Ten List" of the foods on which she most often binged (1995). She has attempted to resolve her relationship with her body through extreme alterations of it. She got her first set of breast implants when she was nineteen, and they began to leak inside her body. She tells all seven core characters about this one day at the office, relating "...tales of black goo seeping from nipples, '... immunosuppressive globules of silicone gel migrating through my blood system, triggering this never-ending yuppie flu. It was awful. That's how I got into body manipulation and extreme health..." (1995). Dusty also confides to Karla that she is "freaked out that any baby she might have will be a freak because of the fantastic quantities of scary digestibles she's eaten over the years, on top of her implants and her flirtations with bulimia and extreme diets... 'She's done it all,' says Karla, 'steroids, uppers, downers, coke, poppers, Pritikin...' " (1995). With this foreshadowing, of course Dusty does get pregnant, and is "convinced her baby is going to be a grapefruit" (1995). In a rather simplistic turn of events, Dusty "forget(s)" her body as a result of her pregnancy. This inconsistency seems to be inherent in Dusty's character. She makes a long speech about the evils of Lego's promotion of a mechanistic worldview; but then, when asked her opinion of the software product she is helping to code, which is based on Lego, she says, "It's rilly, rilly brilliant" (1995).
The other major example of body image problems and inconsistency is Susan, another programmer in the group. She changes her physical appearance when her stock vests and she is able to quit her job at Microsoft. The shift is sudden and jarring.
Susan's previous image - Patagonia-wearing Northwest good girl - had been shed away for a radicalized look: bent shades, striped Fortrel too-tight top, Angela Bowie hairdo, dirty suede vest, flares, and Adidases.
"Wow," Bug said. "What a stud."
She stormed past us, stopped at the top of the stairs, said, "Fuck it. I'm tired of being Mary Richards. I'm off to hold up a 7-Eleven," and then clomped down to the driveway.
The image change is not only physical, but also emotional and social. Susan significantly alters the way she behaves to match her new tough-chick look. She actively pursues a romantic relationship with the new company's graphic designer, and once she's established the relationship, proceeds to treat him as horribly as possible. She is verbally abusive and insulting, and eventually she dumps him because she's bored. "She's truly earned her stud medal on this one," says Dan, the narrator. It's clear that she has an image that she wants to live up to, and simply changes herself to fit that image. To be fair, many of the male characters in the book also go through major changes. Michael, head of the new start-up, has his first meaningful relationship; Bug, another programmer, discovers that he's gay and buys himself a new, 'more appropriate' wardrobe; and Dan, the narrator, struggles with the long-ago death of his younger brother and the impact it had on his relationship with his parents. But the difference is that while the men experience some sense of resolution, the women are simply left hanging. Karla never again discusses her body, or her relationship with her parents. No more narrative time is spent on Dusty after she has the baby. And Susan merely continues to establish her new persona by being rude. All three of these women are smart, able programmers, but none of them is emotionally stable. We are left with an image of female intelligence as something to be coped with and worked around, rather than as a strength in and of itself.
Life after God focuses less on female characters, but what female characters there are have significant problems. One of the short stories focuses on Cathy, a seventeen-year-old runaway. She has a romantic relationship with Pup-Tent, older than she is by several years, who, by all accounts, treats her execrably. She even "turns up with occasional bruises or black eyes," from which we can clearly conclude that he beats her (1994). But Cathy continues to stay with him nonetheless. When Cathy's older sister comes to visit, she notes that Pup-Tent is mean, jobless, and violent, and asks why Cathy stays. Cathy says simply, "I like the way he walks" (1994). The relationship finally ends when Pup-Tent leaves Cathy for another woman.
The other major female character in Life after God is Laurie, the older sister of Scout, the narrator. She continues Jasmine, Dusty, and Susan's theme of radical self-alteration. Laurie is described as the smartest, funniest, and best-liked of Scout's siblings, but she never benefits from these qualities. Her emotional state deteriorates further and further as she sinks further into drug addiction and talks about the appeal of being Patty Hearst, the kidnapped heiress who became a bank robber, of having a total change of identity and circumstance. She eventually becomes alienated from her entire support system, "systematically going through all of the family members and her friends, finding some small slight the persona had committed, whether real or imagined, the magnifying that slight out of all proportion, then cutting that person off forever. It wasn't too long before everyone had been axed, my mother being the last to go" (1994). The rest of the short story follows Scout as he travels to a restaurant where a family friend thought he had seen Laurie waiting tables, and focuses on his feelings as he finds she isn't there and tries again to cope with his feelings of loss. Again, female intelligence is punished with emotional and mental disorder.
This theme is also seen in Hornby's work, especially in High fidelity. Laura, protagonist Rob's girlfriend, is a piercingly smart and highly successful lawyer. She has just left Rob when the book begins, and most of the book deals with this event as the catalyst for Rob's development into emotional adulthood. But Laura functions as the sacrifice for Rob's achievement. Despite the fact that Rob has cheated on her, borrowed a large sum of money from her which he hasn't paid back, and has generally behaved like an adolescent, when her father dies, she chooses to take Rob back. She does this only because, as she says "...half smiling, half despairing, 'I'm too tired not to go out with you' " (1995). She is simply too tired from the sorrow of her beloved father's death, the stress of her rebound relationship's demise, the effort of her job, and the weight of her life as an independent, intelligent woman to remain alone. "Everything's too hard," she says. "Maybe another time I would have had the guts to be on my own, but not now I haven't" (1995). She needs someone she knows and trusts, and Rob is her best option. She says all this to Rob after he has walked out of her father's funeral "in a sulk" and she has followed him (1995).
High fidelity is particularly notable for its direct hostility toward feminism. The character Liz, Laura's best friend, openly identifies as feminist. This quality is presented not as a source of strength for her, but as a source of bad behavior on her part and irritation on Rob's. Liz yells at Rob once for his abominable behavior toward Laura, and she is diminished and almost dismissed for this by Rob's description of her as "...huge, and when she's angry, like she is now, she's pretty scary" (1995). He also paints her feminist anger as somewhat irrational, saying that when he tries to smile and joke his way out of this uncomfortable situation, she is "too far gone" for this tactic to work (1995). Later on, at Laura's father's funeral, Liz makes a remark about the difficulty of Laura's life recently, given that "...it's hard, when you're putting all your effort into one bit of your life, to suddenly find out that it's the wrong bit," after which she glances at Rob (1995). Rob says something easily interpretable as passive aggressive and childish, and Liz becomes irritated. Rob becomes so angry that he has trouble controlling himself.
Suddenly I'm raging and I don't know how to calm down. It seems like I've spent the whole of the last few weeks [since the breakup] with someone's hand on my arm. I can't speak to Laura because she lives with somebody else... and I can't speak to Liz because she knows about the money and the abortion and me seeing someone else... and I can't speak now because Laura's dad has died, and I just have to take it because otherwise I'm a bad guy, with the emphasis on guy, self-centered, blind, and stupid.
The last is obviously true, given the fact that he proceeds to sulk out of Laura's father's funeral, but ironically, he continues with, "(w)ell, I'm fucking not, not all the time anyway, and I know this isn't the right place to say so - I'm not that daft - but when am I allowed to" (1995)? He then proceeds to tell Liz that he can either stick up for himself or he can believe what she thinks about him and feel bad about himself all the time,
...(a)nd maybe you think I should, but it's not much of a life, you know?"
"That's not good enough, Liz. You're dead wrong, and if you don't know it, then you're dimmer than I thought."
She sighs theatrically... "Maybe I've been a little unfair. But is this really the time?"
"Only because it's never the time. We can't go on apologizing all our lives, you know."
"If by 'we' you are referring to men, then I have to say that just the once would do" (1995).
In light of the setting, Rob's past behavior, and his lack of apology for it, Liz's comments seem totally justified from a feminist point of view. But what is important to Rob is that Liz's position makes him uncomfortable, and he is willing to commit the incredible faux pas of storming out of a funeral (to say nothing of abandoning Laura when she might need him) to avoid considering that Liz might have a point. He feels bad, and he's going to resolve that regardless of the feelings of anyone else in that room. It's also interesting that he doesn't simply say that he disagrees with Liz; he says that she is wrong, and that if she doesn't acknowledge that, that she's stupid. He doesn't even grant her the possibility of validity, but immediately attributes her position to a lack of mental faculty. Hence Rob renders feminism itself 'irrational.' Yet earlier in the book, when describing the qualities that make him attractive to women, Rob states that "I can see what feminists are on about, most of the time, but not the radical ones" (1995). Is Liz's position, that Rob's behavior has merited an apology to Laura, then to be construed as a radical one? If so, then Rob's definition of an acceptable feminism seems to be that which doesn't make him feel bad.
About a boy is less overtly hostile. But the theme of unstable women continues. Single mother Fiona is depressed and suicidal, and her twelve-year-old son, Marcus, often functions as the parental figure in the household to compensate for her problems. Newly single mother Angie tearfully leaves Will, the protagonist, because she's not ready for a substantive romantic relationship so soon after her divorce. The irony is all the sharper because Will is specifically taking advantage of Angie's instability to pass himself off as a better man than he is, so her pain works out wonderfully for him. When she begins to cry, Hornby writes that "... he loved her for it. He [Will] had never before watched a woman cry without feeling responsible, and he was rather enjoying the experience" (1995). So Angie's quite understandable insecurity and emotionality serves as a kind of absolution for a man who knows he is emotionally unstable himself.
Competition among women, usually for the attention of men, is another common theme. Shampoo planet revolves around Tyler's choice between Anna-Louise and Stephanie, and what that choice will imply about his sense of self. While "Anna-Louise would be content to stay home crocheting Bible covers for the poor," Tyler describes Stephanie as being "selfish to the point of almost being autistic" (1992). Stephanie is thin, stylish, and mean, while Anna-Louise is comfortable, practical, and kind. Tyler makes his choice by cheating on Anna-Louise with Stephanie while he is in Europe, going back to Anna-Louise when he returns to the U.S., returning to Stephanie when she visits the U.S. and Anna-Louise finds out about the affair, and trying to get back together with Anna-Louise when he gets tired of Stephanie's attitude. While the two women are actually in the same city, Tyler is aware of the competition between Anna-Louise and Stephanie, and does very little about it. He describes them as getting along "like two cats in a sack," but mostly just tries to hide from Anna-Louise the nature of his relationship with Stephanie. He is warned by both Jasmine and Daisy that Anna-Louise will figure it out and he should tell her so as to minimize the damage, but he ignores them. Stephanie, having figured out what's going on, actually works to antagonize Anna-Louise; Tyler describes her as "... footsying me under the dinner table, winking my way, monopolizing Mark's [his younger brother] attention away from Anna-Louise, whom she subtly patronizes, making her feel provincial and poor" (1992).
Once Anna-Louise has realized that Tyler has cheated on her and has broken up with him, her friend Skye, taking her side, exacerbates the situation by trying (unsuccessfully) to make Stephanie feel bad: "So..." meows Skye, wanting to shit-disturb, "What are your and Tyler's plans for the next while, Stephanie" (1992)? While it is true that Skye's allegiance is with her friend, her action has the effect of emphasizing the competition between them. Infidelity is seen as a male behavior which hurts women, which compels women to compete with and defend against each other to protect themselves. We see this again when Jasmine talks about how being divorced affects a single woman's social life, that no married friends will invite her over again because the wives are afraid their husbands will cheat with her (1992).
Microserfs provides some variations on this theme. Karla thinks that Dan's mother, Mrs. Underwood, doesn't like her because "(m)aybe she sees me as stealing you" (1995). The competition is nonsexual, but still based on the attention of a man. The sense of threats to attention and to one's place in others' lives continue when Dusty comes to work for the new company, and Karla and Susan react defensively. The image of women as feline recurs when Dan describes Karla and Susan as being "catty" about Dusty: "Karla: 'Dusty - sounds like the name of someone who rides in a radio station traffic news-copter.' Susan: 'She looks like she just escaped from an Ice-Follies Smurfs-on-Ice mall show - tousled mall hair, spandex, and perky perma-smile' " (1995). He refers to their behavior as a "side of human nature," suggesting that this competitiveness is natural, innate, and unavoidable. So he expects women to behave like this, impugning each other's appearances and personality characteristics when they barely know each other. Indeed, when we meet Michael's love interest, Amy, Dan immediately compares her to the women he knows, describing her as "...the natural embodiment of everything that Karla, Dusty, and Susan self-consciously were trying to turn themselves into... the most aggressive female I'd ever seen... so IN CHARGE" (1995). Life after God, however, returns to the theme of infidelity and feminine competition when Scout describes Pup-Tent's treatment of Cathy: "He would 'keep her in line' by flaunting the ease with which he could seduce other women... This flirting drove Cathy crazy" (1995). So the threat of infidelity can be used by men to regulate their female partners' behavior.
Hornby's work contains the same balance of women competing mostly over men. Rob is unfaithful to Laura with Rosie. While Rob and Laura are separated because of this breach of trust, Rob consoles himself with a brief affair with Marie, a woman he met when he saw her perform at a pub. His attraction to Marie is specifically cast in terms of its opposition to his relationship with Laura: "As a result of Marie LaSalle's cover version of 'Baby, I Love Your Way'..., I find myself in two apparently contradictory states: a) I suddenly miss Laura with a passion that has been entirely absent for the last four days, and b) I fall in love with Marie LaSalle" (1995). He doesn't tell Laura this, but of course when she meets Marie she figures out what happened, and says, with a look at Rob, " 'I didn't realize you two were such pals,'... with more acidity than is good for my [Rob's] stomach" (1995). Just before the book ends, there's one final threat of infidelity when Rob develops a crush on a reporter doing a story on the re-opening of his club for a local paper.
About a boy, dealing as it does mostly with the aftermath of divorce, hints at this theme. When Will joins a single parents' group in the effort to meet attractive single moms, Suzie, a member of the group, explains that the women of the group tend remain angry at their ex-husbands' betrayals, mostly involving infidelity of some sort (1998). (The other instance of competition between women, a minor event in the book, is the antagonistic relationship between Marcus's friend Ellie and her mother.) Thus women's relationships with each other are often portrayed as antagonistic and competitive, interfering with their goals of getting and keeping a man or the attention of a group.
The love of a good woman
The final sexist motif running through all of these books is the notion that female partners are responsible for providing their men with the tools to achieve emotional adulthood, picking up where the men's mothers left off or joining forces with their mothers in a kind of joint project. Women are ultimately responsible for the redemption of their men. Examples abound. As mentioned before, Tyler's choice of Anna-Louise over Stephanie represents his choice to "(m)ake myself vulnerable. Admit I need someone else" (1992). It is Anna-Louise who tells Tyler to go easy on Skye because Skye has had a difficult life, and who chides Tyler for some of his narrower notions of how women should behave. And Anna-Louise seems to accept this responsibility: "You need work, Tyler. And to think your mother's a hippie. I'm going to have a talk with her. Heaven help the world" (1992). The work of civilizing men, making them suitable for human interaction, belongs to women, and men seek this out. Harmony, a computer programmer who doesn't spend nearly enough time relating to people, begins to date Skye, according to Tyler, to escape "...reading bad pornography misspelled by fifteen-year-olds over his computer bulletin boards" (1992). Dan, the soulless capitalist land developer, marries Jasmine, the soft-hearted earth mother.
This motif is especially obvious in Microserfs. Most of the characters in this novel go through some kind of redemption process, but notably the men, who start out as poorly socialized geeks "who don't know how to deal with real live women," find themselves through relationships (1995). Certainly the women benefit from their relationships, but they are the ones who teach their men how to feel and how to connect with other people. Dan and Karla both grow through their relationship, but it's Karla who coaches Dan through his jealousy of Michael's relationship with Dan's father. She soothes his anxiety, explains the bigger picture, and leaves him feeling better, so that he concludes the incident with the statement, "If it weren't for Karla, sometimes I think I'd just implode" (1995). Dusty, older and more experienced than Todd, helps him separate from his strictly religious upbringing and ease into fatherhood. Probably the best example is the couple made up of Michael and Amy. Previous to getting involved with Amy, Michael's life was entirely work-focused, to the point that he once locked himself in his office for several days, forcing his co-workers to find flat food that they could slip to him under the door. He states that "(t)he thought of BarCode [Amy's Internet alias] is the only thing that keeps me tethered to earth" (1995). Once Amy comes to California, where the core characters live, from her native Canada, Michael completely changes. No longer does he hide in his office. He becomes much more social and much funnier. Interestingly, at the end of the book, Michael figures out how to help Mrs. Underwood, who has had a stroke, communicate using a computer; he establishes the link between her inert body and her social self. Dan describes Michael as having transformed "from a lonely machine into a love machine" (1995).
Hornby's work echoes this theme. Laura is very conscious that her level of emotional maturity far surpasses Rob's, and she spends much of her time after they get back together trying to educate him to her level. Trying to get him to use criteria for evaluating people other than the eccentricity of their record collections, she takes Rob to dinner at the home of some friends of hers, whom he enjoys, and continues to enjoy in spite of himself even after seeing that they own "...the sort of CD collection that is so poisonously awful that it should be put in a steel case and shipped off to some Third World waste dump" (1995). On the way home, Rob complains that she tricked him; she replies, " ' Yeah. I tricked you into meeting some people you'd think were great. I conned you into having a nice evening.' 'You know what I mean.' 'Everybody's faith needs testing... I thought it would be amusing to introduce you to someone with a Tina Turner album, and then see whether you still felt the same' " (1995). She both teaches him how to be an emotional grown-up and tests him to make sure that he's keeping up with the lessons.
Rob also depends on the emotional maturity of Marie in order to navigate his relationship to her. He is confused by the fact that she continues to behave normally toward him despite their one-night stand, but follows her example anyway. (Were it up to him, he says, they would simply stop speaking.) She invites him out to see a mutual acquaintance play a gig, and she steers the conversation in innocuous but entertaining directions; "(a)nd then I go home, and Marie gives me a nice kiss, and on the way back I feel as though there's one relationship, just one, that is OK really, a little smooth spot that I can feel proud of," despite the fact that he depended entirely on her social expertise for the smoothness of the interaction (1995). So clearly she does a good job of making him feel better about himself, and he feels redeemed.
About a boy also shows us examples of male redemption through women. Will is quite explicitly looking for redemption as a "nice guy" through his relationships with single mothers (see the aforementioned example of Angie). Will even invents fake emotional problems, a divorce and ensuing difficulties over the exchange of a nonexistent child of whom he and a nonexistent ex-wife have joint custody, so that those single mothers can bond with him by helping him solve these problems. Marcus, a twelve-year-old boy, is already conscious that this is simply how male-female relationships work; he tries to set Will up with his mother because "(t)wo wasn't a good number," and because he feels that he and his mother, environmentalist vegetarians, will be good for shallow Will (1998). Marcus himself seeks social redemption through a liaison with Ellie, an older girl from school, from whom he knows he has a lot to learn. Even at twelve, Marcus understands that women will provide social enrichment and education.
The notion of 'postfeminism' merits a special mention. Both these authors seem to have a sense that feminism is part of a bygone era, that its goals are met, that it is over. Anna-Louise is described as 'postfeminist' on the back of Shampoo planet, and her behavior does seem to fit the definition. When Tyler is complaining to her about the wildness of her friends, she is not so much shocked by the sexism of what he says as by his apparent lack of feminist education, given his mother's lifestyle and beliefs. So there is an implication that feminism should have achieved its goals, that they should be taken as a given, and we should move on. Going one step further, Microserfs occurs in a post-political universe. When Todd and Dusty flirt with Marxism, they are roundly ridiculed by all the other major characters. And it's not so much that the other characters find Marxism to be philosophically untenable; it is that the very notion of a political analysis of life is passe. When 'The Gang of Two," as the two are derisively called, wind up agreeing with Ethan, the capitalist chief financial officer of the company, silence falls.
" 'Really, said Michael, 'I hope this here is the end of politics'" (1995). Hornby's Rob also seems to feel that feminism's time has come and gone, especially when he talks to or about Liz. In the contemporary world created in these fictions, political analysis is simply an anachronism, an outdated accessory.
From the above examples, we must conclude that patriarchal stories that tend to stereotype women are still quite prevalent in the contemporary fiction of Coupland and Hornby. But it bears pointing out that these books offer some positive images of women, and some hope to the feminist critic. For example, the most common characteristics of the female characters in Microserfs are intellect and education. Karla, Susan, Dusty, and Amy are all highly competent computer programmers, successful in a prominently male field requiring extensive training, and they are accorded respect for their skills. Anna-Louise of Shampoo planet is also praised for her intellect by both Jasmine and Tyler. She is praised for her independence as well; Tyler notes that she is "the only person my age who lives alone," and that "it suits her" (1992). In Life after God, the unnamed woman who leaves Scout and takes their child with her does so because she is afraid of the listless thing their lives have become, so she provides a good example of positive self-care in leaving an unhealthy living situation. Suzie, of About a boy, has similar skills at self-care, balancing that with caring for others. When her friend Fiona attempts suicide, it is Suzie who gets her to the hospital, provides emotional support for Marcus, Fiona's son, and manages her own anger and grief in the process. In the other Hornby novel, Laura's intellect and professional competence recall the strong, smart women of Microserfs. Finally, Marie provides an example of a sane woman artist, an image not often seen in even feminist fiction. So women readers may find some encouraging and realistic portrayals of other women.
Nevertheless, in final analysis of these works, we must conclude that these contemporary male authors, considered so skilled at rendering this age, have a long way to go on the project of writing a whole female character. I as a feminist do not ask for a set of flawless female characters who speak like political tracts. Neither am I satisfied with women characters who have some strengths. What I hope for are examples of female characters, written by men, who have strengths and weaknesses that do not fall into patriarchal cliches like exaggerated emotional problems, competition among themselves, and providing emotional redemption for their men. We see examples of such women every day, and we are beginning to see them portrayed in the news media. What a joy it would be to see them portrayed in the more poetic terms of fiction.
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