Saturday, November 16, 2019

The actual women weren't really people. They were just a theory.

Whatever kind of woman you are, even when you're a lot of kinds of women, you're still always just a woman, which is to say you're always a little bit less than a man.
I just finished reading a fucking amazing book and I want everyone to read it, I want to press it on all my friends, but I'm afraid that they won't get it, that they won't get me. I sobbed all morning, I sobbed into my pillow when I woke up way too early and couldn't fall back asleep, I sobbed into my morning coffee as I settled into the novel's homestretch, I sobbed over my keyboard as I swallowed up the final pages between work emails.
When I told people what I did, they'd say, "Being a mother is the hardest job there is." But it wasn't. The hardest job there was was being a mother and having an actual job, with pants and a commuter train pass and pens and lipstick.
But this is not about being a stay-at-home mom or a working mom.

I want to sob on someone's shoulder, not by myself.

I want to talk to all my friends about it, but my friends are all single and childless, or married and childless, or happily married with kids, or lesbian, or newlywed, or with a newborn, or young, so young. Not a single middle-aged divorced working mother among them (how did that happen? how do I not have friends within my own demographic?).

I want to give my ex a copy, a passive-aggressive attempt to give him a piece of my mind, to yell at him without inhibition, without fear of child support payments being withheld, to give him shit for being absent as a father to our child, then and still, and for taking so much of me and then just vanishing into freedom, not when I asked him to but when it was convenient for him.

And, oh yeah, fuck the patriarchy.

It's actually a male friend who brought this novel to my attention. It was early-going for him. He doesn't know yet.
If you don't ask too many questions and just let people talk, they'll tell you what's on their mind. In those monologues, I found my own gripes. They felt counted out, the way I felt counted out. They felt ignored. the way I felt ignored. They felt like they'd failed. They had regret. They were insecure. They worried about their legacies. They said all the things I wasn't allowed to say aloud without fear of appearing grandiose or self-centered or conceited or narcissistic. [...] I realized that all humans are essentially the same, but only some of us, the men, were truly allowed to be that without apology. The men's humanity was sexy and complicated; ours (mine) was to be kept in the dark at the bottom of the story and was only interesting in the service of the man's humanity.
That's it, isn't it? The female experience. The thing I discovered just last week.

Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, is not what you think it is. It's whip-smart, it's funny, it's oh-so-relatable in so many ways, and then it turns everything you think you know on its head. Suddenly it's a whip-smart, scathing indictment of... Fleishman. But also dating culture, porn culture, smartphone culture, marriage, careerism, consumerism, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, yoga retreats, and sweatpants. That is, life today.

Poor Fleishman. On his way to divorce. He didn't know what hit him. Neither did I. He started dating. So did I. It both excited him and exhausted him. Same. The unfairness of it all. Full-time single parenting. How would he (I) even find time to date? Or the energy and commitment to better his (my) work circumstances? It takes his lawyer to point it out to him — he's the wife in all this.

Where's Rachel in all this? What the hell happened to Rachel? Rachel Fleishman only matters as an extension of her ex-husband. It's there in the title, it's there in the table of contents. I was ready for it, I knew it was coming, but still I couldn't bear it.
When Rachel and I were little girls, we had been promised by a liberated society that had almost ratified the Equal Rights Amendment that we could do anything we wanted. We were told that we could be successful, that there was something particular and unique about us and that we could achieve anything — the last vestiges of girls being taught they were special mingled with the first ripples of second-wave feminism. All that time, even as a sixth-grader, I remembered thinking that it seemed weird that teachers and parents were just allowed to say that, and they they'd say it in front of the boys and the boys didn't seem to mind. Even back then I knew that the boys tolerated it because it was so clear that it wasn't true.
The thing is: I didn't know it wasn't true. I believed it. And then I believed it was my own shortcomings that held me back. It's my own fault that my career and salary were held back when I had a baby, that's a choice I made.

[I ranted this very rant at work a few months ago, to my (male) boss no less. Somehow it seemed relevant. I work for a company that skews heavily male. This summer, allegations of inappropriate conduct were made against the CEO. I wanted to talk about it. No one wanted to talk about it. And so one day I ranted about the lie I'd been sold.]

The older women I know, they're fighting the same fight they always were, or they've shrugged their shoulders and moved on, they know what's what, and they've done what they can. The younger women — I don't think they were lied to, they just assumed it to be true, and they haven't woken up yet. They're just starting to wake up, #metoo. Me, I'm just angry.

The lie belongs to a very specific window of American history, along with the promise of a 4-day workweek, and even Freedom 55. Reaganomics ruined us.

So that's in the book too, I think.
That these men could be so delicate, that they could lack any inkling of self-examination when it came time to try to figure out why their women didn't seem to be batshit enthusiastic over another night of bolstering and patting and fellating every insecurity out of them — this was the thing we'd find intolerable.
After I sobbed for a day, I decided to find a therapist, to help me deal with my anger and resentment and how tired I am by it all. So here's the book that made me seek out therapy.
If you are a smart woman, you cannot stand by and remain sane once you fully understand, as a smart person does, the constraints of this world on a woman.
Fleishman was allergic to crazy. That's why he fell for Rachel, not crazy, not at first. But to hear him tell it, most women are crazy. At least he stands up for his women patients, and he stands up for his daughter. But poor Fleishman, he doesn't seem to understand that that doesn't make him a hero. And he really didn't stand up much for his wife.

The narrator of this story refers to a (fictional) hero of journalism, one whom a later generation was embarrassed to teach. He was finally recognized as a misogynist, or a man of his times.
He hated women, they said, even as I could count a hundred examples in his writing of the way he worshipped them. Yes, the young women said, it looked like worship but it was actually something uglier. It was an obsession with sex and a wholesale contempt for what he saw as the condition of the sex, or its barrier, or its delivery device: the actual women. The actual women weren't really people. They were just a theory. He wrote about them the way he'd written about Vietnam — ugly, romantic, poignant, unwinnable.
Electric Lit: The Women Who Write Themselves Out of the Story
HuffPost: "Fleishman Is In Trouble" Investigates The Gender Sympathy Gap
New Yorker: "Fleishman Is in Trouble" Turns the marriage Novel Inside Out


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