Saturday, September 18, 2010

Man or Wife? Dilemmas In The Female Reading Experience

Who knew the image results for half man half woman would include so many Halloween costumes?  Not me.
A woman with an interesting job, who's involved in the world, and who lives in the modern post-sexual-revolution world, faces a difficulty in identifying with the characters of any but the most contemporary novels.

It's not hard to see how this happens.  You can identify with the female characters, and for a certain range of contexts that works:  you can identify with being a daughter, with receiving male callers, with the timeless weird expectations of feminine passivity and caring.  But at some point identifying with female characters becomes impossible.  Their lives are structured around the expectation of marriage and childbirth.  After a certain time in life female characters have one of three things happen to them.

1)  They're absorbed by marriage and children; their concerns are now inscribed in a circle of intimacy.

2)  They're unmarried; their unmarriedness is now a striking and awful burden, rendering them objects of pity.

3) They're in a convent or something with a religious, non-family, non-sexual life.

Obviously, these options bypass most of us completely.  Most married women with kids still work, which means they have a public life:  a life out in the world with all the hassles, drama, and pride that entails.

In a huge amount of pre-contemporary literature, it's only men who have this sort of public life.  So you identify with the male characters, and for a certain range of contexts that works.  Indeed, the male characters often confront the puzzles and dilemmas we all confront now:  those of public life, but also those of the clashes between that life and the needs of one's intimates.

But at some point identifying with the male characters becomes difficult too.  For one thing, men have wives; for another, other men respond to them completely differently than they respond to women.  For me, identifying with the male characters gets harder as I get older:  being a middle-aged woman is just not like being a middle-aged man.

So you kind of go back and forth.  And it's this kind of back and forth that gives being female that weird kind of double-aspect, that two-sided quality.  You're a person, so there's that, but then you're a woman, which is somehow different.  It's kind of exhausting. 

I was reminded of this recently because I was reading Jennifer Egan's (very contemporary) book Look at Me, and there's a scene in the beginning with two teenage girls and their difficulties with sex.  They want to have sex.  First they try having sex with boys, but the boys have no idea what to do to make it pleasant or satisfying for them.  Then they try having sex with men, but it's creepy and weird:  the men are married and want to get it over with as quickly as possible and get home.  Then they try having sex with guys, like college guys, but that doesn't work so great either:  they guys are too drunk; they're distracted; they're more interested in impressing one another than actually interacting with girls.

Wow, I thought.  Whatever else you want to say, you just don't get that kind of depiction of actual modern girlhood ... well, anywhere really.

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