Tuesday, June 06, 2006

BOOKS: Secret Confessions of a Nice Girl

Well, I picked up Candace Bushnell's latest novel, Lipstick Jungle -- which my friend The Fabulous Suzi passed along to me with the promise that it would be light, escapist reading -- and I ended up getting all wrangled up in thoughts about feminism and choice and supermoms, so that at times the plights of the story's characters coiled me up into such a tight spring of anxiety that I had to pick up a collection of Far Side comics to unwind before bed.

So much for light, escapist reading.

Lipstick Jungle
by Candace Bushnell (#18)
Now, it's not great literature, not by a long stretch. Bushnell is no Nabokov, and the novel has more than its share of clunky writing. But as my first foray into Bushnell's writing (notwithstanding my guilty-pleasure addiction to the Sex and the City TV series), Lipstick Jungle surprised me by being no-bullshitty and on point in several regards, namely the issues of power, choice, and female solidarity.

For example, check out this passage, which takes place after one of the main characters, a high-powered publishing executive, starts the ball rolling on a screw job she's planning against her asshole boss:
God, it was a heady feeling. She'd never experienced anything like it in her life. It was oddly centering. From outside her consciousness, she knew that, as a woman, she should have felt guilty. She should have felt bad or frightened for not being "nice." And for one tiny moment, she was afraid. But what was she afraid of? Her power? Herself? Or the archaic idea that she had done something "bad," and therefore would have to be punished.

Sitting in her office that afternoon, having just hung up the phone with Bruce, she suddenly saw that she would not be punished. There were no rules. What most women thought were "the rules" were simply precepts to keep women in their place. "Nice" was a comfortable, reassuring box where society told women if they stayed -- if they didn't stray out of the nice-box -- they would be safe. But no one was safe. Safety was a lie...
Now, I have to come clean and admit that I lean toward the "nice" end of the spectrum myself, and I have no interest in changing. It's nice to be nice. But I'm not pushover nice, though it took me a couple of decades to get past that, so I sort of hear Bushnell's point. I don't think I'd be capable of deliberately screwing over a colleague, though lord knows I can think of a couple who would've deserved it. I don't think my lack of cutthroat-ness is a female thing, though, as I don't know any guys with the cutthroat gene, either.

At any rate, I like how Bushnell follows this idea through by having the character wonder what exactly it is that women fear will happen, what sort of karmic slapdown will occur, if they ever stop playing the nice game. I've wondered the same thing.

Whoops. I just realized that I haven't really mentioned what the novel is about. In a nutshell, it tells the stories of three friends, all powerful women in their fields, all in their forties, as they juggle their families, relationships, and vicious workplace politics in the sticky quagmire of our rapidly changing gender landscape. (And there are some dirty bits, too, thank god, because sheesh, I was starting to worry about what had happened to the place of good old-fashioned softcore in the world of chick lit. Jackie Collins can't carry that banner all by herself, people.)

As I've mentioned, there are lots of stressy plot points that, no fooling, actually had me biting my nails, but things resolve nicely and all the women come out on top. Whew. Bushnell, however, does give a nod to the fact that this is not reality for most women:
"I mean, it's so easy to solve your problems when you're a successful woman and you have your own money," Wendy said. "I think about all the women who aren't, and don't, and the hell they must go through. It's something we can never forget."

"But that is the whole reason to become successful," Nico said fiercely. "It's when you really understand why you've worked so hard. So that when there is a crisis, your family doesn't have to suffer."
I do agree with this. While I've come to realize that I'm not ambitious for ambition's sake, I've learned that I feel very strongly about being able to provide for myself and for my family. At the same time, though, this passage troubles me, as it vaguely echoes the sentiments expressed a few months back by Linda Hirshman, when she wrote a kerfuffle-causing essay stating that educated women who don't pursue professional careers are failing feminism and themselves. This woman clearly has a different idea about choice and feminism than I do.

[Note: Here's where this entry gets confessional and all about my feelings and stuff, so if you're here for the book reviews or the baby pictures or the hope that someday I'll post some naughty Jane Austen fanfic, you should probably stop reading and come back tomorrow.]

To some degree, I've opted out of the hierarchical system of work. When Sam was born, I took a year of maternity leave. During my time outside a structured work environment -- my first real break in almost fifteen years -- I've realized that I'm simply not cut out for it. Have I failed feminism? Has feminism failed me? Funny questions. I don't feel like a failure. But maybe we failures are always the last ones to know.

I think the reason why this epiphany evaded me for so long is because, to all outward appearances, I appeared to be making it rather successfully up the so-called ladder, even in male-dominated professions. And I believe that my nicey-nice qualities were what helped me get so far.

Not that I didn't bring real skills to the table. I did, but what I also brought were a lack of professional ego, a dearth of competitive spirit, and a powerful need to have managers and co-workers and clients like me. These are all qualities that make you a good "team player," a malleable employee... and highly promotable, because no matter how high you climb (or, rather, are pulled) up the ladder, you're never going to be perceived as a threat by your higher-ups.

Hm... this makes it sound like I worked for power-mad jackasses who were only looking for meek women to exploit, and that certainly was not the case. For starters, certainly nobody's ever called me meek... heh. And I've always been well rewarded for my work. And I've had more than my share of luck in working for good people. Nothing I'm saying is a criticism of my bosses. I'm just pointing out the different workplace archetypes and how they rub up against each other.

Okay, disclaimers aside, here's what my situation boiled down to. In my year away from the workplace, I realized that any time I'm immersed for too long in an organization, I lose myself. They are Borg, and I am assimilated. And then I get quietly resentful and lash out by engaging in subversive activities such as only giving 100 percent instead of 110 percent.

I wish I were made of sturdier stuff, but I'm not. Maybe some day, when time and life have toughened me up a bit more. Cross your fingers.

Where I don't feel lost, ever, is at home with Sam. (Well, technically, I work -- with fluctuating degrees of productivity -- from home and have the lifesaving help of a babysitter to make each day pass relatively sanely.) This mom thing has come surprisingly easily to me... though I shouldn't say "surprisingly" when deep down I'm not really surprised at all. In fact, secretly I've always harboured the thought that being a mother might be the one thing I'm perfectly cut out to do. It's taken almost twenty years to come round to the realization that that's not an INSULT.

I have good ol' third-wave feminism to thank for making me feel (mostly) comfortable for making the choice to put my child first and my work second. In fact, I have feminism and its supporters to thank for many of my most important decisions:
  • thanks to legislation, grants, loans, scholarships, and fellowships, the choice to go to school and continue my education as far as I wish;
  • thanks to, well, a bunch of things, the choice to marry whomever I want whenever I want;
  • thanks to hard-won reproductive rights, the choice to postpone childbearing until my mid-thirties, and the ability to choose not to bear children at all if that were my preference;
  • thanks to equally hard-won parental-leave rights, the choice to take a year away from my job so that I can do the crucial work of giving my child the best possible start -- according to my own standards -- in life;
  • thanks to breastfeeding advocates, the choice to feed my child in public without the risk of being arrested; and
  • thanks to suffrage, the choice to vote for a political party that, however flawed, helped enact or protect many of these choices.
I know that feminism still has a long way to go, as do human rights everywhere. I realize that, lucky as I am, globally I'm still in a tiny minority of women who are able to exercise so much control over their lives. I definitely feel a variation of survivor guilt over this. But do I think I should regret my choices because others don't have them? Not a fucking chance. Understanding my own choices fills me with the fire to champion the same opportunities for women everywhere.

Have I digressed too far? Am I pushing your limits if I force the pendulum back to the book? I just wanted to highlight one last passage from Lipstick Jungle (a novel which, by the by, has one of the corniest final lines I've ever read):
But women like Wendy and Victory and herself, Nico thought, were a new model of powerful women. They weren't bitches, and they weren't enamored with that old-fashioned idea that being with powerful men made you more important. The new power babe wanted to be around other powerful women. They wanted women to be ruling the world, not men.
I like this. In the new world order according to me, we're all power babes. Even the men.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine fic is both terrifying and totally apparent now that I think about it.

But I think I needed to hear this because, being at the bottom of a ladder I don't even want to climb, I feel a tremendous pressure (from, surprisingly enough, my father, but also from my alma mater, friends, etc.) to not only climb said ladder (enough with that metaphor) but also to succeed and prevail, esp. over males. As if that would prove a point, but the only point that I can see is one that I don't really feel like making, that is, that women can do everything guys can. Big whoop.
I want to have babies some day. There, I said it. I don't see how that, or the decision to stay home to raise your kids, makes one a traitor to our gender. I feel like feminism nowadays has less to do with always proving things to men but to proving things to other women, most importantly that it's not about going to work or raising children, but rather about being able to choose whether to do one or the other or both at the same time. Maybe that's simplifying a lot of things, or stating the obvious, but I was a toddler when the 3rd wave came around, and learned about it when feminism was evolving from being a dirty word to being [mis]applied to women who exploit their sexuality for financial or social reasons, so maybe I don't even know what feminism is anymore. Either way, thanks for the reality check.

spacepotatoes said...

What a great post. Between this one and the one a while back about learning to like women, I see a lot of my current self in the way that you describe your pre-Sam self.

I've always been in male dominated areas (first computer science and now the physical sciences) and was partially raised with the old Eastern European mindset of having to be a "good girl" and a "nice girl" because, oh horrors, what would people think if I wasn't?

That didn't stick as much as it could have since practically all of my formal education was here in Canada, but posts like this remind me I still have a ways to go before I can truly stand my ground without feeling guilty about it.

I have to laugh at the potential Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins fan fic. I just watcged Pride & Prejudice (the new one with Kiera Knightley) over the weekend...oh, the mental pictures.

Carrie said...

Great post. Thanks for thinking and writing about thse things.

Anita said...

Lipstick Jungle is on my TBR bookshelf, and thanks to this great post, it is moving up in the order. I've read Bushnell before and wasn't exactly blown away with her social insights, but this book sounds like it's got a bit more to it.

Frankly, I really enjoyed the second part of your post equally well. I, too, worked for ten years before deciding to stay home with my children, and I also did well by being a loyal, team player. And somehow, I managed to convince myself that what I was actually doing was important. It wasn't. With childrearing, I think I'm more realistic and less delusional, but I also think it has helped me assess what my values really are, and I'm hopeful that my post child rearing career will be much more in line with them.