Monday, October 19, 2009

Lipstick Jungle

I read a really interesting essay/book review in last month's Atlantic about the place where Helen Gurley Brown, John Edwards and Rielle Hunter intersect. (Am I the only one out there who doesn't know who Helen Gurley Brown? I'm kind of astonished that I've lived this long and tried to expose myself to as much as possible and missed this, but it's just more testament that I'm poorly read. Mea culpa.) Brown wrote a book called Sex and the Single Girl at the behest of her husband in 1962. The article makes this woman sound like part battle ax-part sex kitten in a humble cardigan and pearls, and I was really drawn into this woman's world. She grew up dirt poor in Arkansas and then moved to Los Angeles with her mom and sister and got a job as a secretary to support her family. Writes essayist Caitlin Flanagan, "At her age, working in an office could have been the prelude to a diamond solitaire and a farewell bridal shower, but the acne and the wagonful of baggage (the widowed mother and the crippled sister) were liabilities she could not overcome. She became, instead, a round-heels, a bawdy creature who was available to be kept, if the price was right--even if the sex was dreary or worse--and who had no problem asking her lovers for cash gifts instead of trinkets."

Helen (if I might call her this ) was one evening abandoned by the other office girls who'd gone to one of many ubiquitous bridal showers, to which Helen had, ahem, not been invited, and, in a fit of revenge, Helen wrote an essay for a Glamour magazine contest that won her a trip to Hawaii. When she returned, she did so with a tan and a new attitude. She worked her way around the office girls who'd scorned her and past some of the men she'd worked for, until she was more highly paid than many of the men in her firm.

What an awesome story, I'm thinking as I read this essay. This has all the makings of the kind of stories we love to hear: humble beginnings, starting at nothing, overcoming adversity of poverty, loss of parent, physical disfigurement, and alienation by coworkers, to become a wildly successful copywriter and to marry a Hollywood producer divorce eight years her senior, a man more interested in companionship and stability, and not so much raucous sex escapades. This woman is getting what she wants, doing it her way, and she's not suffocating underneath a feckless husband and insatiable babies! Jackpot!

Until I read that Helen crafts her book, Sex and the Single Girl, for Marian the Librarian and Miss Moneypenny, as a How-to manual for stealing husbands. She says, "I'm afraid I have a cavalier attitude about wives." Her book seems to be a crystal clear guide to changing your life so that you can catch a man, and what better place to shop than at the office, where the career fellas are already attached but looking for something new?

(Inicdentally, this is where John Edwards begins to show his face, married to what many consider to be an amazing woman, heads and shoulders smarter than himself, who's also conquered many trials, including cancer and the loss of their 15-year-old son. Rielle Hunter is not far behind, painted in the article as an avid follower of Helen Gurley Brown's advice, with the small but fatal mistake of hoping that when you land the married man that you fall in love with him and hope that he will leave his life behind and start a new one with you. Helen warns that for all the painting and changing and trapping you do, that this expectation should never be kept. The wife will always, win, she said, if "she's loving and smart." It's a really provocative article.)

Yes, it's true. I'm sensitive to something like this. I'm about to marry a man and standing on the precipice of a lifetime commitment to another human being in a country where getting a divorce is as common as a getting a latte, well, it makes me a little jumpy. Sure. But I found myself pretty down in the mouth about the idea of empowering women who were heretofore wallflowers and by teaching them how to engage in extra-marital affairs.

This is such a loaded issue. For one thing it presupposes that men are nothing more than brainless bots, ruled only by their hormones and few fleeting emotions, and that they're just looking for the best lay. We women are cunning and insensitive Dionysian she-warriors, who are competing for our favorite man-toy to satisfy us in whatever way we choose, and men are just pretty, entertaining, but ultimately disposable. But that ain't right; that ain't the world we live in. The world we live in is full of flawed, frail men and women who often get confused and make bad choices, who are frightened of what could go well, or what could go really wrong, and who act out because they can't communicate their needs.

So why, in a world where relationships are complicated, where eight out of ten couples is either unhappily married or divorced, where successful monogamy is an endangered species, why would we want to divide each other by being the thing that comes between two committed people?

I don't know. I suppose there's some subset of the straight male world (and perhaps of the gay male world too, although I lack the experience to talk about it) that behaves as if love is a battlefield. Men are absolutely competitive, attempting to lure and impress women from everything from their sexy cars to their knowledge of literature or politics to their ability to perform acts of kindness: whatever they think will get them the score. So I guess it should be just as cutthroat for the straight ladies as Pat Benatar says it is. If men must compete over who is taller, smarter, more sensitive or a better partner and provider, why shouldn't women compete over who is taller, smarter, more sensitive or a better partner and provider? I tend to think the answer is because on a bad day women are capable of the most hateful, bitchy, unkind, judgemental and damaging behavior possible. We women are so kind to each other, and we have practiced our tools of competition and unkindness for a long time. We compete over our looks and cloak this competition in an arty label like "the fashion industry." We compete over who is more authentic in her own sense of beauty based on what she does with her hair, or who is a better partner based on her earning potential, or for crying out loud, how wide her hips are. We compete all the bloody time, and not to our benefit. So it disappoints me to know about Helen Gurley Brown's inception of such a cavalier attitude about commitment and such a willingness to battle over "someone else's man."

I don't like thinking about what makes marriages dissolve, what causes them to fail; I prefer to think about what happens in my own relationship that causes success or struggle. This means I don't feel too threatened by the idea of some spectacled, scotch-drinking, Salman-Rushdie-loving, leggy blond sweeping in and stealing my husband (to-be); I work really hard on my relationship and how to make sure that his needs are met and that we're hearing each other. I just wish that women everywhere thought enough of themselves not to pick at someone else's relationship. Each of us is worth having a love that is ours, just ours, delightedly and fully and for as long as we can take it ours, instead of consoling ourselves by playing fast and loose with someone's borrowed honey. For fuck's sake we're women: we're better than that.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I stumbled upon HGB's Sex and the Single Girl sometime last year, bought it because it seemed a ridiculous read, and spent about a week covertly reading it on the bus and trying not to laugh. I think that if you approach her as more of a cultural artifact than an "expert," it really does make for a truly fascinating read. I think that one point she advises women to get a nose job. It doesn't cost too much, she says, and the pain is worth it. See? Ridiculous and alien; you can't possibly look away. If you're up for it, I'll lend it to you. I wrapped the hot pink book in yellow notebook paper to save my ego :)