Thursday, May 18, 2006

Welcome back, misogyny! Part II

Here's the follow-up to my post from Monday. It was going to be a further response to novelist Gary Shteyngart's interview, along with a longer response to Katherine's comment, but I'm going to respond now to Shteyngart because of the obvious pairing with the post below.

Much like John Derbyshire, Shteyngart conceives of himself as something of a nostalgic rebel. In his latest novel, Shteyngart uses the word "Jewess" a whole bunch. It is, of course, a literary device, something the character who is the narrator would say, not necessarily something the author would. And, one could even go as far as to say that the narrator's use of this word is a sign that the author stands in brave opposition to current trends in political correctness. More power to him. But it is, as it turns out also something the author would say--and does say in the Forward interview--so the whole "don't confuse the author with the narrator" escape doesn't work here. Putting "Jewess" into a novel set in the 21st century is interesting and provocative; using the word "Jewess" in the 21st century is reactionary and gratuitously offensive (not unlike writing articles about how hot girls are at age 14). Why does Shteyngart use this outdated word?

There's a certain charm in days past. The reason a young man in a tweed blazer seems more intellectual than one in an Adidas track jacket, that a beat-up used book gives someone a more impressive aura on the subway than a new, paperback copy filled with the exact same text. And, among contemporary hipster Jews, there's this ironic embrace of the Woody Allen aspects of the past, of Jewish neuroses as experienced back when those cool shoes in that store on Rivington Street were first in fashion. There's also a danger in getting to excited about the past--the days before processed foods and Google were also the days before gay rights and integration. While an aging conservative can be expected to smile blindly at the past, assuming current evils to be worse than those of his youth, I'd expect a bit more from a young and liberal-minded writer.

"Jewess," like "Negress," is offensive largely because it recalls a time when the group being referred to was treated awfully by those using the word, even though the word in question wasn't originally used in a derogatory way. Relatedly, the words are troublesome because, in using them today, one is implicitly expressing a wish for the group being referred to to reliquish all autonomy acheived since becoming "Jewish women," "black women," or "African-American women." A "Jewish woman" is a woman who is Jewish; a "Jewess" is the passive recipient or non-recipient of a) a Talmud-scholar husband, b) the affection of a more cosmopolitan Jew who has yet to discover the exciting world beyond Jewesses, or c) the attention of a non-Jewish man, thus causing controversy. I realize this is far more explanation than is necessary; the point is that, by using "Jewess," Shteyngart only confirms that he sees Jewish women as the sad end result for Jewish men without a thirst for exploration. A passive and unpleasant role indeed, and one contemporary Jewish women might not take to too kindly. (And, to put it in the most obvious way possible: imagine the black female reaction if a black novelist, in an interview in an African-American publication, discussed at length why he does not have "Negress" girlfriends.)

Shteyngart has a remarkably outdated notion of rebellion and originality. (And this is even if he intends his words in the interview to be humorous; it's an old joke he's telling). That, by dating exclusively non-Jews, he is really pushing things, not to mention showing himself to be an open-minded, universalist type, rather than a provincial bore. Now, the idea of freaking out one's parents by bringing home someone of a different group has, to a large extent, lessened since gays took that particular joy away from everyone else. Bring home someone of the opposite sex, and even the stuffiest parents will be relieved. But also, is there necessarily anything stuffy and conservative about dating fellow Jews? I can understand how, with the immensely uncool forces of college Hillels, parents, and online dating services pushing Jews to date one another, dating a non-Jew may still feel, if not like rebellion, than at least proof of openmindedness. But whatever happened to the openminded if unoriginal notion of just going for whoever you happen to find attractive? This would, of course, leave open the possibility of dating people with backgrounds both different from and similar to your own, and thus wouldn't do much in the way of proving a point or modeling one's self after a time-honored, "Annie Hall"-celebrated type.

The appeal of the "shiksa" (as opposed to the appeal of an actual, living-and-breathing woman who happens not to be Jewish) for an Allen, Roth, or Shteyngart is the same as the appeal of an adolescent girl for a Derbyshire--naivete, innocence, and an easy way for a man to feel all-powerful and brilliant in a world where it's no longer popular for men to have such a role in couples.

And finally, anyone interested in seeing an example of a heterosexual union between two Jews causing more familial strife than could even the most flagrant of same-sex, interracial couplings should check out "Late Marriage."

3 comments:

Will said...

The appeal of the "shiksa" (as opposed to the appeal of an actual, living-and-breathing woman who happens not to be Jewish) for an Allen, Roth, or Shteyngart is the same as the appeal of an adolescent girl for a Derbyshire--naivete, innocence, and an easy way for a man to feel all-powerful and brilliant in a world where it's no longer popular for men to have such a role in couples.

If I were the sort of person to get offended by things that obviously weren’t intended to be offensive, I’d be offended by that. The wording you use clearly implies that non Jewish women are more naïve, more innocent, more easily dominated, and less intelligent than Jewish women. While I can understand the desire to find a connection between two remarks that are both demeaning towards women and that treat them as means to the speakers own psychological ends, I think there are very different causes at work here.

While Derbyshire's favoring of adolescents clearly does stem from a desire to interact with women who are less able to challenge him and more ‘innocent’, it strikes me that Shteyngart’s desire for non Jewish women stems from good old fashioned self loathing. Why else the revulsion of finding that she “tasted like me?”

Phoebe said...

"The wording you use clearly implies that non Jewish women are more naïve, more innocent, more easily dominated, and less intelligent than Jewish women."

Not at all. The wording I use implies that I believe *Roth, Allen, and Shteyngart* present non-Jewish women or female characters in such a fashion. The reader/viewer may disagree with my assessment, but nowhere do I say that this is *my* opinion about non-Jewish women. It isn't, as it so happens--thus "as opposed to the appeal of an actual, living-and-breathing woman who happens not to be Jewish."

My point, as should be obvious, was that a Jewish man who happens to find a woman attractive who happens not to be Jewish may find this woman attractive for any number of reasons, whereas Roth et al seek out the "shiksa" for a more disturbing one.

The only people who might reasonably be offended by this post are Roth, Allen, and Shteyngart.

Will said...

opps you're right I did misread that, sorry thats what happens when reaidng blogs after being at work for too many hours