Tuesday, January 07, 2014

A non-scholarly reading of Erica Jong

I just finished Fear of Flying. And... a problem with reading a book about one's own life (if published a decade before one was born) is that in a sea of similar, the moments of difference are all one ends up noticing. And Isadora Wing, Erica Jong's narrator/protagonist, isn't me! Really! I know that detail by detail, it seems like maybe, but no. Really. But because certain seemingly idiosyncratic facts are so similar (and the author has some lovely poodles!), I found myself almost resenting the (many!) places where Wing didn't behave as I would in a given situation. Which is, let's be clear, by any definition, the wrong way to read a work of fiction. But I couldn't help it! Page after page of my own life story, and then something unfamiliar, and thus jarring.

Anyway, to return to a more reasonable (if not all that literary) reading, as with any iconic book, you're living in the world already very much penetrated (seems appropriate) by its ideas. So the ideas themselves seem old hat. (And I defy you to read the first few pages and not picture The Bob Newhart Show, at least aesthetically.) But you have to remember they were new at the time, or at least to assume they were - literature grad school has a way of teaching you that there was always something similar written before the supposed first instance of whichever topic or argument.

To press on with this improper reading, one thing I couldn't decide what to make of in the book was that Isadora is - according to Isadora, at least - not just horny for men, but spectacularly attractive to men. There's her physical appearance, but also a sensuous quality that draws men to her everywhere she goes. (No "bitchy resting face," I suppose - amazing for someone who took the subway to high school!) Every man tries to sleep with her; many succeed, with her enthusiastic consent. Sort of the opposite end of the spectrum, then, from Lena Dunham's protagonist in "Tiny Furniture," who's also up for anything, but who's not someone men want to have sex with. My guess would be that most young women fall between these two extremes - that is, that they'll generally be able to find someone to sleep with if that's their goal, but they won't inspire saw-you-across-the-crowded-room lust in absolutely every man they meet. If Isadora wants sex, which she quite often does, she simply steps outside and all-the-men are waiting.

Which... gets to the question of how female beauty relates to female heterosexual desire. Do women desire men, or just being thought beautiful by men? At first it seems like Isadora's in the first category, but the more we hear about her lovely hair and ass, the more we may wonder if it's the latter.

And then you have to wonder about the liberation promised. Isadora's in an unusual situation. Partly it's that family money has made it so she's never financially dependent on a man (although she does also work - sentences here and there suggest she lives off some combination). For her, leaving a husband means sacrificing a bourgeois identity, but not a standard of living. Which is huge - even the so-called privileged middle-class housewives Friedan, etc., were talking about generally didn't have that option.

But it's also that, although she experiences occasional romantic disappointment, she never desires without being desired. She's able to rely on passivity as a way of bringing in new partners, and is stunned to realize, at a fairly mature age, that when she pursues a man who's not that into her, it doesn't go as well. (Although she's still kinda-sorta pursued by the man in question.) But for most of the book, because she's such an outlier, liberation is a simple matter of saying yes when a "good" girl would say no.


Londoner said...

Do women desire men, or just being thought beautiful by men?

...and women. But I have a feeling you already know that.

It's fairly simple. Women want to attract as many men possible, and then choose the best one. This process of men crowding around The Most Beautiful Girl In The Room, plus her selection of the highest quality male in the vicinity, is meant to be witnessed by other women. They're the main audience for her display, not the drooling Neanderthals around her.

Men want to attract as many women as possible, and sleep with them all.

Again, to go out on a limb, I suspect you know this.

If Isadora wants sex, which she quite often does, she simply steps outside and all-the-men are waiting

This is true for all women, even ones far outside the confines of conventional attractiveness. The reason they're not having sex 24/7 is because they can't get it with the specific partner of their choice. I believe someone once said that for women, sex is a choice, for men, it's a chore. If you want to see what society would look like if women had the same sex drives as men, take a look at the gay community.

Female characters like Isadora, i.e. women who are "up for it" and can have lots of no strings sex without need for attachment, are strictly fictional. In real life, she would incur significant emotional damage. I guess that's why the author makes her desirability such a central point. A man quickly putting his clothes on, making his excuses, and disappearing out the door after a one-night-stand would be just too realistic.

Phoebe said...

The things you suspect I "know" are things I know quite well to be received wisdom. There's no reason to think you, Londoner, haven't received the same wisdom as everybody else. But there's received wisdom, and then there's what women actually experience. Some women would rather sleep with the (in their estimation - it's subjective) best-looking man in the room than be the best-looking woman according to a survey of all men and women present.

Such women may make efforts with their looks, but that'll only be once realizing that doing so ups the odds that the best-looking man in whichever room will be interested. And women are socialized to describe their desire for men as a desire to be thought beautiful by men. But in terms of how all of this actually feels for women? How women discreetly pursue the men they're interested in? The received wisdom here is definitely off in at least some cases.

Anyway, confused on the logic: Men want to sleep with all women, yet women are disappointed because they can't get sex "with the specific partner of their choice"? Doesn't add up. If you're going to recite received wisdom, the received wisdom is that women can't necessarily get a relationship with the man of their choice.

"Female characters like Isadora, [...]" Essentialist (it's a big world out there, with nothing along those lines "strictly fictional"). But regardless, that's not quite how it goes in the book. She makes a note of one encounter only that's truly, as would be said today, NSA. And as I did mention, she does experience rejection, but never in terms of men not noticing her to begin with.

Londoner said...

Some women would rather sleep with the (in their estimation - it's subjective) best-looking man in the room than be the best-looking woman according to a survey of all men and women present.

You know those hook-up apps they make for gay men, where they browse through, find the most attractive local partner, and arrange a bang session? Why is it that women don't use similar services? Because, as received wisdom knows, straight men would consider it God-sent.

Do you honestly believe there are women out there who don't mind having their relationship with a high quality man completely unacknowledged in public? That don't mind having secret trysts in out of the way places far from prying eyes? That their friends never see them with this kind of man? For women, it's all for naught if their social circle never knows what a catch they've made. There has to be a social aspect to it. The female audience must be involved. This is why the probability of such a secret "accidentally" coming to light approaches absolute certainty. Women may say they love no-strings, private hookups, but men who've been around for a while know exactly what follows.

Such women may make efforts with their looks, but that'll only be once realizing that doing so ups the odds that the best-looking man in whichever room will be interested.

Try this out. Next time you're at a cocktail party or wherever, observe who the women are looking at, especially when people come into the room. If what you see doesn't reveal to you who the main audience is meant to be, then I don't know what to tell you.

Doesn't add up. If you're going to recite received wisdom, the received wisdom is that women can't necessarily get a relationship with the man of their choice

Look at the following paragraph. I'm saying that men will have sex whenever the opportunity presents itself, women will generally hold out until a man has passed a very high bar. This demonstrates that women's sex drive is far lower than that of men, for whom the need to have sex with whoever or whatever is an insanely powerful drive. Women obviously have sex, but it's strictly conditional, and more of a means to an end.

And as I did mention, she does experience rejection, but never in terms of men not noticing her to begin with

And as you said in your original post, the guy is still pursuing her. This sounds like Stephenie Meyeresque rejection, not real world "so I'll call you sometime" rejection.

Phoebe said...

But... http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/10/how-tinder-solved-online-dating-for-women.html>women do use a site like that! If straight women do such things less than gay men, it has something to do with asymmetry of risk in hetero encounters (rape, pregnancy, STD transmission), and a little something to do with socialization as well. How much is 'nature' there would be difficult to say. It could be that men have greater sex drives, but until we live in a world where risks are equal and social stigmatization of promiscuous women is absent, we'll never know.

(I've had this conversation enough times to know that those convinced this is just how men and women are 'wired' won't hear otherwise.)

As for your finding it impossible for some women to be attracted to men without any "social aspect to it," I am a woman, and am telling you that yes, for some women, not all, this is how it works. Some girls, for example, spend high school crushing not on the captain of the football team, but embarrassing guys (too geeky, goth, whatever) they won't tell their friends about.

And what's this "high quality man"? I'm talking about looks. Would a woman date a man for his status and then not mention this relationship to friends? Probably not. Would some women hook up with a man purely because they found him hot, without telling friends? I suspect yes.

Londoner said...

From your link:

By September, two were exclusively dating guys they’d met via the app. My friend Jenny refers to her boyfriend as her “Tinderoni.”

That's a dating app. I'm talking about the let's-meet-for-a-hook-up-and-never-see-each-other-again apps that are popular in the gay community. What you have there is just something that streamlines the online dating process, which, as seen by the women in the article, leads to relationships.

But we'll never see eye to eye on this, so we may as well agree to disagree.

Phoebe said...

Agreeing to disagree is fine.

That said, if you change your mind, or if anyone else cares to enter the thread, the issue here I'd prefer to discuss is the whole how-women-experience-desire thing (being thought beautiful/being with someone beautiful). Not the somewhat played-out and impossible-to-resolve question of who's 'inherently' more interested in casual sex.

fourtinefork said...

I'll bite!

I am currently seeing a man who frequently makes comments to me, when we are out at restaurants, that "I am the most beautiful woman in the room." (He also adds, "the smartest person in the room" as well, which I quite like. I'm more inclined to believe that statement than his gushes about my supposed beauty.) Now, those NARS lip pencils are pretty great, but I doubt, if you polled the room, I'd win a prettiest contest.

I like being with this man. I can't disentangle how much his desire for me has stoked my desire for him, but certainly I enjoy being wanted. It's nice to know where one stands.

On the other side, a while back (shortly before getting serious with this current man), I happened to have the briefest of flings (i.e., making out publicly at a bar) with a man who was afterwards considered by my friends to be beautiful. (It was mostly his hair. My god. That hair.) He was way too gorgeous for me. But it was fun for the evening.

I don't use Tinder, but I have friends I do. Sometimes it's just fun to enjoy a man you find attractive without having to slog through his favorite bands, TV shows, and life philosophy.

Phoebe said...


Biting appreciated!

It's probably the case that everyone, male and female, would like to believe their partner finds them the most beautiful in the room. Sounds like you've found a good one!

It's interesting that when you talk about the make-out with the beautiful man, you mention that *your friends* thought he was beautiful. Is the fun, then, in impressing friends, or with the experience of making out with someone you find very attractive? As in, do you mention your friends' opinions as a way of confirming your assessment, or was their thinking he was beautiful part of/most of the fun?

I tend to think that if anything, women have more leeway in terms of getting together with (or just admiring) men they - but perhaps not their friends - find gorgeous, whereas with men, it's assumed that they want A Beautiful Woman, and that all men will agree on what that means. But what do I know. Expect another post on this soon, perhaps.

fourtinefork said...


Absolutely, I'd agree that we all want our partners to think we're the most attractive, funniest, smartest, and all that.

With the hot guy, I think that maybe I did not properly recognize his hotness at the time? (Since I'm anonymous here, I'll say it: I was very, very drunk at the time. This does not make for a reliable data point at all. I probably would have made out with anyone that night. So at odds with at least some of what Londoner claims upthread.) And maybe there was an element of surprise from friends that a man deemed that attractive decided to make out with me, given the other options. I'm pretty sure he was in his 20s, too, and I'm not, and there must have been plenty of pretty younger things there that evening. So, yes, probably the friends' mirth at his hotness was the biggest part of the fun. At least in retrospect.

And there's my oversharing on the internet for the week!

And (as a woman, so what do I know), I'd agree with you that an issue seems to be this idea that all men, everywhere, agree on what makes A Beautiful Woman (and that this is then supposedly the beauty ideal woman are aspiring to). In my case, I'd say the man I'm seeing is certainly deviating from some caricatured Maxim-cover idea of beauty, since I've been told I look like Simone Weil,* who, you know, was such a sexpot. (Although I realize someone could retort, well of course she was conventionally attractive, being a very thin, white woman. But thankfully this is not xoJane.)

* realizing now that if anyone I know does read this, I've totally blown my cover.

Phoebe said...


I don't read xoJane, but I've seen that line of thought elsewhere (applied to Lena Dunham, or my own lookalike, Tina Fey) and find it baffling. Whiteness and thinness (or average-weight-ness) are advantages, yes. But while they relate to conventional definitions of beauty, they don't amount to that. Plenty of women who are neither thin nor white turn far more heads than women who are both of those things. It should be possible to discuss the way that racism and sizeism play into beauty ideals without making what are simply untrue claims about the experience of a great many relatively slim white women.

fourtinefork said...

Sorry for the throwaway line at the end, which was somewhat off topic-- yes, the thing that if you're moderately thin and white of course one must be attractive is both baffling and tiresome, since, as you point out, it is patently untrue.

Phoebe said...

Oh, no need to apologize! This is something I've found baffling for a while. If being pale and thin meant a line out the door of interested and interesting dudes, my adolescence would have been quite different.