First published by Arena Magazine, August-September 2002

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Baby Hunger: The New Battle for Motherhood, Atlantic Books, 2002

Elizabeth Wurtzel, More, Now, Again, Virago Press, 2002

Tara Brabazon, Ladies who Lunge, UNSW Press, 2002

 

Half a century ago a young journalist knocked on the doors of middle class American suburbia and interviewed the most educated (and medicated) housewives the world had ever seen. Betty Friedan turned their stories and her observations into The Feminine Mystique, a book that famously begins with the chapter `The problem that has no name: a “yearning” for something more than my husband, my children and my home’.

Fifty years later Sylvia Ann Hewlett has been haunting the bedrooms and corporate boardrooms of America’s upper middle class, interviewing the daughters and granddaughters of Friedan’s housewives. In Baby Hunger: The New Battle for Motherhood, she too claims to have identified a hitherto unrecognised problem–the alarming number of high-achieving women who `yearn for children’.

While today’s headlines are all about the so-called fertility crisis and too many ovaries going to waste, the headlines in Friedan’s day were all about how the birthrate in the US was overtaking India’s. And just as The Feminine Mystique documented the post-war trend for girls to marry at an ever younger age, and for college girls to drop out in favour of marriage and children, Baby Hunger documents the late twentieth-century trend for women to postpone marriage and babies–often altogether.

Friedan gave a passing nod to the occasional voices of dissent–such as the space race scientists who were dismayed at the loss of so much brainpower to the task of sending endless laundry loads into mini-orbits. Today, the voices of protest are generally coming from the conservative corner. Some express alarm that women are so focused on their careers that they are forgetting to schedule in marriage and children. Others argue that, in wanting to `have it all’, women end up neglecting both their workplaces and their children (not to mention the social fabric) in the process.

Although not quite as conservative as some of the talking heads who have recently taken her argument and run a very long way with it, Hewlett clearly falls into the alarmist camp. Nevertheless, she builds her argument with a patchwork of convincing–and concerning–statistics:

Depending on what study you look at, somewhere between 34 per cent and 61 per cent of high-achieving women are childless in mid-life … Forty nine per cent of female executives earning $100,000 or more a year are childless, while only 19 per cent of 40-year-old male executives in the same earnings bracket [are].

And so on. Hewlett’s figures come from her surveys of what she calls `high-altitude’ career women (the book is full of Americanese such as `career on ramps’ and `off ramps’).

Like Friedan, Hewlett is primarily interested in the most affluent members of the most affluent country on earth (she does briefly refer to comparable countries, trotting out that now well-circulated statistic that 28 per cent of young Australian women will go through life childless). And, like most authors in this genre that reach best seller status, she has the gift of the media-friendly grab: one chapter is punctuated by capitalised headlines such as `Childlessness Haunts the Executive Suite’, and `High Achieving Women are Extremely Unlikely to Have a Child After Age 39′.

But it’s Hewlett’s grab for the headline and the emotive argument that unfortunately undermines her statistical argument. She expresses alarm at the numbers who are child free, and interviews many who are unhappily so, but she doesn’t ever ask how many of the childless are happily so, and we don’t hear their voices in her many personal interviews.

At one point, Hewlett does ask her respondents to think back and consider whether they wanted children in college. But even then, she downplays the existence of the happily childless: `Only 14 per cent of high-achieving women said that in college they didn’t think they would end up having children’. Only two paragraphs later, discussing the 17 per cent of women who said they wanted three children, she calls it `a sizable minority’. What a difference 3 per cent makes when you’re running an argument.

Hewlett says she wants to arm young women with the research, statistics and information that will `cut through the anxiety and skepticism around marriage and [help them] figure out that giving priority to establishing a stable, loving relationship early on might well be worth the effort’. Young women, she says, should not `squander their brand-new freedoms of modern, natural birthing. Just remember: our foremothers would have given their eyeteeth for such choice’.

You get the feeling she means well, but she totally oversteps the line when she stops being just an adviser on motherhood and starts to become a pusher of motherhood–as if her audience isn’t already feeling enough anxiety and stress over the difficult choices they face. Hewlett’s advice to young women is to plot their personal lives as ruthlessly as their career lives. While it possibly makes for wise words in the mistress-of-your-own-destiny sort of sense (although the idea that plotting to snare a man and his sperm will lead to happy-ever-after is dubious, to say the least), it’s not the politics of social transformation. And that’s why it’s so hard to slot her into the feminist camp–where she clearly wants to be seen.

When she visits a New York dating school designed to soften out the hard, picky edges of female career executives, Hewlett comes across like the mother in Bend it Like Beckham who takes her football playing daughter shopping for push up bras and warns her `there’s a reason Sporty Spice is the only one without a boyfriend’. She doesn’t seem to get that, at its core, feminism is not about women constantly compromising or masquerading as things they are not. It’s about social change.

To be fair, Hewlett pins some responsibility on straight men, too, and she interviews apparently liberated men and women who still live in a world where a woman’s successful career puts too much strain on relationships, and men’s fragile egos. And she notes the injustice of the situation where men continue to look for younger, less successful and less wealthy partners but women look for the opposite, and then logic dictates that the pool of potential partners actually increases for men as they age, while for women it shrinks.

But strangely, Hewlett really wants to lay a good part of the blame for the missing babies at feminism’s feet. Without naming names, Hewlett calls the women’s movement to task for its supposed tendency to `downplay the importance of family’. To back up her claims about these anti-family feminists, she resorts to quoting selective paragraphs from one–one!–obscure 1970s sociologist. It’s strange because if you try to think of all those who have ever dismissed the value of women’s work, downplayed the importance of motherhood, or ignored women’s roles as mothers in the workplace, it’s not the feminists who come to mind.

Hewlett fits more neatly into a new tradition where motherhood is not only a moral right, but where children are practically a consumer right. Although she is cautious about the agony and expense of IVF treatments, and the difficulties of late pregnancy, Hewlett seems to regard IVF as simply another service that women with enough money should be able to demand and receive without question. And as something governments should fund without regard to competing funding demands from other health and social services.

Unnervingly, Hewlett’s professionals seem to view childbearing as another achievement to tick off, or a route to personal growth. One would-be mother tells Hewlett that she thinks the `radical out-of-controlness of it will be good for me–will open me up in ways I cannot yet know’. Another woman seems to reflect her fast-track, short-cut life when she says of her adopted daughter: `I am convinced that–if she sleeps with me and if I just carry her around in a Snugli during the day–we can jump start the whole bonding process’.

When Hewlett delves into the wells of pain these high altitude women feel, you can’t help wishing that they would just spend a little more time getting a life, and a little less agonising over their inability to give life. On the other hand, it’s not too hard to feel outraged at the price even these successful women have paid for their careers. Clearly, just because a woman earns $100,000 a year doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t have the same statistical chance of parenthood that a man earning the same amount does. Men have always been allowed to `have it all’, to knit their public and private lives in reasonably uncomplicated ways–even if they don’t really devote themselves to the parenting role until their children are grown up, or their grandchildren are born, or until they find a younger mate. At least, Hewlett notes, they get a second chance.

One damsel in distress who obviously missed out on Hewlett’s counsel in her twenties is Elizabeth Wurtzel, who won huge public fame with her memoir of private misery, Prozac Nation. Now in her thirties, her latest and third book, More, Now, Again chronicles her descent into Ritalin addiction, and her very American story of recovery and redemption.

Wurtzel has the addiction chic market cornered. Winner of a Rolling Stone college journalism award, former music critic for the New Yorker, she is Hunter S. Thompson’s depressed and feminist distant relation. Even her editor gets in on the act: `Editing Elizabeth Wurtzel is like editing a hurricane, like producing Courtney’s albums, like mainlining sticky blue ink’.

Unlike Friedan’s housewives, whose Valium addiction was linked to their exclusion from the public sphere, Wurtzel is a hugely successful author. Wurtzel does drugs because of her complete inability to function in the private sphere–and her lack of a proper home. She doesn’t open her mail for three years and someone else has to pack and unpack her boxes every time she moves to another New York apartment or dingy hotel in Florida.

`It’s the basics. I can write a whole book, but I cannot handle the basics’, Wurtzel moans. She gets on the wrong planes fitted with a diaphragm full of cocaine, misses flights to publicity tours in Sweden, and finds herself in Iceland by mistake (Prozac Nation was big in Holland). She forgets her sassy, television friendly self and freezes up or rambles incoherently on panel shows. She sleeps through a fashion shoot and her one chance to be a pin-up chick (they use Katie Roiphe instead).

Drugs give her the gift of being in the moment–which is probably not such a bad thing for a woman who’s always analysing the past, but living in a city that trades in futures:

Sometimes someone will be standing in front of me, and I already feel him walking away. I have no sense of presence, mine or anyone else’s. But on drugs, I could feel that moment, I could be something besides nostalgic for the things that haven’t happened yet. I could live here now.

Like Hewlett, relationships with men are a central Wurtzel concern: `I could say I love cocaine because it makes me forget that I am waiting for some guy to call me’. During the course of the book, she has affairs with a married film producer who wants to turn Prozac Nation into a film (it’s about to be released with Christina Ricci in the lead) and an alcoholic maths genius she meets in rehab.

The trouble begins when Wurtzel’s doctor prescribes her Ritalin–normally given to children with attention deficit issues–to help her wean herself off harder drugs. At first, it’s like a muse to her writing. But soon she is cutting up and snorting forty tablets a day. Clearly, it’s not sustainable living:

After a fit of productivity that went on for some weeks, I am now fatigued with thinking. The Ritalin manufactures fascination with so many different ideas that it is impossible for me to sit and concentrate on any one thing. My writing is all over the place. I get a lot done, but it is all disjointed.

When she is not pouring out streams of geniusness on the page for her editor to mainline, Wurtzel loses herself in her current obsession. In a no star hotel, under an incandescent light, it’s just her, a bunch of pre-arranged lines and the hairs on her legs:

I can start tweezing at night, not look up for what seems like minutes but is really much longer, and when I finally stop to take a break, the sun is shining. It is not sunrise, or even morning–it is sometime in the afternoon.

Wurtzel does drugs because her life is as hollow, empty and flat as the surfaces she is constantly looking for in New York’s public toilets. What’s fascinating about Wurtzel’s writing is that she’s an extraordinary person caught up in ordinary, everyday pain. The source of her emptiness–divorce, a neglectful, drug addicted father, an overcompensating mother–is not particularly interesting or unusual. What’s interesting is her out-of-the-ordinary talent for laying it all out so lucidly on the lines of a page (even if she can only get them done with lines of crushed up Ritalin tablets beside her).

When her obsession of the week is Timothy McVeigh, Wurtzel just doesn’t get the pain of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations like the Oklahoma City bombing. As a writer she’s good enough that you hardly care that it’s deeply ironic when she condemns `their insistence on filling the airtime with their compulsion for attention’. Wurtzel says she `cannot fathom what makes these people think that a public discussion of their trauma will resolve it, will heal it in any way. It gives me the creeps.’ Wurtzel doesn’t write for some sort of resolution to her pain–she writes because telling stories is what she does. She’s the least anonymous advocate of the twelve step program the world has ever known.

More, Now, Again proves that if you are smart, sharp, and look as beautiful on a front cover as some of the prose within, people will tend to forgive you for almost anything. Wurtzel’s friends tolerate her inability to remember their birthdays, their near fatal car accidents and her inability to turn up to dates within an hour of the arranged time–if at all. Her editors tolerate the way she installs herself in a Doubleday office to finish off the last pages of her second book Bitch and sends Doubleday assistants down to the lobby to retrieve packages from her coke dealer. Hewlett’s affluent and childless women talk about their pain in a way that just makes you want to run away; Wurtzel describes her pain in a way which millions of readers can’t get enough of.

Unlike Wurtzel, who unselfconsciously and confidently knows that she is a writer, Tara Brabazon, a Murdoch University cultural studies academic, self-consciously and constantly reminds readers that she is a writer in her most recent book, Ladies who Lunge:

I disdain dishcloth-wet writing, essential oil euphemisms and Laura Ashley politics. [Instead] my words dance in the spaces between women, femininity, feminism and popular culture.

And she’s just warming up.

If she could write, she wouldn’t use words like `genuflectingly’, as in the following extract (which almost reads like a direct riposte to Hewlett):

It is actually crucial at this point in women’s history that we do not expect young women to genuflectingly continue the movement with only gratitude and deference to prior struggles. Probably the most radical thing a young woman can do today is avoid marriage and pregnancy, thereby giving herself some space and choices.

Brabazon displays all the most annoying tics of the worst cultural studies writing. There’s whole pages of aphorisms which each need their own PhD to support them (pornography is `a Barry White school of sexual etiquette and must be relocated into the theories of both hegemony and consumerism’). There’s the frequent use of backslashes (`care/free/less’) and bracketed words that show us–gosh–that big words are made up of smaller words, and that it’s fun to combine them with an oxymoronic sentence: `The aim of this chapter is to unpick this seamless fabric(ation)’.

Then there’s the out of context and clunky popular culture name dropping, `I laughed more while reading this text than when watching the `Bro’ episode of Seinfeld’. And what can be made of baffling statements such as: `It has been said that the sculpture is already in the marble. Similarly, the sculpture is already in the woman. That means that there is an important relationship between women and sport’? It’s as if Brabazon was receiving Wurtzel’s Ritalin prescription by mistake.

It’s the sort of writing that makes you want to hide the fact that there are a couple of cultural studies subjects in your degree. Her idol is Julie Burchill, English music journalist, essayist and a cultural studies natural. Burchill has a way with words that few can match–and it’s embarrassing that Brabazon tries so hard to emulate her, and yet fails so badly.

Reading her essays about wrestling, aerobics or Star Trek is like visiting a friend who holds ten conversations with you at once while she flicks through the remote control of her 50-channel cable TV and comments on every show. She just can’t stay with the program, or stick with an argument, long enough for you ever to understand the plot.

Ladies who Lunge begins with Brabazon having a very Sylvia Ann Hewlett moment. Describing a scene from her life when a date blew her off at the last minute (after she’s shopped and preened and cooked and hung the best towels in the bathroom), she asks:

‘How has this happened? This bloke is fifty-five years old–most men his age would give up their firstborn child to have dinner with a 30-year-old, upwardly mobile, blond woman.’

Unlike Hewlett, Brabazon wants to defend the single, professional woman: `Childless women are feeling pathologised’ in the workplace, she writes. Instead of arguing that feminism has ignored women’s mothering roles, Brabazon believes it has gone too far: `If feminism is mainly about maternal motivations, then it will continue to exclude some of its most visible, stoic, vulnerable and complicated representatives.’ (Again, no names, no roll calls.)

Her single status, she insists, is not a sacrifice, it is not a `cruel choice’, and Brabazon’s book is better when she is doing a bit of traditional film or cultural studies, such as her celebration of portrayals of spinsters and unconventional women by mid-twentieth century screen stars such as Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. It’s even better when she gets down to some traditional cultural studies media analysis–such as the moral panic caused by baseless reports of Western Australian girls out-performing boys at school.

But otherwise you’re either with her or you aren’t. When she says: `Thatcher was a binary outlaw, conveying a hyper-femininity that “took out” masculinity on the journey through to a gendered identity’, or when she discusses the way that wrestling is used by the disempowered to `renegotiate’ social positions, you either live in her world or you don’t. Her impatience with actually waging arguments, and her tendency to talk around a subject rather than about her subject, is incredibly frustrating.

Brabazon might be perfectly clear what she means when she writes: `The feminist exfoliation of ideas reveals more than the aroma of cheap perfume and cheaper politics’, but I think her words–like Wurtzel’s body–are in need of a serious detoxing treatment.

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