Are the loathsome anti-heroines of the new "city girl" books evidence that feminism has failed or succeeded too well?by Angela Lambert / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
“What does a woman want?” asked Freud, and did not stay for an answer. He thought he knew: she wanted a penis. Women have mocked the idea for 100 years but now, a generation after women’s liberation started to change things (in the west) it looks as though a penis is what they’ve got.
Until the early 1970s girls were girls and men were men. Men were expected to be rowdy and promiscuous when young; rational, decisive breadwinners until they retired; wise, authoritative and revered thereafter. Women were cast as frivolous, dependent, limited creatures-unless they were lucky enough to marry a strong and benevolent man who would calm them down, father their children, and turn them into good, sensible wives. Feminism more or less reversed this. Men were feckless, overbearing and selfish; women-the ones who did all the hard work-saintly and exploited. The early “women’s libbers” tried to change both perceptions.
In 1980 Germaine Greer wrote of her groundbreaking first book, The Female Eunuch: “Women’s sexuality has been repressed because it served no social or domestic function. Whole women would have been restless, aggressive, unpredictable, curious, lustful, imaginative and in league with their naughtiest children against men and their machines. They might have been artists, inventors, explorers, revolutionaries, but they would not have been housewives… and housewives were what was wanted.” Greer’s adjectives-restless, aggressive, unpredictable, lustful, imaginative-define the heroines of a new genre of fiction: books for, and about, these liberated, newly independent young women.
It is ironic, then, that the first such books were written by someone whose previous bestsellers had told women how to be more efficient housewives. Step forward Superwoman. Shirley Conran, wife of Terence, mother of Jasper and Sebastian, earned millions as the author of Lace (1982) and Lace 2 (1985), blockbusters which sold all over the world. They were the first of their kind because until the early 1980s the self-propelling, self-supporting, young, single woman was still too unusual to form a recognisable group. Conran insists that despite scenes of near-pornographic sex (remember the goldfish?) every one of her novels is a call to take up arms in the feminist quest for self-realisation.
This format has now been adopted by dozens of others. Their heroines whirl around the centrifugal drum of life, revving up for tearaway careers and sex lives. The newspaper world has been a popular setting, which may be what attracted Amanda Platell to the genre. As recently as 1996 the big-haired, thrusting Australian did not even merit an entry in Who’s Who. Today she heads the Conservative party’s media department, has edited two national newspapers and been managing director of the Independent.
Her new book is entitled Scandal (Piatkus). It is typical of its kind in describing one woman’s struggle to get to the top of a male-dominated profession, although in this book she is impeded by-surprise-another woman. Platell calls her leading characters “the non-committers: a new breed of highly-paid, intelligent women, independent women who loved men but didn’t really need them.” The real-life originals of the characters in her steamy tale are embarrassingly obvious. The villain is called Douglas Holloway but the resemblance to another well-known media figure is unmistakable. “Many saw Douglas Holloway as a cold man, harsh to the point of brutality, emotionless. As chief executive he ran the Tribune Group with all the efficiency of a concentration camp.” Here is David Montgomery, feared and loathed supremo of the Mirror Group at the time when Platell also worked in the rat-and-weasel-infested corridors and lifts of Canary Wharf. His secret inamorata is “elegant, wealthy, perfectly pedigreed Becky”-surely none other than Montgomery’s recently acquired third wife, the Hon Sophie, only daughter of Lord Birdwood. (Given her notoriously racist grandmother you might question the perfect pedigree. I quibble.) The battling heroine Georgina is Platell herself; her rival Sharon (breasts bursting from a Wonderbra two sizes too small) instantly recognisable as Eve Pollard.
Pollard herself, with two former Fleet Street contemporaries, Joyce Hopkirk, first editor of British Cosmopolitan, and Val Corbett, also penned a Street of Shame novel called Splash! (Headline). Same ingredients-champagne passim, designer dresses, savage sex, clandestine manoeuvres in posh restaurants-but also, from time to time, irrepressible girlish longings.
Finally, over in a dark corner squats Julie Burchill, the Big Bad Girl of journalism. Burchill’s first book, Ambition (Bodley Head), was sexier and ruder than all the other girls’ newspaper novels. Recently she published her ninth (dear heavens, who reads all this stuff?), wittily entitled Married Alive (Orion). It is the writing equivalent of projectile vomit; a stream of bitter resentment, although its narrator would seem to possess everything to which the early 1970s feminists aspired. Nicole has a well-paid job as an illustrator; an Asian shrink; a sexy photographer husband called Matt; a loft in Docklands; loads of champagne-swilling friends and all the designer accoutrements she wants. Oh, and her “Gran” lives with her. Nicole may be a working-class gal made good but she hasn’t forgotten her roots.
The plot is thin to the point of invisibility. (Will marriage break up? Yes. Will Gran stay? No.) Burchill’s prose is coarse and aggressive, but it burns with manic energy. And buried in the book’s 213 pages is one gem, which I quote to save anyone having to read the rest: “Around me men get to grips with laptop computers and mobile phones. I stare at them hungrily. It’s not them I desire, though; it’s the luxury of their complete alienation. Often, especially when we’re very young, we think we want to fuck men when what we really want is to be them. [Freud was right.] But we don’t have penis envy, [Wrong then?] it’s not some sex dyke action number; we have access envy, automata envy, AA envy. We want to be that dumb and disengaged. It is a rare woman who lives an unexamined life, despite the apparent bovinity of the breeding process; but even the most intellectual of men can easily lead lives free of moral anguish or doubt.” How can she be so sure?
What, then, is the secret dream of this non-alienated, non-bovine, neither dumb nor disengaged, life-examining New Woman? What does she want? She has failed to make her sexy photographer husband impervious to the charms of 17 year olds, failed to nail his penis to her mantelpiece. Denied fidelity, Nicole/Julie’s dream is this. She fantasises about sitting up in bed alone, in her dressing-gown, eating Butterscotch Instant Whips, drinking hot Ribena while reading her fab, fave girlish books (ideally Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes for Anna) and watching television. Can that be all women want?
One thing is certain. Women are less and less likely to want marriage-until very recently the aim and oasis of every adolescent female. My 28-year-old step-daughter-in-law told me over Christmas: “Of my ten best girl friends from university, I’m the only one who’s married and only two others have children. I feel a freak!” She went on, however, to say that all her girl friends envy her and become broody over her two sons.
And for all Burchill’s bile her book is one of the few in the “city girl” genre that tries to explore the dilemma of the modern woman; most of the rest are power-crazed fantasies. “I’ll tell you a thing, and it’s a terrible thing. I know for sure that women of my generation fake orgasms with men so much more than our mothers did. [How does she know? Neither the Kinsey nor the Hite Report bears this out.] … Marriage: it’s not all that’s wrong with the world. But right here, right now, for healthy adult women during the closing steps of the 20th century, it’s most of what’s wrong. Yoked together, male and female, on the hamster wheel of their own surrender to the system, and each hating the other for being the blood witness of their own… shame.”
But what is depressing about these books is the absence of compassion or tenderness in any of the women. Feminism has evidently not “feminised” society, nor even women themselves. On the contrary, it seems to have licensed young women to behave as badly (coarsely, brutally, self-indulgently) as young men. There is scarcely a hint of tenderness for any human being in these books, but a great deal of whingeing self-pity. Like the television sit-coms which are the visual equivalent of this literary genre, these privileged, highly-paid, expensively-dressed, luxuriously-housed products of 30 years of feminism are positively besotted with themselves.
I watched an episode of the television series Sex in the City, because my 28-year-old daughter told me that it was a revealing portrait of herself and many like her. It seemed to me loathsome. Set in self-obsessed New York, every young woman in it was vapid, materialistic, vain yet insecure, but dead set on finding a man-rich, ambitious, handsome, sexy and utterly, single-mindedly devoted to her. In pursuit of this impossible goal these young women networked, flirted, smoked, drank (but rarely ate and were all knife-thin), partied, snogged, shagged, phoned, schemed and gossiped in a rapid-fire series of short, jargon-ridden sentences and scenes that left me hyperventilating with stress. By the end of the episode the characters were shrieking and sobbing over the depths of male treachery and neglect. I rang my daughter. “Are you really all like that?” I asked. “Well, we are a bit…” she said.
Roll back 150 years to the archetypal anti-heroine of the 19th century: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Emma is a bored, provincial bourgeoise who abandons her dull, decent doctor husband, Charles, in pursuit of a doomed love affair. “What is wrong with Charles?” Emma asks herself, soon after marrying him. “Charles’s conversation was as flat as any pavement, everyone’s ideas trudging along it in their weekday clothes, rousing no emotion, no laughter, no reverie… A man, surely, ought to know everything, ought to excel in a host of activities, ought to initiate you into the energies of passion, the refinements of life, all its mysteries. But this man knew nothing, taught nothing, desired nothing. He thought her happy, and she resented his so-solid calm, his ponderous serenity, the very happiness she brought him.” Poor Charles! His wife’s expectations are not so different from those of today’s 30-something females. A man must be everything, provide everything, exclusively to one woman, for life? If this is what women want, it’s too much.
Emma’s modern fictional counterpart is Gemma Bovery, brilliantly portrayed in the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. Pretty, flighty, artistic Gemma falls all too easily into the arms of a recently divorced man: anxious, environmentally conscious, non-sexist Charlie Bovery. Charlie wants only to please Gemma, as far as this is compatible with pleasing his former wife Judi and their two beastly children.
Gemma has something in common with Bridget Jones, Helen Fielding’s emblem for today’s unattached young women, not least her diary style. Bridget is likely to begin the day’s entry: “Cigarettes: 20; calories: 2,700 (bad); units of alcohol: 8 (v. bad).” Gemma aims higher: “20 minutes inner thighs. Also practised verbs venir and vouloir. Learned conditional.” These exercises in self-improvement are carried out with the aim of pleasing some man.
Do the offspring of the feminist generation still just want to please men? Often the answer is yes, they do. But one thing has changed. Nowadays the men also want to please them, rather than taking it for granted that their gender alone is sufficient. The trouble is, there are so many conflicting models of male- and femaleness-assertive or romantic; caring or sporting; successful or parental; not to mention the political, the hedonist, the socialite-that most people try to be several in succession, depending on the taste of the latest partner.
Yet in the end tradition is hard to shake. Bridget Jones has sold more copies than all the new woman novels put together (except the two Laces which had a ten-year start on her). And despite her calorie and kilo count, her raffish mother and unseemly passion for her married boss, Bridget is not a contemporary heroine at all. Antennae forever attuned to the precise marital and financial status of every passing male, Helen Fielding has taken her straight out of Jane Austen. But Bridget is a secondary Austen heroine. Not as intelligent or spirited as Elizabeth Bennet; if you take away the trappings of modern life-“credit cards to manual!”-she would serve very well as Jane. Bridget Jones is always waiting for Mr Right-the difference is that she doesn’t have to marry, while the Bennet sisters, if they are to avoid lifelong disgrace as maiden aunts, do. This is why an army of female relatives plotted and schemed and organised a complex social system of balls and parties whose purpose was to expose young men and women to one another in the hunt for marriage partners. What else is the Time Out lonely hearts column but a Pump Hall at Bath, pullulating with the latest selection of wistful singles? Only they, poor dears, don’t have the protective eyes of mothers and chaperones to help them find the ideal mate, but must rely on BT Call-Minder or Box Number 1748 to separate the wheat from the rapists.
I began with Freud on penis envy. I can’t resist ending with the remark by Madame de Gaulle, at a dinner given by the British ambassador in Paris to celebrate her husband’s retirement. When asked by her neighbour what she was now looking forward to, “A penis,” the lady replied. The ambassador leaned forward and murmured smoothly to the startled guest, “Madame de Gaulle means ‘Happiness.'” Quite right. That’s all women want: happiness. Doesn’t everyone?