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
“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…