I talked about it enough and bought it like a month ago, but now I’m finally starting Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s a real intellectually perverse kick to open a thick novel for the first time, knowing that you have every intention of finishing. So far I’ve only been annoyed once: on the first page, Franzen describes a slum’s anonymous car thieves as “very dedicated,” and on the very next page, similarly anonymous house robbers are described as “highly motivated.” Says the guy who grew up in Webster Groves, I guess.
I haven’t gotten far enough to describe anything in detail, but the book seems to be about the Berglunds, a family who is so achingly liberal that their eventual downfall inspires a kind of schaedenfreude amongst their former neighbors and partners in gentrification. Again, I’m not that far in so I’m only projecting based on what I’ve read so far and the jacket flap. One neighbor in particular, Merrie Paulsen, resents her husband’s apparent attraction to Patty Berglund and uses this to attack everything else about her in a gossipy tirade:
“When Seth, at a dinner party, mentioned Patty for the third or fourth time, Merrie went nouveau red in the face and declared that there was no larger consciousness, no solidarity, no political substance, no fungible structure, no true communitarianism in Patty Berglund’s supposed neighborliness, it was all just regressive housewifey bullshit, and, frankly, in Merrie’s opinion, if you were to scratch beneath the nicey-nice surface you might be surprised to find something rather hard and selfish and competitive and Reaganite in Patty; it was obvious that the only things that mattered to her were her children and her house – not her neighbors, not the poor, not her country, not her parents, not even her own husband.”
Well. That Merrie Paulsen sure knows how to cut a bitch. Women tearing down women for the sake of being bitches has been a big topic on the blogs I read lately (actually it’s more like the idea of modern feminism actually being anti-feminism* in most cases, but nobody’s going to use that as a search term), and I’d been thinking about something that happened during my freshman year of high school.
Freshman year, I had gym class first period. I went to a small Catholic school in South City, so pretty much anyone who needed any credit could be put into any class. This is why, in that gym class, I was frequently cast as the opponent to senior boys who’d been playing varsity and, at least in one confirmed case, smacking around their girlfriends for the better part of four years. So I had a hard enough path already, and I wasn’t the type to convince my mother to write a note asking the teacher to excuse me from class because I had cramps. While I was busy getting soccer balls kicked into my stomach (Rick Morrison, you were a fucking ape and I hope someone hits you with a car someday), most of the other girls were sitting on the bleachers, talking.
One of these girls was my friend Molly (not her real name, but close). Molly lived two houses down from me, so we hung out after school until we had to go inside for the night. One day in gym class, for whatever fucked up reason (or so I thought at the time), Molly decided to tell me about how the night before, she and these two mouthbreather hoodrat idiot boys from the neighborhood stood on the sidewalk and looked up at my bedroom window while I changed my clothes. The mouthbreather hoodrat idiot boys saw me without clothes and said, “Ewwwwwww.”
Not only did Molly say this to me, she also said it to several other people who happened to be sitting there. These people were boys and girls, most of them older than me and none of them my friends. I shrugged and said something clever like “whatever,” but I turn bright red at pretty much nothing, so I’m sure I did this in a lovely shade of purple. Later, in private, Molly told me she’d made the whole thing up.
“Why would you say that in front of people?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, but she never apologized.
Back then I was furious and embarrassed. A 13-year-old girl has enough to worry about in the field of shitty self-esteem, but I was ultra-weird. I’m grateful for it now, but my parents didn’t give a shit about how I looked. If I was clean and my clothes were intact, they assumed that I could take care of the rest. No hairdos, no makeup, no nothing that other parents went crazy trying to get so their kids would be popular and attractive. And I mostly didn’t care because I was smarter than the girls who went tanning and lived on hair bleach, but still…the biology of an adolescent girl mandates that they be at least a little fucked up. So imagine 13-year-old me, having all of her insecurities realized in a lie told to a bunch of other people, feeling like she just got a swift kick in the taco.
Now, I look back on what Molly said and I feel sorry for the person she was then. For starters, I had maybe 2% body fat at the time of her lie, so I couldn’t have been as “ewwwwwww” as she said. Also, I can’t remember ever being motivated enough to bring someone down that I would orchestrate such a thing to a random group of people. Never did I ever want to make someone feel so badly that I would, without any provocation whatsoever, tell a friend they were disgusting just because. It’s not that I didn’t have the capacity for meanness, I just didn’t see the point in being mean for mean’s sake. I may have been insecure, but I wasn’t so insecure that I’d project all of my own insecurities onto a friend in the ugliest way possible just because they happened to be sitting right there.
This is what the blogs I read seem to be saying about anti-feminism. It’s one thing to feel competitive and ambitious and even a little bit catty (Dave says that even if you’re not a judgmental person, you could hang out with me and be making fun of people in less than 5 minutes because it’s fun), but once you start tearing down other women for reasons only related to your own insecurities, once you begin attacking them out of jealousy because it makes you feel better, you’ve crossed the line from Understandably A Bitch to Bitch, I’mma Kill You.
I can look back on my freshman year and know that something had to have been fucked up in Molly’s brain to conceive of her lie about me. I can also handle most kinds of criticism that any anti-feminist could drum up. If you’re going to insult me, I’d advise you to stay away from calling me ugly or fat. That’s nothing I haven’t thought about myself already, and I guarantee you that in those areas, I am my own harshest critic. No, if you really want to hurt me, go after my intelligence. Call me stupid, tell me I can’t read, imply that I don’t understand the concept. Or call me a Republican, because that Merrie Paulsen is one Grade A Bitch and she does it right.
*This is not to say that women should look out for other women and no one else. In general, we should all be looking out for everyone. Who know, this sort of kindness could someday prevent the zombie apocalypse.
I really do enjoy everything you write. It’s sharp and to the point. I never did understand the Bully though I understood the motivation. Pity then that the bullies of yore all grow up to be politicians. Or bankers.
That means a lot coming from you. Your Twitter short stories are still some of my favorite pieces of the Internet.
(And if you’re the one who StumbleUpon’d that one piece I wrote about atheism, thankyouthankyouthankyou. My ego was THRILLED.)