Friday, June 23, 2017
The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness - Jill Filipovic (2017)
I need to start out this review with a confession. In the past I've exhibited a few misogynistic tendencies, perhaps in part as a tongue-in-cheek backlash to the majority of my female friends who seem to identify as feminists, but more likely as a result of not being "successful" with women. I watched I Shot Andy Warhol about ten years ago and thought about writing an anti-S.C.U.M. manifesto, shortly before the phrase "men's rights" could cause someone to be "triggered." This was no doubt a result of the general frigidity that I felt from girls around this time, shortly after finishing college and entering the real world. My feelings in retrospect are perhaps best summed up (as they often are) by a sketch from Mr. Show.
Girls didn't want to talk to me, and sometimes still don't want to talk to me. There is something creepy or sleazy about me underneath. My motives appear one-dimensional. I am not confident enough. I am not an alpha male (I am not even a beta male). I do not make a lot of money. My facial hair doesn't grow in the right way. I am shy and do not make good eye contact. I do not seem interested. I seem too interested. I have not, however, told anyone to smile, nor ever engaged in street harassment. (Except the time my friend and I were drunk in a cab and we thought the girl in the next car over looked like Britney Spears and we tried to inform her of such as she inched away, and rolled up the window.)
Perhaps the reason most of my female friends are feminists and why I have scoffed at "typical girls" in general is, the girls that couldn't bear to waste their time on me haven't properly absorbed feminist values? Or there is something legit wrong with me. Probably the latter. In any case, I think it's the type of girls that really just want to be a stay-at-home mom and have her husband provide for their family that have been most disinterested in me, followed by the girls that are extremely successful in their careers and sense that I would really just prefer to be a stay-at-home dad and have them provide for me and write in my free time. So maybe I unfairly rejected the entire gender five years ago? It was an immature position to take, that I could do that sort of thing in retaliation, or out of despair, and not out of a more basic understanding of orientation and acceptance of one's feelings going back to childhood. It took a very long time to understand that all of these confusing emotions could be tidily ensconced within the "B" of LGBT.
I say all of this in the way of an apology, and to acknowledge that the reason many men treat women the way we do is wrapped up in our own issues that we haven't recognized or resolved. That, and yes, the societal expectations that this book addresses.
Full disclosure: Jill Filipovic and I are friends on Facebook and went to NYU together. We have a great deal of mutual friends (24 to be exact) but I am struck by a lack of independent recollection of personal interaction with one another. We probably met briefly at a party or two. Regardless, she is the third alum of the Class of 2005 to be featured on FH after Tao Lin (our mutual friend) and Aziz Ansari (we wish). My short version opinion on the book is this: while it is fantastically written, and quite compelling overall, it is stymied a bit by its semi-clinical stance, teetering somewhere between a law review article and selective memoir. And this is the right place to start the review for me, as an attorney in practice four years now that would like to leave the profession and write full-time. If I could be so lucky! I am not aware of where Jill went to law school, but I am assuming it was a very good one and that she did very well and that she got the Summer Associate 2L gig and made bank at a large firm and was able to retire her loans in short order, but maybe I'm misreading things or being presumptuous. I'm sure she didn't go to a second-tier school, finish outside the top 50% of her class, and flounder from one horrible situation to the next after passing the bar, all while loans accrue at an outrageous interest rate and effectively become a perpetual burden. But she earned it, and I applaud her for the decision.
Like the recently reviewed Letters to Felice, I have something to say about the end notes. In this case, I say they are well-placed. I also think if they were posted as footnotes on each page like a law review article, they would lose some of their impact. Some of the sources are not exactly paragons of erudition. But let's be clear about something in this law review comparison thing: law review articles have a citation for practically every sentence, and this is why their appearance becomes cartoonishly distinct. The H Spot is sort of like a sloppily written law review article, and I mean that as a compliment. Nobody likes to read those. They're a perfect example of doing for the sake of doing, because it's the necessary thing to have on your resume. Though students and professors may have a passion for the topic they write about, their composition is generally a tedious miserable exercise. By contrast, The H-Spot is light enough to be read on a beach this summer. Much of the time, it is very entertaining. Sometimes it veers into preachy territory, but I was struck by the virtual absence of male-bashing for which feminism is often derided. Jill opens up about her personal life just enough to give the reader insight into how she came to her perspective on these issues. Something seemingly innocuous, like female partners in law firms being in charge of ordering lunch, inspires miniature outrage. Also that most paralegals are female. I would love to be a paralegal and be in charge of ordering lunch! Is it a path towards assured financial success and growth? At a large firm, probably! But I digress.
The book opens up with an Introduction, which lays out its thesis, which is neatly summarized in the conclusion and its public policy proposal:
"One of the goals of this project was to show that there is no one definition of womanhood, no singular experience of pleasure seeking, and no individual things that will bring happiness for all women, but there are a great many commonalities, and a great many ways to improve the status quo. My hope is that this book offered a little peak into the overlapping struggles of so many women, as well as the many joys--however unsupported and individualized." (267)
The best thing I can say about this book, I think, is that it made me want to be a better person. It offers great insight into womanhood and all of its attendant anxieties, and it may cause men (such as myself) who have been insensitive in the past to think twice before making what seems like a harmless joke. The only real criticism I can make is that "law review" thing mentioned above, and the statistical methodologies employed by the author. The thing about the internet is that one can find pretty much any source to back up one's opinion, even if it's particularly odious or unreasonable (and just to be clear, this book is neither). Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I feel like, when you sit down to start a law review article, you write up the position you want to take, and then you find your sources later to back up that position. Maybe your initial position is informed by everything you have read and digested, but there is still sometimes that lingering feeling of padding by citation, as if you are not quite confident enough just to make an assertion without citation to any greater authority. In law review contexts, it's because that's just not allowed. In the context of a book, however, I feel like this book is most powerful (but also most challenging/slightly irksome) when it enters into "manifesto" territory. I am thinking of Great Books from the past, like The Prince or Utopia, where the author simply writes down their thoughts, damned if anyone agrees with them or not.
Basically, in my opinion, the book is at its weakest when it is relying on statistical methodologies to define happiness, primarily because it makes me feel very anxious and insecure. There are dozens of passages that made me curse my fate (but then again there are dozens of moments a day, dozens of things I see, that make me do the same), but here is just one:
"This new standard, of marrying an autonomous individual only once you're an autonomous individual yourself, is what marriage researchers call the 'capstone' model: marriage as the final marker of a solid, stable life, as opposed to a cornerstone of one. Educated young people today see marriage as something they do after most of their other ducks are in a row: they have a college degree, they're working at a stable job, they can afford a wedding [Yes, No, No]. And most crucially, they want to marry someone who is a great match and from whom they derive emotional and sexual fulfillment [Gulp], not simply someone who plays a complimentary role--that is, an employed man looking for a woman who would be a good mother and homemaker, and vice versa. Americans say a happy sexual relationship is one of the primary things that makes a marriage work, second only to faithfulness; more than 60 percent also agree that sharing household chores is crucial to a successful union [YES]. Of unmarried young people today, about a third say they haven't tied the knot because they're looking for the right person. About the same number say they don't feel financially ready.
That capstone model means that women and men are marrying later than ever before [thank God], if they marry at all--and many don't. The most well educated and financially prosperous, [fuck them] though, continue to wed, building their families like the children's rhyme: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage. [That's not all, that's not all, Jack is drinking alcohol]." (141, bracket parentheticals mine)
I could do this all day, as the book often caused me to reflect upon my own wretched state. At the same time, however, I must admit that it felt very "cozy" and comforting at times, because Jill and I are the same age and went to the same school and know a lot of the same people and our experiences are sort of spiritually intertwined to an extent. Moreover, Jill's own experience as a lawyer-turned-writer give me hope that a happier life is not necessarily a rank impossibility.
This review needs to be wrapped up, and I haven't given an appropriate road map of the territory this book covers. Basically, there is an introduction and conclusion, and eight chapters in between.
The first is a sort of history lesson, which was one of my favorite parts, particularly when it was revealed that Mary Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist pioneer (and not actually the same person, which made me feel very dumb as a person that loved Frankenstein). The second is about female friendship, and adequately covers the topic except for maybe not addressing the phenomena of girls going to the bathroom together. The third will probably become the most infamous in the book, and is about female sexuality and pleasure. The fourth is about women as mothers, the fifth is about women as wives, and the sixth is about women in the workplace. The seventh is about female body issues and food, and was another one of my favorites (as a person with an unhealthy diet and a bizarre relationship with food). The eighth is about the (fading?) tradition of women taking their husband's last name after marriage.
Jill does devote a fair portion of the book to primary sources, interviews she had with women and couples in several different states. Generally, these are some of the best parts of the book, but there is no more noteworthy subject than Janet. Janet's story is brutal and outrageous, but also ordinary in many poorer, predominantly black communities. Her struggle is not uncommon, but the specifics are extreme:
"The one thing that keeps Janet afloat is her children. The dream, Janet said, is a combination of basic financial stability and that coveted 'balance': that she could both enjoy time with her children and work full time at a job that would actually bring in enough income to support her family. Both time and money, though, have proven elusive, no matter how hard she tries and no matter how much she sacrifices one for the other.....She was there when her second daughter walked, but only because she was unemployed. She had found a new job by the time she had her son, and so she missed his first steps, too. 'When I work, I get up at 4:30 in the morning,' Janet said. 'I work. And then normally I'd do doubles and get home at about one o'clock in the morning and my babies were asleep. This is the most time I've ever spent with my kids. And I've been sitting here thinking about that. I worked all of these years.'" (202)
It's pretty much a terrible world in terms of the amount of time that people are expected to spend working to make a living, but Janet's case is simply too much. You hear about people getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, but 3.5? Insane. In a way this book is also about the impossibility of time management, and that hit me particularly hard as a person that doesn't think he ever has enough of it and has no spouse or kids to consume it. Actually, a spouse should help with that time crunch, and the idea of better equality in relationships between spouses and partners is one of the most effectively presented in this book. While The H-Spot is not necessarily perfect, it is a big-hearted contribution to the world, and one that will hopefully play some small role (if not as large as say, The Feminine Mystique or The Second Sex) in bringing about a more just and equal understanding between the sexes.