In Praise of Elizabeth Wurtzel

If I were to ask the students in my class to quote any one line of ‘Ozymandias,’ I doubt that one of them could do it. Almost all of them, however, would be able to tell me that Shelley was a drunk and died by drowning. –quoted as best I can remember from JD Salinger; I can’t find the book at present

If there is one thing in the world I hate, it is people who express opinions of books they haven’t read. Of course, there are many things that I hate, and I express my views on Charles Dickens, whom I’ve barely read, all the time. But, to quote that ever-useful line of Walt Whitman’s, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” This business of casting the ballot on books one hasn’t read happens all the time; in the past few months, however, one work seems to have born the brunt of it amongst the people I know: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s second book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women.

Wurtzel’s first book was a memoir, Prozac Nation, and I could talk forever about what a fantastic book it is, how it is one of the only true represenations of depression that I know, and how I think it forms a paradigm for a new kind of writing, a post-everything mentality, blah blah blah. But a lot of other people have written about that. The book made the New York Times best-seller list. I’m not too worried about its place in the world. Bitch, however, I would like to address.

Bitch is the most refreshing book I have read in a long, long time. But every time I start to say that, somone says “Oh, I read a terrible review of that,” or “Oh, Naomi Wolf says that’s pseudo-feminism,” or, most frequently and worst of all, “Oh, I hear that got terrible reviews,” which would seem to suggest that the utterer of that statement isn’t even stealing the reviewer’s idea, they’re stealing someone else’s idea of the reviewer’s idea. And of course there are the comments I get when I carry the book around (which I kind of like to do even when I’m not reading it; sometimes I even think of putting the cover on other books, kind of like that grade school trick employed to read comic books in math class, but then I wouldn’t have the book on hand to read excerpts from it, as I started to do for a small audience while waiting to get my oil changed). These are probably due to the cover, which I have kindly stolen for you, courtesy of the good folks at amazon.com.

Bitch is the most refreshing book I have read in a long time because it achieves all of the things which The New Rambler strives for: it is brazen, it says the hell with most journalistic conventions, it concerns things which nobody seems to care about (Amy Fisher, Margaux Hemingway) or new aspects of things which have been overdone (Nicole Brown Simpson, Hillary Clinton). Bitch remembers women who go unremembered, or who are remembered only for their deaths or their sins, as Shelley is remembered for his drinking and his drowning. At 400 pages, yes, it rambles (but of course we encourage that around here), but amidst that rambling is some of the only intelligent stuff about being female that I, Miss Anti-Women’s Studies USA, have ever read.

Wurtzel has been criticized for being overly inflammatory, for not having a clear point, for contradicting herself, and for being unduly disclosive, among other things. I don’t always agree with Wurtzel; in fact, I’d really like to grind an ax about Jane Austen with her sometime (I’m pro, she’s con). But I don’t always agree with my friends, either, nor do our arguments always come to coherent conclusions. If the course of human history hasn’t yet answered the questions posed about the role of women in society, it seems unlikely that any one book will provide all the answers. But to find the right answers, it is often necessary first to ask the right questions, and I think Wurtzel has a lot of those, questions about just why one bothers with dictums one did not invent. Referring only in part to the atrocity known as The Rules, she writes:

Well, I for one am sick of it. All my life, one person or another has been telling me to behave, saying don’t let a guy know you’re a depressed maniac on the first date, don’t just be yourself, don’t show your feelings. . . . I don’t like it. It seems like, all this, all these years of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi–all that smart writing all so we could learn to behave? Bra-burning in Atlantic City–so we could learn to behave? Roe v. Wade–so we could learn to behave? Thelma & Louise–so we could learn to behave? The gender gap–so we could learn to behave? Madonna, Sally Ride, Joycelyn Elders, Golda Meir, Anita Hill, Bette Davis, Leni Riefenstahl–all those strong indefatigable souls so we could learn to behave?

Get out there, read Bitch, or read something, and remember how to think.

But Can She Type?

Ides of March 1999

I feel this issue ought to be about the Ides of March, or at least the number nine (number nine. . . number nine), but I’m afraid it’s not. It’s about typing.

When I was about, oh, say nine years old, I came across a poster in my grandmother’s house. In it, an old woman sat looking up at you with an expression on her face I still can’t place, and underneath was the caption, “But can she type?” I got the feeling that this was supposed to be a joke, so I applied to my grandmother for explanation. She informed me that the woman in the picture was Golda Meir, who had been the Prime Minister of Israel, and that yes, in fact, this poster was hilarious. I didn’t get it, so I just put it down to another one of those weird grown-up tics, like taking half an hour to finish a drink or engaging in long conversations with boring people after church.

Ten or twelve years later, I’ve grown up enough to realize that social chatter is necessary and not always boring and that one does not really want to gulp cocktails, but that poster still baffles me. Of course, I can see various possiblities for why someone might consider it funny. It could be pre-feminist “funny,” like ha ha, what good is a woman if she can’t type?, rather like the bit in The Bell Jar when Sylvia Plath’s–excuse me, Esther Greenwood’s–mother tells her that she’d better learn shorthand, because nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.

It could be feminist era “funny,”–still what good is she if she can’t type, but this time like the punchline of the feminist lightbulb joke–“That’s not funny!” Or it could be post-feminist “funny,” as in, Look how far we’ve come and still the only question is, “Can she type?”, in which case it’s really not funny at all but quite sad.

The really sad thing is that Sylvia Plath’s mother was right–a plain old English major, or Classics major, or what have you, isn’t much good for anything. But throw in shorthand–or these days, computer skills, and suddenly they’re a much nicer commodity to plug into the machine.

I often say that I was a Classics major for the food, and as I made this little joke the other day, my friend remarked that one certainly didn’t go into Women’s Studies for that reason, and we had a laugh about Women’s Studies profs who probably think knowing how to cook is equivalent to laying down your life for the patriarchy. (I have no idea of the veracity of that; I never took a Women’s Studies course, as I object to them for my own reasons, which have very little to do with whether the cookies come from the oven or the store). That’s nonsense, of course: everyone should know how to cook. Food is a necessity of life, and you ought to be able to prepare it. But I can understand the problems it poses too, because I don’t think anyone ought to spend her life cooking, or typing, or cleaning, for others unless that’s what she really wants to do. I always cheer on Esther Greenwood/Sylvia Plath as she continues, “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters,” and decides that if she never learns shorthand, then she’ll never have to be a secretary. At the same time, though, I get irritated every time I see someone pecking out letters with two fingers. I’m proud of my typing ability (due entirely, I imagine, to the large amount of time I spent in college sending instant BroadCast messages to friends), to the point that I frequently put down “Typing, 63 wpm” on my resume. But it kind of sickens me at the same time.

Later this month I’m going to have the rather stunning experience of getting paid to write something, which seems quite odd after four years of shelling out thirty grand in order to have the privilege of writing papers about John Smith and William Bradford, or women in Greek drama. It brings a whole new level of understanding to the Ani Difranco couplet, “I want you to pay me for my beauty [or talent, in this case], I think it’s only right/’Cause I have been paying for it all of my life.” On the whole, though, I still agree with my father (and whomever he got the line from) that the only man who has freedom of the press is he who owns his own press, and that’s part of the reason that I started The New Rambler. But to publish yourself, you need to know how to type, and run a computer, and do some stuff with the Internet. . . and that, in the end, is how I justify those skills. Learn them for the Man if you must, to make a living–but use them for yourself. Golda Meir would be proud.

An Interesting Series of Commercials

In 1969, African-American students at Vassar College took over several administrative offices, demanding a department of Africana Studies, more black professors, and a special advisor to black students. Most of these requests were duly granted. But that’s not all the students were asking for–they also wanted separate housing, off-campus. Desegregation of schools and buses and restaurants in the South had happened less than a decade before (and was probably still going on, since “all deliberate speed” was a rather loosely interpreted phrase), and yet these students wanted to resegregate themselves. The administration, needless to say, was less than psyched about this plan, though the students did get their request for a short time.

It would seem that this trend towards resegregation is taking place again, thirty years later, but this time it’s the segregation of music videos, television networks, and, of all things, fast food restaurants. Yes, really–Burger King’s recent advertising campaign has really convinced me that they are trying to be The Black Burger Joint. These ads rarely show humans. They don’t tell little stories, like McDonald’s ads, or provide testimonials to Dave, like Wendy’s. Rather, they just push the product–showing you pictures fries and burgers, steaming and dripping onions or cheese. But is that all they’re pushing? Listen to the music in the background. One commercial featured Motown-type vocals singing a song–which I have since been informed is the theme from The Jeffersons, a ’70s TV show about a black family moving into an upscale white neighborhood–that goes, “We’re movin’ on up/to the East side, to a big [something] apartment in the sky . . . we finally got our piece of the pie.” The text that flashed underneath the food was “Now that’s an uptown deal–at a downtown price.” In another commercial, the ambience is provided by a big-band recording of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And the once commercial in this series which did have people, from several months ago, showed three black women singing and dancing a la the Supremes, complete with a flashback in black and white. And of course there is Burger King’s current slogan: “When You Have it Your Way, It Just Tastes Better.” I think all of this is a concentrated and targeted effort by Burger King to appeal to the downtrodden, and particularly historically down-trodden African-Americans, by offering them their “piece of the pie,” an opportunity to “have it [their] way,” and to move on up and be part of the number when the saints go marching in. Empowerment through TV advertising–you’ve just got to wonder what Malcolm X must be thinking right now.

To read more about the student takeover at Vassar, check out the entries from 30 April-2 November 1969 in this chronology of Vassar History (partially compiled by my old housemate, David Ley).

A Series of Commercials I Would Like to Kill

“Easy Mac–no brain required!” No brain required?!? This is supposed to be a good thing? You know the country’s in trouble when advertising is being that blatant about not wanting you to think. Granted, the general idea behind advertising is to prevent individual and original thought, but they usually try to be a little more subtle about it.


Apparently the Italian government is quite upset with the not-guilty decision of the court martial of the Captain William Ashby (accused of involuntary manslaughter–the plane he was flying cut through some gondola cables and killed 20 people). I haven’t reviewed the evidence myself, so I can’t give an opinion as to the correctness of the decision. But indignation about the findings of other people’s courts seems a little out of place for a country whose own courts just ruled that it is impossible for a woman wearing jeans to be raped.

The Grammar of Time Travel

The New Rambler has not disappeared; it’s just been lurking. That’s why it’s called an occasional periodical, you see.

The web page has some new stuff on it and will have yet more shortly, so check it out. You can read about Burger King commercials and how they relate to the Department of Africana Studies at Vassar, the movie Life is Beautiful, and (soon) why you should stop what you’re doing and listen to the New Bad Things. Go there.

And keep your eyes on the Iowa City (and Cedar Rapids, though I generally choose to ignore that part) ICON in the coming weeks. . . you might see a familiar name in its pages.

But now down to business. . . .

“If you read science fiction, you’ll like Herodotus.” –a college professor to her advisee in Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of science fiction, mostly just because I’m far too snobby about literature for my own good. Lately, however, I’ve been giving some thought to the genre, brought on by either watching too many X-Files reruns or rereading too much Madeleine L’Engle (supposing such a thing to be possible, which I doubt).

Mostly I’ve been thinking about time travel–not about the possiblity of it, since, as a friend of mine pointed out, if time travel existed we’d have known about it long since by way of visitors to the past, or present, or what have you, from the future (unless, of course, all those folk are equipped with little Men-in-Black lasers and they’ve wiped our memories out)–but more about why humans have thought up something they don’t have verb tenses to express. Somewhere in Robert Heinlein’s 1957 sci-fi novel (so much for my good taste in literature pose) The Door Into Summer (which I highly recommend to anyone who likes cats or is feeling in need of a Damon Runyon-esque fix), which is all about time travel and a man trying to fix his life through it, the narrator comments, in the midst of a bewildering explanation of his where and when-abouts, that if time travel becomes common, they’re going to have to invent a whole new class of verb tenses. He’s probably right–and yet think of the distinctions language already makes. I try to point out to my Latin students that, as confusing as they find Latin, English has just as many peculiarities and degrees of specificity. In Latin, for instance, “I carry,” “I am carrying,” and “I do carry” are all expressed by the same verb, while in English they all have a different connotation, despite the high school English teachers who try to squash this perfectly natural impulse to use the continual form when talking about continuing action (I harbor no grudges, I swear).

You see, I think that time travel does exist, and it doesn’t require machines–just words. If we can imagine completed action in the future (“I shall have carried”), action which, had it occurred in the past, would have produced a different outcome (“If I had caught the train, I would have made it on time”), action which, if it did occur, would produce yet another outcome (“If he should come, I would be glad”), to name just a few, are we not travelling around in time, at least in our minds? I used to get in trouble in history classes because I wrote all my papers in the present tense, a habit learned through writing English papers, which are traditionally written that way. I never did it deliberately, but when I tried to force myself to write in the past tense, it never worked. Latin and Greek both have something called “the historical present,” a way of telling about a past event in the present tense to make it seem more alive, a story-telling technique which most people use all the time without realizing it. And it seems to me that if you’re writing about history, you are necessarily reinterpreting it, and it is happening for you. Why not write in the present tense? Or (the horror! the horror!) switch back and forth–for, as a friend of mine in high school said, we don’t think or live in one tense most of the time–why write that way?
I’ve realized that I don’t have room to bring Herodotus into this issue–but then, he’s history; he’s not going anywhere. In the meantime, I wish you all a future more vivid (my very favorite Greek condition).

Clinton at the Movies

It frightens me greatly when I see the morning news and I haven’t actually slept yet, as it’s not usually something I intend to do. Insomnia aside, however, if I’m not hallucinating, it would seem that the little melodrama our government has been involved with for the past year might actually be winding down. This issue was planned some time ago to provide suggestions for alternative political entertainment–but even if the Senate trial does end, we still all might need some of that.

In 1993, my friend and favorite movie companion Sara and I attended two films–Dave (excellent) and the remake of Born Yesterday (not, of course, as good as the original)–which both were strong on overcoming dirty politics and bringing good back to the government and so on. At the time, I was taking AP Government, and I mentioned to Sara that I thought there was some connection between Clinton getting elected and all these happy-Washington movies. Two years later, I went to see The American President with some alums of that same AP Gov class, and I decided that my theory was holding up even halfway through Clinton’s first term. Of course, the government doesn’t actually tell Hollywood what to do these days (though perhaps they’ve put subliminal messages into the wallpaper of the Lincoln Bedroom; I don’t know), but the movie-makers did seem to be behind the President back then.

That in itself is interesting enough, but what I find really fascinating is the about-face which has occurred in the past couple of years: Clinton’s second term in office. The movies about Washington, and the Presidency in particular, have taken on a whole different tone. 1997’s Wag the Dog (war with Albania “produced” to detract the country’s attention from scandal concerning the President’s private life) and 1998’s Primary Colors (ostensibly an only slightly fictionalized account of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, which does not, needless to say, paint him in particularly sympathetic hues) showed quite a different picture from that of Kevin Kline cavorting through photo-ops or Don Johnson or Michael Douglas pushing Democracy in America (both the book and the concept). I guess Mr. Smith got the bourgeois blues and left town for good.
Although Clinton’s approval ratings continue to soar, the portrayals of him in popular media continue to sour. Hollywood, of course, is more often out to make a buck than to make any political point, and it seems they’ve decided that sleaze makes the buck these days better than sincerity. Neither Wag the Dog nor Primary Colors was a bomb, which leads me to wonder. . . what will happen next? A fictitious Clinton who murders and is hailed as a hero? Maybe he could go hang out with OJ Simpson.