In Alix Kates Shulman’s 1972 novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Sasha fights against the traps of being a woman. As a child, the boy’s are pure enemies. She is attacked, held down and pantsed so the boys can stare at her vagina with a ‘seen one, seen them all’ look on their faces. As an adolescent she is lured into a ride home by a group of boys, only to be driven to a remote location where they can force her to touch a boy’s penis.
Her first boyfriend cares less about her than about getting laid, though she knows that if anyone finds out she’ll be expelled from her sorority and shunned by her classmates. Her first job backfires when the cook threatens her to try and get her to sleep with him. In college her dream of pre-law is put aside when she falls in love with Philosophy and the Philosophy professor. By the time she’s playing with the big boys, attempting a PhD at Columbia – she is treated with so much disdain for being a woman in the program that she stops speaking in class and flocks to the safety of the wives in the kitchen. She begins to panic that she’s getting too old and too educated. So she marries the first guy who treats her well.
As soon as they’re married, of course, he stops talking to her. He can’t hide his contempt. His life has a grand purpose, while she supports him at menial jobs. Her mind is no longer stimulating to him or to herself. All he wants is his dinner.
“Why was everything nice he did for me a bribe or a favor, while my kindnesses to him were my duty (Shulman, 5)?”
She embarks on a series of affairs, but every time she leaves her husband she falls into the same man traps wherever she goes. A lover in Spain, in Italy, and then eventually a second husband and two kids. Completely dependent on a man who secretly hungers for carefree youth, she is constantly afraid he will leave her.
Interesting too, are Sasha’s musings over her physical self. At fifteen she is crowned Queen of the Bunny Hop. By twenty-four she fears that she is old, and that people would find it laughable to think she was once considered beautiful. There is always that disconnect between how others see her, and how she feels she looks.
“Could it be that the prettier I grew the worse I would be treated? Much likelier, I thought, I wasn’t really pretty (Shulman, 49).”
You have to wonder, though there were many disadvantages to being a woman at that time, did Sasha’s beauty add to her disempowerment? Beautiful women are rarely ever noticed for their minds. Sasha hates a come-on as much as she loves it. On one hand it proves she’s still beautiful, on the other it reminds her she is vulnerable, even to possible attack. Being valued for her looks is also emotionally damaging as age removes her worth.
Forty years since this book was published, the ultimate value of a woman is still judged on the basis of physical beauty. A woman in the public eye who is not attractive is torn to shreds (for example, Hilary Clinton), while a beautiful woman is adored by everyone (Angelina Jolie). Success and accomplishment are no protection from the scrutiny. But will we remember Angelina Jolie for her excellent screenwriting skills, or will we remember her more for how hot she looked baring her leg at the Oscars? Being beautiful, unfortunately, is a distraction from the accomplishments you weren’t born with.
I can vouch that when I was in my physical prime (early twenties), no one was really interested in hearing my poetry. They just wanted me to wear hot pants to a party, and I was more than willing to flaunt it. I never felt valued for who I was on the inside. But I enjoyed all the attention otherwise. And eventually I learned to lead with my personality rather than my appearance.
Beneath this was an insatiable need for affirmation. Growing up in school I had been completely invisible. I was always quiet and up in my head. I was a dork – ugly, awkward, insecure, with bad grades and braces. My quietness made the other kids uncomfortable. Boys never talked to me unless it was to mock me or scare the shit out of me with sexual threats. Maybe it was that total and complete lack of control that turned me into a control freak. All I knew was, someday I wanted to be in charge.
If I had remained in the church, men and the life in general would have most certainly been a trap. But outside of the church and those old fashioned values, men were my freedom. In fact, the men I fell for brought my dreams to life. For a long time I lived in a fantasy. All of my relationships were open with no responsibilities involved.
Marriage and monogamy, however, are so based in reality, I have to admit, I’m still struggling to get used to it. It’s hard to keep marriage exciting – especially when you are living with your best friend. Sex is not the first thought, it’s the after-thought. And it is sometimes difficult to not equate marriage as an institution akin to the church. When I left religion, I celebrated all of my freedoms from repression. But then when you get married, there are parts of yourself that inevitably become repressed to protect your relationship. It’s like a catch-22, because you’ve never been happier than with your partner, but in order for that to survive, you can’t just do and say whatever you want. You can no longer be selfish as you begin to think through this other person and their feelings.
But for the first time, I am finally loved for who I really am, and my husband embraces the free spirit in me. He brings warmth and brightness to my life, whereas before, life was dark, edgy and unpredictable.
In Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen Sasha bemoans the traps of womanhood, laughing it off as all her fears come to pass. There is always the clock ticking, the beauty slipping, the value falling down. She runs from her own brilliance into the arms of man, where frets and responsibilities distract her from dreams that became insurmountable.
Memoirs was written from the standpoint of a very different time – but every time has its pitfalls and struggles for the sake of biology. The balance between men and women is precarious and difficult. Alix Kates Shulman based much of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen off of her own life. Though her life story is such a great success (even helping to lead the famous protest at the Miss America Pageant), Sasha’s story ends in defeat. I prefer to look beyond the book’s ending into Shulman’s inspiring example, trailblazing for women, allowing nothing to hold her back.