The Man Trap

March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

            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.

The Little Death

January 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

The first thing I noticed when I picked up my used copy of Platform by Michel Houellebecq, were the bits of jizz on the edges, making the pages stick together.  Not surprising, given the amount of orgy scenes.

Houellebecq’s exploration of our contemporary malaise is only relieved through the constant pursuit of sexual adventure.  The protagonist, Michel, is a depressing character with really no personality to speak of.  He drifts through life bored and alone.  “Anything can happen in life, especially nothing (Houellebecq, 148).”  He is unable to find a suitable partner, or even really, connect with anyone at all.  But then he meets Valerie on a group tour in Thailand, where he goes to enjoy the benefits of Thai prostitutes.  In Valerie he discovers a sexually giving nature with the benefit of having someone to love, talk to, and enjoy life.

She works in the tourism industry, dealing with the problem of customers who are bored by their vacation experiences.  Michel suggests a line of hotels that specialize in sex tourism.  At first it’s a huge success – until Muslim terrorists step in.

“The problem with Muslims, he told me, was that the paradise promised by the Prophet already existed here on earth.  There were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; there were about twenty of them within five hundred meters of our hotel (Houellebecq, 250).”

Michel listens quietly to his companion, but he is more concerned with the sexual problems of westerners.  “Something is definitely happening that’s making westerners stop sleeping with each other.  Maybe it’s something to do with narcissism, or individualism, the cult of success, it doesn’t matter.  The fact is that from about the age of twenty-five or thirty, people find it very difficult to meet new sexual partners…  so they end up spending the next thirty years, almost the entirety of their adult lives, suffering permanent withdrawal (Houellebecq, 172).”

In my early twenties I attracted more men and even women than I ever have since.  And since then I have been analyzing exactly why this is so.  I had that youthful glow and was always smiling and laughing, whether it was nervous laughter or not.  I was much more friendly and open to all experiences – not yet scarred by all that was thrown at me later.  I was naïve, which older men found highly amusing for a while.  In fact, I was everything they were looking for to make them feel young again.  I was the answer to their existential crisis – youth.

My 22 year old self

For a number of these men – sex in its basic form wasn’t cutting it anymore.  They were resorting to cocktails of Ecstasy and Viagra, group sex, role-playing, bondage, domination, whips, hooks, orgy-parties.  And yet, they were still always bored.  “Organized S&M with its rules could only exist among overcultured, cerebral people for whom sex has lost all attraction.  For everyone else, there’s only one possible solution: pornography featuring professionals; and if you want to have real sex, third world countries (Houellebecq, 175).”

When I did date normal, mainstream guys, I was bored out of my mind.  They were so vanilla, with nothing to talk about and a limited capacity for pleasure that was stunted and one-sided.  They were also not as honest.

Since then I have gained much more than lost.  But if I have lost anything, I would like to bring back that openness I had to people all around me.  I want to love fully without fear, with more effort on my part in the awareness that we are all as one.  Houellebecq, of course, puts it more bluntly, “It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it’s that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable (Houellebecq, 63).”

Houellebecq has a dire view of the world, and though he writes of the dangers of isolationism, he also gravitates to it.  I see it as laziness. How can you feel connected to others, if you are not first willing to give? The character of Michel expects women to sexually fall all over him when he has not given them anything to fall over.  He is a walking dead man. There is nothing lovable about him.  And when he meets Valerie, it is hard to understand why she is attracted to him.

Behind Houellebecq’s fictional sexual forays is the mind of a Puritan. His characters are always punished for finding sexual satisfaction.  They begin and end in their fear of intimacy.  The sterile, noncommittal experience of a prostitute becomes the safer approach.

I watched Houellebecq’s interviews, and got the sense that he is already dead.  He appears to fall asleep, and takes an inordinate amount of time to answer questions.  His hands and mouth constantly grab for the stimulus of a cigarette.  In an interview for The Paris Review, he was asked how he has the nerve to write some of the things he does.  He answered, “Oh, it’s easy. I just pretend that I’m already dead.”

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