Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Yes, I'm Entitled

Update: No, Western women do NOT necessarily make terrible wives. Belated hellos to the hordes that trampled hither from Fisheaters and The Pulpit. Hi there, and buy my book! American, Canadian and Polish editions available. See margin.


I mentioned on Facebook that I was enjoying Eat, Pray, Love and was staggered by the negative response. Okay, Eat, Pray, Love is not a Catholic book. It even takes three or four swipes at Catholicism. The third section, which I hadn't got to yet, is pornographic. But the passion of the response shocked me. I mean, it's just Elizabeth Gilbert's memoirs. So she sold 5 million copies. I'm envious, too, but not angry about it.*

The most surprising comment came from an American man, a Chinese-American man.

"Fitting for an American princess," he wrote.

I blinked. I'd regularly heard the rather dodgy expression "JAP", "Jewish American Princess", years ago, but never "American princess."

"She was brought up on a Midwestern Protestant Christmas tree farm," I wrote back. "Hardly a princess."

"It's used wrt the attitude of entitlement, not the amount of property or status of nobility," he replied. "Surprised you haven't heard it used this way yet. It's a common complaint about Western women."

Western women.

Suddenly I was back in My Worst Theology Class Ever, listening in shock as the Asian-American Jesuit beside me declared "White women make bad wives."

"By whom?" I snarled and wrote it into the Facebook stream.

But I regretted it. The 'R' word loomed and I didn't want to mix it up with my old pal. So I told him he didn't have to answer that. But he did.

"By whom? A lot of men (including me). You'll see it on websites about marriage and dating frequented by men."

"Ooo" I wrote. "What are these websites? I've been wondering why Seraphic Singles has so few male visitors these days!"

In response, he sent me this link to a piece by Kay Hymowitz and suggested I google to find men's responses.

Well, I did and, girls, it's not pretty. You know how I keep telling you you won't always like it when you find out what men are thinking? It's definitely true.

I thought Kay Hymowitz's piece was thoughtful and even sympathetic to men, drawing upon sociological detail and historical factors to explain why 55% of Americans have not married by age 30. Yes, she observes that huge numbers of American men in their 20s aren't exactly grown-ups, but you'd have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to notice that.

However, in response to Hymowitz, male bloggers and commentators went crazy. Typically, they attacked Hymowitz's appearance. In the crudest and most inventive terms they could think up, they called contemporary American women a pack of sluts. They accused women like Hymowitz of just wanting a man to support them. It was as if she had become the lightning rod for Frustrated American Man's contempt for Contemporary American Woman.

Google at your own risk. But I'll tell you something. Reading all that abuse was not as bad as being the only white woman in an American classroom as I listened to a future priest say "White women make bad wives."

For about the millionth time that term, I made a protest. Where, I wanted to know, did this guy get the idea that white women made bad wives? There followed a lot of circumstantial evidence about one unhappy Asian male-white female marriage, plus the revelation that his mother would understand if he left the SJ but not if he married a white woman. He detailed what his mother thought of white women, e.g. lazy, money-grubbing, disobedient, disrespectful, promiscuous, etc.

"Does your mother even know any white women?" I demanded.

He thought about that and chuckled.

"Actually, I don't think she does. But she watches a lot of soap operas."

I learned more about racism through that theology class than I thought a white person could. And I learned something about sexism, too, and how much crap women from some non-Western cultures have to put up with. If women in some cultures are told that, in stark contrast to their brothers, they are entitled to absolutely nothing and that they should be grateful for anything they get then, yeah, Western women are going to look mighty entitled.

Eat, Pray, Love begins with Elizabeth Gilbert on her bathroom floor crying her heart out night after night. She has severe depression. She and her husband own a beautiful house, and she has a successful magazine writing career. She has published three books by age 35. She is the major breadwinner and--FYI--far from being a money-grubber, she hands over EVERYTHING but her royalties and future earnings to her ex-husband (who wanted the royalties, too) in their divorce.

She never explains why exactly their marriage collapsed and why divorce was so necessary to her sanity and happiness, and since she was never a Catholic and had no children, and since I was divorced once myself, I'm willing to cut her some major slack on the D-word. I have no problem saying that Elizabeth Gilbert was entitled to get up off the bathroom floor and have a decent night's sleep. As she is an American, I believe her national constitution entitles her to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Happiness.

Some women have no idea they have a right to the pursuit of happiness. And for many a woman, the greatest earthly happiness she can imagine is to marry a good man who loves her, to have his children and to raise them in comfort. In short, to be simultaneously utterly vulnerable and safely protected.

A few years ago I blogged what I wanted in a man. I wanted an educated man who had a job he enjoyed with a salary big enough to support himself and me, if I were unemployed, and our children, if we had any. I wanted a Catholic man who went to church.

A guy commented that I sure wanted a lot. But, newsflash, I wanted no more than what my mother got. My baby boomer, university-educated, property-owning, Scottish-Canadian housewife mother who--fortunately for me--ditched a fiance back in the 1960s because he bought clothing on credit. Financially irresponsible, decided my future mother. She gave him the old heave-ho and married a future university professor. Good call.

One might argue that my mother was in her early twenties, so she was worth a heck of a lot more on the marriage market than thirty-something, divorced me. However, I stuck to my guns. If I married a man, I would want him to have a job he enjoyed and that paid him a family wage because I would only ever marry a happy man who respects himself, and where I come from, a poorly paid man, or a man who hates his job, is not happy and does not respect himself.

And lo. Here I sit, in my nightie, the epitome of what some guys really, really hate. My husband is at work, working. I am at home, writing. My husband thinks I'm beautiful, but even my grandmother would only go so far as to say I'm striking, and that was before I gained 20 pounds and turned forty. No doubt there dozens of men out there who, if they dared, would tell my husband he could have done better. There'd be no point in telling them that this staying home writing while my husband supported me gig was his idea.

But they can go soak their heads. My husband is happy. And so am I.

*I didn't see the movie. I have no idea how the movie portrays Gilbert's marriage. Before anyone gets worried, I should say that I do not approve of "lifestyle divorce" if that odd phrase means "get divorced so I can go to Bali and have sex with handsome ex-pats."

Update: Now that I've been clicking around a lot, I see that Eat, Pray, Love was hugely controversial and caused a massive flare-up in the American front of the War Between the Sexes. Thus, I should probably say what I liked and didn't like about it.

First, EG is two years older than I am, and I admired her work ethic and talent. The woman can write. (I have a moral quirk in that I cut men and women who can write a lot of slack. Graham Greene was in some ways a simply awful man and a very bad Catholic. But he could write.)

Second, I know what it is like to cry my heart out on the bathroom floor wondering if I will ever stop crying, and to not know if staying or leaving would be worse.

Third, I very much enjoyed the Roman section because I, too, have an impractical love for the Italian language, only I indulged it when I was a teenager. I enjoyed her descriptions of Italy very much and would love to know where in Naples she got that pizza.

Fourth, I very much enjoyed the Indian section because I, too, have experimented with meditation--Christian meditation. Christianity has an ancient, wonderful, holy contemplative tradition. One of the most wonderful aspects of the Extraordinary Mass are the deep, contemplative silences.

Fifth, I thought her search for God very sincere. The heartfelt cry for help on the bathroom floor was completely believable, and I was astonished when I read how she wrote dialogues with herself (or with God) in a notebook because I have done that, too.

So far so good. But then she went to Bali.

The Bali section is drenched with self-indulgence rather more cloying than that of the Italian section. The Italian section was about enjoying things, God's gifts, like art, language and food. But the Bali section was about enjoying people as things. Suddenly the book seemed a trifle infantile, as if a breathless little girl was adding more and more to her big fantasy.."...and then I made my new bestest friend's, a very poor but beautiful medicine woman's, dream come true...and then I met a handsome prince and we.. and we... and we DID IT...and then... and then...he said we could try to live all over the world!"

A Roman friend claims that the operative word for Rome is "Sex" but as a matter of fact this is more like to be the word that sums up Bali, where EG's Balinese friends obsess on the subject. They encourage her to take a lover, and once she takes up her birthright in the ex-pat community, the reader knows it is only a matter of time. After one false start, and after one heartfelt refusal to have an affair with him, EG succumbs to a 52 year old Brazilian, in true romance novel fashion, i.e. he masterfully tells her to have sex with him, and she does.

Then follows more romance novel type stuff to make the average woman panic about her own sexual present or future: their bodies fit together perfectly ("Don't they always?"), she has four orgasms a day ("Is there something wrong if I don't?"), etc., etc.

Needless to say, I don't recommend Section 3 to my readers.

The story in which she emails all her friends around the world asking for money to buy a house for a Balinese single mother is EGREGIOUSLY Oprah and an artistic error that is only partially redeemed by her devastation when she realizes that her lovely friend has a crooked streak. It all reminds me of Aristotle's dictum that you can be friends only with an equal, and a very successful (if temporarily broke) American woman who thinks that a poor, divorced, Balinese single mother is her equal is fooling herself, but not the Balinese woman.

There is also an obsession with personal appearance in the Bali section, an obsession shared by EG's Balinese friends. Her medicine man pal is credited with making magic paintings that render a client more beautiful. And when I got to that bit of the book, I realized why this book was guaranteed to sell five million copies to women. It has EVERYTHING except a 17th century house outside Edinburgh.

It has endless food, which helps a scrawny EG put on only a healthy amount of weight. It has exotic, attractive, easily made friends of both sexes. It has travel. It has mystic experiences. It has magic. It has a wise medicine man who informs EG that, formerly ugly, she is now pretty. It has incandescent sex. It has philanthropy. It has sweet little girls. It has babies. It has a 50-something silverback male gorilla/Brazilian who worships EG and why not? She's 17 years his junior, and that's usually how 50-something men roll.

In short, it's a beach read that--to my surprise--is now a cultural phenomenon evoking comments of disgust from my Facebook friends.


Shiraz said...

This bit made me laugh: ""Does your mother even know any white women?" I demanded.

He thought about that and chuckled.

"Actually, I don't think she does. But she watches a lot of soap operas.""

When I was about 18, I was at a schoolfriend's aunt's place. Their family is Indian but have lived in Australia for 40 years. I can't remember how it came up, but the aunt asked if I was a virgin. I said yes, she said incredulously "But I thought all white girls were sluts!" I set her straight rather more gently than I would have if she hadn't been a dear friend's relative. ... and I do seem to recall that she watched a lot of American soap operas ;-p

I haven't read "Eat, Pray Love" though.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps feminism has also changed the way men are brought up by their mothers.
Many aren't ever brought up to be the kind of men who would make wonderful husbands and fathers.
Mum does everything for them and it seems that expectations for sons are lower than for daughters.
Mothers seem to want the very best for their daughters (something they never had? Feminism told them they could do better?) but forget about their sons.

Just a thought!


Ginger said...

The reason I never had an interest in reading it was because of the things you mentioned about it having *everything* and it all just works out perfectly like an adult version of a fairytale. Like you said, a little girl adding more and more to a fantasy. As a working class receptionist/ice cream girl who has to work 60 hrs/week to stay afloat, that kind of pulp just makes me roll my eyes. I either want to read Angela's Ashes, or a book where I am expected to have to suspend my disbelief, like Harry Potter. :P

As far as the racism thing goes, I didn't know that kind of thing was so rampant, but I'll take your word for it and refrain from googling. It's too early in the morning here in Midwest America for that kind of frustration.

Seraphic Spouse said...

Well, it's more sexist than racist, although there is most definitely a racist tinge to it.

In the popular imagination of certain angry American men, East Asian women are passive, loyal and grateful for scraps and Western women--especially American women--are ungrateful, money-grubbing wenches. I suggest such men read everything I've ever written on bitterness.

RMVB said...

I liked the book too - and disliked it for the same exact reasons you didn't like it....It's nice to see it spelled out so acurately, now I can just copy/paste whenever I get into a discussion about it. Very convenient.

Chris said...

I thought that Betty Duffy (one of my favourite Catholic bloggers) had a really good (and quite short) explanation of why Eat, Pray, Love is in some ways worse than just silly.

You might find it interesting! The title is a little inflammatory. http://bettyduffy.blogspot.com/2008/08/eat-pray-love-is-very-bad-book.html

joeTHEguy said...


I saw the Hymowitz article when it first came out and I don't think that the objections to the Hymowitz article are without merit, however the men could have been more polite in making their arguments. The fact is, with the introduction of contraception and no-fault divorce, marriage has become a bum-deal for men in the modern age. Obviously many men actually do want to get married, but they don't necessarily want to get married to the woman who wants a solitary novelty child, nor do they want to get married to women who threaten divorce during simple familial arguments...and speaking as someone who saw this first hand(in a Catholic family environment, no less), women do this very often. While I think the women in these situations didn't actually believe in their threats, what they were actually doing is something that I think has existed since time immemorial - which is that women often try and leverage the fact that their husband loves them and uses it against them in arguments(see Kristin Lavransdatter - which you should read if you haven't) in order to get "her will" to be done(as it is put in Kristin Lavransdatter memorably in a reflection of a tweaking of the Lord's prayer). Further, the mere fact that this language is being held over many men's heads is quite shocking for men who are in marriages, the man has no recourse except to hold his ground - and occasionally prides become inflamed and people actually do go through with a divorce.

Julie said...

Hm. What strikes me about Seraphic's response to the book and other responses I've read, is that much of the complaint centers around how EG's path is a bad *model* for the spiritual life, whereas Seraphic focuses on EG's particular circumstances and how she as a secular individual responds to them.

Which makes me further reflect that while the "spiritual not religious" crowd rejects the idea that one religious system could be right/superior for all people, they do tend to assume that the "spiritual not religious" mode of being a "seeker" IS in fact the superior path for everyone who is not some kind of lunkheaded peasant. That is to say, that there is a sense that when people go on Oprah-esque quests of self discovery they *do* hold themselves up as models to be followed despite declarations that such quests are idiosyncratic - or at least religious people perceive it that way. Hm, I am out of my depth.

Seraphic Spouse said...

Off I go at once to read Betty Duffy!

Jen said...

I never read the book. Half a dozen of my girlfriends gave me wide-eyed, breathless commentary on exactly why I *should* read the book, but everytime I picked one up in the bookstore and read through the dust cover blurb, I put it right back down. That sort of book really just isn't my thing, for a multitude of reasons.

I did go to see the movie - I figured that at least the scenery would be worth the $13 ticket. I was not disappointed with the scenery. A few days later, I read Mary Pols' movie in TIME, and thought she summed it up beautifully, when she imagined what the character Andy (husband of Gilbert's best friend) might have said about the journey, and came to the conclusion that "His take on Liz's year abroad as a whole, in fact, might have been that beautiful white people enjoy listening rapturously to moral lectures and fortune-cookie affirmations delivered by the old, the unattractive or the darker-skinned." To that, I would only add 'or the poor'.

N.W. Thomas said...

Just to nitpick, it is the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution that states that all men are endowed with the right to the pursuit of happiness. However, that clause always has irritated me, because "the pursuit of happiness" is so delightfully vague that it can really mean anything you want. See, for instance, the sexual revolution. It is all a pursuit of happiness, therefore it is our right as human beings.....that somehow seems wrong to me.

Seraphic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Seraphic said...

I mean, I stand corrected!

Betty Duffy says some sensible things from a Catholic married lady perspective.

Lena said...

I started reading it, but it didn't hold my interest. Thanks for your book review.

I have cried on the bathroom floor though because I wasn't (still am not) married and my friend just announced her second pregnancy.

Christine said...

Seraphic, I agree with your overall assessment of the book, mostly.

When visiting Naples on my own, (after happening to read EPL months earlier) I remembered the name of the pizzaria: da Michele (Michael's). My Rough Guide tourbook listed the address, and it really was an awesome pie, on par with the other top pizzas I'd tasted in Naples.

dark but fair said...

Wow! Thanks Seraphic for an SWESOME post. Yes, there were things I loved about EG and her "Eat Pray Love" book too, and other things about it that drove me crazy. It is refreshing to see someone who valued it for the same reasons that I did and dissapproved of it for the right reasons too.

The Crescat said...

My first boyfriend was Korean. His mother hated me and called me horrible names. I can still, 15 years later, swear like a sailor in Korean. She also spit at me and made me eat on the steps of their house during a family dinner.

Why? Because I was a white woman.

I have lost 2 boyfriends in the past 3 years to Filipino women. Most of my single Catholic male friends all say that American women make awful wives. To hell with that equality crap. They get Asian women.

I exaggerate not.

Oh... yeah, this post touched a nerve.

Seraphic said...

I'm sorry you bumped into ye olde underreported racism-sexism against white women. That sucks.

It may feel like you lost boyfriends to Filipina girls, but actually, you don't "lose" boyfriends exactly. They (or you) decide that you (or they) are not the One and off they go--with or without a replacement who may or may not be the One.

Other than that you are probably moving in urban Catholic circles,it's probably a coincidence that these girls were Filipina---unless the guys were themselves Filipino. And in that case they were looking for a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad, as the song goes.

I don't know how Asian women feel about some white American men thinking they make better wives; maybe about the same as white women discovering that some men of colour think they make great trophy girlfriends, i.e. not much.

JC said...

"I don't know how Asian women feel about some white American men thinking they make better wives..."

Speaking just for myself, I find it unbelievably creepy and have always made it a policy to avoid touching said men with a ten-foot pole. Brr.

Mass Girl said...

I once saw a woman (probably in her 40s) reading EPL during adoration! I was quite shocked by this lady's choice of reading for time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. It would be one thing if EPL was just a beach read but it seems to have made its way to the level of "spiritual reading" for many, including Catholic women who go to adoration!

Roger Conley said...

It's certainly true that "you won't always like it when you find out what men are thinking," but it's also true that you won't find out what men are thinking by reading those Kay Hymowitz comments. That's a very small, very angry, very verbal intense internet subculture. There are not enough guys like that that they ever could have met each other in the real world. They needed the internet to find each other. They read their blogs, devote a lot of effort to writing comments, and feel sorry for themselves. Whether they do anything else, I don't know. Anyway, that's my only point: there aren't many like them in the real world.

Cordi said...

Mr. Conley, thank you for posting that--it's very reassuring to hear!