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."
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.