Reading the news almost always makes me laugh out loud, but I have to say I've never laughed harder than I did last week after reading Time magazine's cover story, "The Truth About Women's Bodies", by Barbara Ehrenreich. In what is possibly the first major news article to be released this decade which conclusively proves that even Russia is in better mental health than the United States, Ehrenreich spends the early part of her piece breathlessly celebrating "la difference" qui vie between the sexes, asserting that new studies show that women are not, in fact, the weaker sex, and have no reason at all to feel inferior to men. She sums up her new "femaleist" ideology with an oddly macho war cry: "Yes, we are different-wanna make something of it?"
But after all this bluster, she ends her article with a chart of the female body in which one entry, "Risks to the Knee", made me laugh out loud: "As women participate in more and more sports, orthopedists are noticing a difference in the types of injuries women are prone to...Many women basketball players have suffered painful and potentially debilitating tears to the anterior cruciate ligament, which can take months to heal."
Injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament--better known as "the ACL" in sportscaster lingo--have been among the most cherished rites of passage in the modern American male experience. If for centuries aboriginal tribesmen have celebrated a boy's passage into manhood through elaborate public circumcision ceremonies, American men have long marked their passage into middle age by the occasion of their first attempt to pick up a woman at a bar by bragging about an old ACL injury. "I would have played division one ball, but I tore my ACL," the man will usually say. "You know, the same injury Jerry Rice had."
Now even this pathetic yet touching male ritual is no longer safe from the schizophrenic fixations of the modern feminist movement. With her article, Ehrenreich--who incidentally does not cite any statistics showing that women are MORE prone to ACL injury than men, saying only that "many women basketball players" are susceptible to it--has announced that women want in on this whole ACL thing. If she gets what she wants, we will all soon be treated to the amazing spectacle of American women flocking to bars to get beered up and show off their arthroscopic surgery scars--to male patrons who have come to the same bar for the same purpose!
What's next? Will hack female journalists write essays in support of women's right to complain about pattern baldness? Will Universities fund studies to determine whether or not it is possible that women's backs are just as hairy as men's? Will Victoria's Secret release a line of white panties which come already complete with unsightly yellow runoff stains in the front?
Ehrenreich's giant cover feature, centered around the conclusions of three hot-selling new American books which attempt to debunk the "weaker sex" myth, reads like a comprehensive guide to every way in which the more concrete goals of the original women's movement have been corrupted and twisted around to render the new movement ludicrous on its face, almost totally devoid of real meaning, and ultimately humiliating for both sexes. Feminism used to be about things that mattered--attaining equal pay for equal work, breaking down barriers to professional advancement, forcing employers to grant maternity leave, fighting spousal abuse. Even though complete victories have yet to be secured in any of these critical areas, the popular emphasis of the movement in its current form has shifted away from these battles, thanks to people like Ehrenreich. Now, with the largely unsolicited aid of marketing execs at big glossy mags like Time and Newsweek (which also ran a special issue dedicated to women this past week), the feminist movement as presented by the media today is little more than a circulation-enhancing engine endlessly spewing out semantically ridiculous variations of pulpy, self-helpish feature text, ready-made for wrapping around station wagon, tampon and "tush cush" office accessories ads.
Ehrenreich's article, which is absurdly illustrated with grainy black-and white photos of fit-but-sexually-unappealing nude women unsmilingly engaged in puzzling activities like clutching skeletons, carrying spears and ascending (naked, mind you) the inevitable "ladder", just might be the worst of these phony feminist tracts to appear so far. It says nothing about any real political issues, but is chock full of snake-oil rhetorical cures for application to the self-esteem of her female readers. The idea of the piece is to finish reading it, move across the room to sit in front of the mirror, stare in and say, "A simple weightlifting regime will probably allow me to fulfill the minimum fitness requirements of the U.S. Marines, I'm less prone to osteoporosis than my husband, studies show I'm more aggressive, violent and promiscuous than those darned men, and gosh darn it, people like me!"
Ehrenreich makes a mountain of feminine-ego-stroking assertions in her piece, and it is remarkable how many of them made it past Time's army of editors and fact-checkers and into print while being either factually incorrect, asinine to a degree one would normally think impossible for a Ph.D. (which Ehrenreich is) to achieve. For instance: one of Ehrenreich's favorite rhetorical techniques is to take what she believes to be a common misconception about women, toss in a quote supporting her belief to the contrary, and then simply declare herself correct. The most outrageous example of its use is one I feel confident that even a majority of women will find preposterous:
"What's more, the fabled liabilities of the female condition are sometimes revealed as strengths," she writes before asserting that PMS and menstruation are not, as previously believed by just about every woman and every man who has ever lived with one, either unpleasant or the cause of unmanageable mood swings. Actually, according to Ehrenreich, PMS and periods are times of clarity and even-keeled happiness. "Researchers have found," she writes, "that PMS--which has become a handy three-letter slur directed at the aggressive, or merely irritated woman--is experienced by women as a state of 'heightened activity, intellectual clarity, feelings of well-being...'" She cites author Natalie Angier, who wrote: "One of my most beautiful memories of college...is of a first day of a period. I was sitting in my living room, studying, and felt an unaccountable surge of joy. I looked up from my book and was dazzled by the air."
Ehrenreich/Angier's epiphany will certainly come as a relief to those few women out there who have been laboring under the delusion that menstruation is painful and gross and leaves you feeling bitchy and temporarily friendless. Hopefully the article will reach all of these deluded women ASAP and wipe out the problem as quickly as possible. But I have a feeling the concept of PMS as a good thing is not exactly an idea women want too many men exposed to, because it might be that the first woman who bursts out crying and throwing silverware and demanding ice cream in front of an Ehrenreich-educated man will quickly find herself tossed ass-first out onto the street with the instruction to go be "dazzled by the air."
Ehrenreich gets into even more trouble when she takes on the myth, as she calls it, that "Men fall for pretty faces, women fall for healthy portfolios." This section of her article is worth quoting at length, since such labyrinthine rhetorical gymnastics are seldom encountered in the mainstream press (usually for good reason) and make for amazing entertainment:
"Here's another object lesson sometimes drawn from the evolutionary allegory of Monica and Bill: men go for ample breasts and buttocks accessorized with thong underwear, while women are attracted to power and money, even when it comes in a chubby, gray-haired middle-aged package. True, there are more cases like ex-Playmate Anna Nicole Smith and her late, wheelchair-bound millionaire husband than there are like teacher Mary Letourneau and her 13 year-old boyfriend. But since men tend to accrue wealth and power as they age, it's a bit odd...that baldness doesn't necessarily activate the female swoon response..."
Put into syllogistic form, it reads a little like the old Woody Allen joke: All men are mortal, Socrates was a man, therefore all men are Socrates... Ehrenreich's works like this: Socrates was rich and powerful and also bald, women are attracted to Socrates because he was rich and powerful, therefore all bald men are Socrates... Ehrenreich's point is ridiculous: the only reason anyone can even assert at all that women are attracted to men with money and power is because the rich and powerful men in question are often otherwise physically unattractive. As in, women won't go for a bald guy without money, but she'll go for him if he hits the lottery. The former observation is a crucial part of the latter assertion. If baldness, or old age, or liver spots, or incontinence, or any of the other physical attributes frequently afflicting rich and powerful men DID activate the female swoon response, it would be almost impossible to even guess that women are attracted to men for their money. But as any low-earning, prematurely bald man knows only too well, these things do not activate the "female swoon response", and this is how we men have come to guess over the ages the reason why breasty babes like Anna Nicole Smith go for wheelchair-bound millionaires. Ehrenreich thinks she has the right to make such claims because she has a Ph.D. in biology, a field where such claims might make sense, i.e. dominant gorillas frequently have silver hair on their backs, therefore female gorillas are attracted to silverbacks. But people are not guided only by simple biological triggers, but by the often cruel and cynical conclusions of a cognitive intellect. Nothing is more utterly and contemptibly human than being disposed to love a rich bald man with money while being ready to despise the same man if he happens to be poor. For Ehrenreich to ignore that just proves the flippant nature of her whole exercise, proof confirmed a sentence later when she attempts to debunk the "women fall for money and power" myth by noting in absolute seriousness that Kate Winslet preferred Leo De Caprio in the loathsome hit movie Titanic.
Ehrenreich continues on in that vein for a while, but, as one might expect, she conveniently forgets to address the assertion that "Men fall for pretty faces", which she nonetheless calls "dated and lame". Here it is instructive to take a glance at the photographs of contributing writers which Time was generous enough to post after the table of contents. As expected, Ehrenreich in her mercifully small photo is revealed to be a woman of advanced years in a sexless bowl haircut, her tightly-pursed and virtually invisible lips fixed in an unnatural, slightly upwardly-bent shape; the considerable muscular energy she is expending to achieve this "smile" has caused the rest of her face to sag noticeably from the effort, leaving her eyes little more than dark unhappy holes surrounded by a tight nest of deep wrinkles. This, folks, is the tortured face behind the slick literary voice confidently urging women to "celebrate their female selves"; who applauds women for pretending to be monogamous (in order to fool a man into taking care of the kids) while actually being promiscuous ("so that you're sure you'll get pregnant"); who proudly announces that women's "unique ecstasy organ--the clitoris--is the sexual powerhouse of the species" (the penis "has to double as a urine-and-semen delivery tube and contains only half as many nerve fibers as the more refined and specialized clitoris"); and who says that the famed "hot flashes" of menopausal women are actually "power surges", and that menopause, rather than the hugely depressing and physically catastrophic biological event that most sane people agree it is, is actually becoming "a celebration-worthy rite of passage". I mean, really--celebrate menopause?
There are dozens of other shocking moments in Ehrenreich's article, but in he interests of space I'm limited to pointing out one just one more. It is the most subtle, but I think perhaps the most revealing part of the entire story. One of the other graphics in the piece is a timeline called "The Body Politic: A History" which highlights what appear to be thematically unconnected moments in the history of women. The entry for 1984--a year in which anti-ERA President Ronald Reagan was re-elected in a landslide--is the following factoid: "The U.S. Women's Basketball team wins its first gold medal." Now, it should be obvious to any reader that the U.S. women's basketball team wasn't competing against men that year, but, as in all Olympic years, against other teams of women. Women had been winning Olympic gold medals in basketball ever since the sport became an Olympic event. So why bring it up? Because, of course, it was the first victory by American women, by women capable of being receptive to the idea of celebrating menopause and remembering their periods fondly...Because up until 1984, the winners in that event had been from the Soviet bloc. And those, of course, were not WOMYN. This is an interesting distinction, given the way Ehrenreich closes her piece:
"Call them 'estro-nauts', these new bio-positive women, for their ability to feel the delicious tug of the hormonal tides as well as the gleaming challenge of the mountain peaks. Or--what does it matter--just call them human."
Estro-nauts. Yeah. That would make any menopausal women with an ACL feel proud.