Esquire’s annual “Women We Love” feature gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Hidden behind the premise of honoring them, the article puts women firmly in their place by using the traditional patriarchal tool of male approval—rewarding certain traits in the female while disparaging others.
This year’s model is a morass of contradictory feelings about feminism and femininity; the essayists recognize sexism in one sentence and perpetrate it in the next. They, however, don’t seem to recognize the irony.
…And because the pickle makes me think of my dick.
“A smart, funny Jewish girl who is also a babe,” raves Roy Blount Jr. about Fran Drescher (August 1995, p. 50). “In real life, not so uncommon. But on camera, I don’t remember seeing anybody looking this good eating a pickle,” he continues, recognizing the fact that real women are all but invisible in mainstream media. But watch out; although he wants to see real women on tv, he doesn’t want to hear them. Strong opinions are still off-limits. What does Blount like best about Fran Drescher (or his own little fantasy of her, anyway)? “She’ll tell you what she thinks, all right. She says what she means, and she means what she says. But she is not heavy about it.” Ok, so opinions are good, but only if they don’t have to be taken seriously.
An updated Angel in the House
Mark Leyner rhapsodizes about a vision of Martha Stewart who appeared out of nowhere and pulled jalapeño margaritas out of her purse to succor his hangover. “I’ll never know if that really was Martha Stewart. The incident has the fraudulent quality of a recovered memory,” he admits (p. 52). He goes on to describe the ultimate male fantasy: a woman who cooks, cleans, builds a lovely nest for her guy; and furthermore, she fucks. “But I do know for sure that I fell in love with a woman who appeared to be a hybrid of Mary Poppins and Psyche, a paragon of domestic sorcery and empyreal eroticism—I fell in love with the possibility of Martha Stewart.” Forget Women We Love; try Women We Wish Existed Because They’d Do Everything For Us.
Joseph Wambaugh swallows his stereotypes whole while talking about female cops, fictional and otherwise. He manages to insult both quite tidily trying to praise. About “our fictional lady blues—medium-boiled DAs and FBI agents” (should we be grateful that he didn’t say soft-boiled?), he says, “The impressive lineup you see before you would [a photo of scantily-clad tv women] definitely have a leg up on some of the female cops I’ve known over the years,” (p. 55). And if this isn’t insulting enough to those real-life women, he adds, “Women are often more verbal and better able to express feelings, and therefore they’re better able to defuse and detect.” So it’s women’s intuition, not skill, that gets their jobs done? Although he admits that women cops have a tough time of it because they “daily have to prove that they are as good as men by doing better than men, without bruising our tender male egos,” never does he suggest that perhaps men need to take responsibility for their own egos rather than leaving it up to women to keep them soothed. So what’s the bottom line? He loves those tv women because they’re sexy and those real ones because they’re so nurturing and, well, womanly. Uh-huh. That’s news.
If you can’t say something nice…
Joe Queenan pays homage to Faye Dunaway by insulting her and her peers (p. 56). His essay both perpetuates and exemplifies the mistaken, misogynist notion that there is a small and finite place for successful women in this world. He loves her not because she’s talented (he gives her a B+ for “overall acting talents”), but because “she lasted longer [than other actresses of her age group]… Others of whom much was expected fell by the wayside.” He loves her because “she has demonstrated an uncanny ability through the years to turn up in movies that have become part of Hollywood’s institutional memory.” He won’t call this “uncanny ability” talent, though. No way. “Of her craft, let’s leave it at this,” he suggests as if he’s being kind. “She looks right for the part, and she gets the job done.” I wonder what Queenan would say if I suggested that the fact that he gets published in so many major magazines is a sign of some uncanny ability other than writing skill?
Oh, but she’s a good witch.
Ron Rosenbaum has a crush on Elizabeth Hurley. “It is not a matter of beauty, professional or otherwise, but of charisma, of mesmerism, the power to cloud men’s minds while demonstrating the superior wit of her own,” (p. 57). Ah, if only the focus were truly on her own wit. Instead, it’s on her effect on the man in her life. He thinks Hugh Grant is a loser (jealous much?), “But once in the Hurley orbit, seen through the lens of the Hurley charisma, Hugh Grant metamorphosed into Cary Grant. She is the witchy obverse of Circe, who could turn men into pigs.” With this, it becomes clear: Rosenbaum doesn’t really admire her—he simply lusts for the magic glow she could confer on him. Well, if Liz Hurley can turn pigs into men, then why does Ron Rosenabum act like one and not the other?
Speak softly and carry your big tits…
Bill Zehme honors Cindy Crawford for being so damn beautiful and not making it painful for him—oh, and because he got to watch her pose topless. But it’s what he admires about her speech that is most telling: “Her voice…is small. It is a voice that does not declare its presence so much as apologize for the splendor of the vessel,” (p. 60). If her voice were loud and forceful, he wouldn’t love her. Because if her voice were loud and forceful, he would have to recognize that she is actually her own person, not simply “the Thing.” And as he walks with her in a mall, he can fancy himself owner of the Thing. “One sweet fat guy strode up behind me and spluttered, ‘You’ve got a nice lady there,’ ” he writes proudly. The point is not anything that she is, but rather what men can have in her. As long as she stays quiet and gorgeous, he will love her.
…or just speak with a sexy voice.
According to Andrew Sullivan, Elizabeth McCaughey is very sexy. (Funny, because Sullivan is gay and fully out. Well, I guess he’s just taking on a hetero persona so he can more fully assert his male privilege for the purposes of this essay.) The good news is that she’s sexy because she’s intelligent. The bad news is that her smarts define and thus restrict the way in which she can be sexy: “McCaughey’s voice has the decibel level of Camille Paglia’s and the intellectual suppleness of Margaret Thatcher’s. Well, she did attend Vassar and then Columbia, where she earned a Ph.D. in constitutional history. Sexy, then, in the way that Arianna Huffington is sexy,” (p. 66). Ok, some of us don’t think that Arianna Huffington is sexy at all. But that’s not really the point—I mean, can’t a woman with an advanced degree be sexy like Drew Barrymore or Angela Basset? (Not in the pages of a men’s mag, I guess.) Furthermore, McCaughey’s intellect is reduced to sex, rendering it meaningless: “I began to warm to her rigid, ideological embrace…to buckle cooingly under the maternal firmness at the other end of the phone… And that voice. Very sexy.” I’m all for the blending of sex appeal with intelligence. But Sullivan collapses the two, letting one define the other and letting the other blend into the first, so that we’re left with only sex, or rather, a phone-sex phantom.
She’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way.
Pocahontas—the Disney version, of course—earns her place in the article because she is such a perfect little male fantasy. Paul Rudnick comments on this as if it were a true achievement. She is “a Rodeo Drive stunner in a fringed one-shoulder minidress, with a microwaist and an infomercial-ready mane. Despite the studio’s claims to tribal authenticity, our heroine most rightly belongs to the Varga clan; she lacks body hair and defined toenails or fingernails, and at times her nose seems to vanish entirely, save for two delicately commalike nostrils,” (p. 67). To me, this is a list of what’s wrong with the whole concept of a Disney heroine. But, even though Rudnick asks, “Will there ever be a mermaid with a weight problem or a Belle with bad teeth?” he begs the question by worshipping Pocahontas for her very plastic unreality. And we’d all better watch what we wear when making political statements: “Pocahontas is an adventuress, a Bond girl, a forthright little greenpiece seeking racial justice… Never before have strip-mining and prejudice been condemned by someone in such a fetching outfit.” She’s an environmentally sound piece of ass, as if the Bond girl reference wasn’t enough to make us gag. So seeking racial justice is a joke? Unfortunately, it becomes one when women (even animated ones) are mocked for their speech and honored solely for their lovely hair and clothes.
Kiss this, buddy.
Terry McMillan is the only non-white woman honored in all 21 pages (I’m sorry, but fictional characters don’t count). Not surprising for such a relentlessly white publication, but still infuriating. John Singleton declares, “Every time I see Terry McMillan…being the man that I am, and since she is a lovely sista, I feel compelled to give her a big kiss on the lips,” (p. 59). What a surprise. In all fairness, he writes a piece that shows that he truly respects her work. But what’s one of the things he likes best? That she doesn’t insult him. She creates meaningful characters “without falling into the easy trap of bashing the black man to tell the black woman’s story.” But the most frustrating thing about this essay is how close it comes to being a genuine tribute. “I love and respect her as a storyteller, as a chronicler of contemporary black life, and as a woman.” It’s the next and final line that gets me: “I can’t wait for our next kiss.” Beginning and ending on that note puts the focus squarely on the kiss—and devalues the praise that comes between.
Oh, the pain, the frustration. One by one, these essay-lets really don’t seem so bad. It’s the cumulative effect, the piling of nasty remarks upon insults upon injuries. And that’s just the words. The pictures make it graphically clear what the feature’s really about—arranging women for men’s pleasure and benefit, again—several naked Cindy Crawfords; Ellen Barkin in prostitute makeup and a fuck-me look; the female stars of New York Undercover, Homicide, NYPD Blue, The X-Files and Law and Order wearing halter tops and clingy dresses with their spike heels and guns. These “Women We Love” are little more than blank white (yes, white) screens onto which the writers project their ideas and desires. That it’s all in the name of love only makes it worse.
Jimmy Breslin, writing on Marcia Clark (p. 48-50), is the only one who tries to buck the trend. He truly respects his subject; his reasons for choosing her are rooted in achievements and beliefs: “I don’t think Marcia Clark will quit her job to defend the next O.J. Simpson.” Furthermore, he defends her against the sexist criticism she has weathered—and he doesn’t become complicit. Instead, he quietly calls attention to the iniquity of gendered double standards. “Early in the trial, she showed up in a very short skirt and curly hair. The whole place said that proved she was just another frivolous woman. Across from her sat O.J. Simpson, who was charged with almost cutting off his ex-wife’s head and slashing a young guy to bits. Everyone said he dressed nice… She was white-hot and shrill, that being the word everybody uses when any woman argues above a whisper.” He takes on perception and misperception, asking readers and viewers to examine their own assumptions. “When I first saw her walk into the courtroom in Los Angeles, her skirt was so short that I wondered myself, for an amateurish moment, what this was about. Never mind, I told myself. Stop holding her to a higher standard.” He does stop. And he does more than that. He asks, “Every day, when O.J. Simpson sees her, what do you think he sees?” If only Esquire’s editors and writers would turn this question on themselves and ask: when we look at these women that we “love,” what is it that we’re really seeing? —lj.