The Feminist Mistake?

Killer Woman Blues: Why Americans Can't Think Straight about Gender and Power, Benjamin DeMott. Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $26.00.

What do we talk about when we talk about feminism? That depends on what we think about women in general and contemporary culture in particular. Are we talking about makeup-free women with long, gray braids who, back in the hippie days, saved other women's lives by winning Roe v. Wade and haven't noticed that things have changed since? Are we talking about "zine" and Webcam culture, and activists organizing against sweatshops, and rocker grrrls and hip-hop queens with tribal tattoos and platinum or African-beaded hair?

Are we talking about whiny, privileged white women who cry discrimination when they aren't named CEO or who pout when their nannies won't stay past 6:00 p.m., or young, victimologized college women who yell rape the way others hiccup? Was feminism a success that gave young women options ranging from soccer to Senate seats--or an emasculating disaster that ruined the American family and civil society? Or is feminism a complicated work in progress, full of unfinished business, which must now be pluralized and called "feminisms"?

Benjamin DeMott steps into this philosophical free-for-all with the third book in his Why Americans Can't Think Straight series. His previous two books incisively used cultural images to expose serious popular misunderstandings, first about race and then about class. In Killer Woman Blues, DeMott's primary concern is to warn us of the danger of what he confusingly calls "women-becoming-men" or "gender shift." Although those terms might well evoke the transgender movement (with its call to stop thinking of gender as a binary choice and to notice the many possible shades between masculine and feminine), DeMott means something quite different. He's talking about the image of the ruthless bitch, the kick-ass climber, the killer in heels--an image that has had an astonishing cultural rise. "Everywhere in the culture," he writes, "smart, career-minded, theoretically liberated women are depicted as driven by rage to scorn and humiliate men." He's annoyed that the "killer woman" take on feminism "hints that release from fixed gender roles is good because it enables women to develop 'masculine' tastes for coarseness, coercion, and violence." From the reverse-sexual-harassment movie Disclosure to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, from the female-stalker movie Fatal Attraction to O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, DeMott's close readings of screenplays, columns, and interviews lead him to conclude "that feminism is reduced simply to a force generating hard women--creatures increasingly powerful, increasingly villainous." This culturally distorted vision of feminism has disturbed many of us; DeMott delivers hundreds of examples of its nasty pervasiveness.

DeMott doesn't, however, fulfill his subtitle by exploring why that image has taken over; he simply piles up examples (many of which others might interpret as having different meanings than those he suggests). How is his killer woman related to the dangerous woman of the 1930s and 1940s--Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Scarlett O'Hara or her older predecessors, Lady Macbeth, Madame Defarge, scheming female aristocrats, the ambitious and promiscuous Margaret Sanger? DeMott casually acknowledges such forerunners but writes that "yesteryear's bitchery lacked standing as an ideal" a ludicrous comment, considering their box-office or palace power. DeMott believes that the killer-woman image is often used to stand in for corporate America for instance, as with the (female) managing editor in the movie The Paper who concentrates on profits to the exclusion of human feeling and that, as a result, women become scapegoats for corporate misdeeds, thereby "channel[ing] antipathy to ruthlessness away from the profit-mad" and onto feminism instead. That's not a bad thesis, but it's hardly a thorough look at our culture's complicated responses to the idea of women's equality. One might also speculate that the corporate killer bitch is a peculiarly male fear: a fear that if women aren't always kindly listening mommies, then men will be utterly destroyed; a male fear of competition, failure, and humiliation projected onto women in the workplace.

Nor does DeMott distinguish between the attitudes of real women and of characters invented by men. He doesn't explain how Maureen Dowd, say, differs in any way from the traditional catty gossip columnist (sometimes a male), or why Marcia Clark had any more responsibility than a male prosecutor does to be warm, sensitive, muted in her ambition. Every cool or ambitious woman (real or fictional) gets swept into DeMott's diatribe against this particular vision of success, which has--he is correct in noting--been disturbingly marketed as the natural result of feminism's promise.

Having established the cultural ubiquity of his killer woman (if not the reasons behind her), DeMott moves on to extol what he says is the real vision of feminism: "gender flexibility." He does so by explicating his favorite feminists: Catharine MacKinnon, Carol Gilligan, Joan Cocks, and Robert Bly, thinkers whose reasoning and conclusions have been widely and heatedly debated. But what DeMott extracts from their work is not necessarily what you or I might. "The basic feminist point," he writes, is that "the creation of richer, more complex models of womanhood requires acceptance of gender flexibility as a value--recognition, that is, that sealing off masculine and feminine 'natures' in ways that render mutual teaching and reciprocal influence impossible impedes human progress toward wholeness." What does that mean? DeMott explains by praising "engagement," or "responsiveness to male and female examples of richness of being--models of humanity unfettered by stereotypes." My responsibility as a reviewer is to tell you what DeMott is getting at in such emphatically repeated phrases, but I admit defeat: I found his feminism indecipherably vague.

If indeed it is feminism at all. DeMott's book doesn't mention child care, work/family stress, disproportionate female poverty, sex-based earning disparities, same-sex marriage and lesbian rights, the demise of contraceptive research, the disappearing abortion clinic, the lingering and frustrating lack of career opportunities, eating disorders, the "mommy track," the failure of both "sameness" and "specialness" language in judicial treatment of women, or any of the other practical issues facing American women today. Of course, no book is responsible for covering all of feminism's vast territory. But in discussing how Cruella DeVille and her sisters have become recent media villains of choice, DeMott doesn't even get close. In the last third of the book, in which he announces that he'll reveal the consequences of the killer woman's rise, his examples include New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's budget cuts for social services; chic, young, urban women who discover that casual sex isn't rewarding; female novelists writing in fashionably "transgressive" mode, with Joyce Carol Oates's Zombie or A.M. Homes'sEnd of Alice just as numb and disturbing as fiction by such writers as Will Self or Dennis Cooper. I confess to being annoyed by all these trends, but each seems to call for a separate theory: the post-Reagan rightward swing of the country; consumer capitalism's incessant selling of sex and desire; the fad of drugged nihilism and cheap sensation in art to compete with unrelenting media blare. How is any of this related to feminism?

What DeMott is really writing about at last came clear to me in the concluding image of the book. As the perfect embodiment of feminism, DeMott points to writer Jonathan Kozol insisting that urban children should have beautiful, well-run schools not because it would be good for global competition but "because they're babies and deserve to have some fun before they die." Finally I understood: Killer Woman Blues is decrying the triumph of the corporate sensibility over 1960s idealism, of ruthless achievement over human caring. DeMott misinterprets feminism to mean bringing kindness into the marketplace, infusing our polity with more female caring--the perfect antidote to the corporate putsch in our national economy and sensibility. This is slightly offensive. Why should DeMott's undigested mishmash of 1960s ideas be pinned particularly on feminism? Why confuse anticorporatism with the goodness of women, as if all women were naturally nurturers, artists, utopians, and socialist idealists?

That unsavory whiff of essentialism pervades the book. Admittedly, it's impossible to talk about "men" and "women" without generalizing in a way that sounds essentialist. It's hard to balance between, on the one hand, articulating more-or-less accurate sex-based generalizations (women want to talk about feelings, men want to fix the plumbing) and, on the other, making the offensive assumption that any individual man or woman should embody those generalizations. If women are naturally intuitive and caring, how do you explain Maggie Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Imelda Marcos, Sharon Stone, Madonna, and so forth? DeMott doesn't even try to find a balance. He suggests that a history of "oppression" may have contributed to female kindness, but he never acknowledges the corollary possibilities: If on one hand young women are becoming more callous (and he introduces no sociological evidence that this is so, just a sampling of pop-culture articles), if some female prosecutors are bulldogs, mightn't our era have had flinty influences on all our personalities? On the other hand, if personality is biologically based, mightn't the rise of corporate culture have opened up a new opportunity for women to express their nastier impulses--those cool ambitions and vile status games and cutting assessments of one another's sweaters and mascara that all girls remember from school, that (to use a fictional example) led to Lily Bart's death?

DeMott may well have answers that he didn't state clearly. Unfortunately, the book reads like a collection of very short book reports, one after another. There's not much unifying narrative between the explications of this movie, that sitcom episode, or another Camille Paglia column. It's all jammed together in a brambly thicket of language, difficult to push through. Sentence fragments abound; and DeMott backs into many sentences in odd passive voice, so that it's hard to find the controlling noun. It's as if he didn't have time to cook his ideas into a single-themed narrative but kept jotting down thoughts until he got tired, slammed the cover, and called it a book. Perhaps DeMott's concern with corporate capitalism overtook his concern with gender. The result is bad news for his fans, who have been invigorated by his earlier distinguished work. One can only hope that DeMott's version of feminism, which strains the word almost beyond recognition, doesn't enter into the already confusing fray. ยค