Reviewed By Lynn Wenzel
WOMEN STILL STRUGGLE WITH BEAUTY and its power to shape our lives. In spite of some fine feminist writing on the subject over the past 20 years, women continue to pinch, cut, dye, run, starve, pluck, and reshape our bodies and faces to fit the prevailing standard. Beauty remains a subject in need of much intelligent thought, especially in this culture that projects as an ideal for all women sexless, skeletal, preadolescent models such as Kate Moss and Trish Goff. So it was with high hopes that I picked up Nancy Friday’s The Power of Beauty, only to find it to be one of the most virulent attacks on feminism, women, and mothers I have yet to read.
Friday, the author of My Secret Garden, Forbidden Flowers, and Women on Top, has seen herself as a missionary of pop sex to the uninitiated. Her light, unacademic style was just fine for cheerleading women’s fantasies a la That Cosmo Girl. But in her new book Friday takes on sex, history, sex roles, rape, and violence as both personal memoir and academic tome, and she fails at both.
Years ago, Ms. reviewed Friday’s My Secret Garden less than favorably. She’s never gotten over it. In fact she claims here that the purpose of the review was to humiliate her. Friday has chewed on her bitterness all these years, spitting it out now in these words: “It taught me a lesson about The Sisterhood that I have never forgotten: You play by their rules or not at all.” Friday angrily concluded that, because her book was reviewed unfavorably, feminists hated sex.
Friday’s skewed vision of romance and her need to please men has created a dangerous blind spot vis-a-vis rape and sexual violence.
After 552 pages of turgid, confusing prose, sentimental musings, and la-di-da fashion reports, I finally figured out Friday’s premise. Feminists are anti-sex because their mothers taught them to hate their bodies. Feminists are anti-competition and anti-dissent because they were afraid to defy their mothers. Says Friday: “Our modern feminism, in its refusal to encourage and praise healthy competition, acts precisely like the Bad Mother.” Feminists are anti-men because “if they were free to genuinely love men, their total allegiance to Women’s World would be lost.” Feminists have dumped the blame for all society’s injustices on men and have turned on women who have the kind of beauty that advertises a sexual interest in men. “In the eyes of certain feminists,” writes Friday, “you cannot have your primary union with men and be a feminist too.” Women are so muddled about sexuality they give men mixed messages, confusing them about whether or not we wish to make love (read “be raped”) or be admired (read “harassed”). And influential Matriarchal Feminists have eliminated the love of men, sex with men, and healthy competition, idealizing the mother/daughter relationship.
“Today,” writes Friday, “no one keeps us from fulfilling what we started twenty years ago more doggedly than other women; the loudest and most influential are those who control Matriarchal Feminism, which is anti-men and anti-sex…old line feminists maintain their control over women’s world by making men the enemy and keeping women under the censorious control of other women.”
Whew! Is she pissed off about that review! I was tempted to throw the book out and forget the whole thing, so blatantly vituperative was it. But people of good will may actually read this spleen venting. They should know what they’re in for.
Friday does write some good and true things in this book: that fathers should take as much a role in the caretaking of their children as mothers; that girls need to learn about their worth from fathers as well as from mothers; that we, as a society, have “addicted our adolescents to the power of The Image”; that we need a true revolution in women’s self-esteem; that economic independence is important for healthy self-image; that if women could only take into adulthood the preadolescent girl they were, they would seize the opportunities inherent in the road not taken. She suggests “knowing” our genitals, loving our bodies, and passing that down to our daughters. This, then, is Friday’s “new” paradigm. But where did she hear this first? Why, from feminism of course. About bringing men into children’s lives, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Nancy Chodorow, and Madonna Kolbenschlag, among others, said it first and better. About how girls spiral downward in self-esteem and learning, Lenore Weitzman, Myra and David Sadker, and Mary Pipher said it first and better. About beauty, Sara Halprin and many, many others have written lyrically on the subject. In fact most, if not all, of what Friday presents as fresh ideas is old hat in the women’s movement. Where has Friday been?
In the loveliest chapter in the book, “The Years of Invention,” Friday lyrically evokes her (and our) memories of the “exhilarating years bookended between mother’s all-seeing eyes and the strobe lights of adolescence.” Excepting the emphasis on mother, her observations are true and her lament over the loss of girlhood self-confidence and autonomy is a universal female one. But again, where have we heard this before? And why does Friday then go on to refute the very studies on adolescence that first brought the sudden loss of self-esteem in girls to light? She writes, “These are the same feminists who urge you to…take resources from the educational system at the expense of young boys on the bogus accusation that gender bias in the schools has created a debilitating loss of self esteem in America’s schoolgirls.” There have been hundreds of studies supporting the fact of inequality of opportunity in the educational training of boys and girls. Friday’s insistence that loss of self esteem in girls comes only from bad parenting by mothers strikes me as the worst kind of self-delusion and renders the only lovely writing in her book moot.
ABOVE ALL, FRIDAY NEEDS MEN. SHE states that friends have told her she changes when a man walks in the room. “I have sought out men’s eyes, required their gazes as far back as I can remember,” she writes, and proudly calls herself an exhibitionist. “Being in a car, alone with a man whose hands were on the steering wheel, whose arms and legs and feet were controlling my ride to a sexual rendezvous, this was what I was raised for, a Prince of Masculine Parts,” writes Friday. And, “we walk near naked on the street, stand in windows and undress, or we fantasize about the thrill of masturbating in the sight of the man next door.”
Friday never knew her father, has mourned his absence her entire life, and resented that her mother seemed to prefer her sister and seemingly never noticed Friday. But her grandfather! His gorgeous clothes, his superb dancing, his business acumen and power! She writes of how they dined on oysters, lobster, and champagne. She was his sweetheart; he was her idol, even though he “held me too close and put his hand on my leg under the table.” That brought her to tears, she says, not for herself but because he “was celebrating the end of his life.” He adored young and beautiful Nancy, she needed to be the center of someone’s attention, and for that privilege she was willing to endure sexual abuse. That’s scary stuff. But does she see it that way? No. He is her mentor. She sees her power in her gift to men – of opening them to their own vanity, applauding their narcissism, and making them dependent on her vision of them. Friday wants feminism to embrace exhibitionism for men’s eyes as a healthy part of sexuality. This is how women were forced to acquire power in the bad old days – by manipulation and false praise. Feminists do not wish to play this game anymore.
Friday’s skewed vision of romance and her need to please men has created a dangerous blind spot vis-a-vis rape and sexual violence. It isn’t surprising, she claims, that with so much woman power making male adolescents feel small, their music lyrics put women down. And, says Friday, “it is she who teaches him that no doesn’t always mean no. When she murmurs, ‘Oh, no, don’t do that!’ even as her body curves into him, it is the signal for the Brute Boy in him to press on.” “Feminism,” writes Friday, “declines even to consider that women, consciously or not, may be involved in their own harassment.” “Rape is a crime,” she says (thanks, Nancy), “but the fuzziness of ‘date rape’ at a time when women pay for themselves, pay for the man, hold down responsible jobs, and wear near-naked clothes puts into question what the roles of economics and beauty are.” Women are so desperate for mother’s “gaze,” says Friday, that they provoke it from men, then, hating men for loving imperfect them, turn on them with fury. When a man is put in his place, says Friday, and made to feel like an animal, well, he responds like one. Matriarchal Feminists are berating men constantly, says Friday, continuing the cruel power begun by “The Giantess” (mom) in the nursery. Back to the bad old days. If we say no, we’re bitches and deserve what we get. Or, we learn to love sex so much that we never feel like saying no – ever – and if we do, we hide it. Just like the Nice Girls we used to be.
Friday might have accomplished much had she included historical, political, and social context, already conceptualized by feminists, in her book. But she couldn’t because she’s too mad at women. So, she purloins feminism’s messages and then tries to kill the messenger.
Friday sees herself at the center of a white, rich world of Halston suede pants, martini lunches, Pucci dresses, yacht club regattas, assignations in Palermo. How can there be an intelligent discussion of power, beauty, and women without the mitigating circumstances of racism and classism? It is as if Friday lives in a bubble where truth exists only as a childish projection of unfulfilled wishes and media-created fantasies. Beauty was not jettisoned within the women’s movement as she claims – only beauty as a prize, as barter, as white-centered, bejeweled, homogenized, inauthentic.
Lest I be angrily labeled an obsolete, anti-sex Matriarchal Feminist (what is that anyway, and do I care?), let me remind Friday of her own words: “What we need is more dialogue, the freedom to disagree, open healthy competition between as many of us as choose to enter the fray.” Yes, and we still need more thoughtful, keenly perceptive, insightful writing on the subject of beauty and power in women’s lives. As long as women have ribs removed, thighs suctioned, or breasts siliconed, there is a problem too deep to name lightly, a problem Nancy Friday hasn’t even begun to address. She should have heeded her own words: “Maybe what is wanted is giving up the boo-hooing that Mommy didn’t love me and made me wear my sister’s old evening dress to the Yacht Club dance where no one saw me.” Maybe indeed.
LYNN WENZEL is coauthor of Hear America Singing (Random House). Her syndicated column, Handed Down, appears in antique journals across the country.