Oh, god. Another one of these articles, written by a woman, warning other women not to get too caught up in career ambitions, lest we are hoisted by our own petards and end up lonely, barren spinsters who realize too late that we’ve denied our true instincts as women and will pay forevermore. I’m not the first to dissect this steaming pile for the poisonous seeds within, but it deserves to be mocked, loudly and repeatedly.
The author, playwright Zoe Lewis (I don’t know her work) has decided to school us all in her Times of London article Madonna Syndrome: I should have ditched feminism for love, children and baking. Yes, that really is the title. Please excuse me while I heave the brownies I made last night.
While there is a teensy sliver of my cold, harpy heart that feels for Lewis–wanting a family is perfectly legitimate and completely understandable–most of me wants to tell her to STFU, because there’s so much wrong with her published, widely disseminated essay (which was regurgitated by the Daily Mail, after its initial run in the Times) that I weep for the future of feminism and the British stage.
This article, although written in 2009, is participating in the exact same kind of anti-feminist bullshittery demonstrated in the craptacular 1982 single “I’ve Never Been To Me.” In it, one-hit-wonder Charlene proceeds to detail her years of wild, high-rollin’ sexcapades to a wife and mother who is “discontented,” only to conclude by saying, basically: “but you’ve got it right, lady… all that fun and money and sex and stuff I had? That was garbage, and without a man and some kiddos, I am but an empty shell. It’s too late for me, but not for you. Go home and be happy with your lot.” (Notably, the song was written by a man, and originally was positioned from a man’s perspective. I am shocked, I tell you. Shocked.)
It was bullshit in 1982, and it’s bullshit now. I’m sure you all can smell it, but lemme just make a few points about what’s wrong Zoe Lewis’s “arguments.”
1. Both Lewis and Charlene rely on a false dilemma, the all-or-nothing idea that you can be an island-hopping courtesan (roughly how Charlene describes herself), which means “sad,” or a wife and mother, which means “happy!” Lewis updates this slightly: You can be a successful careerist (sad, so sad), or a wife and mother (happy!). She pretty much explicitly declares “If I hadn’t gone in for feminism, I would be married/childed/totally happy.” Never mind that anyone who is married and/or childed will probably tell you than she is not, in fact, totally happy. Where there are any all-or-nothing scenarios in women’s lives, you can bet that feminists are among the first of those fighting against that kind of binary thinking.
2. Charlene is actually less offensive than Lewis, because at least Charlene doesn’t take the opportunity to bash other women. We can argue about whether Madonna is a feminist at another point, but really, Lewis? Madonna is to blame? Other (single/bitter/feminist) women who judge motherhood (as it currently practiced) as wanting are to blame? Mmmmkay. But of course, Lewis also notes that mothers are terrible judges of the unmarried, too. Her friend Rita laments: “the claws come out.” Thank god you and Rita have each other, Ms. Lewis, because the rest of the female population–married, unmarried, Madonna–is out to judge you! You can’t win! And clearly, that you can’t is all the fault of feminism, which is, as well we know, all about judging women and finding them lacking. Oh, wait…
3. Lewis pulls my favorite (by which I mean “most puketastic”) trick: she uses bullshit evo-psych to pigeon-hole both women and men. About herself, she says “Somewhere inside lurks a woman I cannot control and she is in the kitchen with a baby on her hip and dough in her hand, staring me down. She is saying: ‘This is happiness, this is what it’s all about.’ It’s an instinct that makes me a woman, an instinct that I can’t ignore even if I wanted to.” BIOLOGY IS DESTINY, GIRLS! Again, if you do want babies on your hip: rock on with your dough-kneading self. But the second you attempt to naturalize and/or universal it by throwing around terms like “instinct,” I’m going to have to ask you to put a fucking hand-knitted sock in it, because any credibility you may have had just flew out the window.
She also makes sure we know that menz… well, they can’t control it either: “Men are programmed to like their women soft and feminine. It’s not their fault – it’s in the genes.” The take-away message is that feminism (which Lewis seems to misunderstand to mean “work to out-patriarch the Patriarch”) makes you hard and masculine, counter to nature, and therefore NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE YOU AND YOU WILL DIE ALOOOOONE. AND OMG YOU’RE 36? JUST END IT NOW, IT’S ALL OVER FOR YOU.
4. Lewis attempts to qualify her argument ever so slightly (“My views may not represent those of other women of my generation. Perhaps I am just a spoilt middle-class girl who had a career and who has now changed her mind?”), but then overrides her qualification, first by citing a survey that more women are unmarried than used to be. The study doesn’t say anything about why there are more unmarried women, or how those women feel about being unmarried, but what does that matter, right, Ms. Lewis? She then turns to the wildly diverse lot that is her immediate peer group: white middle class women in their 30s who are involved in the London theatre scene. They, too, have careers and their own money, education, (mostly) equal standing before the law–no thanks to that icky feminism stuff!–but alas, they are dead inside, thanks to the seductive but empty promises of feminists.
Lewis sounds like a pretty miserable person, to be frank, and I don’t envy her. But maybe not for the reason you think. I don’t think she’s unenviable because she’s not caught a man and made some babies; I don’t envy her because she is so hopelessly deluded about feminism that she’s damning herself to an even bleaker existence. She’s lamenting not having settled for a man who doesn’t want a equal, for the love of tiny, pink-nosed kittens! She’s resigned herself to thinking that women’s lot in life is to suffer and resign, rather than to fight and prevail! She has given up hope for a future as a wife and mother (and, by her logic, as a worthwhile human being) at the age of 36! She thinks herself a failure, despite her professional success, her friends, her other skills and contributions to the world, because she hasn’t married and mated.
To lay all this baggage at the feet of feminism is at best delusional. Feminism, which is an approach to life, or a political disposition, or even a theoretical lens, is inert if not applied by people. Lewis, not some mysterious feminist police force (shh! I have a badge!), made the decision to pursue a career to the exclusion of a also seeking a personal life that made room for a spouse and children, and now is not only abnegating responsibility for her choice (“the devil made me do it!”), but is actively encouraging other women–since we’re all alike–to forgo their own better judgments and just grab for the ring and the cradle, since that’s really what matters.
I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t have regret about something. That’s part of being human. What Charlene (who probably didn’t know any better) and Zoe Lewis (who should) have in common is that their anti-feminist views are the very ones that are attempting to limit women’s experiences by “protecting” them from a full and freely chosen life. I respect Lewis’s right to throw her own life away, even as I find it regrettable (see what I did there?). But I can not and will not let her attempt to ruin other women’s lives go without my little bit of cage-rattling. This kind of fear-mongering is simply Patriarchy in bad drag. It’s poison. Call it out.