July 07, 2003
Jonathan Franzen on gender relations

(All this is from a novel and lacking its original context; this changes the meaning quite a bit.)

From Strong Motion, a novel by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 1992.

p. 263

She was finishing her thesis when Claudia informed her, in a two-line postcard, that she had married her old boyfriend at the Istituto Nazionale.

Renée was amazed by how betrayed she felt. She couldn't bring herself to write to Claudia again, and the months went by and Claudia didn't write either. What hurt was knowing that she wasn't jealous of the man for having Claudia but of Claudia because she had a man. This, and knowing what a difference it made that she was a female.

She was sure that if it had been a case of René and Claudio, good heterosexual friends, René wouldn't have felt so betrayed. Men who'd gotten married or found girlfriends didn't drift away from their single male friends, at least not as often as women did. Obviously, men were nobler spirits than women. It came of belonging to the default gender. If both men and women considered their relationships with men inviolable, then men inevitably remained true to their gender while women, equally inevitably, betrayed their own. Men's moral superiority was structurally guaranteed.

However, Renée did not wish she were a man.

posted by dru in excerpt

A man, if he was your college boyfriend, still "wanted to be friends with" you after he'd dumped you. His male faith in friendship was so unshakable, in fact, that he believed that you would welcome an invitation to his wedding.

A man, if he was your younger brother, fresh out of college, was realistic at the dinner table about how "women are simply not identical to men, they have different priorities," speaking glibly and self-servingly this truth that it had taken you thirty years to learn, bolstered in his arrogance by a twenty-three-year-old wife who had "decided not to put off having children" and so considered herself more mature than you.

A man was a creature who thought it was a sympathetic portrayal of himself to say, "I love women."

A man could not admit to a woman that he was wrong and remain a man. He would sooner cry and abase himself and beg forgiveness like a baby than admit to error as a man.

A man took for granted a woman's understanding of his penis but congratulated himself for understanding the clitoris and its importance. He smiled inwardly at his superiority to all the men, past and present, who had not penetrated this female secret. He felt proud of his enlightenment and goodness when he quizzed a woman about whether she had come. The perfect gift for the man who had everything was a quarter ounce bottle of feminism.

Inescapably immersed in a history made by people of his own sex, a man could never be as selfconscious as a woman: could never feel as much shame. Even a thoughtful man lacked a radical appreciation of how it was only luck, a pairing of X and Y, that had made his life straightforward. At some level he would always still believe that the ease of his life implied a moral superiority; this belief made him ridiculous.

Women knew their husbands were ridiculous. Therefore married women, especially ones with children, could be friends with each other. The shame of being wedded to a blunt instrument, a lovable but limited creature, and of bearing his children and enduring his superiority, was eased by intercourse with other women similarly burdened or with women whose most fervent wish was to be so burdened.

Renée, however, wasn't married. She also believed that even if she were, the sorority of childbearers wouldn't welcome her. It seemed to her that the sororities most successful members--professional women still managing to raise families--developed such steel-clad egos in coping with their lives that they had little imagination to spare for a complicated case like her. Mothers with less demanding jobs were defensive and tended to fear and despise her, because of her ambition. Mothers with no jobs at all attracted her--she felt, in fact, a particular tenderness towards unselfconscious women--but she could not be friends with them either, because they didn't understand her, and to the extent that they did begin to understand her, they would be confused and hurt by her refusal to be like them.

Friendless, Renée saw stereotypes everywhere she looked. Her head was full of images of women, and she hated most the ones she most resembled.

The well-spoken and socially concerned and humorless and defensive female academic.

The thin, vulnerable, self-absorbed, vaguely haunted-looking single woman who is either a spiritual seeker or simply a loser and probably the latter.

The unsatisfied thirty-year-old professional female who sees the error of her ways and begins to crave a baby.

The boring scientist who lives in a computer room but considers herself less boring than others like her because ten years ago she went to Clash concerts.

The girl who, not having many female friends, grew up reading science fiction and popular philosophy and who, as a woman, is still so romantic as to believe in things like corporate malfeasance and heroes who make a difference.

The medium-attractive female academic who in her quest to feel attractive acquires the reputation of an easy lay.

The woman who cannot get along with other women and who hangs out with men and who in the course of time ends up sleeping with many of them and who, a traitor to her own sex, is respected by men only to the extent that she is like a man.

The medium-attractive and well-spoken academic female whom no one likes but who nevertheless considers herself extremely special and lovable and wears a certain smile that shows this and is therefore disliked all the more.

As the hateful stereotypes homed in on her, the only thing that saved her from concluding that all she really hated was herself was her selfconsciousness. Selfconsciousness was a guardian angle accompanied her everywhere. In grocery stores it told her how to select food--apples, eggs, fish, bread, butter, broccoli--that could be trusted not to put words in her mouth. Words like I am a yuppie or I am trying hard not to be a yuppie or See how original I am or See how timid I am as I try to avoid being like people I don't want to be, including those who are selfconsciously original. It required daily vigilance to keep herself from cooking like well-educated thirty-year-olds on TV, or like gastronomes who became orgasmic over nice pasta, or like women on a magazine diet, or like men who thought it made them sexy and sophisticated to cook with capers and chuckle greedily about '71 Richebourgs. Or, conversely, like people who never gave a thought to food. Because unfortunately eating junk was not an option. In the future she imagined for herself, she would not be eating junk. She could hardly swallow junk.