Wednesday, August 26, 2009

From Erica: Fay Weldon's foot has entered her mouth

I don't mean to keep doing these news posts, but they just keep coming at me! This one's going to be special, though, because it focuses on one. This article comes from the Daily Mail, a UK paper that runs a daily paper section devoted to "women's interests" such as fashion, celebrity gossip, and weight loss- which is frustrating enough. The journalistic credentials of the paper notwithstanding, however, this piece on Fay Weldon's recent comments has left me more than slightly breathless. Weldon's history, Wikipedia-style, is that she's had a long career as a novelist and TV/radio writer, and the politics that her works manifest have a distinctly second-wave feminism bent. Whether or not she's a feminist thinker and writer- and here I'm holding Audre Lorde, belle hooks, and Betty Friedan as examples of what that might include- is marginal compared to what she had to say, at least according to the Daily Mail.

As quoted in the article, Weldon thinks that "women should not expect men to be their best friend - and should appreciate their need for sex. 'The thing is, you need to find a man who is cleverer than you, or at least not let him know that you are cleverer than him,' she said. 'Women want their boyfriends to be like their girlfriends, fun to go to the pictures with, but men are not like that. They want sex and they grunt. If you really want a man to be nice to you, never give him a hard time, never talk about emotions and never ask him how he is feeling.'" She also believes (although the lack of context for her statement is unhelpful) that "'we should have more teenage pregnancies'" so that women can have children before they start their careers and thus aren't too tired for sex with their husbands (who will otherwise philander, she claims).


First, let's just take down the heterosexist and traditional Western family bias, shall we? Weldon's comments presume that a woman comes in a package, much like a kid's play kitchen set, with a house, husband, and kids (or at least the desire to have them). Batteries not included. Way to break down the stereotype, Weldon. Women aren't boxed sets- they aren't even easily categorized into a unified group! But, of course, since men only "want sex" and "grunt," women only "talk about emotions" and want a clean loo and to have the socks picked up. Oh, and want to keep their man by playing dumb. Right?

The problem, from Weldon's point of view, seems to boil down to male infidelity as a result of the second-wave feminist movement that swept North America and Western Europe in the 60s and 70s. In apparent response to the questions raised by Daily Mail about her attitude change, she claims that feminism got nasty when women began treating men like they're nothing, and that's no longer valid: "'But men nowadays aren't s***. They're actually much nicer. They just don't want to commit to you, and why would they when you are a busy working woman who can look after yourself and probably goes to bed easily with them?'" Oh, I see. So the problem isn't that second-wave feminism tapped into a reasonable frustration and anger coming from approximately 50% of the population and that, coupled with negative media attention, turned feminism into a dirty word that sends many people fleeing today. The problem is that women are self-supporting and sexually active. Gee, thanks. I'll keep that in mind- any day now, thanks to the fact that I'm smart and capable, and enjoy an active sex life, my partner's going to head for the hills in search of the next easy lay.


Weldon, think about it. You claim that second-wave feminism got nasty towards men- I don't disagree with you. There was a lot of justifiable anger, but also some stupidity. I mean, "boys are stupid- throw rocks at them" is a pretty stupid slogan. But by claiming that men want to be flattered and fawned over and looked after by clever women playing dumb, or that all they do is grunt and want sex, doesn't exactly make you stand out from that crowd. In plain language, your comments were hypocritical. In further plain language, my statement was the understatement of the century.

Here's the thing. Men and women- people as a whole- aren't homogeneous. You can't classify "men" and "women" into singular categories of looks, appearance, or behaviour like they're Legos. Even your definition of the only type of man a woman "needs"- to put it your way, 'sort of semi-good looking, able-bodied, [and] intelligent'- presupposes an enormous amount of cultural bias, ableism, and personal preference...not to mention a certain amount of heterosexuality. Attitudes like yours not only contribute enormously to a culture that continues to treat (straight, White, able-bodied) men preferentially, but also to certain stereotypes and assumptions that get people seriously hurt. Men always want sex? Tell that to the man calling the sexual assault hotline because he's just been raped. Men grunt? Tell that to President Obama, Ronald Reagan, and Kennedy- all well-known orators. Women would be happier cleaning the house themselves and playing dumb for their husbands? Tell that to Betty Friedan and to all the women she interviewed for "The Feminine Mystique."

Even more than that though, think about it from this perspective: by forcing people into boxes, you will always make them unhappy. Are there women who enjoy being the primary housekeeper in their families, who enjoy being married to men far smarter than they, and whose sexuality is timed to meet their husbands' needs by choice? Yes. Do I want that? Absolutely not. But those women wouldn't be any happier in my lifestyle than I would be in theirs. Same goes for the women who'd be happiest if they never held a baby, for the people with penises who want to get pregnant, for the people who dance on all points of the gender spectrum, and for everyone else. Constraining people to your narrow definitions of men and women, with their complete lack of reality check, is far more hurtful to the women you pretend to speak to than the dirty loo you fuss about.

What we really need right now isn't some sociological shift to encourage procreation at earlier ages and childless couples during their working years (simply for purposes of monogamy, as Weldon puts it). Pregnancy and childbirth- both things that Weldon has experienced herself- aren't simply matters of incubation. They have profound effects on the body and, of course, the resulting child comes with some serious responsibility. Social prejudiced against teenagers aside, many adolescents are going through their own growth and development and identity-seeking. Being a teenage parent comes with challenges and problems that many adults don't have to worry about. And, as my mother demonstrates on a routine basis, parenting doesn't end when the child reaches the age of majority. Better support for adolescent parents would be a good thing. I don't disagree with that. But having your kids while you're a teenager doesn't necessarily mean you'll "have energy for sex" with the husband that you magically receive by age 30, as Weldon suggests, and doesn't mean that your life will magically improve.

Other ways to cope with the problems Weldon perceives: better support for parents of any age, to include accessible, quality childcare; wider dialogue about sex expectations and gender roles; and, on a broader scale, the breaking down of compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory maternity, compulsory monogamy, and the socioeconomic expectation that we in the Western world work ourselves to the bone before we can go home. I have to wonder if she even considered that there were alternatives to the bi-gender, man-dominant system that she moulds her "social reform" to.


  1. I think I'd be offended by Fay Weldon if I were a man. Any suggestion that men are by nature incapable of discussing emotions, cleaning a house, or remaining monogamous is insulting and restrictive for the many men (heterosexual and otherwise) who defy that stereotype.

  2. Exactly, and that's particularly bothersome after she criticized second-wave feminism for essentially saying the same things about men. Oy.