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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

Forget Rules for Catching a Husband. How 'bout Rules for Catching a Life?
by Susan Jane Gilman

The following is an excerpt from Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World As a Smartmouth Goddess by Susan Jane Gilman

About the author: SUSAN JANE GILMAN has written commentary for the New York Times, Ms., US, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. Winner of several literary awards for her fiction and essays, she is a native New Yorker who currently lives in "rent exile" in Washington, D.C.

INTRODUCTION

My grandma never said, "Let him take
the lead."
My grandma said, "Have another piece
of cake and wash it down with a gin
and tonic."

For centuries, lovers, philosophers, and marketers alike have pondered the question, "What do women want?" Having been an editor for a young women's magazine—and being a woman myself—I've come to find that most women today want two things: (1) some smart, no-nonsense advice about how to navigate the world, and (2) to laugh. Ideally, we want both these things at once.

Face it, today's world is full of contradictory messages and expectations for young women. Why else would platform sneakers have been such a hit with us? We post—Baby Boom Babes suffer from conflicting impulses. "If only I could balance my life the way I balance my checkbook," a friend of mine recently moaned. ("If only I could find my checkbook," said another.)

Women of my generation have acquired all the responsibilities that come with sexual equality (i.e., earn your own paycheck), but few of the equal benefits (again: see paycheck). We're encouraged to be "empowered" but vilified for being feminists. We have more career opportunities than ever, but somehow we still get the message that a bustier, not a brain, is the real source of "Girl Power." We're urged to put on Nike cross-trainers and "Just Do It"—but we're encouraged to "just do it" while consuming twelve hundred calories a day and weighing no more than 103 pounds. We're inspired to scale the corporate ladder, but we're fully aware that it still bumps up against the glass ceiling—and that, more often than not, some guy is still peeking up our skirts as we climb.

Of course, pressure to get married and have kids is always buzzing in our ears like societal Muzak: Hurry up! Your clock is ticking! Unless, of course, we're gay—in which case we experience pressure to "straighten up." And all the while we know that we probably have it better than any group of women in history. But we're still fraught with ambivalence over choices.

Throughout all of this, sadly, many women's personal battles are not in the boardrooms or courtrooms but in our own bathrooms. Though the women's movement has done a lot over the past few decades to right the scales of justice, it has had little effect on our own scales and mirrors. For so many women, our physical appearance is a major hurdle to feeling powerful and confident. And we just can't seem to get over this. "Want to know what today's chic young feminist thinkers care about?" Time magazine crowed recently. "Their bodies! Themselves!" Much as I hate to side with Time, it's true that some of us literally can't see past the nose on our face.

And while we're sitting there immobilized before the mirror, we're reading backlashy, boy—crazy women's magazines that instruct us to do stuff like master the "art" of fellatio, wrap our thighs in cellophane, or "put your panties in the freezer, then mail them to him at his office in an envelope full of confetti!"

On top of these, of course, we've also read The Rules.

The Rules came out, like, what, a zillion years ago? And yet people still refer to them so often, you'd think they were the Ten Commandments.

The Rules essentially instructed women to act like diet soda. Be effervescent! Sweet! Chronically artificial! Remain bubbly and fluid, they implied, and you could trick a guy into marrying you.

For us progressive prima donnas, The Rules, at first glance, was nothing but a warmed—over version of the "trade your hymen for a diamond" formula that nice girls followed in the fifties. But the book was seductive. Why? Precisely because it offered, well, rules. It gave young women very clear instructions: Follow these, it promised, and you will live happily ever after. It was a guaranteed formula—a godsend! Finally, tangible guidelines! Order amidst the chaos!

And the clincher? These "time—tested secrets" supposedly came from Grandma. Who could be more comforting and wise than Grandma? Who can resist Grandma?

In today's day and age, oh, how we want Grandma! How we crave reassurance and permission and advice! How we long for a wise, maternal female to help us navigate an increasingly complicated world—a world where all the old bets are off, the new ones are risky, and the payoffs are less certain. Some women long for Grandma so badly, we buy books called Chicken Soup for the Soul, co—authored by two guys.

The problem, however, is that some of us don't want a grandma who's fixated on getting us married off. "Catching a husband" sounds a little too much to us like catching a cold. We'd rather act up than settle down. Sure, we want love, but we're also a little ambitious. We have passions and interests and dreams.

Too often, women are confronted with the social equivalent of Sophie's choice. Which "children" are we willing to sacrifice, we're asked: our hearts or our minds? our independence or the prospect of intimacy? our careers or our families? Although we're aware that "having it all" may not be realistic (or even desirable), we don't want to relinquish one part of our soul for another. We want to achieve some balance and richness in our lives. We still want to prevail.

We'd like a sage female voice to counteract all those other grandmas telling us to lose weight, grab that engagement ring, and produce grandchildren before our clock runs out. We'd like a voice to help us deflect all the negative and contradictory messages that fill our heads every day. We'd like a guardian angel perched on our shoulders, helping us to stand tall, be ourselves, and not take any shit. Never mind "self—esteem" and "self—help." We want a bad attitude, thank you, and a good set of power tools.

Well, that's why I've written Kiss My Tiara.

For in certain ways traditional feminism just isn't cutting it with us. For women today, feminism is often perceived as dreary. As elitist, academic, Victorian, whiny, and passé. And to some extent— Goddess forgive me for saying this—it's true. I'm not knocking the women's movement of the past years. I'm a huge advocate and beneficiary of choice, workplace-protection laws, and domestic—violence legislation. But I also realize that feminism seventies-style is just about the only trend from the disco era that young women today have not rushed to resurrect. Rhetoric about "reconfiguring the phallocentric modalities of the patriarchy," just turns us into zombies. A lot of us could do without the folk singers, too, thank you, not to mention the Birkenstocks and the sanctimonious veganism. I mean, some of us prefer slaughtering sacred cows to eating tofu any day.

But really, the problem is that a lot of feminist ideology simply doesn't translate well into real life. It doesn't empower young women on a practical level. Even media—savvy Naomi Wolf offers prescriptives like, "Let us start with a reinterpretation of 'beauty' that is noncompetitive, nonhierarchical, and nonviolent." Sounds good, but does any—one actually know how to do this? For that matter, does anyone have the time? Hell, I barely have time to do my laundry, let alone overhaul the aesthetics of Western civilization.

We Short—Attention-Span Gals could use some practical magic, if you will. Some unconventional, empowering common sense. Some smart, neofeminist rules. And it's important that these rules address the whole range of concerns in our lives that we're struggling to balance—love, money, health, food, careers—not just politics, not just husband-catching, not just orgasms. For us, these issues are all tangled together.

And instead of casting us as victims, we'd like a manifesto— excuse me, a womanifesto—that draws upon our strengths.

Well, that's where my grandma—and this book—come in. My grandma never said things like, "Let him take the lead." My grandma was a midget Amazon. A combination of Fran Lebowitz, Queen Latifah, and Jesse Ventura. My grandma campaigned for women's rights, welfare rights, workers' rights—but cut in front of her in the bank line and she'd kill you. She was the type of woman you'd want standing behind you when you're negotiating a raise or getting ready for a hot date. My grandma said things like, "Have another piece of cake and wash it down with a gin and tonic." My grandma said things like, "Take a few lovers, travel the world, and don't take any crap."

And she's hardly the first grandma like this in the universe. For the thousands of grandmothers who tells girls to keep their legs crossed and not to wear white shoes after Labor Day, there are always a few salty matriarchs who encourage us to put on a pair of psychological Doc Martens and venture out fearlessly in search of love, glory, and adventure.

This "rules" book is infused with their spirit. It's a voice of irreverent reason to help young women triumph—to help us resist the toxic values of our culture—through chutzpah, intelligence, humor, and feasible action. It is, in short, a guide to wit, power, and attitude.

Because, as I said before: The second thing most women want is to laugh. We gals know instinctively that humor is the most effective weapon—and power tool—we can have in our arsenal. After all, it fulfills a double purpose: It's forceful without being threatening, and it allows us to be subversive with a smile. What better way to bridge our conflicting desires? What better way to reconcile a contradictory world?

Besides, there is so much comedy in gender relations, it's not funny. For example: Just a few years ago, a breast-cancer study was conducted on men. Or, in another move that Monty Python could've scripted, legislators actually tried to get health-insurance companies to cover Viagra but not birth control or fertility treatments. Or, take the fact that a bunch of Christian extremists actually got men to spend their whole weekend huddling in a football stadium—away from their wives and children—to demonstrate their devotion to family values. I mean, you can't make this stuff up.

We gals know an absurd world when we see it.

To address women's issues without humor in this day and age is sort of criminally negligent. Because, really, it's the only sane choice. If we don't use humor and irreverence, what are the alternatives? Anger, fear, and victimhood—and Goddess knows we've had enough of that.

Also, since we gals generally prefer reading menus to following instruction booklets, the chapters in Kiss My Tiara can be read à la carte, either sequentially or individually. In this way, it's a profoundly pro-choice book, sort of like the Yellow Pages. Just open it up and read about whatever grabs you at the moment.

Last, even though this book is meant to be funny—and thus neatly sidesteps any pretenses of speaking the Definitive Truth for All Women—a few confessions are in order.

We progressive prima donnas are often sticklers for inclusion and diversity. Yet, in putting this together, I drew upon the insights of a very limited pool of women. Yeah, they were from different races, religions, and ethnicities. Yeah, some were gay, some were bisexual, and some were straight. And, yeah, while the majority of them were middle class, there were a few waitresses and debutantes thrown in.

But mostly the women had one overriding characteristic: They each had a big, fresh mouth and a laugh that could peel paint off a wall. And if that makes this book in any way homogenous and elitist, so be it. As my grandma used to say, "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke!"

Copyright © 2001 by Susan Jane Gilman

Excerpt posted with permission from http://www.twbookmark.com

The above is an excerpt from Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World As a Smartmouth Goddess by Susan Jane Gilman (Warner Books, 2001).

 

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