All too often, supporters of gender equality end up degrading traditional femininity. A new memoir falls into this trap.
Alisa Valdes's memoir, The Feminist and the Cowboy, is presented as a story of personal transformation. Valdes, a best-selling chick-lit writer, grew up in a Marxist household, where her parents demanded that she be independent, assertive, and feminist. After a failed marriage and much dating unhappiness, she finally meets the titular cowboy (called, throughout, "the cowboy,") a conservative, six-foot-two, achingly handsome man's man who teaches her to embrace her femininity, give up the man-hating, and submit. Or, as she puts it, "I'd win this game through softness. Through relenting. Through yielding. By giving, and giving, and giving until it hurt."
The move from second-wave ball-breaking feminism to "difference feminism," in which women embrace their biological destiny of relenting and yielding, is supposed to be a major life change for Valdes. And yet, reading through the book, pre-cowboy Valdes and post-cowboy Valdes don't actually look all that different. For example, Valdes notes that she put an anti-Fox News sticker on her car because she was trying to please her controlling, liberal father. She then takes the sticker off...to please the controlling, conservative cowboy. " I wondered if a part of me wasn't just repeating old patterns," Valdes muses, but then decides it couldn't possibly be because her intuition says it couldn't. Which, really, doesn't seem like a very good reason.
The continuity isn't just about her willingness to be controlled; it's also about her attitudes towards gender. Valdes discusses how her academic Cuban father and her mother insisted verbally on the absolute equality of the sexes—when she made the freshman cheerleading squad, for example, her father discouraged her from participating, because he felt it was demeaning. In practice, though, her father demanded her mother fulfill traditional gender roles—watching the kids, making meals, and even editing his manuscripts without credit. Finally, her mother rebelled, abandoning her children, and "fell into bad company," as Valdes puts it. Thus, Valdes's family, in both words and actions, pushed Alisa to reject traditional femininity, which her father (verbally) found unacceptable and her mother (through action) had found intolerable.
Valdes insists that through her relationship with the cowboy she grew and learned to reject second wave feminism, and to instead embrace the feminine. In practice, though, her book is suffused with a visceral loathing for the feminine. It's just that this loathing is mostly directed at men. She repeatedly sneers at the guys she's dated for being "emasculated," or, in one memorable phrase, for being "sniveling little boys, with crow's feet and online-porn addiction." She says that the reason her first marriage broke up was that she was the bread-winner and she couldn't respect her husband for staying at home and cooking and cleaning. And finally, in a remarkable display of homophobia, she sneers at pop stars from Prince to David Bowie for not projecting a sufficiently normative vision of masculinity. " A tiny little man with no body hair, running around in fucking thigh-high stiletto heels, singing in the highest falsetto in the world about how you were a 'Little Red Corvette'? Are you fucking kidding me?" Thus, before her transformation, she was a ball-breaking second waver who spent a lot of time verbally castrating men—and after her transformation, she's a ball-breaking non-second-waver who spends a lot of time verbally castrating men. The difference just doesn't seem that profound.
My wife, after reading a review of the book, said that Valdes sounded like she'd been "dicknotized"—hypnotized by his penis. I think that's right...but it's not exactly the cowboy's thing that accomplished it. Rather, Valdes comes across as someone who has always been extremely driven and ambitious—who has, as she says at one point, always wanted to be the fastest and the best. Moreover, she is someone who has always seen that success as masculine. The super-stereotypically masculine cowboy, who demands that she never open doors for herself, who has guns, who is large and competent and handsome and in control—he doesn't challenge Valdes's fear of femininity. He embodies it.
Of course, Valdes argues that the cowboy has taught her to submit; to be feminine and soft and acquiescing. But the truth is that it is not the cowboy who speaks in this book; it's Valdes. It's Valdes who opens the cowboy's mouth and has life-lessons in obedience spill out on the page; it's Valdes who walks around in the cowboy's giant frame, rugged and handsome, training Valdes like a dog (his metaphor), or teaching Valdes to trust even when (especially when) she finds out he's got a girl on the side he hasn't told her about. And it's Valdes, in cowboy drag, who disciplines her son (forcing him to make his bed and tie his shoes) and her father and mother (preventing them from dominating conversation at dinner.) Thus, Valdes-as-cowboy gets to express all the anger at her nearest and dearest that she has so submissively forsworn in a kind of passive-aggressive epiphany.
Most of all, it is Valdes who endorses the cowboy's lessons as realities for all women. Over and over, Valdes says that "science" and "biology" show that men and women are different (which seems obvious enough), and that those differences proscribe particular roles for men and women (which seems, shall we say, somewhat more dubious). Thus, women are biologically programmed to like men who cheat; women are biologically programmed to want men to be "loving leaders of their families" and further programmed "to submit to their men lovingly and voluntarily." Valdes also suggests that women are extremely competitive with other women—but she doesn't ever ask whether competitiveness might have something to do with her eagerness to position herself as dispenser of wisdom to everyone else. She has found the penis of truth, and now it is hers to wield, the better to screw her sisters.
The most frustrating part about Valdes's memoir is that, beneath the pseudo-science nonsense, the boasting self-abnegation, and the simple-minded feminist-baiting, there is actually the glimmer of a point. It's true that feminists from Julia Serano to William Marston to Luce Irigaray to Susie Bright have, in different ways, tried to figure out a way to create a feminism that embraces traditional femininity. But still, the most popular and influential strand of feminism in the US has generally looked at femininity, and especially at domesticity, with a certain suspicion. Judith Halberstam, in Female Masculinity (1996), for example, suggests that "masculinity" should be "a kind of default category for children"—exactly the sort of thinking that made Valdes's dad keep her off the cheerleading squad. And I've heard from several stay-at-home or homeschooling moms whose so-called feminist friends have dressed them down for choosing children over career.
So, in theory at least, a book about the value of femininity (like Julia Serano's Whipping Girl (2009)) could be helpful and worthwhile. The problem is that, if you want to value femininity, the best way to do that is probably not by bowing down before an icon of Platonic masculinity. Valdes's book is rhapsodic about the virtues of manliness—power, control, competence. But despite her protests, she tends to make "femininity" a synonym for "needy doormat," and/or "emasculated, aberrant monstrosity." She does not repudiate the excesses of the empowerment-obsessed second-wave feminists she dislikes. She replicates them—or, more accurately, dumbs them down. The cowboy, as it turns out, isn't the opposite of the feminist. He's a twisted caricature of her.