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.