“Dear @MichaelaCoel: I was a writer on ‘Emily in Paris,’ but your show was my favorite show since the dawn of TV, & this is just wrong.”
“My fury is not just about race,” Copaken wrote in an op-ed after her tweet went viral. “We need to give awards to shows … that deserve them, no matter the color of the skin of their creators.”
Hollywood responded in a pearl-clutching huff. On what planet, industry insiders railed, does a Golden Globe-nominated TV writer kvetch — in print! — about the snubbing of a competing show? On Planet Copaken, that’s where.
L’affaire Copaken/Coel, which contributed to the cancellation of next year’s Golden Globes, was not an unusual event in the life of this polymathic provocateur, whose résumé includes war photographer, reporter and photojournalist for the New Yorker, the New York Times, Time and Newsweek; “Moth” performer; best-selling author; contributing writer for the Atlantic; TV writer; and author of a New York Times essay that was adapted for Amazon’s 2019 “Modern Love” series, with Copaken played by Catherine Keener.
“Ladyparts,” Copaken’s seventh and most ambitious book, is a characteristically incisive takedown of the impact of misogyny on health care, divorce, solo motherhood, middle-aged dating, housing and employment. All of it is told through the zoomed-in lens of a full-body scan of a woman who has endured more than her fair share of health complications, including a near-fatal hemorrhage after the removal of her cervix and a nasty, lingering case of covid-19. “Gazing down at my scar-covered torso,” Copaken writes, “[I was] mentally dissecting each body part — the way a butcher approaches a cow or an advertiser a barely legal female.”
No need to wonder where Copaken stands on feminism. “Being a woman in a country where only the men are created equal,” she writes, “feels a lot like playing a videogame in which every door between your avatar and the pot of gold has a lock, a chain, bricks … and a fire-breathing dragon lurking behind it, while the only barrier blocking the male avatars’ doors are knobs.”
Via phone and email, Copaken answered questions about her life and work with the candor and fortitude evident in her searing, compelling book.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Compare the impact of misogyny on marketing your 2001 book, “Shutterbabe,” to bringing “Ladyparts” to market 20 years later.
A: Two decades ago, it was okay for a journalist to write, in a profile about me in a national magazine, “I ask if she’s worried her frankness will get her labeled a slut.” Another reviewer labeled me a “soccer-mom-in-training.” I also faced misogyny in my own publishing house. The first cover Random House showed me for “Shutterbabe” was of a naked torso against a pink background with a camera covering the vagina. I turned in the manuscript with the title “Shuttergirl.” The then-publisher of Random House insisted on calling it “Shutterbabe,” although that repudiated the entire engine of the book, which was the female gaze: I was the one looking at men and the world through my lens, I told her, not vice versa. But she refused me.
Q: Was your 2021 publishing experience different? Better, I hope.
A: Coming back to Random House after 20 years and seven books feels like coming back to a different and much more inclusive home. We’re in talks right now about reissuing the first book for its 20th anniversary under its intended title, “Shuttergirl.”
“Ladyparts” is “Shutterbabe’s” deliberate bookend, filled with the everyday sexism and misogyny — today, right now — of the health-care industry, of corporate America, of salary gaps, and of how we treat women in America, particularly as we age out of our reproductive years. But this time around, Random House publisher Susan Kamil, who tragically died in 2019, welcomed me back with a hug and a promise to listen. My editor gave me veto power over the cover, and I was constantly asked for my input from the designers.
Q: Did you have any reservations about your kids and/or other people learning about your body and soul so intimately?
A: No. I feel compelled to expose readers — related to me or not, my friend or not — to the realities of living and bleeding in a woman’s body. We women are taught from girlhood to feel ashamed of our bodies. Then there’s the shame and dismissal of our aches and pains. I had adenomyosis [a condition affecting the uterine wall] for 16 years before I was finally diagnosed. This book is my renunciation of female shame. If I have to use my own body as a conduit to these discussions, so be it.
Q: How did you decide to write so candidly and critically about your unhappiness with the father of your kids?
A: Many novels detail the unraveling of a marriage. In memoir, too often, the marital conflict that sets a protagonist off on a new journey gets swept under the rug.
I didn’t want to whitewash what happened in our marriage or to turn my husband or me into saints or demons. My ex was diagnosed at 44 with Asperger’s. I was diagnosed around the same time with situational depression, stemming from a lack of relational empathy. To skip over that felt wrong, so I devoted some narrative space to how each of us contributed to the demise of our marriage. As for my kids, I’m not revealing anything they didn’t see or experience themselves.
Q: “Ladyparts” returns again and again to your recurring financial hardship. But unlike most poor Americans, you went to Harvard, Nora Ephron was a close friend, and you wrote on two TV shows. Did you have misgivings about positioning yourself as an impoverished single mother?
A: No, because this is not a generalized book about impoverished single motherhood. It’s a memoir of one middle-aged woman with several serious illnesses, one after the other, who took a steep fall off the middle-class ladder into the sudden-onset poverty that’s all too common, especially for women, in a country without adequate health insurance, child care or social safety nets. Obviously, women born into poverty in this country, particularly women of color, have it far worse than a White woman born into the middle-class. It’s also true that at one point, while paying two college tuitions and $2,300 a month for COBRA [health coverage], I had $6 in my bank account, $42,000 in credit card debt and no food in my fridge. A Harvard degree does not protect you from that kind of free fall.
Q: What impact do you hope “Ladyparts” will have on the many social injustices the book highlights?
A: When I’m thinking about a story I want to write, I begin with some preposterous or bizarre thing that happened to me or to someone else, which means it’s probably happening to other women as well. The reader I have in mind is someone like me, who’s suffering in silence and unable to say why, perhaps even to herself.
When I sent the book to other writers for blurbs, the women writers felt seen. The men were shocked. Rick Moody said he was shaken by the density of the hardships. Andrew Sean Greer wrote, “We know almost nothing about the women we love, their bodies and their struggles.” The men’s reactions made me realize that this book might also be a tool for bridging a deep divide. I hope men do find their way to this book and learn from reading a playbook for the other team.
Meredith Maran is a journalist, a critic and the author of “The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention,” among other books.
By Deborah Copaken
Random House. 480 pp. $29.99
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