Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the author of “Girl Land.”
Jill Filopovic has sent us a missive from the lost genre of magical feminism, where everything is possible and dreams really do come true. “Pleasurable sex,” we learn in “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness,” should be considered “a basic health care right.” And we thought Paul Ryan was in over his head with the individual mandate. The idea here is that all American women are unhappy and that the entity best positioned to change that is the government, which should be charged with creating “pleasure-centered public policy.” How would that work, exactly? Like this: “Sex as a mutually pleasurable experience should also be reflected in our criminal and civic law.” Simultaneous orgasm: It’s the law.
How can a woman increase her pleasure? Well, if she made the bone-headed move of getting married to a man, the quickest route is to click her heels together and ask for a divorce. Consider the case of Jennifer. She had dreamed of having “a very traditional nuclear family,” but the arrangement left her “deeply isolated, lonely, and very unhappy.” Now she’s happily ensconced in a Seattle commune where the kombucha is home-brewed, the yogurt is Bulgarian and the “governance strategy” is “hierarchy free.” Then there’s Lucy, whose “marriage to her husband was the kind of American love story we’ve heard before.” In other words, he was an abusive drunk who cheated on her. One no-fault divorce later, and she’s blissfully married to another woman, “enjoying both a love [she] didn’t know existed and an egalitarianism she hadn’t imagined.” Poor Pamela is gritting it out, even though intercourse with her husband is so horrible it gives her PTSD. Cut the cord, Pamela! There’s got to be a commune — or another woman — somewhere nearby.
No one in the book seems more unhappy than women who married men and then had children. Nothing robs a woman of happiness faster than some mean-faced little ankle-biter demanding things like lunch and affection. “There’s no question in my mind that I would not be as productive if I had a child to think about and raise,” Filopovic reports. Marxist feminism — it’s back and better than ever. Just keep producing, ladies, and make sure you’re compensated with the green stuff. As far as feminism being all about “choices,” each of them equally valorous, leave that blather to Emma Watson. No smart woman could ever respect someone who spends all day with children. Filopovic and her “bright, ambitious” friends don’t want to do it — and they don’t want to end up with anyone who would, either: “None of us wanted to come home at the end of a long workday to a person whose primary social interaction had been with a toddler and whose universe was dominated by diapers and play dates.”
Every now and then, Filopovic’s own mother floats in like Glinda the Good Witch to say things that speak of the human heart and that are completely off-strategy, like “having kids was a love affair,” and leaving them to go to a part-time job was “wrenching.” “There are no emotional words to explain the thought of being away from your babies,” she says, and fortunately for her, she floats away in her giant soap bubble before these sentiments can be put through the meat grinder of pleasure-centered public policy and laid bare as a drag on worker productivity.
The book has a weird subplot involving an impoverished black woman named Janet, who keeps popping into the story and saying retro things like she wishes she could spend more time with her children, or she’d like to have a husband. You’d expect the author to knock some sense into her about worker productivity and diaper tedium. But poor black women, apparently, are ideally suited to the kind of traditional life arrangements that the author and her “bright, ambitious friends” are too sophisticated for, so she gets a pass.
We’re hardly in virgin territory, and unless you like nothing better than a warmed-over reexamination of the politics of shared housework, you may find much of this a bit snoozy. But reader: There’s a plot twist. It turns out that Jill Filopovic — feminist, badass, rejecter of all that is conventional — is . . . engaged! “I had never been so immediately drawn to someone or felt myself so eager to talk to someone,” she tells us of her new love, and she embarked upon “a love affair unlike anything I had experienced.” It turns out that he has a big, important job in Africa, and — screw feminism! — she packed her bags and followed him. It’s bliss: “He is sometimes the only person I talk to in the course of a day” — and she loves it. “There is a long list of reasons I would marry him,” she confides chattily, queen bee at the Tri Delt pajama party. “As far as individual days go,” she hopes her wedding will be “one of the happiest.” She even starts firing off some of the most socially conservative facts this side of CPAC: “Women report higher levels of sexual satisfaction when they’re in monogamous relationships,” and couples “have more sex than their unmarried counterparts.” Whose side is she on, anyway?
The truth is that there is great value in what she is doing. Taking a career risk to follow a person you love, making a lifelong commitment to him or her, establishing a home together that protects you both from the buffeting and heartless forces of the marketplace — those are sustaining and nourishing choices. The author spent two years criss-crossing the country in search of the key to female happiness, but it turns out she was wearing the ruby slippers all along. It’s like Jim Dobson and Ted Cruz teamed up to write a movie. What are you gonna do? There’s no place like home.
By Jill Filipovic
Nation. 320 pp. $27