Joan Didion, Feminism, and What Women Owe The World

I read Slouching Toward Bethlehem in high school, and for the first time in my life, I wanted to be a writer. I suspect Joan Didion has that effect on many people, especially young women. Like other great writers, she makes it easy to picture that future as glamorous, interesting, iconic. Specifically, though, as a very feminine person, she makes it easier for me to picture myself as a great writer.

Joan Didion’s work is distinctly…feminine. It’s hard to put a finger on how I know that, sort of like it’s hard for me to put a finger on what, exactly, femininity is in the first place. She describes girlhood, and womanhood, and the stretch in between in a way that feels quintessential.

At 15, she liked the big, high-ceilinged bedrooms in a house she visited because “one can imagine reading in one of them, or writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner.” When she was 28, and beginning to discover that “some things are in fact irrevocable,” she writes, “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better.” In an essay published on the front cover of the Times she describes “what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it — that sense of living one’s deepest life under water, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death.”

In my world, femininity has always been synonymous with gender. It’s something that’s been pushed on me, something to challenge, to question, to push back against. I’m told I don’t have to be soft, or nurturing; I can be anything a man can be. Didion shows me a different meaning of womanhood. It’s not that women have to be anything, but maybe that we share something. We have something. We’re badass. As a writer, a female writer with an unmistakably female voice that took itself seriously, took femaleness seriously, and did not apologize for doing so, Joan Didion became a model for future generations of female writers to imitate and admire. She provides a timeless blueprint for what it can look like to be both a woman and a writer, and to not have let either contradict or overpower the other.

Didion once told Linda Kuehl in an interview for The Paris Review, “When I was starting to write — in the late fifties, early sixties — there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and he could play that role and do whatever he wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels had no particular role.” Maybe it didn’t exist back then, but for me, Joan Didion created that role for women writers.

Traditional gender roles dictate that women should be small, quiet, and meek. Didion said herself that the fact that she was “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate” was her main advantage as a reporter, because it allowed her to observe people as they are, when they think nobody is watching. They didn’t know to be threatened by her, because she didn’t look at all threatening. Of course, Didion is not the perfect patriarchal picture of a fragile feminine flower. She’s just as often described as emotionless, cool, hard, and distant.

Most journalists would describe the experience she recounts in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, when she met a five-year-old girl who was tripping on acid, as terrifying, heartbreaking, distressing. But not Didion. When asked about it in her Netflix documentary “The Center Will Not Hold,” Didion takes a long, almost uncomfortably long pause before looking up and saying with a spark in her eye, “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece.”

Rather than being nurturing, empathetic and sensitive, she seems to be silently, brutally judging almost everyone and everything she writes about. Her essays, in general, are not particularly nurturing or sympathetic. But that’s what makes her so easy to admire. She exposes the rules of gender for what they are, arbitrary and best interpreted by each individual on a case-by-case basis, as they see fit. Didion’s message to the women she inspires is not that they need to be masculine, or that they need to be feminine, but that they need to know who they are and to be true to themselves. They need to work hard and have self-respect.

Caitlin Flanagan wrote for The Atlantic, “Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair.” Didion’s descriptions of clothing read like something in Vogue magazine. Vogue is the type of magazine that tends not to be taken too seriously in the literary world, and it’s a also magazine that employed Joan Didion for ten years. She mentions details about clothing in a way that makes it obvious that she takes fashion seriously, because, as she said, “style is character.” Fashion was clearly a real, important interest of hers. She shows us all that smart girls can like fashion, and John Wayne, and still cover the Vietnam War, too.

Her sentences, her scenes, and her details exude a certain feminine aesthetic. She gives us descriptions like, “flamingo pink sequined midriff” and “pale red hair fluffed around her head in an electric halo” and “violet-tinted glasses and pleated silk dresses and Givenchy coats that had not been bought in Bogotá” and “fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows.” Creating an aesthetic, as a concept, is familiar to someone like me, who grew up in the age where social media allows “it girls” to craft an online aesthetic for others to admire, by sharing certain images from their lives and omitting others. While we have “it girls” who are actresses, models, and reality TV stars, it’s hard for most girls to name a “cool” female writer.

Her profile in The White Album of Georgia O’Keeffe, who she calls one of the “successful guerillas in the war between the sexes,” recognizes the importance of gender and the expectations that come along with it. Didion seems to see O’Keeffe as a kindred spirit, someone who knew who she was, and had “a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” She writes of O’Keeffe, “‘Hardness’ has not been in our century a quality much admired in women, nor in the past twenty years has it even been in official favor for men. When hardness surfaces in the very old we tend to transform it into ‘crustiness’ or eccentricity, some tonic pepperiness to be indulged at a distance. On the evidence of her work and what she has said about it, Georgia O’Keeffe is neither crusty nor eccentric. She is simply hard, a straight shooter, a woman clean of received wisdom and open to what she sees.” Didion’s clear admiration of O’Keeffe is expressed largely in terms of how she is exceptional because she is a women, not despite of it.

When quoting O’Keeffe, at one point, Didion marvels, “Imagine those words spoken, and the sound you hear is don’t tread on me. ‘The men’ believed it impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York. ‘The men’ didn’t think much of her bright colors, so she made them brighter…” Didion writes down a story O’Keeffe told her about when she once painted a more subdued, “dismally colored” painting. She tells how while “the men” had apparently been impressed by the painting. They had seemed to believe, O’Keeffe said, that she was “finally beginning to paint.” She seems impressed with the contempt and boredom with which O’Keeffe spoke about her male peers. It turns out, Didion herself was fascinated by the same cold, unimpressed hardness that we love her for today.

Didion’s coldness and willingness to bend gender to fit her own whims extended to her personal life. Her husband, John Dunne, was known for speaking for Joan during interviews. While she is described as fragile, timid, quiet, and delicate, John was loud, big, confident, and social. Susan Braudy recounted a 1977 interview she did of Didion in her home, where Joan remained quiet for the majority of the time, and Dunne did nearly all of the talking. Didion could be framed as someone who needs to protected, who can’t stand up for herself. However, Dunne’s 1974 memoir, Vegas, about the period in which he left Joan and their daughter Quintana for six months, contains a scene of a phone call with his estranged wife:

“What’s new with you?” she asked.
 “Jackie’s got me a date with a nineteen-year-old tonight. She’s supposed to suck me and fuck me.”
“It’s research. You’re missing the story if you don’t meet her.”
 “But I don’t want to fuck her.”
 There was a long silence at the other end of the telephone. “Well, that can be part of the story, too,” she said. There seemed nothing more to say. I was the one who was supposed to be detached.

So much for the dependent damsel in distress. This scene paints Didion’s marriage in a different light; she’s no longer shy, or timid, or unable to care for her own affairs. Instead, she is in control, and it kind of feels like she has been the whole time, like perhaps she just didn’t see any reason not to let her husband take care of the menial daily activities of interviewing and phone-calling and bargaining so long as she didn’t have to.

To be clear, Joan Didion was not a supporter of the “official” feminist movement, or at least, not the mainstream second-wave movement feminism of her day. In 1972 she wrote a scathing criticism of “The Women’s Movement” that was published on the front page of The New York Times. With dripping sarcasm, Didion characterizes feminists as silly, unreasonable, and immature. Her overall tone, like the one with which she describes the hippies at Haight-Ashbury, seems to condescendingly suggest that these people have a vague sense of something being wrong, yet they are fully missing the point and ultimately, they look silly. Rather than working to solve concrete systemic problems, she says, they focus on trivial “problems” like being required to wash dishes. “More and more,” she writes, “as the literature of the movement began to reflect the thinking of women who did not really understand the movement’s ideological base, one had the sense of this stall, this delusion, the sense that the drilling of the theorists had struck only some psychic hardpan dense with superstitions and little sophistries, wish‐fulfillment, self‐loathing and bitter fancies.”

Didion’s essay acknowledges that at its core, the idea behind feminism was Marxism, a political idea she thought of as, at least, worth discussing on a serious basis. However, she writes that as feminists attempted to politicize normal women by pointing out that they spent more time making beds than men, for example, or that they were catcalled, or that the beauty industry made them feel inadequate, they lost the point. The political became personal, she says, and the “movement” has now been reduced to a bunch of overgrown little girls who are whining about how their marriages aren’t as romantic as they had expected. She writes, “It is the right of the oppressed to organize around their oppression as they see and define it, the movement theorists insist doggedly in an effort to solve the question of these women, to convince themselves that what is going on is still a political process; but the handwriting is already on the wall. These are converts who want not a revolution but “romance,” who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life.”

In her signature droll tone, Didion says it “wrenches the heart” to hear about these women, as she calls them, in their “brave new lives.” She tells of an ex-wife and mother of three who planned to go play out her dream and become a famous writer in New York, or if that fails, a job in publishing. Another had been a stay-at-home mother, but now she plans to be a potter. You can almost feel Didion rolling her eyes as she types. “The childlike resourcefulness — to get a job in publishing, to be a gifted potter — bewilders the imagination. The astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real ambiguities and the real generative or malignant possibilities of adult sexual life, somehow touches beyond words.”

Naturally, a scathing, often astute critique of the era’s feminist movement, written by a woman and published on the front page of the Times, was not without its critics. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese writes in The New Female Literary Culture, “Rushing in for the easy shots, she never stops to ask, Why? Why should women simultaneously reject prevailing sexual relationships, yet persist in craving love or marriage? Why should so many women be so ambivalent about dependence and independence? But then it takes a special kind of courage to accept fully that the rage and fear of women who live in fear of rape, who confront sexual harassment on the job and off, who know their own weakness, may have something to do with female experience in general. How much better to be an exception, labeled simply as being mature.”

Fair enough, I suppose. For me, though, Didion’s rejection of the feminist movement of her day does not prevent her from empowering women. Joan Didion was critical of the women’s movement, but not because she didn’t recognize that the world treated women differently. Instead, she seemed to resent the movement because she saw it as complaining about the world instead of simply living in it. To me, it’s important to have feminist role models. However, not every female role model needs to be admirable strictly because of her feminism. There’s something incredibly powerful about Didion simply being a woman who is admired universally for her writing. Didion’s work doesn’t seem to be feminist or antifeminist; instead, she always seems to simply be impressively true to herself.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about Didion’s femininity is how she doesn’t limit herself to it. It seems that when any female creator claims that she is a feminist, she’s suddenly expected to qualify everything else she does with that label. She is no longer simply a human, or a writer or an artist; she now has to justify her work in terms of politics. She’s expected to write about a universal female experience, to do work for women everywhere. Her audience feels entitled to analyze her every move in terms of their own identity politics. As a white women, is she working to elevate black women’s voices? But then, is she claiming to be representing black women? What about queer women? If she mentions her period, is she excluding trans women? If she says she’s a feminist, but not all of her work is meant to be political, is that acceptable? Suddenly, she’s expected to perform feminism with her every move, instead of simply living her own subjective life. Nobody asks Hunter S. Thompson to speak for all men.

When Susan Braudy interviewed Didion for Ms., she asked a question her editor had mandated: “Why did Didion insist on writing about despairing women who believed in nothing and did nothing? Why didn’t she write about women more like herself?”

Braudy writes, “Didion stared unhappily at her lap.”
 Perhaps ironically, her husband answered the question for her.
 “Whoever asks that question doesn’t know a goddamn thing about the questions of literature,” he said sharply. “Joan writes because she writes.”