Vulnerability clothed in Condescension

Gender Studies Cover by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of “Gender Studies”, writes the story of a women Nell, and her one night stand with a taxi car driver, Luke. She is a gender studies professor who portrays herself to be elite and above middle class emotion. But her real emotions are continuously questioned as Nell makes comments to herself all throughout the story. This gives of the implication that there is a side to her true feelings that she does not want Luke to know about. In this setting she is forced to communicate and produce small-talk with Luke while he drives her to the airport for a business meeting. She has just been dumped by her boyfriend, Henry, of 11 years who chose to immediately jump into and proceed to marry one of his graduate students. Nell is very vulnerable as she never thought she would make this close of an encounter with a male ever again. This takes her completely off guard and she is almost stunned, frozen, when it comes to deciding her words. She does not want to tell the truth about her recent break up , but it slips out. She confirms that she does not have a boyfriend or a husband and definitely doesn’t have kids, the easiest of which to tell the truth about. By her conversations in her head, it is evident that she doesn’t want to let Luke into her vulnerable side.

Nell most definitely comes across as a stuck-up, know it all, but by her inner conversations we are clued into her true pain. She is simply overcompensating so she will not come across as weak and emotional, something any normal girl would do after a breakup. She is not single by choice, something that is difficult for her to comprehend considering the amount of time she spent devoted to Henry. In her routine life with him she felt that she had control over the outcomes in her life. This day, she is weak. She was no longer in control and felt inferior. I don’t think Nell originally was condescending, but was forced to put on a mask when things were beyond her control.

It’s obvious that Nell misses Henry, as every word Luke mention, a nostalgic moment pops into Nell’s head. In order to prevent a measly, shuttle boy from knowing her true emotions she acts as if he is so much below her standards to prevent him from trying a move on her.

Throughout the essay, Nell continues to act like nothing’s wrong, until she realizes her license is missing. This gives her a legitimate reason to call Luke, who has just gifted her with his number and she proceeds to meet him to exchange that night. The setting of the exchange is within a bar, typically a place a person goes to drink the pain away. She is there, completely obliterated, and unaware of her surroundings when Luke arrives, so they continue to her bedroom without much confrontation.

Her intoxication prevents her from stopping Luke when he try’s to get things heated up. Tensions go away and Nell enjoys her true bliss; when Luke begins to go down on her. Her thoughts of Henry have faded and she is officially rebounding with a one night stand. Her practicality catches back up with her racing heartbeat and she immediately stops Luke to ask about the license, which she had completely forgotten about until this moment. She forgets her carefree bliss and slips back into the darkness of self esteem. She makes Luke leave immediately.

This short story can also be closely related to the presence of grace within a piece of writing. Nell is given grace when she is being sexually pleased, but that grace is taken from her when her conscious tells her to make him stop. This is proof that grace can be taken away just as quickly as it as given.

The next day she attends the business meeting. She states, “She wants days and weeks to have passed, so that she can revert to being her boring self, her wronged-by-her-partner, high-road self; she wants to build up the capital, if only in her own mind, of not being cruel. She no longer thinks that she’ll tell Lisa anything.” Even after the one night stand adjourns she finds herself thinking about the occurrence.

Sittenfeld ends the story with Nell telling an anecdote about her failure to write a letter to one of her peers whose father had died of cancer. She compares this to her feelings about Luke and wonders if it’s too late to contact him again. She occasionally still recalls this boy, now a man who is, like her, nearly forty, and she wishes she had expressed compassion. “This is how she will feel about Luke. She could have summoned him back on Friday night. She could have called him on Saturday, after finding the license. She could have texted him on Sunday, or after she returned to Madison.” Her sad reality returns and she begins to date a man she will never love.

Nell puts up a false front that nothing can get to her. She is a strong woman, but in the end feels remorseful for what she did intimately with Luke, but also why they never spoke again. Her subjectivity caused her to hide her emotions, but also remain strong in who she was and be happy with her usual life. Therefore, you can cover vulnerability in clothes of condescension, but eventually you will be forced to shed them and show your true skin.

Curtis Sittenfeld
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