By Darlena Cunha
Feminism needs to change, you guys, and we know this for one simple reason:
Jonathan Franzen says so.
For those of you who are blissfully unaware, Franzen is regarded to be one of America’s leading novelists, if not the American novelist of our time. For years, he’s slathered his white maleness across the pages of such venerable publications as Harper’s and The New Yorker, and some of his novels, like Freedom and The Corrections, have been lauded as “masterpieces of American fiction.”
His works are so varied and intense, in fact, that it’s unreasonable for me to expect you to read through them all, so let me sum them up for you: A man runs into trouble with some woman (or women) in his life, thinks back to his college days in an attempt at self-reflection, fails miserably but misremembers a lot of nondescript sex to make it tantalizing, gets upset about technology for no discernible reason, then comes to the conclusion that being an upper middle-class white man really is the truest tragedy of all.
The author’s book Purity, which is about feminism and technology and life and love, stirred up both feverish praise and heated derision — the latter directed mostly at its troubling representation of women. But the pushback didn’t faze Franzen in the least. Talking about the book’s backlash, he told The Toronto Star:
“I don’t read the stuff, so I don’t have a clear idea of what anyone’s complaining about. There is this online discourse, particularly on social media, that I would rather have nothing to do with, because it’s mostly dumb, and set up to reward people taking extreme, irresponsible positions and to punish people who are trying to do nuance and moderation.”
It’s hard, though, to read much “nuance and moderation” into Franzen’s stereotyping of Purity’s female characters as “crazy mothers, middle-aged women tormented about whether or not to have kids, girlfriends and wives who would rather endlessly discuss their feelings and the state of their relationship than have sex,” as the The Guardian astutely summarized things.
“Moderate” also isn’t the word that comes to mind for a scene in which the protagonist proves himself to be an unrepentant pedophile who learns there is more to life than himself and his libido when he falls in love . . . with a 15-year-old. In a June interview with critic Laura Miller, Franzen said he hoped this “icky” character would be redeemed by the fact that he fell in love; for an author to hope for this speaks volumes about their privilege in the area of sex crimes and victimization.
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The problem with Purity, though, goes deeper than obviously problematic scenes. The book has been heralded as a piece of biting “satire” that, ultimately, only serves to criticize young feminists who use the Internet and dare to stand up to convention.
Franzen’s supposedly feminist character, Anabel, “films every square inch of her skin, but can’t bear to be seen”; rolls around in butcher paper in some form of feminist protest, which is clearly meant to represent ridiculous, petulant, childish womanhood; and makes men pee sitting down in the name of equality and equity.
Oh, the satire! So sharp, it cuts.
Equally troubling is Franzen’s genuine belief that he can serve as an authority on feminism. When Miller asked Franzen about his ability to write from the point of view of young women, his answer basically amounted to “I have a friend who’s a young woman, so, yes, I am qualified.’’ To quote him directly:
“I think, in general, you don’t have to know that entire generation, you just need to know people from it, and the young person then may not be representative particularly, but the young person is plausible to me because I know some kids like that.”
An infuriating answer, yes, but perhaps not surprising coming from a man who once considered adopting an Iraqi boy to better understand young people. Meanwhile, men critics have openly admired Franzen’s “otherworldly feel for female characters.”
Worse yet, perhaps, is the reaction of the media to those who have deigned to point out the troubling aspects of Franzen’s work. Slate openly mocked feminist critics of Purity, calling them obtuse because clearly the character of Anabel is so far-fetched that she cannot possibly be a statement on the entire movement.
But it’s not just Anabel’s characterization that is an issue; it’s the portrayal of every weakness of every character, male or female, being tied back to a woman.
As Nicky Smith said, writing for Splice Today, “all men in Purity are victims of motherly manipulation and emotional terrorism.” Even if Anabel is meant to serve as an over-the-top caricature of feminism, the book’s focus on “nice guys” who rate boobs, seduce underage women, and call those they don’t appreciate “cunts” amounts to something worse: a white guy complaining about how hard it is these days to be a white guy.
In Purity, Franzen equates masculinity with power, money, logic, and cruel thinking. But when these traits lead his male protagonists down sordid paths, the blame falls on the women — the crazy mothers, the crazy wives, the vulnerable girls. It’s a world where men feel bad about being “men,” but not bad enough to stop — only bad enough to know they should blame someone else for their behavior.
Franzen says that when writing novels, “you have to wing it. Otherwise it looks like you’re writing from an outline.” But in winging his books from the sunny alcove of his writing room, with his coffee and computer and rich male life, he is damaging the very real fight for equality being waged by those of us who aren’t afforded such privileges.
It’s easy to laugh and exaggerate and poke fun when you are not affected by the outcome. It’s easy to write words that mean nothing to you, but then become part of the living narrative for the rest of us. As one of the foremost authors of our time, Franzen has significant influence on the general public’s frame of reference — and narratives that frame negative stereotypes about women as common sense are actively dangerous.
And here’s the real kicker: After the backlash against Purity, nothing has or likely will change, because the public has emboldened Franzen to write about women in whatever damaging way he damn well pleases.
As Franzen himself told The Toronto Star:
“I can afford not to care [about the backlash] because people do read the books. So people with a lot of time on their hands and no real interest in what is true think I’m a bad person — so what? It’s not going to end my career.”