Over the last two months I have had the privilege of reading some fantastic texts that delve into our society’s enduring misogynistic values. These include two novels, The Wife (Meg Wolitzer) and A Separation (Katie Kitamura), the essay collection Notes to Self (Emilie Pine) and the memoirs Sex Object (Jessica Valenti) and To Throw Away Unopened (Viv Albertine). In this post I share some observations that didn’t make it into my review of A Separation and The Wife.
When I was discussing the film adaptation of The Wife with some friends (this was before I had read the book), I expressed some puzzlement at it being set in the early 1990s. Apart from a reference to Clinton which did not serve the plot in any overt way (other than producing a shadow of irony at his own looming infidelity), there didn’t seem to be a need for the plot to take place in that historical moment. One of my friends suggested that it was necessary because it would be unbelievable that a woman in our present day and age would sell herself so short.
But is it unbelievable? Women still pay a price for being intelligent or successful (or both). In The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb discusses the inverse relationship between a woman’s income and the amount of responsibility she bears on the home front. According to research uncovered by Crabb, once a woman’s income hits two thirds of the total household income, she increases her share of unpaid work at home. The amount of unpaid domestic work that Australian men do, conversely, remains stable regardless of their employment status or income. I can’t help but feel this is a form of punishment; that there is an underlying attitude among male spouses that women need to be reminded where they really belong.
My formative experiences certainly demonstrate the persistence of entrenched sexist attitudes that devalue women’s autonomy and ambition. When I was in high school in the 2000s, the prevailing view was that guys don’t like girls who have their heads stuck in a book, and most girls at some time or other downplayed their intelligence. The Australian writer Anna Spargo-Ryan recently recounted on Twitter how, upon receiving her school leaving results, her boyfriend at the time wouldn’t speak to her until she had apologised for doing better than him. In my early twenties, when I still harboured a dream of winning a place at a prestigious overseas university, my boyfriend at the time told me straight out that if I was accepted into that university our relationship would be over. I should have dropped him on the spot but I didn’t. At the back of my mind a little voice said: “this is all there is: there is no alternative.” Keeping your talent under a bushel is still the price a woman may be required to pay to stay in a relationship, and sometimes acquiescing to that is easier than facing your society’s belief that ambitious or intelligent women are unlovable.
The self-entitlement of the male characters in both The Wife and A Separation is unsettling but infinitely familiar to female readers. Such recognition both shocks and relieves; it made me think of the ways I have fallen short in standing up to misogyny, particularly in past relationships. It is alarming to confront one’s own impotence in the face of sexism, but liberating, in a way, to see its insidious nature laid out so eloquently as a structural feature of our society, rather than as a personal failing.