Every era’s liberated woman gets the good fuck she deserves. In the ‘70s Erica Jong’s heroine Isadora Wing chased the zipless variety with Adrian Goodlove, a louche psychoanalyst with floppy blond hair who calls Isadora a “cheeky cunt” when he first meets her and grabs her ass in full view of her husband. Her “sweet,” “quiet,” “nice,” “understanding,” supportive husband, all clear code words for turn-off.
In our era we now have, thanks to Alisa Valdes’ charming and totally messed up memoir The Feminist and the Cowboy, the eponymous cowboy, nameless and gorgeous, who calls Valdes “darling” but insists that if he’s in a relationship, he’ll be doing the driving. The cowboy is 6 feet 2 inches tall with a cleft chin, strong jaw, and well-formed lips (“mama said meow”). He could buy all his accessories in a Brooklyn men’s shop, but he doesn’t have to because he’s the real thing, a real rancher in a real cowboy hat who herds real cattle and wears his faded Wranglers so well that they turn the heads of the gay couples at the hipster bar where they go on their first date (back when Valdes still believed it was OK for the woman to pick the location of a date).
Our heroine’s attraction to him—that is, the animal attraction of a trash-talking feminist who grew up in a Marxist, Barbie-free household to this … this … caveman, this brute with a pickup truck and a gun rack who watches Fox News and eats steak—comes as an unwelcome surprise to her at first. She wonders: Aren’t all conservatives “stupid! Or evil!”? Shouldn’t a good feminist only be into guys in tweed suits who recycle? Isn’t it a liberal sin to be turned on by big, strong, leathery, tanned hands? But then she turns to Google and realizes that science and biology are on the side of her libido. Feminism may have covered our eyes with its “dreary shroud of lies,” but nature knows the truth, which is that men and women are different. After that, the revelations come fast: “We are the vessel. They are the elixir and the funnel. We are the earth. They are the plough and seed. They give, we take. We open, they enter.” Valdes, like all womankind, was “programmed, sexually and emotionally, to get excited by a man who took charge.” Her first night at the ranch, Al Green on the radio, the “angels sang arias” and “the earth moved.” She would tell you more details about that night, but the cowboy has forbidden it.
As a saucy romance, The Feminist and the Cowboy is deeply satisfying as it gallops toward the finish line. The best-selling author of The Dirty Girls Social Club, Valdes knows how to tease out a courtship— especially one involving a bonkers, rageaholic Latina; an inappropriate love object; various rivals for his affection; and a chorus of tut-tutting girlfriends. Valdes herself makes a sympathetic heroine—a child of vain and hypocritical bohemian academics who was abandoned by her mother and who understood feminism to mean that women had to behave like the dominator in order to be free (the lesson the cowboy has to unlearn her). And the cowboy himself is central casting, “so handsome it made you ache. So handsome you forgot to breathe.” A man who walks up behind her and presses into her with his big, strong … well, anyway, isn’t this, more or less, the premise of all great seductions, from Pride and Prejudice to The African Queen to Fifty Shades of Grey?: Girl bucks, they wrestle (the cowboy’s texts actually say: “Wanna wrestle?”), he lassoes her, she submits.
If she had stopped there, Valdes probably still could have gotten Paul Verhoeven to make the movie and maybe even George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez to star in it. But Valdes is a scold: She pauses the story for extended explanations of just how little fun those of us who are not sleeping with cowboys are having. Feminism has ruined us all. In denying biology, it has thrown men into crisis. As her friend tells her, “They want to be men, but hate themselves for wanting to be men, so they push it all down and act like freakin’ Prince,” and they only express their manliness alone, in private, in front of porn sites. Women, meanwhile, have become desiccated and denatured, unable to understand the basic truth Valdes stumbled upon: “Freedom came when I connected to the ancestral feminine womanhood that I carried in my DNA.” The rest of us go on bad dates and pretend to lust after environmentalists who drive dented Subarus and wouldn’t know a bull calf from a goat, while secretly we fantasize about Heath Ledger.
Valdes is clearly tapping into a potent cultural disruption; in fact, you could even say she is late to this game. Back when Gotham Books sent out the galley, this book was called Learning To Submit, presumably to take advantage of the Fifty Shades of Grey craze. Perhaps they worried that if the craze faded, the title might read as an evangelical Christian marriage advice book, so they went for Harlequin classic instead.
Both that best-seller and this aspiring best-seller raise the possibility that there is something unnatural—or at least uncomfortable—about this era of female power. They should make us curious about why, in an age when women are the majority of college graduates and much more likely to be the heads of their households, we have a sudden mainstream interest in female submission, sexual and otherwise. Valdes says explicitly that in her first marriage—to some guy who let her hyphenate her name—once it became clear that she would be the breadwinner, she stopped being attracted to him, and they did not sleep together for months.
But it’s one thing to accept submission as an enduring part of a modern woman’s erotic imagination and another to ask her to enact it in her day-to-day life. The legal document Christian Grey presents to Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey is a prop in a bondage fantasy. The verbal instructions the cowboy gives Valdes once she agrees to submit to him are a guide to daily living. No back-talking; no second-guessing; no sarcastic, smart-ass remarks. She must never exit the car unless he opens the door for her. She must never walk on the street side of the sidewalk. In one especially creepy scene, Valdes has just overheard another woman leave a voicemail for the cowboy saying she wishes he were joining her in the shower. The cowboy lies about the voicemail, and Valdes knows he is lying. But then she remembers some article she read saying that women were “biologically programmed” to find cheating men more attractive. “I was hurt, sad, and turned on.” He unbuckles his belt, and she throws her arms around his neck. “Biology,” she writes with a shrug.
Now might be the time to mention that the “biology” Valdes is always quoting is of the shoddiest kind, the kind British tabloids reprint to enrage feminist blogs—studies showing that men find women more attractive when they are ovulating, or that a woman can sniff a series of men’s shirts and tell you which one has the most testosterone. Such is the fuel of Valdes’ “awakening.”
Of course, one woman’s turn-on is another woman’s 911. But I will point out that this is exactly what happens to people in cults: They begin to swallow the logic of the charismatic leader and rewrite their old lives. At a dinner with Valdes’ parents, the cowboy convinces her to keep her distance because they only manipulate her to serve their narcissistic egos. He also convinces her that her son’s diagnosis of autism is a “bunch of bullshit,” a byproduct of bad parenting and a liberal ethos and nothing a firm hand can’t fix. (I’m guessing the son will be at the center of her next memoir or might even write his own.)
But what harm can a cowboy really do to the rest of us? A cowboy is a vanishing breed. He may be a real man, with stern, manly rules, but in the grand scheme of gender relations, darling, he has no real power. He lives in a ranch camp with spotty Wi-Fi. He is hours from the nearest city. He goes days without speaking to anyone. His livelihood is disappearing with the plains; if they stay together, she’ll once again be the breadwinner in the family.
But for the modern liberated woman, that’s the way it has to be. Do we think Valdes would have been so turned on if the alpha male had worked on Wall Street? Or on Capitol Hill? If he had insisted she quit her day job and stay home to have his babies? Or stop writing, especially about him? This way, she gets her car door opened for her, has lots of good sex, and gets to keep her financial independence. And, most importantly, she gets to be the one who tells the story.
The Feminist and the Cowboy by Alisa Valdes. Gotham.
See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.