Relationships

Enough With the Sad, Put-Upon Woman Essay

Unpacking the dynamic that makes us write, and then applaud, incredibly one-sided narratives.

A smashed pretzel.
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There is a manner in which you are encouraged to talk and write about yourself as a woman, at present. You are supposed to foreground your submissiveness; detail the many indignities you have stoically endured in your relationships with men; present the men involved as two-dimensional villains; be humorless; admit to no wrongdoing yourself, not even for a sense of realism; and, finally, craft a metaphor to describe the ways in which you made yourself small. The more incomprehensible the metaphor the better. Even better still, extrapolate that metaphor out to encompass all of womankind. Oh, and a moment where you cried or wept would be good. Not essential, but good. A birthday or celebration spent alone would make for nice color too.

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Do this and you will be met with a huge wave of sympathy from strangers on the internet. They will applaud you as a brave truth teller, commendably taking a strike for women everywhere, against the common enemy. The latest version is a viral essay in the Guardian by Isabel Kaplan: “My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer,” reads the headline. In this, Kaplan outlines her story: Her boyfriend raised issues about her potentially writing about him and, she feels, struggled with jealousy after the publication of her book, particularly after her agent compared her to Nora Ephron. Ephron, she writes, had been a hero of her boyfriend’s, so the comparison had stung. Despite a catalogue of alleged petulance and petty slights, she stayed with him, for reasons that aren’t really made clear. In the end, he dumped her. Because of her success.

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There is a tendency to talk about these essays in shadowy and suggestive terms that imply that criticism of the form of this writing is like siding with an abuser, so it is useful to be explicit about certain points here. At no point in her essay does Kaplan allege that her relationship was an abusive one. She also does not describe actions that suggest physical or emotional abuse. These essays tend not to. The boyfriend in question is simply made to sound a bit crap (or sometimes, unintentionally, the real injured party). This does not make it impossible that a pattern of abuse existed, but it does mean we shouldn’t assume it likely did, both out of respect for the narrative presented by the woman and to avoid groundlessly smearing her former partner. But also because mischaracterizing carelessness or nastiness as abuse minimizes the seriousness of actual abuse.

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Still, this essay was met the way they always are, as an uncomplicated parable of victim and villain and a brave and necessary story to tell, the privacy violation inherent in telling it entirely ignored (though, in Kaplan’s, that privacy violation is rather cannily deployed as part of the plot). The supportive reactions to these narratives are so outsized compared with the quality of the underlying work, either in thesis or execution, that I’m starting to wonder if these stories really are so brave, when we all know how they’ll be received: as a “fist-pump” moment we’re, as women, expected to support unquestioningly.

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I would suggest we pause to consider that a story with the same basic facts—a woman whose career is taking off is disappointed that her partner doesn’t seem excited about it—told without the furnishings, without this particular register of oppression boldly overcome, would garner a completely different response. Because the trend here is to applaud not female honesty (I am not sure there is much honesty happening in these pieces) but female abjection.

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In a patriarchal society, female abjection is a highly prized commodity. Submissiveness is assumed to be the true core of what it means to be a woman. I suspect that these stories are popular because they present themselves as progressive and challenging, while reaffirming this comfortable stereotype. There is a fashion, currently, for easy narratives that call themselves bold.

The prevalence of this way of framing the female experience is such that even the lives of women who did not choose to present themselves as such are recast in these terms. Blonde, the recent Marilyn Monroe biopic, featured barely a scene in which the actress was not crying or distraught. I understand that this is an attempt to articulate her complexity in the language of today. But portrayals of famous men that attempt to articulate their depth of character do not foreground vulnerability. Complexity of character would allow for vulnerability as one trait, not at the exclusion of all the others.

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The idea that such vulnerability would be presented as the secret true essence of a man is laughable. Male vulnerability is still wildly underdiscussed. Men could write essays like Kaplan’s, about feeling brokenhearted at losing a relationship with a woman who wanted children at a different time, or emasculated by earning less than they wished, or even disappointed by their girlfriend’s unenthusiastic response to their success. But they don’t, because everyone would laugh and make fun of them. In a patriarchal society, male vulnerability has no value, just as female vulnerability is too prized.

Ultimately, though, I’m a woman, and my real issue here is with what this kind of writing says about women, and what we do, and how we act. This is encompassed by a phrase from Kaplan’s essay: “The ability to bend an inch at a time while seeming to stand up straight is a useful and gendered skill. Most women I know do it regularly. They bend until they’re pretzeled and then blame themselves for the body aches.”

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I take exception to this on a personal level; I greatly resent the indignity of having the complexity of my emotional landscape and character reduced to a clumsy metaphor involving a pretzel. That may sound vain and self-aggrandizing. But women can be vain and self-aggrandizing. And manipulative, aggressive, bossy, spiteful, jealous, demanding, spoiled, proud, unreliable, selfish, and controlling. In the same way that men can be meek, self-effacing, vulnerable, emotional, hysterical, irrational, overtly submissive, self-deprecating, and martyrish. We are all capable of experiencing and performing the full range of human emotion.

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Does the world at large tend to ask women to bend more than it requires it of men? Sure. But some women are prone to compromising too much, and some almost never do this. And as this essay is specifically about Kaplan’s personal relationship, not her relationship to the world, I have to point out: The women I regularly discuss relationships with don’t report repeatedly finding themselves in this pattern of cringing abjection with a man who is not abusive but simply a bit of a prick. I hear a lot about arguments over domestic responsibilities (gendered, often), clinginess (on the man’s part, often), jealousy and sniping (from both sides), and trouble with money or sex. But I can think of only a few women I know in the situation described by Kaplan: a long-term relationship oriented almost entirely around the man, in which the woman constantly submits and then berates herself before smilingly going back for more. I don’t doubt that Kaplan’s statement reflects the truth of a certain milieu, but I don’t think my observations are unique to the women I know either. My sense is that we’re both talking about a specific type of person here.

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This is understandable: Women are endlessly complex and varied; I don’t think it’s possible to speak for or to us all. But the fact that writing like Kaplan’s claims to is not simply a case of pitching at relatability. There can be a coziness to abjection that is assumed to be communal. A sense that, since an external system beyond our control has preordained all our lives already, our power to improve our circumstances is minimal. The same tendency is common in a lot of writing about, say, capitalism or optimization culture. But we can acknowledge the reality of living under oppressive systems without inferring that they remove our agency entirely.

Considering ourselves bound to a certain fate as women is dismal. But there’s a comfort in exaggerating our lack of agency too: If this is just the way it is for all the women, there’s no onus on us as individuals to try to do anything differently. We can’t expect to have a heterosexual relationship that isn’t a bit crap, so we might as well just put up with whatever. There’s no point breaking up with a man who doesn’t support our work because the next one would hardly be any better. We should just wait till he walks out and then complain about him instead. And when he does, we needn’t trouble ourselves by considering our own flaws or participation in a failed relationship. We simply blame our male partners for their perpetuation of patriarchy, shrug, and move on.

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It can feel embarrassing to admit how attached we are to situations and people that we know are not serving us well. Mortifying to admit the extent of our agency in desire, and how much of ourselves we willingly give in the hope of getting something that is valuable to us back in return. Shameful to acknowledge that a degrading situation was one we chose. But then, so many commonplace, even definitional facets of the human experience do feel deeply humiliating.

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Many people have had relationships with someone who does not treat them well. Not an abuser. But someone who blows off their birthday dinner to get drunk with their friends; flirts with other people in front of them; doesn’t care for or about their work; doesn’t root for them; cheats on them or lies to them. Many of those who haven’t have wanted to, and were spared only because they were rejected outright. It is normal to want someone, or the idea of someone, so much that you would consider putting up with almost any personal humiliation to have them.

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Many women are trapped in abusive relationships. Aside from this grim reality, others can feel stuck, for a time, with a man who doesn’t seem caring or appreciative. Many others opt to contort themselves to appeal to someone they desire. Men do this too. There is nothing wrong with this, but there is nothing commendable or virtuous about it either. Abusive dynamics are not the only ones in which one or both parties suffer, but suffering is not necessarily a moral good. So much of what we do is self-serving and bleak to admit to, but ultimately morally neutral. And the people involved in a situation like this are just behaving like people. Love and desire almost always feel totally unfair, but if everyone only ever wanted what was good for them, the world would look very different. There would be a lot less good art, anyway.

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There are questions that every woman who chooses to date men in a patriarchal society must figure out her own answers to. Can we divorce our relationships from the reality of a patriarchal society? I don’t think so. Can we still expect to have relationships with men who broadly treat us well? I believe so. If our relationship story is not one of straightforward victimhood, are we still allowed to be heartbroken about it? I believe so. If the only men available seem incapable of treating us like people, is it worth dating them? I don’t think so. But these are just my answers.

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An essay like Kaplan’s can feel powerful because it nods at the reality of living as a woman under the patriarchy: Our subjugation is so thoroughly entrenched that it influences our lives in ways we don’t even recognize. But when we explain away the things we do with a shrugging “That’s just what women are like,” we allow a nod to our subjugation to serve as a stand-in for our personality, our experience, and our complexity. The oppressive structure we contest with becomes the totalizing feature of our character. Ultimately, writing like this luxuriates in the existence of the structures it claims to challenge. If we can’t stop doing it, well, at least we could stop celebrating it.

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