Friday, April 17, 2009

It’s not all bad news- or is it?

Last time I skirted near the interesting subject of feminism, I mentioned women ‘whose confidence has been so buffeted they wish it was the 1950s again’. I’ve spent the past couple of days back in the 1950s myself reading ‘The Golden Notebook’ at last, a novel which puts Lessing‘s other excellent work in the shade (and certainly makes me deeply unenthusiastic about returning to my actual current self-imposed reading programme, mostly novels –American and French- from 1920s Paris). This article makes sense as a follow-up to my last rant on feminism because of this current nostalgia- not just in ‘The Rules’, but in Cosmo, and in intelligent people’s heads and in the air, for an age that was just as messed up as we are now, if not more. Thinking about what’s changed since then leaves me with a sense of one step forward, two steps back. Or, to be fair, three steps forward, two steps back. There’s so many connections between our bodies, our sexual needs, our relationships, our attitudes to society, that need more thought. And we’re not putting in the work! Reading a story from 50 years ago I realise that although institutions have reformed (divorce, abortion, contraception), our anxieties –and even guilt- about our own desire has not.

And I sat there and I thought: do you suppose he’s forgotten what he said and why he said it? Or aren’t we supposed to care what they say? We’re just supposed to be tough enough to take anything? Sometimes I think we’re all in a sort of sexual madhouse.’

Ella says drily. ‘My dear Julia, we’ve chosen to be free women, and this is the price we pay, that’s all.’

‘Free,’ says Julia. ‘Free! What’s the use of us being free if they aren’t? I swear to God, that every one of them, even the best of them, have the old idea of good women and bad women.’

‘And what about us?’

Lessing is fascinating on the subject of what women’s sexuality means, and one of the interesting things about this exploration of ‘Free Women’ in a patriarchal society is this old idea that if part of the people is not free, then nobody is free. The heroines’ act of defiance is not that they enjoy sex, or that they sleep with married men, but that they continue to do this as they are becoming middle-aged, and have children. And today, now we accept divorce and premarital sex and experimentation, we still put a very clear age cap on this tolerance, as exemplified in Bridget Jones, and Sex and the City, and other fiction about single women enjoying life. And the age cap is linked with fertility- Bridget Jones is in her mid thirties, and Carrie in her late thirties, when they finally find love (don’t ask me how I know that). And I’m worried it’s too deeply socialised to fight as individuals- I certainly forget half of this when someone with nice eyes asks me for a drink- so we have to fight is as a group, or even better, as a society. However, something else that stands out in The Golden Notebook (and, sadly, in Lessing’s much later work) is a highly uneasy relationship between the ‘Free Women’ in the novel and homosexuality, male and female but especially male. The single mothers in the book both worry about direct and associative homosexual influence on their children- in one episode the heroine asks her lodgers to move out because her child is becoming too close to them and their fairly open relationship. It reminds me of The L-Shaped Room trilogy written a decade later, where the protagonist, also a single mother, experiences a warm but nonetheless anxiety-ridden friendship with her housemate, a kind jazz musician who is not only gay but also black, and therefore has no natural place in her child’s world. Also, as ‘Free Women’ bringing up children alone, the heroines are trying almost to compete with conventional child-rearing- a sort of ‘I have made the choice to live outside the norms of conventional society, but will not force my child to live there too.’ While they encourage discussion, and certainly a left-wing morality, there is also the sense that the children are to be protected from their mothers’ extreme behaviour. [I went to a Catholic christening a year or so ago, a lavish do where both the parents freely admitted that they were not and had never been practising or believing Catholics, and that they had taken this step for their child’s future, not for themselves. ‘Good Schools’ were mentioned. (The child was about 18 months old). Why the fuck do we make moral choices that we are afraid to impose on our children? It amounts to admitting defeat straight away in any advancements we can make as a society rather than as individuals. Either the brat is going to be completely dominated by established social mores until the day it graduates from university, an independent adult, in which case you might as well follow your heart, or the parent’s influence will override everything else, so you might as well teach your sprog that you are not a complete hypocrite. Don’t even get me started on people who only get married for the children. Many of my school mates were as small-c conservative as you get, and no one ever blinked an eye at me being a bastard. (Or at least, not about my parents not being married, tee hee.)] I suppose the women’s lib movement concretised itself in the 60s and 70s into something more solid and all-embracing than mere Sex Wars. Here, however, the implication is that homosexuality is almost a threat to the liberated heterosexual woman, a ‘choice’ made by men that excludes women at the same time as aping femininity grotesquely. Of course, solidarity between what is now LGBT and women’s liberation owes much to other social movements, Black civil rights in America in particular. But to give Lessing her due, it also has a debt to pay to novelists such as herself. Despite its problems with homosexuality, the book opens a debate on gender identity; it both questions men and womens’ traditional roles and investigates where they come from and to what point they are necessary. One of the most irritating fallacies about modern feminism is when feminism amounts to complete or partial rejection of men. At the end of the day, if you’re a heterosexual woman, you’re going to ‘need’ a man on some level, and one of the things The Golden Notebook discusses is that it is always difficult to find a dignified equilibrium in sexual relationships, whether you rebel against typical man-woman traditions or not. (Molly, divorced ‘Free Woman’ and her counterpart, Marion, demonstrate this in their different relationships with the same man). This has taken me bloody ages to figure out for myself, and all I can really come up with now is- I have not been as honest and frank as I deserved to be in many of my relationships. I owe it to myself and to the men concerned to be more scrupulous in this matter. I think French men have shocked me into accepting the importance of this. I general, English men are pretty easy to drift along with if nobody asks any questions- I don’t think it’s French culture in particular but just adjusting to Abroad in general that makes me evaluate my assumptions. As always in my self-evaluations, the conclusion is that I need to be more assertive and more demanding, which will probably strike fear into the hearts of my more loyal readers. One of my best friends recently referred to me as sexually liberated- well, you aint seen nothing yet.

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