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Feminspire | April 24, 2014

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The Alleged Rise Of The Woman-Child: A Response

The Alleged Rise Of The Woman-Child: A Response

On Monday, Deborah Schoeneman, Girls writer, published a piece on Jezebel entitled “Sparkly Nail Polish, Katy Perry, and Frozen Eggs: Meet the Woman-Child.” In what appeared online, she claims that there is a cultural trend of women who “seem to be aging backwards.” Why? Because the supposed woman-child likes sparkly and colorful nail polish, pizza, cupcakes and board games, and likes to have fun instead of “obsess[ing] over a feminist article in The Atlantic.” She cares more about going to see The Hunger Games than going to see “age-appropriate” movies like What To Expect When You’re Expecting. She prioritizes female friendships, evident by the fact that she posts pictures of birthday dinners and boozy vacations over pictures of her wedding or her kids, like her “peers” do. Oh, she’s also unmarried and doesn’t have kids. In fact, throughout Schoeneman’s piece, that seems to be what defines adulthood — being oriented towards marriage and kids.

The Jezebel piece is excerpted from a Kindle single. Kindle singles are pieces of long-form journalism sold through Amazon. I bought the Kindle single so I could read the full essay. In conclusion: I’m not convinced this isn’t a ploy on the part of Amazon to bring the existence of Kindle singles to public attention. The long essay is a rambling mess that doesn’t even have the courage to stand by its convictions, and serves also as an autobiography of Deborah Schoeneman — whose life story is the most important source in condemning a great deal of modern women. It’s also horribly offensive and extremely anti-feminist. (Maybe Schoeneman should spend a little more time obsessing over feminist articles in The Atlantic, and a little less time obsessing over the link between the marriage status of her peers and their choice in nail polish.)

(Note: from here on out all quotes are from the Kindle single, not the Jezebel piece.)

She begins the piece by talking about her childhood. The narrative thread: how different she was. She “aspired to adulthood on the early side” and “always believed it would be better than childhood.” She proves this by the fact that she preferred Interview over Sassy, dated older guys, and was class president five times. She was also a self-described mean girl from 5th grade till high school, part of a group called “The Blondes,” but drifted away because the other Blondes were into makeup while she was into writing for the school newspaper. Of course, she finds it necessary to tell us that all those women went to college in Ohio (not Ohio!) and ended up working at Equinox! (The horror!)

Why does any of this matter? I believe that personal narrative has a place in cultural criticism, because how we experience culture depends on who we are as people. But why the insistence on convincing the reader, before anything else, that she was different, with the subtext that she was better? (After all, she became a writer on an HBO show. She’s not working at Equinox!)

From there, she moves into the material that forms the bulk of the Jezebel piece. Right off the bat, she sets up the parallel between adulthood and parenting, saying that a defining characteristic of the “woman-child” is that she would “rather rally girlfriends to see The Hunger Games than the more peer age-appropriate What To Expect When You’re Expecting.” 

The Hunger Games is about a futuristic dystopia where the central government controls the population by forcing each district to give up two children to a televised fight to the death. It features a strong young woman as the lead character. There’s a lot in there that’s actually very serious and weighty, including a critique of reality shows, and a warning on unchecked materialism. What To Expect When You’re Expecting is about five couples and their babies. I’ve never seen it, so I can’t comment on the depths of it, but why is it more age-appropriate? Because it’s about having children? That would seem like a stretch, but the following criticisms of women-children show that’s exactly what she means, whether she knows it or not.

According to Schoeneman, the so-called woman-child will “likely get married/reproduce later.” This is a stark statement, introduced with no explanation for why that’s a critique. Why, exactly, is this bad?

And again: the woman-child prioritizes female friendships. She posts pictures of her vacations on Facebook, not her children! I’m reminded of an essay that I recently read in Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives, (note: please don’t Google Katie Roiphe and take this as my endorsement of her) where she wrote about how to her, the proliferation of mothers using Facebook profile pictures that feature their kids, not them, feels like an erasure to her. I don’t quite agree, but the truth lies somewhere in between the two. What is bad about prioritizing female friendships? She never quite goes into this, and we’re left only to assume that it’s because by prioritizing their friendships, they’re not prioritizing relationships, marriage and children.

She brings up “game nights,” where people gather to play Connect 4, Boggle and other games, which she sees as a childish pursuit. The menu is pizza, cupcakes and candy, which she compares to a child’s birthday party. She never goes into depth about this pizza and cupcakes. The last time I made pizza for a friend, it was homemade pizza with smoked mozzarella, sorpressata, and leftover homemade marinara sauce. In New York City, there are specialty cupcake shops everywhere. Searching for ‘pizza’ or ‘cupcakes’ on a site like Tastespotting or Foodgawker will bring up dozens of recipes for various flavor combinations. What’s so childlike about Brown Sugar Cupcakes with Cinnamon Ginger Buttercream and Ginger Cookie Pecan Brittle or fig, fennel, pistachio and peppercress pizza?

The biggest red flag may be that she claims that the men at these parties feel like they can’t talk to the women because they’re focused on a game, even though these are often events designed for singles to meet! Is she implying that when women get competitive, men don’t want to talk to them? And that adult socialization is predicated upon the meeting of men and women?

She then goes on to talk about the recession, and link the rising ages of brides to the economic situation. That may well be true (but it isn’t a bad thing). Women have trouble finding jobs and move back in with their families. They can’t kick off careers, so they “waitress, nanny or tutor for longer than expected.” This may be true, but as a former nanny, I resent the implication that adulthood and being a nanny is incompatible. Ms. Schoeneman, as a mother, have more respect for nannies! Waitressing is an extremely hard, extremely stressful occupation. Isn’t part of feminism supposed to be the idea that we should value the traditional ‘women’s work’ fields?

She links this moving-home and not-working-high-prestige-jobs trend with the rise of girlish fashion. “Instead of moping around about not having any cash to go shopping for a real Cartier love bracelet, or someone to buy it for them, they can just slip on a stack of rubber bracelets from high school.” The Cartier love bracelet costs over a thousand dollars. Yet, for her, success and adulthood is being able to afford such things, or being with someone who can. Is that what this is all about? So far, Ms. Schoeneman has conflated adulthood with being married, seeking a relationship, having children, and being able to drop a grand or more on jewelry.

And she’s viewing all this from the “safe distance of imminent motherhood!”

She then goes into an examination of the proliferation of television shows recently with the word “girl” or “girls” in the title, compared to the shows with the term “men.” (Girls, New Girl, Two Broke Girls vs. Mad Men, Two and a Half Men, etc.) She claims that the female creators of these shows have embraced the word girl. They find it “punk rock.” But maybe it’s about the way we use the term in society. Imagine if the shows were called ‘Women’, ‘Two Broke Women’, ‘New Woman’. Be honest about your gut reaction — those sound terrible. Our society constantly calls women girls. That’s our culture, no matter whether we’re wearing neon nail polish and bows or not. I could be wearing a suit and reading Dickens and I would still be a girl.

Don’t worry, she’s not done with the pervasive link between motherhood and womenhood yet! “None of the girls on the new girl shows are mothers.”

Off the top of my head, here are some currently airing shows that feature mothers as main characters: Modern Family, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Parenthood – I could go on and on. For those of us who are either not ready to have kids or are ambivalent about them or know they don’t want kids, it’s nice to see women who are not mothers as main characters. Because we’re women too, regardless of how much use our uteri have gotten recently. Why does an adult woman need to be a mother in order to be considered an adult woman character?

She references Sarah Silverman often, drawing attention to the way she dresses in hoodies, sneakers and jeans — and the fact that she’s 41 and childless. She does not address the fact that Silverman has made the deliberate choice not to have kids due to her history with mental illness — a mature, self-aware decision that, to me, says the opposite of immaturity.

She talks then about a series of ‘age-appropriate’ women-oriented films that she believes has flopped due to the woman-child trend. What To Expect When You’re Expecting. I Don’t Know How She Does It, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker as a woman juggling career and kids. The Back-Up Plan, which is about a woman having kids in a non-traditional way. As an adult woman, to not be called a child, I have to care about kids? As an adult woman, I resent the implication that my interests are narrowly defined by childbearing.

The rest of the essay is largely untouched by Jezebel, but contains some of the most inane and offensive passages. She pays lip service to choice feminism, claiming that the fact that women have the choice to delay childrearing and like whatever fashion they want is a feminist victory. “I think it’s a form of women’s lib that it’s acceptable for women to dress and act any way they want, even in a style that at first glance appears as if they want to be taken less seriously.” She spends some brief time with Sarah Heyward, a 28-year-old writer on Girls who exemplifies this style, and creates a portrait of an intelligent woman dressing how she wants, and claims that Heyward is ‘softening’ her towards the “woman-child.” (Guess what? Women — not women-children — don’t need you to soften towards them, they need you to respect them as people.)

She then goes into an examination of HelloGiggles, the site founded by Zooey Deschanel and the home of all things cute. She has some good things to say about the site. She wants to support female entrepreneurs. It, like her discussion of choice feminism, feels inauthentic. I am convinced she is saying these things because she wants to claim a place in the feminist world, and knows that most of her rhetoric is the antithesis of feminism.

This conviction of mine is driven home when, after a truly inane discussion of Paris Hilton and cougars, she claims that “the woman-child trends still seem to alienate most guys. My eligible bachelor friends agreed, emphatically, that they thought the girlie craze was distinctly unsexy.” She then quotes a comedy writer she knows who claims “Sure, I would think it was hot, if I were a pedophile.”

Uh, what? I wrote my notes for this piece in purple ink, do you mean the guy next to me on the train thought this diminished my sexiness? If I could only turn back time! Women are not obligated to be sexy, or to be sex objects, and not being sexy is not a bad thing.

In the end, she comes to the conclusion, seemingly out of nowhere, that it’s not a bad thing to be a woman-child. But, Deborah, your value judgment is in the name. It’s in the fact that you think these women are deliberately acting like children, which they’re not. In your worldview, the women like you — who value marriage, children, and material wealth above all — are the only real adult women. That’s destructive. You claim that they’re not doing anyone any harm. I agree. But you are, because in a world where women are often not respected, you’ve provided a problematic, flawed framework for more people to not take them seriously.

You didn’t stop being a mean girl in high school. You’re still one today. Think about the scene in the movie Mean Girls where Regina tells a girl that she loves her skirt, and then under her breath mutters that it’s the ugliest thing she’s ever seen. That’s what you’re doing.

And since your personal life story means more than any kind of macro, cultural examination, I’m going to introduce Feminspire’s very own Taylor Blakin to give a countering personal narrative:

Here’s the thing, Deborah Schoeneman: being pregnant, married, or having fancy dinner parties isn’t a measure of your value as an individual (and in this economy, nether is having a steady job anymore). Every day I put on a poofy dress, at least one bow, and my avocado-shaped backpack, and I walk through the toughest, crabbiest city in the world to get to my high-profile job where I spend my day coding HTML, running detailed analyses, and being more successful than I ever thought I could be. I grew up in a single-parent (who was bipolar – unmedicated), low-income household and was still able to make it into NYU for undergrad. Not only that, I was able to pay for it all myself (with the help of private loans, but still) while working full-time in order to pay my rent. After that, despite the huge financial shit-hole that was 2009, I was able to maintain steady job after steady job and eventually, work my way up to where I am today. I didn’t crumble in the face of tough times and go running back home in my hot-pink ballet flats, like you seem to think us girly girls do. You see, my love of glitter, polka dots, bows, food-shaped clothing, makeup, and cupcakes does not make me weaker or inferior. My expression of my femininity (or what you like to call “childishness”) or nostalgia for my past (does it really bother you THAT MUCH if I play with a Yak Bak?) doesn’t mean I am incapable of maturity and embracing adulthood. Lack of babies, non-impending marriage, or unemployment do not separate a person from becoming an adult and remaining a child. The second you start parsing out what type of women are more valuable than others, you become a misogynist. As human beings, the type of clothes we wear are an expression of something we like, but are not indicative of our character as a whole. Didn’t your parents ever tell you not to judge a book by its cover (especially when you run the risk of pissing off a really cool book)? In fact, it sure seems to me that you’re a bit jelly that you’re stuck in this phase of your life that holds so many new responsibilities while your girly friends are still free to enjoy themselves however they please. I am extremely offended that you would place my worth as less than yours and imply that I am using this youthfulness to cover up some closeted fear I have of growing up. I am not Peter Pan. I am not a woman-child. I am a woman-just and I am strong and fiercely independent. However, it seems that you, Deborah Schoeneman, have a lot of growing up to do.

To finish it off, I want to quote from the episode “Jess and Julia” of New Girl, which features a character who holds a similar mindset to Ms. Schoeneman, in conflict with the titular Jess:

I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children. And I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. It freaks me out. I’m sorry that I don’t talk like Murphy Brown. And I hate your pants suit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something just to make it slightly cuter but that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong.

Damn right, Jess Day. Damn right.

Written by Jess Mary Aloe, who thought she was writing a Kindle Single  
Follow her on Twitter, where she’s forced to stick to 140 characters!