backwards, regardless of shoes

It’s been a while since I was as disappointed in a work of non-fiction as I was in Backwards in High Heels.

The book is beautifully produced – interesting font, idiomatic and pretty full-color illustrations, even satisfyingly heavyweight paper – and it is charmingly written: the idea that love is not the answer is “an intellectual mouse scratching behind the skirting board;” they often use the word “hoary,” which I love.

But I have three standards when it comes to writing about sex, gender, and relationships: scientifically accurate, helpful, and well-written. With exceptions, Dan Savage tends to meet all three. And Susan Douglas’s Enlightened Sexism met all three. Everyone should read that book. My own writing is clumsy enough that I usually settle for two out of three. Backwards in High Heels meets only one.

Still, there are worse sins than unhelpful, inaccurate, but chewily written prose. Sadly, the book commits a worse sin, albeit inadvertently.

I knew going in that the authors were only writers, not context experts, so I didn’t have high hopes of learning anything, but I did have the expectation of unique and creatively expressed insights. What we get instead is creatively expressed pablum, the ordinary, bland, offensively inoffensive tropes you can find in virtually every issue of “Red Book.”

Authors Tania Kindersley and Sarah Vine say in the book’s Introduction that the book is about “making up your own mind and trusting that mind.” It is, they write, “the literary equivalent of the conversations women have every day of the week.”

This is where that “worse sin” mentioned above comes in.

Why then is it 389 beautiful pages of unenlightened platitudes, like work-life balance is about finding the balance that’s right for YOU, and you will recover from grief if you allow it to move through you? I mean, both of those things are true as far as they go, but they’re just the same old obvious stuff. Are we making up our own minds if we’re sitting around like frogs in a swamp, wallowing in the mire of the ideas that pop culture put into our heads? If oodles of Oxbridge-y literary allusions can’t lift our perspective out of the swamp and into the creative world of novel insight, what can?

Take the section called “What to do when your husband/boyfriend/lover runs off with a tall blonde who is half your age and dress size.” We all know without needing to be told that tall, blond, young and thin is more appealing than short, dark, aging, and round, which makes the paragraphs that follow (“let your girlfriends rally round” and “Go out and buy yourself a bunch of flowers”) not only unnecessary but pointless. He betrayed you because he’s a man and you’re not up to standard. The flowers and the rallying of your girlfriends can’t fix that. Here, have one of my flies, I’m trying to watch my weight and you could use some cheering up. Ribbit.

Of course they don’t MEAN it that way. They mean it to be girl-talk, supportive, “Oh men are hopeless but you are AMAZING.”

Excellent writing should show us something new, should dig deeper than we ordinary mortals dig and bring up something beautiful or jolie laide from the ditch. And all they do is wander around in the already-dug trench and describe it to us. Disappointing.

But my own personal reaction was even worse than that. If these are “the conversations women have every day of the week,” no wonder I have so few female friends. I want to believe that women are not so small as the thoughts in this book. I want to believe we’re capable of digging new trench, to overuse the metaphor from the last paragraph.

Actually, the whole book reminds me of this dinner I went to with my BFFL, back when we were both grad students. It was him and me, a professor (in the BFFL’s department) and his wife, and a visiting speaker and his girlfriend. The men were talking about animal epistemology and the women were talking about recipes. I swear to god. Can you guess which conversation I wanted to participate in? But the women tried to include me in their conversation and I felt rude rebuffing them – I don’t cook, I don’t knit, I don’t have or want or even particularly like kids, but they were being nice. But really I just wanted to talk about how squirrels know where all the nuts are.

My friend Bill – not that Bill, the other Bill – once described me as a guy with a vagina. But is my lack of engagement with the zeitgest of femininity a barrier to my finding someone to date? Does Bridget Jones bring all the boys to the yard? If I’m a guy with a vagina – and not in the sexy Carmen Diaz I-can-belch-just-as-loud-and-swear-as-fluently-at-professional-athletes kind of way but in an in-fact-I-know-more-about-this-than-you-do-and-I-won’t-pretend-otherwise-just-because-I-have-no-penis kind of way – am I therefore as unappealing to men as I am to women?

So this book that purports to want to make me “feel that I am all right” makes me feel simultaneously very lonely and sad for the state of women in the industrialized west. If this is the best we can do with all our advantages… god.