Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Of money, memoirs...and misogyny?

Stumbled across an interesting book in my travels yesterday. It's called Money, A Memoir, by career publishing executive and "lipstick feminist," as one might call her, Liz Perle. The reason it's interesting, aside from the writing itself, which is pretty good, is that neither the denizens of publishing nor most reviewers quite know how to bracket the book. Perle, you see, is being literal, rather than ironic or playful, in her title. Publishers Weekly called the book a "sociological study-cum-memoir." Some have made note of the book's strong self-help overtones, which it clearly has. Others--while not necessarily disputing Perle's basic arguments--have greeted her book coolly if not resentfully, implying that the author is a traitor to the cause of feminism and gender equality.

Yes, Money, A Memoir has angered its share of women, especially those who've worked hard to be taken seriously in their professional lives; hell, for all I know, this post may anger a few women. That's because Perle argues that whatever women have achieved in recent decades, their "relationship with money" remains naive and, for want of a better word, "girlie." They still don't know how to manage it; they still feel compelled to deceive their husbands about how much of it they spend; they still rely on men ("white knights") to swoop in and pick up the pieces when they stumble; they still indulge in "retail therapy," a phrase that probably doesn't require explanation but basically means that women shop as a form of escapism/fantasy. The latter sounds like no big news flash, but Perle argues that women do this even when they can't afford to, thus not only reinforcing all those patronizing stereotypes but also funding all sorts of frilly industries that keep the vicious cycle humming along. She contends that even a woman weathering a tough budgetary crisis will foolishly go to Victoria's Secret or some pricy shoestore and buy herself something she can't afford in order to "make herself feel better." (Perle supports such contentions with vignettes from her own life, as well as from "almost every woman" she knows.) In essence, she's saying, women may have made great strides, but for most of them it remains really important to make those strides in cute designer shoes. And then lie to men about what they paid for them, thus affirming their embarrassment, subservience, and basic insecurity about their female tendencies.

Despite all of the success she has achieved in her own right, Perle writes, "there's still that other part of me--the one that wants to reserve the option of depending on someone else." Or, as her book's dust jacket puts it, Perle "long ago, and not entirely consciously...made a quiet contract with cash: she would do what it took to get it--work hard, marry right--but she didn’t want to have to think about it too much...." Or, as PW put it: "In spite of women's supposedly massive buying power and growing presence in Fortune 500 boardrooms, many women are still awfully old-fashioned when it comes to cash."

So--women readers--are you angry yet?

Janice P. Nimura sure seems to be. Writing (originally) in the Los Angeles Times, Nimura asserts that regardless of the merit of Perle's thesis, "too much of her argument moves in a direction many readers won't go." Even after conceding that the "statistics may bear [Perle] out," Nimura writes that for readers who either don't share Perle's inclinations or refuse to admit to same, "this book will infuriate rather than elighten."

Money, A Memoir is holding its own in the marketplace, so perhaps it hasn't infuriated quite as many readers as Nimura thought it would. And as even Nimura concedes, Perle may well have the numbers on her side.

* More than half of all female baby boomers have less than $10,000 accrued in a pension or 401(k) plan.
* Due to inadequate savings, the average woman born between 1946 and 1964 will likely be in the workforce until she is 74.
* Perhaps most chillingly, at least a third of women now ages 35 to 55 years old will be impoverished by age 70.*

Still, the lesson here, again, is that self-help consumers--largely women--don't want to hear what they don't want to hear. Perle's book and the sometimes angry reaction to it prove the oft-made SHAMblog point that self-help must be packaged a certain way or else people won't take to it. As faithful readers of this blog are aware, one of my chief gripes with the self-help movement is the way it distorts (or ignores) provable facts and observable reality. SHAM's message to the rest of us is clear: "If we don't like what you're telling us about life, we won't listen to you...even if your evidence is overwhelming."

This helps explain why, even in settings and/or manifestations where self-help might actually do some good, it ends up shooting itself in the foot. To a greater or lesser degree, the self-help guru feels compelled to pander to his audience: What followers ought to hear palls before the guru's knowledge of what they want to hear. Even Dr. Phil, for all his so-called "tough love" message to women, is not going to say things that flat-out insult or alienate them in any meaningful way.

Though Perle's book, being a memoir, might sneak in under the radar a bit more easily than if it were a straighforward nonfiction expose of a subject (a la, say, SHAM), reviewers with a preconceived agenda, like Nimura, are going to attack it regardless--just as feminists attacked those studies a few years ago that suggested that kids in daycare develop behaviorial maladjustments at a far greater rate than kids with stay-at-home moms. It didn't matter to feminists whether or not the studies were valid (and in fact, subsequent studies have cast doubt on the validity of those studies). From the feminist point of view, studies that were skeptical of daycare, or anything else that might limit a woman's options, couldn't be valid. They couldn't be allowed to be valid. By definition. Regardless of merit.

Tell me: How and when did that become the standard way of dealing with new information, particularly the unwelcome kind, in American life? Even in all my research for SHAM, I never found a satisfying answer to that. And I'd really like to know.

* I did not indepedently verify these figures, but rather, took the author at her word.

LOVE SMART UPDATE, midnight, March 8. Well, the cutting "Cindy Brock" review got its one week in the "spotlight" and now is gone, gone, gone. "Barbara Rose" is once more all alone in that elite position, "Marilyn Barry" once more owns the No. 1 position among regular reader reviews, and all has been set right in the charmed world of Dr. Phil McGraw....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"How and when did that become the standard way of dealing with new information, particularly the unwelcome kind," you ask? Why, we learned it from the masters--our organized religions.