CULTURE & ARTS
03/31/2018 08:00 am ET

'The Female Persuasion' Is Another Mirror For Privileged White Women Like Me

We might see ourselves in Meg Wolitzer's new book. But do we need another pep talk for white middle-class women?
Riverhead

A couple months ago, I opened a book to find myself staring back. If novels can be both mirrors and windows, this one was the former. In Meg Wolitzer’s hotly anticipated The Female Persuasion, a remarkably timely novel about the work of feminism and mentorship out on Tuesday, I saw the story of my own life. And, for some reason, I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

Greer Kadetsky is a college freshman at Ryland College when she raises her hand during a guest lecture by Faith Frank, a second-wave feminist icon “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem.” Greer ― shy, studious, and deeply committed to her high school boyfriend Cory, who goes to Princeton ― doesn’t know much about feminism. Her interest arose only recently, after she was groped by a predatory frat guy at a party, and she helped spearhead an unsuccessful campaign to get him kicked out. Still, Faith, who founded an earnest feminist magazine and regularly appeared on TV, takes an inexplicable interest in Greer. When she graduates, Faith offers her a job at a new women’s foundation, which has lofty goals and funding from a sketchy venture capitalist, and Greer finds her niche writing speeches. The novel follows Greer’s growth into a confident young woman and writer, someone ready to take the feminist leadership torch from Faith.

As I read, I related to Greer Kadetsky so hard that it was both exhilarating and somewhat embarrassing. We’re both white women who grew up reading books by flashlight under the covers, studied English, and graduated from East Coast colleges in 2010. We fell in love with Ultimate-Frisbee-playing Princeton boys from immigrant families, and those romances fell apart. We used boyfriends to give us the nurturing our mothers couldn’t. We found feminism, read snarky women’s sites, wanted careers that encompassed our passions for the written word and for women’s rights. We moved to Brooklyn. We worried about our privileges, our failings, the ways we were letting people down. People with power saw potential in us, gave us opportunities. We became writers. As 30 approached, we got married and decided to start families.

I felt so seen by the book that I started to feel something else: manipulated. Loving The Female Persuasion felt as shamefully predictable as clicking on an Anthropologie ad on Facebook and ordering the dress it kept showing me, proving myself to be exactly the person Facebook ad data suggests I’d be.

Of course I loved the book. It’s perfectly designed to make a person like me love it.

And I’m not unique, especially in the world of New York-dwelling literary gatekeepers, in resembling Greer. So many fiction editors, book critics and literary tastemakers fit Greer’s description, if not in the exact ways I did. And the eminently Instagrammable, eminently relatable Female Persuasion could not have been more precisely calibrated to appeal to us.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a beautifully crafted novel about well-off, progressive white women. I’ve read many good novels that fit this description, and The Female Persuasion is indeed a good novel. Wolitzer has a mastery over the realist novel form that alone makes her books worth reading. Sometimes her descriptive phrases feel a little overripe (a pizza offers two girls “the soft solace of warm dough,” for example), or her revelations a little neat; still, the whole coalesces as something alive, absorbing, real.

But the book makes broader claims than that. The expansive scope of The Female Persuasion is right there in the title: It’s about being a woman, or at least being a feminist. It’s about respecting the women who came before us, but also recognizing their flaws. It’s about giving way to the women who come after us, but also offering them hard-won wisdom. It’s about the life cycle of feminism, and womanhood itself.

In that, The Female Persuasion falters. The novel seems to have been written for a more slickly packaged feminist era than this one ― for a Hillary Clinton presidency, or at least for a past world in which such a presidency felt like a sparkling inevitability rather than a tattered, flawed impossibility. Feminism looks different now, or, at least, there’s broad agreement it should: That it should be grittier, less beholden to existing institutions, more suspicious of corporate messaging and #GirlBoss swag, more inclusive, not just centered around and represented by cis white women (especially high-achieving, well-packaged white women) but women of color, LGBTQ women and nonbinary people, poor women, disabled women. 

The Female Persuasion covers almost half a century, two generations and a small ensemble of focal characters in order to build out a detailed portrait of feminist activism through the decades. But it pays little attention to characters who don’t mirror the average literary gatekeeper: white, educated, financially comfortable, creative, city-dwelling women. Greer, the protagonist, is a prime example, but so is Faith, her feminist mentor, and Zee, her college bestie, who is queer. People of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, trans people ― these people serve as window dressing on glamorously cosmopolitan locations (Princeton, Faith’s swanky corporate-financed foundation), or they don’t appear in Wolitzer’s novel at all.

The closest thing to an exception is Greer’s love interest Cory, the high-achieving son of Portuguese immigrants. He comes from a working-class family, and when there’s a shocking death in the family, he returns there, spending most of his 20s cleaning homes in order to support his shell-shocked mother. Greer, who expected the two of them would be movers and shakers in New York City after graduation, is at first supportive, then baffled, when Princeton-educated Cory gives up lucrative career opportunities to scrub toilets and cook for his mom.

Cory’s retreat from the corporate world serves as a sort of life lesson ― for him and, in a way, for Greer. Showing up for loved ones matters more than making bank; caring for family is more important than having an impressive career. Nothing is owed to him simply because he was a brilliant kid, and he’s not losing everything when he becomes a cleaner rather than a consultant or a tech entrepreneur.

Zee, who went to college with dreams of becoming a feminist agitator, also finds herself humbled by the end of the book. Her shy friend, Greer, is the one who catches the eye of Zee’s longtime hero, Faith Frank, and leverages it into a career as a professional activist. Zee contents herself with becoming a teacher in Chicago, where she’s again brought low by the realization that her lofty ideals of saving the underprivileged won’t be enough to help her students, especially if she just helicopters in to teach for a year or two. It’s in devoting her life to working as a crisis manager in Chicago, helping people in moments of great trauma, that she finds she can make a real difference. 

These are both valuable lessons, and ones that privileged white feminists often need to learn. But Greer, whose experience is the spine of the novel, does not have to learn them, or only has to learn them secondhand. (“I feel like Cory is kind of a big feminist, right?” Greer’s mom finally points out, to Greer’s embarrassment.)

Her own greatest humblings involve briefly confronting her mistakes ― betraying Zee, and being an unwitting party to the foundation’s coverup of a failed charity mission ― and then moving on swiftly and easily. Zee stops speaking to her for a little while; she has a falling out with Faith over the charity debacle and leaves her job. But she repairs things with Zee; she finds a new, successful direction for her career. 

'The Female Persuasion' feels like a gentle reassurance that it’s okay for the mainstream feminist movement to continue mostly as before: white-centered, white-led, and devoted to facile promotion of individual empowerment.

Wolitzer ably captures how woozily destabilizing these conflicts can be, and it’s particularly resonant because almost everyone, by 30, has fucked up an important friendship and had a chilling realization about the corrupt reality of the corporate world. Greer’s problems and lessons are not exceptional. But her successes are. It’s a sharp crystallization of privilege, to see how disproportionately Greer benefits from a feminist movement she needs so much less than many others. Aside from that early groping incident, we don’t really see her disadvantaged because of her identity, but she is the one who becomes well-off and famous for her work as a feminist.  

The problem is not that people like Greer shouldn’t become activists, or shouldn’t feel proud of their work, or should wallow in guilt over their privilege. It’s that a novel sifting through the small failures (and huge successes) of a prominent young white feminist hardly feels like a major statement about the movement. In 2018, aren’t there more vital, surprising and layered stories to tell? Aren’t there faces of the female, and feminist, experience calling more urgently for depiction in popular culture? Perhaps Wolitzer, who is remarkably gifted at portraying creative, educated young white women coming of age, isn’t the writer to tell those other stories ― but if not, it remains troubling that she and her publisher have presented this very conventional, very limited image of feminism as a universal story.

Throughout, Wolitzer seems aware of this critique, but the result is anticipatorily defensive rather than expansive. Peppered throughout her book are brief acknowledgements, typically framed as criticism by “some,” of feminism’s past failures, or at least the failures of mainstream, prominent white women to work for and elevate women with less clout.

“[N]aturally,” Wolitzer writes of Faith’s foundation Loci, which mainly traffics in expensive symposia and speaker series, “people were writing things on Twitter like #whiteladyfeminism and #richladies, and the hashtag that for some reason irritated Faith most, #fingersandwichfeminism.” The close third-person of the novel often leaves it unclear whether the annoyance is Faith’s alone, or the narrator’s; either way, these critiques are treated as marginal. Faith, and Greer, are pure of heart and truly care about women ― the rest is details.

At one point, Zee’s colleague at her Chicago school, Noelle, explains that Zee’s Teach for America-style program that floods public schools with unqualified, overwhelmed do-gooders. “It can’t take criticism, and therefore it will never change,” Noelle says. But taking criticism isn’t the same thing as changing. Faith readily admits that she’s gullible, but it doesn’t inoculate her from disastrously trusting choices. Wolitzer can include critique after critique of the whiteness and privilege of feminism’s mainstream leaders, but at its heart, the book is at peace with this vision of the movement.

As a portrait of torch-passing between two generations of feminism, Wolitzer’s novel elides, for the most part, questions about how feminism has changed and how it could in the future. It’s a cycle, not a forward movement; women start out young and feisty, then grow jaded and comfortable. Greer, despite her rift with Faith, doesn’t represent much of a step forward for the feminist movement ― she’s just at an earlier point in her career. She even mentally tsks her babysitter, a teenage girl who believes feminism should be less hierarchical and more intersectional, for her youthful naiveté.

″[The babysitter] offered these opinions as if they were entirely new; the pleasure and excitement in her voice was stirring,” Wolitzer writes. “Greer could have said to her, ‘Yes, I know all about this. Faith said that women said the same thing back in the seventies,’ but that wouldn’t have been kind.”

There’s a truth to this ― it’s unfair yet easy to overlook the once-youthful idealism and hard work of our forebears, and there’s nothing new under the sun ― but it’s also bizarrely fatalistic. If women have been saying this for decades, shouldn’t we be asking why we’re still so far from achieving those goals? 

Instead, The Female Persuasion feels like a gentle reassurance that it’s OK for the mainstream feminist movement to continue mostly as before: white-centered, white-led, and devoted to facile promotion of individual empowerment. We probably should do better, but also we’re all doing the best we can. “Women in powerful positions are never safe from criticism,” Faith tells Greer in her job interview, a sentiment echoed again and again in the book. But the criticisms, even those from other feminists, never quite penetrate; they’re background noise.

Early in the novel, Greer recalls a cartoon lampooning Faith’s magazine, Bloomer, she saw on a Jezebel-esque blog called Fem Fatale. “Time to give another pep talk to straight white middle-class women,” says Amelia Bloomer, the magazine’s namesake, in a mocking speech bubble. This critique is presented as slightly unfair; Bloomer has a diverse staff and covers diversity. But as a critique of The Female Persuasion, it’s uncomfortably accurate.

I felt swaddled, as I finished the book, in reassurance that I, like Greer, am deserving and lovable despite my privilege and my fuck-ups. Greer gets married and has a baby, and, of course, writes a book, an uplifting feminist manifesto called Outside Voices that sets up camp on the bestseller lists for months. The book urges girls and women to speak loudly and unapologetically, to advocate for themselves and for women. The title is a play on Greer’s longtime anxiety about speaking up in public, but also a nod to the fact that “of course in 2019 women felt like outsiders more than ever.”

Wolitzer gives voice to the inevitable backlash such a book would receive: “It did not speak for all women, Greer was told. Many women, most women, were so, so much farther outside of privilege and access than Greer Kadetsky was.”

The unacknowledged irony here, of course, is that the voices of those less privileged women are the voices of real outsiders, women marginalized even in a movement that claims to empower them. In The Female Persuasion, those increasingly loud voices in today’s feminism ― the voices of black women, Muslim women, trans women, and others ― are only heard as faint echoes, and the speakers seen only through a glass, dimly.

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