Cathy's World: Do nothing gals

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   Jan. 8, 2003 at 11:47 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- My 13-year-old daughter's new friend Holly, an exchange student from Korea, came over for dinner the other night and made a point of remarking on how "delicious" everything was, though it probably seemed strange compared to Korean food.

What a contrast to the typical American child's standard comment, which I've encountered over years of attending children's birthday parties: "I don't eat that. That's weird." (My standard response: "Tell someone who cares.")

Holly also brought little presents for me "and for grandfather," who she knew lived with us. I began to wonder if the problem of nasty girls discussed in Rachel Simmons' best-selling "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression In Girls" isn't so much a matter of deep, psychological dysfunction but that no one bothers to teach kids manners in this country any more.

And that goes for girls as well as boys.

Forget do-me feminism -- a far bigger trend today is do-nothing feminism, the modern equivalent of the neurasthenia of the last fin-de-siecle. Surely you've heard its cri-de-coeur, always voiced in tones of helpless self-pity mixed with weird, dainty pride: "I can't cook/vote/be on time/meet you for lunch/pick up the piles of trash in my living room/read a daily newspaper/insist my daughter behave/deal with being a mom. I'm just...too...busy."

A quick review of what life was like in the days before washing-machines will show this is nonsense. But the conceit that the modern woman's life is unbearably overwhelming now pervades our culture.

It's revealed in everything from books about daughters, like "Odd Girl Out," to books about mothers, like "Misconceptions," Naomi Wolf's mesmerizingly nutty polemic about pregnancy and childbirth.

Simmons marshals page after page of depressing tales of female adolescent cruelty - typical is the story of poor Jenny, who moves to a new school and immediately gets nicknamed, for no discernible reason, Harriet the Hairy Whore -- but never suggests that the perpetrators are simply badly brought up brats ill-suited for polite society. Instead, she argues, "girls in our society are not encouraged to express their anger, and so it goes underground" -- oozing up in toxic little bubbles of middle-school sniping and ostracism.

I'd say the problem is that girls (and boys) are encouraged all too extravagantly in our society to express anger from an early age. Anyone who's seen a preschooler smack its mother or scream in a restaurant or push another child down at the playground -- only to be earnestly asked by the concerned parent about what feelings led to such behavior -- knows this is true.

And Simmons is weirdly cautious about suggesting that girls who aren't teased should reach out to those who are. "Be careful," she advises, in a chapter suggesting how parents can help. "To encourage the other child to exercise compassion at the expense of her own social needs would be to reinforce the message that care and self-sacrifice are her priority." Or, God forbid, kindness and decency. We wouldn't want to encourage that.

Meanwhile, we have Wolf's screed about what she calls "the hidden truths behind giving birth in America today" (that's compared to the sheer delight of giving birth in the rest of the world, of course), which gives new meaning to the word "hysterical."

You may wonder just what truths are still hidden, now that the standard polite flip-through of proud parents' hospital baby pictures means viewing a bloody color close-up of baby's emerging head and mom's genitalia.

But perhaps you had no idea that pregnant women "in our culture" (to use Wolf's favorite phrase) quite often have caesarians, even when they'd hoped not to. That they are typically exhausted and sometimes feel like they're losing their minds. That new moms get up more than new dads to deal with howling infants in the middle of the night. That maternity clothes tend to be unstylish with a cruel lack of selection in Western wear.

Yes, she's serious about that one. "You could not be a cowgirl and a mother," Wolf observes glumly, describing another day "mourning the loss of the young woman I had been" while rifling through the racks at the mall. "You could not be a heartbreaker and a mother...You could not, in our culture, easily pair motherhood with many other alluring archetypes."

As opposed to what other culture, for instance? Are there really maternity shops selling "Annie Get Your Gun" outfits in Iraq? But Wolf remains starry-eyed about the obstetrical wonders of the non-Western world.

In Europe and Belize, she instructs one annoyed obstetrician, episiotomies are less necessary because midwives massage the perineal area with warm oil. There's hardly anywhere on the planet, in fact (except the bad old U.S.A.), that Wolf doesn't imagine as a garden of perineum-massaging delights.

The doctor, who we know is a meanie from Wolf's description of her "tennis-toned figure" and "perfectly coifed suburban hair," finally loses patience and snaps that episiotomies are minor surgical cuts that prevent ragged tearing: "Some tears extend all the way from the vagina into...the ANUS!"

"That did, indeed, shut me up," writes Wolf. But not for long! "In Greece, Guatemala, Burma, China, Japan, Malaysia and Lebanon," she tells us, "women who have given birth are expected to do little more than lie in bed" for a long, leisurely postpartum. And in Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen -- to cite a statement that's also both true and nonsensical.

I guess Wolf missed that terrifying scene in "The Good Earth," where a desperate O-Lan takes to the fields WHILE IN LABOR to save the wheat crop before the storm ruins it.

"Cross-culturally," Wolf continues, "women's pregnancy is marked by ceremony: a festive meal in China, a visit to a Shinto shrine in Japan, a blessing in Malaysia." Or maybe by a stoning in Nigeria if they're pregnant and unmarried, or a fast march to the abortion clinic in India if they're pregnant with another daughter instead of a son. But Wolf doesn't get into any of that.

"Misconceptions" is Wolf's answer to the pregnancy bible "What To Expect When You're Expecting," a sensible, information-packed guide that Wolf found offensive because of its reassuring tone and "patronizing" advice.

"You might as well just sit down with a crate of kale," she writes sullenly about the book's recommendation that pregnant women eat seven daily servings of fruits and vegetables. She sounds like a teenager whose candy and cigarettes have been yanked away.

Then there's Vicki Iovine and her fabulously successful "Girlfriends Guide To..." pregnancy and childcare books. Iovine has developed a real franchise in milking the deluded conceit (but in an up, fun way) that the modern American woman's life is unbearably overwhelming and that the "Girlfriends Guides" are the solution.

"From now on, no matter how puffy your eyes are, how many days that load of laundry has been creasing in the dryer, or how guilty you feel about toasted Pop-Tarts for breakfast, you deserve five minutes" to read what she has to say, she wrote in one of her columns.

Right. But the thing is this: Vicki Iovine has been married for more than 20 years to Jimmy Iovine, the co-founder of Interscope Records. She lives, as befits someone whose husband's company grosses more than $300 million in annual revenues, in an enormous gated estate.

I don't want to sound like something out of "Tammy, Tell Me True" here ("Grampa, they's got runnin' water in the house and it ain't river water!") but I've been there and that place was BIG. Suffice it to say that if Vicki Iovine has ever experienced laundry creasing for days in the dryer it's because she's between maids.

Still, at least Iovine knows that household help is there to help, not play a part in some weird feminist psychodrama. In a "Misconceptions" chapter filled with tortured complaints about how her husband gets to go to work while she's stuck at home with an infant and "a woman my mother's age from Venezuela," Wolf describes how frustrated she felt one day while she and the nanny were together washing the baby's "soft little arms and curious porcelain hands."

Is there a tired working mother who can read that passage without puzzlement? I hired a part-time housekeeper when my daughter was two months old. If she was with the baby, I was in my home office working or in bed napping; if I was with the baby, the housekeeper was doing the dishes or laundry. Why on earth were Wolf and the Venezuelan BOTH crouched over that bathtub?

"This scene was not what I wanted," she writes. "What I wanted was a revolution." How about just a quick lesson in time-management?

Which brings us to "The Bitch In the House," edited by Cathi Hanauer, a women's magazine veteran. This is a collection of essays by women journalists, mostly complaining about the difficulty of combining marriage and child-rearing with their glamorous, high-powered New York media jobs.

The pressure, they write in confessional tones (though I don't imagine it was ever much or a secret) sometimes makes them very angry. Yeah, no kidding. I know readers are expected to be sympathetic -- and "The Bitch In the House" got a lot of approving attention when it came out this fall - but the problem is that these gals strike me as the snipey creatures in "Odd Girl Out" all grown up and just as insufferable.

And though "Odd Girl Out"'s Simmons and her work -- she's a national trainer for The Ophelia Project -- are now being used in workshops at expensive private schools across the country, I can think of another new book that might be more useful instead: "The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent's Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children," by Peggy Post and Cindy Post Senning.

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