Men, women, and humiliation
posted at 10:55 am on December 15, 2009 by Cassy Fiano
Have you ever read a female memoir? Ever browsed an article about relationships written by a married or divorced woman? You’ll notice that they all have a tendency to have one thing in common: sharing brutal, usually unflattering, details about their spouses.
Pity the man whose wife writes a memoir.
Consider Elizabeth Weil’s husband, Dan. On Sunday, in the New York Times Magazine, Ms. Weil previewed a memoir she is writing about their effort to improve their marriage. She doesn’t stint on the frisky bits—or rather, what she proclaims to be the insufficiently frisky bits. The conjugal part of their equation is apparently “not terribly inventive.” Ms. Weil derides their “safe, narrow little bowling alley of a sex life” and tells us that she and her husband “hadn’t been talking to each other while having sex. And not making eye contact either.” One thing’s for sure: If that hesitation to make eye contact suggested a certain reticence, Ms. Weil has overcome it.
Dan’s wife is just one of the legion of women scribblers eager to divulge the intimate details of their marriages. The hot new genre is the tell-all of sexual disappointment written by women having their Peggy Lee moment: “Is That All There Is?” Male writers are well behind this curve, retaining some vestigial hesitation to expose their wives in print. This reflects a basic social norm: No husband I know speaks out of school about his wife. You wouldn’t trust any man who did. Say what you will about the male half of the species—famous for its promiscuous and predatory proclivities—but they can be remarkably discreet about the intimate aspect of marriage. Whether this is stoicism or a residual chivalry, it is a core part of the male code. Consider Tiger Woods’s alleged transgressions: Perhaps the most appalling of them is the report that he prattled on to one of his cookies about how she connected with him in a way his wife did not. As if cheating weren’t bad form enough.
Women, by contrast, seem to be at somewhat greater liberty to share private matters. This can be reflected in trivial indiscretions. DoubleX, a blog on Slate, asked its contributors for their Christmas wish lists. First up was Rachael Larimore, who proclaimed “All I want for Christmas is for my hubby to get a vasectomy. And he is!” I’m sure that made his day. Still, that’s nothing compared to what gets aired in coffee klatches, where, according to writers such as Sandra Tsing Loh, the ladies get together to talk about how their husbands haven’t touched them in years.
Ms. Loh, who published a memoir about mommyhood last year, is one of those writers whose husbands you have to pity. In her 2008 book, “Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting!,” she laments that her “salt of the earth” spouse, Mike, is too even-keeled and practical to give her the steamy loving she craves. You can guess where that was heading. This summer Ms. Loh began chronicling her divorce in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, sharing with all and sundry that, after the thrill of a hot and heavy extramarital affair, she decided not to go to all the trouble—the “arduous home- and self-improvement project”—of falling back in love with her boring old spouse. “I would not be able to replace the romantic memory of my fellow transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband,” she wrote. Poor Mike. One would think that having a wife cat around would be enough of an assault on his manhood. But just to twist the blade she has to explain to anyone willing to pick up a magazine that his marriage failed because he couldn’t cut it in the passion department.
Perhaps the most savage example of this genre is Julie Powell’s recent “Cleaving.” Her first book, 2005’s “Julie & Julia,” was something of a stunt project—Ms. Powell chronicled her attempt to work her way through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The book was a huge success, as we know, making her name and fortune. What to do next? Ms. Powell decided to embark on a double-stunt: apprenticing with a butcher and indulging in “rough and tumble” infidelity. “Cleaving” is an excruciating read, in no small part because of the humiliation it heaps upon her cuckolded husband. Eric Powell, to whom she has been married for years, is spared no embarrassment. By contrast, the man with whom she has a kinky and obsessive affair is identified with only a “D.” For him, she is discreet.
In response to critics repulsed by her tawdry exhibitionism, Ms. Powell recently wrote she finds it odd some people don’t like her penchant to “overshare.” She asks: “Do you want to read a memoir by a person who undershares?” Well, frankly, yes.
Women already overshare with their girlfriends; it’s just in our very nature. Women like to talk about relationships, emotions, how we feel about things, and doing it with close friends makes you bond more, in a way. But the tendency of women to overshare with millions of anonymous strangers around the world though books or articles online is a new phenomenon. Part of it is because of the new “empowerment” craze that women are being fed. Sharing all the things that are bad about your marriage is supposedly strong, courageous, and empowering to yourself and other women going through the same thing. It’s just like the classic celebrity coming-out-of-the-closet act about some illness or childhood hardship. Some airheaded celeb will sit on Oprah’s couch and share about how they secretly suffered from asthma their whole life, or how they were abused by a family member when they were four. The audience will act suitably shocked and sympathetic, and Oprah will laud them for being so courageous for coming public with it — because, clearly, anyone who’s ever been abused before will feel they have a voice now that some celebrity has said that they were abused, too. The same basic principle comes into play here as well. A married woman writes a memoir ridiculing and humiliating her husband, and she gets applauded by all of the book critics who think it’s just so daring for her to come out to the public with such intimate details. How it makes her husband feel? Never crosses anyone’s mind.
It’s also en vogue for women to ridicule their husbands. No one thinks twice for a woman to speak crassly or lowly of her husband. It’s encouraged — on talk shows, on sitcoms, in commercials, everywhere in popular culture.
Cassandra pointed out that men do the same thing, albeit in a different fashion.
Obviously he hasn’t stopped to consider the truly alarming number of boyfriends, ex husbands, ex lover, and even married men who freely distribute sex tapes or nude photos of their women. The idea that posting, emailing, or sharing visual images of a woman without her knowledge and consent isn’t a betrayal and isn’t oversharing is just stunning.
And it may be stunning, but it’s also extremely common.
Men will look at online images of a woman without stopping to consider for one moment the strong possibility that the woman wasn’t a willing participant. She is every bit as much a hostage to male indiscretion as the husband whose wife feels it necessary to write long, rambling puff pieces for the NY Times detailing her sexual boredom or the man who goes on and on in public about how hot other women are or how frigid his wife is (both pretty common occurrences in today’s world). For me at least, it’s hard to separate the women who blabs all from the man who tells everyone around him that his wife can’t satisfy his raging sex drive.
I respectfully have to disagree with Cassandra. It isn’t that sharing photos or videos isn’t as bad; it’s arguably worse. It’s that there’s usually a large difference between who has a tendency to do what. You usually see ex-boyfriends or casual hook-ups sharing videos of their ex-girlfriends or one-night-stands. I can’t think of many examples of men who are sharing naked pictures or sex tapes of their wives that they’ve been married to for years and years. Men are much less likely to humiliate their wife and partner in such a way, because today’s husbands simply have more dignity and class than today’s wives do. While it surely is humiliating and degrading to have naked pictures of a woman posted on the internet by her ex-boyfriend, isn’t it a much worse betrayal for a wife to humiliate her husband by ridiculing him before millions? It’s common knowledge to never let a man take risque photos or videos of you, especially a man you barely know. It’s just a common sense way of protecting yourself. However, there is no such protection a man can take to keep his wife from humiliating him in print. Which is really a worse betrayal?
The other difference in the photos vs. print argument is that society frowns upon men who betray women by publishing pictures and videos, whereas the women who eviscerate their husbands in print are encouraged, lauded, celebrated by society. The level of humiliation is the same, and may even be worse for husbands. But in a society that hates men, we don’t care if women embarass their men.