Yesterday I wasted some energy being mad about Brawny. Yes, that Brawny: the paper towel brand. They’ve exchanged their extra-manly man mascot for a plaid-clad woman as part of a new campaign called #strengthhasnogender. (It’s very important to include the hashtag.) This, I guess, is an effort to convince consumers that their company was spontaneously inspired to Do The Right Thing and Celebrate Women during Women’s History Month.
This type of cynical marketing is far from innovative, which is part of why it’s so exhausting. Companies have a long, shameless history of pulling a John McCain: deploying one woman or several women as bait for the allegiance of us all. Another self-consciously “powerful” gimmick recently deployed was the placement of a statue of a girl standing with hands on hips and legs akimbo, facing the Wall Street bull. The work, titled “Fearless Girl” in case you couldn’t figure it out from her body language, was installed by the branch of a financial services corporation that, several years ago, paid over $64 million to resolve charges that they’d defrauded customers. Vote for me, buy our napkins, empower women by working for our rapacious investment firm—it’s all pandering, and transparently so. The nakedness is part of the insult; it presumes women are so stupid and vain we won’t notice what we’re actually being sold. It reduces social justice to a performance, and an unconvincing one at that.
Token women in these scenarios (Sarah Palin, the Brawny babe, the Child Who Would Be Hedge Fund Queen) are often white, which further speaks to the gestures’ superficiality. A company’s or candidate’s instinct to put a white girl on it, then sit back and reap the rewards, is not an impulse that could arise among those committed to the feminism of Audre Lorde or Winona LaDuke or Emma Goldman. But it’s very much an idea that would occur among people willing to exploit the flavor of feminism that already leaves most women behind, one that begins and ends with middle to upper class careerists like Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, and Anne-Marie Slaughter. Within that blinkered worldview, feminism is synonymous with enhanced elevation of mostly white women, meaning greater visibility, higher compensation, and increasingly prestigious jobs for those already positioned for such success.
I suspect—I hope—you are a little bored by this summation, because I suspect (and hope) it’s familiar to you. By now, even the original offenders have learned better, or at least pay lip service to the possibility that they might; Sheryl Sandberg eventually tempered aspects of the (much criticized) Lean In, just as Anne-Marie Slaughter, years later, disavowed the framing of her infamous 2012 article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The vast majority of the women in my life—who range in age from early twenties to early forties—know that mainstream culture’s obsession with empowerment and “having it all” is hopelessly corrupted and lobotomized, antithetical to a truly progressive vision of the future. Of course we can’t have it all. Most of us can barely “have” a living wage; to simply obtain decent health insurance is a coup.
Which is why I’m so baffled by the premise of Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply, a memoir devoted to affirming the familiar truth that a person doesn’t always get everything they want—namely: a happy, lasting marriage, a nice house, and a baby at any age. Levy is an intelligent, well-traveled woman, a staff writer for The New Yorker who made a name for herself with 2005’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, a critique of women’s willing participation in ostensibly sexist and demeaning cultural rituals. Feminism is not unfamiliar to her, nor is human pain. (At the beginning of The Rules, she travels to South Africa in pursuit of Caster Semenya, the young Olympian runner subjected to constant, degrading speculation about her gender.)
Yet if Levy-as-narrator is to be believed, she spent the vast majority of her adult life feeling impervious to loss, deprivation, or insurmountable obstacles—and it’s feminism’s fault. “Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism,” she writes, “a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us.” The conviction she’s describing actually belongs as much, if not more, to whiteness than to mainstream feminism—which is also called “white feminism” for this very reason. It’s unlikely many Black women or Arab women or undocumented women would presume a similar degree of permission and mobility, regardless of their exposure to Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.
This matters because, inexcusably, The Rules buys into and therefore reinforces the corrosive lie that feminism was, is, or should be a promise made to each woman that whatever she wants, she can have; that feminism is first and foremost about a “you” rather than about an “us” because its power (and importance) is conscribed to the individual instead of the collective.
As far as Levy is concerned, the fruits feminism owed her were a vibrant career, a marriage, and the ability to bear a child. The fact that one week she thought she had these things but the next week, she didn’t, is the book’s central action, the reality treated as both exemplary and instructive for readers who apparently would otherwise not believe that “we can’t have it all.” “It’s all so over-the-top,” she writes, referring to her divorce, the sale of her house, and the end of her pregnancy. “Am I in an Italian opera? A Greek tragedy?” While surely she suffered, nothing about the vehicles of that suffering is rare or unexpected. Millions of Americans have divorced; millions more than once. As many as ten million Americans lost their homes in the recession alone, and it’s estimated that up to a quarter of all pregnancies result in miscarriage. People in Greek tragedies kill their children, accidentally marry their mothers, and commit suicide; they don’t amicably separate from their partners before flying to South Africa on a self-devised writing assignment for their high-paying job.
There is pleasure to be had while reading The Rules, which runs on a propulsive conversational voice. Levy is capable of cleverness and clarity, as in her confession that “when I first learned about sex, I was excited because it seemed like something that could prove useful for quantifying betrayal” and “[writing] made me feel good, like there was a reason for me.” But her unchecked entitlement and lack of perspective bury these moments until that same momentum-generating charm reveals itself to the result of superficiality. Though her material is by definition personal, it’s not rendered with any intimacy. As narrator, Levy is both assured and evasive. She sketches out plot points and reminds us of when and how a situation is not as she desired, but goes no further.
Like Levy—and the Brawny woman, and Sarah Palin, those inspiring symbols of self-actualization against the odds—I’m white, and there’s much of The Rules Do Not Apply to which I relate. I too have “burned with the desire to rise” and congratulated myself for starting out on what seemed like “the beginning of a life perfected.” I also have reflected more than once on the miracle that “the world (has) left me unscathed” but thanks to exposure to others’ critical thinking, I came to learn this was a function of my various privileges as opposed to uncommonly good luck.
While Levy is vaguely aware she was born on third base, she doesn’t bother working through the implications of that fact. “Up until then, my regrets had been feathery things, the regrets of a privileged child,” she writes while ramping up suspense in advance of revealing a choice that she suggests ushered her down a path to ruin. (She emailed an ex-lover with whom she subsequently had an affair.) But privilege doesn’t end with childhood; it’s something you usually grow deeper into, not farther out of. It’s privilege in action to insist your privilege is irrelevant.
As a result of this blindness, The Rules Do Not Apply is a monument to obliviousness, an unwitting testament to the ability of whiteness and class to supersede other markers of social identity like sexuality and gender. When Levy marries a woman, her leftist parents are more bothered by the notion of her participating in marriage as an institution than they are by her partnering someone of the same sex. (Of course, her career in notoriously liberal New York media doesn’t suffer from the union.) She cheats on her wife with a trans man who, she mentions, “had no real job or career, but he lived in a dazzling apartment with three bedrooms and a view.” The man who provides the sperm for her pregnancy is “rich, but also self-made” and promises to cover child-related expenses, up through and including college.
“I had gotten to a point where I could pay for myself,” she writes of her late 30s, which is either a disingenuous way of saying she was pretty well off—she and her spouse are keeping up an apartment in Manhattan and a home in the Hamptons—or perhaps an allusion to a long period when she accepted financial help from her parents. I’m glad she hasn’t faced bigotry or violence or scarcity, because I’d like a world in which no one does, but just what did Levy think she needed feminism for in the first place? There is no point in The Rules when she experiences discrimination or cruelty because of her gender or queerness. After she tells Sarah Palin’s anti-gay ghost writer that she’s pregnant—she’s covering her for an assignment—the woman “looked like she was going to cry. ‘Oh, Ariel,’ she said. ‘How wonderful.’”
With circumstances like these, it’s no wonder what passes for hardship in Levy’s early life is awfully flimsy: a bad acid trip that she links to insomnia throughout her twenties, and once knocking an air conditioner out of a high window, where it could have conceivably murdered someone below (but in fact fell into an unoccupied alley.) Even her father’s cancer, which he survives against doctors’ expectations, is somehow both about her and yet leaves her unchanged: “nothing really bad could happen to me in my movie, because I was the protagonist” (emphasis added.) “Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary,” Levy claims. “It’s also a symptom of narcissism.” Yes, and hardly the only one.
Opportunities arise when she verges on perspective, but she never quite tips over the edge “I looked at the people—from Guatemala, from Mexico—working in the fields, the sun pounding down on them indifferently,” she writes, of driving from her Hamptons home to her New York apartment in a panic. “I wondered if everything that pained me would seem ridiculous to those women, or if some of our problems were the same.” Her alcoholic spouse has relapsed, or perhaps was never sober at all—a circumstance to which many women (and men) can relate. But instead of expanding this moment into a compassionate one or investigating her thought further, Levy stays contracted around herself. The women are little more than props, reminders of an outside world from which Levy wants to be immune. Throughout the book, she archly refers to herself as “the protagonist” and the implication is that she’s disabused of such egocentric thinking after her series of losses: The old Ariel thought that way, but the new one knows better. Yet I don’t see how anyone who’d truly given up intoxication with their own ego could write a book like this, with a message that never strays from “I didn’t get what I want so I guess no one does.”
Ultimately, what troubles me about The Rules Do Not Apply, which would otherwise be the capably told but unremarkable story of a young woman struggling through some of life’s most common trials, is that Levy presumes her perspective is universal and her experiences are uncommon when it’s the other way around. She doesn’t speak from inside one-size-fits-all feminine ambition but rather garden-variety white entitlement. She’s ambitious because she’s been set up to satisfy that ambition; she climbs the metaphorical mountain not because the mountain is there but because the sherpas, the tools, and the cheering crowd are there as well. To pretend that what results is wisdom—“life is uncooperative, impartial”—feels a bit like being expected to (literally) buy into a paper towel manufacturer’s abrupt passion for women’s rights.
Being swaddled in privilege doesn’t remove the possibility of writing a worthwhile memoir. Nor does it render someone unworthy of sympathy. But the White House is currently packed with rich white women while a staggering number of Muslim women, undocumented women, and poor women are rendered even more vulnerable and abused. If we can’t recognize the dangerous failures of exclusionary, neoliberal feminism by now, I worry we never will. Levy has a right to tell her story but others have a right—perhaps even a responsibility—to reject what she thinks that story means.