I saw The Heidi Chronicles, the movie version, on TV a few nights ago. I like Wendy Wasserstein's work, what I've seen of it, and I was looking forward to this piece, thinking it would be amusing and relatively light. I didn't know what it was about, except that it was autobiographical. (I don't read the paper, ok?)
It was not amusing or light. It was a downer. I don't mean to say it wasn't good; it was. Jamie Lee Curtis was her usual excellent self and she still has a bitchin' bod and can still get away with playing a high school version of herself, which is no mean feat for an adult woman. And there was one parking-validation joke that was worth the whole show.
But the depressing thing was how much of my own experience I identified in Heidi's life, and how bleak the message was for women like Heidi, and thus like me. The moral of The Heidi Chronicles is that if you are a difficult woman you will not find the comforts of life available to you. (Men are always allowed to be difficult, you know.)
Heidi, a brilliant art historian and an ardent feminist, is a difficult woman. She has a relationship over the course of several years with a man who is also brilliant and difficult (and irritating, if you ask me), who is in love with her because of her intelligence and integrity. Eventually, however, he marries some other woman, one who takes her own life less seriously than his and doesn't demand that they be equals. Heidi continues to pursue her career and to take her life seriously, and fails to meet any other guy. At the end of the movie she adopts a child, whom she raises on her own.
At the end of the movie I wished I hadn't watched it. It really bummed me out. Frankly, lately I don't feel very sanguine about meeting "the right guy" and suspect that the odds against it are pretty high. I strongly identified with Heidi, as a difficult woman myself. I'm not mean (neither was Heidi); in fact I'm a pretty nice person. But I'm smart and accomplished, and I can't pretend not to be.
When I was in high school I knew already that being smart was a liability -- made me less attractive to most of the guys. I pretended to be stupid, as much as I could hide from my parents, anyway. I was in an organic chemistry class where I tutored half my classmates; at the same time, though, those same classmates called me "dumb broad," and I encouraged it.
I'm glad to report that I did discover, as most of you probably did, that life is not really like high school. Fortunately those of us who were geeks, nebbishes, dopeheads, and kinky-headed shemps in high school ended up cool in real life, and the jocks and cheerleaders who tortured us are (I hope) working at Dairy Queen and the local Exxon station by now.
"Not so fast!" says Wendy Wasserstein. She came up in the era of consciousness raising groups and women's lib (when they actually called it that) and thank god for her and all the others like her, because I owe the relative ease of my life to them. And what you get to see in The Heidi Chronicles is the disillusionment of a generation of women who believed they could really "have it all." It's in many ways a story that can't happen to subsequent generations. These women cultivated in themselves and their sisters an idealistic view of what life should be like, and then went after that, and thought they could get it. They found out they couldn't.
What I don't know is whether my generation (I'm in my 30s) of women believes in that "having it all" fiction. I think we do believe that men can have it all and that the price for that is paid by women. Susan Faludi points out in Backlash that married men are happier than single men ... and single women are happier that married women. Why would this be, unless married women are doing more of the work (be it emotional or physical) than their husbands? My married (women) friends stew about this, but more or less without rancor, as though it is hard to imagine a workable solution. I think we know that we all, men and women, have a long way to go before things are truly equal.
I think women my age, myself included, have a serious double standard happening. When I look at my sister, who is seven years my junior, I can't decide if it's more pronounced for younger women or they just haven't grown up yet. I know women do not entirely want things to be equal. We want to be dominated just a little bit, we just want to control when that happens. We want to marry "up" (find somebody smarter richer older) and we think it's pretty normal when men marry "down." We want to earn as much as guys do, but we still want to be taken out for dinner.
I'm no spokesperson for a generation or a gender, and I hope nobody takes what I'm saying for a manifesto. I can only speak from my own experience. However, for the past couple of years I have been writing for Bust, a magazine for 30-ish "difficult" women, and in that time I have learned that there are an awful lot of us out there. There are an awful lot of single, difficult women.
Christ, I hate the term "difficult"! What does it mean? The kind of woman who, if you try to tell her the sun is the moon, will debate you until the real moon rises. She laughs a little too loud. She has a real woman's body, not a model's boyish form. She takes her life as seriously as you take yours. She makes demands upon your attention and your time. She makes you work hard. She's definitely not a fantasy.
Now I'm reminding myself of all the sophomore guys I knew in college who blamed their inability to get laid on all the bitchy girls who wouldn't sleep with them. It couldn't have been the fact that they were whiny and zitty and insecure which made them terribly unattractive!
I'm instantly suspicious when someone claims she is a victim. What about her responsibility in the situation? Therefore I'm loath to subscribe to Wendy Wasserstein's view. I'm not going to say things weren't unfair for her generation; as a transition group they got all the work and none of the rewards. They were truly difficult women for our fucked-up '50s prudish puritan culture to take. They marched and waged social war and complained and harangued and wrought change; not enough change, of course, but a lot.
But life is often unfair. Karen and Thatcher, who everyone is sure would make great parents, battle unsuccessfully with infertility. Dana's brother dies 100 yards from his home in a drunk driving accident. Everett and Terry get AIDS. Richard experiences a relapse in his cocaine addiction after nearly ten years of sobriety. These life events occur and seem unfair to those afflicted with them, particularly in light of comparison to other more fortunate lives.
My own particular burden is that I can't find a mate. I want a family so bad I can taste it. This is why The Heidi Chronicles struck such a chord in me. When I'm dreaming about some guy but it's not going anywhere, I start listening to society's message that I'm being "difficult" when I'm just being myself. I start to believe that message, that if I were a little easier on a guy's ego I'd find love and the picket fence surrounding normalcy. It's a tempting rationalization -- but it's too easy.
The scientist in me points out that I haven't controlled for certain important variables, like my own ambiguity about relationships, in particular. I have my own serious issue with commitment, and a strong fear of being hurt after allowing myself to become intimate with that dreamy guy. I have some tough work to do before I will be ready to get seriously involved with any man, before I will be ready to have a family.