Uncovering what women want | Daily News


 

Uncovering what women want

Lisa Taddeo at her home in Washington, Connecticut
Lisa Taddeo at her home in Washington, Connecticut

What women want is a supposedly elusive mystery that has preoccupied writers for centuries. It’s the question posed to the rapist knight in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, whose life depends on finding the “correct” answer. In the 2000 film What Women Want, knowing that was a telepathic gift magically bestowed on Mel Gibson’s sleazy ad executive by a freak accident, a sly suggestion that this is the only way a man could hope to understand the complexity of a woman’s desires.

Nancy Friday’s 1970s books, My Secret Garden and its successors, supposedly lifted the lid on women’s fantasies, sold millions of copies and were received as either groundbreakingly feminist or damagingly anti-feminist, depending on who you asked. EL James’s astronomically successful Fifty Shades trilogy was credited with opening up a conversation about sexual power dynamics while reinforcing the most depressingly traditional and reactionary of them.

Now another exploration of female desire – Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women – is the No 1 bestseller in the UK and No 5 in the US. The writer Dave Eggers predicted that it would be one of the most “breathlessly debated” books of the year, and so it has proved – but why are we still so fascinated by the idea of “uncovering” the secrets of what women want, as if female sexuality remained uncharted territory?

Three Women

Taddeo spent eight years on the book, immersed in the day-to-day lives of her three subjects, Maggie, Lina and Sloane. The result is a compelling account that braids their individual stories into a broader picture that “came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like”, in the author’s words.

Really? It’s a grandiose claim for what are, in the end, three pretty conventional stories of sexual relationships.

The main characters and their partners are white and predominantly straight (Sloane sometimes has sex with women, but even this is largely done with the pleasure of her voyeur husband, Richard, in mind); two are Catholic, while the perceived guilt around desire is a watermark that runs through all three stories. Even more conventionally, the thread that unites them is the precedence given – almost unwittingly – to male desire and control. Each of these women, in articulating and pursuing her need for a particular man, puts herself at the mercy of his choices, and finds her most intimate needs offered up for society’s judgment.

I devoured the book almost in one sitting – it reads with the momentum of a novel, though without a novel’s narrative resolution – and the overwhelming effect was profoundly sad, perhaps because it was so often easy to sympathise.

Here are three case studies of women effectively giving up their agency to men, even as they tell themselves they are proactively seeking their own sexual and emotional fulfillment. Taddeo is well aware of this ambiguity; it was in part what drew her to these individuals: “Of course, female desire can be just as bullish as male desire, and when desire was propulsive, when it was looking for an end it could control, my interest waned.” It was only “when the object of desire dictated the narrative that was where I found the most magnificence, the most pain”.

Female desires

But isn’t this the oldest story in the book, the incidences when the man controls the narrative? Each of the women pays a high price for pursuing what she wants, usually in the form of a loss of self-respect and/or public humiliation. This, too, is the standard punishment for sexually proactive women in history and literature; it’s hard to see the “magnificence”.

Three Women stands at an interesting intersection, in that it was conceived and begun long before the conversations around #MeToo had become public, but published in the aftermath, when stories about female desire and agency are being held up and examined in a different light.

Taddeo also makes the point that this enlightenment does not reach all women at the same speed: “Revolutions take a long time to reach places where people share more Country Living recipes than articles about ending female subjugation.”

Earlier this year, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert published a novel, City of Girls, which explicitly set out to counter the long parade of female literary characters who are punished for their sexuality; in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, she said, we have heard a lot about what women don’t want and not enough about what they do.

But this aim is harder to marry with the demands of narrative tension; her main character suffers as the result of a public scandal for going after what she wants. This dilemma is at the heart of the arguments around sex-positive feminism going back to the 1970s: liberation is worth little if it doesn’t include sexual freedom, but if a woman boldly and confidently asserts her sexuality, is she simply playing to male desires for women to be available and disposable? In the cases of Maggie, Lina and Sloane, both truths hold.

It seems impossible to discuss female desire in isolation from a culture that judges women and exonerates men for supposed transgressions.

Three Women may not be as groundbreaking as some critics have suggested, but its success suggests a sharp appetite for reading about the most intimate details of women’s lives, so we can probably expect a slew of similar offerings in the next couple of years as publishers race to emulate it.

I’m all in favour; perhaps, in the wake of #MeToo, the way we shift the narrative is by telling our stories honestly, with all the mess and hurt and elation they involve. Next time, I want to read a frank account in which the women control the narrative.

The answer the knight comes back within Chaucer’s tale, by the way, is “power”.

theguardian


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