In this excerpt from the 12th Street interview, Elissa Schappell discusses womanhood from era to era with Charlotte Slivka.
Elissa Schappell is the author of Use Me, a collection of linked short stories and finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award. She is a contributing editor and book columnist for “Hot Type” at Vanity Fair and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review. She is also Co-founder and Editor-at-Large of Tin House literary magazine, and co-editor with Jenny Offill of the anthologies The Friend Who Got Away and Money Changes Everything. Her essays, articles, and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies such as The Bitch in the House, The KGB Bar Reader, and The Mrs. Dalloway Reader.Blueprints for Building Better Girls, Elissa Schappell’s new collection of stories, explores the complex and multiple truths of the inner lives of women. Through accident and confusion, humor and irony, Schappell reveals what it is to be a modern girl in a society not built to understand her. The teen, the wife, the sister, the daughter, the friend, and the mother are chronicled in a series of journeys in the form of linked stories spanning thirty years.
STREET: I found a correlation between the women in Blueprints, and their struggle for identity, ground, and power; and the struggle of women in the 1970s, who tried to put feminism on the map while also trying to live it. Sometimes that was a really difficult experience. What do we know now?
SCHAPPELL: There is a definite correlation, and I chose to start the book in the 1970s because that was the birth of second-wave feminism—coming out of the 1960s and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, we had the Women’s Liberation Movement, Gloria Steinem, the battle for the ERA, the message that “Sisterhood is Powerful.” At the same time there was the Miss America Pageant and Phyllis Schafly and Anita Bryant, and a rise in pornography and the Playboy culture. What we learned was that no matter how many times I listened to Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar” on my record player, I saw twice as many jigglefests on TV.
In the first story, “Monsters of the Deep,” the main character, Heather, is a teenager in the 1970s, a time when women were being encouraged to embrace their sexuality in such magazines as Cosmopolitan and Ms. However, despite this burn-your-bra freedom, women were, as ever, being labeled as “sluts” if there was even a whiff of the promiscuous about them. Forget that, if they made people uncomfortable. “Slut” has always been a quick and easy way to demonize a woman, demolish her character and ego.
And in Heather’s case, it’s not boys who start these rumors about her; it’s the girls at her school who are threatened by her. They project all the anxiety and fear and shame they feel about their own sexual feelings on to her.
Some girls would tell their mothers about this, but Heather’s mother, despite being part of the modern “Me” Generation, and embracing her sexuality—gives her daughter a very contradictory message: Don’t be yourself. Be like everybody else. Pretend. Pander to the popular girls. Because being part of a group is where your power lies. Most of all, protect me from your pain.
We see later in the last story of the book how, despite the fact that young women were told sisterhood is powerful and we’re all in this together, to feel good about their bodies and sexuality back in the 1970s, that message didn’t grow stronger in the 1980s and the 1990s—although with the rise of the Riot Grrrl movement in the 1990s (which was a small movement, sadly, but growing, happily, into a wave of third-wave feminists) it started to gain some steam again.
Throughout the book what you see, I hope, are the ways that the idea of what it meant to be a woman in earlier eras reverberates through later generations. For example, in the “Joy of Cooking,” the identity of the mother character (who has no name) has been informed by her own mother’s beliefs about what it means to be a good wife and mother. The grandmother was of a generation that didn’t believe in divorce, who believed a wife suffered in silence as her husband cheated on her, and that one didn’t coddle their children. In contrast, Emily’s mother, who’s come of age in a different time, isn’t willing tolerate that in her husband. We see that the grandmother, who because of the time, was resentful that she had to give up her career to have children. On the flip side, Emily’s mother, who gave up her dream of being a musician to raise children, is more wistful. Her decision to stay at home (one that feminists fought for, and a theme that comes up again in “Elephant”) is what makes her happiest.
Women are barraged with contradictory messages about who they should be, what they should want, and what rights they have to want what they want. These stories reflect this. Yes, some of these women are angry, and why wouldn’t they be? Many of them can’t express it, for fear of not being taken seriously, or dismissed. Or, worse, demonized, or labeled as dangerous, characterizations that critics—some of them women!—have made in their reviews. Saying that stuff, putting it out there, that’s my job as a writer.
What do we know now? Sigh. That you have to fight over and over and over for the same hard-won freedoms—look at reproductive rights, the fact that women still don’t receive equal pay for equal work, the way they’re trying to finesse the definition of “rape”, the fact that all the social support systems that benefit women and children are being cut.
In some ways we’re moving forward—sex-positivism, gay rights, but we’re also moving backwards. Not everyone’s attitudes towards women and the rights of women have evolved. Some, as we see in the Conservative movement, seem hell bent on dragging women on their knees back into the Stone Age.
I think what we know now is that if you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it—if women don’t support women, we end up in a bad place. I think of Madeline Albright saying, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help women.”