You know how usually whenever a feminist complains about something in pop culture people are like, "Oh, you're just looking for things to be offended about!"? Actually, I find whenever something pisses me off it's not because I went in expecting to hate it. It's because I expected to love it and its sexism slapped me in the face. Usually when I'm prepared for sexism I end up going, "Hey, that wasn't bad at all!" This may be why I ended up loving Iron Man and Superbad -- which I went into wearing my critical feminist goggles -- but came out of The Dark Knight and Slumdog Millionaire -- which were advertised as practically perfect in every way -- fuming over the poor treatment of their female characters.

Okay, to my credit the reason why I like the first two movies and not the other two may have more to do with characters being specifically coded as jackasses and over-reliance on cliches but ANYWAY. My point is if I'm looking for your work to do badly I may end up viewing it more charitably in the end. I kind of went into The Good Mother by Sue Miller with bad expectations, as Susan Faludi called its movie version a piece of "backlash moviemaking." Still, I thought the premise, or at least the premise as I understood it, of what to do when the man you love does something bad to your kid was interesting. But, sigh, Faludi ended up being right. Very, very right.


The plot of The Good Mother is that the main character, Anna, recently divorced her husband for being boring and bad in bed. Anna has not led a happy life. Her parents and grandparents expected too much of her. Her aunt Babe killed herself by drowning. And she has never had a positive sexual experience ever. Still, she gets custody of Molly and gets to teach piano, so things are decent. Things become ... increasingly decent when she falls in love with Leo and he awakens her to a new sexual fulfillment and the SECOND TIME they have sex she can come and he's such an awesome guy and ...

Actually, you know what? The back of the book says that Leo is supposed to be awesome, Anna says Leo is supposed to be awesome (and Anna is unfortunately presented as a reliable narrator), and in the movie he's played by Liam Neeson and I think that's supposed to be a badge of awesomeness but fuck them. They're wrong. I fucking hate Leo. I hate everything about him. Even before he did that totally stupid thing I thought he was a selfish douche and that Anna really only liked him because he was less douchey than all the other people she'd been with in the past. I just ... I don't know. To sell this concept of lover vs. child, of course the child is going to have the audience's sympathy right out, but the lover should really be awesome enough that it would make you pause. You would figure that Leo would at least be someone like, I don't know ... if not Mr. Darcy at least Willoughby. But he's not Willoughby. He's not particularly smart, he's not witty, he's not handsome and frankly, sex with him sounds really, really lame. Part of this may be Miller's lack of skill as a writer. This is Leo's idea of dirty talk:

"I like your colors, Anna. Here, where you're white and pink, and these blue lines." His fingers traced the veins on my breasts, lightly touched my nipples. "I like all your freckles, and how different they are. Such dark dots, like periods all by themselves, and here, where they're pale and so many."

He also calls her pubic hair "This wonderful gold stuff" and when he comes he yells out, "Oh, sweet, sweet, sweet. Oh my sweet, sweet." I don't know. Would you have sex with this man?

Also, Miller, unless you're doing some really dirty, transgressive shit, please don't use the word "cunt" in a sex scene. Please?

Okay, back to the plot. Things go badly when Molly (the kid) goes to her father's house and tells her father that once Leo let Molly touch his penis. Although the book makes it clear that Leo isn't a pedophile, just quite possibly the world's biggest fucking idiot, sometimes Anna and Leo would walk around naked in their house and go to bed naked and Molly would join them later and once Molly walked in on them while they were sleeping so they're kind of in deep shit and the dad sues for custody. Although they manage to convince the first counselor that they're not bad people and he recommends she keep the kid, Anna eventually loses. The relationship with Leo goes kaput and after Anna makes brief and lame attempt to kidnap Molly that transforms into an attempt to kill herself that eventually sputters into nothing, Anna decides to just move closer to Molly so she can see her as often as possible. The book ends with her ex-husband telling her they're moving AGAIN years later so that she can pick up her life and follow them around for years hoping for scraps of her daughter's affection, teaching piano and never finding love again.

Now, I could have maybe been okay with such a crappy, soul-crushing ending if the novel had actually seen its ending as crappy and soul-crushing. If I had put down this book hating the world that led to this and being angry at the system (as opposed to the author) I would have been good, but the book presents the ending as the best sort of triumph Anna could achieve and that she'll be as happy as possible from now on. It's just her lot to try to chase tiny crumbs of happiness while her ex-husband has more children and a successful career and her ex-lover goes on to become a successful artist. And what better can you hope for if you can at least see your child once a week, right?

Oh, by the way, despite the fact that most reasonable people would realize that letting a kid touch your dick is a MAJOR NO-NO, Leo at one point reminds her that this is all partly her fault for being okay with them walking around naked and sleeping naked, you know? And he's NEVER CONTRADICTED, not even by the stock "kooky best friend" character. In fact, Anna actually kind of agrees with him.

Ugh. Look, here's the thing. I'm not hating on children or parenting here. In fact, if this had happened to me, I would be picking sides, no question. The minute my ex-husband called, even if he'd already filed the suit papers, I would not have automatically defended my boyfriend; I'd be asking for specific details of what happened and then would try to conspire with my ex-husband to throw my boyfriend under a bus. Okay, not literally but fuck "We'd be willing to break up if I got back my kid." NO! Fuck that shit. Idiot Boyfriend is already gone, Mr. Judge. This will never fucking happen again, Mr. Judge, let me assure you. And if I still lost my kid, I would not be calling up my boyfriend for drunken booty calls. I'd be calling him up drunk and yelling into the phone, "YOU RUINED MY LIFE YOU MOTHER FUCKER. WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU LETTING A KID TOUCH YOU? I DON'T CARE IF IT WASN'T SEXUAL. YOU DIE, YOU PIG! AAAAAAARGGGGH!"

... Look, I'm not always a good person. And maybe I wouldn't actually call him up, but you bet I would WANT TO. Quiet acceptance is just not my thing. Impotent bitterness is.

About halfway through this book, I got the sense that not only was this book anti-feminist (it even takes time out to spit at an anonymous feminist horde in one of the last chapters), it was specifically anti-the proto-feminist classic The Awakening. The Awakening is about a 28-year-old Creole woman who tries to break out of her dull, boring life with a husband she doesn't like and who tells her everything to do. Alas, despite having some decent love affairs, it doesn't work out and the heroine kills herself. The Awakening by Kate Chopin is well-read now but not exactly well-liked. In my (admittedly small) experience, students who read it usually get irate, specifically because at one point Edna, the heroine, says that she'll give up the unessential, but she won't submit to a boring, caged life with no passion for her children. Despite the fact that it seems like she has a nurse who takes care of her kids anyway and they still have a dad, lots of students think she's a horrible, selfish bitch for this. And, okay, they're kind of right ... but I do think the end of the book implies that Edna really had a bad day and maybe could have tried other things (like talking to a nice head-doctor) if she hadn't gotten so hopeless.

When I first read it, I hated the book and the ending as well, although I hated the ending because in a choice of happy lovelife vs. freedom the third, true answer shouldn't be "Kill yourself." However, The Good Mother seemed to parallel the other book in so many ways: the main character with pretensions of being an artist, the kind-of lame lover, the iron-fisted patriarchal figure, the lame husband, the drowning suicide/attempted suicide ... it's almost to the point where I wonder if The Good Mother was specifically created as a repudiation of The Awakening, as [livejournal.com profile] fandomsecrets as that sounds.

At any rate, I now like The Awakening much better. It's focused and powerful where TGM is garrulous and sloppy. The writing style forces you to concentrate where TGM's bloated bullshit invites skimming. The characters aren't likable but they're more tolerable than the shits in TGM and the sex scenes are merciful fadeouts instead of that "Oh my sweet, sweet, sweet" bullshit. Also, wikipedia just taught me Chopin liked Maupassant and on the re-read her writing reminded me of Maupassant, so we're totally cool now. I feel like I am the American public, originally condemning but now wanting to take Chopin back with open arms now that it's too late.

Or maybe it's not too late. I think the big lesson I learned from this experience is that no matter how obvious you think a feminist concept is, like "Women should be able to have fulfilling aspects to their life other than childcare," someone will still do something to remind you that, no, some things are not so obvious and lend themselves to embarrassment as a "modern" novel when compared to a classic one.

I wonder what my classmates would think of this bullshit now, though.

By the way, feel free to talk with me about your experiences with The Awakening in the comments. I'd love to do that.
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