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Home » Culture and Criticism

TN Read-Along #2 Discussion Thread: Backwards in High Heels

Submitted by on July 22, 2010 – 10:10 AM27 Comments

Perfection is boring. Oh my God, it's the dullest thing in the world. Stop trying to achieve it, now. (179)

I tend to avoid books like Backwards in High Heels, assuming that tired passive-aggression about socks on the floor, followed by weak jokes about the medicinal properties of chocolate, will rule the day. I had higher hopes for BiHH, thinking its Britishness would edge it up a bit, and despite its semi-tiresome tendency to prescribe, yes, chocolate and red wine for various ills, I enjoyed the book and can report with relief that it only strayed into International Coffees territory a few times.

Cancelling out the odd sugary or on-the-nose observation are tart bits like referring to a wedding as a "crowd of hats"; the dog swallowing a bee on p. 152; the note that women have to do everything (65), but that everything we do is somehow wrong (157); a recipe for summer soup that sounds fabulous (354); and a straightforward (and rueful) passage on p. 35 about Our Gay Best Friends:

There are two great things that gay men and straight women have in common, and these have nothing to do with Barbra Streisand or interior design. One is that they both want to go to bed with other men, which is a tremendous leveler; the other is that they understand very well what it is to have been reduced to stereotypes for the last many hundreds of years. They know how it feels to be shut out of power, to be pushed to the sidelines. They know all about the assumptions and the sideways looks. There is something deeply and oddly touching about this mutual understanding.

The prose is direct, often deft; I read most of the book in a single sitting, the circumstance in which authorial tics and argument weaknesses make themselves most evident, but it holds up, especially given that Kindersley and Vine almost have to tackle every single Big Issue on the table for contemporary women, and will more or less have to take a position of considered moderation on each. I found myself wishing on occasion that they'd get a little angrier, take more risks with their opinions — but when they did, I got this: "Married men belong to someone else. They have taken vows. Sleeping with them is an act of betrayal and disloyalty and untruth. It is also a grievous act against the sisterhood" (333).

I debated whether or not to object to that passage, knowing it would start an argument, but fuck it: that's horseshit. I do not advise sleeping with married people, because it is excessively complicated and never ends well. "Grievous act against the sisterhood," however, is retrograde nonsense that implies the other woman set a trap for the man, waited for him to bumble into it, and injected him with her slutty poison. It takes responsibility for his vows away from the man who took them in the first place, and turns all women into 1) each other's protectors and 2) straight men's jailors, patrolling the perimeter to contain the horndogs who will obviously stray at the first opportunity. Please. It's 2010.

Listen: some married men will stray at the first opportunity. Those men should not have gotten married or promised fidelity in any other way, and the responsibility for their actions lies with them. Assuming that all married men will fall into the first vagina they walk past like it's some kind of magnetic ravine gives men no credit for morals, honesty, or kindness; and forces women into one of two roles: suspicious put-upon Madon-nag; and selfish home-wrecking whore.

When you blame the other woman, you postpone telling yourself the horrible shitty truth about him, because you think that horrible shitty truth is actually about you — you let yourself get fat, you didn't ask him about work enough times, blah blah whatever it's not your fault and never was, repeat it 'til you get it! If your husband cheated on you, that is his fault and his only — and if you make it her fault, it's because you don't want to make it his fault, because then you might have to hear something awful about yourself, which still won't make it anyone's fault but his.

Women sticking together is great, but not at the expense of personal responsibility, or of directing legitimate fury to the proper target.

Rant over. Good book; funny in spots; got me thinking about a few things. You?

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27 Comments »

  • Natalie says:

    As soon as I hit the ranted-about passage, I said to myself "ooh, Sarah's going to have something to say about that." Possibly a sign I should spend more work time working and less reading The Vine.

    I admit I haven't made it very far into the book, because I'm pretty bored with the sex, love and relationships sections. Perhaps I should have started somewhere else. When the authors are funny, they're quite funny, but mostly I find myself going "yeah, yeah, okay, of course." Very little revelation so far, just a mildly witty British restatement of the obvious.

    Any suggestions from people who've finished about good sections to skip to?

  • Jenn C. says:

    Women sticking together is great, but not at the expense of personal responsibility, or of directing legitimate fury to the proper target.

    That said, and I do agree with it, no sleeping with married men is a awfully good life policy – even if you think he's your soul mate, if he'll cheat on HER, he'll probably cheat on you too.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Jenn: Agreed.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I was relieved to find out the authors were British as well, Sars: I hoped it would cut the treacle with wry wit, and it did, for the most part. Also, the expression "not worth the candle" is going to be wedged into my future vocabulary.

    I think the main problem with the Non Self Help Genre, wit or no, is that it gets dated fast, and the more specific the advice, the faster the dating gets. I found this especially true in the food/nutrition section, which isn't the authors' fault, necessarily, but news from SCIENCE! about supplements and fish oil and what have you changes so fast I personally would hesitate to write up anything about it. But that leads to the "generalization" problem: Chocolate! Red Wine! Wear Hats! And We're Done! So I guess I'm being a bit Chinese menu in my complaint for that one.

    I did like the range of topics covered–Moral Relativism? When's the last time you even heard that phrase?–and the assumption that if you're bright enough to read you're bright enough to grasp philosiphical and political concepts, without it becoming a dry, over wordy primer on how smart the authors are.

    I enjoyed the shopping section, oddly enough. Usually this part of a "Wimmin's Section" book annoys me, as it presupposed I want nothing more than to buy and wear stillettos. The fact that they got me to want to reread Tender Is The Night is a point in their favor, as well as their notion that if you're going to indulge, do it in something you want to keep and treasure, not piles of crap.

    I like the book's design, even the bricklike feel of it. It's pretty without being weak, delicate without being flimsy. It's nice to see the book designed as an indulgence you might want to keep.

    As for the sleeping with married guys advice:

    I can't disagree with Sars–men are not hopeless ninnies or blindly led idiots (for the most part) and if they cheat, it's because they wanted to. But I do feel the woman has a line in this sand too: if you knew he was married at the get-go, why the fuck are you in this situation? He was charming? He was cute? You were drunk? I wouldn't accept those reasons from my husband, so why should I from you? If I ever found out my spouse was having an affair I'd be livid at him AND her–agency doesn't stop at the marriage bed.

  • @ Jen S 1.0: "But I do feel the woman has a line in this sand too: if you knew he was married at the get-go, why the fuck are you in this situation? He was charming? He was cute? You were drunk? I wouldn't accept those reasons from my husband, so why should I from you? If I ever found out my spouse was having an affair I'd be livid at him AND her–agency doesn't stop at the marriage bed."

    I don't disagree, buuuuut, at the same time: that's a pretty big "if." Someone who is going to step out on their partner probably won't hesitate to lie to the person they're stepping out with, and not everybody thinks to check for a tanline on the ring finger or other signs that their one night stand (and even if the affair goes on longer than that – some people are VERY good at hiding a double life) isn't as free of an agent as he or she appears. (Chalk that up to naïveté if you like, but it does happen.) While I've certainly heard of more than one "other woman" who knew the situation and felt no guilt about it whatsoever (and usually insists that the husband wouldn't neeeeeed to seek out an affair if the wife did or didn't do this or that – which is bullshit, but I think we all know that), I've also heard of a few who are furious to find out that a wife exists at all.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Yep, that's true, which is why I qualified it with "and you knew he was married from the get-go." There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, and of course every marriage is different–some may have "wish lists" of celebrities, some may agree that what happens in Vegas blah blah blah, some may regularly be up for threesomes. And God knows there's plenty of men AND women who just plain ol' cheat like the big cheating cheaters they are.

    Where I agree with Sars is the whole "letting down the sisterhood" thing. C'mon, what, is it 1973? Women are not united into an army. A mistake, lie, pattern of cheating is just that, not some ideological letdown of your fellow women-in-arms.

  • attica says:

    And putting the onus on the sisterhood to manage a cheating man plays precisely into what the authors complain about — that women have to be responsible for every freaking thing, while men can just swan about, oblivious.

  • Grace says:

    I'm still pretty early in the book, and I am close to giving up. Yes, there are some entertaining turns of phrase, but it's so formulaic it's driving me batty. I'll keep grinding ahead, but I can't say that I will be recommending this to anyone else.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I can't say that I will be recommending this to anyone else

    I should probably have qualified my comments by saying that I didn't want to read this one, really — at least, not as much as I wanted to read other things on the list — so lowered expectations improved my opinion of the book, at least in part.

    For what it's trying to do, it's good; it's good of this ilk. I just don't have much per se interest in this ilk.

  • pamie says:

    Oh, man. I tried this morning to read this on the plane, but I was embarrassed by the girlie illustrations all over the place and the big bold "YOU NEED CHOCOLATE AND WINE, GIRLFRIEND" subheadings every other page. I kept covering the margins with my forearms, which only made it look even more like I was trying to find the answers to the most basic of Cosmo questions inside this thing.

    I thought it was going to be a very different kind of book, and that's my fault for assuming and not reading up on it. So when it felt like supplemental material for Bridget Jones' Diary, I actually flipped to the front to find out when in the 90's it came out.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    supplemental material for Bridget Jones' Diary

    …That, pretty much. It does improve after the sex 'n' love parts.

  • Robin says:

    I don't like books of this ilk either, and read it specifically for the readalong, so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that I wasn't my fave. As a SAHM with a college degree, my rant of choice concerns the "Motherhood and Family" chapter. (pp 224-5). No, having enough money to stay at home doesn't make me morally superior, but it does mean that my husband and I do have a fairly modest lifestyle. We chose to make sacrifices because we do feel it's best for our family, and I'm not saying I deserve a medal for that, but I don't think I deserve the flippancy and tone the authors delivered, either. Also, I don't have a "She has given up a successful job, and doesn't she want you to know it," attitude, and if I happen to help my niece make a working model of the stomach from Play Doh, it's a function of my own priorities and an act of love, not of me having too much time on my hands. No one with little kids has too much time on their hands. It's funny that the authors follow these passages with a rant about support for the sisterhood, because the support for me and my position, I am not feeling.

  • polly says:

    Delighted to agree with the comments. I am so grateful for real concrete advice – and correspondingly feel cheated by the cop-out lines (eat chocolate, drink red wine, don't be too hard on yourself, you're great).

    Their nutrition and diet advice falls short of the standard set by French Women Don't Get Fat which reminds you of the genius fact that there are foods that are rewarding because of their intense seasonal taste, not because of fat or sugar content. (Raspberries. Oysters.)

    Their career advice falls short of the standard set by a book for women by a very competent Irish woman, Terry Prone which says (i) if you think you're not valued as highly as the men at work, take a hard look at yourself, the odds are they actually are working harder than you (ii) if your immediate superior doesn't seem to know what you're doing that's so great, it's on you to fix that by telling them.

    Similarly with their very specific view on not cheating with a married man – when they got specific about dealing with mothers, they got way too specific. Not everyone's dynamic with their mother is explained by divorcees not being allowed into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot when she was a girl.

    All that said, it's good as these things go, and they seem like nice women, but a higher standard exists out there.

  • Claire says:

    @Robin
    I agree with your issues about the motherhood chapter. I was expecting a section in there talking about SAHMs who choose to give up careers, and how if that's their choice, good for them, don't give them crap for it. Instead it was like every other kind of mother was okay, EXCEPT for SAHMs – who, of course, are arrogant about their decision to stay home and raise their children, and have no problem telling all and sundry about how wonderful they are in the sacrifices they're making for their children, let's give them all a Nobel Peace Prize – wtf?

    It felt as though they spend a lot of time telling women not to feel guilty about having to work and raise children, but the message to those who don't HAVE to work, or CHOOSE not to, was more like, "You're all a bunch of arrogant, stuck-up cows reveling in your moral superiority, SHAME ON YOU".

    Was anyone else getting mixed messages from that chapter?

  • Bridget says:

    @Robin: I have to say my biggest objection came with the motherhood chapter as well. It felt a bit like a masquerade– behind all of the "all we can do is make/own our choices and not judge others" was an awful lot of judginess regarding the stay-at-home mom. A bias-free look at the issue is just about impossible, but for two gals claiming to support the "sisterhood" in pursuit of the "impossible art,"
    there wasn't a lot of solidarity for those who made a different choice than they did.

    I felt a little empty when I finished. It's such a great title, that refers to such an amazing woman that I just felt like there needed to be something more concrete behind it. All due applause for not wanting to write a self-help book aside, it just didn't have enough oomph.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    behind all of the "all we can do is make/own our choices and not judge others" was an awful lot of judginess regarding the stay-at-home mom

    Not to mention the excessively careful section that apologized endlessly for…not wanting to have to apologize for NOT having children. I mean, I understand the instinct, socially speaking; some people — not just women, certainly, and not just on this subject — do behave as though any choice that differs from theirs is by definition a judgment OF theirs. I don't have my own kids, and won't, but if that's what YOU want, that's awesome. We don't have to all do the same things.

    But the book makes it out as though women who do not have children do not have them because we love children SO much that we would never take such an important job so lightly. It is a hugely important job, I agree; that isn't why I don't want my own. I don't want my own because: I don't. And I don't love the implication that I'm required to 1) explain why that is or 2) pretend that it's because I think I'm not "good enough" to do it.

    …I think I actually may have disliked this book after all. Oops.

  • Mary says:

    Are there any other queer women here who are IMMENSELY narked by the whole, "oooh, gay men and straight women have so much in common, lol!" trope? I find it so weird and exclusionary, and it's a really fetishistic way to talk about gay men, too. As if gay women's sense of humour and experiences of being a) female and b) gay were so totally different that they couldn't possibly be a source of shared experience.

    When I was twenty-two and came out to a friend, she actually said, "Oh, it's such a shame you're not a gay man, because they're really funny." I pointed out that I'd been making her laugh since we were eleven, but no, the Gay Man/Straight Woman thing is where it's at. Apparently, the second I started sleeping with women, I lost the ability to be funny.

  • RC says:

    "a working model of the stomach from Play Doh??????"

    THAT was an exciting idea. The book? Not so much.

  • Amie says:

    Wow. I'm cheating on this "read-along" by… reading just the comments and NOT reading-along, and I'm kind of glad this is the route I took. I had a brief break in my schedule that permitted me to indulge in Pamie's book (…and so glad I did!), but couldn't squeeze this one in in spite of my hope that it was a book "of this ilk" WORTH taking the time out for.

    Now I know I don't have to worry that I'm missing anything! Thanks, everyone!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Mary: I didn't mind the way they talked about straight women and gay men, but as far as I can recollect, they didn't talk about queer women at all — like, not even a mention. Now, if I'm writing a book of this type, I'm not going to be all, "Ladies who love ladies, pull up some chairs and let me tell you about it," but it's one thing not to think that it's your place to speak truth to the LGBTQ experience. It's another thing when the LGBTQ experience doesn't show up anywhere in nearly 400 pages.

  • Bridget says:

    @Mary, @Sars: I'm straight and I was annoyed there was no mention of queer women. I always thought a huge part of the post-feminist world was the freedom to be whomever, and love whomever is right for you. To have the only mention of gay women come while relating an anecdote about one of them being "accused" of being a lesbian…..

    The more I think about it, the more I didn't like the book either. It's a lot less "Yay all modern women!" and more "Yay all modern women who are just like us!"

  • pamie says:

    I was also wondering how it was possible they could exclude gay and bi women from an entire section on the different types of love women have. And that it was always so husband/wedding oriented. Always. You exhaust yourself for the men, so thank goodness there are women there who will love you for who you are, warts and all, like great friends. And then if you still need a man to understand you, go find a gay one! And if you STILL aren't happy, eat something.

    Last year! This book came out last year! That still blows my mind.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    You exhaust yourself for the men, so thank goodness there are women there who will love you for who you are, warts and all, like great friends. And then if you still need a man to understand you, go find a gay one!

    Didn't love the "men don't get it; how quaint" tone, either.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Sars, yeah, that whole "we don't have kids 'cause we're so unworthy" rubbed me the wrong way a bit too. I don't want kids because I don't want them, never have. Nothing about the process of pregnancy or raising children appeals to me. But for God's sake, it's not because I think I'm some lowlife worm who doesn't dare be around them. My sister's got three children, my darling neices and nephew, and she's a great mom who raises them well, but it's not because the Motherhood Muse kissed her on the forehead, ya know? It was something she wanted and that she works at. Neither of us feel like our choice was "superior" or better thought out than the other.

  • Jennifer says:

    Regarding the sisterhood: yeah, technically it's the guy's fault for cheating and not yours if you are single. But (a) as Wil Wheaton would say, don't be a dick, and (b) why the hell would you get involved with a married dude anyway? You're always going to get the short end of the stick, and you're being an asshole to yourself at minimum (not to mention everyone else involved). I dunno about "sisterhood", but personhood, maybe.

    I think I'm glad I didn't purchase this book, it sounds a lot less impressive than expected.

  • Robin says:

    @RC: Thanks, the Play Doh stomach did pretty much rock, and it was a lot of fun.

  • Krissa says:

    I read part of this book, and then stopped…pretty much for the same reasons as everyone else. I have never read anything "of this ilk" so I wasn't sure exactly what to expect. I was underwhelmed. There were a few funny lines, turns of phrase, but nothing I really felt like I could take away in any real sense.

    Bring on read-long three!

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