Oh, Jonathan Franzen. More than anyone else on the literary landscape today, he is the author that feminists (including myself) love to hate. I have nothing new to say about his many misogynistic statements, including his displeasure at his Oprah’s Book Club selection because only women would read it, that feminists only hate him because they “need a villain,” and, of course, an entire essay about Edith Wharton’s perceived ugliness. But with all of the hubbub about his personal sexism, relatively little has been said about sexism within the pages of his novels. And it’s there. Oh, is it there.
And not only in his latest work, Purity, which at times sounds more like the incoherent ramblings of your alt-right uncle at Thanksgiving dinner about those “damn feminists” than an award-winning novel. It includes, among other things, a feminist character who forces her partner to sit down while he pees to “atone for his maleness.” No, seriously.
But what about the less controversial novels that preceded Purity, such as Freedom and National Book Award winner The Corrections? According to some critics, including Sigal Samuel at Electric Literature and David Ulin at LA Times, there is little to no evidence of sexism in his actual writing, and that feminist literary buffs shouldn’t necessarily be turned off his wonderful works of literature. As Ulin says in his review of Purity:
By now, Franzen is often regarded less as writer than as cultural signifier, emblem of white male hegemony. That this has little if anything to do with the substance of his novels is (perhaps) the point and the tragedy; when it comes to Franzen, the writing is where we go last.
All right, Ulin. Challenge accepted. Because newsflash: not all of us hate Franzen solely because he sounds like an asshole in interviews. Some of us despised him long before he said he wanted to adopt an Iraqi war orphan in order to “understand young people better.” Some feminists hate his writing because–surprise, surprise–it’s actually anti-feminist.
A little background: I have hated Franzen’s writing for years, before I read any of his horrible interviews. I read The Corrections for a contemporary literature class and found it to be the quintessential example of hysterical realism, with a thin sheen of contempt for all of his characters as a bonus. I then read Freedom and Purity, knowing that I would probably hate them, but acknowledging that his work will inevitably be part of the literary conversation. Of those three, I found Freedom to be Franzen’s least objectionable novel, both in terms of social justice and literary quality. But as I’ll explore in this post, that’s not saying a whole hell of a lot. Here are just a few passages from Freedom that stereotype and dehumanize women, and there are a lot of them.
On Patty, a housewife who often boasts about her troublemaker son:
She was like a woman bemoaning her gorgeous jerky boyfriend. As if she were proud of having her heart trampled by him: as if her openness to this trampling were the main thing, maybe the only thing, she cared to have the world know about.
This is my problem with Jonathan Franzen’s writing, particularly when he tries to write about women: he’s great at sounding philosophical while actually just propagating over-intellectualized versions of tired stereotypes. Oh, women secretly want men who will treat them like shit, you say? Never heard that one before. Women go after “sexy jerks” while the “nice guys” get left behind? What a unique, thoughtful insight!
Bill Clinton was the rare politician who didn’t seem sanctimonious to Patty—who didn’t pretend to be Mr. Clean—and she was one of the millions of American women who would have slept with him in a heartbeat.
In addition to these explicitly condescending generalizations about women, all of the major female characters in Freedom are embarrassingly stereotypical. Patty is a bored housewife who married a “safe,” security-providing man but wants to get her rocks off with a handsome musician, Lilitha is the “fresh and Asian” young assistant who seduces her boss, and Connie is a completely submissive girl who quite literally lives to please her boyfriend.
Patty, at least, is somewhat humanized, since the novel takes her perspective at certain points in the novel. But none of the other female characters get to tell their own stories, so we only get to see them through the eyes of male characters, who are all misogynistic to different degrees. As a result, it doesn’t matter that Lilitha and Connie are both described as intelligent, passionate, and more interesting than their male paramours. They are still reduced to harmful (and largely untrue) female stereotypes. Take, for example, the first description of Lalitha, while the third-person narrator is taking Richard’s perspective:
There were eighteen words of body language with which women signified availability and submission, and Lalitha was using a good twelve of them at once on Walter. She looked like a living illustration of the phrase hanging on his words.
I mean, first of all, ew. Second of all, there should probably be quotation marks around “hanging on his words.” Third, and most importantly, are we really supposed to believe that an intelligent, confident, accomplished woman like Lalitha would act like society’s idea of a simpering schoolgirl? He’s making all women sound like female gazelles offering dominant males their hindquarters.
Some may argue that this is Richard’s sentiment rather than that of the implied author, who clearly doesn’t approve of Richard’s treatment or view of women. But the depiction of Lalitha in other characters’ perspectives does nothing to contradict the above account; everyone agrees that Lalitha is very openly in love with Walter and that there is an unequal power dynamic between them. And Walter goes so far as to admit that Lalitha, while a generally empowered woman, has “another side to her” that has a “weakness for strong and traditional men.” (Again–ew.) So in this passage, we’re not meant to think that Richard is being sexist–or if we are, we’re still not supposed to think that he’s wrong. If anything, we’re supposed to think that he possesses uncanny insight into female behavior because he’s a rockstar who’s slept with a thousand woman. To which I say: there is absolutely no one on this Earth who understands less about the female condition than that guy.
And then there’s poor Connie, who fares even worse than the infantilized, exoticized Lalitha. Connie is unconditionally devoted to her boyfriend, Joey, and will do absolutely anything for him. She lets him set all of the terms for their relationship, always giving without asking anything in return. She is endlessly supportive and never questions any decision he makes, even when he gets caught up in war racketeering. She always wants to have sex with him, even when she’s on her period, and begs him for anal. She lets him cheat with impunity because she “doesn’t want to hold him back,” with the understanding that she won’t do the same. She’s like a cross between the modern-day “Cool Girl” and an 18th-century geisha.
Here’s a description of Connie after they’re caught having sex by Joey’s uptight sister (who also doesn’t get her own chapter):
Connie, stark naked, bloody-red of lip and nipple, sat holding her breath and looking at Joey with a mixture of fear and amazement and excitement and allegiance and delight which convinced him, like nothing before and few things since, that no rule or propriety or moral law mattered to her one-thousandth as much as being his chosen girl and partner in crime.
And here’s the thing: Connie is an interesting character. She is smart and almost unimaginably intense, and yet her entire existence revolves around her boyfriend. (Because that’s realistic.) At one point, she aces all of the college finals she shows up for, but then skips a bunch of them, and ultimately is sent home because she’s too depressed that Joey isn’t paying attention to her. Her mother puts her on antidepressants and worries that she’s “dying of loneliness.” Even when Connie has a prolonged affair with a married man, she claims she only did it because she “loves Joey so much” and was only trying to cope with the loneliness. He believes her, and we’re meant to do the same. And even worse, Joey is angry with her for cheating, even though he’s been openly sleeping with other women with her permission, because it’s “different for men.”
“Was it hard for you, too? Whatever you did last year?” she asks him.
“That’s because you’re a guy. I know what it’s like to be you, Joey. Do you believe that?”
“Then everything’s going to be all right.”
Again, some would argue that Franzen is commenting on misogynist attitudes, rather than reinforcing them. But there’s no other perspective on Connie to challenge these attitudes. We never get to hear Connie’s side of the story, in which she felt any genuine desire for another man or liberation in fulfilling her sexual needs. Connie is consistently shown to have no agency of her own, no interests or goals outside of the male character who tells us her story.
Franzen’s defenders might argue that he’s disdainful of all of his characters, contemptuous of all groups of people, but that’s no excuse. Like many social novelists, he traffics in making sweeping observations about human nature. But unlike the best ones, his “insights” are mostly just stereotypes reworded with SAT vocabulary. Writing men as sex-crazed Neanderthals and women as passive sex objects is not “fierce” writing, as David Ulin praises, it’s just tired. Franzen is so busy making broad observations about groups of people that he fails to notice how many individuals buck stereotypes, and how seldom those individuals’ stories are told.
Plus, if the best defense of a writer is that he’s just generally condescending, then that’s a pretty bad sign. Just saying.