An assortment of essays, mostly quite good, about commitment & relationships. It’s sort of a sequel to The Bitch in the House, which I haven’t read, and similarly marketed as “representatives of the opposite sex reveal the TRUTH about how they feel.” As I say, these are good essays, some even brilliant, but if they strike you as containing any earth-shattering revelations, you haven’t been paying enough attention to the aforesaid opposite sex as people, instead of stereotypes.
Which leads to the most striking passage (to me), in the foreward, where Cathi Hanauer (editor of Bitch in the House) describes the reactions people had to the concept for this book:
I was told, “It’ll never work.” “Men don’t think.” “Men have no interest in self-exploration or revelation.” “Men don’t feel things.” “Men won’t say anything negative about their wives.” “Men have no interior lives.” “Men just want to watch TV and read the paper.” I didn’t believe it. Okay, I believed some of it. But not all of it, not really.
Now take those sentences & replace “men” with “women,” “blacks,” “Asians,” “gays,” or any other group, and add whatever negative stereotypes you think of. (Although it’s kind of tough to imagine something more sweepingly insulting than “don’t think” and “don’t feel things!”) Can you see the new paragraph appearing as-is in a book issued by a major publisher, with no more emphatic commentary than the last bit?
I can’t say I’m surprised by this, unfortunately, but it bothers me a lot. It’s a symptom of why on the whole I prefer to identify myself as an egalitarian (all humans deserve the same rights and access to opportunities) rather than a feminist (since that focuses specifically on women’s rights, although I don’t discount the importance of the feminist movement in the 20th century). Would the world be a better place if it were run by women? I doubt it; I think it would be bad in different ways (just like when any previously-oppressed group comes to power). We’re all human beings, after all, basically monkeys with language and culture, and we struggle with similar problems and tensions.
Nevertheless, certainly in American culture there are some generalizations that can be made about the roles of men and women (keeping in mind that no generalization should be used to predict an individual’s behavior or attitudes). Over the past 40 or 50 years, there’s been an enormous change in the expectations–both women’s and men’s–of how a man could and should act. The essays in Bastard on the Couch don’t shed any blinding light on this topic, but they do offer some interesting, poignant, and thought-provoking flashlight beams on a few areas.
The twenty-seven essays are divided into four sections: “Hunting and Gathering” (sex/monogamy/adultery), “Can’t Be Trusted With Simple Tasks” (household responsibilities in marriage), “Bicycles for Fish,” (a grab-bag, but mostly about role reversals), and “All I Need,”(sad endings). They’re all interesting the way any honest self-revelations are (except Anthony “Jarhead” Swofford’s essay, which feels narcissistic and fake).
Daniel Jones says in “Chivalry on Ice:”
The gestures of chivalry may have been inherently patronizing and obsolete, but my liberation from having to perform them had the side effect of dulling my caretaking instincts, of turning me into someone who would cheer my wife on in one breath (“You can do it yourself!”) only to brush her off in the next (“You can do it yourself’).
This touches on a problem many of these essays dance around: in the absense of traditional gender roles, it’s easy to flail around instead of doing the work of figuring out how to be kind and helpful and supportive to each other based on what each individual needs and wants.
Funny but fundamentally very sad (how do relationships evolve into this awful dynamic?) is Christopher Russell’s “My List of Chores,” where he shares his wife’s daily harangues and general distrust of his competence, which he passively resists, causing her to go even more over the top.
In “Ward and June R Us,” Rob Spillman describes how he and his wife put an end to constant bickering over chores by switching traditional roles each week, so that they take turns being “June” (in charge of all parenting and domestic duties) and “Ward” (come home, relax, and play with the kids guilt-free).
Robert Skates shows the fallout from divorces around him (his own marriage long over) in “The Hole in the Window: A View of Divorce.” At the end, he generously allows his son and his son’s ex-stepfather to hang out together, commiserating over the shock of that second divorce which has split them apart.
Other standouts are Steve Friedman’s “A Bachelor’s Fears,” funny and finally touching; Rob Jackson’s heartwarming “My Life as a Housewife;” and Trey Ellis, “Father of the Year,” funny and poignant.