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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
17.1 (Winter 2017)
Feminist “Achievement” in Generation X: Victimization Required
Peter T. Singleton
The fascinating evolution of Padma Lakshmi into a kind of multicultural icon strongly suggests that the new generation of feminist “achievers” must list crippling prejudices overcome—with numerous accompanying scars—on their résumé.
I have stoutly resisted the personal temptation and the occasional request from others to post another piece about beautiful women. Though I have now virtually retired from academe, I still receive emails about my comments that are anything but encouraging. I understand their bone of contention. To treat another human being as an objet d’art is disturbing even when the opus is found exquisite. What compromises this kind of criticism in my judgment is the alarmingly stable marriage between feminists and coarse sexual habits as a “right” and a legitimate means of advancing in the man’s world. If objectifying a woman’s body is wrong for a man to do, then it should be equally wrong for a woman to do. Yet this marriage is the only one that seems to last among distaff gender-theorists.
Into this ferment of ideas has lately entered my eldest son’s comments to me about women. Naturally, a young man in college is attracted to “good-looking girls”. Yet some young men are apparently so tired of being used by women, as if they were trophies or conquests that retained no further interest once they sat in the curio cabinet, that they have created some very rational (but very regrettable) defense mechanisms. Basically, they disguise themselves. They learn lines for certain occasions. Some, like my boy, have these lines handy on their smartphones. They may also assume fake names, or introduce themselves using a never-used middle name: anything to insulate their at-risk ego from a potential predator.
Patronizing strip clubs is an especially disappointing type of behavior to someone who has tried to rear gentlemen, as I have done. I can only hope that the “patronage” comes once in a blue moon and is initiated by some other male in the Friday night band of rogues. I’m willing to believe, too, that most males other than yours truly have actually been to a stripper joint at least once. I am probably surrounded by them at church (the sort who always say, “Well, didn’t you do that when you were their age?”). Without dismissing the practice with a slight of hand, I can understand how watching young women willingly reduce themselves to a “cut of meat” at the butcher’s market would insulate the fragile male ego still further. Why would you suppose that a person who uses her body to tantalize for a few bucks would have the intellectual capacity to judge the quality of your human worth?
I’m reminded of the belly-dancers in the Muslim world, a range of cultures often very comfortable with the (Koranically sanctioned) infantilization of women. I also think of Dmitri in Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog”, a man whose soul aches after many exploitive relationships with women and who refers to them—defensively—as “the inferior race”.
I hold feminism directly responsible for the increased degradation of women that I have witnessed in my lifetime. Men, without a doubt, have sometimes treated women as conquests: men who used to be called “bounders”. Now that feminists have made it respectable, and even de rigueur, for women to treat men as conquests or objectified delivery systems for carnal pleasure, the vast majority of younger men have responded by becoming bounders. The process of degeneration has become self-perpetuating.
Given all that, my own naively reverent admiration of the beautiful female face seems to me a minor infraction, if it is any infraction at all. I understand that not all women are born beautiful; but the gist of all that I wrote was that beauty is not the same as “sexiness”, and even that innocence can confer beauty upon an otherwise plain face. Believe me, I can well grasp why a feminist would object to that last remark. Innocence is a virtue they would rather exterminate from the sisterhood than defend from male predation!
Several paragraphs into this self-indulgent meditation, I haven’t yet come to my specific reason for writing it. I mentioned that the occasional enthusiast wants me to expand upon my earlier subject. One party accused my Catalogue of Beautiful Women of being mildly racist, with a single face to represent all Eastern goddesses. A list was included to enlighten me. Without copping a plea to the ridiculous “racism” charge, I freely admit that there are some
staggeringly beautiful women in the group. I will mention Zhang Ziyi and Song Hye-kyo (what lyrical names!) just to get out from under an invidious shadow.
And I might well add Padma Lakshmi: but I am going to dwell upon her case for reasons that have little to do with her appearance, frankly. In surfing the Net, I found out the following.
Lakshmi is the daughter of two Indian professionals who divorced with considerable ill feeling. The mother emigrated to the States to escape the stigma of being a divorcee in India. Here she continued to prosper, to the extent that she could afford private school for her daughter and then an elite northeastern university. Padma, however (says Wikipedia), didn’t have it easy. Classmates leveled racial slurs at her in high school. She was hospitalized for two weeks with a rare nervous disorder when fourteen, and shortly thereafter she suffered broken bones in a car accident that left a long surgical scar on one arm. The low self-esteem that durably tormented her in the wake of these incidents either drove her to excel in school and career or did not, at any rate, impede her. Graduating from Clark University with high honors, she proceeded to navigate a lucrative path that has included modeling, acting in movies and on TV serials, hosting an award-winning show about exotic cooking, authoring award-winning cookbooks, editing, contributing a column to the New York Times, and now publishing a bestselling tell-all memoir.
And there seems to have been much to tell, as these things go. Ms. Lakshmi lived with Salmon Rushdie for several years—and apparently married him at some point, since a bitter divorce followed. From two more high-profile live-ins she managed to produce one daughter. Despite commenting at some point that the child’s paternity was in question, she is now confident that the happy donor was a distinguished CEO. All of this, I presume, is in the new book.
Also, a great deal about endometriosis seems to have made its way into the book and into Padma’s active life. A sufferer of this distressful hardening of the womb, she has founded an organization to offer support to women who combat its cramps, nags, and pains. An interview available on YouTube left me with the impression that her endometriosis was a heavy cross to carry, both for its physical discomfort and for the lengthy ignorance of its presence that negligent doctors inflicted upon Padma. This, along with the burden of being a single mom, the disadvantages of being a female in the professional world, and the haunting aftermath of those high school racial slurs, has qualified her for a Lifetime Trooper badge. (Yes, I’m being facetious.) As for the delicate matter of daughter Krishna’s having to read one day about her turbulent origins in the tell-all memoir, Ms. Lakshmi coolly indicated to the interviewer that the girl will read all kinds of sordid scuttlebutt once she is old enough to Google, and that she herself is confident that their relationship will triumph over the world’s prattle.
I sincerely hope so—and I should not leap to any careless conclusions on the basis of Wikipedia and YouTube, two of our age’s great purveyors of worldly prattle. Yet on the basis of certain themes that surface from various sources of information, I see a picture emerging… and it strikes me as more chaotic than beautiful. Padma Lakshmi, despite a life so gilded with achievement and recognition that I haven’t space for the full rundown, clearly views herself as a survivor of victimization more than anything else. It may not even be unfair to say that her many fans and adorers applaud and award her because they take this same view. It isn’t enough, apparently, that she has managed an incredible amount of success in her less-then-half-century of life: it has to be written in bold print that she always did so with some deck or other stacked against her. Her parents divorced and left her scarred. Her mother transplanted her to an alien culture. Her peers within this culture reviled her for her skin color. Automobiles attacked her and almost stole away her life at a tender age. She achieved highest honors in both high school and college, yet numerous unlaid ghosts of the past harrowed her even as she was posing for the covers of major fashion magazines. Men were untrue to her, and the only one she married wasn’t worth keeping in the long run. Pain racked her pelvis from a congenital condition, and the doctors either couldn’t or wouldn’t give her the straight story in time to take preventative measures. She fought like a Trojan to become pregnant, and then suffered the slings and arrows of “judgment” for being single. She had to balance motherhood and career in a gymnastic feat that isn’t really possible to sustain. Now she faces a difficult future of trying to protect her little girl from vicious remarks that she is later sure to hear.
Again, my objective here isn’t to disparage Lakshmi on the basis of gossip; and even if true, the details of her life in my possession can’t justify any sound verdict on her moral character, because I do not know her. People respond to different trials in different ways. Some people are terrified of leaving the house, and a trip to the grocery store is a major victory for them.
My objection is to the marketed Padma Lakshmi—to a marketing strategy which she herself appears to have bought into. The packaging has “victim” written all over it. Pointing this out cannot be unfair, because it is merely to take the person’s construct of her image at face value. As a construct, this image strikes me as poppycock.
The parents divorced: well… and so do lots of parents these days. At least these particular parents were very well-to-do, so much so that the newly single mother continued to provide for her child in ways that most children cannot imagine. I have to ask a hard follow-up question of our victim, too, in this context: if being the child of a single parent was such a hardship, why did you willfully inflict that same hardship upon your daughter?
California is as good as a foreign country even to many of us Americans. It isn’t difficult to credit that adjustment problems occurred here. But again… many, many adolescents have adjustment problems in grade school, middle school, and high school. Being a poor kid in a rich kid’s school can be at least as traumatizing as being a dark-skinned girl at that same kind of school (as I can attest to). Tall girls, short boys, the overweight, quiet kids, and kids with accents are all commonly crucified in the hallways. A beautiful young girl at my school happened to have a very strong drawl. Even though her family was among the richest in the metropolis, she was hounded mercilessly (by other girls) until she finally withdrew. And, yes, her being much more pleasant to look at than most of the girls who speared her with their tongues was probably the underlying cause of the persecution. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same were not true in young Padma’s case—but it doesn’t fit her narrative to reach that obvious conclusion.
Car wrecks… honestly, how does one draw evidence of bigotry and persecution from a car wreck? Men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for racial hatred. These things happen. Why must the incident be included in Padma’s bio? There are adolescent burn victims, too, and their scars are often much more defacing and much more lasting than a broken bone and a surgery scar.
The multiple careers in modeling, in film, in TV, in writing, in the culinary world, and even (it seems lately) in music… were these somehow restrained because Lakshmi happens to be female? On the contrary, isn’t it infinitely more plausible in our time that these doors would not have opened as soon and as wide as they did had she not been a female, stunningly beautiful, and also of darker-than-Anglo-Saxon complexion? Or is the indignity that she was advanced for these very reasons, in reverse discrimination? Is the complaint that her many remarkable gifts and talents all played second fiddle to her being a beautiful woman? I’m having trouble locating the basis of the victimization here.
Which brings us to endometriosis. This is no joking matter. Most women suffer from at least a touch of endo as they age. But let me repeat myself: most women suffer from at least a touch as they age. The diagnosis is not a rarity, as if fate had turned over the Jack of Spades and ignored another fifty-one cards. I do not understand, further, the insinuations in what I read that a doctor or doctors might have improved Padma’s physical or psychological state if they had reached the correct diagnosis sooner. Endometriosis is not effectively treatable at any point, so she was not cheated of any cure. It is also a major cause of infertility, especially in older women. Lakshmi was in fact very, very lucky that she could produce a healthy little girl as late in her fertile period as she did. My sister-in-law was not so fortunate. Millions of women would give half of their remaining life if they could have shared the remaining half with a child. I ask once more: where is the victimization here?
Unhappy in love? Well, well… I would guess that about 80 percent of both sexes are unhappy in love to some degree at least a few days of the year, and 98 percent of the remaining 20 percent are lying. The guy and girl who are left probably live in Colorado, where weed is now legal.
You can at least give yourself a fighting chance, though. Studies have repeatedly shown that live-in arrangements do not produce long-term relationships. What begins tentatively is almost certain to end in shambles: a species of self-fulfilling prophecy. I haven’t read Lakshmi’s Love, Loss, and What We Ate, nor have I any pressing plans to do so. I’m just guessing, then, that she has been about as lucky in love as she wanted to be deep down; which is to say, she probably prefers being alone in a good kitchen.
There’s nothing wrong with preferring to live alone (though some of us find single-parenthood less than ideal for children). Why must this choice be the result of victimization by males? There’s little that’s terribly painful about endometriosis once menopause has passed (though a sketchy link with cancer seems to exist). Why must the condition be tied to the cavalier attitudes of male doctors? Being bullied in high school is probably the rule rather than the exception, especially for talented youngsters. Why must the memory of a few racial slurs be forever traumatic and indict a vast social malaise?
Padma Lakshmi belongs more or less to what has been styled Generation X. She is approximately twenty years younger than I. The insight that has dawned upon me in reviewing how her public persona is projected is that the generation following mine among the highly educated and affluent cultural elite needs victimization on its résumé. The achievements themselves are not enough: they must have been achieved over the opposition of oppressive patriarchal forces. Racism, sexism, and of course capitalism (you may have gathered that Lakshmi is heavily invested in resisting our mass-marketed diet of fast food, processed meats, sprayed or genetically modified fruits, and all the rest) keep reappearing as quickly as our Athena cuts off their heads, like the mythical Hydra’s many maws. Simply to have done is inadequate. Certain evil actors from a designated list must have been overcome in the doing.
Imagine a dark, beautiful immigrant girl (we’ll call her Italian) who is jeered by her classmates because of her accent and her precocious height. She survives, and even thrives academically. The unfair criticism teaches her that popularity is an unworthy ambition, and she shoots for more meaningful marks. She develops true character. After a successful college preparation, she launches a career in the fashion industry. She meets a man at church who respects her and treats her like a lady. They marry; and though her husband is eager to accommodate her career, she willingly cuts back on her work hours to rear three children. The marriage is stable, and its hard times lead to concessions from either party rather than talk of divorce. The children grow up to be a credit to their parents, and the wife is able to devote more time now to her designs and even to authorship. She will probably never be as famous and well-paid as she might have been without the “burden” of a family, but she’s very satisfied with the trade-off.
Would an educated feminist of Padma Lakshmi’s generation consider this person a success? I can testify that, to the contrary, such a person would be considered a sell-out, a traitor to “the cause”. I wonder, taking all in all, just how many females knocking at the door of middle age have bought the world as packaged in this form? How many need to find a persecutor or oppressor every time they set about performing a task? How many, for instance, feel that a vast cultural conspiracy of misogynists is trying to keep them from buying birth control (just to use one example that received much press a couple of years ago)?
I hope my eldest doesn’t form any lasting opinions about women based upon what he might have seen in a strip club. But if he ever decides to go to graduate school, I’m afraid that he might learn the same lesson there: that women are distressed beings who must consent to degrade themselves in order to earn their daily bread unless they buck the system. That isn’t true. No one can truly degrade you in this society unless you lack the character to walk away from a seductive pay-off. No one can truly oppress you in this economy unless you lack the character to live content in honest obscurity. I want my sons to find women of character who will stick by them through thick and through thin—because character is beautiful.
After a teaching career spanning three decades, Peter Singleton now lives in semi-retirement in the North Texas area, where he is a freelance writer and part-time teacher.