Thursday, December 8, 2011

Oprah and "what men don't get": Caitlin Flanagan

Caitlin Flanagan wrote about Oprah Winfrey in the December issue of Atlantic Monthly (available online as "The Glory of Oprah"). 

The piece begins with the elegiac final shows, traverses Winfrey's horrendous childhood, then catalogs her soft spots (dogs, candles, reunions) and aversions (domestic violence, inequality). Flanagan hits all the notes, including Winfrey's notable grandstanding. 

Oprah: Finding a way
Near the end, Flanagan summarizes Winfrey's contribution, the establishment of a  cultural edifice for her vision of the feminine psyche.

The Oprah Winfrey Show was its hodge-podgy portal for a disconcerting mix: domesticity/danger; social justice/bras; Beyoncé/Maya Angelou, darkness leavened with froth, because Oprah has a mission, to make things better, especially (but not exclusively) for girls and women. A scholarship, a find-a-child-molester-in-hiding hotline, a Nate Berkus bedroom: there is a way out of hell.

Flanagan writes:  

"There are certain things about women that men will never understand, in part because they have no interest in understanding them. They will never know how deeply we care about our houses–what a large role they play in our dreams for ourselves, how unhappy their shortcomings make us. 

Men think they understand the way our physical beauty–or lack of it, or assaults on it from age or extra weight–preys on our minds, but they don't fully grasp the significance these things have for us. 

Nor can they understand the way physical comforts or simple luxuries–the fresh towel or the fat new cake of soap–can lift our spirits. And they will never know how much of our lives have been shaped around the fear of bad men and the harm they can bring us if we're not careful, if we're not banded together, if we're not telling one another what to watch out for, what we've learned.

We need each other's counsel, and oftentimes it comes when we're talking about other things, when we seem not to have much important on our minds at all."


Not all of Flanagan's "certain things" resonated; to generalize as much as Flanagan has, I say most men 'get' more than she thinks and are equally appalled by violence and injustice.

I began to ponder: Are there other "certain things" that I would list?
My list-in-progress:
1. A small act can have great repercussions for me, and I'm not "over-reacting"
2. Yes, this pair of black shoes is different from the other four pairs
3. I don't view everything as a competition, at least not against other persons.

Then I began to run dry, because many things I thought of as differences relate to values or upbringing, not gender. Some men do not 'get' the absolute importance of my children to me, but I know women who don't 'get' it either.  There are women who care far more about sports than I do, men who are more clothes-conscious.

Women do not get some things about men, either; we consistently underestimate their need to demonstrate competence—and to receive appreciation for it—and we don't acknowledge how much men, too, need support for life's  reversals.

Besides, if men fully understood everything about us, maybe they wouldn't find us such fascinating company.

17 comments:

Susan said...

Many things to think about here.

frugalscholar said...

I love Oprah. Flanagan I do not like. Trying too hard to provoke in all her pieces, kind of like Katie Roiphe.

laurieann said...

I never had the chance to watch the Oprah show as I was either working, parenting, or without a television cable but I did read her magazine on and off. What impressed me the most about Oprah is that she took seriously the conscious raising of women though she accomplished this in a very different ways for the feminists of the 1970's.

The idea of what others "get" about us is important but it's easy to over-focus there. As I've grown, changed and done the hard work of living my life in reality rather than fantasy I can see much clearer where my loved ones get me and where they don't.

More important for me however is that I 'get' myself. This may seem obvious to many but it wasn't for me. Living so many decades in service to others; parents, husband, child it was safer to not 'get' myself because then I might want something for myself. The extension of wanting something just for myself could be a true relationship killer. So now I'm paying far more attention to what I feel and think and how I want to live. And I'm finding that most of the relationships I've built over the years are, to varying degrees, surviving this focus. And my husband is enjoying being off the hook for 'getting' me.

Duchesse, you have a true gift for thoughtfully conveying timely, meaningful topics. There's a book in you that needs to come out. I can just feel it.

Susan Tiner said...

I've always loved Caitlin Flanagan. The hyperbole is part of the fun.

I see what you mean about the generalizations in that article. I see these "gender" differences as a matter of values and upbringing within the context of a particular socioeconomic status. For example, a girl growing up white middle class may experience very different male behavior than one growing up poor black. Exceptions and variations noted.

Kai Jones said...

I think the overgeneralization and heteronormativity of both Oprah and Flanagan alienate me more than they illuminate any useful knowledge. I am more like my husband than I am like the other women in my office-I read science fiction and mysteries, not People magazine; I like action movies more than romance movies. I am more a human being than I am a woman--but I am still a woman (and a mother, and a grandmother) and I resent the attempt to exclude the kind of woman I am from the definition.

Tish Jett said...

Dear Duchesse,

Fascinating observations -- from both of you -- and you're so right, it's not always a man/woman thing.

Just got back from my divine medical pedicure and the man who makes my feet baby soft remarked that he thought most, if not all, women tend to be creatures roiling with stress whereas men tend not to be. He then conceded he thought that was a good thing for couples.

I'm thinking about it.

Victoria said...

I don't watch Oprah's show, and I haven't read this book (and I don't think I will). What got my attention was such a blatant generalization: ALL women have fear of bad men, ALL women are unhappy about the shortcomings of their houses. Really? all of us? Isn't it just to project one's fears and preferences to everybody else and forget about the wonderful differences between personalities?

Duchesse said...

Susan: I hope so, thanks!

Frugal: Why do we tolerate definite stances in male op-ed writers (such as Hitchens and Krugman) but if women (Roiphe and Flanagan, as examples) present opinion pieces that do not represent popular ideas, they are called "trying too hard"? (I have heard your exact words from other women.)

laurieann: Some of it was different from 70s style feminism (I was there) and some of it quite similar; she would ask men, for example, if they thought it was fair that their wives worked 40+ hours a week and then did all the house and child care. But Oprah was an entertainer with orders to keep the ratings up.

"Getting ourselves" is indeed important. I recall many times that she emphasized if women did not take care of themselves, they could not take care of others.

Susan Tiner: I am not a Flanagan fan but thank her for urging us to look at what messages the culture serves up, many of which we slurp down without reflection. I think she "got" Oprah very well in that piece.

Kai Jones: I'm not in agreement with your choice of the term "heteronormativity" re Oprah. She was a product of and for US network TV, and yet did shows on LGBTQ persons and their issues, incest, sexual slavery, female circumcision, polygamy, and many other topics that introduced diversity into mainstream media.

She gave a face and voice to people that some of my neighbours would have thought were "weird", such as (intersex persons, prostitutes, transvestites, polyamorous persons), and showed viewers that "this person is human, just like you".

She also addressed the interplay between race and gender roles, and showed how women lived their lives in various cultures.

I'd say she exposed more North Americans to diverse sexuality and gender roles, for more years, than anyone else on network TV.

Thank you for your comment, because it reminded me of how much she did do, as well as the more mainstream shows.

Tish Jett: That surprises me and makes me think. I see a lot of very stressed men but suspect each sex has socially-approved outlets. (How I loved to see a young man knitting on a park bench; he said, "It relaxes me".)

spacegeek33 said...

Wish I had something profound to say, but for the moment, I'll just thank you for a thought-provoking post.

Duchesse said...

Victoria: "All" is of course generalization, yet there must be some affinity for those topics, because this show attracted so many women (among all viewers) for so long.

spacegeek33: your comment is valuable to me, just as it is.

LPC said...

I read an interesting study once, in Foreign Affairs. They said that if you study behaviors across gender, the only ones that are clearly male are a) aggression and b) hierarchical status-ranking activities. I have remember it ever since, having always been a woman with more than my fair share of testosterone patterns.

Rubiatonta said...

Timely thoughts -- I had an interesting conversation last night with a friend who is uncomfortable that the new man in her life has taken on pronounced "feminine" roles -- such as cooking meals, looking after the house, etc., in his own home.

Even though she realizes that as someone who was widowed when his child was young, he had no choice, she still feels "weird" when he makes dinner for them. And she's only 37!

Those cultural constructs run very deep in this neck of the woods!

Duchesse said...

LPC: Your comment has the ring of truth for me.

Many companies create cultures that mirror and support those two factors, especially those that require outside sales forces. Some women find they enjoy the opportunity to display aggression and busily engage in the status-seeking behaviours. These are recast in corporate parlance as "the will to win", and "ambition".

Duchesse said...

Rubi: Wow, 37! I'm imagining many women reading about this man and feeling more than a twinge of envy for your friend.

Tiffany said...

Fascinating - the comments as much as the original quote. While gender may account for some differences, there are so many other factors at play. And gender itself is such a social construct - what's perceived as effeminate in one culture may not in another.

Much food for thought ...

Duchesse said...

Tiffany: That's why we distinguish between "gender" and "sex". A succinct explanation from the World health Organization:
http://www.who.int/gender/whatisgender/en/

Ali said...

That last paragraph summed it up nicely. And dare I say, I don't like Oprah.