Bender Differences

Amusing Post-Feminist Pyrotechnics.

By Amy Murphy

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, by Aimee Bender (Doubleday). Cloth, $29.95.

THE CLIMATE FOR the fostering of feminist thought has become particularly frosty of late. On its June 29 cover, Time magazine posed the query: "Is feminism dead?" And indeed, it appears that while it's not exactly rigor mortis, the old-guard feminist ideals of social, political and economic equality for women are barely breathing in an atmosphere of spicy girl power.

Books The backlash against feminist inquiry on the edge of the millennium takes the unassuming guise of women's ability to do whatever they please. Old-guard feminism has so successfully been co-opted by the advertising industry (take the famous example of the Virginia Slims ads) that it often appears the aims of feminism have been achieved. The idea that women (and everyone else, for that matter) live in a climate of free-will, blissfully unaffected by political, social and economic forces, represents a popular mechanism by which modern oppressions obscured without actually making them go away.

Yet these vanishing acts have consequences, and sometimes our willful ignorance results in an internalized self-loathing.

In many of the short stories collected in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender brilliantly chronicles the psychological effects emanating through the free-wheeling equality women are supposedly enjoying, on par with their male counterparts. Bender often demonstrates, through her portrayal of females struggling in the seemingly egalitarian milieu of late-'90s, fin de siècle sexuality, the price one pays for such freedom. In the story "Call My Name," a wealthy, young and gorgeous female narrator dressed in formal wear rides the subway with the object of "auditioning men." Her self-absorption and sense of her own attractiveness are striking: "The men are pleased when I come on the subway because I am the type who usually drives her own car. I am not your average subway girl, wearing black pants and reading the novel the whole time so you can't even get eye contact. Me, I look at them and smile at them and they love it. I bet they talk about me at the dinner table--I give boring people something to discuss over corn." And in "Fell This Girl," another female narrator describes herself in this way: "I am wearing a skirt that flows, and a shirt with a scoop neck and I am luscious."

Yet these narrators' vanity, and the sense of desirability in which they appear to revel, thinly veils their more pressing need for recognition--after one "auditioned" man in "Call My Name" dismisses her and leaves the subway car, the protagonist regretfully muses, "I almost want to chase after him, have him look down on me with that look and tell me something brilliant about myself, unveil my whole me with one shining sentence...." Bender subtly and deftly reveals that what drives these women is not really the no-holds-barred sexuality perceived in their male counterparts, but affirmation of their validity and identity as women in a culture in which other forms of validation aren't so easily attained.

The central character in "Fell This Girl" trolls for men; upon meeting an older man in a bar, she remarks, "When he returns, I want to appear the image of ease and raw sexuality. I open my legs so there's just a hint of darkness at the crotch. I lay my arm across the top of the couch like I'm claiming the world, this is all mine, I'm so confident." When the narrator reveals that she commonly practices this kind of identity masquerade, we have to wonder what's behind it: "I was so good at this kind of fake-out. I rehearsed thoughtfulness, I appeared carefree--and how many guys did I trick? As I sat there, hair tucked behind my ear, supposedly lost in a book...waiting for them to see me and want me, caught in this image of myself as a reader. What about staring at ants, wanting to seem close to nature and whimsical? What about staring into space, wanting to seem expansive?...I fooled so many guys!"

Bender compellingly demonstrates her narrators aren't motivated by mere ego gratification, either. Such a phenomenon constitutes, in effect, culturally scripted roles for men and women. Through sex, or fantasizing about it, these characters are also imagining power for themselves.

Take Bender's depiction of one woman's thought processduring sex with a man she hardly knows:

While he fucks me, I imagine I'm fucking some woman, my mouth set in a grim way. It's the three of us in bed: me the woman, me the man, and him...He thinks I'm just some girly girl, receptacle envelope girl, he doesn't know what I'm thinking. He doesn't know that I'm also a shadow on his back, pushing in.

These sorts of scenes are sometimes painful to read, but they illustrate well how the author's characters shoulder the impact of real-life shifting gender codes that have yet to stabilize.

The supposed sexual freedoms these characters experience are fantasies of male power--"the whole dick fantasy," as the narrator puts it. Yet this fantasy remains a fantasy and does not ultimately empower any of Bender's female narrators, nor does it catapult them to a position of equality. Instead, they remain hostages to a very old dynamic: one in which women act as objects of conquest.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt leaves us with a sense that the personal freedoms women enjoy in a free, apolitical reality of gender equality is a dream that hasn't yet, nor is it likely, to come to pass. Better to embrace the convoluted and skewed landscape of those gender expectations, overt or implied, and try to keep your balance. TW

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