The right to be bad


Book cover 'This Side of Paradise' by F. Scott FitzgeraldI am never quite sure what I believe about the present. Is it good, or is it bad? Are our human conditions improving, or catastrophically deteriorating? Psychologically, I can only measure my state of being in relation to the present and whatever my memory and education tell me. Scientifically speaking, the data is not conclusive except for, well, climate change. So, the present is simultaneously the best and the worst.

This feeling penetrates how I interpret the many facets of my feminism. There's no way to quantify what my satisfaction levels would be if I were born into another time or another culture, and so it's not entirely up to me to determine how others interpret their own lives. Liberal feminist rhetoric, which is tethered to the capitalist machine, is fairly certain that progress is natural and inevitable, and that equality is bound up in financial liberation, or liberation as determined by the self-made individual.

Sexual liberation, on the other hand, has fallen out of favour. The porn industry kind of exploited that one. Women's liberation from domestic enslavement has taken a hit, too. In the era of the mummy blogger, that just seems judgemental. So here's a proposal for the new woman: to be liberated from niceness.

Not that there's anything wrong with being nice; it is a virtue. But women need to stop asking nicely for equality, and instead just expect it, in every social interaction.

An anecdote: my housemate, wide-eyed and mouth agape, knocked on my bedroom door to ask me if I happen to be named after a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The character is Eleanor Savage, and to paraphrase my housemate and John Lennon, I am she and she is me.

I read the Eleanor Savage chapter 'Young Irony' in This Side of Paradise (1920) and squealed. Her physical descriptions match mine, she loves, and lives through, literature, she is a bit of a petulant smartypants, and she doesn't tone down her feminism for any man. She is characterised as 'wild', an adjective long attributed to me by half-smiling elders who are probably concerned for my safety. And 'crazy', which is more than problematic.

I identified with Eleanor much more than I expected to, especially in her final scene, where she unleashes on her lover a tirade of pent-up frustration:

Oh, why am I a girl? Why am I not a stupid — ? Look at you; you're stupider than I am, not much, but some, and you can lope around and get bored and then lope somewhere else, and you can play around with girls without being involved in meshes of sentiment, and you can do anything and be justified — and here I am with the brains to do everything, yet tied to the sinking ship of future matrimony.

She asks why she couldn't have been born 100 years into the future, which would be the present, her assumption being that 'progress' would ensue, and that a century of it would give her the freedoms she desires.

It forced me to think about our parallel conditions. She, bound to marry a dinner suit, me, without any obligation to matrimony; she, tethered to her family's moral expectations if she is to not become destitute, me, with the good fortune of liberal parents and a late capitalist workforce to participate in.

My conditions are immeasurably 'better' than Eleanor's. But do they extend to the full spirit of her conviction? Do women have the right to be as bold and bad as men have always? The answer is no. Not really.

'Having it better' — the gendered conditions I was born into as opposed to my ancestors — is not the same as having innate equality recognised and respected. And that includes the equal right to be reckless, to make mistakes, and to maybe even learn from them, as all Great Men in literature have without punishment.

Eleanor is 'feast and folly', she is a 'weird mystery', but most of all, Fitzgerald's character is a little bit cuckoo; there's just no way a character as bright and voracious could escape without having some kind of nervous breakdown. That characterisation is as prevalent in art and the media now as it was 100 years ago. Women may now have the right to talk about their bodies, to earn money, and self-determine politically and financially. What we need now is the right to be bad, to want more, to not be content with what we are given.

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is an Australian journalist and editor who edits an entertainment and pop culture magazine in Ho Chi Minh City. She tweets as @RarrSavage

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Lennon, This Side of Paradise



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Surely, Ellena, "innate equality" exists in our humanity not in our capacity to be "bad". Freedom from moral restraint which you seem to imply speaks equality is hardly a trait to be pursued. That is precisely why radical feminism has failed. Christians do, or should, recognise the innate equality of their humanity, the greatest of this world's living things. Interestingly, although I believe I possess an innate equality with all human beings, regardless of gender I still haven't managed to become pregnant and doubt that I will ever enjoy the solace of beast feeding one of my progeny, something I am told is one of the greatest of human experiences. Perhaps I should be born again in about 100 years from now when the scientists will be able to let we poor males enjoy gender equality with our brothers - or should that be sisters?

john frawley | 09 May 2014  

As it is, women who do seem to have achieved equal status are caricatured as unfeeling and autistic and sexually energetic, like Saga in 'The Bridge' (SBS series) and therefore do not represent all women. Likewise, gay men have a much-liked role model in Sheldon (Big Bang Theory Channel 9) who is also emotionless, celibate, and alien like Spock in Star Trek. By portraying women and gay men as abnormal and humorous, or like Eleanor Savage as crazy and overly demanding, "strangeness" or "foreignness", prevents their being accepted as equals in any way. We don't care to raise women from the pits of domesticity as long as they are sexually active, and we'll allow gay men to be clever and funny as long as they remain celibate! Let's not allow ourselves to identify with such parodies in the media or in literature. If we want social justice for ALL people in our communities we need to be very honest and serious in our depictions. Having to protest, petition and struggle to be accepted as a human being is no laughing matter.

Annabel | 09 May 2014  

Thanks Ellena. I loved that desperate lament where your near-namesake identifies feeling bound to 'the sinking ship of future matrimony'. (Fitzgerald could turn a phrase.) I noted with relish your first corrrespondent's less-than-human Freudian slip (referring to 'the solace of beast feeding') and I celebrate the cultural and social (and biomedical) changes that have occured since Fitzgerald's work. I also acknowledge the work still to happen before equality is anywhere near achieved. The sad reality in this age, when women are beaten, murdered and literally sold as chattels, is that female human beings are still judged and condemned for not obeying men and conforming to their wishes. Women's pursuit of freedom of choice and happiness (in itself, still something of a historic newcomer), continues to receive moral/ethical judgment and labelling exactly because it threatens men's power base and comfort. I enjoy your work and wish you well on your pursuits. The capacity to love life and be 'bad to the bone' shouldn't just apply to the boys.

Barry G | 09 May 2014  

To John Frawley: “Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of the fact.” George Eliot

Annoying Orange | 09 May 2014  

You certainly have something, Eleanor. I find the response reflects the attitude of many men. Intellectually they understand the concept of equality and profess it. In practice older men are more than willing to slip back into the old role model every time they get an opportunity, Judging by my sons in law, younger men find equality more natural. One thing I would suggest is that you will mostly be treated as you expect to be treated, provided you are not too strident in your demands.

Margaret McDonald | 09 May 2014  

The other side of this time comparison is the (far more) questionable comparison with overseas nations...'Oh look, you're not being kidnapped by anti-education terrorists with machine guns, so you really have nothing to whinge about.' As if the fact that many women have a worse life means that it is somehow wrong to complain about anything in Australia, or other developed nations.

Penelope | 09 May 2014  

So ES's resident feminist wants women to have the right to be as "bad".as men. Being capricious, contrary and self-indulgent at other people's expense perhaps? But presumably excluding male criminal behaviour. How bad should women be before they think they have achieved “gender equality"? Maybe feminists would be better occupied addressing the issue of female masochism before pondering such idiotic questions. Why do so many women, including seemingly educated and intelligent ones, like “bad boys" - men who mistreat, and abuse them, exploit them, break their hearts and constantly cheat on them? How can women ever achieve true equality when they reward such men who treat them so contemptibly? Consider this. Why did that sado-masochistic pile of crap "50 Shades of Grey" sell 100 million copies, mainly to women? And what accounts for the popularity among women of that 1974 film 'The Night Porter' – depicting an SM relationship between and ex SS officer and a Jewess prisoner? What attracts women to such things? “What do women want?” asked Freud despairingly after a lifetime of studying the female psyche. Well he may have asked.

wayne | 11 May 2014  

Oh dear. Listening to Wayne and John makes me shake my head. Firstly most women don't want to be 'bad' but just want to be human, (and yes sometimes we are all a little 'bad') without a different set of rules from men. Secondly Wayne, I am sure most women do not 'choose' to be in bad relationships, just as most men don't. It sounds like you are saying women who are abused, bring it on themselves! The phrase I dislike the most in life, is 'unmarried mother', but I don't often hear unmarried father being mentioned. LIfe should not be a competition for the best or worst, but for fairness and equity. I loved the article, gave me a laugh as well as a very serious side, with a lot to think about.

Cate Wallace | 13 May 2014  

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