The rules of attraction

The women in Candace Bushnell's new novel are rich, smart, hardworking lovelies. So why do they need men to dominate them?

Topics: Books,

The rules of attraction

“What is it with S/M? Since I got divorced, every woman I’ve dated has wanted me to tie her up or spank her. Is it something about me or is this what women want these days?” My friend Bill is a cultivated, mild-mannered blazer and khaki pants kind of guy in his late 40s, and his girlfriends tend to be 30-ish bankers or lawyers as buttoned-down and Upper East Side-looking as he is. I understood Bill’s confusion, but I tried to explain.

Almost any woman Bill would date in New York would be up for some highly stylized submission. These women are tired of androgyny, sick of men who treat them like pals. And they want to feel the boot occasionally. The wish to be dominated doesn’t extend to important stuff, however, like choosing restaurants and movies. As my friend John says, American women want to be “forced” to do the things they already want to do. It’s sexy to be tied up and kissed, but boring to be dragged along for an afternoon of auto parts shopping.

In the absence of most other symbols of femininity and masculinity, and the disappearance of most of the rituals of courtship, S/M reintroduces the powerfully erotic idea of gender difference. And of course it’s the most successful women who are into it. It’s the successful men who hire dominatrixes, too. But if women are now able to embrace symbolic submissiveness, it’s because they are starting to have a choice, and because they’re nostalgic — not for a submissive role, but for a world with any roles and rules at all.

Candace Bushnell’s new novel, “Lipstick Jungle,” is set in this landscape of female progress and disillusionment, where the question of the moment is how a woman can feel sexy even if she far out-earns her husband. After all, in a culture where masculine sex appeal is equated with high earnings, a woman who is more successful than almost all men is desexed. For Victory, the one single character, this pretzels into a question of ego when she dates a man whose wealth dwarfs hers: “How can I be a successful woman when I’m with an even more successful man?” And so, because Bushnell’s three fortysomething heroines are the sort of Manhattanites who haven’t been in the subway in years, buy private jet shares, and lunch at Michaels, they’re also the sort who want to be dominated in bed. “All she could think about was Kirby and that glorious feeling of being overcome,” Nico O’Reilly muses in the opening scene of “Lipstick Jungle.” Nico (supposedly modeled on Anna Wintour) has an even-keeled, practical partnership with her banker-turned-househusband Seymour. She loves him and their daughter and prizes their smooth life together, but at 42 she hasn’t had sex with Seymour for three years.



For Seymour — as for the stereotypical corporate wife he’s modeled on, down to his expertise on early American antiques and interest in showing purebred dogs — sex is far down on the list of enjoyable activities. So Nico falls into the arms of pantyhose-cutting Kirby Atwood, a verbally challenged underwear model with nothing to do all day but make love. (If I wore pantyhose, maybe I’d think a guy named Kirby sounded hot, but to a downtown gal like me, “Kirby” is a nice name for a cat.)

Nico’s pal Wendy Healy, 44, is a high-earning film producer who has supported her shiftless, vain wannabe director husband Shane for all of their marriage. Eventually Shane asks for a divorce and tries to milk Wendy for all she’s worth — and get custody of the kids. Not that they’re any prize; rarely has fiction shown us such authentically charmless upper-caste Manhattan children. I like to imagine that Bushnell, who is childless, took some pleasure in crafting the scene where Wendy’s 6-year-old son punches her in the face. And in this novel of role reversals, of course Wendy wouldn’t dream of spanking him.

Eventually Wendy finds happiness in the arms of her erstwhile competitor Selden Rose, who appeared in Bushnell’s last novel,”Trading Up,” as the exploited husband of Bushnell’s main character Janey (herself first introduced in Bushnell’s “Four Blondes”) and is a lonely divorced guy in “Lipstick Jungle.” (Since I reviewed “Four Blondes” and came to the conclusion that Candace Bushnell is not Jane Austen, I didn’t feel obligated to read “Trading Up,” so I cribbed that detail from Amazon.) The details of Selden and Wendy’s sex life is left to the imagination, but perhaps their clothes enact a drama of submission and dominance, for we’re told that Selden’s “tailored navy suit, worn with an open, white dress shirt, screamed casual power.”

The third relationship option Bushnell portrays is the one we’re meant to root for. Plucky, outspoken and refreshingly reckless fashion designer Victory Ford ends up with a strapping, hypercompetitive, just this side of manic billionaire named Lyne Bennett. He’s the only manly man in the book, despite his epicene name. (And what about “Selden Rose”? What’s up with Bushnell’s penchant for naming her male characters like law firms? Law firms without any Jews, too. Then again, Lyne’s surname might be a gender-bending allusion to “Pride and Prejudice’s” heroine Elizabeth Bennett.)

Bushnell is also discreet about Lyne’s sexual prowess; when she discusses men with big jobs like Bennett and Rose, she’s bashful, almost as though she were forgetting that they’re all fictional characters and aren’t going to use their influence to get back at her! But Lyne has the potential for domination, as Victory realizes: “Even in her heels, he was at least six inches taller than she was, so she couldn’t exactly protest physically.” Lyne is only pulling Victory into the Whitney Biennial opening, but you get the idea.

If I had a daughter (the kind who wouldn’t punch me in the face) I wouldn’t want her taking Candace Bushnell characters as role models. The women of “Lipstick Jungle” are much smarter and more appealing than the women of “Four Blondes” — they love their work and not only the rewards of it — but they are still too one-dimensional. They’re the kind of girls who don’t have interests, only goals.

But better them than the hapless, passive heroines of more skilled writers like Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz and Melissa Bank, characters who depend on men not only for their emotional well-being but for their jobs and their rent. “It’s so easy to solve your problems when you’re a successful woman and you have your own money,” Wendy tells Nico near the end of the book, and she’s right, at least about many of the problems female characters face in chick lit. And I was ready to forgive Bushnell her tin ear when she has Victory Ford pick up the $1,000 check for her first date with Lyne at Cipriani, just to show him that she’s not interested in him for his money. It might be the first time I’ve read such a scene in a novel: I only wish it would happen more in real life. And I liked it even better when Lyne responds to Victory’s accusation that “the person who has the most money in the relationship has the control,” with, “That may be, but if they’re a decent person, they never let the other person know.”

A few pages later maturity rears its head again: Wendy and Selden — whose workplace rivalry has been gradually softening into friendship, at Selden’s initiative — run into each other at the Mercer Hotel at 9 a.m. on a Sunday. She admits that she’s had to move out of her loft due to her divorce, and he makes a startling admission. His second marriage, to a supermodel (Janey from “Four Blondes”), failed because “I let my ego overrule my common sense.” Wendy wonders if Selden is “really that decent.” There’s that word “decent” again — could Bushnell be mellowing in her middle age? (And would any man ever admit that his ego had overruled his common sense?)

[Note: If you don't want to know how things turn out for the characters in "Lipstick Jungle," stop reading now.]

By the end of “Lipstick Jungle,” decency and maturity are epidemic. (A lucky thing too, because after almost 400 pages the reader will have tired of Bushnell’s leaden, clumsy prose and malapropisms. “Four Blondes” had a certain brisk facility, but the editing here is much worse.) Nico has decided that the fact that “she and Seymour really, really liked each other and always had” is “a lot more important than lust.” She lets Kirby down gently, with a $5,000 check that breaks a bigger taboo than Victory’s picking up the tab at Cipriani. Wendy goes through an amicable divorce and Selden is about to move in with her. She resolves to treat Shane well, after hearing him explode that “when a woman gives up her career to take care of her kids, she’s a hero, and when a man does it, all you women think there’s something wrong with him.” “She was so much more powerful than he was … She must be benign.” And Victory is finally able to be vulnerable after the biggest, and self-administered, setback of her business career. She and Lyne Bennett go off shopping into the sunset together.

At the novel’s close, Bushnell’s clever but diagrammatic gender role reversals have finally brought her and her characters to a plane of real feeling and humanity never glimpsed in her earlier writing, a place beyond the power dynamics of S/M and gold digging alike. Somehow her three women have moved past the dilemma posed by Wendy early in the book, when she contemplates the myth she purveys in her romantic films:

“The rules were rigid: a high-status man falls in love with a lower-status, but worthy and deserving, woman. Fifty years of feminism and education and success had done little to eradicate the power of this myth, and there were times when the fact that she was selling this bullshit to women made Wendy feel uneasy. But what choice did she have? … How many women would eagerly sign up for the opposite: high status woman … falls in love with lower-status male … and ends up taking care of him?”

Bushnell is an intuitive rather than an analytical writer, and it isn’t clear how she thinks the issue can be resolved, how powerful women can find beta males sexy. The mood of the ending is better than the circumstances might suggest: Nico gives up on eroticism for companionship, and Wendy finds a nicer and less superficial version of Shane in Selden. In the closing scenes, Wendy has announced that she’s pregnant with Selden’s baby, and Nico hopes that Selden will continue working even after the child is born, “at least for a little while. Imagine having to support two men and four children!” The only duo where the sex seems hot is the most conventional partnership, tall, rich Lyne and madcap Victory.

But you don’t pick up a Candace Bushnell novel for the logic. What Bushnell does so well is to get just the slightest bit ahead of the curve. Just as her “Sex and the City” girls are more common now than they were in the days of her New York Observer columns, so the coarse, energetic woman tycoons of “Lipstick Jungle” might be signposts for the years ahead. I’d welcome the change. And men who date ambitious women might have to resign themselves to a more strenuous sex life — or at least to clothes that “scream casual power.”

Ann Marlowe is the author of "How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z" and "The Book of Trouble," published last month.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>