nancy friday has never shied away from hot-button topics. From sexual fantasies to the universality of envy to the mother/daughter relationship, she has tangled with both conventional moralists and radical feminists, in the process creating her own signature brand of empowering feminism. The author of six books, including the international bestseller "My Mother/My Self," Friday tackles another taboo in her new "The Power of Beauty," exploring how beauty affects the lives of both men and women in our looks-conscious society.
"The Power of Beauty" draws upon Friday's own experiences, starting with her childhood feeling of invisibility -- she was fatherless and often felt overshadowed by her beautiful mother and sister -- moving through her adolescent quest to overcome that invisibility and into her current ambivalence about aging and losing her youthful appearance. Rather than regarding "beauty" as a crippling social construction, as some other feminists have done, Friday argues that there is a biologically-based human need for beauty. Along the way, she explores the envy engendered by beauty, the implications of beauty in the workplace, and ventures into long-neglected territory: men's feelings about their own appearance, and how those feelings may change in the future.
Friday spoke with Salon during her nation-wide book tour for "The Power of Beauty."
In your book, you seem dismayed by Germaine Greer's evolution. I'm wondering where you think her current angry, crone-like persona came from. Because as you say in the book, she was once a symbol of a very open and free and powerful female sexuality.
She feels invisible. It seems to me that when you are a woman and you are out there and you write brilliantly and get on the stage and perform brilliantly as Germaine did, nonetheless, you realize the power of your beauty, and all these other things feed into it. And when you lose that youthful sexual beauty -- not enough time has gone by for women to realize that there are other stages of beauty. In this country, in our culture, we don't yet understand it. I think in certain foreign countries they do understand it.
Maybe there will come a time where older women have economic power. We haven't been through that yet. But money is powerful enough to attract a gorgeous 23-year-old woman to a shriveled old man who has millions. I mean, I wouldn't fall into bed with a shriveled old man for all the millions in the world -- it just isn't worth it! But not only do women do it, but everybody else seems to understand why they do it. Well, if [economic] power is that attractive, why wouldn't it work for rich women, too? It'll be slow, but it will happen. And if it doesn't work for women, why not? Is it the mother [issue], is it the hag, is it the witch of the nursery? I think we're all a little bit terrified of the witch of the nursery.
And Germaine Greer, as you write, has embraced it in that recent photo session for Harper's Bazaar.
Sitting with these saggy breasts hanging down to her knees, holding her cat, naked in her kitchen on a wooden chair.
I was sorry to see that witchy picture of Germaine, and in reading her book, "The Change," I went back and forth and back and forth. The old Germaine would suddenly leap forward in a few pages, and she was to me such a hero. I mean, if anybody could take on [Norman] Mailer, it was Germaine, and she was twitching her ass and flashing those long legs and swinging those breasts and she loved all that!
You see, I think that's what she misses. She's got a voice that's strong as ever, but she hasn't got the sexual beauty.
Greer has also written that our culture has become so drenched with sexuality that people feel compelled to be youthful and erotic even as they get older and don't feel quite as energetic in that area. And she feels that becomes a kind of tyranny.
I think there's a lot of rightness in that. Advertising has really caught on to the fact that not only does sex sell, but envy sells, and people envy nothing so much as they envy sexual beauty in others. And ours has become an extraordinarily envious culture. You buy your new car, your new suit, your new house and you have a moment of feeling good about it until you turn on the TV and they're telling you if you don't have this car, or if you don't live in this part of the country and if you aren't traveling to this place and if you aren't wearing these clothes and if you aren't eating this food and if you aren't going out with this particular model, your life is shit. We're wired for that, you don't have to go to an advertising company, it's built into the species. It is a world-wide culture of envy and unhappiness, and we're clearly going to have more of it as electronics manages to get into the mattress and attack us even as we're dreaming. We'll never get away from it!
Feminists like Naomi Wolf would say that women in particular are brainwashed by that advertising machine -- one that's controlled by men.
They're not brainwashed by the men! If they're brainwashed by anything, they're brainwashed by evolution, by nature. There's one thing we all respond to, and that is the natural desire, the natural attraction, to youthful beauty, which was laid on us to supposedly propagate.
It's what we live on, that golden beam, that being taken in. Especially in a day when you can manufacture beauty, when women go in and they look at things on the screen and say, "Oh, I want that nose, those ears, that forehead..."
What do you think of that? We've made advances in plastic surgery, and it's also getting cheaper, so it's not just the preserve of the rich anymore. Isn't that a viable option?
Well, the plastic surgery figures for both men and women are soaring. It's getting less and less expensive -- the Wall Street Journal had a front page story on penile implants. I think men are more competitive than women, not genetically but because they've had practice in it since they were boys. I think men walk into beauty, which is highly competitive, far better schooled than we women have been who have no education in competition.
There is a women's fear of being outstripped by another woman. No one girl can have more than all the other girls. No one girl can disagree, because a women's world holds together in this kind of sameness, and keeping envy in check, keeping competition in check is what it's all about, because we don't know how to handle those emotions. That affects everything. That affects the woman's reluctance, for instance, to have surgery, because then she comes out and she looks and feels great, but she knows the other women are going to come round and she's going to see them whispering.
I think the best exercise women are getting now is women's sports. The point of the game is to try as hard as possible. Women's high morality says that girls lock arms and walk away from the game rather than argue over it. But then why play the game? The point of the game is to win or to lose!
I'm sure it's why I'm such an odd duck in my feminist generation, because I've always been equally fair to men. I like the company of men. I've never been welcome in those groups, but then I would no more go to a consciousness-raising group and talk about my intimate life with my husband than fly to the moon. I never understood all that.
But a lot of people do, almost to excess. We don't seem to have a sense of discretion anymore. What impact do you think that's had?
I think the thing I miss most in our age is our manners. It sounds so old-fashioned in a way. But even bad people had good manners in the old days, and manners hold a community together and manners hold a family together, in a way they hold the world together.
Do you think that your books on erotic fantasies are partly to blame for this culture of exhibitionism?
I wrote "My Secret Garden" because I thought I was right in step with the times, I thought I was with it. I thought, "Hey, I've never read a book about sexual fantasies," and I'd been involved in "Hair," and there I was living in London, and everything was wild and wonderful. When it came out I called this friend of mine, who was one of the beginning people at Ms. magazine, and her answer was it for the next 20 years. She said, "Nancy, Ms. will decide what women's sexual fantasies are."
But I'm always torn between being a nice girl who comes from a very nice girl background, and stepping outside that and doing things like questioning the beatific perfectness of the mother/daughter relationship. I've always been on the outside of feminism, and when I did "Women on Top" I was really on the outside.
Because your fantasies weren't always politically correct.
Oh, God, no. "Women on Top" was reviewed in Time magazine by a woman who said something like "What has it come to? Where are the clean sheets?" Where are the clean sheets? What does that mean? Does she elevate when she has sex? It was the strangest comment to make. So they set themselves up as nice girls, the feminists do. By being anti-sex and anti-men.
So you were in opposition not only to conventional morality, but also to feminist morality.
Do you still have those voices inside that say, "Hmm, maybe I went too far, or maybe I was a bad girl, or maybe I shouldn't have done this, and we should have manners in our society"?
Oh, but I don't feel myself wavering back and forth between two hemispheres when I crave manners. I feel sex and manners can very easily co-exist. I feel wild, delicious, wonderful sex and good manners can co-exist. Not necessarily at the same moment in bed -- "Excuse me, dear, while I move my right leg across your precious buttocks" -- but I think that absolutely they co-exist. I'm glad I have my split. I think my good girl/bad girl split is two sticks rubbing together that create the fire. I think it's what gives my books whatever they have.
But when I wrote the opening sentence of my new book, "I am a woman who needs to be seen,'" I thought, "That is so over the top, so embarrassing to say." I thought I couldn't even leave it on the paper for three minutes. But I kept writing, and I never changed it.
You say that there is an obvious natural hierarchy of beauty in the world -- physical attributes aren't evenly divided, biology isn't democratic. And yet there is this feminist/democratic ideology that rages against that. We don't want to acknowledge this, and we certainly don't want to pay it any kind of homage.
Women's behavior in handling beauty, even before feminism, was to deny they had any. Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.
Gloria Steinem certainly had to deal with that, and I'm sure you have, too.
Gloria was brilliant! I mean, to have that beauty, and to be the leader of that band of women, was extraordinary. Extraordinary!
But I'm not playing "Oh, who me?" Whatever looks I have, I really enjoy. And when I walk into rooms I love being looked at. But it isn't why I wrote the book. Because of my own early childhood, I cannot use it in any way because I'm so unsure of it. That's why when I go into rooms I never see my friends and why people say I'm haughty and arrogant when I'm not at all, I am so unsure. Besides, I don't have that kind of beauty. When I get myself together for an evening, I can do something, but it terrifies me. And, at the same moment, it's like forbidden sex. I'm very high, and I don't dare look at anyone. And it's so scary.
What's the fear?
That I've gone too far. Grandiosity. I think envy is a large component in me. My sister when I was young was the beautiful one and so was my mother, and I didn't get any looks at all until my late adolescence. I was very envious of that, and we envious people are either Rockefeller or we're on welfare. There is no safe middle ground. In writing these books I've learned a lot about it.