I knew it -- after having watched the marauding media pirates of cable news cruise the high seas of Anna Nicole Smith's death last night, I should have avoided this morning's newspaper coverage. But smack-dab on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle was a tribute to Smith with this subhead: "To many women her age, it's like losing a girlfriend." Huh? What?
All too generously, I thought: "Perhaps I'm just totally out of touch with the psyche of your average woman in her 30s." But the entire piece quotes -- count 'em -- two women, neither of whom seems to have any feelings of sisterhood toward Smith. One of the women guiltily admits that she has a better recollection of when Smith wed 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II than high school calculus. The other actually says, "I don't even know that much about her."
Yet, curiously, author C.W. Nevius declares: "Text messages flew among the thirtysomethings, and girlfriends called each other to ask if they'd heard the news. While men tended to wonder what the surprise was -- hadn't she been on a one-way trip to oblivion for years? -- women seemed to regard her as that tragic girlfriend they all knew." He later projects, "When her 20-year-old son, Daniel, died unexpectedly in September, just three days after the birth of her daughter, women found it sad and tragic." I apologize in advance for this obvious and unavoidable retort, but "sad and tragic" is attributing to the opposite gender a shared experience across an entire generation without any substantiation.
With that out of the way, on to another surprise -- this one fairly pleasant -- in the reporting on Smith's death. Preferable, at least, to an interview with a long-lost relative or kinda-sorta friend -- Smith was compared in today's Washington Post to the courtesans immortalized in the work of Caravaggio and Proust. As opposed to a slab of scandal served up raw, Philip Kennicott's article swings toward the opposite pole of overcooked philosophizing. But he makes an interesting argument: "Poor Anna" was hated because she was "a living reminder of an economy of sexual exchange that we like to pretend doesn't exist."
When that sexual economy is laid plain, making marriage appear -- at varying levels -- an institution of commerce and convenience, "intimacy is shadowed with doubt." Smith tapped into male insecurity, Kennicott argues, by, it seemed to most, marrying for money (big, big money). "For centuries, there have been men who have wondered why women really love them," he writes. "That the real sexual allure of men may not be their good looks, their masculinity or their charm, but rather their power and position, can make men wonder whether they are loved for themselves or for something external and unrelated." That fear inspired innumerous Anna Nicole cracks on late-night talk shows, Kennicott says. "They were laughing at her, of course, but also at men who were foolish enough to marry women like her," he writes.
Kennicott mentions the idea of marriage as an institution addressing women's need for safety and men's for opportunity and hints that Smith faced scorn as a result of more than just male insecurity. He safely distances himself from this essentializing concept of male-female relations by terming it the thinking in "conservative quarters." Using Newt Gingrich's charming comparison of men to "little piglets," he suggests that "the woman who is hard-nosed in her pursuit of the biggest little piglet she can find becomes an object of scorn." The implication is that Smith was sneered at because she made both men and women aware of their underlying biological drive, which is at odds with their preferred vision of self.
There's extreme cultural anxiety over women who traffic in sex, period -- whether they're prostitutes, strippers, trophy wives or gold diggers. Part of that anxiety is driven by the ease with which intimacy and attraction can be feigned, sure. But there's also an anxiety that stretches clear across the gender divide. What about women who choose against selling their sexual goods -- whether for instant riches or a career? They might harbor a certain level of resentment or jealousy toward a woman who does. As much as some men may feel anxiety about their ability to attract women without the allures of money or power, women can also feel anxiety about their ability to achieve [fill in the blank] without employing their sexual wiles.
File this under sad but true: It seems watching someone like Smith self-destruct on the public stage is akin to a shot of Novocain to the overly anxious ego.