Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Deconstructing the Low-Maintenance Ethic

I have a bone to pick with Sasha Frere-Jones from the New Yorker. This week he reviews Beyonce’s new album, in which she takes on the persona of Sasha Fierce, a “wilder alter ego.” Frere-Jones likes the music, but he quibbles with the message, which he sees as tame and banal:
Why is she out on the town? Because her man didn’t “put a ring on it.” But this is Sasha Fierce we’re talking about here. And what does Sasha want? Matrimony! When does she want it? Before “three good years” are up. “Single Ladies” is an infectious, crackling song and would be without fault if it weren’t the bearer of such dull advice. The wild R. & B. vampire Sasha is advocating marriage? What’s next, a sultry, R-rated defense of low-sodium soy sauce?

Now, this might sound a little feminist of me, which I regret, because feminism really annoys me sometimes (read: its reclamation of the word “cunt,” a former favorite of mine). But is Frere-Jones saying that if a woman knows what she wants and asks for it—and if what she wants happens to be commitment—then she’s being dumb and girly and cliché? High maintenance? Because that would be sort of fucked up.

Let me explain.

I used to think that being called low-maintenance was a badge of honor. Maybe this has something to do with where I grew up—I come from Marin County, which is wealthy but in a completely distinct way from the sort of wealth you might find in, say, New Jersey, where I have this image of girls clutching their Kate Spade totes close to their Burberry coats and batting their long eyelashes and twirling their pearl necklaces. Where I’m from, the only pearl necklaces we wore washed off.

I come from a hardier stock, where we peed in the woods and wore Birkenstocks and daisies behind our ears. The ultimate insult was to be called a JAP. When my high school boyfriend called me low-maintenance, I beamed. Yes, I thought, this validates the flowy skirt wearing, skinny-dipping, rock-hopping me.

But this paper-bag princess fairytale didn't hold up as well in college. I’d lie in bed next to the boy I was sleeping with—or were we dating?—trying to summon the courage to talk about what we were doing. But when I rehearsed the words in my head, I couldn’t get over how annoyingly girly it all sounded, so I kept my mouth shut. Every time I left his house, I felt the heavy loneliness of what I’d left unsaid.

“You’re not like all those other dumb girls,” he’d tell me.

“Yes,” I may well have answered, “they expect you to return their phone calls and make solid plans—but I’m always here for you when you feel like fucking.”

It wasn’t hard to figure out that those other dumb girls were the ones who wanted relationships, and that what I had going for me was being cute and fuck-able and not asking much of him. I wasn't sure how to feel about his compliment—I relished his approval, but I had won it by making him think that I didn't want the one thing I wanted most. It was a pretty classic case of putting some one else's needs before your own; this is what Sasha Fierce is rallying against and Frere-Jones is ridiculing her for.

Maybe I shouldn't blame him for not understanding. I get the feeling that it’s a uniquely female phenomenon to lose your rational faculties around a guy and start flirting on auto-pilot. This drive is so powerful that I can feel it at work even around men I'm not attracted to. In one such case, I had lost interest in my lover, but instead of telling him so, I tried harder than ever to make myself appear interested. And it worked; one night, with a spark of awe in his voice, he told me that he'd never slept with anyone who smiled as much as I did.

You don't have a clue, I thought, all smug and sardonic. But how lonely it is to deceive someone in this way, to isolate yourself with smiles. Just as lonely as lying in bed unable to speak my mind. In both cases, the person I was with was so utterly estranged from me and my wants. It's a shifty exchange we were engaged in, and neither of us knew the true score.

It's amazing how little good sex depends on trust.

And as much as I plead guilty to acting one way but feeling another, it's still hard to get over the fact that the amorous movements of other peoples' bodies do not reveal their feelings. Body language conceals and confuses, and I've had to learn to disregard it, or at least take it with a hefty grain of salt. If I can't trust your body, and you can't trust mine, what light do we have to go by? No wonder sex is so infused with confusion and suspicion.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's difficult to speak my mind, especially in sexual situations, and the last thing I need is a nationally-syndicated high-culture columnist making it even harder by furthering the idea that cool girls don’t talk about commitment.


  1. I think he's just bitter because everyone calls him Sasha Fierce-Jones now (or at least they should).

    [stupid typo fixed.]

  2. i TOTALLY agree! feminism in its true form should not be about women becoming what would be traditionally recognized as "more like men," it should encourage women to do what they want free from the expectations of men, whatever that may be.

    ps-- I think you mean JAP....not Jap :)

  3. was that at ezra's dinner when we were talking about trust and sex?

  4. um, we might have been. who's this?

  5. Low maintenance is definitely one of those things that we all look for in our girls (me especially), but I think that other definition is not that similar to mine. I like to think of low maintenance as self-sufficient, where they don't NEED me, but instead choose to spend time with me. Another difference, that's the girl that I'm more likely to date rather than just fuck, as it's someone I want to hang out with regardless of situation.

  6. Yes. I suppose the ultimate question is why do self-sufficient, high functioning, hot, intelligent women (like you and I, ahem), have always, as you say, tried to be the cool girl who rejects commitment to win ourselves companionship?

  7. Alli - I wonder if it's really about "companionship." After all, we "high functioning" women (I love that you describe us like this) have plenty of close friends, both male and female, and plenty of opportunities for sex with a variety of men, not all of them assholes.

    But the assholes can be so charming and charismatic and like-able! And in such a unique and specific way that it feels like you'll never meet anyone quite like them, and you probably won't.

    So for me, the question is this: what's so enchanting about a guy who's a little mean to me?

  8. Such a good question. I'm sure all the nice guys out there would like to know, too.

  9. For me it's about being challenged. It's about not being bored. It's exciting when you don't know what move your opponent will next make, even better if he's playing by separate rules altogether. He might even refuse to make his move, turn over the chess board and storm out the room. How exciting would that be?

    (At age 23, this is the kind we want to date, not necessarily marry.)

  10. Very exciting indeed! But exhausting. And infuriating. Ultimately, I think this kind of unpredictability ends up keeping me at an arm's length -- I can't get close to someone from whom I never know what to expect.

    After a while, frustration turns to boredom because you're not really connecting. But it takes a while for that to sink in, and in the meantime, it certainly is a fun challenge. One that will probably occupy most of my twenties.