Contra “Priv-Lit”

I saw Eat, Pray, Love. Here are some reviews. Bitch Magazine hails it as the latest expression of “priv-lit,” a genre they define as the candy-coloured “recessionista” descendant of the self-indulgent decadence of Sex and the City.

Here’s how Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown in Bitch Magazine define “priv-lit”:

Sarma Melngailis, a New York restaurant owner who writes about eating raw and organic food on the blogs and, promises her readers—most of them women—that if they can just give up their Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and replace it with her $9 coconut water and $12 nut-milk shakes they, too, can be happy and healthy. (She’s very consistent about plugging her products’ ability to combat hangovers and sexify one’s appearance, too.) The now-famous Skinny Bitch cookbook franchise plumbs even more sinister depths in its insistence that women can stop nighttime snacking with the oh-so-simple fix of hiring a personal chef with vegan culinary training. Actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s web venture, GOOP, uses catchy, imperative section headings (“Get,” “Do,” “Be”) and the nonsensical tagline “Nourish the inner aspect” to neatly establish a rhetorical link between action, spending, and the whole of existence. Even Julie and Julia, the blog that became a book that became a hit movie, is complicit in spreading the trend. Julie Powell’s story—that of an ennui-ridden professional whose journey of self-discovery involves cooking her way through Julia Child—features one-meal shopping lists whose cost rivals standard monthly food-stamp allotments for many American families.

Like every trend piece, this one is bogus. It points to exactly two extremely unsurprising things: people do stuff when they’re bored because they want to be less bored, and some of the bored people who also happen to be American women harbor a capitalist inclination to turn every fad to profit.

Entrepreneurship exists: there are female consumers and female capitalists trying to get them to part with their money. Is this really a surprise? Is it the lamentable state of affairs Bitch Magazine suggests it is?

Let’s address how old this story is by starting with a dollop of history. Faddish and profitable self-actualization is not new: the seventies gave us Carlos Castaneda. The eighties brought us Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits for Highly Effective People.” The nineties brought us “The Celestine Prophecy.” Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” is a sappy secular Bible. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” teaches us how to live the good life by not poisoning our bodies with endless corn—a non-choice for your average American. All of these have millions of consumers who have found something of value in them, or who have continued to invest in the related workshops hoping to reach what they have been promised. But if we want to criticize expensive myths of self-actualization, let’s be serious about it. You don’t have to do yoga or go abroad to ruin yourself in the pursuit of happiness. The nationally broadcast recipe—”buy a house”—has been far more expensive and disastrous to our economy and to women and men alike than all these gurus combined. Certainly more than Elizabeth Gilbert writing about how she learned to do downward dog.

So, in the world of self-help, there are greater offenders than Gilbert or Bushnell. But what are the stakes of this new “candy-colored” group of gurus? Sanders and Barnes-Brown explain it this way:

Today’s “recessionista” mind-set promotes spending quietly over spending less. Priv-lit takes a similar approach: Hiding familiar motives behind ambient lighting and organic scented candles, the genre at once masks and promotes the destructive expectations of traditional femininity and consumer culture, making them that much harder to fight.

This is an old critique, structurally identical to the claim that politically correct language does nothing but send prejudice underground, “camouflaging” it and making it harder to expose and fight. I have yet to encounter a member of any minority group that shared this view—and I imagine there aren’t many feminists who prefer overt misogyny to the alternative. We’re all finally Hobbesians: we can’t control the contents of people’s minds, nor should we wish to, but we can and should articulate the boundaries of acceptable behaviors. Which brings me to the real oddity of the argument here: If Oprah and Gilbert are indeed tricking women back into expectations of traditional femininity—being wives and mothers, say-—by “[being] willing to spend extravagantly, leave our families, or abandon our jobs in order to fit ill-defined notions of what it is to be ‘whole’”; if, in other words, they are tricking women into occupying traditional roles by encouraging them to leave them, all I can say is that it seems an inefficient method.

That’s not to say that antifeminist tropes don’t live within the industry: almost by definition, they do. Still, here’s what Sanders and Barnes-Brown expose as a sneaky trick:

One of the brilliant parts of the self-help genre as a whole is that there are these various contradicting threads or themes, all woven together, and emphasized differently at different times,” says Dr. Micki McGee, a sociologist and cultural critic at Fordham University and the author of Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life. “Self-improvement culture in general has the contradictory effect of undermining self-assurance by suggesting that all of us are in need of constant, effortful (and often expensive) improvement. There is the danger of over-investing in this literature not only financially, but also psychologically.”

This is undeniably true. And, like self-help literature, fortune cookies and the astrologer’s toolkit, it applies to pretty much everything. In fact, “suggesting that all of us are in need of constant, effortful (and often expensive) improvement” is a remarkably tidy description of marketing. That is what capitalism is.

It’s fine to critique capitalism, if that’s really what this article is about. But to camouflage a critique of capitalism as a critique of a made-up genre peculiar to women is a bit of a bait-and-switch, not so different in principle from “hiding familiar motives behind ambient lighting and organic scented candles.”

The secret agenda here—the good and decent impulse that leads feminists like Sanders and Barnes-Brown to write life prescriptions against life prescriptions—is the desire to protect women from the effects of capitalism. Advertising is where patriarchy and capital intersect, and the marketable desire (as far as women are concerned) is chronically narrated back to us as the desire to be desired. In this respect at least, the list of imperatives seems to me to offer a step in the right direction. GOOPian imperatives to “Do.” and “Be.” are better than the culture-wide imperatives to “Be Doable.” “Eat” and “Pray” and “Love” are better than “Cover yourself in chocolate,” “Be the goddess on the pedestal” and “Be loved.” It’s a small, maybe even a sad distinction to propose, but as some Eastern guru somewhere said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. (I kid–it was Lao-tzu.)

(My internet time is running out—thoughts on whether that’s a good step or not, and further thoughts on Eat, Pray, Love and movie-watching habits coming soon to a theater near you.)


8 Responses to Contra “Priv-Lit”

  1. Pingback: Still Eating, Praying, Loving « zunguzungu

  2. sean says:

    I think that the overt agenda of the piece was to lament the the appropriation of a legitimate set of values by the capitalist process. The DIY ethos has definitely inspired many trends within the past decade: “indie” sounding pop music, shopping mall clothes that like look like they were found in a vintage store, movies with a quirky, amateur feel, fashion magazine layouts featuring lithe young women on old-timey bicycles riding around urban landscapes. These trends did not sprout from the imagination of some advertising executives. They have been cribbed from the behavior of people who decided to be creative without buying into all of the consumer products which have been posited as necessary tools for such endeavors. These are the same people who embraced cycling in North American cities as a real alternative to automobile travel long before it became another trend. The anti-consumer sentiment which inspired these behaviors has been completely tarred over and ignored by the market forces which have co-opted these loosely related values and aesthetics, and have repackaged them as just another trend to buy at a boutique. Now you can buy the DIY look and feel without actually having to Do Anything Yourself. Except swipe the credit card.

    • Jerry says:

      Moreover, I extrapolate that it’s hardly confined to priv-lit. One of Saffron’s rants at Edina about the trendiness of self-actualization that I vaguely recall from an episode of Absolutely Fabulous has an exemplary truth clothed in satire, but at the time Eddie was too lazy to work out the DIY angle and as such would simply pay someone else to do the self-exploration for her.

  3. Nick Fischer says:

    I enjoyed your analysis of the analysis of Eat, Pray, Love because it provides a nuanced description of something I just gloss over on a day-to-day basis. At first, I accepted Bitch’s assessment as my own: Rich white girl travels the world in search of pleasure searching for meaning in an already too-privileged lifestyle. However, you explained clearly how this is the status quo for our whole (American) society and not just this instance of an Oprah supported writer. I totally agree with you on the destructiveness of purchasing a home or using consumerism as a form of self-identity. If only there was an engaging anti-hero like those super people who have mastered the coupon to the point where stores pay them after they check out or DIY websites or the owning-100-things club.

  4. Pingback: Unselfish Female Feminists: True or False? « Millicent and Carla Fran

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

  6. Pingback: Pleasure, Guilt, and Pizza: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

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