Jennifer Weiner: An Opinionated Monarch of Women’s Fiction
A bestselling novelist, Jennifer Weiner is also a New York Times opinion columnist and an activist on behalf of sneered-at categories of women’s literature as well as feminism, body-size inclusivity, and female pleasure. Lilith’s digital editor Sarah Seltzer caught up with her shortly after the release of her new novel, Mrs. Everything, which follows Midwestern sisters Jo and Bethie from the 1950s through the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
S.S.:Your book reads as a tribute to Baby Boomer women and what they endured. What can later generations learn about America from their stories?
J.W.: I’m not sure younger women know just how bad or how restrictive things were for their mothers and their grandmothers—that women couldn’t get their own credit cards or their own mortgages; that a woman was expected to want a husband and a family, and to put her career and her own professional ambitions off to the side; that LGBTQ people could either live in a handful of big cities or in the closet, and couldn’t marry or have families. It’s easy to forget where we came from (especially when there’s someone with a huge megaphone talking about making America great again). I think that history and fiction can both serve as a crucial reminder that it wasn’t great for everyone, and it especially was not great for women.
What resources did you turn to for your research?
Last week I met with a lot of smart Hollywood people, and one of them made me so happy when he said Mrs. Everything reminded him of The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. That—along with Rubyfruit Jungle—was one of the books of my mother’s that I’d read as a young teenager, and that I re-read for Mrs. E. If you haven’t read The Women’s Room…it’s the story of an unhappily married woman named Myra (whose husband is symbolically named Norm). Myra’s husband leaves her, she goes to Harvard, where she re-invents herself as a feminist and learns, as do my poor Jo and Bethie, that there are no easy happy endings for women of that era, no matter how they chose to live their lives.
That same executive also asked what I read for research. I told him that, in addition to lots of newspapers and magazines (which are all, thank God, online or available on microfilm), there were great memoirs and oral histories: stories from black soldiers in Vietnam, stories from Jewish women in the Civil Rights movement, stories about the Newport Folk Festival. I read advice books and child-rearing books to know what voices Jo and Bethie would be hearing in their ears One of my favorite sources was a book called Going South by Debra L. Schultz [previewed in Lilith in Fall 1999]. Another great book was Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The scene where Jo and Shelley have lots of ideas for actions and get told to cook dinner instead? Not fiction.
Any unexpected similarities between the lives of women in the 1950s and 60s and our own time?
One thing that surprised me was how progressive and supportive women’s magazines were. I was expecting magazines from that era to be full of diet tips and how-to-get-a-man advice—and there was some of that, of course. But the diets were actually pretty reasonable; and, along with the getting-a-man/throwing-a-party tips, there were also stories about how to be an exchange student, or an interview with a young woman who’d moved to New York right out of high school to try to make it on Broadway. There was something wonderfully subversive about those magazines, and how they were almost Trojan horses, encouraging independence and free thinking in between the fashion tips.
How many times have you read Little Women?
More times than I can count.
Neither Jo nor Bethie has satisfying choices in tangling with patriarchal forces. Do young women today have a somewhat wider horizon?
A wider horizon, yes. A perfect, trouble-free path? No.
I think that young women today have many more options, but it feels like with all of those choices has come an equal amount of judgment: Oh, you’re not having kids? What’s up with that? Or: Oh, you spent all that time and money on your graduate degree, and you’re not working? How come? It still feels, to me, like women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t, and still, in many cases, stuck working twice as hard to get half as far (and it’s worse, obviously, for non-white, non-straight women).
Your tender treatment of Jo’s same-sex attraction has drawn notice. How can mainstream fiction and TV help spread acceptance of different sexual and gender identities?
This is going to feel like a basic answer, but I’ll quote Lin- Manuel Miranda: love is love is love is love is love. I just tried to write Jo’s sex scenes the same way I write sex scenes where it’s a man and a woman, with the same specificity and attention to details. I think that’s what all mainstream fiction and TV should be doing when writing or portraying the “other”—just treat them like people, and get the details right.
In a recent N.Y.Times op-ed, you described your mother’s lack of enthusiasm for your budding identity as a novelist. How has that influenced your work process?
LOL. I think my mom’s indifference made me try harder, because I wanted to impress her, and show her that, in spite of her skepticism, I was, indeed, capable of writing a book! It’s interesting, because I now have two daughters, and I feel like I’m always encouraging them, and telling them how wonderful and great they are and how they can do anything. Every once in a while, I’ll stop and think, “Is this really helping? What if I’m not giving them anything to prove?”
You’ve said that women are the primary consumers of fiction, and that you wish that would change. What do you think men have to learn from reading fiction? What can we all learn from fiction that we may not be able to glean from non-fiction?
Fiction lets you see the world through different eyes. I think about the books that I read as a young woman, from Rubyfruit to Daddy Was a Number Runner to Down These Mean Streets to Mama by Terry McMillan, and how it made me think about all the ways that the world was different for gay women, or people of color. Nonfiction gives you the facts; fiction gives you the color, the texture and the nuance and the feeling of what it’s like to be in that skin, in that moment. It is invaluable, and I wish that everyone in the world read more of it.
How can we adjust our perceptions of what “serious” or “real” literature is?
It’s hard, but I think we need to try to look past the covers, past the labels, past the pastel shades or the “chick lit” or “beach read” appellations, and just consider our own experience of the story. Did this move me? Did it teach me something? Did it open my eyes? Do I want my own mother or sister or daughter to read it? That, to me, is “serious” literature.
You write a lot about family relationships, and as we know, some qualities feel common to (or stereotypical of) Jewish families. How has your own Jewish upbringing shaped your characters and the conflicts they face?
I absolutely think that my Jewish identity has shaped my characters and the stories I tell. Obviously, I write about Jewish people, with all of the specificity that goes along with that—the food, the holidays, the rituals—but, beyond that, I write about outsiders, about people who live on the fringes and both long for and resist the mainstream. I think that being Jewish informs those characters, because being Jewish means that you’re eternally on the outside.
The sisters’ family faces exclusion and teasing because they are Jews and immigrants, while they also uphold white privilege. Why is it so important to be able to understand both these ideas at the same time?
Understanding a problem is the first way to change it. If we can understand privilege, we can start to dismantle it. And as [white] Jews, we’re uniquely positioned, in that we both enjoy white privilege and also feel the exclusion of being the other. My hope is that duality gives us empathy. We can understand and be allies to people on the outside, while also understanding how people with privilege might not always see it, or want to share it, or let it go.
You have talked about our society’s resistance to female pleasure: do you feel a responsibility to women to dismantle this resistance in your writing? As the mother of daughters; do you notice any overlap between your parenting and your writing in your efforts to spread a positive message about female pleasure?
I wrote a piece for the Times once about how everything I learned about pleasure, I learned from fiction, and romance novels. Mass media, TV and movies, told me that women’s bodies existed for male gratification and that it was my job to conform to the male gaze. Fiction taught me that women’s pleasure mattered too, and that women had the right to enjoy their experiences. Because of that, I always try to have an R-rated sex scene in every book I write. I want the women who read my work (and the 12-year-olds sneaking my books out of their mother’s shelves) to know that pleasure is their right and their due.
Should feminists be more involved in thinking about pleasure-based consumption: both promoting porn and erotica we see as positive and pushing back against derogatory content?
When I was a young woman, it was the heyday of the anti-porn feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. They argued that male-gaze-centered pornography hurt women (a legitimate argument), and they joined forces with far-rightwing groups to shut down magazines like Hustler (a problematic alliance).
When I got a little older, it was the era of Do-Me, sex-positive feminism, a kind of cool-girl feminism where you were supposed to be totally okay with porn and you’d watch it with your boyfriend, where you knew what you wanted in bed (a good thing!) and had casual hook-ups, if that’s what you wanted. But somewhere along the line, sex got “porn-ified,” and leached of some of its meaning.
I hope we’re approaching an era where there is a balance; where feminists promote positive, empowering, inclusive fantasies that don’t cater to the male gaze; where there’s not pressure for women to consume media with which they aren’t comfortable or conform to fantasies or ideals that don’t feel good to them.
You’ve spoken out about body positivity, and you started the #weartheswimsuit social media movement in 2016, encouraging women to enjoy the water regardless of self-image in a swimsuit. What got you to your own place of projecting confidence?
I always tell women to fake it ‘til they make it. If you’ve been bombarded with images of beautiful equaling thin and white and young since you were old enough to crawl in front of a TV screen, you don’t shake that overnight. Loving yourself is a journey and everyone has bad days. So if you’re not feeling great about yourself and the urge is to beat yourself up, restrict your eating, call yourself every kind of name, stop and think: how would you feel if you heard your daughter, or any young woman in your life, talking to herself like that?
The other thing that’s tremendously helpful is filling my social-media feed with women who are strong and confident and happy, and not necessarily young and white and skinny. Following someone like Lizzo can solve a LOT of problems. (And if you need a place to start, go to @jenniferweinerwrites on Instagram, and see the female models, athletes, yoga instructors, actors and musicians I follow and get to see every day!)
What is the most dangerous threat to positive body image in girls and young women right now?
My two-word answer is President Trump. When the president of the United States calls women “fat pigs” and “slobs,” (and then jokes, oh, no, ha ha ha, I only say that about Rosie O’Donnell), that does damage. He’s giving men a permission slip to laugh at certain kinds of female bodies; he’s giving women marching orders to hate themselves. When a woman comes forward with a credible, specific accusation about his behavior, and the President’s response is a sneering “she’s not my type,” that does damage…and I can imagine thousands of women, all over the world, cringing back into themselves, thinking, If they don’t believe her, they’ll never believe me. I think that women are doing a good job of pushing back at the misogyny that seeps out of the White House every day.
You’re outspoken on a number of issues. Do you think your Judaism has influenced your activism?
I was brought up in a progressive Jewish household, where we talked all the time about Tikkun Olam, and how it was our job to repair the broken world. That has influenced my adult life a lot. I hope that my books have helped to fix what’s broken, I hope that my activism about women’s literature and the lack of respect it receives, and women’s bodies, and the lack of respect some of them receive, has helped to do that work as well. My Judaism shaped who I am, and it informs every single thing that I do.
Lilith interns Arielle Silver-Willner and Noa Wollstein contributed to these questions.