Taste, Sexism, and Eat Pray Love

Forgive me. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to title this post, so I just panicked and put keywords.
Eat Pray Love

Oh my.

It’s been exactly one year since my last post. What has become of me? I have some ideas, but will save those for a later time. First, I want to write about Elizabeth Gilbert. In my first post, I mentioned that I loved her even though I’d never read her books. Like all Americans alive in 2006, I’d heard of her wildly successful book Eat, Pray, Love. While I didn’t think about it much, I had an unspoken aversion to reading the book. I hadn’t read reviews of it nor did I have much of an idea of what it was about. I simply knew that reading and enjoying that book had the potential to permanently exile me from the ranks of cool people. (I’d yet to realize I was already banished back in 2001, the time when I began suffering a crippling earnestness from which I’ve yet to recover. Being cool means either not giving a fuck or at least convincing others that you don’t give a fuck, and unfortunately I give SO MANY fucks. All the fucks in fact.)

Years later, I heard Gilbert interviewed on a podcast. Then I saw her TED talk. Then I heard her interviewed again and again. And wouldn’t you know, I developed a crush on her, swept away by her unique ability to deliver insight with charm. It made me question why I’d written off her book in the first place. Short answer: snobbery. I’d decided that a book popular enough to be made into a movie featuring Julia Roberts wasn’t worth my time.

We’re all guilty of this kind of snobbery now and then. In his book Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson explores the dynamics of taste, using Celine Dion as the subject of study.* He points to sociological research showing that matters of taste are associated with one’s demographics more than anything else. The music you enjoy is influenced more by your social status – think class, race, culture – than your finely tuned musical ear or your value as a human. Many of us believe our tastes to be reflections of our identities. It’s one of the first things we latch onto in adolescence to figure out who we are and how we’d officially like to be viewed by the world. An artist is embraced only if s/he is deemed acceptable to the social group in which we wish to belong. On the flip side, we reject other artists as a means of dissociating ourselves from undesirable groups.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this is what I was doing. It wasn’t that I was rejecting Eat, Pray, Love. I couldn’t reject a book I hadn’t read. Instead, I was drawing a line to distinguish myself from my tasteless peers in the hopes that I might trick a few people into thinking that I’m special. Digging a little deeper, however, I realized that it wasn’t just that the book was popular. It also had to do with the fact that it was primarily popular among women. The crown jewel of Oprah’s Book Club. I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that in fact, deep down my aversion to this book had links to a kind of douchey sexism. One of my inner voices is apparently a dude bro named Chad (oh no, maybe he secretly trolls women online and likes Mike Huckabee!) I’m always surprised to catch myself being a bad feminist, but there I was listening to the Chad in my head saying something awful like, “That’s a book for housewives, not serious people.”

Firstly, when did Chad confuse me for a serious person? Secondly, how have I failed to purge my brain of hang-ups about housewives? I mean, housewives, seriously? That amorphous group that serves as the go-to lady punching bag, although it can be argued that group has expanded to encompass mothers generally (for example).  Why would it ever even occur to me to think about what housewives are or are not doing, much less use them as a potential point of comparison to my own life? I may as well wonder what the singers of One Direction read in their free time as they have about as much of an influence on my life.

So I got over it and finally read Eat, Pray, Love this year. Given my love for her public speaking and my increasing acceptance of my place on the social hierarchy, I was prepared to fully eat/pray/love it!  And well…I did! Kind of! Mostly! (Sarah, you can’t just ramble on about how you’re getting over your snobbery and then not love this book! Come on!)

It’s certainly an enjoyable read with plenty of engaging stories and lessons, especially if you lean towards my brand of hippie woo woo. (In other words, if you are the kind of person who can’t bring herself to believe in psychics but desperately wants to be proven wrong about it. Or I suppose, if you just straight up believe in psychics, then this is the book for you). The spiritual element of the book will be enough to turn off a great many people, particularly serious people. We’ve already established that I’m not one of those, so my only real complaint was the weird feeling it left me once I stopped reading. It gave me an unsettled impression that Elizabeth Gilbert is somehow both the most and least relatable person I’ve encountered. Reading her feels like a long-overdue conversation with your best friend whose life just so happens to be governed by cosmic laws unknown to the rest of humanity. Magic seems to follow her around. It’s not even that she paints a picture of the perfect life all the time, but the book reads like fiction more than a memoir. It’s easy to be skeptical of the fairytale magic of her stories. Really, Elizabeth, you expect me to believe you’re magic?

Then again, I can also interpret it in a different, more generous way – magic happens to Elizabeth Gilbert because she recognizes it and invites it in for tea. She figures out how to take her experiences, both good and bad, and turn them into a broader narrative with a message of hope. She’s kind of a badass that way. I like that interpretation and what it does for my spirit, so I’ll run with it. I recommend the book to those who’d self-identify as spiritual seekers, those interested in traveling who need some inspiration to go for it, and those going through relationship turmoil.

*To fall in love with Celine Dion within five minutes, click here.

 

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