The Rules do not Apply

Issue section: 

A decade has passed since Ariel Levy’s ground-breaking book on raunch culture, Female Chauvinist Pigs. Her exploration of women being sold back their own oppression as empowerment preceded a number of other books on this “new sexism”. And this phenomenon has since produced a fightback and a renewed interest in feminist thought and the politics of women’s liberation.

Disappointingly Levy’s new book is not a continuation of her previous work. It is a memoir about loss, recounting with heart wrenching clarity a period during which she experienced both the death of her son and the break-up of her marriage, and the preceding events.

The book is compelling to read and tells an interesting story that raises a number of wider issues. However, this memoir doesn’t contain a broad political narrative or much attempt to draw objective conclusions.

While it would be insensitive to suggest drawing much political analysis from the tragic loss of a child, other events could be dealt with by looking at the context. For instance the break-up of Levy’s marriage, largely due to her wife’s alcoholism, a problem with higher prevalence among the LGBT+ community.

Levy considers her motivations for not getting married and starting a family until relatively later in her life (in her late thirties) to be due to her own rejection of mainstream culture up to that point and a somewhat inevitable mellowing with age. But it is possible she was simply rejecting a culture that to some extent rejected her.

Her desire to “settle down” coincides with an increased acceptance of same-sex marriage and the inclusion of a wider variety of family units into the mainstream. The fact that even these less conventional family units often do not meet the needs of those involved could be explored to account for Levy looking for fulfilment elsewhere in the form of an affair.

Although discussing to some extent modern concepts of gender identity by relaying stories she was working on for The New Yorker magazine, and touching on trans issues when Levy reconnects with an ex-girlfriend who has since transitioned, I felt this could have been explored in much more detail — politically not just from Levy’s personal perspective.

Without more developed examination Levy’s analysis of her own struggles seems to amount to “Maybe women can’t have everything they want”.

Regardless of the criticisms made The Rules do not Apply is engaging and pleasurable to read, despite the sad content. Levy has certainly been through some tough experiences and I do not intend to be too harsh on a book that must have been difficult to write. It is just not the book I hoped she would write.

Interviews with Levy to promote the book demonstrate she has much to say about the fate of women in the era of Trump, about the urgent need to protect abortion rights, and whether Hillary Clinton lost the election due to misogyny in American society (she thinks Clinton would have made an excellent president).

Perhaps her next book will take up these issues and hopefully we won’t have to wait another decade to read it.