Gender Studies by Curtis Sittenfeld, 2016
The magic trick:
Quick plot, reads fast as an amusing sex romp
OK, let’s lay this out. I went to a tiny, poor school called North College Hill, growing up in Cincinnati. Curtis Sittenfeld attended, for a time at least, a private school in town called Seven Hills that was my school’s league rival. Sports were the least of our differences. Barely half my senior class graduated on time. Seven Hills, meanwhile, didn’t refer to itself as having a high school but rather an “upper school.” Because nothing says tea and crumpets quite like the suburbs of Cincinnati? Hmmm.
Ridiculous. And then of course Sittenfeld did in fact leave for a more convincing brand of American tea and crumpets, boarding school in the east, as noted in the novel, Prep.
Anyway. So these are my own personal issues of forever-lingering class resentment. But, actually, I think they’re important to note as we look at today’s featured story, Sittenfeld’s “Gender Studies.” The story reeks of – and in my opinion is totally undone by – an inability to connect those class distinctions.
So we have a protagonist who, if not entirely autobiographically Sittenfeld, certainly bares a strong resemblance to the author in age, status and profession. And it’s very clear that Sittenfeld would like to wash away that stench of elitism by attempting to comment on it. A real cake-and-eat-it-too scenario. So the narrator editorializes the protagonist’s feelings about her ex, her memories of that relationship, her uncomfortable interaction with the Super Shuttle driver. It all slants the reader toward observing with not little disdain this character’s self-absorbed midlife crisis. Flying into Kansas City. Oh, the horrors.
Fine. But this presents a couple of crucial, crucial problems for me.
One, why do I care? You’ve presented us with a character who isn’t very likable and then slanted our opinions toward judging her as not very likable. What next? Why care? I never got a suitable answer to these questions.
Two, and most notably, this attempt to hide the author’s tendency toward drawing elitist, unlikable characters by pretending that “No, THAT’s the theme of the story! It’s a COMMENT on elitism!” is a cheat. If this is the kind of character you feel comfortable writing about because it’s who you know – or because it’s you – then own it. Let it rip. Let’s go. I’ll read it. I’ve been reading stories about rich guys by rich guys my whole life. I love John Cheever. But don’t act like you’re privileged and in position to comment on this state of privilege. You can’t have it both ways.
So of course our protagonist begins a romantic fling with a man of the working class – the Super Shuttle driver. But no, no, he’s not an immigrant or a minority, though. Can’t go there. The Super Shuttle driver is a corn-fed, baseball-playing, Midwestern guy with taut muscles.
And he’s such a bullshit stereotype. It makes me mad to even think about. He functions as nothing but her means toward some form of self-realization. And that’s the thing: all the commenting about class you want to make, all the clever Trump references you want to drop in, this was still always doomed to be a story about an intricately drawn individual woman of wealth and privilege learning from a cliché-ridden, pathetically thin foil of a character from the “working class” whose only function is to showcase “growth” by the protagonist.
The only comment about elite academia that emerges here reflects on the author, not our world.
The phrase “stay in your lane” springs to mind.
Very mean, very mean, I know. But I mean what I say. I feel strongly about such things.
Funny thing is I don’t hate the story in reality as much as I clearly do in concept. I’m offended by its pretense. But as a read, it’s fine as a quick-paced, plotty romantic comedy sex romp. Does Lifetime have the film rights yet? And that’s quite a trick on Sittenfeld’s part.
Having a drink in the hotel bar with Luke the Shuttle Driver is almost enjoyable, because it’s like an anthropological experience. Beyond her wish to get her license back, she feels no fondness for the person sitting across the table, but the structure of his life, the path that brought him from birth to this moment, is interesting in the way that anyone’s is. He’s twenty-seven, older than she guessed, born in Wichita, the second of two brothers. His parents split up before his second birthday; he’s met his father a handful of times and doesn’t like him. He’ll never disappear from his daughter’s life the way that his father disappeared from his. He and his mom and his brother moved to Kansas City when he was in fifth grade—her parents are from here—and he played baseball in junior high and high school and hoped for a scholarship to Truman State (a scout even came to one of his games), but senior year he tore his U.C.L. After that, he did a semester at U.M.K.C., but the classes were boring and not worth the money. (“No offense,” he says, as if Nell, by virtue of being a professor, had a hand in running them.) He met his ex-wife, Shelley, in high school, but the funny thing is that he didn’t like her that much then, so he should have known. He thinks she just wanted a kid. They were married for two years, and now she’s dating someone else from their high-school class, and Luke thinks better that guy than him. Luke and his buddy Tim want to start their own shuttle service, definitely in the next eighteen months; the manager of the one he’s working for now is a dick.
Eliciting this information isn’t difficult. The one question he asks her is how many years she had to go to school to become a professor. She says, “How many after high school or how many total?”
“After high school,” he says, and she says, “Nine.”