When I was in my twenties I would occasionally splurge and buy a fashion magazine, one of those big glossies with perfume samples that triggered my allergies. I rarely had extra cash back then and a single magazine would cost upwards of five dollars. Five dollars could buy a lot of canned soup or tuna. It could buy a used book or two. But sometimes I got an urge to spend a weekend taking long baths, painting my nails, and slathering conditioner on my hair. If I’d had money, maybe I’d have gone to a spa. But I don’t think I was even aware that ordinary women went to spas. Spas were for movie stars and models. The rest of us made do with cheap nail polish and tea from a cardboard box.
Of all the glossies, I liked Elle the best. Cosmo was okay, but it seemed weirdly obsessed with strange sex habits and it had too many ads. Vogue was beautiful, but it featured outrageously expensive couture fashion. When you’re counting your pennies for tuna, it’s demoralizing to learn that someone somewhere might drop $6,000 for a satin blazer. The fashion and the articles in Elle seemed more practical and approachable. Plus, they printed an advice column. I love advice columns. When I worked for a newspaper, I would sometimes take home a week’s worth of Dear Abby or Ann Landers to read at my leisure. Elle had “Ask E. Jean,” which was more urbane than the daily newspaper columns. She talked about things like the bourgeoisie and the patriarchy, which were not concepts being bandied about in my social circles at the time. And contrary to the predictable advice offered by the mainstream columnists, she sometimes encouraged women to do outrageous things like have affairs or leave their husbands.
I gave up fashion magazines a long time ago. I no longer enjoy looking at scraps of fabric draped over bone thin women. I haven’t painted my nails in years. My hair is so short that a bottle of conditioner lasts for months. Still, over the years I sometimes read “Ask E. Jean” online. Even when I didn’t agree with her advice (often) or I couldn’t relate to the letter writers (more often), she made me laugh. I liked her style, part Helen Gurley Brown and part Tina Fey. And it is in this style that she recounts her many interactions with “hideous men” in her new book, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal.
You can read an excerpt at New York Magazine’s The Cut and you should. I won’t rehash her stories in detail here. You’ve no doubt read about them or seen her discussing them on various news programs. In short, she accuses the current president of raping her in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman in the mid-1990s, coincidentally right about the time I was reading those magazines. She is one of more than a dozen women who have credibly accused the president of some form of sexual assault.
The thing that makes E. Jean Carroll’s story so compelling is that it is one of a string of stories about men behaving very badly beginning when she was twelve and culminating in that dressing room rape when she was 52. That’s 40 years of assault at the hands of men. She describes how she responded to most of these incidents: she ran, she quit, she laughed it off, she kept her mouth shut. She never thought of herself as a victim. She regrets her silence in some cases; perhaps she could have stopped these men from targeting other women. But she knows, as we all do, that it’s just as likely no one would have believed her and then she’d have a heck of a time landing interviews or getting meetings with powerful men. If you’re an ambitious woman, you understand that offending certain men can mean the end of your career.
We’re now in the era of #MeToo, where women feel freer to speak out against the abusive men they’ve encountered. But the very fact that so many women are speaking out tells you how prevalent this sort of abuse continues to be. Nearly every woman I know can recount some awful story about some awful man doing some awful thing to her. It’s not that it’s happening more often now; it’s that women are finally talking about it.
E. Jean Carroll is a complicated figure in the #MeToo era. On the one hand, she’s speaking out after a lifetime of silence. On the other hand, she espouses some weirdly regressive ideas about rape and victimhood. She’s not an easy woman to embrace. You get the sense she’d still tell a younger woman in similar circumstances to paste on a smile and get on with the business of living. It’s hard to picture her crying in her champagne, no matter what. She’s not the victim most people want to see, which I think makes her all the more credible. A liar would work harder to meet our expectations of what she should say and how she should say it. E. Jean Carroll can’t be bothered to put on the designer cloak of victimhood. She’s telling her story in her way. You can like it or not.
The president, when faced with the latest accusation, responded by saying E. Jean Carroll was not his type. As if that’s some sort of defense. This is a man who has bragged about assaulting women. His denials are laughable and pathetic. But he is absolutely right that E. Jean Carroll is not his type. She is sharp, funny, resilient, and complicated. He is dull, humorless, thin-skinned, and simple. Not his type? He can’t even see her type from the cesspool where he wallows.
We want to believe the world has changed, but it hasn’t. We’ve elevated a serial rapist to the White House. Meanwhile, his victim speaks out and has her story relegated to the Books section of the New York Times. What else is a woman to do but to paste on a smile and get on with the business of living? What other choice does she have? If I were writing to an advice columnist, that’s the question I’d want answered. Please, tell me, what other choice does she have?