Monday, August 23, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love, Cover Your Ears

Don't get me wrong. I loved the book. Okay, I loved it and at times wanted to yell "Over-writing, over-writing!" But Gilbert's freewheeling word play that ran off the rails at times only endeared her to me in the end. She's the kind of passionate, self-examining, self-deprecating, self-inflating person I recognize! Her "quest philosophy" (read it) is genius—the best stuff in the book. I came away open to the whole world again, ready to trust my life and process while staying alert to my journey (not wishing it away).

I read the book in January 2008, before I had even a hint that I'd wind up scarlet branded with the letter D in my not-so-distant future. I heard Elizabeth speak at UCLA with Anne Lamott in March of the same year... the epic journey through California that began the inner-unraveling.

The film came at an interesting time. I'm in a different place and related to different pieces of Liz's story than I did on the first pass through. What I noted, though, that is sticking with me (and not especially comfortably) is just how dominant the male voices were in her story! Let me count them:

  1. Ketut: The prophecy that led Liz on her year-long, world-traveling journey began with a prophecy from a medicine man in Bali. Yes, he was toothless and old, adorable and addled, yet he gives her a palm reading that becomes the guide to her future. 
  2. Her husband: He told her what to think, how their lives should be, what he wanted that was not what she wanted. It made her feel guilty to leave him because he was unhappy (he did not seem to have any guilt over his making her unhappy!). Her husband sat across from her at the negotiation table and told her he wouldn't grant her a divorce! That's how deaf he was to Liz's voice. He thought he could require her to stay married to him!
  3. Her boyfriend: David was a trip. This man lived his life in accordance with a female guru from India. Liz adopted his guru, adopted his lifestyle, adopted his values... and slowly disappeared into him. Her eventual journey to India was inspired by the hand-me-down guru she adopted during her torrid love affair with David.
  4. Her language partner: In Italy, we're immediately treated to some of the best looking male specimens on the planet. Just sayin'. Italian men have it going on. Liz's primary partner in language is a good-looking, gentle god of a guy. She has to fight her primal sex urges in order to mimic his accent.
  5. Richard from Texas: Just when you think Liz will get a break from all these tempting men by going to an ashram in India dedicated to a female guru, Liz becomes friends with Richard from Texas. The guru, in a twist of irony, is not in residence having taken a trip to New York, where Liz came from! (Perhaps a "Wizard of Oz" lesson underlying; there's no place like home, or, what you seek is already within you.) In any case, Richard is confrontational with his "bumper sticker" wisdom. Liz, like a polite woman would, attempts to deflect Richard's earliest attempts to "teach her," but eventually yields to his tactics once she's aware that he is suffering too. Truly, I like Richard in the book and loved the actor in the film... but upon further reflection, I have to admit it makes me uncomfortable how easily men tell women what to think, how to feel, what to know, how to recover, what to learn, how to love, what to do, how to live. What's up with that? I am trying to think of a time when I've seen on the big screen some man being "bullied for your own good" by a woman's unrelenting "wisdom" until he finally yields to it because he saw "who she really is." Help me out - is there such a film/story anywhere? I'm so sick of it!
  6. Ketut (again): He hardly remembers Liz when she returns to Bali. But once he does, Liz happily trusts his account of her future, yet again.
  7. Felipe: And here's where I wanted to claw my eyes out. In the book, I wasn't a huge fan of his either, but at least he seemed genuinely kind to Liz (and is eventually the man she marries in real life). The movie, though, took his personality to a place I will no longer tolerate in my real life. As Liz is having an emotional melt-down about love and being whisked off into a future without her express consent, Felipe yells at her! He tells her who she is, what her real feelings are (amazingly, he assumes they are just like his!), he tells her how to get over them, he attempts to intimidate her into cooperation with his "romantic" plan! Ay-yi-yi-yi! What is up with this whole "men use force to get women to do what they 'really' want" thing? Why do we think that is romantic, beneficial, respectful or even remotely justified? Why did the screenplay writers feel the need to inject that dysfunction into the relationship... as though that is a model for how to find true love? Gag me with a waxy plantain leaf!
I saw it all plainly. Men feel utterly comfortable dictating advice, stating their goals, passing on their experience and wisdom, all while women go on long journeys and quests away from them to figure out what they want... and then they wind up wanting men! It's just crazy!!!

I cannot picture a man going on a world tour to get over a broken heart, listening to women read their palms and guide their futures through folksy wisdom or forceful "buck up and do what I tell you because I'm right" kind of language. Not one man would go to see that movie.

Yet women are constantly bombarded with male voices. Our western gods are male, our presidents in America are male, the vast majority of our pastors are male (in some churches, they all are!), our business leaders and school principals: male. I had a Sue Monk Kidd moment last night when I got home—Arggggghhhhhh! Get me out of this male-dominated, overly verbal masculine world! How can woman even hear herself think, let alone come to any insight that would be truly suited to her while men won't shut up!

Before I offend the loyal male readers of this blog, let me say this. One of the hardest parts of being female is hearing your "inside yourself" voice. Male voices drown us out much of the time and we consent because we have been trained to listen politely, to not pass judgment, to trust an authority (male=authority), to seek protection, to accommodate those in power over pleasing ourselves. In fact, women are so used to this condition, if you have a group of women chatting away together and you add a man to it, the man will become the focal point and the majority of women will literally stop talking. 

I can think of so many dinner parties where I was happily chatting away with my girlfriends until the husbands joined us. Then—poof! The women go silent and the men take over. It's uncanny.

The best thing males can do to right this ship is to listen. I don't mean the kind of listening that therapists suggest on couches to couples. I don't mean "active listening" where you try to repeat back what you heard. I mean, actually listening—to the confusion, to the tentative attempts to protect self, to the hopelessness, to the anxiety, to the "good ideas," to the disillusionment... all while doing nothing with it.

Nothing looks like: compassionate eyes, interest, hugs, an occasional (brief!) affirmation of the woman's inherent powers to find her own solutions that work for her. Nothing looks like fewer words and more nods, a willingness to watch her fail and make poor judgments, encouragement to keep going on her own path and resisting the temptation to rescue her from herself and others.

Nothing means not interfering, not trumping, not denigrating, not expecting a different outcome, not asking for compromise, not coercing through disappointment, anger, reason or relentless logic.

Nothing means accepting her report of her own experience without minimizing it, without discounting it, without reinterpreting it, without taking it personally.

But women, know that men aren't going to "do it for us." We have to be willing to walk away from relationships, to tell the men we lean on to be quiet. We have to seek spaces that let our minds wander. We have to trust the inkling of internal wisdom and risk everything on it! We can't expect a man to bail us out or help us. We have to know that the end of the road is inside (not in a man's paycheck, his size, his superior position, his intelligence, his romance, his validation, or even the idea that he is endowed with greater authority).

When I wrote "it's all on you" last time, one of the underlying messages I wanted to convey is this: When we delegate the authority over our lives to a "higher absolute"—saying it exists apart from us (particularly as women), we develop a habit of second-guessing ourselves that can become pathological. We start from a place of distrust of self.

When we recognize that it was our own insight and reasoning skills that empowered those beliefs to start, we open ourselves to confident inner knowing (we esteem our ability to seek the good, to find the good and to live according to the good). That's my goal for me, for my daughters... and yes, for the lovely men in my life too.

May the sexes go forth and support each other!

These are my musings on a Monday morning. Your mileage may vary.


Carol said...

I really want to see this movie, and I really wanted to see it with YOU! I would have loved this sort of face-to-face dialogue about it!!!!! Thanks for your thoughts. My mind flashed back to my mom who would quietly listen to my brothers talk at to her, but would not let me even dialogue with her about things. Sigh. I think many moms enable this sort of behavior in their sons.

margaretm said...

Amen and amen. Thank you for posting this! I love this.

RedGypsie said...

I get what you're saying. I had a different take on the scene with Phillipe though. I agree with the progression of male voices: she needs it. She hasn't made the journey to her own voice (she came close with the healer woman I think). On the beach, she's floundering, panicking. I think all she wanted was reassurance that Phillipe would be both to her: someone who would give her space to explore, not putting social rules on her AND be someone strong and masculine who would over her a margin line.

It would have been a massive shift in how she did things to walk away from Phillipe and probably unproductive to her journey. She wants the best of both worlds, both genders. Liz seems to me to be the kind of woman most comfortable being the girl with a lot of guy friends, the gem. In a group of women, she seems lost, not herself, not able to shine and compete.
I like the story much more when I remember how important men are to her. She was searching for the kind of men who validated her voice. When I try to view it as her big journey to her inner wisdom, it fizzles.

It's also easier for me to remove the genders all together and just think of them as humans. She was around overbearing humans. She went and found more respectful humans. She found a way to breathe and be and still be engaged with a tribe. That's my take-away.

julieunplugged said...

Carol! ME too. :)

Margaret, thanks.

Tia, I want to push back on this. There was no reason for Felipe to raise his voice. There was no reason for him to assert that her experience was the same as his. There was no reason for him to tell her to go with him when she was panicking. If anything, their relationship was still in the very early stages (she says in the book 6 weeks!) and he was already talking about **making a life** together.

She's allowed to retreat, withdraw, make mistakes, run away in fear. She may need to do all of those to discover herself apart from someone *telling* her what she should be feeling/doing to grow. And really, this is what bothered me most. Why did she need men to validate her voice? That need to be the "gal among guys" could be part of the syndrome - women assign authority to men and get some for themselves by being one of them.

In any case, I think "validation" is not what we should seek from men (I picture a rubber stamp). We may simply need companionship, space and support. To me, that's better. it allows room for error and difference.

Just a few of the thoughts you triggered in me.

I can't remove gender as easily because it seems to influence so much of what we do think about one another.

Ed G. said...

I once read a piece that outlined The Female-Friendly Movie Rule:

It has to have at least two female characters... who talk to each other... about something besides a man.

Was shocked at how few movies could even stand up to this minimal standard. Perhaps, as your post suggests, art mimics life far too often.

julieunplugged said...

Wow Ed! That's telling!

I read in one of the reviews (A. O Scott NYTimes no less) who said it was refreshing to see a film about something more than a woman wanting a man. Weirdly, I didn't even feel that by the end! It seemed to still focus endlesslly on the quest for a relationship.

Moreover, Scott said that movies about men are about men pursuing whatever they can imagine. Most movies featuring female leads are about finding the man they imagine. Sigh.

RedGypsie said...

I agree there was no reason he needed to do that. I think it was wrong of him. But I her pattern of behavior shows it's what she really wanted (which is evidenced by her calm "peace" afterward). Ideals aside (because you know I agree with your ideals), I think that's where she was in her journey. She'd made progress in being able to assert herself away from her husband and feeling smothered. But to go further than that was evidently too much.

I wonder also how much a year of celibacy plus the great sex they had influenced her sway.

julieunplugged said...

Tia, the book is much gentler in this conclusion and more self-effacing than the movie (I remember Liz even feeling a little disappointed in herself for having a fairy tale ending to her year of self-exporation - worried about what it would symbolize). That aspect of her thinking was missing in the movie. So yes, you and I agree in those essentials.

And now doubt sex would be a huge factor in the emotion (all the more reason for them to go slowly in commitment, which in life, they did!).

jo(e) said...

Great post! I've been driving my friends crazy because I want to talk about the book and movie. I loved the book and hated the movie.

The book, I thought, was a spiritual journey, a movement towards wholeness. She figured out that tended to melt into/fuse with/subjugate herself to men, and she wanted to take time and be celibate and figure out who she was. And she did that. She CHOSE to be alone when she was in Italy and India. Her focus was on her spiritual and emotional wholeness. And only after she figured out her own stuff did she get involved in another relationship, one very different than previous relationships.

But the movie -- eh. Seemed like another Hollywood movie about the broken-hearted woman who went to Italy and felt sad that she didn't have a man and eventually went to Bali and got a man and sailed off into the sunset. I mean, I can't see that she learned much of anything.

I loved Richard from Texas in the book because it seemed like they had a reciprocal, healthy friendship. But in the movie -- it was like he was just dispensing advice to her. I hated the movie version of Felipe. Where was the gentle, balding, older man who brought up the idea of a relationship by wanting to talk things over together so that it would be a mutual relationship? The movie Felipe was such a jerk!

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie, I appreciate you going out on a bit of a limb to post this. On my end I am not sure "how" to weigh in or add to anything you have said out of a bit of fear, to be honest, that I might be attempting to dispense any kind of advice...and...thus reinforce the "dominant" male voice which you have brought to attention with this post...

So, here are just a couple of raw gut feelings and thoughts. Yes, men can and are often overly dominant is many of the ways you describe here. Personally, I struggle with giving "unsolicited" advise, but I think that has less to do with being a male and more to do with being thrust into a caretaker role when my father died when I was only twelve and I was told by other family members that I am now the "head of the house".

I suspect alot of other men are dominant in their relationships with women, especially if they are older, because they were socialized to be so, on so many different fronts. I know I was taught that women needed to be taken care of and I was the head of the home...And, it didn't help that most if not all the women in my life were happy to oblige with this particular arrangment. I'm not trying to make excuses but point out that there are many powerful social forces at work here.

In the end, I concede that what you have said is more often than not true, but ask where do we go from here. Yes, women need to speak up and let their voice be heard but I think they also need to do so in a way that men won't feel like they are being brow beaten. I mention this because when I was married, I "often" felt by my ex-wife, and the various churches I attended, that I was never living up to what I now consider to be an "unrealistic" be blunt, I grew tired of being told by various quarters that I needed to do better....Just telling it how I feel from one man's perspective.

julieunplugged said...

Bill, you bring up the right points. I do believe that men have been socialized into that role and women don't discourage them in most cases.

I went to a homeschool graduation where the couples (both parents) would accompany their child to the platform and then they were to say a few words about their kids. Remember: these are parents where the dad works and the mom homeschools. In the majority of cases, the mothers gave up the chance to speak publicly about their kids, expecting the dads to pick up the slack. There seemed to be no sense that a man could just say, "I don't like speaking" whereas mother after mother did report that feeling.

Historically speaking, men have been in the seat of power and women have delegated to them their own. It may take a few centuries to right the ship. ;-)

Jo(e)—excellent summary! I love how you contrasted the book and movie and think you are right: she did spend the better part of a year without looking for love in the book. Yes. That is not what is felt in the movie. And I too couldn't stand the movie Felipe. I missed the moment where he asks her if they should have an affair and she turns him down! That was HUGE in the book. Missing in the movie.

Bilbo said...

Julie, your inference that men need to defer more often and women need to be willing to take more risks is a good suggestion. I just hope more men and women in the future are willing to break away from the old patterns of the past.

debbiep said...

I was always one of those moms who just assumed her husband would do a much better job of speaking. What's up with that? He was never even home! I wised up this year and took the plunge and I'm so glad I did!

Great insights and comments about the movie. I liked it but enjoyed the book SO much more.

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