En detail I rather love and admire the female species; it is only en masse that it begins to confuse, frighten, and bewilder me. My opinion on the subject was, however, somewhat flexible until this weekend when, in the course of forty-eight hours, I both visited an all-women’s college and watched a play, “Uncommon Women,” about life at a women’s college. Not because I was somehow unlucky, but because my time getting to know the female better this weekend made such a deep impression on me do I feel compelled to write.
It all began as most good things do – at 80 miles an hour, the weekend just beginning to take hold. I sat in the front passenger seat of a Princeton van somewhere outside of Philadelphia chatting with other members of the debate team as we sped our way to Bryn Mawr College, an all-women’s college, for a debate tournament that would run all of Friday and half of the day on Saturday. While the plan for most members of the team was simple – drive to Bryn Mawr on Friday, spend the evening there, and come home the following night – things became a bit more convoluted. On the one hand, I was to return to Princeton that same evening to sleep in my own bed; I wasn’t much for investigating the Bryn Mawr party scene. This weekend was busy, anyways: in a move to further emasculate the weekend and/or see some friends in a thesis production, the girlfriend had decided that we were going to see “Uncommon Women.”
It was, to be sure, a busy weekend, but soon my partner, Dave, and I were in our first debate round. The room was full of characters, in particular a female debater from the other team. A veteran of a co-educational liberal arts college, she evoked the worst female debate stereotypes: shrill but not persuasive, she seemed destined to make junior partner at a mediocre law firm by 40 and fulfill the sexual fantasies of that year’s crop of male paralegals by 45. Her hair was a vibrant deep red at first glance, fell apart upon closer scrutiny as the victim of one too many highlighting jobs. She dressed like a man. She wore a white oxford shirt, whose sleeves, buttoned down all the way, poked out the sides of an unmemorably argyled sweater vest. She was a Catholic, but you always had at least one friend who had a friend who had slept with her, so that even those men looking for a kind of religio-sexual crusade would have little to boast of in pursuing her. She was superficially an attractive, well-educated woman; I just found her depressing.
In the world of college forensics, she represented the best that many of our generation’s rising female debaters could hope for. Listening for what that one of this or that year’s flock of graduating debate seniors around the American debate circuit is doing that coming years, the answers come in echos: Wall Street, D.C., Boston, J.P. Morgan, law school, law school. Another leading female debater on the circuit said that she hoped to go to Penn law school following graduation from her liberal arts college. Without a hint of resignation, she noted that she would probably spend her entire life in the state of Pennsylvania. And like the faux red-head earlier, she, too, had been passed from male debater to male debater in relationships whose tenor and length would inspire cynicism in the most hopeful.
Neither of these two females were Bryn Mawr students, though both were striking in their monocled careerism and peripatetic love lives. Imagine how unusually desperate those real Bryn Mawr girls were just 40 years ago. While exaggerating this point is easy (and probably unfair), I sensed comparatively more female stares than I had ever felt before in a day at Princeton as my two man-eaters traversed around campus from round to round. While self-imposed masculine fantasies may be present, one could easily feel a flirtatious undertone absent from most male-female conversations than at Princeton. And as a friend who may have been one of the rarely-reported victims of female-on-male rape that night at the tourney’s party can attest, alcohol only enhanced and confirmed our sober intuitions.
Leaving later, I found myself pondering the state of the young, educated woman today. Perhaps the intuitions gleaned at Bryn Mawr were inaccurate. As I made the ugly train ride from Philadelphia to Trenton, two obese young black women spoke loudly over their career hopes: one had finished a course in “interpersonal communications” and planned to take a teller job at a Philadelphia bank that spring. The other discussed her plans to get a degree in restaurant management and open a restaurant in the area: “People gotta eat.”
But I didn’t have much time to ponder this conversation as I stepped onto the Princeton train platform. I had only half an hour to make it across campus to 185 Nassau Street, buy myself a ticket for “Uncommon Women,” and get seated with my girlfriend for the show. Hastily wolfing down a falafel as I waited inside of the building’s lobby, I read that the play was about a group of students at Mount Holyoke College (another female college) in the 1970s. In truth, I would have gladly attended the stage version of a Marquis de Sade work to spend some time with my date for the evening, I figure that, even if the play was a stinker, my time at Bryn Mawr would lend me some perspective. But soon she walked in, mid-falafel bite, she with rosy wind-flushed cheeks to match her hair – sans brown highlights. Complimenting her on a new vest, I walked in to find a pair of seats.
She began to point out the faces in the crowd, arranged at this performance on four seating risers arranged like a square around the stage. More parents than students filled most of the seats. On the riser to our right, in a predictable pattern sat the men in dress shirts with khakis, ties, and blazers. They looked like they drove BMW sedans.
But before I could get a glimpse at any of their wives, the lights dimmed and the show began. While I won’t get into a long discussion of what the play entails. Suffice to say, many of the characters in “Uncommon Women” struggle with some of the life choices I saw implied in the girls at Bryn Mawr: whether to settle for mother- and wifehood and become the pleasant but never impressive mate of a six-figure husband and bathe in the perks; whether to attempt the professional life themselves, if at the cost of family and love; whether to do something truly original with themselves, follow a passion, and seem unconventional. It was a good play.
What was most striking about the evening, however, was not the show but the audience response. As the lights came on during intermission, I turned and glanced around through the other risers. One woman jumped out – the ultimate milf. Buoyed by what I suspect was a healthy diet of plastic surgery, personal training, and perhaps more nefarious methods, here was a 45, 50 year old woman who could have subbed in for any of the Princeton juniors in the play without anyone raising an eyebrow. While she was beautiful from a distance, her facial skin reminded me of the texture of a long-deflated balloon. Surely weighing no more than 110 pounds, she wore a one-piece tan outfit that, I suspect, will be long out of fashion in two years. This was a woman who demanded a wealthy husband by her very existence. But regardless of one’s opinion on the physical appearance of this woman, she was loving the play. Contorting herself throughout the performance, her floppy leather boots coming up to her kneecaps, she wriggled in laughter throughout, nuzzled herself into the shoulder of her escort’s blazer.
What surprised me was that women like her were not only producing (and looking younger than) their daughters who starred in this show. Rather, that they seemed to so love a work that featured characters who openly had anxiety about, frankly, becoming her. I looked throughout the audience and, while there were more men and fewer students than I had anticipated, most of the parents in seating that evening seemed to be of a type. The fathers exchanging a six- or seven-figure bondage for a wife who would keep herself doable into the mid-50s and a daughter that one could be proud of, maybe even perpetuate the cycle. What if this was as good as it gets?
As I walked across campus with my date, I let her know some of these thoughts. Looking around the audience that evening made me realize that in some sense, I fear – and suspect that females, at least 30 years ago, did too – the unoriginal relationship more than the sad one. Most young men and women at Princeton are bright enough for one-state lawyering or opt for elite bondage in law, banking, or consulting. Maybe even garner a satisfying relationship along the way. In light of these weekend events, though, I don’t know if such a path is desirable. Even if I were too comfortable to realize it and protest, would I – a blazer- and khaki-wearing professional in thirty years – to sit in a college theater and watch a hypothetical son attempt to capture the anxieties of the 2007 male? All while I had given up a more creative life?
These were my thoughts on the American female splitting off from my girlfriend for the evening. Walking down the Frist stairs at 10:30, I made my way to the cafeteria cooler, caught some yogurt, granola, and deflated blueberries, set to consuming parfait alone at a crumb-laden table.
A female friend of mine (nearly the model of housewifely domesticity) soon came to my table and asked how the evening had been going. She wore plain jeans, an orange cable-knit sweater, a pearl necklace, no makeup. I described the weekend a bit, joking that I had had my fill of estrogen and women’s colleges for the month.
“Hmm,” she murmured, “my mother went to an all-women’s college.” I knew from prior experience that her father was a wealthy Princeton alum, she herself the brilliant product of the well-endowed marriage. As she walked away, I turned my gaze to the few soggy flecks of granola sticking to the sides of the container, made peace with the parfair. People, I recalled, gotta eat.