What kind of pathos appeals to white women? This has been a central question of political election punditry (and Hillary Clinton’s personal night terrors) for a decade, as well as the central question of American suburban life for the past 100 years. What do these white women want? What makes them mad? What relieves their madness—ahem, their anger? And why is the Fifty Shades of Grey book and film series so popular?
The single most useful answer to all these questions is relatively simple, and if you are a white woman, perhaps more obvious than simple: guilty pleasure. I just finished having brunch with author Arielle Zibrak and—okay, it wasn’t actually brunch. I curled up on my couch at home alone to read her new book, Guilty Pleasures. The book is such a fun and fast conversation that it feels like having brunch with a hilarious dear friend. Brunch like the four ladies of Sex and the City have. Where one eats piles of carbs while talking about one’s diet. Where one complains about one’s idiotic boss, who is inevitably a rich white male living a life so fancy it reads as fictional. Where one fondly remembers the finer psychological details of great sex with bad boys from days of yore.
Zibrak is an expert in days of yore. Specifically, she’s a Gender Studies professor specializing in Victorian literature. She edited the New Centenary Essays series book for Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence (Bloomsbury 2019), and Guilty Pleasures is her first solo venture for the excellent NYU Press series Avidly Reads. Zibrak has written for the “Avidly Reads” column in the Los Angeles Review of Books before, and she is a natural fit for this series that publishes hybrid essays combining the personal with the analytical. She’s got a quippy wit that never tries too hard, and she consistently offers amusing takes that maintain a rigorous level of intelligent insight while eschewing any academic jargon. One of my personal favorites is a list she did for The Toast, “How to Tell if You’re in a Henry James novel“.
Guilty Pleasures is a tight 150 pages offering three chapters that examine how certain forms of popular media live at the intersection of guilt and pleasure in a white woman’s psyche. Please take a moment to silence that little voice screaming “but that’s so essentializing of the fluid multiplicity of experiences one might have as a woman” inside your head.
Zibrak is neither dumb nor dithering, going broad in her use of language about “broads”, so that “throughout this book, [she’ll] use the words ‘women,’ ‘femmes,’ and ‘femme-identified people’ indiscriminately. A lot of different kinds of people are female” (19). The author is well aware of how limiting labels can be and she is properly undeterred in making her point about exactly the root of such problems, which is the cognitive dissonance it takes for women to survive life on this patriarchal planet.
The three chapters are “Rough Sex”, “Expensive Sheets”, and “Saying Yes to the Dres..” After coming out swinging in the introduction by declaring the absolute hotness of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Zibrak’s chapter on rough sex digs its nails into bodice-ripper novels with an analysis of the Cult of True Womanhood as seen in Susan Warner’s 1850 book The Wide, Wide World, and E.D.E.N. Southworth’s 1859 novel The Hidden Hand,. These are the “Fifty Shades” of their time, full of pirates, bonnets, masks, and horses. There are also sharp, dark turns in matters of toxic dude-bro Ernest Hemingway and the archetype of Sleeping Beauty. No matter where her delicious rant goes, Zibrak makes things plain:
Romances demand nothing of their readers beyond their own experience of pleasure. They do not force us to do hard work, to labor for our own liberation, or even our own survival, every single day while we endure the lack of power we have over it. They create a moment of not doing the work and not even pretending to care about it—a spiritual rest we all deserve (74-75).
The chapter on expensive sheets opens with Issa Rae’s television show, Insecure, as compared to Savage and Schwartz’s Gossip Girl series. While the previous chapter focuses on the collective oppression of all women everywhere, this chapter takes an explicitly intersectional approach, offering a solid critique of what Zibrak calls “rich white people fictions”. The whiteness of it pertains to extreme privilege, not skin color, so films like Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians (2018) are just as ripe a target as Fellowes’ series, Downton Abbey, Armstrong’s Succession, and 100% of films starring Hugh Grant or Reese Witherspoon.
“These fictions simultaneously allow for me to indulge in a fantasy of another kind of life while all the time dropping reminders that this is a very rarified circumstance to which I, like the vast majority of viewers, will never have access. So,” Zibrak reasons with relief, “it is not my fault if I am not loved in the way its characters are” (92).
The third chapter is no less full of such rich moments for catharsis moments. Here we move from bonnets to wedding dresses, including the iconic jilted lewks of Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw and Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham. Zibrak examines the bridezilla stereotype in all its shameful glory, revealing it as “a fictional way of chastising women for wanting any power at all [on their one big day], however illusory” (126). It ends with a paean to the queer friendships and female buddy comedy elements that usually provide all the truly bright spots in films, proving that bridesmaids really do have more fun.
This book is for people who wouldn’t dare change the channel if there’s an episode of Susan Harris’ The Golden Girls on. It’s for people who regularly cite the “big mistake, huge” scene in Marshall’s 1990 film, Pretty Woman, to convey their dissatisfactions. Zibrak is writing for people who have had a compact disc of the Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (Mirkin, 1997) soundtrack ready for spinning in their car at top volume in any emotional emergency.
Guilty Pleasures is for lovers of Glazer and Jacobson’s series, Broad City and Urman’s Jane the Virgin. It’s also for academics who want to see Frederic Jameson used in an interesting way and it’s also for women writers who want to see their goals and stratagems clarified.
In some ways, the latter is the most surprising thing this book offered me. As a non-fiction writer who sometimes turns her eyes to these guilty pleasures for a break from all the things, for the first time in very many moons, Zibrak kind of made me want to write fiction. Guilty Pleasures is an exhortation not only to consume the kinds of art that affirm our experiences but also sliding around under Zibrak’s main point is clearly encouragement to keep making that art ourselves.