Gender & The Jersey Shore

Michelle Wildgen

As it so frequently does, Jersey Shore recently provided me with an edifying moment. Here’s what happened: new housemate Deena was the only girl in the mood to hit the club with the guys. So they headed out into the neon evening, where Vinnie, Paulie, and The Situation (maybe Ronnie too, or maybe he was home rocking in a corner and awaiting a protein shake; I can’t recall) all stood monosyllabically in a corner, baseball caps askew, and drank beer while Deena performed like a trained monkey a few feet away, inviting girls to do body shots or make out with her, one eye trained on the guys the whole time. As they finally went home, Deena triumphantly, hopefully, asked if she was welcome to hang out with the guys again. Magnanimously, they conceded that she was.

All of this is painful in a number of ways, not least of which is my public admission that I watched any of it. What struck me was the uncomfortable familiarity of the dynamic: the girl vying for an in with these men, no matter how unworthy of notice the men themselves. I wasn’t even so annoyed with those men–it was the woman at whom I got frustrated, damaged and addled though she is, for buying into the notion that these guys, whose collective intellectual, emotional, and charismatic gifts are roughly equal to something I recently sloughed off, somehow are the ones to impress, just by standing there.

It made me think of high school, I regret to admit, but more relevant to this blog, it made me think of publishing. We’ve all been talking about women writers and numbers nonstop, but this moment made me think about women readers, too, and how I think of them.

Before I sold my first novel, You’re Not You, I liked to say a publisher could market my book as one big pink extravaganza if it wanted, as long as someone printed it. I imagine a lot of us say that, but when faced with marketing materials that actually say the book is “literary/women’s,” I had a more complicated response, and I still do. It isn’t only about not wanting to get lumped in with chick lit—that’s been covered elsewhere and covered well. I’ll just reiterate, as many have, that the almost automatic pink-ing of any new female writer is a problem not only because of what people appear to think of the women being marketed to, but because no correspondingly automatic genre exists for a new male writer. Or, if it does, that genre is “literary.”

But that’s not what I’m thinking about here. That dumb Jersey Shore moment made me think of myself, not of male readers and editors. It reminded me of how I had had an immediate resistance to the idea of being marketed as writing primarily for women, even without a shiny pink cover. Because I can’t decide if my prejudice came more from the potential association with books I did not admire, or just harkened back to that old assumption that it’s the mute guys in the corner one wants to impress.

I know, and I knew then, that this makes no sense: we know that women buy the books; women’s dollars are primarily the ones propping up this leaky raft of an industry, and yet that still wasn’t enough for me. For decades women have known that economic power is power, period; it is the power to dump a crap husband, to never marry at all, to travel, to be educated, to do satisfying work, to do everything. Everything, apparently, except earn respect as the primary purchasers of the books we writers are so desperate to sell. Where else does purchasing power not earn at least grudging respect for the buyers? Women’s money spends, and as much as we all write for other reasons, publishers publish because they need to make money. A lot of that money is coming from women’s pockets—and yet I was resisting reaching for what every writer wants, which is a group of receptive readers. Because my first, unconsidered and frankly wrongheaded thought was that they weren’t the right readers.

But the thing is, they were. I wrote the book I wanted to write, and lucked into finding some people who felt very strongly about it. Almost every note I’ve received about You’re Not You was from a female reader, and if I could find out the gender of every buyer I guarantee you the vast majority would be women. That book was a reasonable success in the end. It moved my career forward, and for once it put a little money in my pocket (especially if you don’t factor in an hourly wage for how long it took to write. Don’t ever do that, anyway). And it wasn’t because I got the attention of the dudes standing in the corner. It was because I found the women.