There's a new book giving primates a bad name. It's not doing women much good, either.
"Primates of Park Avenue," recently excerpted by The New York Times, caused a ruckus.
It's focused on a small group of uber-privileged, educated Manhattan women who get "wife bonuses" from their conspicuously powerful husbands for staying lithe, keeping the domestic staff in good order and rearing high-achieving children - think "Pretty Woman," except Julia Roberts has a law degree she doesn't use.
So we asked ourselves: Is this an enviable position, one we'd secretly covet? The other question we asked was this: What's a "marriage bonus"? Is that a joke? Do you serve at your spouse's pleasure, is it pay-per-lap-dance thing, or is it a "go ahead, Toots, buy yourself a bathrobe" deal? The author "Wednesday" Martin (her real name is Wendy, but I guess she liked the Addams Family) snagged our attention with money and sex but kept it by sounding scholarly.
Using the language of a disinterested observer, for example, when discussing her neighbors on the Upper East Side, Martin announces "It didn't take long for me to realize that my background in anthropology might help me figure it all out, and that this elite tribe and its practices made for a fascinating story." Don't you always love it when the folks next door reach that conclusion? Martin appeared to study the world through the lens of academic discourse. Sprinkling references to the Agta women of the Philippines and !Kung women of Africa next to stories of spin classes and play dates made her sound distant, erudite and objective.
Martin presented the Upper East Side's tribe's transactional marriages in such a way that my friend Alan Hochbaum calls them "tennis relationships" because "love means nothing." The commodification of children makes Lisa, a New York business writer, wonder, "Surrounded by extremely loud children, it depresses me to wonder how many of them were conceived ASAP to seal such marriage mergers." Chistopher P. Larsen, a stay-at-home dad, suggests that they've gone from being "friends with benefits" to "employees without benefits" - except for the husbandly hand-outs, and that maybe the subjection is what "turns these guys on." Fifty Shades of Green, anyone? But a long interview with Martin in the New York Post followed on the heels of the piece in the Times and tripped her up.
Martin confessed she was a "total buy-in" to the life she studied. "Something about these arrogant women, who pushed and crowded me like I didn't exist, made me want a beautiful, expensive bag." Really? It made me want to join a union.
Martin felt a Hermes Birkin, a pocketbook that sells for up to $150,000, would help her self-esteem. So her financier husband bought her one. Martin felt better.
Look, for 150K, you can hire a college graduate to carry your stuff for two years. You wouldn't need a purse.
This is when I stopped taking Martin seriously. It was as if Jane Goodall had morphed into Mildred Pierce's daughter.
The interview with a Queen-Bee-Wanna-Be who whined for a purse clashed with the voice of authority making opprobrious pronouncements about "those women." Martin says she "went native" (a remarkably insulting term). Now living across town surrounded by women with "post-menopausal gray hair" who don't "care about the last 10 pounds," the author misses the "immaculate and conservative and clean," tribe she left a good 12, maybe 15, minutes away.
Martin's book does not reflect the lives of most women in Manhattan any more than "Mob Wives" illustrates the lives of most women in Staten Island.
A college friend who loves living on the Upper East Side declares Martin's landscape unrecognizable. "I've never met one of the creatures described in the 'Primates' book," says Elizabeth Kadin. "Guess going to work, using public transportation and shopping at Ann Taylor Loft keeps me insulated from them." Others are less generous. "I hope the women she infiltrated and betrayed and whose values she seems to share eat her for lunch," wrote my friend Margaret, who then added, "However, they probably don't eat lunch."
Wednesday Martin would probably remind them that, especially if they don't care about those last 10 pounds, they could always eat cake.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.