Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Over the weekend, I started and finished The Second Assistant: A Tale from the Bottom of the Hollywood Ladder by Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare. Central has a "staff picks" section, and I saw it featured there like a brightly colored piece of candy. As I picked it up, I fantasized that I was actually helping someone, that the powers that be would notice someone had checked it out and would promote the girl (oh, and I'm sure it was a girl). But really, I just wanted to read it.

About the book itself, I have little to say. I hated it when it was called Citizen Girl and thought it was all right when it was called The Devil Wears Prada, but still liked it the best when it was called Girl Cook. What makes me wonder is the seeming explosion of these books, and the bumbling female lead they all feature. In all cases, the protagonist is a recent college graduate (Layla of Girl Cook was the oldest and most experienced at the approximate age of 27). The protagonist was special, all right. All her life, people expected great things from her. She was a principled intellectual with big, if undefined, plans (Layla is again the exception -- she was a disinherited debutante who was forced to reinvent herself, but whatever).

Then comes the Big Chill. Stunningly, the White House is not looking for a 24-year-old Chief of Staff whose previous managerial experience consists of secretary of the student government. Similarly, the editors of the New Yorker are also looking for a little more experience when adding to their ranks. These intellectual, principled women find themselves making coffee, answering phones and photocopying shit for bosses who (they seem to feel) are not fit to wipe their asses.

The most depressing thing about this scenario? Except (again) for Layla, they generally suck at it. They're always in hot water at work for things like making half-caff when it was supposed to be decaf or forgetting to give their bosses messages. While most of them have ambition, they don't have the ability to focus it. They're so invested in hating their bosses that they don't bother to look at how their bosses got to be where they are. They all yearn for better jobs where they can use their brains, but generally don't show us how they'd use them if given the opportunity.

The same thing goes for romance. All four heroines (except for the one in Devil, who was still with her college boyfriend) bumble about in their private lives, too. They develop the kinds of crushes that real women outgrow once they hit 9th grade...the kind where they have a random and generic encounter with some dude, then think about him every second of every day and make asses out of themselves whenever they run across the guy in the future. The joyless G didn't get any throughout the course of the entire book, although she did have something going with a man who didn't respect women enough (just like everyone else, according to G). Layla and Elizabeth were both juggling two guys who were clearly assholes, yet lived "happily ever after" with the least offensive one in the final pages of their respective novels.

And that gets at what I find the most insidious aspect of these books: everything works out perfectly, but only through luck. None of the women succeed by actually being talented. Throughout the books, dumb luck and inertia keep them employed. Prince Charming rescues Layla and Elizabeth, magically swooping down to fix their careers as well as their personal lives. Layla fucks up big-time on national television, but rather than firing her, they decide she's funny enough to get her own show. Elizabeth and G both benefit from deus-ex-machina shakeups at their respective jobs. The Devil girl, after being fired, bonds with a successful fellow survivor of the Devil Herself, who pities more than admires her.

The very popularity of these books concerns me. Clearly, they're resonating with huge numbers of women. Without really trying, I've encountered four such books in the last year, and I'm sure there are plenty more. It makes one wonder why. I saw an interesting story about narcissism linked on the Rate Your Students blog today, that was on the CBS website. According to the story, narcissism has skyrocketed in recent years, with children being raised to believe they're special and unique and poised to do great things.

The four women in these novels seem to have bought into it on some levels, but at the same time, are also lacking in poise and self-confidence. They want to succeed and feel they deserve success, but have no idea how to get there or what a successful person looks like. They admire no one. They idealize the men in their lives to the exclusion of any other interests. All any of them are about is work and romance. Friends, hobbies, intellectual pursuits, family: all of that takes a backseat. Yet, they're horrible at both work and romance, and deeply dissatisfied with their lives. They have little ability to affect positive change in them, either. Of the four, Layla was the only one who could stand up for herself and make real changes. Finally, when things work out, it's not because of anything any one of them actually did, but because of what others do to them. I liked Layla the best of the four, but even she was just a pawn of fate.

So what's the message of these books? "You think you're so smart and special, but you're really just like a million other girls. You don't matter in the scheme of things. There's nothing you can do about your life, so just lay back and let it happen, and it'll all resolve itself?" Really? What about going out there and making it happen? Why do guys have to be the be-all and end-all? Why does being an adult mean nothing more to these women than getting a job and a man? It's depressing, what society is doing to young women.

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