Sunday 01 December 2002

Wrong answer? Or wrong question?

Halley Suitt cited an interview with Cybill Shepard in a new magazine for women aged 40 and over, called More. Theorizing about the magazine’s name, Halley wrote:

You may be thinking of Dicken’s Oliver, holding up his begging bowl, “Please sir, may I have some more?” No, that’s not the idea. It’s for women age 40 and over. More. Maybe they have more to offer? Maybe they expect more? You figure it out.

How about: more of the same old women’s magazine bullshit? As exemplified by the breathless promo copy:

More magazine promo copy

Though the interview isn’t available on the Web site, which provides for little more than subscribing online and reading advertisements (sorry, sponsor messages), Halley quotes a couple of snippets that offer a fascinating insight into Ms Shepard’s methodology for winnowing out unsuitable male companions:

They ran a interview with Cybill Shepard that was really something. She’s 53 and looks pretty terrific. They asked her how she screens the new men she meets. “People introduce me. It’s interesting trying to screen your dates over the phone. The first thing I said used to be, “Are you pro-choice?” If they said, “What do you mean by that?” I would say, “You know, I think this is not going to work.”

Then they asked her what she asks men now? “I ask if they’ve ever masturbated in front of someone. Not in the first conversation, though! If they say no, I ask how often they masturbate. If that say, “I’d rather have somebody else do it,” that’s a bad sign … Next!”

Just as ignorance about the pro-choice issue leads to instant disqualification, I think it’s also fair to suggest that you won’t get a passing grade from Ms Shepard by answering the question like this: “No, after a great deal of reading widely, thinking deeply, and discussing the subject with many different people, I have grave reservations about the morality of abortion.”

Now this could be because Ms Shepard feels so strongly about a woman’s right to a safe abortion that she cannot countenance sharing her life with a man who does not hold the same view. Yet one of my closest friends, who has spent nearly twenty happy years with a woman who is vehemently pro-choice, has grave reservations about the morality of abortion.

“If your wife became pregnant and decided to have an abortion would you try to talk her out of it?” I once asked him.

“Of course not,” he replied. “If she went ahead with the abortion, it would cause me deep sadness and distress, which I’d keep to myself.”

This statement came as no surprise since I know that he regards (and loves) his wife as an autonomous being, capable of making her own decisions, rather than as an extension of his own value system.

But I doubt that Ms Shepard’s abortion and masturbation questions are based upon issues of high principle. Rather, I suspect that questions like these are calculated to eliminate anyone who doesn’t subscribe to a fixed set of beliefs. I meet people like this all the time now: after chatting with them for five minutes, I can predict their opinion on almost any issue. Liberal or conservative, it’s as though they purchased their strongly held convictions, neatly packaged, via mail order or from a convenience store.

Surely much of the joy and many of the rewards of any relationship come from having our beliefs challenged, from having the opportunity to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. Otherwise, you’d inevitably find yourself in the situation of Jerry Seinfeld , who—on meeting his “cereal loving, wisecracking, Superman-obsessed counterpart, Jeannie Steinman” (played by Janeane Garofalo)—has a flash of insight:

“Now I know what I’ve been waiting for all these years. I’ve been waiting for me. And now I’ve swept myself off my feet!”

only to realize at the end of the episode:

“I can’t be with someone like me - I hate myself!”

Part of the genius of Seinfeld, his co-stars, and the show’s writers lay in their ability to use comedy as a means of encouraging us to reflect upon the motivation for less than admirable attitudes and behavior.

It is neither here nor there that Cybill Shepard appears not to want a companion who might disagree with her on issues large or small. But her flippant dismissal of someone because of his answer to a single question seems, to me at least, uncomfortably like discounting the worth of an individual on the basis of their race, religion, sexual orientation, physical appearance… or gender.

Later. Lots of feedback in the comments to this post. From where I stand, the most insightful response is a post by Jeneane Sessum, in which she grounds the discussion in terms of love, intimacy, human frailty and desire, fleshing out my argument in human terms. The comment count, when I last checked, stood at a resounding zero. Perhaps the notion of “relationship and emotional intimacy” cuts a little too close to the bone, in a world where enduring relationships can be established on the bedrock of correctly answering a single question.

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Your friends have a good relationship. I envy them. Wish I could meet a man like that. Hope I'm a woman like that.

I _hate_ women's magazines. Not magazines such as Vogue, but the Cosmo type, such as this More.

As for Cybil, she sounds like an idiot.

Posted by Burningbird on 2 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

On something as potentially relevant to my life as abortion, I think I might probe a potential love interest's stance. (I've never in fact had to do so.)

If I were convinced that despite said interest's grave reservations, I *would* still be able to make my own decision about an unintentional pregnancy, I'd be all right with it. It's not as if I am exactly thrilled about the idea of abortion myself, or I wouldn't have gone and got myself spayed (well, not really, but you know what I mean) in order to put myself as far beyond the dilemma as possible.

But there's enough of a truly scary control issue lurking there that were I *not* spayed, I would really have to think twice about linking romantically with someone not pro-choice. I hope that doesn't count as a "flippant dismissal."

(This comment in no way delineates David's views on abortion, incidentally.)

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 2 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

"Liberal or conservative, it's as though they purchased their strongly held convictions, neatly packaged, via mail order or from a convenience store."

You mean the "Rush Limbaugh" convenience store? or the "Fox News" convenience store? or maybe even the "NPR" convenience store? How about the (uh oh) NYTimes convenience store?

Why, if I wasn't crazy, I'd think you could buy a pre-packaged, ready-to-eat meal at WalMart in aisle 24 and your politics in aisle 25.

Where am I going with this? Just to tell you that you're right.

Posted by Ryan on 2 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Well, I hate to say it, but I'm definitely going to be discriminating on the basis of gender when I choose a partner.

You're right, of course. I'm just quibbling.

Posted by Skarl on 2 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, do you really think Cybill Shepard comes up with this stuff? As she has her shrinkwrap mentality geared for the business of her industry, surely her mass-produced PR pygmies print out pre-written copy appropriate for the dishrag in question where it is fitted to the editorial template by highly-paid, lobotomized copy editors from the Reader's Digest School of Journalism?

I ask this most seriously. Aren't these magazines manufactured rather than edited? Or are they for real? I ask because I have, infrequently, come across some of them and do not believe they have anything to do with the real world. They constitute a new pornography that is both weird and virtual.

Posted by Mike Golby on 2 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

You're absolutely correct, Mike. Those magazines are manufactured rather than edited. Yet, given that what Cybill Shepard "says" in this "interview" is congruent with every opinion she's ever expressed, it hardly matters whether she really believes what she says or not. It's not even important whether she's the liberal she professes to be. My point was rather that tens of millions of women around the world are taking part in a mass hallucination whose ideology is diametrically opposed to the beliefs and values they imagine they espouse.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 2 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, "My point was rather that tens of millions of women around the world are taking part in a mass hallucination whose ideology is diametrically opposed to the beliefs and values they imagine they espouse."

Jonathon, can we not say that people who fixate on belief sets come from both sexes? Even on the issue of abortion, regardless of side, there are men as well as women who practice intolerance because of a blind belief in _their_ rightness on this issue.

The tendency to buy into complete belief sets has never shown a particular gender bias, as witness the elections in my own country by all the people who have bought into a 'war on terror' package. It is unfortunate, and at times, even deadly.

Cybil, and her answers and this particular pattern of rejecting people on such narrow bias does not represent all women. Or all men. Foolishness and generalizations of this sort are not limited to gender.

Posted by Burningbird on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

The dour presbyterian tone of many of these comments stands in such contrast to the whimsy of Halley's (and Shepard's and the Powder Puff Girls') glancing scintillations as to seem downright comical. Does anyone condescendingly believe Halley is the dupe of zines like 'More,' the victim of "a mass hallucination whose ideology is diametrically oposed to the beliefs and values" she espouses? Lighten up, people. Drop your Pastoral bludgeons for a moment while you consider how you are yourselves reacting like automata, while Halley is talking subversion:

"...we also remembered how to be subversive, subversively female, subversively feminine."

Posted by tom matrullo on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

how am I supposed to work on IBM over here when you guys are tossing the fabric of relationships and, actually, of human kind, back and forth to one another saying, Hey, Catch!

I wanna talk about this one. It's driving me crazy. Jonathon thanks for taking it in this direction--your comments were astute--I think I agree with everything you've said. But I may feel even more strongly.

The mere linkage of Abortion to Masturbation and the flippancy of ms. german shepherd in using these little measuring sticks to guage whether or not she's going to screw (oh sorry, i mean date) someone ("not in the first conversation, though!") makes me want to puke.

Gentlemen, can I just say, this does not represent "every woman"? Can I dare say, it doesn't represent MOST women? Please believe me.

more later, when I calm down.

Posted by jeneane on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This is one of those discussions where the apparent urgency and import outshines the underlying issue. Positions on abortion or openness about masturbation only scratch at the surface.

The core issue, or so it would seem, is honesty. And the ability to communicate that honesty. Or how one chooses to communicate it, as per the friend who would "suffer silently" should his partner choose an abortion. That silent suffering is a form of secrecy, concealment (is that a word?), and is probably more harmful and destructive than not, in the long run.

The Cybil aspect of all this is amusing. She lives her life in public, and will gladly air her views and that which she thinks to be critical (in relationships, et al). However, it seems a peculiar concept to use her pronouncements as a basis for discussion -- she is a celebrity, and she had a certain PR element in play here.

Back to the issue (as I see it) at hand: being honest and able to communicate are the keys to success. This goes for all sorts of relationships. At least that's the case for me. And lucky me, I have a personal relationship with a Significant Other where this is the case. Have had it when it wasn't the case, and that was pretty rotten.

But that's me.

In my personal and professional relationships I seek to maintain this level. But it is not necessarily how others care to interact, and this is their choice, their decision. I am then left to my own devices on how to proceed.

Would I be with a woman who was not for freedom of choice? Of course not! Were I unattached that would be a discussion point early on in any relationship. Could I have a long-term, serious personal (loving) relationship with someone who is not Pro-Choice? Hell no! But that does not preclude me from having friendships and relationships of other sorts with those who oppose freedom of choice.

Alright, enough already. Thou shalt lighten up, the 11th Commandment.


Posted by Dean Landsman on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Allow me to toss out another possibility--not that Cybil is being a shallow, doctrinaire liberal, not that More magazine is a piece of pre-fab crap (though I don't discount either point)--but that, after a lot of dating, Cybil Shepard has landed on a couple of questions that, while superficial, have proven to narrow the dating field pretty effectively. I can imagine she has a large field of potential suitors, and long ago got tired of going on dates that were doomed after 5 minutes.

I'm not currently dating, but I was until fairly recently. I know that, in dating, people tend to make snap judgments. Is this fair? Maybe not, but dating has no fairness doctrine (neither does the FCC anymore).

Posted by Adam Rice on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, per my previous comment responding to "My point was rather that tens of millions of women around the world are taking part in a mass hallucination whose ideology is diametrically opposed to the beliefs and values they imagine they espouse."

Mass hallucination, as in marketing, as in magazine, as in propaganda and brainwashing and packaging an ideology up in an article, and in glossy paper. Ryan's walmart of purchased belief.

Sometimes I'm slow. My comment stands because I believe it, but I think I know where you were coming from this one. Just took a bit of mind clearing from other debates to see it (too many).

As for abortion, since we're stepping into all the hot spots, and one might as well be in for a dollar as for a dime: I think there's a world of difference between being pro-life and having reservations about abortion. I'm pro-choice, strongly pro-choice, but I have reservations about abortions because that's not the way society should handle population control.

There was a Washington Post article today (at ), that talked about Indians using modern medical techniques to determine the sex of the baby and to abort the female babies. Because of this, many areas of India are not facing a serious female shortage. Pro-choice and pro-abortion are two different things.

I would go out with, and marry someone who had serious reservations about abortion but supported the women's right to choose (as Jonathon's friend does), except I hope they would not stay silent with me (as you pointed out, Dean). I would hope we would good, solid talks on this topic, even if we don't always agree. However, I wouldn't go out with, or marry, a man who was pro-life, because we would be severely incompatible -- he wouldn't support a woman's right to choose in addition to not supporting abortion. And this issue is too deep not to fracture a relationship over time. I have not once found a pro-life person who will tolerate a difference of opinion on the topic of a woman's right to choose.

Now that I've thoroughly blathered away in a manner guaranteed to cause confusion, I'll leave.

(After all, I wouldn't want to be accused of being catty, or indulging in finger wagging and scolding here in Jonathon's comments.)

Posted by Burningbird on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Not to leap to the defense of what seem like very shallow comments by Cybill Shepherd, but one thing I have learned about the use of abortion rights in the way that she claims to have used it is that it's a bellwether issue for many people. I.e., finding out someone's position on abortion is often (but _not always_) shorthand for their positions on a variety of issues about women, such as whether they should work outside the home, what their rights and responsibilities under the law should be, and similar issues. (I read a good, but now dated, book that discussed this in college: _Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood_, by Kristin Luker.)

I'm pro-choice, have been a clinic defender and occasionally volunteer as a clinic escort. I could be involved with a man who had "grave reservations" about the morality of abortion. A lot of people who are strongly pro-choice have grave reservations about the morality of abortion under various circumstances; a little research into the topic of sex-selective abortion will make that clear. But I'm not sure I could be involved with a man who was against abortion rights, believed God wanted women to stay home with kids, opposed family planning/contraception, thought that equal pay for women in the same job as a man was not an ideal worth enforcing, etc. I don't demand that my husband agree with me about everything, but some general similarity in worldview on important issues is important to me, and a man who disagreed on all those issues simply wouldn't have it.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I think Adam Rice may be on to something.

Another possibility is that Shepherd is actually vetting for ignorance of political issues. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable dating a guy who was so uninterested in politics that he didn't know the term "pro-choice", regardless of his politics on the issue. A complete lack of concern for the larger world is certainly unappealing to me.

Posted by Ginger on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

As so often happens, Tom Matrullo speaks my mind, better than I could say it and earlier... of course Golby is right in there with salient observations, and Doc said something somewhere about all this that seemed close to my thoughts, and I think Shelley and Dorothea are focusing too hard on the truth to really see it (but I appreciate their intentions and value their perspectives). A lot of this is about rolling around on the ground with a playmate, hugging and giggling and scratching and licking and talking smart and looking at the heavens in awe and wondering if there are beings on some star up there and if they're coming to visit us any time soon.

Sexism, feminism, free choice, personal liberty, safety from hostile intention, sharia law... all these things are important and orthogonal to Halley's post.

Posted by fp on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Firstly, my apologies for not replying to your comments more promptly. I had to leave home early this morning and now (late afternoon) is the first time I've had time to sit down and write.

Shelley, my post wasn't just about people who fixate on belief sets. Another concern was the gap between their professed beliefs and their actual behavior. My generalization about "millions of women" was however, as you point out, ill-considered and unhelpful. I suspect that significantly more men than women have bought into the "war on terror" mass hallucination.

Regarding your second comment, I agree. But note that my friend isn't pro-life. He wouldn't dream of trying to dissuade his wife from having an abortion, if that is what she wanted to do.

Tom, I deliberately focused the substance of my argument on Cybill Shepard's remarks. At no point did I suggest that Halley is the dupe of magazines like More, nor did I suggest that she is taking part in the mass hallucination. And thanks for the advice to "lighten up." If you had comments enabled on your site, I'd make a note to echo it the next time you write about an issue you believe is important.

Jeneane, I read your posts today and very much like the linkage you establish between relationships, sex, and love.

Dean, the communication between my friend and his wife is infinitely deeper and more intimate than you imagine. It's not as though there are any secrets between them on the abortion issue. They understand and accept their differences and have agreed to disagree. His "silent suffering" as you put it (and which it is not) is, in fact, an acknowledgement that there's nothing to be gained by reopening a subject that has been thoroughly discussed. I'm equally surprised that Cybill Shepard's celebrity status and "the certain PR element in play" exempts her public pronouncements from any kind of analysis.

Adam, you're right. Dating isn't fair. But my gut instinct is that by using such a superficial selection method you run the risk of missing out on one or more gems. Unless you're looking for someone whose values and beliefs almost exactly mirror your own. To be with someone like that would be, for me, worse than hell.

Ginger, I agree with you that abortion may be, as you say, a "bellwether issue." And that it would be difficult to be with someone who disagreed with you on a wide range of important issues. I guess I'm saying that the way to find out is to ask a bunch of questions, not just one.

"Sexism, feminism, free choice, personal liberty, safety from hostile intention, sharia law... all these things are important and orthogonal to Halley's post."

Frank, apart from its geometric meaning (at right angles to), "orthogonal" can mean "mutually independent or well separated from" or "irrelevant to." If you're suggesting that the issues I raise in my post -- though important -- have little to do with Halley's post, then clearly I disagree.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Not to show off, but the kind of relationship Jonathan describes with his friends is the kind I share with my wife.

In fact I make it a rule to stay friends and fight to keep friendships harder with people who disagree with me fundamentally on all sorts of issues.

It helps me to open my mind and see things from other perspectives.

If my wife thought the same as I did in areas where it really mattered - neither of us would have a chance to grow - and there would be quite a few less sparks. Screw that.

Posted by Karl on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I don't know you. I am a friend of Halley Suite. You are a good writer but a typical man. You really miss the point. Society hates older women and Cybil, because of her priviledge, has the power to get a few people to pay attention. Most 53 year old women are afraid to say anything true. The poet Audre Lorde said it best "if a woman were to tell the truth about her own experience, the entire world would crack open". It hasn't happened because women are so tired. I am one of the tired ones. After raising four daughters and living with two husbands, I am so tired of fighting.

Posted by Deborah Burger on 4 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, my usage of "othogonol" was the conventional one... while there is an explicit intersection of the compelling issues of freedom, safety, and ethics implicit in a discussion of "feminism" with the issues of independence, actualization, personal happiness, and directed life implicit in the discussion of Halley's "girlism," the attempt to warp one to the other and find fault in either is merely rising to the bait that Halley chummed out there in her original "feminism is dead" posting. The death of feminism was less what that post was about than the rise of a girlistic unashamed self actualization of the same kind as goes with the grunting-and-hunting, power-lifting-and-balls-shifting discussions that men have always freely enjoyed together.

Posted by Frank Paynter on 4 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Frank, after reading with interest your's, Tom's, and everyone else's reponses, it seems to me that the crux of the discussion lies the question of intent -- in other words, whether or not one believes that Halley was writing in a conscious spirit of irony and playfulness. I don't. Rather I suggest that the various defences of Halley's posts merely demonstrate that anyone with a halfway adequate grasp of postmodernist jargon can prove that an apple is really a banana.

Deborah, I can only try to imagine the weariness you describe and have no doubt that "if a woman were to tell the truth about her own experience, the entire world would crack open." It's unfortunate, then, that the spokeswoman in question, Cybill Shepard, squanders the opportunity her position of privilege affords.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 5 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour