The Lonely, Self-Absorbed Contrarian: On Elizabeth Wurtzel

Elizabeth Wurtzel’s latest bizarre piece in New York Magazine has unleashed a tremendous and understandably negative reaction in the feminist community. I’ve written critically about Wurtzel before for the LA Times, but today at Role/Reboot, I’m trying for a more sympathetic angle. Here’s A Difficult Woman: Why Elizabeth Wurtzel Is A Narcissist Who Still Matters. Excerpt:

Wurtzel doesn’t repudiate her old call to prioritize autonomy and adventure over security, but she does acknowledge that it has all come at a price. “Convention serves a purpose,” she has decided; “it gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis.” And Wurtzel is in one hell of an ongoing crisis: “I have spent an amazing amount of my life in tears,” she writes. One can almost imagine the glee with which anti-feminists might read that. If it hasn’t been written already, somewhere some pious defender of traditional gender roles is cobbling together a schadenfreude-drenched column in which Wurtzel appears as the ultimate object lesson about the dangers of feminism. Indeed, part of the fury at Wurtzel now is that her self-indulgent train-wreck of an essay provides such an easy cudgel for social conservatives to use against progressive young women.

As exasperating and bewildering and narcissistic as her essay is, there’s a way in which Wurtzel is doing something more important than indulging herself at our expense. Her work is defiantly at odds with the dominant writing today about gender, defined as it is by long Atlantic articles that eventually become books. This is the era where ambitious women are advised to settle for Mr. Good Enough, warned that their own achievements have brought about the end of men, and sternly reminded that they can’t hope to have it all. Yes, it’s an era of incredible feminist activism, but it’s also an age in which even many progressive women’s voices encourage women to diminish their expectations. To Wurtzel, that emphasis on sober compromise is at the heart of what’s led to our “world gone wrong.” She may be more self-absorbed than ever, but she’s also doing what she’s always done: playing the lonely contrarian.

5 thoughts on “The Lonely, Self-Absorbed Contrarian: On Elizabeth Wurtzel

  1. One of the best teaching moments I have ever experienced was during my fieldwork when a elderly woman once explained to me, “Our convictions are the most important in the moments they are the ugliest”. While her remarks were specifically referring to the rights of women to control their reproductive choices, I find it somewhat applicable here. Wurtzel’s essay is rife with problems and pitfalls, but if it helps us to see the hardships, challenges, and real, visceral, costs to women who choose not to act to please the culture and society around them, then I agree that it has done a good thing. I lament that she seems unable to truly own that.

  2. It seems she did not follow your 2008 advice at all (L.A. Times column in fine). I’ve never heard of her, which is understandable considering I’m not American and it’s not too long since I´m interested in feminism and progressivism in a friendly and positive way. Having read her article I don´t really know how to feel about it. First of all, having regrets and dissapointments in midlife is just part of being human; specially when confronted with the unexpected and personally unpleasant consequences of the choices you made. It´s just human to look back and ask yourself “what if …?” but it’s also useless as we can not turn back time. And it’s certainly not much of a subject for a whole piece in a magazine, let alone a book. However, about the issue of growing up, as someone in his early forties, I dare to make this question: How can we grow up and “turn out all right” without joining the “conventional embittered adults club”?

  3. America is very lucky to have this abstract expressionist writer. There’s only so much earnest organizing of experience one can take. There are a myriad of pleas and petitions to fall into the right category and take your medicine. This woman expresses the epitome of being American, which is to be out of one’s mind.

  4. “I don’t want to end up like that.”

    What advice would you give Danni?

    Suppose Heloise reads this essay and says the same thing. How would you reply?

    Suppose Heloise *does* “end up like this,” and her 45 year old self vents to 87 year old you:

    “I was alone in a lonely apartment with only a stalker to show for my accomplishments and my years….I have no husband, no children, no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund—I don’t even have a savings account….I have lost my life.”

    What will you tell her?

  5. I thought that “More, Now, Again” by Elizabeth Wurtzel was one of the best addiction memoirs of all time. I was rather disappointed, however, to read several pieces written by Lizzie in recent months where she pontificates about the virtues of drinking wine. I don’t think it would be good advice to tell an addict that s/he can drink carafe after carafe of wine after giving up the dry goods. Addiction doesn’t work that way.

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