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"Woman in Full:" Tom Wolfe's Female Characters
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June 14, 2015, 04:22 PM
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In the Claremont Review of Books, a discussion of female characters in Tom Wolfe’s books from the perspective of F. Roger Devlin:

Woman in Full

By: Michael Anton

Posted: May 29, 2015

… Wolfe tells unwelcome truths about race, multiculturalism, modern art, masculinity, and much else. At least these get noticed. His heterodox insights on women have been entirely ignored, unseen behind the repeated insistence that he is unable “to write sensibly or sensitively about female characters”—thus Stephen Abell, representatively, in the Times Literary Supplement. “Wolfe’s women are mostly ciphers in short skirts, who adore male attention,” Abell continues, not noticing the tension between the two halves of his formulation. Perhaps Wolfe’s depiction of women is yet another instance of his trying to tell us something we don’t want to hear.

William Crooke and Sir Herbert Risley, two 19th-century English social scientists, coined the term “hypergamy” to describe their observations of inter-caste marriage in India. Women, they found, married up but never down. Crooke and Risley concluded (or assumed) that hypergamy’s root (in India, at least) is the male insistence on preserving the status of the patrimonial line. A decade ago, political theorist F. Roger Devlin revived the term and gave it a new twist. Far from being unique to India, hypergamy is in Devlin’s account universal and, what’s more, driven by female, not male, desires. “[W]omen,” he wrote, “have simple tastes in the manner of Oscar Wilde: They are always satisfied with the best.”

When properly channeled, hypergamy can be individually and socially beneficial. It encourages young ladies to become worthy of a worthy man, and vice versa. Yet off the leash, it spurs women in unhappy and self-indulgent directions.

This truth our culture cannot abide. That there are vices characteristic of men and not widely shared by women (violence, crudeness, skirt-chasing) is not merely acknowledged but rubbed in our faces. But any assertion of the converse is met with incomprehension, denial, and sometimes persecution. The writings of Tom Wolfe—who figured all this out on his own—are just about the only mainstream cultural product of the last 50 years to present an alternative view. Everyone missed it because Wolfe has consistently declined to be explicit, partly out of the good storyteller’s dictum to show rather than tell, perhaps also to protect himself from undue blowback. But it’s there, between the lines, and has been almost from the beginning of Wolfe’s career

In the 1960s Wolfe wrote with great zest and insight about New York and London young women trying to break into or not fall out of cafe society in a manner that marked him out as worthy descendant of Evelyn Waugh.

But then in the late 1960s, he got himself embedded on an aircraft carrier off North Vietnam to write “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie.” This led to an obsession with masculine bravery that culminated in The Right Stuff in 1979. He seemed to lose some of his interest in female characters and the accompanying rather fey style he had used to successfully depict them in essays like “The Woman Who Has Everything and Radical Chic. In the 1970s, Wolfe’s output gets more butch and he seems to be losing interest in writing about women.

If anybody out there is writing Wolfe’s biography, a question I’d be interested in in understanding more about is: What were his exercise regimens during different parts of his literary career? And did they have any effect on changes in his literary interests and tastes?

Wolfe has written a certain amount about the psychological effects of jogging (which in Wolfe’s mind is associated with liberal holier-than-thouness) versus strength-training (which to Wolfe is associated with sturdy conservatism, as in the cop hero of Back to Blood, Hector Camacho).

I can vaguely recall an interview with Wolfe in his 60s about his workout schedule, which leaned more toward weightlifting than was common at the time for a man of his age. The literary lion offered to show the interviewer what shape he was in by taking off his famous white suitcoat and doing 20 pushups on the spot, an offer the interviewer unfortunately declined.