Cool Women

When the apparently hard-edged rejection of identity betrays a hidden sentimentalism

In Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 film Hannah Arendt, the protagonist paces back and forth in her apartment, cigarette in hand. She lectures about the banality of evil amidst a halo of cigarette smoke. She stretches out on a divan in a grey wool dress, eyes closed, perfectly still. She looks as if she were sleeping, but we know that she is thinking, furiously, perhaps about how to mount a defense against accusations of self-hating Jewishness, perhaps about what to serve at her next party. Ever since sitting in the theater watching that scene, I have wanted a daybed of my own.

The fantasy of cool female intellectualism has stayed with me for years. Soon after I began to talk for the first time about what kind of woman I wanted to be, the initial movement of my thought made a grasping lurch at Arendt—or, more accurately, the actress Barbara Sukowa as Arendt—reclining, smoking, and thinking. In a close second was Peter Hujar’s famous 1975 portrait of Susan Sontag: stretched out on a bed in a turtleneck, arms behind her head, thinking. Arendt and Sontag are both arch, cool, impenetrable, intelligent, well-educated, dark-haired, Ashkenazi Jews. (My Upper West Side psychoanalyst immediately replied, “Like me?” in a two-for-one flash of transference and countertransference.) I lived for a couple years around the corner from Arendt’s apartment in upper Manhattan, and every time I passed it I wondered about trivial things: How did she commute downtown to The New School—did she take the 1 train? A taxi? Maybe she drove herself. Should I learn to drive? Arendt and Sontag are undeniably glamorous but also, as objects of identification, safe. At least for someone of my class and social location—highly (or over-) educated North American Jews—to take Arendt or Sontag as a model of femininity is a way of ensuring that, despite the public spectacle of transitioning, it is still possible to be taken seriously. That is, they allow one to defensively respond, “Yes, this is what I’m doing, but please, let’s talk about something more interesting.” That this was not a recipe for happiness should come as no surprise.

My own identification was not a result of Sukowa’s performance or Hujar’s abilities as a photographer. Rather, it is a sign that I am very much of my time. Von Trotta’s movie anticipated the recent growth—becoming most visible around 2017—of interest in mid–20th century women intellectuals. Writers like Arendt, Sontag, Diana Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and Renata Adler have been making a comeback. There is, for example, Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough, a book on “unsentimental women” that came out in 2017 and whose cast consists of Simone Weil, Arendt, McCarthy, Sontag, Didion, and Diane Arbus. Michelle Dean’s recent book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion is a collection of biographical anecdotes about the same group plus a few others. As a kind of synthesis, both Nelson and Dean’s books seek to redeem a certain style of female intellectual that, it is implied, has been largely lost. Articles reveling in the allure of seriousness appear in the New Yorker, the Nation, and the New York Review of Books—the publications in which the central figures in this canon themselves published—as well as later additions like the Boston Review, and the London Review of Books. (Sontag seems in a class of her own, having generated an endless stream of hagiography since her death 15 years ago. The latest addition, Benjamin Moser’s new biography, is 800 pages long).

The fascination today with these women is part of a more general reaction against the sentimentalism of identity politics and a nostalgia for the intellectual rigors of a lost public sphere. It was not coincidental that increased interest in these women occurred around the time of the 2016 election, the Women’s March, and the emergence of Me Too, as well as earlier growing skepticism toward liberal feminism—ranging from substantive concerns about due process in Title IX processes to derision toward leaning in. Whatever the cause, however, the Apollonian, in general, is back, and its female adherents are particularly potent avatars.

The reevaluation of individual writers has happened over a longer and more sporadic time frame, and some, like Didion, have never had their public profiles fade. What is new is the understanding of “serious women” as a category and the writers in question as a group. The “seriousness” in question proclaims itself to be a matter of good writing and a rigorous analytical frame, a move away from narcissistic sentimentalism. Merve Emre, reviewing Nelson’s book, finds in the cool women an antidote to a “vision of the world [that] is totally apolitical, bereft of any common political or ethical position.” Tobi Haslett describes Sontag wielding seriousness like “a flashing machete.” Most recently Lauren Oyler, though she does not mention any of the cool women by name, has tapped into precisely the ethos in question when she faults Jia Tolentino for representing a brand of writers that make “any observation about the world lead back to their own lives and feelings, though it should be the other way round.”

Yet it is worth pausing to consider what this leaves unsaid. I do not mean to dismiss any interest in these writers—or in seriousness generally—as inherently reactionary, but they are a profoundly limited group, and these limits are too often ignored. First, the writers undergoing a renaissance are, to a woman, white. But it is not primarily the individual racial composition of this group with which I am concerned. Rather, it is the way race—and gender—are subjects of anxiety, sometimes explicit but just as often unspoken. It is hard not to suspect that appeals to their ideals of “seriousness,” at times at least, disguise an anxiety about the supposed excesses of identity politics, the way that personal grievance, in particular, is supposedly mistaken for injustice.

Second, and more specifically, it is perhaps even harder not to detect in these authors’ writing an attitude toward gender that sits uncomfortably against the basic contours of contemporary feminism. Theirs is a brand of seriousness that demands impersonality, the banishing of any sentimental attachments that might interfere with the autonomy of one’s critical faculties. Does this not undercut the bonds of solidarity necessary for a feminist politics? Does “thinking for oneself” not limit the degree to which one can identify with a collective? I am not so sure that one needs to identify with a collective in order to support collective struggles (Or: Does solidarity require identification?), but it is clear that all of the major figures of this canon, to some extent or another, thought this way.

These female intellectuals would have reacted with some degree of displeasure at being classified as “female intellectuals.” But in 1950s New York, the typical—maybe the only—frame of reference for understanding a woman who was also an intellectual was one that made recourse to a thinker’s gender: She was a “woman writer” or a “female intellectual.” This sort of public reception would seem profoundly limiting, even insulting. A sense that such a classification ignores what is serious and substantive about one’s work, reducing one instead to one’s gender, surely would have shaped the self-fashioning of woman intellectuals in the middle of the last century.

In 1967, Carolyn Heilbrun, one of an early generation of feminist literary critics, summed up this straitened state of affairs in her account of interviewing Sontag for the New York Times: “How short the world is of famous intelligent women: one per country, per generation.” In a 1989 interview with the New York Times, Sontag echoed Heilbrun, arguing against the “grotesque” pattern of thinking that “the next woman to come along that has a bit of pizazz and authority, [is] going to be praised beyond her merits because, look, she’s finally arrived.” For her own part, despite all the attention lavished on her appearance and personal life (which continues unabated with Moser’s new biography), Sontag resented the framing and swore that it had not affected her work.

In their work, it seems that displeasure about being classed as a woman writer, in many ways understandable, gives way to ambivalence toward feminism, or even outright derision. Sontag is the most sympathetic and published one essay entirely devoted to women’s liberation: her little-known 1973 essay “The Third World of Women” (whose now outrageous title was typical of contemporary internationalism). The essay offers a full-throated defense of women’s liberation, and even includes a glancing criticism of Arendt’s unthinking disinterest in the status of women as such. But even Sontag never became identified as a “feminist writer,” and, in an exchange with Adrienne Rich the following year, declared, “Like all capital moral truths, feminism is a bit simple-minded.” There is a note of distaste: Despite her sympathy with the political aims of the movement, feminism stands accused of narrow moralism that ignores the complexity and subtlety of human life.

Arendt, too, was a target for Rich, who criticized The Human Condition as a “lofty and crippled book,” embodying “the tragedy of a female mind nourished on male ideologies.” But unlike Sontag, Arendt was genuinely contemptuous of feminism, avoiding the “woman question” almost entirely in her work, although her biographers and later interpreters make her personal opinions clear. As the editor of a recent anthology on feminist reappropriations of her work put it, “Arendt was impatient with feminism, dismissing it as merely another (mass) movement or ideology.” Arendt’s hostility is largely a matter of anecdote. Dean reports a scene of Arendt pointing at one of her students’ Women’s Liberation Union pins and intoning—“in her thick German accent”—that it was “not serious.”

But if any single work embodies the distance between this group of women writers and feminism, it is Joan Didion’s 1972 essay titled simply “The Women’s Movement,” published on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. From her opening sentence’s deployment of scare quotes around the word “oppressed,” she excoriates contemporary American feminism, then in full efflorescence, for in essence rendering women weak, infantilized: “everyone’s victim but her own.”

The list of books printed with the essay as forming the basis of her critique is instructive: Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Vivian Gornick, Juliet Mitchell. It is tempting to see the group as a kind of feminist pendant of the cast assembled by Dean and Nelson: serious, unrelentingly intellectual, but also unambiguously feminist authors. At one level this would be right. The Dialectic of Sex, Sexual Politics, and The Female Eunuch, whatever their flaws, certainly can stand up in sheer force of argumentative power to Didion, Sontag, or McCarthy. But seriousness is not only determined internally to a work. It is also a matter of being taken seriously, and despite an author’s best efforts, this sort of recognition is never distributed equally.

So the question no one, then or now, seems to be asking is whether there is a connection between how cool—in both senses—a writer is and her attitude toward taking gender as a topic worthy of serious writerly attention. Does the cool, impersonal distance that allows for unemotional apprehension require, from a woman writer, a disinterest in gender or feminism? Is an interest in gender inevitably going to be seen as the expression of a personal grievance? Or, more bluntly: Is it just cooler not to be a feminist?

There is a temptation—to which Dean, at least, appears to succumb—to make the following sort of argument: that this rejection of feminism can itself be redeemed as the expression of a certain strain of feminist values or at least of women’s empowerment (Dean speaks of “taking away a feminist message”). The thought amounts to a parody of liberal feminism: that not only should women have the autonomy to choose how to live their lives, but whatever the object of choice happens to be will become imbued with feminism, including an anti-feminist stance. This is, in effect, a political stance that takes its opponent to be no better or worse than itself, and whatever their views of feminism, none of the “sharp” and “tough” women would fall for the idea that this could be it.

Something similar to these women’s skepticism about feminism holds about their political orientation globally. None of them descended to the level of conservatism that their male Partisan Review colleagues did, but all of them bear the traces of cold-war liberalism. Didion, in particular, is famous for her critique of late ’60s counterculture and expressed a more broadly conservative Weltanschauung. In her essay on the women’s movement, she makes a charge against anti-racist politics similar to the one she makes against feminism, with the accusation that the civil rights movement had failed to treat “the integration of the luncheonette and the seat in the front of the bus” as means to a higher purpose rather than ends in themselves. Arendt had a similar—frankly racist—contempt for an earlier moment in the American civil rights movement. Her “Reflections on Little Rock,” published in 1959, condemned the NAACP project of legally enforced school integration and, to many readers, the broader aims of the civil rights movement. Her comments about Arabs—Jewish and Palestinian—are similarly notorious.

At the same time, Arendt’s repudiation of group belonging in the case of her Jewishness is often received by many readers—among whom I have, at least at times, included myself—enthusiastically. To the charge that her description of Jewish complicity in the Holocaust in Eichmann in Jerusalem amounted to heartlessness, a lack of affection for “her” people, she replied, “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective—neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort.” This stance, which often resulted in accusations of internalized anti-Semitism, is responsible to a great degree for the power of Arendt’s writing not just about the Eichmann trial but about the Holocaust and its aftermath more generally. She sets aside group loyalty for the sake of thinking clearly about what really happened, describing Eichmann as blandly human, rather than monstrously evil, an detailing the role of the Judenräte in the destruction of the European Jewry. Arendt’s critique of Zionism has a similar aura: She resists the collective impulse in favor of facing the facts.  

What then of her similar repudiation of group identity in the case of feminism? Unlike her rejection of loyalty toward the Jewish people in the form of Zionism, her anti-feminism constitutes, in tandem with her analysis of American racism, the weakest spot in Arendt’s thinking. In both of these latter cases, though, she goes wrong not out of a commitment to avoiding sentimentality that has been taken too far but out of a lapse in her anti-sentimental stance.

In her Little Rock essay, she intensely identifies with the parents of the Little Rock Nine and what she imagines to be their intense attachment to protecting the intimacy of the private sphere from politics. It is this emotional identification, undergirded by a profound naivete about the reality of American racism, that prompts her, explicitly at least, to reject the overall shape of the civil rights movement. That is, sentimentality—albeit of a perverse sort—leads to an inability to think straight with regard to race. Similarly, Arendt’s easy dismissal of feminism has as much to do with a surfeit of sentiment as with its deficit.

This dismissal may be presented in terms of feminism not being serious. But understood dynamically, Arendt’s hostility toward feminism also works as a defense: silence on the topic as a calculation, not necessarily conscious (defense mechanisms usually aren’t), about being taken seriously in the undeniably misogynist intellectual scene of the immediate postwar period. It is also a way of not letting anything get to you. Sexism is rampant, and morally and politically repugnant, and while you will certainly condemn it wholeheartedly when it comes up, it’s not the sort of thing that you are going to allow to interfere with either your life or, more importantly, your thought.

I am willing to speculate that part of the reason my desire to transition took on the urgency it did—or finally felt permissible—at the moment it did had to do with the fact that the end of my doctorate was finally a real, if not imminent, possibility. A PhD became a license for me to become a woman, a way of inhabiting womanhood and intellect at once. At one level, this is simply yet another iteration of the double bind in which women tend to find themselves, having to embody ideals that are commonly taken to contradict one another. But in this case it means not just navigating an undeniable tension but confronting a choice that can, at least at times, seem tragic: one in which femininity and intellect seem to find themselves through an implicit “despite.” Beautiful and yet intelligent, yes, but also intelligent despite being beautiful, serious despite being feminine, an intellectual, ultimately, despite being a woman. The result, of course, is the implicit equation of beauty with stupidity, femininity with frivolity, and intellectuals with men.

But there is a particular kind of triumph in being taken seriously despite the distraction posed by one’s captivating charms or, indeed, one’s devastating beauty. Hence the endless fascination, nearly 60 years after her death, with Marilyn Monroe’s intellect: her interest in psychoanalysis, the marginalia in her books, her consultation in London with Anna Freud.

In her eulogy for Arendt, Mary McCarthy captures something of the fascination that beautiful yet (the choice of conjunction is important here) serious women seem to hold over public consciousness as well as over themselves. She described her dead friend as

a beautiful woman, alluring, seductive, feminine. . . . She had small, fine hands, charming ankles, elegant feet. She liked shoes; in all the years I knew her, I think she only once had a corn. Her legs, feet, and ankles expressed quickness, decision. You had only to see her on a lecture stage to be struck by those feet, calves, and ankles that seemed to keep pace with her thought.

Speaking from the pulpit of Riverside Church, what McCarthy seems to say is: Hannah was smarter than all you men, and she was more beautiful too—essentially the far too often repeated line about dancing backwards in heels, but applied to writing philosophy.

On the surface, Sontag did the best at squaring the circle of beauty and intellect. No writing about Sontag fails to mention her appearance—her glamorous combination of beauty with inattention to appearance. Dean writes about how beautiful she was, but also, like Moser, about how she sometimes neglected her looks and how her habit of wearing all black was a “strategy of those who don’t want to have to think about what they are wearing,” rather than a strategy to make other people think you are the kind of person who doesn’t think about what she is wearing.

But like all circles, this one cannot really be squared. In my case, an unsentimental stance about gender simply resulted in alternating exhortations not to bother transitioning at all or, in more charitable moments, just to get on with it. My own case is particularly absurd—genuine indifference does not typically lead to embarking on a multi-year process that will almost certainly be a great deal of trouble, cost too much money, and considerably increase one’s odds of social and economic alienation. That is, however unsatisfying the sentimental narratives of always knowing one’s “true” gender, of being trapped in the wrong body may be, no one transitions out of indifference and without thinking that it is a serious undertaking. And I cannot imagine that such self-imposed indifference about one’s own situation is intolerable only for trans people. The impulse to downplay one’s own vulnerability to the oppressive social forces under which one suffers is perfectly understandable. But taking too ironic a stance toward oneself nearly always risks turning into self-punishment. That is just the personal aspect. Beyond the costs such rigor imposes on its subjects, a strategy of self-protective disavowal has distinct social and political costs as well. If everyone adopted such a position—all the more so if they did so successfully—the effect would be that no one would make a big deal out of precisely those things out of which a big deal ought to be made.

And, my own stance has also been precisely the opposite of an unsentimental one. It is an avoidance of turning to face the facts: ignoring a painful reality for the sake of self-protection, both material and psychic. It is not a product of unsentimentality but of its contrary. Unsentimentality is not a position of invulnerability. It marks a reckoning with the world, painful as it may be, and it is a far more fragile position than the comfort of familiar emotion. But to turn away from a painful object cannot make the object disappear or even weaken its hold, and nor can dismissing such an object as, in fact, simply not a big deal. The problem is that gender in general, and femininity in particular, is a big deal, whether one loves it or hates it or, as is more often the case, both at the same time. To disregard an object of attention, to dismiss it as “not serious” either in the personal or in the political sphere is a temptation that can only lead to disappointment.

More concretely, the failure of liberal feminism, however manifest it may be, cannot be rectified with a dismissal of feminism tout court. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is an overused expression. But, like many such figures of speech, it is overused for a reason. Doing so with feminism may work for any one individual woman, but, as with any problem of collective action, what seems good for one person may not be so good for everyone. But I am not simply calling for the sacrifice of one’s own comfort for the greater good, although there are times when that may be what is required. Because, in general, the tension between the individual and the greater good is overstated. The strategy of disavowal used by a figure like Arendt or Sontag may seem comforting, but ultimately it risks leaving one in a position of insecurity and fragility. Such disavowal, it turns out, not only results in a political failure but, to put it simply, feels bad.