eat, pray, love, get judged: why elizabeth gilbert's biggest critics are cynical, emotionally stunted sexists
First, a confession: I’m not the biggest fan of Eat, Pray, Love. In fact, I didn’t technically “finish” it because I found Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s writing persona a little too twee and prone to pointing out the obvious in an unnecessarily elongated way.
I was never turned off by the book’s subject, “one woman’s search for everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia”.
But I am increasingly pissed off by the backlash against it in articles and blogs and on Twitter, a backlash which frames Gilbert’s memoir and its spin-off movie as “full of itself”, “self-indulgent”, “fun to hate”, and “smacking of self-obsession and therapy culture”.
If I hadn’t been kicked out of the society of cynical liberals for saying LOL, I’d certainly be kicked out for what I’m about to say next:
If more people meditated, travelled alone, and yes, underwent therapy, the world would be a much better place.
Yeah, I said it.
Therapy is a GOOD thing
Only someone who’s never had therapy could consider it an easy fix for navel-gazers. The majority of people who go to therapy would rather be anywhere else, and have practiced self-destruction for years to avoid facing their feelings. Done properly, therapy is intensely personal and frequently painful. Even though I advocate therapy and think it can be life-changing, I do understand how rife for parody “therapy-speak” can be. But I also think one of the reasons people laugh at it is because it gets to the heart of uncomfortable truths: I’m co-dependent, you act out from fear of rejection. Those terms may sound strange to the uninitiated but they become important to people because they lead them to insights that transform their lives.
I’d argue that being temporarily self-indulgent and completely obsessed with yourself is a damn sight better than lashing out from hurt and anger on a regular basis, or burying your feelings in drink or drugs or working too much. Happiness is a privilege not everyone has, through no fault of their own, and working towards it is no bad thing.
And speaking of privilege…
Sure, Elizabeth Gilbert is privileged
She’s white, able-bodied, thin, cis-gendered, middle-class, American, and had the resources to travel the world for a year. Plus, feeling disillusioned is a privilege. I think Julia Roberts drips charisma from every pore, but I still wanted to scream when I saw the Eat Pray Love trailer where she wails, “I wanna go someplace where I can MARVEL at something!” Boo freaking hoo, Julia. Some of us need to scrape together the cash to pay our bills, to buy food, to pick up prescriptions. Some of us can’t remember how it felt to not be ill or unhappy, because of life events, not our lack of marvelling. And some of us are depressed and anxious, and would find a trip into the city as challenging as trekking across the world.
The Eat, Pray, Love experience is not accessible; we can’t all do it. And even if some of us did do it, we wouldn’t necessarily feel better as a result — many people need more serious mood interventions than meditation, nature, and pasta.
But the fact that we can’t all do it is kind of the point. Elizabeth Gilbert was paid to write a book about her travel experience, just like a lot of other people. We don’t say that Bill Bryson shouldn’t write about his trip around the UK because not everyone can go to the UK and be really witty, or whine that Paul Theroux didn’t buy us a ticket for his train ride across Asia. Authors write book proposals, and if they’re lucky, they get to go to fantastic places and write about them for the rest of us. What’s the point in moaning about something being inaccessible when most of us would never have had access to it anyway? It’s hardly Elizabeth Gilbert’s fault I’ve never been to Bali.
I’ve seen her taken to task about this, most publicly on Oprah, when she was asked by audience members how she could recommend travelling to India for enlightenment when most Americans can’t afford to even leave the country.
Her response was gracious. To paraphrase: the inner journey was the stuff that really made a long-term difference and that’s open to almost anyone (meditation is free).
As much as anyone who has suffered a serious illness or tragic bereavement will probably have little time for Elizabeth Gilbert’s problems, a lot of others have good lives that they’ve lost their gratitude for. They need to marvel, and they’re the people she’s writing for.
It’s not all fun and games
I know some non-writers might scoff at this, and I know that even at its hardest, writing is a cakewalk compared to lots of other jobs, but the thing is, writing is work. Writing a book is especially hard work. And Elizabeth Gilbert got paid for doing a job. Plus, she paid her dues.
Before she proposed Eat, Pray, Love, she had form, including some impressive magazine credits (she’s the woman who worked at Coyote Ugly and wrote about it for GQ). She’d also written other books (some of them award-winning; you may not have heard of her short story collection, Pilgrims, but trust me, winning the Pushcart is a whopping deal). She wasn’t some inexperienced upstart with an entitlement complex.
And as lucky as Gilbert was to get paid to travel the world and change her life for the better, it wasn’t just for shits and giggles. I don’t know about the movie, but in real life, she was lost and confused after the end of her marriage. At the start of her book, she’s sobbing on her bathroom floor, wondering whether she should maybe kill herself. She did something bold because she was tired of pretending to be happy, tired of wasting her life.
And there’s a lesson there for all of us: sometimes doing the big thing is necessary. If you’re fortunate, maybe that means you can hop on a plane tomorrow. But the big actions we take can also seem small from the outside: booking yourself onto a training course that leads to a new job, calling a therapist so you can leave your baggage behind, or adding to that Word file you hope might one day become a novel, even though you’re not really sure whether it’s good enough.
Some scorn is sexism is disguise
It’s interesting that no-one criticises male authors for travelling the world, even when they leave their wives and kids for long periods in order to do so.
But when a single, child-free woman writes about her search for meaning outside of the expected confines of middle-aged, middle-class life, people get uncomfortable. People want to pick her to pieces: she’s a threat just for being different, for defining happiness on her own terms. And she’s a threat for rejecting the idea that the American dream is some kind of utopian ideal.
A lot of critics of EPL (the book, the movie, the concept) claim that one woman’s journey of discovery is not an interesting or worthy enough topic.
This type of argument comes up a lot when it comes to books. When chairing the Orange prize panel of judges in 2008, Muriel Gray complained that women’s books often fail to tackle truly important global topics; as if the personal were not the political, as if domestic concerns have not been forced onto women for tens of thousands of years (hardly the fault of many women if they write what they know; try blaming the kyriarchy instead). And who’s to say what’s important? Why is war more important than inner peace?
This argument comes up a lot when it comes to women’s films*, too. (*By which I mean films starring and primarily aimed at women.) Sex and the City 2 got slaughtered in the press whereas similarly-excreble male-targetted films like Get Him to the Greek and Hot Tub Time Machine are just seen as fun.
At least Eat Pray Love stars a woman over forty, playing an intelligent woman who isn’t one of the usual archetypes of her age group (mom, nun, grandma).
Her success makes Elizabeth Gilbert powerful. In journalism, in publishing, and in Hollywood. She’s too zen for anyone to call her a bitch, so she gets called solipsistic, instead.
Because it’s a feminist publication, Bitch took a different approach to critiquing Eat, Pray, Love than “it’s self-indulgent” or “another whiny woman: just what I needed”. In Eat Pray Spend, Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown suggest that Elizabeth Gilbert is portraying an unattainable lifestyle which average women can’t hope to replicate and what’s more, anyone involved in the self-help industry is just trying to rip women off; it’s all another form of oppression.
They ran a quote from an unscrupulous life coach, mentioned some overpriced EPL tie-in products, and extrapolated way too far: to the idea that anyone who encourages women to eat organic, or do yoga, or improve their goddamn life in any way is some symbol of the patriarchy.
And then they really lost me by suggesting it’s a privilege to be diagnosed with depression, because in the US it’s not possible for every woman to afford to see a doctor. Let’s not play the “I’m less privileged than you are” game: no-one who has clinical depression is privileged, whether they have the cash to see a doc or not.
The fact is, that many women turn to complementary therapies and self-help because traditional approaches have failed them (which might be a more original topic of feminist exploration) and there are lots of people in the self-help industry who are decent, and kind, and who actually help people. It’s not all about selling voodoo potions and overpriced yoga mats, and while it is worth pointing out that enlightenment has been co-opted by capitalism and is being resold (aimed at a primarily female audience) for twice its value, it’s an insult to women’s intelligence to suggest that this is preventing us from being able to make sensible choices for ourselves.
In fact, it may not be quite my cup of tea (or scoop of gelato), but I’d still say the success of Eat, Pray, Love is a good thing.
What do you think?