The Feminist and the Cowboy author Alisa Valdes has left the memoir’s titular cowboy because he abused her, The Atlantic reports, citing a blog post on Valdes’s personal site that has since been deleted. If Valdes were someone we knew personally, the only appropriate response would be “I’m sorry, I’m glad you’re safe, what can I do for you?” But because she’s the author of a memoir about how a literal cowboy taught her to embrace her submissive, feminine side (She was “The Feminist” until she met the cowboy), cynics apparently think they can be like, “called it.”
“For readers of The Feminist and the Cowboy, this is not exactly a shock,” writes Noah Berlatsky, who also reviewed the book for The Atlantic. Uh, shouldn’t abuse always be a shock? Not that people shouldn’t be prepared for it — that would be impractical, considering how common it is. But isn’t expecting or getting used to abuse — even if, as Berlatsky writes, “it seems fairly clear in the book that he is a liar, a bully, and a creep” — a milder form of condoning it? And if he saw it coming, why not express more concern in his review? Hanna Rosin, Slate’s reviewer, wrote a similar follow-up, concluding that Valdes is an unreliable narrator.
I haven’t read The Feminist and the Cowboy, but I liked Berlatsky’s review, which argues that the controlling, rational, hypermasculine cowboy has much more disdain for Valdes’s newfound feminine neediness than any of the second-wave feminists she thinks fucked her up. It’s a clever bit of literary psychoanalysis, but should it be extrapolated to account for the possibly criminal behavior of an individual?
Probably not, if only because it makes Berlatsky’s domestic violence follow-up sound like a victory lap. He writes:
And yet, as it turns out, the independence and reassuring manliness turns out to be a prelude to, and an excuse for, cruelty and violence. For him, independence and empowerment mean not protection and equality, but sadism. His preferred method of emotional abuse — freezing her out and refusing to contact her or speak to her, or (in the book) locking himself in his room — is almost a parody of the stereotypical manly cowboy ethic. It would be funny, except that it isn’t at all.
It’s obvious that the male dominant/female submissive gender roles — reinforced by everything from pop evolutionary psychology to Fifty Shades mania — can enable or obscure abuse. But that seems like a conversation about a different book, one about groups of people, the way we socialize them to do things and allow them to get away with things. Valdes, meanwhile, wrote a book about a couple of individuals’ romantic relationship and then a blog post about a personal trauma. For that she gets this condescending blend of blame and romantic advice:
“[I]f Valdes, is going to insist on the virtues of femininity, one place she might try to think about encouraging, or celebrating, those feminine virtues, is in men. The cowboy’s lack of neediness, his strong independence, starts to look suspiciously like pathology — not least since Valdes reveals that the cowboy was abused as a child himself.”
Part of what’s uncomfortable about this is inherent to the memoir genre. How do you review the book without reviewing the person? By writing one personal memoir, to what extent did Valdes sign herself up for lifetime of public criticism of her personal life? I’m not sure exactly, but going all told-you-feminism-was-better in light of the revelation of her abuse seems like an easy place to draw the line. You don’t need to be a feminist to deserve not to have your boyfriend threaten to kill you; and your boyfriend threatening to kill you certainly can’t make you a feminist. Valdes told Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory that she maintains her stance as a “difference feminism” (men and women have separate but equal value and worth) and that she has a new boyfriend. He “wrote the cowboy a thank you note, for having ‘tamed’ me and made me a better woman, which I totally agree with,” she said.
Personally, I’m looking forward to the sequel.