Citizen Girl, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Atria, 306 pages, $24.95.
Having sold 1.4 million copies of The Nanny Diaries, you’d think Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus wouldn’t need to resort to the infantilizing gimmick of using the word “girl” in the title of their second novel. ( Girls’ Poker Night, Dirty Girls Social Club, Gossip Girl, Metro Girl …. Gag me with a girl.)
But Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Kraus had a surprisingly rocky time with Citizen Girl: The manuscript was rejected outright by the original publisher, Random House-a rare humiliation. It was subsequently picked up by Atria Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, and Atria’s marketing department obviously decided not to take any chances with brand recognition. They needn’t have worried: Citizen Girl doesn’t stray far enough from the Nanny Diaries template to risk alienating the authors’ core constituency.
As a social satire, The Nanny Diaries had excellent timing, appearing just at the moment when the hyper-parenting trend (time outs, Baby Einstein, etc.) collided with the high-end consumerism of the early 2000’s. It featured a wealthy Manhattan mother, Mrs. X, who only allows her 4-year-old son Grayer to eat cookies if they’re unsweetened, and to drink milk if it’s soy. Mrs. X is so busy trying to get Grayer into Collegiate (unsuccessfully) that she doesn’t notice that her husband is having an affair at the office. Nanny, an N.Y.U. senior majoring in child development, goes to work for the Xes and gets chewed up worse than the plastic caps on Courtney Love’s medicine bottles. The detail was deliciously spot-on-music lessons at Diller Quaile, lavender linen water from Gracious Home-a felicity that more than made up for the canned dialogue and the unnecessary boy-meets-nanny subplot. Mrs. X and her ilk were fine fodder-fish in a barrel, well shot. Nanny Diaries wasn’t subtle, but it was satisfying.
Citizen Girl takes the same basic formula-young female gets abused by her employers until she finally tells them to shove it-but instead of overbearing Upper East Side parents, the oppressors are chauvinist male bosses, a far less culturally specific target. This time around, our gal heroine is a recent graduate of the women’s-studies department at Wesleyan, even though the book is set in the era of the dot-com bust, a full 10 years or so after most liberal-arts colleges stopped churning out old-fashioned Movement types. The fact that this supposedly orthodox adult feminist lacks a proper name and is called “Girl” throughout (just as the nanny was called “Nan”) is one of several of the book’s misguided ironies. (About as clever as if, instead of Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth had named his alter ego “Jew Boy.”)
Girl (the character) enters the working world as a research associate for a nonprofit and discovers-surprise!-that entry level sucks. Then she gets fired, and discovers that unemployment sucks worse. So when she senses opportunity at a women’s Web portal called My Company (think IVillage), she puts aside her scruples about using breast cancer to sell mascara and jumps at the job.
Citizen Girl is strongest when milking such postfeminist incongruities. As the book’s promotional materials tell us, Girl “isn’t afraid to ask some tough questions. Mainly: Have any of us come a long way, baby?” And indeed, in the age of Girls Gone Wild, much can-and should-be said about the current notion that turning the female body into a sex object is an act of “empowerment,” so long as it’s the woman herself doing the objectifying. I remember going to a fiction reading a few years ago and being asked to make a donation to an organization that purported to help prostitutes-not by getting them off the street and into better jobs, but by trying to improve their working conditions. (Health insurance for hookers-there must be worthier causes!) Further convoluting the original feminist message, young women now ape bad-boy behavior by going to strip clubs and having sex parties, a trend New York magazine identified a few years ago as the advent of the Female Chauvinist Pig. Yes, there have been backlashes before-just ask Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf-but never quite as disheartening as seeing the Playboy Mansion made cool by the presence of Gwyneth Paltrow, or Meredith Vieira taking pole-dancing lessons on The View.
Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Kraus grind this legitimate ax quite noisily. I will allow them the improbability of My Company being run by a bunch of male yobbos, even though a ball-busting caricature of Candice Carpenter, the real founder of IVillage, would have worked better. Girl (the character) fights the good fight for as long as she can, but eventually becomes a pawn in the commercial scheme of the Man. She conceives of a bang-up proposal for how to sell My Company users more stuff by “reconfiguring and relabeling what some would call sexist content under a feminist banner, thus encouraging them to embrace the term.” Not that she doesn’t feel horribly conflicted: “I continue nauseously on and on, uninterrupted. On and on and on, through a list of ideas, which, upon hearing out loud, should revoke my NOW card.” Are there any 22-year-old members of N.O.W. these days? You certainly don’t need to be one to know that the mass media is still sending out mixed messages to women, and that Cake parties (“female-focused events that provide women with the opportunity to experience sexual culture as entertainment”) are retarded.
Unfortunately, the authors have once again larded a perfectly fine send-up with an inane romance. This one begins when Girl meets a guy named Buster at a job fair. “We take each other in, smiling, the creases around his lovely eyes bringing a tingle.” It goes downhill from there, with a very strange detour into an ambiguous date-rape scenario, from which Buster somehow emerges as a viable long-term prospect. Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus should stick to satire, and leave the relationship stuff to Helen Fielding and Anna Maxted. After all, as a real dyed-in-the-Donna-Karan-pantsuit feminist would say, a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle. Not that any of today’s girls could tell you whose line that is.
Ruth Davis Konigsberg is a freelance journalist in New York and a former deputy editor of Cosmopolitan magazine.