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Not Buying Their 'Bridges'

April 18, 1993|PAULI CARNES | Carnes is a free-lance writer

My neighbor brought over a book and asked me to read it and tell her what I thought of it. I recognized the title--somewhere in the last couple of weeks I had read that this was the latest hot novel being prepared for a Hollywood film.

My husband was gone for the evening, the kids were in bed, and I picked up the book, a slim little hardcover. I should probably say at this point that I don't read much fiction. My neighbor said she had read it in just a couple of hours and had found herself in tears several times while reading.

We meet our hero, a lonely guy, wandering the world with his work, not even a dog to keep him company, his parents dead, no siblings. He has needs, but he keeps everything inside. Oh, there've been women, but no one to really share with. He tried marriage but she left him.

And then he meets her. She too is lonely but doesn't realize it. Preoccupied with her good but boring husband and two children, she has set aside her dreams and nearly forgotten them, until one day he comes into her life. There he is, in his lean tautness--or is it his taut leanness?-- nothing like the flabby men of her hometown. Of course, he's not so lean that he doesn't have powerfully muscular arms and shoulders. And oh, that washboard belly.

Not that she's thinking of doing anything illicit, you understand. She's a married woman after all. And her husband is such a nice guy, even if he doesn't pay her any attention. Oh, and did I mention that she is lovely, despite being so neglected and past 40?

We are drenched in sensual detail: the heat, the dust, her hair, his skin, his shirt, his boots, the way he moves, the way he lights his cigarettes.

I finally laughed out loud and closed "The Bridges of Madison County" when our heroine casually mentions, there at her table in her house in the middle of a cornfield in the middle of the Middle West, that she has a degree in comparative literature.

I couldn't swallow that because I was still choking on the revelation that Old Taut and Lean didn't much go for younger women, because despite all that firm flesh, they're so empty inside; they haven't lived, they have nothing to say. There's nothing to really share with them. Yeah, right.

What is going on here?

I would call it pornography for middle-aged women, if by pornography is meant the objectifying of a human being for purposes of arousal. The phrase "pornography of the mind" might also fit: Whereas men are generally aroused by visual stimuli, women are excited by the idea of sex and/or romance.

I submit that what we have here is yuppie women's porno: a dream of a man, hard and self-possessed, who despite his own firm muscularity doesn't mind if a woman is a little zaftig ; in fact prefers a woman who has a few miles on her because she's got something worthwhile going on inside; and oh, how she answers his need for connection after all the lonely years.

Yes indeed, he frees her to really experience her life, not like her good, dull--not to mention flabby--husband, who only wants his dinner on time. And she frees him to finally know love with another human being, however limited their time together.

Oh please.

I think of all the women who will read this book and become even more alienated from trusting their husbands, women who will be mooning away thinking of how wonderful it could be with an understanding (and of course, flat-bellied) stranger; an experience, however fleeting, to be treasured in memory for the rest of her life. (We actually meet our heroine decades after her brief encounter, on a day when she ritually reviews those magical few days with her lover.) I think of the women who will miss the here and now with their real live husbands because they are lost in a fantasy of a soul-mate stranger.

I do not want my husband to stimulate himself with photographic pornography. It demeans me. It is tough enough feeling good about my 47-year-old physical self as compared to the female ideal in this culture, as trumpeted to me by various media every waking moment of every day of my life, let alone if my husband were bringing pneumatic reminders into our home.

In like manner I will not stimulate myself with idle thoughts of a stranger far more understanding, more poetic, more insightful than my husband. It demeans him. And it takes me away from him.

A woman who reads this stuff is steeping herself in certain insidious lies: that husbands are necessarily uncaring and torpid; that raising a family is stultifying; sex with strangers is by far more exciting, more freeing, more evocative of one's true inner being than anything experienced with a longtime mate; that affairs are not devastating to a marriage, to children.

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