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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

A Warning About That Maternal Gaze : THE POWER OF BEAUTY by Nancy Friday; HarperCollins $27.50, 589 pages

August 02, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIME STAFF WRITER

Nancy Friday, who gave us the keys to the car with her book "My Mother/My Self," has now written an odd sort of sequel in "The Power of Beauty."

We may have had the keys, but the car had no darn gas, so we took off down the freeway full of rage and longing, but no self-esteem, no technical skills, no legal rights, no workplace that felt safe, and all the wrong clothes for hitchhiking. Mad at Mommy, mad at Daddy, stuck between penis envy and sexual liberation. Thanks a whole lot, Nancy Friday.

Now we see this huge book with its misleading title and its sleek photo of a middle-aged Friday, dressed in black on the back and we think we know what she's going to tell us: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder! Don't let them define it for you! Find yours and use it, girlies!

We're going to learn about that magical combination: the Wonderbra and the Power suit.

Well, it's more than that and it's less than that. Friday takes us back to the maternal gaze, source of approval and disapproval, definer of beauty, tied in those first months inextricably to food. This is the gaze we need to shake loose from, writes Friday, not the harmless construction worker on the street. Friday relies heavily on Melanie Klein: "The baby loves the mother/the breast, the baby envies the mother/the breast because she/it has all the power. And so the baby bites the breast." There's a lot of this in the first third of the book, and you may say, "Aha! The missing link!" and you may fall asleep.

Much of it is the author's personal memoir, again. The central third of the book moves through adolescence, continuing the theme that "Women have so much more power over one another than a man can ever have over us."

It is in the Roman arena of the last third of the book, essentially the working world, that "The Power of Beauty" heats up. And it is more about Power than Beauty.

". . . Young women today, freed of the tyranny of beauty as their only power under Patriarchy, recognize, nonetheless, the very real influence of looks over their lives," writes Friday. "When feminists denounce furthering the healthy understanding of competition so that women might better use it as the potentially profitable tool that it is, they deprive women of self-confidence."

Well, every working woman will tell you that no one eats more raw female flesh in the workplace than women in power. It all goes back to that maternal gaze. If we don't please the female boss/the mother she has the power to kill/fire us.

Miracle bras only make mother/boss mad. Abject subservience makes them happy. Do it, and do it now or I will fire you and your Miracle bra. So learning how to embrace healthy competition over who is better looking may not get you that next promotion.

Ironically, it is Friday's almost relentless competition with other pillars of feminism that really damages the book. She is merciless with Gloria Steinem's beauty, and suspicious of Steinem's claims to have given up sex.

She is critical of Susan Faludi, Naomi Wolf, Andrea Dworkin. "Herein lies my argument with the Sisterhood," she writes. "If my face gets warm, my eyes light up, my pulse quickens when men enter a room, why should I have to prove my feminism by reacting to men as though they were women?"

The answer is: You shouldn't. The answer, in a sophisticated world, in a sophisticated movement is: You, Nancy Friday, had an absentee father and an unpleaseable mother whom you've written, more or less, out of your system. You may spend your entire life trying to please men and that may not be the worst way to live. Your next book, however, and we would all read it because we love you and are grateful to you, should perhaps be "My Father/My Self."

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