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The New Republic Online
Thursday, December 30th, 2004


Citizen Girl: A Novel

by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Girls Gone Smart

A review by Sacha Zimmerman

It is hard to say that Ms. magazine reflects my generation when women in my generation are happily flashing their breasts on Girls Gone Wild; are lining up to compete for a man (usually through sex appeal) on The Bachelor, Elimidate, and any number of reality-dating shows; are having over-the-top radical surgery to look like shocked drag queens with day-glo white teeth and nice racks; are having orgies in New York City under the guise of sexual freedom at CAKE parties; are lamenting the end of Sex and the City; are making chick lit a national pastime; are accepting strippers as part of a normal night-club experience; and see all of it as liberation.

Enter Citizen Girl to the rescue. Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus have written a feminist pulp about a recent college grad's struggle to find herself and a job in the big city; that is, a book that is not about finding a sensitive poet with the body of Josh Duhamel, finding an exciting career at Vogue, or finding the perfect Vera Wang wedding gown.

Citizen Girl takes shots at every single instance of one woman's confrontation with male society during the course of a few months. It does this while being wickedly funny and well written but not dogmatic or finger wagging. McLaughlin and Kraus use their protagonist, Girl, to express exasperation with an outdated feminist movement that still thinks "having our say" conferences and "speak-out" rooms are effective tools at courting would-be feminists. When young women today are far more likely to strut their surgically enhanced bodies in thongs on spring break in Cancun than burn a bra to protest arbitrary beauty standards, the old feminist guard is so obsolete as to be parody. At Girl's first job, the Center for Equity, she feels steamrolled by the self-righteousness of her "waist-band-and-ironing-board adverse" boss, Doris:

I detest this office; it has no windows and is covered with crumbling collages made by Doris's Step Up And Speak Out! adolescents of yore. I always end up eye level with the cutout of a woman carrying a big floppy hat from a Summer's Eve douche box circa 1979 pasted beside yellowed advertising copy that proclaims, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves! But even that is less cringe-inducing than the framed Ms. cover of Doris bleating into a megaphone. ... Doris leans in and places her hands on my knees. The Summer's Eve woman does a slow hula behind her as I lose air. "I don't like working with you young twentysomethings--you're all so ... needy."

McLaughlin and Kraus are equally sneering about college-aged feminists: "a cluster of girls dressed like Peruvians, who, come graduation, will be hoping their facial piercings haven't left visible scars and spending their disposable income on crap pantyhose with the rest of us." Indeed, the oldest women seem not to notice and the youngest women seem not to care that Britney Spears is a pop idol to young girls, that "pimp" is an everyday colloquialism, and that MTV is one big reality hot tub of sexist sludge. Girl bravely tries to make her way through this everyday licentiousness while trying desperately to hang on to a job in a bad economy.

After being fired from the Center for Equity after asking for credit for writing a speech ("Girl, I think it's pretty unhealthy that you choose to deflect responsibility for your own inadequacies right back onto me," proclaims Doris), Girl finds herself at a secretive start-up company that wants her to be their in-house feminist consultant. She begins by trying to recruit NYU students for a focus group and is faced with an ornery misanthrope who think HBO's look at Nevada's Moonlight Bunny Ranch is a "hard-hitting" documentary. But things take a turn for the worse when Girl's new boss, Jeffrey, takes her to Los Angeles to meet with Kat, the owner of a lingerie company (deliciously called Bovary) that Girl is shocked to find her "feminist" organization representing. Kat squeals:

"We're ignoring the psychology of a tremendous market with Chicks Gone Senseless."

Dear God, are you listening? I'm in a small white stucco building on Melrose with a certifiably insane, albeit well-dressed, woman. And if you could just, I don't know, start a fire drill or something--"So first we outfit his co-eds in unicorn knickers and rainbow bras and then once we've established our brand, we take the revolution to the next generation. Bottom line, I want to walk into any boardroom in America in six months and have to see these forty and fifty year olds want to flash me their tits like a bunch of crazy, carefree teens!"

"Oh! It's ...," Jeffrey gushes, "it's so new and just so ... so"--WRONG?! Wrong, wrong, and WRONG?!--"fresh. I think the working women of America have been waiting for just this type of revolution."

At a loss, Girl paces her hotel room with the phone in her hand. "To call whom? Hello is this the U.N.? Yes, I'm calling from Sunset Boulevard to report the SETBACK OF CIVILIZATION!" Her depression deepens as she ponders her future: "Girl meet me out front at noon with cymbals strapped to your knees and a kazoo shoved up your ass. ... Girl meet me out front at noon with Gloria Steinem's still-beating heart in your hands and your integrity on a spit."

How refreshing! This year, I have read about the painfully frumpy women of Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, the saccharine plight of the widow looking for love in James Patterson's Sam's Letters to Jennifer, and the masochistic marathon sexcapades of a vampire huntress in Laurell K. Hamilton's Incubus Dreams. In nonfiction, I learned How to make Love Like a Porn Star thanks to triple-X phenom Jenna Jameson, I read Alexandra Robbins's illuminating expose of the lurid lives of big-college sorority sisters, I was taught The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands under the tutelage of Dr. Laura Schelsinger, and I was urged not to "waste the pretty" in He's Just Not That Into You.

Thank God for Citizen Girl. Girl is a self-possessed, moral, intelligent, and open feminist who is not a militant-chic refugee from Lillith Fair or an NPR-tote-bag carrying blue-stater in a hemp dress. She isn't a loveable oaf like Bridget Jones who only obsesses over weight and boys and little else. McLaughlin and Kraus pull it off because they are so wry and so spot on.

Every working woman in her twenties and thirties can relate to this novel and laugh along with the all-too disturbing situations Girl finds herself in. Citizen Girl proves that young working women are a huge market who don't need anachronistic books about shopping or romance shoved down their throats. The finale to Citizen Girl comes when Girl discovers that the company she works for is nothing more than a shell company for an Internet porn site--one that charmingly encourages men to simulate rape and violence toward women who are provocatively dressed as executives. Oh, and it's run by a successful woman. Girl has had enough: "This is the lazy choice, with your skills you could be making money and a difference," she tells the woman behind the curtain. Can one really do both? Well, McLaughlin and Kraus sure have.

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