When the early news broke that the new Jonathan Franzen novel Purity focused on feminism, plenty of people were apprehensive. After all, Jonathan Franzen has said some fairly uninformed things about feminism and about women's equality in the literary world in the past. The idea of him spending 563 pages talking about feminism was off-putting... to say the least.
Fortunately, Purity is about much more than feminism. Still, feminism is one of the more prominent topics in the novel. So how did Franzen wind up doing? Well, not as well as one might have hoped for a novelist of his stature.
Feminism comes up a lot in Purity, but there's little to no exploration of feminist principles or the varied approaches to feminism that can be found in the modern world; rather, the novel simply invokes the idea of feminism as a political movement, and often relies on outdated or shallow understandings of what being a feminist means. Although Franzen is analyzing both feminism and the Internet, there's no evidence he knows anything about the types of multifaceted feminist discussions that are happening in online spaces, or about the many explicitly feminist media sites that are by now well-established online. In a book that explicitly names other modern forces like WikiLeaks, Occupy, and Edward Snowden, the omission seems significant. And indeed, Franzen's ignorance on the subject shows.
Overall, although the novel is intelligent and compelling — and although there are several well-developed female characters — its treatment of feminism is mixed at best. Here are 5 problematic moments for Feminism in Purity.
Laila Helou is probably the single most interesting character in the novel, and also (perhaps not coincidentally) the one with the most realistic relationship to feminism. Leila struggles to reconcile her personal behavior — having few female friends, having an affair with her married professor, letting her father have such influence on her career decisions — with her deeply held feminist principles.
But even Leila's feminism often feels forced rather than organic. Leila thinks about wanting to be "a good feminist mentor" rather than thinking about the imoprtance of mentoring young women. She knows that "As a feminist, she couldn't imagine merely being Charles wife," rather than simply thinking about her own career. Any time her feminist ideals are relevant, they must be explicitly named as such, rather than simply being part of her world view. Even stranger, at certain times when you would think feminism would be on Leila's mind — such as when interviewing a source who is clearly in an abusive relationship — it is curiously absent. One would expect to see the tension of wanting to help the woman, but knowing that trying to push her on this point might only drive her away and cost Leila a story. But the novel doesn't even bring it up.
Pip Apologizing To Jason
In the first section of the book, Pip brings a young man she met at a coffee shop home for the night, and the encounter is full of mishaps and misunderstandings. And (although nothing nonconsensual happens) Pip is still left feeling understandably hurt and betrayed after she realizes Jason has been texting crude things about her to a friend. Which is in and of itself fine; one night stands often don't go as planned. However, toward the end of the book, when Pip has regained more agency in her life and is no longer so lost or miserable, she and Jason see each other again, and she makes a point of profusely apologizing, brushing off his own apologies, and insisting that her slight of leaving him alone too long in the bedroom was the truly great offense. The fact that the novel not only seems to believe that but to portray Pip's recognition of the fact as personal progress is deeply confusing.
The Lack Of Female Friendships
Happy, healthy relationships are few and far between in Purity for anyone, but it is significant that none of the many women in the novel ever seem to have decent friendships with each other. Moreover, they are usually rendered impossible due to some rivalry over a man, as happens with Leila and Pip, and with Pip and Colleen. In general, women seem incapable of forming significant friendships with each other. The virtually all-female intern group at The Sunshine Project are portrayed as catty, shallow, and using friendship as display of social hierarchy. The most vocal feminist in the novel, Anabel, quickly alienates everyone she knows. And literally no one has a good relationship with their mother (fathers are more of a mixed bag).
This is in contrast to the male characters like Tom Aberant who are able to maintain long-term personal and professional friendships.
Men Needing To Apologize For Being Male
In several places in the novel there is a sense that feminism wants — either purposefully or by accident — for men to apologize for being male. It's a sentiment Franzen has expressed overtly in person, but it's easy enough to find it in Purity as well. Perhaps the most problematic example is when the book's most vocal feminist, Anabel, complains about "the unfairness of [men] being able to pee standing up" and forces her husband to pee sitting down. Elsewhere, this same character recollects his older feminist sister shaming him as a child for liking stereotypically "boy" things like air rifles, or years his liberal father shaming him after finding his stash of Playboy and Oui, and generally remembers in his college years feeling a lot of "male guilt."
At no point in the novel are these assumptions about gender equality corrected. At no point is an alternative, healthy, realistic mode of how men should approach equality presented. And as such, it seems that the novel considers them insightful. Which is unfortunate.
The most problematic feminism in the book, though, is Anabel's feminism. Anabel is both the most outspoken feminist and also the most unreasonable person in the novel, which is already telling. Anabel feels strongly about any number of causes, particularly animal rights, but feminism in her hands seems mostly to be a weapon against people who disagree with her, from forcing her husband to pee sitting down because of invisible spatter to lecturing a student newspaper editor who published a story about her she didn't like. Sexism becomes a trump card she can use whenever she needs a boost in an argument. It uncomfortably calls to mind the stereotype that women and other oppressed groups are just "manufacturing outrage" in order to have an excuse to yell.