I knew I had to read The Feminist and the Cowboy as soon as I read the premise. New York Times bestselling author Alisa Valdes, of The Dirty Girls Social Club fame, did what sounded a hell of a lot like a feminist 180: exploring the world of online dating after her divorce, she meets a conservative cowboy — a real, live Manly Man™ — who makes her see the error of her ball-busting feminist ways. She doesn’t go down easy, but The Cowboy (that’s his name in the book) eventually manages to wrangle her in and teach her that traditional gender roles exist for a reason. Also? The original title of the book was Learning to Submit: How Feminism Stole My Womanhood and the Traditional Cowboy Who Helped Me Find It. So…yeah.
When I saw that premise, I laughed in disbelief (and wanted to read the book). Then the reviews started trickling in, and my amusement turned to horror when I heard about what happened behind the scenes of this “love story.” I won’t go into details because that could be a whole other post — you can read about it here (trigger warning) — but suffice it to say that this “love story” was abusive and involved at least one sexual assault. The book doesn’t mention any of this; the information came out closer to the book’s publication date, mostly via a blog post that Valdes has since taken down.
This information changed a lot for me. It changed the way I read the book: no longer could it be a purely amusing kind of read; there are red flags all over the book that are impossible to ignore. It also changes the way I review the book: “LOL WHUT?!” isn’t an appropriate response to some of the content, for obvious reasons. But the book is often frustrating and comically ridiculous. The feminism Valdes ends up so vehemently rejecting is like a bad caricature culled from all of the dumbest feminist stereotypes in an MRA playbook. I wish I were exaggerating.
Some of the biggest problems with The Feminist and the Cowboy are the warped, heteronormative, strictly binary gender roles that Valdes kept talking about. Her main issue with the current dating scene are all the emasculated men (or, as Valdes puts it, the parade of “highly accomplished, talented, intelligent, progressive, freakin’ weird, metrosexual…losers”). And these emasculated men just happened to be bleeding-heart, earth-conscious liberals, the kind of guys she was politically in line with, and hence always dated.
Enter The Cowboy, who was the exact opposite: Manly with a Capital M, rugged, movie star handsome, chivalrous, and really conservative (condescendingly so). That last part puts her off — it feels wrong to her, and she goes to great lengths to explain all her feminist credentials — but he eventually wins her over and the two enter into a relationship. Looking at this relationship from a distance, I was already cringing: he undermines her confidence and starts playing mind games from the beginning. She’s talkative and divulges a lot about her life, including her divorce; meanwhile, he refuses to divulge any meaningful details about his past for the entire duration of their relationship. Her marriage had ended in divorce because of her husband’s constant lying — he had even ended their marriage by telling her he was gay, even though he wasn’t, just so their divorce would be “problem free” — and she acknowledges how this had completely shattered her. She was on the lookout for red flags with The Cowboy but he constantly challenged and undermined her. By their second date, she was already second-guessing herself and questioning her constant (unfeminine) need for control.
And she’s right to question him: he’s cheating on her. Any time she sees a warning sign, he turns it back around on her. Even after confronting The Other Woman and coming back with evidence to confront The Cowboy, he turns it back around on her. Still, she wants to be with him, and he has her believing that she is the one with the major issues: that she needs anger management classes and therapy, and that her refusal to submit to her natural role as a woman is what’s stopping her from experiencing true happiness. Or something. It’s sick.
What’s worse is that some of these accusations contain grains of truth: she probably could have benefited from proper therapy (I say “proper” because Valdes does end up getting anger management therapy, but her therapist agrees with The Cowboy regarding gender roles). She had traumatic experiences in her childhood, where her “progressive” Cuban father’s liberal ideas stopped at the front door and he ruled the household with a macho iron fist. Her mother would slip her second-wave feminist texts and urge her not to get trapped in the same kind of life, but then her mother ran off and abandoned the family. At one point, her father also kicked her out of the house, though the two are now on good terms. When he advises her against dating The Cowboy and gets furious upon learning about The Cowboy’s ideas about gender roles, Valdes reflexively responds in a Stop telling me what to do, patriarchy! kind of way. She has a distorted view of liberal men: either they’re emasculated, or they’re too macho and all talk like her father. It’s a lot of baggage to sort through, and going back to The Cowboy: he knows just what to say to make her second-guess herself.
But all of this soul baring also brings up all those infuriating caricatures of feminism I mentioned earlier. Now that The Cowboy has made her see the light, she’s willing to admit all the problems she has with feminism, which she thinks had its value back in the day but is now turning men into women and women into men:
The whole honorary man thing. Look at Hillary Clinton. All these women politicians. To be taken seriously, they have to hide their attractiveness and dress like men…I think the whole reason Sarah Palin was so popular with so many women is that she was the first woman in American political history to actually look feminine, and act feminine, without shame. Before that all we had was Geraldine Ferraro. Condoleezza Rice. Women who didn’t quite act like women. Janet Reno. Women who were forced to act like men, really, and only women in theory.
Think about the pop-culture sex symbols we had growing up, as girls. They were girly, every single one of them!…Prince? Seriously? That was supposed to be sexy? … David Bowie? Are you shitting me? Who would want to have sex with that…thing? I won’t call him a man. He wasn’t. … They were experimenting on us. Boys and girls…It’s insane. We all felt this pressure to act like the other sex, just to atone for the goddamned sins of our grandfathers.
…I realized something profound. It wasn’t men’s fault that they were turning into women. It was our culture’s fault. In the wake of the radical second-wave feminism of the 1970s, it was almost like everything in our culture was pointing them in the direction of being less like men, in order to be seen as desirable. So, acting on their male impulse to find and get women, they had remade themselves as music, TV, and movies had told them we wanted them…as wimps. As nonthreatening. Where was a man going to even find his sense of masculinity anymore?
Hi, rape culture!
But that’s not all! As a former third wave feminist, Valdes — a successful Latina — was also kind enough to explain the difference between second and third wave feminism (you know, since the book was obviously not going to be marketed to the feminist set):
Third-wave feminism is a lot like second-wave feminism, except that it supposedly expanded the conversation to include so-called women of color, because apparently only see-through women had been having their needs met by the movement until then.
Second- and third-wave feminism are where more of the women whose ideas whispered to me in secret and whose books she bought for me came from. Audre Lorde, Gloria Steinem, Cherrie Moraga, bell hooks. This is where you get women insisting that true liberation would come only if they stopped spelling women with the word men in it, opting for the much more enlightened womyn, because, you know, everything about men was evil.
Valdes has now come to accept that she’s a “difference feminist:” men and women can only be truly happy when they fulfill the gender roles God intended for them. The Cowboy was not a backwards Neanderthal in saying she wouldn’t be allowed to drive whenever they were in the car together, or in saying that women’s natural role was to submit to men. It’s plain biology:
I realized that there was a louder voice than my socialization was speaking now. There was an ancient voice, in the heart of my DNA, that was talking to me. I realized with a shock of recognition and horror and relief that I was programmed, sexually and emotionally, to get excited by a man who took charge. It was part of what made me a straight female…The dirty little secret of feminism, I suddenly understood, was that it could never go as far as it aimed to, because we were, all of us, fundamentally shackled to our own biology whether we liked it or not.
The Cowboy, meanwhile, was more than happy to take charge, especially in the bedroom:
He was very giving, in an assertive, alert, and attentive sort of way. If I grew too self-conscious or shy and tried to squirm away or cover myself up, he stopped me, held me in place, without a word passing between us, because somehow he knew what I really wanted, and he was strong enough to overcome my own insecurities for me. He pinned me, forced me past my own unwanted barriers, and gave to me.
I mean…WHAT THE FUCK. (This, by the way, is not the possible sexual assault alluded to by the media after the book’s publication. That’s a different one.)
When I first looked at my copy of this book, I looked at the blurbs on the back and thought, “Oh GOD, Christina Hoff Summers liked it?” She refers to the book as a “post-feminist Taming of the Shrew” and a “riveting tale about how [Valdes]…liberated herself from a dreary, male-bashing, reality-denying feminism.” But you know what? Of all the blurbs on this book, Hoff Summers’s blurb ended up being the one that makes the most sense. All of those negative terms — including the Taming of the Shrew bit — Valdes wrote herself; I imagine Hoff Summers salivating over that like an eager little anti-feminist vulture.
As for the other blurbs, I’m at a loss as to why they would refer to this as a “romance.” It isn’t. It’s practically a case study on manipulation that had me at turns furious and fearing for Valdes’s safety and emotional well-being. It also made me question the people surrounding Valdes and the decision to even publish this book in the first place. Publishing a memoir about abuse is one thing. Publishing a memoir that is filled with the red flags of domestic violence, which will ultimately be marketed as a love story? When the author is obviously still working through things? Ethically questionable at best.
The Feminist and the Cowboy: An Unlikely Love Story was published on January 3, 2013 by Gotham, an imprint of Penguin.