Smilla’s Sense of Smell
by ALEX CARNEVALE
play by Lucy Teitler
dir. Kimberly Senior
Sex Object: A Memoir
by Jessica Valenti
224 pp., Dey Street Books
“Why does anyone want to get married knowing what we know now ?” whines Lauren (Ana Nogueira) in Engagements, a play by Yale graduate and Mr. Robot writer Lucy Teitler. She spends the rest of the play’s 80 minutes complaining about how degrading it is to live in Boston.
Whit Stillman has resorted to making period pieces since his own knowledge of what to satirize was last relevant in the late 1990s. It used to be that the upper, educated class of any society was the first to understand new things and create trends, but this is no longer the case. Technology democratized haute. As she pursues a PhD in Victorian literature, Lauren faces detractors who denigrate her chosen field because it is gauche to study the novels that first attracted you to literature. She possesses no special knowledge or distinguishing trait.
Lauren sleeps with her best friend’s boyfriend Mark (Michael Stahl-David). She fucks him in a gazebo and it is admittedly great: really emotional and both of them come at the exact same time, like Prince having dinner/sex. Mark turns out to basically be a dirtbag, but what the hell, like most satire these days, Engagements is really about women and how they relate to the concept of men as objects.
I recently read Jessica Valenti’s memoir about guys masturbating on top of her during her subway trips. The best chapter in Sex Object is about this Brooklynite with whom she shared a certain emotional connection named Ron. Ron was very clear about one thing: he was a feminist. He also had what appeared to be a titanic addiction to cocaine, and in lieu of a sexually transmitted disease, he passed that on to Jessica Valenti. Once, while he was in missionary, he asked the author to marry him.
This was the most upsetting moment of Sex Object, and incidentally, of Engagements as well. Ryan (Omar Maskati) gets down on one knee to illustrate a point to the girlfriend (Brooke Weisman) he met at Yale, and she mistakenly believes that he is about to ask her to marry him. Any proposal should be answered at the time in which it is administered. If you want to be with someone for the rest of your life, what difference does it make how they ask you this question? And if you don’t, you should end things then and there. This basic rule would have allowed Jessica Valenti to avoid a lot of trouble.
Instead of telling her friend about this gazebo-sex, Lauren decides to learn more about Mark at first. Since he is such a paper-thin character these scenes are not totally satisfying. He sends her anal beads in the mail and follows that up with a vibrator. This is not usually the sort of psychology employed by a man who is serious about a woman, and there is something bizarrely childish about Engagements that parallels the worldview of the show Teitler writes for, Mr. Robot. Neither show is filled with particularly good liars.
Eventually Jessica Valenti meets someone she really cares about, a bro named Andrew. Almost immediately she is in couples therapy with this guy, and for some reason he is really resentful of the trauma that she has gone through. Men are so exhausting to pacify. She makes a really specific point of mentioning, in Sex Object, how keen her sense of smell is. A lot of times she will come home from her day of work, and she detects a bad smell in the apartment that he does not notice or care about.
Maybe that’s something important in compatibility. It’s a word I have been thinking about a lot. In memorable scene in Sex Object, even the most simple act is enough to convince Jessica of her husband’s value. Valenti writes
Once when I was pregnant I refused to drink a glass of water Andrew had brought me because it smelled terrible. Water doesn’t have a smell! he yelled, but he brought me another, because he is a kind person in that way. Boston smells the worst.
The Boston of Teitler’s Engagements is a sad and lonely simalcrum. There was recently an article about how bad single women in New York have it. It’s true that in New York these creatures outnumber their male counterparts by two to one, but things are far worse in Boston. There are like three guys in all of Boston with any personality, and even those men can barely plan an afternoon beyond, “I have Sox tickets” or “we should stay in.” Being an unmarried woman in Boston is a recipe for a lengthy stay in psychoanalytic therapy.
There was an emotional moment on The Real Housewives of New York this week when Skinnygirl mogul Bethenny Frankel told her friend that she had a picture of her fiance cheating on her. “I don’t want to know,” LuAnn sobbed, and married the guy anyway. I don’t know exactly why the rise of female empowerment also precipitated a dramatic lowering of standards among powerful, sexy intelligent women. Bethenny Frankel’s boyfriend, for example, looks like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers.
Even Jessica Valenti ends up settling. Two years into her difficult marriage she becomes pregnant for a second time and decides to have an abortion. Her daughter Layla struggles with selective mutism, despite communicating well with her mother. Boston is so far from the city of her dreams. Sex Object is a woefully depressing book, both for the ways it tells us our culture treats women, and how the author has managed to make a meal out of these desiccated ingredients.
In Engagements, Lauren dates a series of unimpressive men, a list that includes a janitor, her college-aged neighbor and the boyfriend of her cousin. None understand her or even attempt to do so, and she cannot bring herself to like or respect them; it is only important whether or not they like and respect her. Her friend Allison (Jennifer Kim) eventually finds out that her boyfriend and husband-to-be has been sending the sexual gifts to a variety of women, and keeping a spreadsheet so that he doesn’t mail the same vibrator twice. It emerges that this meager, sadistic amount of attention was basically enough to captivate an educated woman who studies the Victorians, and the excitement of betraying her annoying friend sufficient erotic charge. Who could ask for anything more?
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.