Joan Didion and the Question of Self-Respect

Originally Written for Introduction to Literary Studies at Emerson College, taught by Dr. Kukrechtova

If one is to take interest in writing about America, one takes interest in Joan Didion. In her years of writing, she has made herself an exemplary piece of the American discussion in every topic, from children on drugs to the question of morality in life and politics. For our representative piece, she focuses “On Self-Respect,” as the essay title would imply. Within this essay, and in all of her work, the thing that holds the center is Didion herself. As Evan Carton puts it in his analysis of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “Didion is not ‘at the center’ because she is… ‘a superb evaluator of American culture’ but because she is a quintessential embodiment of it” (Carton within Felton 36). Didion herself represents the dichotomous debate on self-respect she discusses. From the perspective of Gilbert and Gubar’s “The Madwoman in the Attic,” this debate of self exemplifies Didion’s ability to avoid the angel/monster dichotomy that 19th century women constantly fell prey to. She has turned herself into an untouchable entity-author that is as relatable as she is authoritative on her subject of self, and on others’ perceptions of the self. Joan Didion has taken the power that male authors have previously used against her, and against other women, and symbolically rehabilitated herself into existence.

Didion’s essay, “On Self-Respect” is a six page long question, left answered in a way discernible only at first to the author herself or to us by small snippets of blunt language. It first appeared in Vogue Magazine, in 1961, once and always known as being light-hearted and understandable to a broad audience. She begins her essay simply enough–with a depiction of her younger self that we can all understand: “I wrote… that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself… I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa… even the humorless nineteen-year-old that I was must have recognized that the situation lacked real tragic stature” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 142). She paints a picture of her naivete, of the dramatic nature of a nineteen-year-old. Yet, immediately before and after she introduces her young self (with an eye-rolled version of humor), she cuts away this fond, reminiscing image of herself: “It was a matter of misplaced self-respect” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 142) and “The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 143).

Upon finishing this and more of a near-tirade against herself, Didion introduces other versions of her own understanding about what self-respect is and is not; to wrestle with, at first implicitly, those versions of herself that depend on others for self-approval. She dictates that self-respect, or lack thereof, is shown by our ability or decision to sleep in the metaphorical bed we have each made with “sins of commision and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 144). She says that self-respect is not a charm against evil, but it does dictate how one responds to it, and that to have self-respect is to have, “courage of [your] mistakes” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 145). Self-respect is something her grandparents understood, as if it’s something of the past; so too, now it is the willingness to take risks, and understand what the risk means. She believes it can’t be faked, but may be, “developed, trained, coaxed forth” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 146). In finality, she explains that the power of self-respect is to know the weight of one’s words, to not worry about others, and to live as your own person. She says, “Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 148). Her own changing and endless understanding of self-respect shines light on her own changing and endless ability as a writer and person. As she realizes that self-respect is not materialized from the opinion of others, she realizes that her existence isn’t limited to how people perceive her writing.

Didion’s discussion of self-respect is her own search for the meaning of the topic she writes about. Through her own writing she is able to define what self-respect means, thus removing any limitations placed on the women who came before her–reductions of women to simply heavenly/innocent/perfect angel or corrupt/immoral/hateful monster, as Gilbert and Gubar explained. When Didion defines her own rules, she is able to, “kill the angel’s necessary opposite and double, the ‘monster’” (Gilbert 812). So too, in Didion’s self-discovery through writing, she turns one of Gilbert and Gubar’s main claims on its head: rather than having her vision altered by the male-defined masks that rule over other women (Gilbert 814), Didion chose to influence and create herself.

Gilbert and Gubar wrote “The Madwoman in the Attic” in the 19th century, in a time when women writers were ignored and mocked. If they did exist, their work was assaulted by the male cannon, and they themselves were exploited and reduced to stereotypes that overshadowed their brilliance. Many women of the time were only truly acknowledged after their death. In “Madwoman in the Attic,” Gilbert and Gubar explain their sight on the status of women, while also offering hope of a future–one that Didion shows we have finally entered.

Didion has managed to defy Gilbert and Gubar’s 19th century observation that any outspoken woman writer will be considered an act of revolt and domination against men, one of the still-common assaults against women. They say, “female speech and female ‘presumption’–that is, angry revolt against male domination–are inextricably linked and inevitably daemonic” (Gilbert 823), and yet, Didion’s tone throughout this and all of her work is controlled. She shows the strides women writers have made since Gilbert and Gubar published, but also shows that she is an exception to a rule that is still often followed–an outspoken woman is still usually seen as being angry and unreasonable. She acknowledges that the issue still remains, to some extent, and that even she has it easier than some women. Didion is, to her own benefit and in her own words, “physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that [her] presence runs counter to their best interests” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem xiv). She uses these stereotypically “demure woman” traits to her advantage, enough that her written word has more power than she may have otherwise ever been granted.

In her writing, Joan Didion has managed to defy every negative observation Gilbert and Gubar explained of 19th century women writers–just as they defied their own expectations with their writing. Beyond simply pushing the boundary of what women can, and have been previously allowed, to achieve, Didion also manages to take care of herself. She doesn’t allow the world to use her self-exploration as an indulgent fetish. Carton says, on the piece, “the issue here is not self-respect but self-preservation, preservation of a self conceived as a fixed and bounded entity” (within Felton 45) and “Didion’s object is the protection of the self from society’s ambiguous contextual claims on it, even as she implicitly acknowledges that the most intimate personal impulses and convictions are products of these claims” (within Felton 46). Opposite to what Gilbert and Gubar had seen in their time (but in-line with their hope for the future), Carton seems to think Didion has managed to both expose and protect herself. Carton believes Didion is able to use writing as self-discovery, without being metaphorically consumed and destroyed by the male media.

Didion’s piece is a masterful exploration of the self, and a near-perfect reclamation of a woman’s place in media. While some women writers, understandably, shy away from topics in which they are “too” ingrained, Didion draws her power from delving directly into them. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion says, “But since I am neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel” (xiii). Didion spends no time hiding from herself or her opinions, without exposing herself to the world. Carton says, “Didion’s prose locates her at once ‘outside’ and ‘in’ the social environments and situations it depicts” (within Felton 41), and this seems to be how she maintains her power.

While Gilbert and Gubar’s 19th century ‘Madwoman’ is unable to distinguish herself from being monster hidden beneath angel, Didion maintains her sanity, authority, ability for exploration, and interest in a topic by putting herself in and outside her writing. She is uniquely and objectively able to comment on her own existence, in ways most writers cannot. Think back to her harsh treatment of her nineteen-year-old self; think to other essays: intimately featuring her near-divorce, or her grief, or her love for a city. Joan Didion is not one to get caught up and overwhelmed by her own feelings. There is a line she wrote in The White Album that says, “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce,” (within We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live 277).  Later, when asked about how her husband would feel reading that line, she replied that he edited it (Nguyen). Didion comments on her own life as if it isn’t hers, and in doing so she is able to relinquish any doubts she may have about writing–able to remove herself from anyone trying to frame her writing as self-indulgent.

Didion pushes this “‘outside’ and ‘in’” dichotomy, as Carton puts it, throughout her prose. As previously mentioned, Didion is able to separate and create her own monster and angel dichotomy: she refuses the ‘outside’s’ male-gaze and instead crafts her own ‘inside’ identity; her ‘outside’ voice remains controlled as she writes about just about any ‘inside’ she wants; she uses her fragile ‘outside’ appearance to retain power of her ‘inside’; she is able to explore her ‘outside’ worldly interests without having the world destroy her ‘inside’ self. This seems to be (one of) the secret(s) to what makes Didion’s writing so alluring: she lets you believe you’re ‘in,’ and you are, until she wants you ‘out.’ This too, is what makes her so representative of the ideal-dream-author that Gilbert and Gubar wrote about. Didion is able to conquer all of the challenges that other women writers have faced, and she is able to do so without, “killing [herself] into an art object” (Gilbert 823). Didion herself is the end goal of the struggle Gilbert and Gubar describe with their own writing.

Joan Didion, throughout her career, has managed to do three groundbreaking (and complex) things: write on her interests (including the exploration of self), write beautifully, and maintain her singular sense of self. Didion has written herself into a new era of women writers that will not have to overcome all that she did, and, as if a magnetic center, she has pulled America with her. Didion’s sharp essays captured the attention of the society she wrote about and existed in, and through her own discovery she opened our eyes. While the women of Gilbert and Gubar’s essays had constant battles to struggle against, Didion overcame them, and today there are few I will ever go up against as a female writer/journalist. Just as Carton spoke on the necessity of self-preservation to avoid destruction by the rest of the media that was so different from Didion, I may never be faced with the possibility of being destroyed. The media narrative in which I am entering is one that lifts women’s voices and includes them. The cannon I know has already been reworked into inclusion; whereas Didion, Gilbert and Gubar, and every other writer prior had to fight just to be acknowledged.

Gilbert and Gubar’s, “The Madwoman in the Attic, is one example of female writers defying the expectations and limitations placed upon them, and Joan Didion’s collection of work is another. Because of them, there will be, and already are, more examples to explore. Through fiction and non-fiction, Didion has symbolically rehabilitated herself, and rehabilitated the hope of every other woman writer, into existence. She is the healthy embodiment of the hopes and dreams of previous women writers, Gilbert and Gubar included. Gilbert and Gubar described this new and forthcoming sense of hope that they felt for their era of woman as, “the old silent dance of death became a dance of triumph, a dance into speech, a dance into authority” (Gilbert 824). Didion pushes the women of today to hope for even more.

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