A review of LIPSTICK JUNGLE (Candace Bushnell) by Joseph Suglia
Looking down on the cityscape, she sees skyscrapers that seem like tubes of lipstick. Much as a lipstick tube is a metallic, phalliform receptacle containing an allegedly ‘feminine’ substance (though I cannot grasp how the opalescence of fish scales is ‘feminine’), women now dwell within the structures that men created. The novel suggests that men and women belong to opposing camps. It is now men who are ‘de-masculinized’ and women who are virilized, who are masculated, who assume sovereignty; it is women who take on all of the symbolic traits of maleness (according to the metaphorics of the novel). The difference between women and men is absolute, the novel implies. The separation between them might be ontological, stable, fixed, but power is not. Power is dynamic, kinetic, mobile: “If you can wield it, you have it.” And now women have the power. They are ruling the world.
So goes Lipstick Jungle, the novel by Candace Bushnell.
In this imaginary universe universally dominated by women, women act in a way that is conventionally “masculine” and men act in a way that is neither “masculine” nor “feminine.” Men are either ridiculously spineless, endearingly brainless, or flamboyantly insane. Some of them are sex-mannequins (Kirby Atwood); others are Icarian billionaires (Lyne Bennett and Victor Matrick) — falling or already fallen, paving the way for the baronesses who will usurp their place in the Lipstick Jungle. Some of them are oviphages (“egg-eaters”) (Kirby); others have a distaste for les oeufs brouillés (Seymour). And then there are the vaguely exotic man-parasites that populate the novel as if they were so much vermin. Bushnell’s racism / nationalism / class arrogance is evident on every other page.
Unlike the swinging femmes of Sex and the City, the women of Lipstick Jungle do not have an enduring interest in sex. They are solely interested in power, wealth, and class. Their beauty is self-illuminated. Sex might be a pastime or a release, but it is not a goal. Nor is the family of much importance. Children were nondescript leeches and noise-makers. It has been said that a baby’s first sound is usually a version of “mother.” At that stage, the infant ceases to be an infant (the word infant, after all, means “devoid of speech”). In this book, a baby’s first word is “Money!” If you strip away identity, what remains is the naked desire for cash, the most fundamental of human impulses. Even prior to the assumption of an identity, the human animal desires the power to purchase.
Each huntress is defined not by the men who surround her, but by the products she owns or wants to own. Nico O’Neilly’s most essential features are represented by a diamond. Victory Ford is defined by her “black American Express card” — since she, after all, is also a credit card.
Victory Ford, Wendy Healy, Nico O’Neilly — the three “protagonists” are three versions of a single self. We move from the description of one character to the next. When the narrative centers on one character, the others vanish, as if they were chimeras of her imagination.
Lipstick Jungle never critiques the culture; it repeats the values of the culture unreflectively. To suggest that “women ought to be ruling the world by imitating men” is neither a revolutionary insight nor a challenge to the culture. Would this suggestion not keep the world intact? Would this suggestion not re-stabilize anti-female sexism and misogyny?
Seen from this perspective, the female characters of Lipstick Jungle are hardly women at all. This is not a form of second-wave feminism. This is not a Beauvoirian feminism. This is not a philosophy in which women are summoned to come into their own as women. This is not any kind of feminism. Its philosophy is a particular kind of gendered Darwinism. Women must adopt negative male traits, the book proposes, in order to achieve sovereignty, must become men in woman costumes. The philosophy of Lipstick Jungle is not feminism, and it should not be considered as a work of feminist fiction.
Dr. Joseph Suglia