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Where is the Girl Power? The Portrayal of Young Women in Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons

Leah Schroeder

Leah Schroeder is from Westwood, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. She has not yet declared a major, although she plans to pursue her nterest in education policy and inequality. This past summer she worked as a student leader intern at the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program here at Davidson. In her spare time, she enjoys running, reading, and spending time with friends. Her essay was written in Professor Hillard’s Writing 101: Ideologic Sexualities.

I Am Charlotte Simmons is both the title of Tom Wolfe’s novel and the mantra of its protagonist, Charlotte. An odd declaration of her troubled identity,  “I am Charlotte Simmons” punctuates the text, alternately serving as a declaration of personal triumph, a reminder of individuality, and—perhaps most problematically—a mantra of selfhood desperately intoned when Charlotte feels herself drifting away. But who is Charlotte Simmons? Or, perhaps more importantly, who does she become as the novel progresses? The reader of Wolfe’s portrayal of college life at his fictitious Dupont University is exposed to a satiric perspective on college culture, and within that satire, a pointed representation of how gender roles constrain and subjugate young women. In many instances, we find sharp depictions of male aggression and misogyny, but even more troubling is the way in which the novel’s women abide by these sexist norms. While I do not refute the presence of male domination on college campuses, I found myself troubled by the manner in which Wolfe’s narrator characterizes young women in the novel. Most of the novel’s women are eager to oblige what many contemporary readers will locate not only as conservative, but also archaic gender roles. Satire cautions us to treat representations carefully. The text’s exaggerated sexual relations may sponsor new awareness or even fear in readers, Wolfe’s strategy for critiquing contemporary college culture. Just so, as a college student, I am concerned that Wolfe’s narrative, designed as fiction but assembled in large part from his own site visits to American colleges and universities, offers a skewed depiction of young women’s sociality, ethicality, and sexual politics. Three women in the novel aptly illustrate this frustrating and worrisome characterization: Beverly, Camille, and Charlotte herself.

In contrast to Charlotte’s initial naivete, her roomate Beverly is comfortably immodest. Wealthy, privileged, a “Groton girl,” Beverly is nonetheless painfully insecure. Her desire to be approved not only by men but also by her female peers is all-consuming, a shortcoming pathologized in her eating disorder. Unfortunately, the manner in which we see her seeking male approval is through degrading herself, CharlotteSimmons1-300x130 Where is the Girl Power? The Portrayal of Young Women in Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmonshappily but desperately. In one instance, a very drunk Beverly begs Charlotte to drive her back to a bar to find a specific lacrosse player. “He says he doesn’t want to get involved,” Beverly laments, “but I don’t care! I have to hook up with him tonight.”1 This image of Beverly, “on the floor, on all fours,” pleading with her roommate to facilitate her one-night stand is somewhat amusing in its absurdity.2 However, looking beyond the comedy of the scene, as a woman reader, I can begin to distinguish the harms catalyzed by such a depiction.

The narrator’s lens offers no mercy to Beverly, nor to her band of friends (her “posse”). While Beverly and her friends are fashioned as unlikeable, the sardonic light Wolfe shines on them communicates a worrisome message to young college women. I base my conclusion on certain feminist principles: namely, the gender equality of women and, within that, their subsequent empowerment and independence. Because I strongly value self-actualization, the fact that Beverly’s gratification hinges on her ability to make herself sexually available to men on campus is especially troublesome. She is vividly depicted as insecure, seeking to fill the void in her own self of self with gratuitous sex, so-called “mercy fucks.”3  We are forced into seeing her not as sexually empowered, seeking sex for her own pleasure, but rather as a sexual object. While this stark caricature is limiting, it is telling counterpoised against the character of Camille. Camille, an unwavering feminist activist, openly critiques students like Beverly who willingly comply with the patriarchal gender norms at Dupont University (known by Camille as “Testosterone Valley.”4 Camille is strong-willed, perhaps excessively so, and doggedly focused on the evils of men. But while she is encouragingly self-assured, she is also drawn somewhat too thinly, a caricature of committed feminism. She becomes, in essence, Beverly’s mere counter, making her politics a performative foil to Beverly’s sexual flaunting. Again, though they are in many ways mere puppets to Wolfe’s satiric designs, they model a limited (and quite impossible) set of choices for contemporary college women.

I am concerned for younger women readers, high school girls in particular who may turn to Wolfe’s journalistically-inflected portrayal as an accurate representation of women’s experiences at an elite university.

Interestingly enough, it is Charlotte who seems (at least in the early portions of the novel) to carry the most promise as a reasonable and appropriately complex representative of young college women. Charlotte is, as are all the students at Dupont, exceptionally intelligent. However, her intellectual promise neither nullifies her self-doubt nor grant her a measure of social power. Charlotte, initially repulsed by excessive drinking, the gyrating dance moves of her classmates, and the display of gratuitous sex nearly everywhere around her, seems to succumb all too quickly to the pressures of Hoyt Thorpe, the token frat boy, further perpetuating  male hegemony of student society. Charlotte’s fall from grace, as well as her self-victimization that follows, offers a frustrating depiction of male supremacy and female dependency, themes inescapable on Dupont’s campus.

The narrator traces Charlottte’s descent into “Testosterone Valley” in excruciating detail.5 At the beginning of the novel, Charlotte seems unyielding in her core beliefs, if only for the fact that she is so utterly unaccustomed to the sexual culture of “hooking up.” The first night she braves a frat party, she is shocked and repulsed by students dancing nearby: “They were pressing their genitals together!6 “Some girls were bending over so that boys could thrust thrust thrust thrust simulate intercourse from behind, like dogs in a barnyard.” 7 Attentive to her instincts, Charlotte frowns at her peers and maintains her sense of self, most notably when Hoyt, the good-looking fraternity boy, tries to get her to dance, and later attempts to lure her into a frat house bedroom. When she recognizes Hoyt’s intentions, angry and embarrassed she screams, “You’re gross!” and scampers off to her residence hall.8 Slowly, however, we begin to witness Charlotte’s formative convictions peel away as she accedes to one after another peer pressure around her.

In many instances, we watch Charlotte forego her principles in the pursuit of social glory, but perhaps the most blatant and painful instances of values abdication come in response to Hoyt’s continued pressures. Struggling desperately for his affection, Charlotte becomes less like Camille, and more like Beverly, her contemptuous roommate. Charlotte’s life at Dupont comes to be punctuated by conformity and acceding to Hoyt’s affection.  In many instances of hooking up with Hoyt, CharlotteCharlotteSimmons1-300x130 Where is the Girl Power? The Portrayal of Young Women in Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons becomes distressed and ashamed. Frustratingly, she is under Hoyt’s enchantment, unable to acknowledge her loss of self. She continues to declare “I am Charlotte Simmons,” but the declaration seems empty, a mantra without its transformative power. She even frets about the the best way to refuse Hoyt’s advances: “Was this the point she should say, ‘Stop!’? No, she shouldn’t put it that way. It would be much cooler to say, ‘No, Hoyt”.9 Such worries betray an impossible tension between self-assertion and her keen interest in others’ acceptance. If Charlotte’s originative values exist, they are eclipsed by her dependence on Hoyt’s potential admiration.

During her transition from independence to dependency, Charlotte becomes more and more like the Dupont women she once despised. She accepts her role as a subservient woman  easily, as illustrated by her thoughts about Camille as she watches Camille degrade a men’s lacrosse player. Camille, who the narrator portrays as a “monster feminist,” berates the boy to the point of telling him to “take [his] lacrosse stick…and stick it up [his] ass net first.”10 Charlotte is repelled by Camille’s language, but “it was more than that”; Camille’s performance “had shocked her in some fundamental way” since Camille had “abandoned all pretense of being feminine.”11 Such “pretenses of being feminine” are what Charlotte comes to value most—her Diesel-brand jeans, and her ability to flash her “rueful little smile” in response to Hoyt’s advances.12 So toxic is Dupont’s social environment that it extinguishes in Charlotte any sense of purposeful self.

Eventually, Charlotte becomes so enwrapped in her subservient role that she loses her virginity to Hoyt at the Saint Ray formal. Afterwards, Hoyt is callous and uncaring toward Charlotte, catalyzing her tailspin into social isolation and a dark depression. Charlotte fills her days with self-loathing until she bumps into Adam and confides in him the events at the formal. In some ways, I can appreciate the narrator’s nearly-sympathetic depiction of Charlotte as she sorts through the wreckage of a traumatic date rape. However, such a response has its limits. At a certain point, I would argue that the narrator goes too far in depicting Charlotte as helpless and dependent, an emotional wreck at the very thought of being left alone. Charlotte begs Adam not to abandon her, and he remains constant. But Charlotte’s new dependency on Adam plays into masculinist desires. Charlotte’s need to be reinforced by a male—her intense and utter reliance on him—only further supports the narrator’s perspective of women as fragile and unstable. It seems that Charlotte becomes emptied of all selfhood. Charlotte, who once glanced at her peers and said, “she was better than the whole bunch of them,” falls violently into an ego-destroying self-punishing state.13 The long, gloomy account of Charlotte’s collapse only further troubles problematic depictions of collegiate women: either soft, sexually available, and pliant or (like Camille) unpleasant, brutish, and obscene.

As a first-year student, while I am troubled—even aggravated—by the narrator’s limited perspective on young women, I am also careful to differentiate this narrator from Wolfe himself. But though Wolfe may see his role as commentator through satire, there is more at stake than he may realize. If I Am Charlotte Simmons is to be a snapshot of contemporary college life, then his dualistic depiction of women is both misrepresentative and unfair. I am concerned for younger women readers, high school girls in particular who may turn to Wolfe’s journalistically-inflected portrayal as an accurate representation of women’s experiences at an elite university. A fierce college mythology composed of frivolity, hedonism, and male privilege is quite readily available in popular culture.  Unfortunately, I Am Charlotte Simmons does little to call these into question, leaving public representations of women in college stereotypically inflected and politically inert.

Bibliography

Wolfe, Tom. I Am Charlotte Simmons. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004.

  1. Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2004) 291. []
  2. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 297. []
  3. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 361. []
  4. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 312. []
  5. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 312. []
  6. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 225. []
  7. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 225. []
  8. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 238. []
  9. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 399. []
  10. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 319. []
  11. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 321. []
  12. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 226. []
  13. Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons, 226. []
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