Saturday, February 5, 2011

Revisiting Karen Owen

I just now came across a piece in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan about Karen Owen. The piece is a month or two old, but I've really enjoyed Flanagan's work in the past. She pisses off all the right people. It's a long piece, starting here, but well worth your time.

The key section of the piece is below. What's interesting to me is what Flanagan misses:

"The notion that Karen Owen is good at getting the guy, that she represents something awesome for the future of feminism, is an assertion that cannot withstand a careful reading of the actual PowerPoint, a package that—far more than Owen could ever have intended—constitutes a story, one with a beginning, middle, and very sad end, and reveals her to be one of the most pitiable women to emerge on the cultural scene in quite a while. Her assignations are arranged chronologically in the thesis, and in the arc of experience that led her from Subject 1 to Subject 13, there is a very old story about women, desire, expectation, dashed hope, and (to use the old, apt, word) ruin.

After a freshman year spent in the thrall of the school’s handsome white athletes, something exciting happened: on the night of her 19th birthday, in September of her junior year [ADC: she turned 19 in September of her junior year? Meaning she was 16 when she showed up at Duke? Seems pretty young to me.], one handsome lacrosse player, recently broken up from his girlfriend of three years, bought her “many, many beers” at a Durham club called Shooters, and then asked her to go back to his house to “hang out.” The invitation was thrilling; it’s easy to imagine that the prospect of becoming his next years-long girlfriend was enticing, and even if the night began with some strange twists and turns—such as the man inviting his pals to admire her breasts outside the bar—wasn’t that the way it had probably begun for the last girlfriend? But once they went to his house, and then to his bed, things weren’t quite what she had hoped for: “It was over too quickly. I was probably a little awkward and didn’t really know how to move or what to do. And it was a tad bit painful …”

She never slept with him again—apparently he had no interest in seeing her again—and she was chastened enough by the events not to risk a repeat of them for several months. It’s not difficult to imagine what the days and weeks following the encounter were like: the expectation that he would call again, the anxious and depressing realization that he was done with her. But the following March, she was ready to try again. After many “long looks” exchanged with a campus tennis star on her way to and from the gym, the young man approached her at Shooters and asked her to dance; on the dance floor, he asked her to go home with him. What followed was the kind of one-night stand that changes a woman. He was rude to her in the cab, and things only got worse once they were in bed: “He was terrible, did not even bother to kiss me more than a few seconds, and finished in about five minutes, after which he simply walked out of the room and did not return.” She reports that “absolutely everything,” except for the fact that he was a successful athlete, was terrible about him, that the whole situation was terrible: “I accidentally left my favorite pair of earrings from South Africa. When I texted him this fact, he responded with ‘I will leave them outside of the building for you.’”

The story of Karen Owen is the story of those forgotten earrings. Imagine the moment in which she paused to take them off—her favorite earrings, the ones that came all the way from South Africa and that she took care to remove before going to bed, because that’s what you do if you’re a responsible girl with a nice pair of earrings. [ADC: Yes, the responsible girl going home for a ONS.] You keep them safe. At the very least, she must have imagined that Subject 2 was inviting her to do what Subject 1 had done—not just to have sex with him, but to hang out with him. And then to be turfed out so rudely, so quickly, to be treated with such ugliness afterward. Imagine having been so young and so hopeful [ADC: Imagine being young and hopeful and then things not working out perfectly!], being used sexually and then held in such contempt that rather than see you again, a young man leaves your jewelry outside his building, where anyone could come along and take it.

Subject 2, who was rated a 1 out of a possible 10, is the impetus for the entire thesis. In fact, at the very end of the whole ugly mess of it, after she has become so good at oral sex that she is repeatedly praised for having no gag reflex, after she has learned to crave sex so rough that she’s left battered, after she’s been cast aside over and over again, the final line of the thesis—before her jaunty “Acknowledgements” slide— is another angry remark about Subject 2. Being rejected by Subject 1 was hurtful and embarrassing, but being treated like a whore by Subject 2 is what broke her heart and her spirit, and if you are the kind of person whose heart and spirit can be broken by a one-night stand, then you may not be the brave new face of anything at all.

When everything went to hell, when the thesis was splashed across the Internet, there weren’t any young men by her side to protect or defend Karen Owen [ADC: Oh, really? Should there have been? There were no worthwhile young men in her life before she decided to fuck athletes? Nobody from the dorms or her classes Freshman and Sophomore year? No worthwhile young men at all, so she was forced to fuck assholes?]. It was a man’s job, though, and the man it fell to (goodbye, bold new face of feminism) was her father. He’s the one who told the New York Times reporter who called the house looking for Karen that his daughter did not have anything to say about the situation. What a moment that must have been at the Owen family home, how much it recalls the ending of “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” In that story, years after the affair on the train, the narrator’s father dies; the seducer reads the obituary, and he sends her a telegram: YOU’VE LOST THE BEST FRIEND YOU WILL EVER HAVE."

I'm surprised that Caitlin Flanagan, of all people, lets her off the hook. I can understand her urge to be merciful, but Flanagan is usually a sharp writer of tough truths. And the tough truth here is this, every good man has seen this type of situation play out:

1. Good man likes good woman.
2. Good woman doesn't like good man, not like that, not in that way. Good man is a dear friend.
3. Good woman likes assholes.
4. Good woman gets an asshole.
5. The asshole treats the good woman the way an asshole would, i.e., he's an asshole to her.
6. Good woman is shocked and saddened that the asshole treated her like an asshole.
7. The end.
8. Ok, maybe not the end. Years later, when the good man realizes that he failed with her not because he wasn't good enough (and by good, I mean virtuous), but because he was too good, well, that's a dark realization with dark implications. The best thing to do is to keep growing, keep achieving accomplishments, grow in wisdom, gain confidence, and enjoy the company of all the new good women coming along.


  1. Augustine, I've decided to write a blog post on your eight point list at the end there with a cross link. "Girl Meets Arsehole" is a familiar story!

  2. Thanks for the link love, WJ. It's too too familiar a story. Look forward to reading yours.