They Were All Ex-Prom Queens
Alix Kates Shulman on the making of her classic feminist novel--and why it has been embraced by the #MeToo generation
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Upon its publication in 1972, Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was hailed as the first novel of the women’s liberation movement. Almost fifty years later, it has sold over a million copies. It is about Sasha Davis, a white, middle-class, Midwestern girl who comes of age in a world run by men. In many ways, a novelization of radical feminism’s earliest insights about women’s oppression, the book portrays life in the post-World War II United States as a privileged woman experienced it. Sasha’s determination to become an intellectual causes her to run the gauntlet of issues that all feminists were discussing in their consciousness-raising groups between 1969 and 1972: sexual harassment, job discrimination, the sexual double standard, rape, abortion restrictions, the double binds of marriage and motherhood, and the unattainable standards of beauty that women worked to achieve.
Shulman sat down with me to discuss why the novel has—and continues to have — a powerful impact on its readers.
Claire Potter: What inspired you to write this novel?
Alix Kates Shulman: The first national demonstration of the women’s liberation movement took place on September 7, 1968, in Atlantic City. It was the protest against the Miss America Pageant. And as we were marching for hours and hours carrying placards that said things like “All women are beautiful” and “Freedom for women,” it suddenly struck me that the Miss America Pageant, with its beauty standards and racism and judgment by men, was a beauty contest, the same as those happening all over America on prom night.
It was then, while I was marching, that I had this inspiration to write a novel about a white middle-class Midwestern girl who was a prom queen and all of the oppression that she would live through from childhood through, well, the end of the novel.
When I wrote the book, I imagined that I was writing it for the dozen people in my consciousness-raising group because I thought nobody else would get the jokes. But by the time it came out, which was several years later, the women’s liberation movement had spread widely through the country. So many people had gone through consciousness-raising that they were eager to read about women’s experience from a feminist point of view, which few writers had done before that. So, it became a bestseller.
I was so grateful to the movement that when I got my first royalty check, I handed out donations to all of the journals, the feminist journals, that had published me. These feminist journals had names like Up From Under, Off Our Backs, Women: A Journal of Liberation. It was a whole new breed of publication. One of them named their new electric typewriter, bought with my donation, for my heroine, Sasha Davis!
CP: A big theme of the book is sexual violence. Sasha is sexually assaulted several times in the novel but often can’t really name what is happening to her. I think one of the things you do so well is to show her trying, as many young women still do, to navigate forms of sexual violence that she does not fully understand, even as they are happening.
AKS: In the opening scene, when Sasha’s husband rapes her, I think the word rape does appear. But of course, marital rape was not illegal at that time. It took a feminist named Laura X months and years—and really a lifetime of going state to state—to get marital rape and date rape made illegal.
When I was a kid, if a boy or a man was accused of rape, the only way to get a conviction was if there were two witnesses. It’s still the case that the person who’s raped is put on trial as much as the person who does the raping. And a lot of people won’t even report it because they know they’re going to be put through the wringer.
The term sexual harassment wasn’t invented until years after I published the novel. But that doesn’t mean that sexual harassment wasn’t happening. So, of course, while Sasha experienced these things, she couldn’t name them. But she’s in those situations over and over again. And I must say here that the way I’m describing it doesn’t reveal that the book is, in many ways, a comic novel.
When Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen first came out, there was a dispute among readers between those who thought the book was hilarious (and I think those were the thousands of feminists, the women’s liberation activists, who existed at that time) and those who read it as a tragedy. The latter group couldn’t bear the thought that other people thought the book was funny.
There is also a big difference between the way the book was viewed in 1972 when it first came out and the way it’s received today. Today, young feminists who review it or respond to it think it’s very funny and very angry. They think that it will arouse people to go right out and smash the patriarchy. That wasn’t the reception in 1972. Readers thought it was either very funny or very sad and traumatic.
But one of the most common responses to the book in 1972—unfortunately for me because it included reviewers— was incomprehension. It was either that or: Sasha is a slut. Well, no, a “pushover” was the word at that time. The New York Times reviewer said something like: This angry little book, the narrator is a pushover.
CP: One of the things that I was struck by in reading it as an adult is that even though Sasha is the object of male violence, she is not a victim: in fact, she uses her sexuality to try and find her way.
AKS: Absolutely. She gets into situations that she cannot control at first, but then she tries to get out of them by using her sexuality, by using her wits, by lying. And one of the weapons she uses is tears. It’s obvious that this is a tactic to save her from a terrible situation. But an unperceptive reader would only see that she’s crying, so that must mean she’s a victim. No, that wasn’t it at all.
CP: But there’s also something kind of poignant about that because whether it is lies or tears, there’s nothing she has at her command that will actually allow her to fight sexism or make it stop.
AKS: Yes, she learns that. And why is that? Because he, whoever he is, in whatever scene we’re talking about, is big and strong and perhaps willing to use violence. He has that power.
One of my real pleasures in writing the book was to come up with quotations by revered writers — men, of course — who write about or for women, like Dr. Benjamin Spock, the bestselling childcare guru. In the chapter when Sasha is a mother and housewife, she reads Dr. Spock saying all these incredibly sexist things. For example, he always refers to the baby as he. So I made both of the babies in my book be she.
And I sprinkled recipes through the book after Sasha gets married. Nowadays, lots of books have recipes in them. But in those days, you would never dream of having recipes or diapers in a book because that would get it panned. The literary establishment was entirely male, and there was an agreement that novels portraying women’s domesticity were not serious books.
CP: And the possibilities for Sasha are narrow. For her trajectory throughout the book, the whole goal is to marry, have children and have everything in her life tied up by the time she’s 25. She says that. And then, of course, what she learns is that she has lost her value once she has accomplished these tasks. So, it’s as if all heterosexual women are future ex-prom queens.
AKS: Yes. Before the book was published, we played around with many titles, and “Memoirs of a Prom Queen” came up. And when I put in the Ex, it was to indicate that being a prom queen was the high point of her life, and from then on, it was downhill.
CP: When this book came out, abortion was still illegal, but it was also not uncommon. In one scene, Sasha has an abortion, and you really spend a lot of time on the complexity of that experience. You reveal the ugliness of it, as well as Sasha’s grief over the termination of a pregnancy, even a pregnancy that she knows she wants to end.
AKS: I wanted to hit on every important female experience, as we had in our consciousness-raising groups. And one of our most important tasks at the time was to legalize abortion.
So, the scene in the book of Sasha’s abortion—which is illegal, kind of horrible, done in the kitchen of a medical student who is a friend of her husband’s—that scene is full of all of his misogynistic comments as he’s performing the abortion. He’s saying, oh, what a nice tight little twat you’ve got.
But then she goes home, and she goes into labor, and it is a horrifying thing. My idea in writing it that way was to show that one reason for legalizing abortion would be so the procedure could do it safely. This wasn’t safe for Sasha: she started hemorrhaging and had to be taken to a hospital.
CP: I also thought her shock at what was coming out of her was a particularly poignant moment because here’s a woman who was so sexually experienced and sexually active, and somehow it escaped her that at two months, something was going to come out that looked like a tiny baby.
AKS: Exactly. She’s so shocked when she sees a fetus with a human head. But that wouldn’t in any way have changed her desire to have an abortion. Everyone I’ve ever known who has had an abortion — and there are many, most of my friends, my mother, me, I mean, everyone — they never regretted it, never for a second regretted it, even though when it was illegal, it was a dangerous, scary, expensive, fraught choice. And when it was finally made legal, it became the opposite.
It became safe, not expensive, and not even fraught. It was each woman’s right to choose. What a relief! But, of course, the people who are against abortion, the anti-choice movement, don’t see it that way at all.
CP: Obviously, this is a book that speaks very powerfully to the #MeToo movement. It reminds young women that they’re not the first people to have raised these issues and that there are elders to call on to really think these things through with.
AKS: I think that the #MeToo movement is a latter-day kind of consciousness-raising. Back in 1969, the first speak-out of the women’s liberation movement was a speak-out on abortion, during the time that abortion was illegal. It took place in a church. Women got up and publicly spoke about their own abortions, breaking a serious taboo.
And then women went on TV, on the radio and spoke about their abortions, whereas before that, they had been silent. That is one of the things that made the laws change: consciousness-raising and the speak-outs. It took those small groups of women openly discussing the taboo subjects of their lives — abortion, rape, sexual harassment — in public.
That is what #MeToo did as well.
CP: One of the things the novel does so beautifully is to illustrate at length that before feminism, women were commonly viewed as objects. And that was really one of the central insights of feminism that you can see in everybody who was writing at the time.
AKS: Exactly. And that is why I thought that the beauty pageant, the prom queen contest scene, would be so powerful because there you are up there on stage parading before the male judges.
What are you but an object?
CP: As someone who first read the book as a teenager and then read it as a college professor in her sixties, I actually had the same feeling about that scene. I’m horrified—and also, I want her to win because she wants to win. She doesn’t know the whole contest is horrible. Not yet.
AS: Because she wants it so much. At a very early age, she learns that that is the one thing that might give her some power: being a beautiful object of men’s desire and lust. And at a certain point, that power has to fade. That’s why by the end of the novel, it’s all over for her until, of course, my next novel, Burning Questions, and then—in comes the feminist movement!
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
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Are you a fan of Harriet the Spy? Download a free PDF of the new Women's Review of Books, which has a review by me of Leslie Brody’s Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy (Seal Press, 2021). And if you like it, consider celebrating Women’s History Month by subscribing to this important feminist publication.
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