Women Who Want Out

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Three recent novels expose the stories startups have been telling us—that they’re solving the world’s biggest problems, boosting our brain power, optimizing our creativity, enhancing our efficiency, and enriching our work—as rank fictions. High-tech know-how seeds Doree Shafrir’s Startup, Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, and Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love. Startup trades in the insider-gossip that butters the bread at Buzzfeed where Shafrir is a senior writer; Lacey’s The Answers hacks the perfect girlfriend out of visionary biotech; Nutting’s Made for Love builds the sex doll single AI engineers must dream about.

Shafrir, Lacey, and Nutting have done more, however, than merely point out that the daily grind of disruptive innovations that never deliver on their promises has started to grind us down. These three writers suspect that startup culture has been selling vaporware for long time, but not only because it’s been catfishing for free labor—it’s been catfishing for women.

In the 2.0 economies the novels depict, men feel as entitled to women’s ideas and work as they do to their bodies. The creative tech fields browse binders full of women like pickup artists swipe for Tinderellas because the new software pulsing through our gadgets has made both the job market and the dating market one big networked meat market. Startup culture has given more men more tools that they can use to pivot every professional, intellectual encounter—real or virtual—with a woman into an opportunity to hook up.

Consequently, Shafrir, Lacey, and Nutting are no longer asking if women can have it all; they’re trying to figure out if women can decide to have none of it. As their heroines bladerun through the present and not-so-distant future worlds built on Silicon Valley’s platforms, they discover that it’s now as hard to abandon the career pipeline as it is to cut a “nice guy” loose. A quick second click is all it takes in these three novels for the unconscious bias, the mansplaining, the negging, and the objectification that #yessallwomen experience as #everydaysexism to turn into harassment, doxing, stalking, and outright violence.

Each book features women who are as ambivalent about their careers as they are about their romantic relationships. Startup follows three such women—Katya, Sabrina, and Isabel—who orbit TakeOff, a fictional startup hawking a unicorn: a mindfulness app that purports to increase productivity by anticipating and ameliorating users’ negative states of mind. (A savvy reader will recognize that TakeOff’s product is yet one more way of insisting that women should smile.)

Yet all of the women in Startup have good reasons for being in bad moods. For one thing, all of them are dealing with difficult men. Even the most ambitious of the three characters, the up-and-coming tech journalist Katya, spends more time slow-fading her tech-bro boyfriend and fending off her married supervisor, Dan, than she does on TakeOff’s beat.

Like Katya, Sabrina also tries not to piss off Dan, who is her husband. After a stint on the mommy track, Sabrina struggles to leverage her creative writing into TakeOff’s hashtags, while Dan remains MIA when it comes to domestic labor. After working all day and parenting solo all evening, Sabrina moonlights in Craigslist’s dirty panties forums in order to keep the depths and debts of her online shopping addiction secret. Meanwhile, TakeOff’s millennial “Engagement Ninja,” Isabelle, drives most of the novel’s plot by simply ignoring the unsolicited dickpics the CEO sends her after she ends their workplace affair.

Startup’s conclusion takes full, if heavy-handed, recourse in a clever play on words to illustrate its moral. Shafrir’s female characters realize that their careers will never take off in TakeOff’s world. Even when men aren’t trying to get the women into bed, they’re still scheming to run away with the women’s ideas and labor.

Startup recalls many real-life stories, like those told by Ellen Pao, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Kate Losse, Susan Faludi, Nina Power, and Susan Flower.[1] The only way forward for “doing our own shit,” the three women conclude over a glass of wine in the middle of a day they’ve taken off work, is to leave. Sabrina and Katya will take their romances and their careers offline; Isabelle does the same with her Twitter account, which was invaded by trolls when news about her sexual harassment went viral.

Lacey’s The Answers and Nutting’s Made for Love pick up the theme of going off the grid. Their protagonists don’t think it’s worth even trying to have a career anymore, and they have resisted branding or marketing themselves online accordingly. This makes it all the more imperative for the men in the novels to get these women wired up.

When we meet Lacey’s 30-something protagonist, Mary, she’s bookkeeping to pay down her debts at an old-school, bricks-and-mortar travel agency. Mary sets The Answers’s plot in motion when she starts second-job searching in order to afford an expensive new age medical cure for a set of symptoms that would crash WebMD. Mary doesn’t find a job but an “income generating experience” tacked on a bulletin board in her local health food store. Though well-educated and well-traveled, Mary’s throwback youth in one of Tennessee’s evangelical outposts means that she’s still never seen a movie, owned a cell phone, or heard of US Weekly. Mary therefore lacks ambition’s proof-of-concept networks, which means she’s perfect for a celebrity’s high-tech “girlfriend experiment.” Her ideas are both unique and untapped: ideal fodder for the lonely and the entrepreneurial.

In Made for Love, Hazel similarly confronts the “paycheck to paycheck ennui” of her life as a soon-to-be college dropout and accepts a fast-tracked marriage proposal from “Gogle’s” CEO with only slightly more enthusiasm than she once served plates of “lukewarm French fries” to needy, seedy men in a diner.

Lacey’s and Nutting’s heroines quickly learn, however, that even if they’re no longer networking to smash the glass ceiling, they’re still caught in a funhouse where the patriarchy takes ambivalence personally. Silence in the face of a bro jonesing for affirmation can get ugly fast.

Mary’s “income generating experience” entails performing in a celebrity’s “girlfriend experiment.” A white-coated research team supplies a celebrity, Kurt, with women; each fulfills one aspect of a whole girlfriend. Among others, there’s a “Maternal Girlfriend,” an “Anger Girlfriend,” an “Intellectual Girlfriend,” and my personal favorite, the “Mundanity Girlfriend.”

But Mary’s job as the “Emotional Girlfriend” is the most important. She has to listen to Kurt “while remaining fully engaged by asking questions, maintaining eye contact, affirming his opinion, and offering limited amounts of advice or guidance that may or may not be entertained.” She has to maintain eye contact. She has to smile when he smiles. She should “never disagree, challenge, or complain;” nor should she “criticize him for anything, no matter how caring her tone might be.”

A variety of training sessions as well as “technological therapies”—gadgets that monitor and adjust both her body and the brain—will make sure she upgrades until she gets it right.

While Kurt sucks her dry to get over his creative block (finally, he feels “understood”), Mary ghosts him for her own reasons. But when she comes back, he’s armed and ready with a lot of followers and a video camera. Publically shaming Mary turns out to be the creative career hack Kurt always needed.

Nutting’s Hazel also comes to regret and resent designs that promise to be responsive. Hazel spends the honeymoon days of her marriage to Gogle’s CEO, Byron, wandering around his futuristic home in her biofeedback jumpsuit, hydrating with “sublingual” water, noshing on “bioengineered kelp,” sleeping inside a “sensory dome.” When they have sex, Byron likes to “monitor [her] arousal levels via digital pulse readout.”

She leaves Byron after he gets back down on his knee a second time to propose that they install microchips in their brains and “meld” to become the “first neural-networked couple in history.” Hazel bolts to her father’s retirement community where she walks in on her dad warming up his new sex doll.

Hazel fears that Byron would be delighted to strip her down to “part computer, part vagina, part breasts,” too. Byron wants more than that, however. He won’t let Hazel leave the marriage, not only because he’s already installed an expensive microchip in her brain, but because, like Kurt in Lacey’s The Answers, he’s been getting off on the “easy” way he and Hazel had of “communicating.” Byron “always wanted to talk about himself,” and Hazel was happy to listen. She responds in “vague” but “affirmative” ways. Byron repeatedly describes Hazel as “interesting;” he’s been using her thoughts, memories, and experiences as R&D. Hazel eventually escapes the next-level stalking that microchip affords. In an off-the-grid southern town, she closes out the novel having closed-eye sex with a man who’s only good in bed when he can believe he’s bedding a dolphin instead of a woman.

Shafrir, Lacey, and Nutting have written novels about women who just want out: of their love lives, their work lives, and the networks that startup culture has engineered to broker mergers between the two. Please, they are saying. Stop it. Leave us alone. But all the heroines discover that nothing drives a man wilder, apparently, than a woman who wants out.

[1] Shafrir has acknowledged that reports about Ellen Pao’s experience shaped how Startup depicts sexual harassment.