8 April 2013

Right now I’m reading Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. Sleepless Nights is an experimental novel about a woman (the narrator) reflecting on her life. We learn through snippets of memories that the narrator grew up and went to college in Kentucky. She moved to New York City to live an intellectual/ artistic life. The novel blurs the line between fiction and memoir. The narrator is named Elizabeth, and the plot reflects Hardwick’s life.

The narrator leaves Kentucky, hoping to find freedom in New York. The tale is a common one. Young people have always sought out New York. It is a place that has been invented by the writer and the painter, and lends itself to further re-invention. Elizabeth hopes to escape the constraints of gender roles in Kentucky.

But she doesn’t exactly find the freedom she is looking for. The narrator says, “I have always, all of my life, been looking for help from a man.” If mobility was an important part of finding freedom for the women of Hardwick’s generation, it does not seem to have been a cure-all. A contemporary feminist icon from popular culture, Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope, eschews the familiar path for women who want more than a life constrained by conventional gender roles, by staying in her hometown.

The fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana is absolutely foundational to Knope’s identity. She is constantly romanticizing this seemingly un-awe inspiring town. Raised by a second wave feminist type mother who also chose to stay in Pawnee, Knope steadfastly refuses to believe that there is any reason why Pawnee can’t be a place for gender equality.

Perhaps, though, this is the point of Hardwick’s novel. She profiles a number of women adrift who seem to have confused aimlessness with freedom. They seem to end up with men who treat them poorly, because, though they know what they don’t want out of a relationship, they perhaps don’t know what they do want.

Knope seems to have found a happy medium. She stayed in the place she loves and dedicated herself to the work she loves. Though her pairing with the attractive and smart and gender progressive Ben Wyatt is perhaps unrealistic, it does indicated that if she finds a good man, the modern feminist can gainfully be involved in a monogamous and dedicated relationship.

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