In 1963, Betty Friedan published her influential book The Feminine Mystique, inventing a term to describe the languor born of unfulfilled desires among American women, whose primary duties consisted in keeping their homes and raising their children. Friedan’s book is said to have sparked the “second wave” of feminism that led by the early 1980s to a new American economy dependent upon two adults instead of one per household toiling away in a cubicle, or standing all day on the floor of a retail store, or teaching other people’s children (often in order to pay a stranger look after their own).
The old “mystique” of traditional femininity was said to give way to a new freedom. But a “third wave” of feminists were soon needed to search in vain for what activists like Friedan had made them free for.
Today, amid the various worldly successes of women, feminism is collapsing under the weight of confusion about the great anthropological crisis of our age, a cliché only because it is so important: What is a woman? Progressives have ever-evolving ways to answer these basic questions. But the old longing for freedom to live within the limits of our biological givenness remains too strong to ignore. Feminism’s last-gasp “fourth wave,” therefore, is full of contradictions, embodied in popular culture by the somewhat conservative 2017 wrap-up of Lena Dunham’s otherwise excruciatingly of-the-moment HBO series Girls.
Into this scene enter two creative women: actress/writer/director Natasha Lyonne (generally loved by feminists), and singer/songwriter Lana Del Rey (a little more complicated). In recent offerings from each, we have an opportunity to explore a post-feminist landscape, where the old mystique may not yet be experiencing a rehabilitation, but something beyond the “waves” is coming into focus.
Natasha Lyonne has re-invented herself in recent years after drug addiction and other health problems in the early 2000s, adopting a funny, no-nonsense persona, complete with a gravelly voice that emanates from her petite, even cute, exterior. I wrote last year about her brilliant series Russian Doll, which is as course as it comes, but is also about as fine an exploration of modern philosophy as you are going to find on screen these days. If what the world needs is more metaphysics—and I think the lack of it is precisely what ails us—then Lyonne, who wrote, directed, and starred in the show, is doing us all a service.
More recently, Lyonne has starred in the first season of Peacock’s murder-of-the-week series Poker Face, created by Rian Johnson, whose Last Jedi has the infamous distinction of just edging out Attack of the Clones as the very worst film of the entire Star Wars ennealogy. Johnson ventured successfully into the mystery genre in 2019 with Knives Out; but its sequel Glass Onion, fell flat for me. Mercifully, Poker Face is terrific, thanks most of all to Lyonne, who plays Charlie, a charming nomad who investigates crimes in homage to Murder, She Wrote, The Incredible Hulk, and Columbo. The show is formulaic in the best sense, but with a twist: it is structured to reveal who committed the crime near the beginning of each episode, with the mystery resting in how Lyonne’s character, Charlie, gets to the conclusion.
Speaking of Charlie: right from the start, from her very name, we know we are not dealing with totally traditional femininity. She, like Lyonne herself, is in her early 40’s, unmarried and has no children. She smokes cigarettes, talks in an exaggerated New York/New Jersey accent, swills lager out of cans, and drives a vintage Plymouth Barracuda—perhaps a nod to the girl-band Heart, who had a hit with a song by that name in 1977. In any case, Charlie is not exactly ladylike. And yet, she has an ability that may be best understood as a heightened sense of women’s intuition. If someone is lying, she knows it instantly, and her compulsion for the truth lands her in hot water in the first episode. She ends up in exile in flyover America, fitting right in among various quasi-deplorables in one small town after another, working jobs but clearly not caring two hoots about being a career woman.
Charlie’s gift of spotting baloney (to put it more mildly than she would) comes across as an almost supernatural authority rather than a brute expression of power. She has no strategy for how to operate in the world as a human lie detector (she repeatedly calls herself a “dumbass”), but she never treats it as a mere talent to be exploited, even though casino gamblers, the feds, and the mob all try to pay her to do so. She’s just not interested in “girlbossing.” It’s more like she is exercising a ministry.
And speaking of women’s ministry, former Speaker of the House and self-described devout Catholic Nancy Pelosi, recently said in a conversation at Georgetown University, “Turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, that is real power. Maybe one day women will be able to do that as well.” To Mrs. Pelosi, confecting Christ at the altar is akin to gaining access to the nuclear codes or being rewarded with a corner office. In contrast, Charlie’s success in Poker Face is a tribute to the old mystique, not progressive technique. Her ability is the channel of something both transcendent and objective—a gift, not a right. Authority, not power.
Charlie also represents genuine freedom, as she is willing to smash her phone and do without attachments, but she can never escape doing acts of charity and justice to which she is bound by her gift. Like Jessica Fletcher of Cabot Cove, Charlie always seems to end up in a situation that only she can resolve. When she finds herself in big trouble—for example, in the first season’s most thrilling episode, “Escape From Sh*t Mountain”—she displays a tenacity that evokes Uma Thurman’s Bride character in Kill Bill: Volume 2, punching her way out of a buried coffin; but equally the biblical figure of Jael, who drives the tent peg through Sisera’s temple in the Book of Judges. Charlie is no homemaker and no trad, but she does not waste her particular womanly gifts—nor her freedom—on the promises of any worldly ideology.
In the last five years, Lana Del Rey’s songs have depicted women exploring the same hinterlands of America where Charlie roams. Matching only Kanye West in pop music today as a person of immense talent and recurring confusion and controversy, Lana grew up Elizabeth Grant in a Catholic family in Lake Placid, New York; but for nine albums now her stage name has explored different variations of herself as a glamorous, melancholic character. Like Lyonne, she is nearing middle age, unmarried and childless. On her most acclaimed album, 2019’s Norman F*****g Rockwell, Lana acknowledges cultural decay in a series of elegies for California, and especially on the best song she has ever recorded, appropriately named “The Greatest.”
I’m facing the greatest
The greatest loss of them all
The culture is lit and I had a ball
I guess that I’m burned out after all
Since then, Lana’s lyrics have mostly left Long Beach and Venice behind and have taken us out into something more like real life for most people. The women in her songs—some versions of her, to be sure—sad, loving, lost, faithful, and lustful—are neither pure victims of oppression nor exemplars of empowerment. Lana has also been seriously exploring themes of faith lately, and I noted in 2021 that her album Chemtrails Over the Country Club grasps for reality in a way that reminds me of Luigi Giussani’s “elementary experience.” People are religious. There is simply no other way to be.
On Lana’s new album Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, she digs deeper into the soil of her nation, the stirrings of her soul, and the experience of living as a woman in the Dictatorship of Relativism. In flyover country, feminism is so multivalent to render it meaningless, and young women still grow into their bodies and experience ups and downs in their souls, seeking belonging in fleeting relationships with men for whom duty is not in their vocabulary. In “A&W,” for example, Lana sings as a poor young woman who is at first indignant to be thought a slut, singing “Do you really think I give a damn?” (she does), before embracing a sad illusion of freedom with a loser boyfriend: “It’s not about having someone love me anymore. This is the experience of being an American whore.”
But on the opening track, “The Grants,” (a reference to Lana’s real surname and family) she sets the stage for a more personal theological drama that unfolds in various places on the album. She sings, “Do you think about heaven? Do you think about me?” and then, “My pastor told me when you leave, all you take is your memory.” And speaking of her pastor, we arrive at the truly intriguing fourth track, “Juda Smith Interlude,” which Lana’s progressive fans have dismissed as a “skip” at best, and at worst as a troubling betrayal of her presumed allegiance to the gay and trans agenda.
Smith is the “Lead Communicator” of the Los Angeles megachurch Churchome, where Lana is known to attend. Smith has over 700,000 followers on Instagram, and although he seems to avoid hot-button topics these days, he is on the record as calling homosexuality sinful. Anyway, Lana apparently made the recording herself while attending a service, and her inclusion of over four minutes of Smith’s preaching has some Christians excited (here, here, and here, for example), while at the same time wondering what the point is. Is Lana passing judgment on the unchastity of the young woman from “A&W,” or maybe offering a warning to the “young and reckless” character in “Candy Necklace?” Maybe so. The sermon is about avoiding lust, with Smith saying in an impassioned plea,
Help me want what I got!
Help me love what’s in front of me!
Help me want more of my wife and more of my friends!
Help me serve the city I live in and not wish it away and hope I can move!
Help me, God!
I wanna be a man in love, not a man in lust!
But is Lana serious? At various points you can hear her joking and making comments to people nearby, including laughing when Smith calls God “the whale creator” and “rhino designer.” My best guess is Lana is being sincere—she likes the sermon, but also finds some of the pastor’s comments funny or strange. Moreover, Lana may have the same kind of complicated relationship with church that many of the American women from her songs have, being pulled from decadence to repentance and back again. The megachurches, which are effortless to enter when you feel the need to re-connect with God, are just as easy to slip out of again when the world calls. The album’s last two tracks, “Peppers” and “Taco Truck x VB” seem to pull us away from the narrow path of life prescribed by the Gospel and invite us back onto the vast open road of deathly carnal pleasures. Time to get back to church.
Other tracks on Ocean Blvd give us more autobiographical varia (“Fingertips” and “Grandfather, please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing”), and there are a few real musical beauties, including the winsome “Paris, Texas” and ethereal “Margaret.” Another beautiful song is the Beatles-y “Let the Light in,” which features Father John Misty (real name Joshua Michael Tillman), a former evangelical whose criticisms of his faith background nonetheless reveal a stickiness of Christianity. The song seems to feature a woman begging a man to let her in for a fling, but the result is finally unknown. Maybe “the light” she truly wants is something other than casual sex.
Betty Friedan’s world is long gone, and while it is premature to declare the return of the feminine mystique, the work of Natasha Lyonne and Lana Del Rey may at least point us away from the most destructive aspects of feminist doctrine, even if unwittingly. “When you know, you know,” Lana sings. Or better yet, as Charlie says at the end of the final episode of the first season of Poker Face, “Let’s all of us find out together.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.
I’m making a new rule. When MEN are presuming to talk about feminism, if they’re not grateful, happy, thrilled to see slightly more than half of the species move into full citizenship, then I don’t read them. Seriously, guys. You don’t know anything about any of this. If you’re not talking about job discrimination, rape, murder, battery, slavery within marriage (which is NOT Bibilical), etc. IT’S TIME TO SHUT UP.
No, we’re not going to shut up because you’ve said so. So get used to it.
I’m naking a rule in response to your rule: Follow your own rule – especially the last part.
Kell, Do you think those issues are unique to women?
Kell, unfortunately, I can’t help but think that you would have the same distressing perspective on men even in light of the exterior “appearance” of the life of Our Blessed Mother. She suffered a “slavery” of sorts giving herself completely over to God, the Father. She underwent horrible trials for her loyalty, distressing sufferings for her compassion, complete ANNIHILATION at the foot of the cross – all welling over from her fundamental nature as a feminine, possibly the most feminine, VULNERABLE, woman ever to walk God’s green Earth – and she did this accomplishing all things of her own FREE WILL. She consented to be USED, she consented to be ABANDONED, she consented to be made ever more WEAK and HUMBLE in the sight of man and God. However, she and ONLY SHE will strike a death blow to God’s infernal enemy. In her FIAT is our GLORIA and ALLELUIA. I encourage you to seek consolation in the fact that real men LOVE and ADORE women for precisely the abundant, and beautiful gifts woman possess. Men are not your enemy. Sin and its consequences are your enemy and mine. Please pray for me, a man seeking to be pleasing in the sight of God. Your prayers matter to me.
I refuse to take any Leftist (aka Progressive, aka Liberal, aka Deomcrat, aka Wokist) seriously.
The author takes us from 1st wave feminism to the current 4th wave feminism. No one with half a brain gives it any credibility. When you have no teleogy, when you don’t know the purpose of your life because you refuse to acknowledge the God who created you, then you must continually reinvent yourself lest you put a bullet in your head.
Soon we will be reading about “47th wave feminism” in some book title. Even our Biden-appointed SC Justice doesn’t know what a woman is (betcha bill Clinton does).
Oh my. As a woman i have zero interest in any of this. Finished my Masters degree back in the 70’s when a lot of female friends skipped school and went right to work. Worked a couple of years. Whoopie. Finally reached my goal of being a stay at home full time mother. Nobody MADE me stay home. I WANTED that life. Some work out of financial necessity . Too many work out of personal ego. The kids are the losers. The moms too. They miss raising their kids with quality and quantity time. Tired of the propaganda that you need a paying job to be a fulfilled person.
Bless you LJ.
Putting all the women to work was one of the errors of Russia spread throughout the world.
A loving Mom at home is the most important factor in a loving family, the foundation of a moral nation. There is no job more important IMHO.
Read “The Feminine Mystique” way back when. Went on to read several of the canon of that time. Recently wrote (here) that I’m done with IWD. Lana Del Ray sounds somewhat interesting but not sure I need the confusion.