Slut-Shamed, Yet Resilient

by Sue Tomchin

When college student Aviva Grossman seeks out an internship at the office of charismatic Florida congressman Aaron Levin, she hopes to use it as a first step toward building a career in politics. But what she didn’t plan for was having an affair with her boss. She takes the fall and is slut-shamed and blamed for ruining the up-and-coming congressman’s chances for higher office. Her future in tatters, how can she start over? Bestselling author Gabrielle Zevin tells Aviva’s story in Young Jane Young, a smart, humane and entertaining novel that alludes to the Monica Lewinsky scandal while showing the impact of the double standard on a young woman’s life. Told from the perspective of three generations of women, including Aviva’s mom Rachel, her daughter, Ruby, and the Congressman’s wife, Embeth, it captures the complexities of being a woman in a world where gender bias, misogyny and bullying are all too frequent. We talked to Gabrielle Zevin a few days before the novel’s August 22 release and the following is an edited version of our conversation.

What can you tell me about the evolution of your idea to write Young Jane Young?

The Monica Lewinsky story happened when I was in college. I remember feeling very judgmental. I was a couple years younger than she was and thought, “Why does somebody act that way?” Now I’m almost 10 years younger than Bill Clinton was at the time of that scandal and I think, “Why did a grown man act that way?” You can’t have an affair with the leader of the free world unless he allows you to.

Monica was portrayed as a Lolita but I don’t think the stories we were told could possibly be true. My book came out of thinking about how stories can be seen so differently when you are young, as opposed to when you are middle-aged or older.

But the book also came from a question that I’d been asking myself, which is why are women 51 percent of the population and yet we only have less than 20 percent of the seats in Congress. In considering why don‘t women seek and achieve higher office in the same number as men, I started to want to write a story about women in politics.

Do you feel that women are still receiving the bulk of condemnation when sex scandals happen?

Photo of Gabrielle Zevin by Hans Canosa

Photo of Gabrielle Zevin by Hans Canosa

Yes, I do think that women are certainly punished disproportionately to men when there is any kind of sex scandal. You only need to look at the Monica Lewinsky story to see that she was a young woman, only 22, and she was punished excessively. He was a married man and an elected official and he has managed to go on with his life just fine. I think that happens all the time, not only in politics.

She will always be Monica Lewinsky, the person who was in that scandal. I don’t think there is anything she can do that will erase that from people’s minds. I read a piece she wrote last February, around the time Roger Ailes died, about who had profited from the scandal, and she concluded that it was news organizations that had profited. She certainly had not profited in any way.

I read the comments underneath her article, because I knew I would be promoting my book this fall and wanted to know people’s perceptions of her. Most of them were still so judgmental, and this happened 20 years ago.

My character Aviva Grossman is not Monica Lewinsky, aside from some of the broader details of the story. I know from my own experience of even just putting a description of my book up online, while most people said they are looking forward to reading it, some people said things like, “Boy, Aviva sounds like a dumb girl.” People are even judgmental about fictional women.

Kirkus Reviews called your book “The most immaculate take down of slut shaming in literature or anywhere else.” How did that make you feel?

It made me feel good. As a novelist one of things I want to do is to make people have empathy for people that they maybe never thought about before. I know I’ve succeeded if somebody says, “Now I know something about what it’s like to walk in that person’s shoes, somebody who I’ve even felt judgmental of.”

When you were in college did you consider yourself a feminist?

I went to college in 1995. I graduated in 2000. I don’t think that was a time when there was much of an interest in being a feminist. Feminism at that time was something that our moms had done. We were used to our mothers working. We probably weren’t properly grateful for things that the prior generation had achieved.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that when I was in college I didn’t identify as a feminist. As I’ve gotten older, I think it’s the most important thing I can be. We live in a representational democracy and when that government does not represent the people who live there, that’s a problem.

Probably part of the reason I wasn’t strongly enough a feminist when I was young was because I had a belief in my own exceptionalism. I think that’s a trap a lot of young women fall into. As you get older you encounter plenty of places where you find out there are walls because you are a woman.

An example from my writing career is that just recently I saw that one of the trade journals had categorized Young Jane Young as women’s fiction. The term “women’s fiction” to me is the nicer cousin of chick lit. What that term does, in a way, is to say, “Don’t worry men, you don’t have to be interested in this story because it’s about women.” It basically signals to half the population to ignore something and not take it seriously. Although my book is about women, is important for all genders to read.

Do you think that the people who lump your book into “women’s fiction,” aren’t seeing the deeper meaning of what you’re doing?

I think for the most part if you are a lady, you are always susceptible to not being taken seriously and to people taking the surface meaning. If I had a male name, the book would be read differently. It’s something author Jennifer Weiner talks about, too, the way in which men’s books are read differently from women’s books, and that even the reviews are written differently. For the most part, people seem to be noticing the craft in Young Jane Young and I’m happy about that. I’m feeling quite hopeful that all is going to go well.

Is one of the intentions of your book to show young women the meaning of feminism—that women have choices?

I do sometimes feel that even among feminists, there’s a sense that they’re telling other feminists or other women that they are doing feminism wrong. I don’t think that there is a right feminism. Feminism means that a woman is allowed to make her own choices in life, in the same way that a man is. To me that is the definition of feminism, but there are many others. 

I wanted the book to be a feminist novel. Feminist novels were probably some of the most important novels I read when I was young. Something that people talk about with regards to the Lewinsky scandal is that feminists really didn’t take up her cause at the time. I wondered why that was. I wanted to think about her story from a feminist perspective. I think it would have gone down differently today because women are able to be much more vocal online. There are certain stories we were told [at the time] that we wouldn’t have accepted as readily today. Maybe that’s one of the positive things about social media. We don’t miss much these days.

What books are your literary influences?

The novel that influenced this book was Joyce Carol Oates book, Blackwater. It’s short, almost a novella, and is her telling of the Chappaquiddick story. I read that in college. I always was very interested in what she was able to do there. In a way, my book is much more humorous, more in Ann Tyler mode, rather than Joyce Carol Oates mode.

When I was very young, I had an excellent English teacher. Basically what we read were feminist novels, books like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I came to associate good writing with feminist writing very early on. These books were about uniquely female journeys and women were the prime actors. To me, it was so exciting to discover stories that were about women that I could recognize myself in.

So many great novels are about men, where women are on the side. I do love The Great Gatsby, but Daisy is a side dish. The women are not important. They are objects.

Until I was quite a bit older I didn’t realize the extent to which stories about men tended to win all the prizes and become the ones that culturally people are the most interested in. That was an awakening to me.

One of the issues you raise is women and their body image. Why is it still so hard for women to feel good about their bodies and their appearance?

I don’t think I’ll be the first person to say this. The beauty industry is set up around trying to sell women on the idea that there are broken things about them that they need to fix. That’s part of the problem, but there are others. You only need to look as far as our current president to find examples of the way men of a certain generation see women and believe how they should appear and look.

Last weekend I was in Milwaukee for my best friend’s 40th birthday. I was staying in a hotel where a beauty pageant was going on. They had contestants from age 4 to 63. The 63-year-old had been doing beauty pageants for 40 years. Can you imagine? I was taken by the fact that there are still pageants today that tell women that their worth is based solely on their exterior appearance. It made me feel slightly sad.

I had a mom who always told me I was beautiful. In a way, even that can be bad. Because then you start to value your worth in that way. I don’t know what the right thing is to do. The Jane character in my book struggles with this issue in regard to her daughter, Ruby. She wants to raise her to be strong and confident but Ruby still has to live in the world, a world in which women still have to shave their legs and do all those kinds of things. I don’t have a perfect answer for it. When I write a book, I don’t by the end know the answers, but I want to ask the questions.  

Why did you decide to make Aviva Jewish and from South Florida? Would it have worked as well with someone of another background?

For me it wouldn’t have worked for her to be anything else because that was how I always saw her. When I’m writing a character I need to know how I’m going to be like them. When I started to think about Aviva, I related to her background because I was raised in Boca Raton, Fla. When I was a kid, I thought that the whole world was Jewish because Boca is 66 percent Jewish. (I know because I looked it up.) It’s my ninth novel and I’ve never written about Boca before. But my way to understand this character, this girl and what it would have been like for her was the fact that she was Jewish.

I wanted to write about a certain kind of Jewish person who isn’t observant but is culturally so Jewish. That’s the way I feel myself. My mother is not Jewish; my father is Jewish. But Jewishness is essential to the way I write and the way I look at the world. I was actually excited to write about those things for the first time in this book.

How has having a Jewish background shaped your world view?

There is a kind of humor to me that is part of all my books, even when I’m writing about something that is very serious. I wouldn’t have identified that as something that is Jewish, but in a way it’s deeply Jewish. The ability to find humor in tragedy is a kind of Jewish sensibility. I think one of the reasons why my books have been popular is because of the underlying Jewish sensibility, whether people know it’s there or not.

Do you think it takes going through a crisis to really see what’s important in life? That seems true for Aviva’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.

I would hope it doesn’t take a crisis. For many people it does. It’s certainly not unique to these characters. You either emerge negative and cynical or with something close to wisdom. That’s the case for Aviva’s grandmother for sure. I almost wish I had written even more with her. I really liked writing her so much. I was thinking a lot about my own grandmother who died a couple years ago. She was born in 1916. She would have been about 101 this year. So many descriptions of Aviva’s grandmother come from my grandmother, the way she cared for all her objects because she didn’t want to spend wastefully. When she bought an issue of the New Yorker, she read the whole thing cover to cover.

I had two grandmothers. One I didn’t know very well. She was born in Korea. My other grandmother was an American Jew, born in Connecticut.

I was struck by your light touch in revealing your characters’ hypocrisies. That seemed very akin to what Jane Austen excelled at—to show people for what they are without condemning them.

She’s a master at that. Sometimes people ask me if I agree with all the choices my characters make. I don’t have to agree with everything a character does to write them. As much as I can, I have to have empathy for them. I really want to give every person in the story his or her day in court. I try to be fair.

In your character Embeth you create a beautifully nuanced picture of the pain of a political wife who supports her politician husband despite his sexual indiscretions. One line that really stands out is how she chose the right jacket to wear when he publicly apologized for his affair, one that would say “‘supportive,’ ‘feminist,’ ‘unbroken,’ ‘optimistic.’”

It’s a scene we’re very used to. It’s the kind of political theater that we make these women go through. I don’t think if the situation were reversed that we would see men being willing to participate in the same way. It is theater and Embeth has to put on a costume; she has to decide what’s going to be the suit jacket that’s going to communicate the right messages to the voters.

Embeth is probably my favorite character to write because of the point she was in her life. I could imagine what it was to be her. She definitely is not Hillary Clinton. She is a person who has never really gotten anything for herself. She has cancer that seems to be recurring and is probably near the end of her life. Thinking about her and her disappointments made her someone I felt a lot for.

Your book is deceptive. It doesn’t seem that complex, yet you deal with essential issues and make people think.

If you think about the news and the way the Internet works, you can read news that reflects [only] your own beliefs all the time. It’s a really dangerous thing, this echo chamber. What I love and believe in about fiction is that it’s one of the few places you can talk to and have a nuanced discussion with somebody who is not like-minded. With Young Jane Young, I don’t care what party you are; I think everyone should care about the fact that women aren’t represented in equal numbers to men in our government.

I try to make my books charming and light so I can talk to a great many people about more serious things. Probably 90 percent of the letters I received after my previous book, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, would end with someone telling me, “Now, I’m going to visit my local independent book store.” I thought that’s amazing and a great result. Those people surely must have read all the think pieces in newspapers about local bookstores closing everywhere or must have seen that there were fewer books stores in their town than there once were.

A story has some ability to do what a think piece or even the physical closing of book store can’t, the ability to light the imagination of a reader in a different way. I want my books to be able to do that. You can be entertained by something and take away something greater from it.

One of the messages of your book is about making choices and refusing to become a victim, even when you’ve had a setback in life.

I hope one of the takeaways from the book especially for younger women, but really all ages of women, is about the power of one’s own agency. We actually have a lot of power, especially a woman living in America today. You have the ability to influence the outcome of your life.

It’s really hard for Aviva in the book because she did this thing when she is young, but even she is able to choose enough things to be able to move past it.

One of the things I particularly think about is that we have choices in how we decide to treat each other, and how we decide to look at other women or judge them. It’s something I want to do better. Shame is self-imposed but slut-shaming is something society imposes. I have the ability to not participate in a culture that tries to shame other women.