Sitting through Eat Pray Love, the movie in three parts based on the best-selling book in three verbs, the same three words kept coming to mind: white-girl problems.
Earlier that day, Twitter suggested I follow an entire feed, @whitegrlproblem, dedicated most hilariously to the pretend crisis of #whitegirlproblems. Each new tweet is a punch line delivered to more than 23,000 followers about the pitfalls of being young, bored and of means: Sort of like a Gossip Girl-inspired twist on @shitmydadsays, an avatar that closely resembles what I imagine Jane Eyre to have looked like complains, I miss me. #whitegirlproblems, This European sizing is going to give me an anxiety attack. #whitegirlproblems, and Would you consider me self-centered? #whitegirlproblems.
White-girl problems, the feed suggests, are poles apart from the rest of our problems because, really, they aren't problems at all. In Eat Pray Love, Julia Roberts plays Liz Gilbert, the real-life author of the memoir of the same name that tracks her journey from unhappily married life in New York to finding God to his/her greatest gift: love. Liz's problems in the movie are as follows: a husband who loves her too much in suburbia; clinging too much to a hot, unemployed actor in Manhattan; eating too much pasta in Italy; controlling too much of her mind in India; and having too much sex in Bali.
It's a film about how excess in any form can paradoxically leave a woman drained of her own muchness. The whole 2 hours and 13 minutes reminded me of the best line in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Upon her return to the real world, the Mad Hatter finds Alice lacking: "You were much more … muchier," he tells her. "You've lost your muchness."
But is lack of muchness a real dilemma in a world where folks are used to going shoeless through airport security? Perhaps. After all, these days we're living in a world where flight attendants slide out of emergency exits to avoid annoyed passengers. Still, I couldn't help wanting to shake some sense into the 30-something and very successful Liz, screaming her awake from this dream of escaping to finding yourself, "Get over yourself!"
If there was an echo in my own head, I ignored it.
Although it's awesome to see that Julia Roberts hasn't done anything drastic to her face and that her smile is still intact, the Academy Award winner has a hard time squeezing out real tears in the "I'm-finally-leaving-my-husband-who-is gorgeous-but-just-not-for-me" scene or in the "Drive, drive!" scene as she ditches her hunky, bad-acting boyfriend on a stoop all alone. Tears would have meant even more bad acting. In a world with dropping Dows and exponential unemployment, Liz's third-of-life crisis seem less urgent, less real. But is it?
A good friend bought me Gilbert's book in 2007 for my 27th birthday. I remember it mostly because no one buys presents anymore and because she put it directly into my hands and said, "This will be good for you; just get past the first 50 pages." I did. And it was. Reading about a woman's personal quest for enlightenment in my late 20s seemed scholastic, but seeing it on the big screen was sort of boring and, honestly, a bit self-indulgent.
Until — and forgive me from stealing from Oprah, whose audience will love this movie — the "Aha!" moment. For me it was before Liz left on her odyssey overseas. It was before the next hour and 50 minutes of whining and bike riding. I didn't need all the scenery porn in Italy, India and Bali to finally get why Liz ran from her so-called real life like a college kid. She wanted to be the girl.
"Okay, okay, I pick one. I pick you," Mr. Liz Gilbert (played by Billy Crudup) shouts from across the divorce table after Liz accuses him of never choosing a dream. What must it feel like to be a woman to whom a man's dreams are pinned? Perhaps that pressure was just too much for Liz (I know it would be for me). Liz doesn't want to be the husband. She doesn't want to be the responsible one. Growing apart is one thing, growing up is another and growing into someone else is unnerving.
Much has been made of the fairly recent alpha woman/beta man scenario in which the wife brings home most of the bacon, and instead of frying it up in a pan, the husband orders in dinner, using her credit card. The cover story of this month's Atlantic magazine announces, "The End of Men," in a report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way and its vast cultural consequences. My good friend Erica Kennedy wrote a novel, Feminista, which tracks 30-year-old feminist-fashionista Sydney Zimora, who, despite appearing put together, has a breakdown around page 352. Said breakdown can be summed up as this: I want someone to take care of me. I want to be the girl!
Being a modern woman is nothing like what Ann-Margaret would have us believe in Bye Bye Birdie when she sang, "How lovely to be a woman, the wait was well worthwhile. How lovely to wear mascara and smile a woman's smile." In Eat Pray Love, Liz is told to smile from her liver by a toothless Balinese medicine man. She doesn't learn to truly do so until a real man shows up to claim her.
"You don't need a man; you need a champion!" says Felipe, Liz's third and final lover. From the beginning of the end, it's clear that this is her man. He is world-traveler tan, with an accent that sounds better than yours. He is the man who throws Liz's hard-won balance off and into the throes of passion. In the final scenes of the film, she must decide whether to really let go and be the girl or tighten the chains around her newfound muchness. That sounds like less of a white-girl problem and more like some of mine.