Reading Ariel Levy’s first book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, had a profound impact on my 18-year-old self. It was so refreshing to read her take on what she labelled American ‘raunch culture’. It addressed the highly sexualized culture that had appeared over the previous decade in which women were not only expected to delight in their exploitation, but were encouraged to objectify themselves. In a time when pole-dancing was becoming a recreational activity and sales of Playboy bunny merchandise aimed at young girls were through the roof, nobody wanted to be the ‘humourless prude who didn’t get it’, but Levy astutely pointed out the ridiculousness of women owning their exploitation in the name of choice. Re-reading it now, it has made me nostalgic – those issues seem so small compared to what women currently have to deal with.
Levy’s new book, The Rules Do Not Apply, belongs to a different time and is written in a different register. It is a memoir of the breakdown of her marriage through infidelity and alcoholism, and the traumatic late miscarriage she suffered at 38 whilst travelling for work in Mongolia. It is a hunt for meaning amongst enormous grief, and questions the idea that there can be such a thing as a ‘have-it-all generation’ to which Levy supposedly belongs. It is messy and honest, harrowing and wryly funny.
The title is contentious. If her book tells young women one thing, it is that the rules do apply, no matter how much agency you have. Losing a baby at any age is horrendous, but at 38 with the pressure of the biological clock ticking, it can mean looking at a future without children. In the book she chillingly explains why a friend’s sister had married a man she did not love when she was reaching the end of her childbearing years: ‘She had run out of runway.’ I ask Levy if it is a warning to young women – don’t leave things too late?
‘No. Because that would be saying, watch out, or you’ll end up like me,’ she tells me from her home in New York. ‘I’m obviously sad some things have happened, but I have a great life. It’s not a cautionary tale, it’s a coming-of-age story. Because becoming an adult means realizing some rules do apply, and not everyone gets everything.’
‘Men have had all these choices forever. Women are new to having them, so we are still talking about it.’
Levy presents that realization - that you cannot be in control of everything and must surrender to whatever life brings - as very liberating. Isn’t this especially true for women? Not so, Levy argues, it is the same for men, ‘but they have had all these choices forever. We are new to having them, so we are still talking about it.’
Levy has been a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine since 2008, one of the best perches in highbrow journalism. She writes on relationships, sexuality and gender, and reportedly got the job when she told editor David Remnick that, ‘If aliens had only the New Yorker to go by, they would conclude that human beings didn’t care that much about sex.’ If her life up until her late 30s had been an unusually charmed one, that does not nullify the conclusions she draws from her experiences.
One of the points that really struck me in the book was the medicalization of women’s fertility in the US. In Britain we are by-and-large not used to paying for medical procedures, I tell her. Levy says: ‘We do definitely grow up thinking of healthcare as a privilege, not a right.’ And does that extend to fertility? ‘Medical insurance that you pay in to every month covers a lot of things, but mostly it does not cover fertility.’
Reforming medical insurance is one of the signature promises of Donald Trump. When I mention Trump I can feel her explode at the end of the phone. She sees the progress of a property developer to the White House as proof of how the raunch culture which she discussed in her first book has lowered the value of real expertise in western culture.
‘It used to be that we had a hierarchy based on confidence and virtuosity, amongst other things. It wasn’t perfect, and I’m not saying there weren’t prejudices and problems, but there was more value placed on experience and talent.’
Trump is ‘like a nightmare’ from Female Chauvinist Pigs. ‘He was the guy who ran beauty pageants. And now we see it, we see him caught on camera saying it is OK to grab women by the pussy, and then what happens, unsurprisingly when he gets into power? He’s waging war on women. He’s cutting all sorts of health and workplace rights protections.’
If Trump can turn the clock back legislatively, can he have an impact on women’s rights culturally? ‘He’s certainly had a horrible impact on the culture. You’ve seen an increase in hate crime for example. But he’s also energising resistance in various ways too, which we’ve seen in the women’s marches and the awareness that young women are now having, that the fight is not over, and that everything can be turned back if you’re not careful.’
But what Levy is most concerned about is the environment because that cannot be undone. ‘His policies on the economy, on women’s rights and women’s health - the next president or legislature can push back on and change. People will have suffered, and bad things will have happened, but there is hope. With the environment, there’s no undoing the damage he does.’
I ask her to explain why 53 per cent of white women in the US voted for him. ‘It’s confounding to me. I never, in my worst imaginings, thought this would be possible. I was, like every other idiot, sure she was going to win. It’s incredibly depressing that the most qualified and experienced woman lost to the least qualified, experienced man ever.’ Hillary Clinton doesn’t even need to be named. ‘But it’s like regret, there’s no point thinking what if.’
Finally, I ask about Ivanka Trump and the power she seems to be wielding in the White House. Is that something to hold on to? What power, Levy asks? ‘Just because she can go to the White House, just because she’s there, doesn’t mean she has power.’
Is she there to prove Trump isn’t anti-women? ‘I think she’s his daughter, and he loves and respects her, and she’s there because why wouldn’t she be? But she’s not having much impact. And how could she – she has no experience running a country. She can’t be expected to know how to do that.’ Not everyone gets everything after all.
The Rules Do Not Apply is published by Fleet, £16.99