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August 24, 2010

The Expensive, Unattainable Lie that is Eat Pray Love


I was recently in need of escape from my overloaded life, so I took myself to the movies. I chose what seemed like the perfect anecdote: the new Julia Roberts self-discovery drama, Eat Pray Love.

This gorgeously produced film is based on the best-selling 2006 memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. Roberts stands in as Gilbert, a writer who is miserable in her marriage, career, and everything else. She needs to find meaning in her life. So, she decides to chuck it all—marriage, cool NYC apartment—and go on her grand voyage. Her journey takes her to some fabulous, intriguing places: Rome, Calcutta, Bali.

Late Friday matinee with Eat Pray Love: What a perfect cinematic escape for a few hours--from a life that, for me, seems to become increasingly challenging as time marches on.

But surely, I could learn some life wisdom from Elizabeth/Julia. Besides having a career in common with Elizabeth/Julia, this heroine also goes to places I once had the privilege to visit in my lifetime. Post college, traveled on my own for eight months to Europe—and, yes, Rome was one of my stops.

Later, my husband and I lived in Asia and took vacations to India and Bali. The latter, an equatorial island in Indonesia, with volcanoes, deep canyons, rushing rivers, rice paddies, Hindu temples, and white beaches, is indeed, one of the most breathtaking places on Earth.

I thought, I’d be visiting, at least through this movie, places for which I have fond memories.

Unfortunately, my disconnect with the film began pretty early in:

It soon felt I was entering what the Bitch magazine essay, Eat Pay Spend,called the world of priv-lit--or in other words, the world of the Wealthy, Whiny and White.

Eat, Pray, Love and its positioning as an Everywoman’s guide to whole, empowered living embody a literature of privilege and typify the genre’s destructive cacophony of insecurity, spending, and false wellness," the essay says.

"Eat, Pray, Love is not the first book of its kind, but it is a perfect example of the genre of priv-lit: literature or media whose expressed goal is one of spiritual, existential, or philosophical enlightenment contingent upon women’s hard work, commitment, and patience, but whose actual barriers to entry are primarily financial," the essay continues.

In both book and movie, Gilbert a successful writer in her 30s, is miserable in her marriage. In the movie, we see that her misery is compounded by her husband, who maybe feels a bit lost himself, deciding that he wants to go to graduate school. What a fink! To get out of the marriage, Elizabeth/Julia decides she will give up her share of the community property—a decision that we’re told leaves her broke.

Really?

A hot, sexy affair with a hunky, sensitive younger actor (played by James Franco) also proves unsatisfying, so Elizabeth/Julia decides \ to travel and figure herself out.

She lands in Rome, and my first question is, what’s she living on? Sure, she gets a room in a cheap but charming pensione (where she has to boil water to fill her bathtub). I stayed in a few places like that myself while traveling through Italy. But last I heard, Italy was not the bargain travel destination anymore. Throughout her Roman holiday, Elizabeth/Julia wears fabulous clothes and gets to take side trips around Naples, eating nice meals in Neapolitan pizzerias, and more chic-looking outdoor restaurants in Rome where the wine flows generalys. (The movie never says this, but articles about Gilbert's book reveals that her year-long journey, which Bitch magazine estimates would cost around $60,000, was paid for by her publisher's book advance.)


Elizabeth/Julia's journey continues to Calcutta to stay, work and pray in an ashram. “I just spend some time in Rome, and I’m feeling so great. Now that I’m here more at the source, I feel more disconnected than ever.” That’s what our heroine tells another Ashram volunteer, a guy named Richard from Texas whose past is a lot darker that Elizabeth/Julia. He responds, oh-so-wisely, “You want to get to the castle, you got to swim the moat.”

Whatever.

Eizabeth/Julia must have been staying in a different part of Calcutta than I remember. Where’s the heat, the soot, the exhaust fumes, the crowds? Didn’t she get sick? Everyone I know who ever traveled to India got sick and that includes me. I left India 15 pounds lighter, a jeans’ size smaller and touting the benefits of the Giardia Diet. But no icky digestive disorders for Elizabeth/Julia. Rather, she learns to meditate and the big lesson: that it’s important to forgive oneself. Isn't that nice.

In Bali, she gets herself set up in a nice little house in the middle of a rice paddy. Mosquito nets drape oh-so seductively around her bed with its Shabby Bali Chic pewter bed frame. Elizabeth/Julia also bikes around those red-dirt Balinese roads in flouncy linen shirts, seeks words of wisdom from a medicine man, and winds up bedding and in love with—Javier Bardem.

Of course, Elizabeth/Julia is once again afraid to love. Yes, here we go again. But she eventually draws important lessons from her time in Rome and Calcutta. At first she says no, no, no. But, like the damsel in a silent movie, she finally allows herself to surrender, just surrender, to the inevitable charms of Javier Bardem.

We leave the movie presuming that Elizabeth/Julia will live happily ever after with Javier, prosperous from his import/export business, and the two will no doubt divide their time between his Balinese estate, his home in Brazil, and some writing nest she’ll set up in Manhattan—which she’ll buy once she sells her book, it becomes a best-selling, and wins the approval stamp from Oprah Winfrey.

The idea that this woman’s escape is something profound and universal to women of a certain educated class is insulting to many women in that educated class. I'm one of those women. Right now, I don't know many women who have the money, or more importantly, the time to worry about the meaning of life. We’ve got marriages that may not be perfect but we’re not giving up on them. We’ve got kids, We’ve got jobs and we’re struggling to make ends meet. Maybe we’re looking after elderly parents, or have kids with special needs, or we’re struggling with health issues, or our husbands are struggling with health issues. In this economy, some of us have lost our jobs. Or our husbands have lost our jobs. Maybe we have a mountain of debt from that home improvement project we started before the economy crashed. Maybe we lost our retirement savings in the 2008 crash.

Some of us havecompanies that instituted non-paid furlough days, or reduced their contribution to our health benefits. At my last job I was essentially paying all my health benefits for my family of three—to the tune of $1200 a month—which didn't include all the other money we’ve paid out of pocket for my husband’s prescriptions. Darn, I could have put all that money into saving up for my Rome/Calcutta/Bali adventure.

Right now, I’m in a start-up kind of job that has certain demands and policies that make it extremely difficult for me to take even a night off, or a weekend off.

So, no, I don’t have time to figure of the meaning of life. "Me time' right now might be finding an hour to catch the latest episode of Mad Men. To make an effort at self-improvement means reading an important article about about the state of the American economy or international politics.

"The truth is that many of us are barely holding on to the modest lives we’ve struggled to create, improving ourselves on a daily basis, minus the staggering premiums, with every day we get up, go to work, and take care of ourselves and our families,” the essay continues.

“Priv-lit is not a viable answer to the concerns of most women’s lives, and acting as though it is leads nowhere good. It’s high time we demanded that truer narratives become visible—and, dare we say it, marketable.”

Namaste

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Screw Eat, Pray, Love. I know someone who just broke up with her boyfriend and took off to a women's surf camp in Costa Rica to "think". What a poser. Back to the laundry and then to my computer for a freelance gig.

Anonymous said...

I’m not sure I understand your point. Are privileged people not allowed to have times of self-discovery and then write about them? Can transformation only occur if the experience is paid for with someone’s own money? Are there no universal themes in this narrative (love, forgiveness, courage, etc.) that are relatable by people of different means? And, anyway, isn’t half the fun in movies escapism?

AKA Soccer Mom said...

Privileged people can do whatever the hell they want, and write about it and try to market it as somehow this great universal, profound event. Oprah does it all the time.

And people like me are free to say they are full of crap, and who gives a who know what, and Elizabeth/Julia's search for paradise has absolutely nothing to do with the struggles of most human beings. Certainly not their targeted audience.

Escapism? Sure. Hey, I'm a devotee of Vanity Fair and Douglas Sirk movies.

But this film doesn't necessarily market itself as escapism, and I doubt Gilbert's book does either. The movie at least furrows its brow and purports to offers us all serious messages. Please.
Oh, yes, I should probably read Gilbert's book. No thanks.
Sorry, escapism or not, the rights of the privileged to navel gaze or not, I found this film and its premise incredibly insulting and annoying.
But the movie did make me want to go to Rome and Bali again. Good for the tourism industry of those countries, no doubt.

farewell said...

Its cool to bash a movie you didnt like. I didnt see it and wouldn't likely be drawn to watch it if it was on tv for free. But I guess I recognize that things made in Hollywood with "a" list stars are made to make money not teach lessons. Next you will be shocked that "pretty woman" and more to the point "sex and the city", were total bs too.

Most curious though for someone purports to being a professional journalist will openly bash a book they have not read, and bloviate about how their life is so difficult as a means to rail on trash to begin with. (I know that was harsh, its your blog, and the grapes are as sour as you make them, sorry)

Anonymous said...

Between this post and others I've read in the past, such as the complaints about extra-large homes, I'm curious: What bothers you so much about the success of others? It's a serious question and I could guess at a hundred answers, but I'd like to hear where you're coming from. I would think it's a dream of *most* people to make a lot of money so that they can travel the world or build a house or support a charity or send their children to college or whatever they're passionate about. What makes you look at those success stories and write angsty blog posts? I tend to marvel at success stories and think, wow, how cool that they were able to do such and such. And it often lights a fire under me to more purposefully follow my own dreams.

Anonymous said...

The movie was boring. It was not entertaining, nor did it offer any honest spiritual/emotional growth. These things take hard work, and are not solved by pulling a "geographic". It pretended to be something it was not, and it may do harm to those who believe it.

DS

Anonymous said...

I'm with you. Didn't read the book, won't see the movie. Total narcissistic baloney. Casting Julia Robers just proves it.

pablo2825 said...

Funny, our book club (this month: Cutting for Stone) segued into this very conversation. Only one of us had read the book (she liked it) but several of us were skeptical of the feasibility for us regular folk who couldn't swing the "time" for self-exploration let alone the "cost" of the trip.

I've no desire to see the movie or read the book but I can see why others would.

Anonymous said...

Cutting for Stone is a great book.

Enjoy!

DS

DumbAsBricks said...

I am making a career transition soon and have pondered the idea of some kind of self exploration.

I too have a family, a marriage, a home, and many other things to look after. I just cannot envision a self indulgent day doing anything for me other than furthering my deficit in keeping all of these things in the air.

However, a day of service seems intriguing. I always get a boost helping others. I am lent a perspective that I could not attain on my own.

Is that in Julia's movie?

Anonymous said...

well, uhm she did choose to visit those countries because they all started with "I".. it is clearly acknowledged. Frankly, I admire the honesty of this "I" over the sanctimonious and monotonous "for the kids" rhetoric
I liked the book the eat and pray but was bored by love.

Val said...

Kudos on this post--you are right in my opinion. Priv-lit is a kind of distracting addiction. I loved reading EPL, but only as a fun, 'fictional' read.