In April 1990 I happened to be in Minneapolis, considering a graduate program at the University of Minnesota. I was walking across the campus, wondering about the community I might find there, when what should I espy on a kiosk but a poster for an upcoming lecture and video tour about lesbo erotica, offered by none other than Susie Bright, gonzo pro-sex feminist editor of On Our Backs Magazine. I wasted not a minute getting myself there, and what I found did not disappoint.
Packing the auditorium was a full spectrum of the Twin Cities’ thriving feminist community, from pro-sex gals sporting knee-high dominatrix boots to radical anti-porn gals, wool socks poking out from under their Birkenstocks.
As happened so often during those years, Ms. Bright served as a lightning rod for the anti-porn contingent, and they made their presence known, leafleting outside the auditorium and threatening to let off a stink bomb inside the building. But for all the Sturm und Drang leading up to her talk, when the “Pauline Kael of porn” strode on stage — robustly pregnant — whatever further hi-jinx the protesters might have had in mind went, well, flaccid. No banner drop. No shouting matches. Bright’s talk and video extravaganza went off without a hitch.
In retrospect, I sincerely believe that the Susie nay-sayers were simply flummoxed by her pregnitude. How can you, in good conscience, harass a pregnant lady? You kind of just can’t. Especially not if you’re a feminist. Yet I get the feeling she’d have welcomed the incongruity of it. One of the great gifts of Bright’s work has been her insistence that women — and men — be seen in their contradictory wholeness, sexuality interwoven with everything to which it may be conventionally construed to be in opposition. Like, say, motherhood. She takes this weave up directly in Mommy’s Little Girl, the twelfth book she’s pulled together since that eventful night in Minneapolis. It consists of some 21 essays, divided into four main groupings, one interlude of sorts, and a recipe for cherry pie.
In one essay, “Dirty Bookstore Docent,” she tells a friend, “Going to these places [old school porn shops] is like visiting a museum — you need a history lesson, a decoder ring, and an experienced docent if you want to have a clue as to what’s really going on.” And that’s what Bright is, in Mommy’s Little Girl: a dirty docent to the paradoxical world of the multifaceted sexual being. “We’re walking, we’re walking,” you imagine her intoning, as she gestures grandly in the direction of the topics taken up in these essays: words of wisdom about sex spoken to her daughter; some foreshadowing of the Viagra craze; octogenarian nudists; a day on the set of a porn film; (sex) life on book tour. At one point you may pause and ask yourself: But wait! Where is the connection to motherhood in most of these pieces? To which one would have to answer: Nowhere, explicitly, in a lot of them. Except that a mother wrote them all. Which may well be all that’s needed to substantiate the “motherhood” in the subtitle.
The first (eponymous) grouping is the only one to expressly take up either motherhood or her child, Aretha. Still, some of the passages in this section alone are worth the price of the book — such as in “Checkmate,” when she describes to her preteen daughter what sex is: “It’s any two (or more — I’m so careful) people touching each other all over with their hands or mouths or genitals. She really doesn’t know yet that when most people say ‘sex,’ they mean only penis-vagina intercourse.” Or in “The Birthing Day Party,” when she describes the heart-to-heart she had with her daughter’s chums at Aretha’s tenth birthday slumber party. “Spare me the nineteenth-century illusions about childhood’s precious blankness,” she writes. “These girls are smart and inquisitive. They are experts at bathroom humor. But they are also deliberately kept ignorant of their intrinsic female anatomy — to the point of not even knowing the names of anything below the waist.” Again and again, Bright makes the case that honest talk about sexuality is a liberatory, feminist project, one that benefits both women and men, both young people and adults.
In her introduction she notes that she considered the book’s organizing theme to be that of sex and family. Yet the essays in the sections following “Mommy’s Little Girl” range over an even wider terrain, often only very indirectly related to family, and sometimes only faintly related to sex. “Vargas in Drag” is a close reading of Alberto Vargas pinup calendars of the 1940s, filled with early images of the diva warrior dominatrix from whom Xena and Laura Croft are descendant; “Intern Phobia” is an unfortunately self-involved complaint about the groupies that haunt the edges of her life as national sex sage; “Checking Out” (which stands alone in its own section) is a moving and probing epitaph for a vital friend who vowed to end her life before 70, and followed through.
If the tone and audience of the essays collected here vary a great deal, it’s not a surprise, considering the range of publications in which most were first published: her column in Salon, Libida.com, Playboy, The Realist, and the now defunct Yahoo! Internet Life. This is the range of what knocks around in the head of “the X-rated intellectual,” as she has been dubbed. It’s an interesting head, and an interesting life. And if you can get past the expectations raised by the book’s title and subtitle — namely, that the text therein will explore the confluence of motherhood and sexuality, directly and consistently — then you’ll have an enlightening, frequently engrossing, often laugh-out-loud-funny read.
Ultimately, it’s the simple juxtaposition of the elements found in the subtitle of Mommy’s Little Girl that is of such value. A lot on sex, a little bit on motherhood, plenty on porn, one recipe for cherry pie, laid next to one another, and occasionally taken up and knit together. One can forgive what might seem to be an awkward fit — after all, even great sex can be, at times, awkward, and any essay collection spanning as many as a dozen years is bound to be loosely knit, at best. Perhaps the most redeeming argument for that loose knit is this: these disparate elements are not disparate in the lives of actual people. Women who are parents do contend — in the same body, often in the same day — with motherhood and sex and even porn. And sometimes, at the end of that day, when none of the above satisfies, what a gal really needs is a hot, dripping, hunk of cherry pie.