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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 12. 5 August 1970

Book Review

page 18

Book Review

Myra Breckinridge

Time calls it "an incoherent tale of sodomy, emasculation, auto-eroticism and plain bad taste". I was merely amused. A novel about a sex-change—Myron becomes Myra and determined to conquer Hollywood and devastate mankind, she claims half of an acting academy owned and run by Myron's uncle Buck Loner and helps teach 'Empathy' and 'Posture'. There Myra meets an attractive pupil named Rusty Godowsky, whom she chooses to be the victim of her personal power struggle which she hopes to pursue through sex. After succeeding in sexually humiliating Rusty she fobs him off to a talent agent, Letitia. Myra then proceeds to fall in love with Rusty's former girlfriend, Mary-Ann, and after an accident which upsets her hormone balance and reverts her to her masculine state. Myra (now Myron) marries Mary-Ann.

The novel is set in the late 1960's against the richly allegorical background of the 1940's film era (a tradition in which "the facts of lunacy, virginity and death, the last a mask for impotence" are inseparable). It interweaves marvellously most of the philosophical ideas of this century concerning power and sex with a simplicity that would hold the interest of the pre-pubescent.

The nature of the subject, sex-change, should permit a re-orientation of values as Myra "switches back and forth with a minimum of nervous wear and tear". But the reversal is only physical. Although Myra claims to be a new woman she retains the old masculine, archetypal idea (brutal, destructive, vagina-centred) of domination and possession. The trans-sexual operation frees him/her from the detested penis—thus destroying the masculine principle—and Myra hopes to shatter it objectively through the person of Rusty. In wanting to tame for all time the archetypal male Myra created something more masculine. Rusty's masculinity increases, enabling him to satisfy the voracious and masochistic sexual appetite of Letitia (another sexual variant). Myra admires Letitia because she believes that Letitia is the New American Woman who uses men as men once used women.

All the ideas advanced in this novel suggest or subvert greater ones. The idea of Woman Triumphant subverts the greater one of Woman Liberated.

Is Myra a liberated woman? No. She certainly realizes the tyranny of sexual stereo-typing but her reaction is the masculine one of revenge, domination and possession. She uses sex to gain power. Myron was not a homosexual, and was never drawn to men. Once a man wished to penetrate him he lost interest because then he would be the thing used, and so lose the power struggle.

Only in her love for Mary-Ann as a woman does Myra ever express the love of a free non-possessive woman. That this feeling goes when her breasts melt and she becomes male again, strengthens the conviction that Myra was at best only aware of the oppression of women. She changes easily into the suburban mate of Mary-Ann and a life of outdoor barbecues, dogs and Christian Science.

The suburban ending could ruin the book; that it doesn't shows the sense of fun, the toying with preposterous ideas, the frothy exaggerations that forbid the reader to take it seriously.

Myra Breckinridge is a lighthearted interpretation of a grave social situation, the power struggle of men over women—a journalistic impression of our present culture and should be read accordingly. A quick skimming through before throwing away.

Upside down book drawing

The Selling of the President 1968

One of the ways to sell an inferior product is to dress it up in a manner that makes it appeal as being of much higher quality. Madison Avenue had discovered this many years ago and it was only to be a matter of time before the same technique was applied to politicians. The only difference is that in the case of politicians you do not even need the product, you just invent one.

Richard Nixon was the first President to be sold to the people of the United States, or so the story goes. Certainly, Nixon represented a great challenge to the ad-men.

"Let's face it, a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he's a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag. Who was forty-two years old the day he was born. They figure when other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it. He'd always had his homework done and he'd never let you copy.

"Now you put him on television, you've got a problem right away. He's a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight and he jumps out in the morning with his suit all bunched up and starts running around saying, 'I want to be President."

The moral of this book is not that the ad-men took charge or that the President was sold like a packet of cigarettes, as the book's dust cover suggests, but that he was sold as a television personality. Nixon had lost to Kennedy largely through television as the first problem was selling television to him. Nixon is not telegenic and he had been branded as a loser since 1960. The ad-men's task was to create a new Nixon image. In an environment in which 99% of the voters have no personal contact with the candidate, it is the projected image that counts, or, more accurately, the received impression. The new Nixon image, however, did not mean a new Nixon; he remained the same dull, cold and largely humourless man of the 1950's. In effect the ad-men were forced to adopt a policy of presentation by concealment.

The two main television techniques employed were the commercial and the panel discussion. In the former, an attention-attracting series of still photographs was displayed, supplemented by a commentary; the hope being that the pictures would prevent people from paying too much attention to the words. The latter was characterised by rehearsed questions and a selected audience which greeted every Nixon reply with wild cheering to "make it seem to home viewers that enthusiasm for his candidacy was all but uncontrollable". Throughout his campaign, Nixon said nothing that was either new or interesting; he not only developed the use of the platitude to the full, he almost raised it to an art form.

Of course, the ad-men had a difficult task. Nixon was not particularly co-operative and, although well-powdered, he sweated freely under the studio lights. "Make sure you've got that handkerchief soaked in witch-hazel. I can't do that sincerity bit with the camera if he's sweating." There was the problem of Agnew—and how to "hide the Greek"—but most difficult of all was the intervention, almost sabotage, of Nixon's staff. The ad-men clearly considered politics too serious to be left to the politicians, who were no more than amateurs in communication, ignorant of the subtleties of Madison Avenue. These were 1950's-type friends; people who probably thought Marshall McLuhan starred in Gunsmoke. There was a total split between the advertising and political people of Nixon's campaign staff: every time a programme was prepared the 'ethnic specialist' would demand changes, such as the inclusion on a panel of a Jewish attorney, the president of some Polish-Hungarian group or a liberal negro (thereby cleverly doubling up on two categories). Nixon knew that if the ethnic mix was not tight the press would take advantage of it and Nixon disliked and feared the press.

Men with guns photo

Prunella Smerdley - Woman's Weekly

For the ad-men, Nixon was just another client—although no doubt a very profitable one. Men of varying political opinions contributed to the advertising campaign, although some did so only after they had been assured that their names would not be involved. They succeeded in trivialising politics to such an extent because they were not particularly interested in the political aspect of their work. Indeed one is almost shocked by their absolute cynicism.

Joe McGinniss's The Selling of the President comes as a pleasant change after Theodore White's four-yearly offerings. McGinniss does not seriously tax the reader's intelligence. His book is very readable and at times highly amusing. To some readers, no doubt, it will be disturbing. It discredits all concerned with Nixon's campaign, except Mr McGinniss himself—who seems to have been very astute in realising the commercial potential of such a book. However, in my opinion it is not the important book that some have claimed it to be. I am inclined to feel that the importance of television as a political medium is overrated. Today, a man gets elected for what he doesn't say and for what he isn't. Despite the ad-mens attempts to sell a new Nixon image, Nixon himself succeeded in reasserting his right to be just as dull and uninspiring on television as he had always been in person, and it may have been this that helped him get elected (c.f. Holyoake, Heath et alia). Nixon's election campaign cost $17 million. It started with Nixon holding an unprecedented lead in the opinion polls but ended with him being elected by the smallest of majorities over Hubert Humphrey, whose campaign funds had been very much smaller.

In The American Commonwealth (1911), Bryce claimed that the American political system is such that great men are never chosen President. The Selling of the President, whatever its significance with regard to the present political process, in no way serves to refute Bryce's claim.

Just married cartoon

"Roger—I think there's something you should know. I'm a female impersonator."