The Astronaut Wives Club & the importance of lipstick

As I sit here on a Greyhound bus contemplating catching up with the most recent episodes of Marvel's Agent Carter, I am reminded of an interesting trend across various forms of narrative media: a lot of the stories told about women-as-protagonists are about women who are able to take on traditionally masculine roles. A lot of the time, when we read books or watch TV shows or movies about women, we're in board because we are absorbing the story of women who are able to do the same things men did, or better things in similar arenas, despite the handicap of massive prejudice against them. This is great! These stories are really important and awesome. (I also just finished the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and expect to have devoured the whole show my the end of March, HELP.) They're inspiring because flying in the face of convention is difficult, and women succeeding in traditionally masculine arenas are doing something difficult successfully. But what the single-minded focus on those stories neglects is that women who successfully carry out traditionally feminine roles also accomplish someting difficult, something just as important and worthy of being remembered. Which flies in the face of several millennia's worth of accepted wisdom about what kinds of stories, especially historical stories, are interesting and valuable. Which brings me to the topic of this post: The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel, which I downloaded from the Toronto Public Library Overdrive site to read on my many planes and buses during this week off from the TBSO.

Let's get this out of the way: I'm not a space nerd like some people are space nerds. I like space. I've read Wikipedia pages. I borrowed Chris Hadfield's book. I coughed up the dough for an Uber out to the Johnson Space Centre when I was in Houston, and got teary-eyed at a speech of George W. Bush's for the first and hopefully last time in my life (they played a recording of some memorial speech of his when the tour stopped in the middle of the field planted with trees for dead astronauts.) But, y'know, I didn't buy the t-shirt, I don't run out and get any new space-related book as soon as it's released, and a lot of the information in this book that was new to me probably wouldn't have been new to someone for whom knowledge about America's space exploration is a more important hobby.

That said, it seems like a lot of people read this book expecting new information about the actual space program, or the astronauts, or something. Those people are dumb. This book isn't about astronauts, and it isn't about space. It's about women on Earth, and how being a woman on Earth can take just as much out of you as being an astronaut in space. And these women had enough of being manufactured personas during their time as 1950s-acceptable "Perfect Responsible American Wives"; they don't need to be transformed yet again into 2015-acceptable "Strong Women."

And that seems to be pretty much where the backlash is coming from. This is a book that refuses to alter its subjects to be palatable to the modern reader. Thus, when I ventured into the wild world of internet reviews to see what people were saying about the book on Goodreads and Amazon, I found mostly things like this:

 How I wanted to love this book. I'm a big space nerd and have read lots about the astronauts. So this seemed like a natural fit: the familiar story but told from the other side. And there was some of that, yes, but unfortunately too much of the book was just one slightly or not-so-slightly humorous anecdote after the other and descriptions of dresses and shoes.

And this particularly nasty one:

How to write a book about the space program that's far less compelling than the one Tom Wolfe wrote on the same subject, in five easy steps.

1) First, make sure to eliminate everything that's interesting about space, and the politics involved in exploring it. The space race was an insane endeavor. Astronauts faced death when they got in those capsules; some of them actually died. Americans became obsessed with nationalist astro-gazing, but in the background buzzed the constant (and not unsubstantiated) fear that Russia would blow us the fuck up. Ignore all of that. Instead, focus on people's hair.

2) Second, write like a middling high school sophomore. It's best if you channel said sophomore as if he had gotten spectacularly high and only then remembered he had to write something (imagine that, by this point, he's three bowls in and not having an easy time getting his neurons to fire appropriately).

3) Organization, schmorganization. Ramble about whatever comes to mind!

4) Provide no information on the historical context, except to mention that, by the first Mercury launch, pink lipstick was out and red lipstick was in.

5) Don't attempt to humanize your subjects by providing well-researched biographical information. Instead, just find out what they were wearing at the time. That's much easier.

This is nonfiction for the kind of workaday philistines who get their book recommendations from People magazine. The Astronaut Wive's Club is sure to please that demographic: it has a pretty cover, and is a great choice for the type of person who spends their evenings watching The Real Housewives of Orange County while writing inane Facebook posts in which they bemoan their perceived lack of reading time.

Well, ouch. Usually if you want to hear the word "philistines" used in a non-Biblical context, you're going to have to take some undergraduate literature seminars.

It's not that none of the criticisms of the book are valid. Koppel insists on touching on every single one of the wives from Mercury through the end of Apollo, which is a lot of people to keep track of. However, some of them were definitely more vivid than others-- Annie Glenn, who eventually overcame her debilitating stutter, Betty Grissom, who publicly took on NASA and their manufacturer after her husband's death in a ground test for Apollo 1, Rene Carpenter, who ended up with a media presence that eclipsed her husband's when she wrote the syndicated column "A Woman Still" in the Houston Chronicle and hosted TV shows Nine in the Morning and Everywoman, and Trudy Cooper, herself a pilot-- so yes, mostly the Mercury wives got the most attention, and perhaps the book would have been better focusing primarily on them.

However, the complaints about the focus on unimportant things like hair and lipstick are spectacularly missing the point. The whole point is that this book is that it is  not about "everything that's interesting about space, and the politics involved in exploring it." That's not the story being told, because the political story of the time is the mens' story, and it's one that has been told before-- how on earth this reviewer come to be under the impression that this book is about the same subject as Tom Wolfe's? It's not.  The purpose of this book is the acknowledgement  that the hair and lipstick and pictures and publicity that made up the world that these women inhabited hold actual meaning.  Take the story of how "by the first Mercury launch, pink lipstick was out and red lipstick was in." Sure, in itself that piece of information isn't particularly interesting. That's not what that section of the book is about, though. The real story of the pink vs. red lipstick is this: the week after the front cover of Life Magazine featured the seven Mercury astronauts, it featured the seven wives attached to them. This was the wives' introduction to America; they had a responsibility, placed on them by NASA and by their husbands, to represent themselves as the perfect all-American women. The image that would be placed on the cover of the magazine meant a lot-- it had to be a statement of not only who they were, but who all of the wives of America should be. If you are a woman, a lot of your power to be understood within a particular identity comes from how you look. And even if you choose to delude yourself into thinking that this is not still the case today (and you would be deluding yourself), it certainly was in 1959. And in 1959, lipstick-wise, pink was in; not just due to a random whim of fashion, but because the particular pink the wives chose to all wear for the cover photo was the signature colour of the First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower. The choice to wear pink lipstick was the choice to present themselves as sturdy, responsible, and respectable. When they got their first glance at the cover of the actual magazine, though, the ladies were horrified: their lips were red! The editors of Life had decided that Mamie Pink was too old-fashioned and wanted these, the women living on the bleeding edge of the Space Age, to usher in a new era of bold fashion. So, they darkened the hue of the lipstick in the photo to red. It was the beginning of a time in each woman's life during which she was the human behind an intensely manufactured image.

So, Goodreads reviewers, don't try to tell me that lipstick isn't an important part of the story. The ladies knew it was important, the editors at Life knew it was important, and America knew it was important.

 And, if you'd like to read something with a refreshing respect for the stories of women operating within historically feminine boundaries, you can get the book from your library or... okay, this is 2015, you know how to buy a book on the internet, nobody needs me to actually link to where you can buy this book from. It is also, apparently, being turned into a 10-episode TV series by ABC, which I will be watching for.