There have been a few books in recent years that have evoked such strong emotions that people pretty much love them or they hate them. One is Twilight, of course, and another is the memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Even if you have never read Eat, Pray, Love, you probably know the plot already: After a divorce, journalist Elizabeth Gilbert takes a year of her life off to travel, spending three months each in Italy, India and Bali. Gilbert eats good food, quiets the anxiety within her, and falls in love. It’s travel porn for those of us chained to our laptops in perpetuity, but in an utterly unique way, it’s freedom porn, too. Who amongst us hasn’t wanted to do what Gilbert did: secure a book advance, leave the ex-husband/boyfriend behind, and go to three of the most beautiful places in the world in an attempt to lift our depression?
But Eat, Pray, Love the book (and soon, “Eat, Pray, Love” the movie, starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem) has turned out to be a lightening rod of controversy in the most disappointing of ways. The negative reactions to “Eat, Pray, Love” show just how resentful, bitter, contradictory, and quite frankly, hate-filled we are towards a woman who does something for herself.I’ll admit, I used to dislike Eat, Pray, Love. I never rose to the level of torching Gilbert in Amazon.com reviews (more on that in a minute), but I had purchased a copy of the book to read and when friends saw it on my bookshelf, I’d roll my eyes and discourage them from reading it. Elizabeth Gilbert’s seemingly charmed life of food, mediation, and travel was fantastically un-relatable; when I read the book, I was a 23-year-old, paying out the nose to live in a sixth-floor walk-up, and had just been dumped by a guy I was in love with. Where was my yearlong trip to Italy, India, and Bali, huh? Gilbert’s fairy tale was nothing but obnoxious to me — just a lucky woman rubbing her success in our faces.
And I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Read the comments on Amazon.com and you’ll find lots of other readers who found Eat, Pray, Love insufferable. But what you’ll notice is a lot of the comments are about Gilbert herself — not her book. She is “petty, conceited and fickle”; “navel-gazing”; “self-important”; “[has a] lack of intellectual seriousness”; and “a self-absorbed, vain teenager.” A typical Gilbert criticism hitting all the points of why people hate Gilbert is this one:
“My biggest problem with this tome is that this 30-something woman basically is looking for applause for running off for a year, obstensibly supported by a $200K book advance, to ‘find God.’ I’m sure millions of women would love to leave their everyday lives and travel the world to do nothing but self analyze. If she had done volunteer work, I may have felt differently. If she went through some real hardship, I could sympathize. But she was in an incompatible marriage, then dumped by the guy she left her husband for. She should perhaps speak to those battling life-threatening diseases, or raising children alone, or taking care of an elderly parent, or worried about where their next meal is coming from.”
Then, a few weeks ago, Jezebel posted a trailer for “Eat, Pray, Love” the movie. One remark from commenter LilyBonesBurana knocked me off my feet; she said she didn’t want to address Julia Roberts or even “Eat, Pray, Love” the movie, but she wanted to address “Gilbert Bashing.” You can read her entire comment here, but this is the point that struck me:
“[Elizabeth Gilbert] became financially successful as a gifted journalist. She landed a book advance because of her talent. She made her money on her own, with a very unique reportorial voice. Are we to begrudge her for this? I thought that just reward for female talent was a feminist goal. If she was rich (doubt it), or is rich now (no doubt!), she did it all on her own. Good for her! The market rose to greet her on her fourth book. Are we to resent her for that? … She ditched her gilded cage. She got treatment for her depression. She opened her heart for good or ill in a book that resonated with women, as result, took off in a way that rarely happens.”
That one observation made me look at the Eat, Pray, Love situation with new eyes. Maybe I didn’t relate to Gilbert’s experience so much. But why did I choose to dislike her for her choices, rather than respect her for making those choices, for succeeding, and for finding her happiness? Is it because I envy her for being able to devote so much time and money to herself, because she lived the “freedom porn”? If a woman with a success story can’t put herself out there without being called “a vain teenager” and being told she should have done “volunteer work” instead, who can?
If a man had published a book like Eat, Pray, Love, I firmly believe it would have been seen as an adventure story. But Gilbert published her book and she’s accused of navel-gazing and not sacrificing enough of herself or her time (what women are “supposed” to do). That Jezebel commenter was right — a lot of the criticism lobbed at Gilbert is gendered and unfair. And back when I believed Elizabeth Gilbert was an utterly obnoxious person, I’m not sure I was mature enough to realize this.
Images from Amazon.com and iStockphoto