Since my cousin Maria was in town and we couldn’t spend all our time talking about ourselves, she and I went to see Mama Mia, the ultimate chick flick. It was frothy and fun and a little treacly, but what the hell. You don’t inhale an ice-cream sundae with extra whipped cream, then complain because it wasn’t nutritious, do you?
The trouble was — Meryl Streep. My God. She belted out songs. She danced. She raced up and down rock staircases. She whipped her long, blonde hair around. She was exhilarating and tireless. Oh, and did I mention, she looked great?
“Where does she get all her energy?” I grumbled to Maria about halfway through the movie. I was already feeling a little resentful.
“She’s thinking about all the millions of dollars she’s making,” Maria hissed back.
Which didn’t make me feel any better. Oh, that’s right. Meryl Streep is rich, too. I also happen to know — since I keep a wide repository of totally irrelevant information in my mind, probably where detailed records of our 401K and bank account should be — that Meryl Streep is 59. 59! Just about my age. How can she do everything she does and do it so brilliantly? Especially at a time in life when most of the rest of us are whining and sniveling about lumpy calves and arthritic big toes and the unfairness of gravity?
I know it sounds petty and competitive, but that’s the way I get sometimes. Do you ever stop keeping score, just a tiny bit? I try to make my own score-keeping subtle and unobtrusive so I won’t have to give up the remaining shreds of dignity I’m desperately clinging to. So I look at someone about, say, my age, and think, well, she just won the fucking Nobel or Booker or Pulitzer. But big deal. Can she hula-hoop with the same elan I do? Or perform a forward bend that’s the envy of my yoga class? Also, isn’t she (I ask myself hopefully) humorless?
Or, sure, she’s gorgeous and turns grown men into quivering adolescents. But is she smart? Funny? Does she have women friends? Ha! I didn’t think so!
All right, so it’s all pathetic and snide and immature. But it still goes on, at some level, in my mind. Like those Abba songs that just won’t go away.
So I watched Meryl Streep and thought about how she’s brilliant and talented and unstoppable. I recalled reading that, when she took up the violin for a movie role several years ago, she astonished musicians with her prowess after only a few months. She went to Yale, too. She has twice as many kids (four) as I do. She’s also witty, dammit.
There I was, watching a movie about female friendship and camaraderie and joie de vivre — and what was I doing? Keeping score (and losing, pitifully) with a woman I didn’t even know. God, how sad.
Then I thought about how I had just successfully unstopped our bathroom sink with some kind of liquid plumber gunk — unaided! With my husband out of town! All by myself! (Could Meryl have done that? Don’t answer.) And how Meryl’s four kids probably weren’t as wonderful as my own two, with their big hearts and smart mouths. Take that, Ms. Streep!
Maria and I sat and enjoyed the rest of the movie. It occurred to me that, even when you’re old enough and smart enough to realize this kind of female competition is sick and sad and totally unworthy, it still strikes now and then. It’s not that you want to tear somebody else down; not really. It just means that you want to reassure yourself that your own life is good, even if it’s different.
So, as I said, we enjoyed the movie, even if Meryl Streep is kind of a showoff. Maybe she’s just insecure. Oh, yeah, that must be it.
And me? Well, I was getting a little better about this whole female envy problem. By the time I’m 80, I should be just about perfect. Assuming I live that long.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)