Karolina Waclawiak’s new novel, The Invaders, focuses in on an aging trophy wife in a Connecticut beachside community who begins spiraling out of control alongside her drug-addled stepson, Teddy. While Waclawiak’s Cheryl escaped her working class life only to end up in a stifling community of wealth, Teddy, born into this life of wealth cannot find a way to cultivate that life on his own. Using the town of Little Neck Cove as a backdrop, Waclawiak writes about the power of sexual currency and what happens to a woman’s identity when she begins to feel sexually invisible. Karolina Waclawiak sat down with the writer Sara Gran to talk about female aging, our culture of sexual currency, and how we talk about beauty.
Karolina Waclawiak: So our homework for this interview was to watch the Courtney Stodden sex tape. Did you? I watched the 5-minute teaser video that Vivid posted online. It’s very interesting that she’s straddling the line between little girl standing in line for an ice cream cone and, obviously, sex-wife. What will happen to her?
Sara Gran: I haven’t seen the whole video, but I likewise watched the teaser. What will happen to her is an interesting question, and one that’s very relevant to your new book, The Invaders. You and I have often spoken about how young women in the public eye now cycle through the ritual of fame/descent/public shaming so quickly that they seem to be in Norma Desmond territory by the time they’re twenty-five. The narrator of your novel is only 44 (my age!) yet feels like her life as a sexually desirable person is over. What’s the best possible future for someone like Courtney Stodden—or Lindsey Lohan or Britney Spears? Why is it so hard to even imagine a happy ending for these women (as with the narrator of your book)?
That’s one reason I wanted to write this book. I wanted to look at a person whose identity was wholly wrapped up in their ability to attract suddenly reach the moment I think all women hit, which is... the moment men stop looking at them. Amy Schumer recently did a sketch called Last Fuckable Day which I thought was absolutely brilliant. Let’s talk about aging — I think it’s as taboo a thing to talk about as death and dying are in our culture. I don’t know what’s going to happen to Lindsay, Britney and Courtney when they lose their sexual appeal. Maybe we can’t imagine a positive future for them because there’s no space for them as older women in our collective imagination. It points to us getting older and that’s what we can’t handle. I’m interested in the lengths a person will go to feel wanted and needed, and so I wanted to write about that. It didn’t end well, because I don’t think it ever does.
But is it possible to use that kind of beauty as a doorway into a more interesting life? Like Brigette Bardot and Audrey Hepburn, maybe? Is it possible to use your beauty, rather than letting it eat you alive? Could you imagine an alternate ending for Cheryl?
Ah, yes, see that’s where things get interesting. I do think you can use beauty as a doorway into a more interesting life. I think beauty is something that can allow you to jump class. For instance, I love Anna Nicole Smith and think she was beautiful. She was someone who used her beauty to escape class and I think it happens often. My character does it, too. Anna Nicole is endlessly fascinating because she was reviled for being “white trash” and a “gold digger.” I thought the Lifetime TV Movie directed by Mary Harron about her was great. Unfortunately, her beauty, and chasing that beauty, did eat her alive. Maybe I am just more drawn to the tragic tales of beauty rather than then the feel-good ones. Are there feel good ones? I don’t know. For Cheryl, the happy ending would be growing old with her husband and getting progressively better at golf. That doesn’t make for an interesting novel. I have to say, though, I’m not interested in putting my characters through hell just for the sake of watching them squirm. I did want to put myself in the shoes of a person who was looked at as someone who didn’t “earn” her place in her community. Much like an Anna Nicole or any woman who is unsophisticated and jumps class. I also think it’s interesting to think about trying to pass in upper classes, what behaviors you mimic to fake it until you make it. It all feels exhausting and sometimes people crumble under the weight of it.
You’ve written a book with two narrators: an attractive young man who is in the thick of things, so to speak, in terms of sex and relationships and love, and an older woman who’s becoming invisible as an object of romantic love or sexual desire as she ages, and the loss she feels with this. Why is a woman who isn’t sexually attractive in a very particular way such a reviled object in mainstream American culture?
So, my character Cheryl is a second wife, a trophy wife, who was prized for her youth and femininity and who is now losing it. I can imagine that takes a huge psychic toll on a beautiful woman. Which is why I think there’s a rush to surgery. I am an avid watcher of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and it’s been fascinating (in a distressing way) to see the women’s faces change over the last few years in a very unnatural way. The reunion show was particularly alarming. Our beauty standards are of course, out of whack and I think there’s been an interesting pornification of women happening for a long time. If you look at some of the Real Housewives, they’ve gone in for those “blow job” lips. They’re supposed to just be the “wives,” some with careers and some not, yet, their standard of beauty seems to be gleaned from someone like Jenna Jameson. It’s not a value judgment, it’s just really interesting. The window of what is attractive seems to be narrowing to just be who looks fuckable. Not interesting looking or alluring in an oddball way, just fuckable. Fuckability it power. My narrator’s stepson, Teddy, is young and powerful because he’s virile and wanted, that is, until he’s not. I do think fuckability is gendered, but attractiveness is powerful for either sex.
And by the same token, the window of fuckability is also narrow. Take for instance, former Housewife Adrienne Maloof. After she and her husband split, she started dating Rod Stewart’s son, Sean, who is about 20 years younger than her. That didn’t go over well and their relationship was skewered over and over again. It was humiliating for her to be dating someone so much younger than her, but men do it all the time. Why? I think a woman’s sexuality is a really frightening thing for people to consider, especially when they’re older. You’re made to feel like you have to suppress your sexuality because it makes people uncomfortable. Maybe the surgeries to look hyper sexual is a way of fighting back against that. Their aging bodies are betraying how they feel so they ape youth in an alarming way.
Is there something possibly subversive in the Real Housewives approach? In “fighting back?” I’m skeptical of that approach, but I’m equally or more skeptical of this cultural ideal of aging “gracefully,” which is the equivalent of “no make-up make-up” — just the right degree of sexiness, just the perfect degree of authority, taking up exactly the right amount of space literally and metaphorically.
Oh yeah, Amy Schumer did a great skit about how men say they don’t want women to wear makeup. It was hilarious. I am in awe of her and her head writer Jessi Klein. They are unabashedly calling bullshit on all of this week after week. I think there’s a lot to be said for just knowing yourself, being yourself, not being malleable to what society has decided what’s beautiful. Just owning you. That’s radical in itself. I own how I look and feel. What I do for myself is for myself alone. That feels radical to me.
I’ve always been obsessed with women who men lust after. From a very early age I was watching MTV with my older sister, and at 7 or 8, I was watching ZZ Top’s “Legs” video and Van Halen’s “California Girls” videos, or really any of the videos with the video girls in them. I was obsessed. I wanted to grow up to be a video girl – all boobs and legs and ass-shaking. I think it informed my entire sexuality. Those women were so wanted and I wanted to be wanted like that.
Later, when I was 11 or 12, I was really into hair metal and groupies. I loved groupies. I wanted to be a Sunset Strip groupie. I didn’t even really know what it entailed except that you got to have fake boobs and ride around in a rolling hot tub limo in a shimmery, barely-there bikini. So I’ve grown up with the wanted and lusted after video girl as the ideal. In the late 90s, porn stars like Jenna Jameson and Janine (Lindemulder) were hitting mainstream. I remember seeing Janine on the cover of a Blink 182 album and being wowed by how sexual she was, in a nurse’s uniform putting on a rubber glove to examine one of the band members. I don’t know where it came from, but I have some ideas of what it’s doing. Nancy Jo Sales had a phenomenal piece in Vanity Fair about being a teenager now. It’s here: and it’s devastating.
Speaking of pornography is that in the end what we’re talking about here — money? Is this a conversation about sex, or about economics?
So I just saw the artist Kate Durbin has launched a project asking what female artists have done for money, and sex is implicit here, I think. Women’s economic freedom has long been tied to their sexual currency, whether or not they’re actually having sex with someone. Honestly, I don’t think you can talk sex without talking about money. So much of our lives are transactional, and who we are and what we’re willing to do in that transaction. It’s not hard to understand why the number one thing people want is sex, money, and power.
Women are rewarded for being beautiful, but are they also punished?
No one wants to know what goes into being beautiful, though for a while surgery shows were very popular. Do you remember the surgery show The Swan? They took an “ugly duckling” and put her through an entire plastic surgery overhaul to make her beautiful. Each contestant’s flaws were dissected and then the surgeries and recovery were treated like something horrific to watch. Maximum shock value all the time. It was kind of amazing to see the host say some version of, Your whole life will change now because you will be beautiful and your husband will love you more and your kids will treat you better and your neighbors will be jealous of you but also secretly wish they could be contestants on The Swan and you will actually not want to kill yourself because you are beautiful now. I’d like to see a follow-up show.
Are they happier? Or does everyone think they’re an asshole now because they are beautiful and full of themselves? Now, what happens when you start out beautiful and it fades, I think there’s definitely a punishment for that. It’s go away, we don’t want to see you anymore. Or, sit here and be quiet while we ogle this young thing over here.
As I bet you know, lottery winners are pretty routinely right back where they started a few years after winning the lottery. I wonder if something similar happened to The Swan participants?
I honestly would love to see a follow-up. I was really trying to subvert all this in The Invaders. Who gets to be wanted and what they do with that want is supremely interesting to me. I love thinking about the power dynamics between men and women and how and why they change. I tried to channel that through both Cheryl and Teddy as they navigate their sexual and non-sexual relationships in the book. I think power is fluid and fleeting and often linked to sexual currency. Think of how maligned women are when they lose it. Look at how much flack Kim Novak got for showing her face in public as an older woman who had stayed alive in our fantasies as a youthful, beautiful actress in so many wonderful films. The think pieces were astounding. Her crime was getting old. And having surgery. We can’t stand our sex idols getting old.
Again, there’s that ideal of aging “gracefully” as the only possible correct option. As you know, I spend a lot of time thinking about the old TV show Three’s Company, one of many reasons being because it presents this really strict schema of gender/age/sex roles. The young women are sexually attractive, but they have no sexual desire. The older women, including my doppelganger Lana and Mrs. Roper, have excessive desire, but no one wants to fuck them. Fortunately I do think real life is slightly more complicated than Three’s Company, although perhaps not by much. What you never see on Three’s Company (or anywhere) is that transition point — that year where you turn from Chrissie to Lana. I guess this is more of a comment than a question — that with Cheryl in The Invaders, you’ve really pinpointed that year — that transformation.
That’s such a good point. Maybe my years and years of watching Three’s Company as a child informed this novel. Thank you Mrs. Roper. And thank you, Mr. Roper. Your relationship inspired me to write my novel. You have to write an essay about the sexual politics of Three’s Company, Sara.
I am ON IT. In the meantime, what about about beauty culture — how does that fit into your life and the lives of your characters? I feel like, as women writers, looks (ours and our characters) are something we’re discouraged from writing about, because it doesn’t feel serious or literary. Can beauty be serious?
I think beauty can be serious. I especially think the fading of beauty can be serious. One of the best film ever made, Sunset Boulevard, has one of the most interesting and complex heroines of all time and that whole film is an ode to the death of beauty and Norma Desmond’s erasure. Has there ever been a more powerful female character than Norma Desmond? I don’t think so. For books, I do absolutely think there’s a feeling that to write about beauty is to not be a serious writer with a capital S, but that is inherently gendered, don’t you think? Philip Roth has been canonized for writing about hurtling toward death, but I don’t feel the same sense of recognition for female writers looking at the same topics. Maybe it’s because of the lens they’re filtering the conversation through. Framing our struggle with aging as a “fading beauty” issue is just another way to delegitimize female writers.
You make an interesting point — is our obsession with female aging a cover for an obsession with death? Is that what Norma Desmond was really so terrified of — dying? Who can blame her?
I think it is! We’re just talking about it in a different way. I think men are just as freaked out about saggy jowly faces and paunches and weird hair growing in unfortunate places, but they aren’t held to as high a standard as we are. So when we decay it’s shockingly uncomfortable to talk about and deal with.
To be honest, it’s hard getting older. I can see a difference in the way I look. And there’s an anxiety that “time is running out.” I think my character Cheryl is not only getting old, but she’s also dealing with how sadness and despair affects how she looks and how she sees herself. It’s like suddenly she woke up one morning and her life is falling apart and she doesn’t recognize herself.
That disembodied feeling is one I wanted to get at in the book as well. And also, control. When your life is out of control, what do you try to do? Control something. How you look is easiest. When I’ve felt the worst, I’d say makeover time! I’d cut off all my hair or dye it a new color, or go get a makeover at a makeup counter and walk around feeling fabulous for the day. And then feel like shit again shortly afterwards.
The things we think about ourselves are vicious. I think we can celebrate our own beauty without tearing ourselves down for not feeling beautiful.
I guess what I’m trying to get at through these questions is: how can we enjoy beauty/desirability/girl-culture make-up, nail polish, stuff without either losing our self-worth or confusing our innate sexual desire for being desired?
I don’t know! Who doesn’t want to be desired? I think about the things I did when I was younger in order to be desired and I cringe. Maybe as we get older we get a better handle on it? I say this often, but I am so glad I grew up in a time when there wasn’t social media. I cannot imagine the pressure of being a teenage girl, or someone in my twenties, even, who’s looking for self-worth in the wrong places and having that search documented. It kind of makes me want to die. Maybe I’m just being very “get off my lawn” right now, but I think everyone goes through a search for desirability and everyone wants to feel beautiful, when it starts being documented and strangers are watching and judging your search, that’s when things gets scary.
Are we falling into a trap by even discussing this? How can we avoid this dichotomy of “women should care about their looks?” versus “women shouldn’t care about their looks?” Can we come up with more interesting ways of talking about beauty?
Women should do what’s right for them and realize everything they are fed is a lie. Though, I think women are smart enough to know that at this point. Just know yourself, and be kind to yourself, however you feel like approaching that. I think that’s a way we can talk about and own our beauty in a productive way.
Sara Gran is the author of five novels, including the Claire DeWitt series.
Karolina Waclawiak is the author of How to Get Into the Twin Palms and the forthcoming novel, The Invaders.
Author photo by Eric Burg.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.