Anthropology 101

I first came across the book Primates of Park Avenue on my FaceBook feed courtesy of that stellar news publication, The New York Times, which presented me with an article called “Poor Little Rich Women”, written by the author, Wednesday Martin. It held the promise of a fascinating read: an anthropological field study of mothers in the hallowed (and super rich) locale of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

primates_02_wpPhotographer, Elena Siebert. Photo courtesy of Wednesday Martin

There were… playdate consultants for four-year-olds who didn’t know how to play because they have so many ‘enrichment classes’ – French, Mandarin, Little LErners, and cooking classes, as well as golf, tennis, and voice lessons – after preschool.” (Page 10)

I ordered the book from my local bookstore Avid Reader to savour over the Christmas-New Year break, and when I picked it up, the bookseller said to me, “what a great title!” And it is – it reinforces Wednesday Martin’s academic credentials – she has a PhD in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from Yale University. Her doctoral work examined early psychoanalysis and anthropology, so you will find plenty of references to both Sigmund Freud and Bronisław Malinowski as well as a host of other social researchers and literary references. But Wednesday Martin (and/or her publishers) are also shrewd marketers, and chose to put a quote from the ‘Tiger Mother’ herself, Amy Chua, on the cover of the book.

Generous, funny, moving, and erudite.”

This gives the reader the ‘heads up’ that the content is likely to be as controversial and debatable as Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother published in 2011 that proclaimed Chinese parents are better at raising their kids than Western ones. And, just as Amy Chua made us gasp with horror when she discovered Sophia’s (the more compliant of her two daughters) teeth marks on the piano left there in frustration and rage against her mother, the reader will be similarly shocked, outraged, and perhaps amused by the antics of those very privileged primates who live on Park Avenue.

I often thought of the symmetrical, still-faced women around me, many of whom had had rhinoplasties before their weddings, as pretty, picture-perfect zombies. They looked beautiful, but they seemed to feel nothing, their eyes, Botoxed all around to prevent crow’s feet, dead in their faces even as they laughed or smiled.” (Page 147)

Like all good academics, Martin knows the value of a good thesis statement and throughout the book, she compares the women in her neighborhood to tribes (both animal and human) around the world, showing the similarities in the ways mothers seek social status everywhere. The social sciences and qualitative research are often seen as ‘soft’ and not as valid as ‘hard’ empirical data, and this may be true to some extent, especially in the field of anthropology.

Even Margaret Mead’s classic work, Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928, which portrays an easy-going society where teenagers grew up free of sexual hang-ups, is not universally regarded as the ‘truth’. Other anthropologists, such as Derek Freeman, argue that the teenage girls interviewed had lied, and invented wild tales about premarital sex to impress Mead.

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Literature, which is Martin’s other professional area of interest, relies on the observations of the author, and the works of two native New Yorkers – Henry James and Edith Wharton are both referenced in Primates of Park Avenue. And, if these social chronicles contain some semblance of the truth, then it would appear that the convoluted social mores of centuries past documented so painstakingly in The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are alive and well (some might even say thriving) in New York’s upper echelons in this millennia.

I have been long fascinated by the machinations of New York’s elite, and fortunately so too have many writers of repute. F. Scott Fitzgerald said “let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Tom Wolfe, in his book The Bonfire of the Vanities gave us ‘Masters of the Universe’ and ‘social x-rays’.

Anyone who thinks the New York that Candace Bushnell presents, in which everyone is fascinated with who’s marrying whom and where the groom works, comes from another era and has clearly never read The New York Times on a Sunday. Every weekend, you will find the Vows section, in which gushing wedding announcements are placed, with details of where the bride’s parents have a second home, which Upper East Side private members’ club the groom’s stepmother belongs to, and for how long his father has been a partner at Goldman Sachs. This is a New York that Wharton, never mind Bushnell, would find very familiar – and the perfect background reading to help put Primates of Park Avenue into perspective.

After marrying a man from the Upper East Side and moving to the neighborhood, Wednesday Martin struggled to fit in but decided to use her background in anthropology and primatology to make sense of her new world.

Initially the other mothers were not welcoming at the school drop-off, but when she compared them to olive baboons, Wednesday started to make sense of their snobbish behaviour, and discovered the way to acceptance is through the ownership of that powerful talismanic object with nearly magical and mesmerising powers – the Birkin bag – that other females in the troop wield to establish their dominance.

When you ask yourself why everyone in Manhattan, including you, wants a Birkin, and why there is such a fervor for the things itself… The answer is so self evident: because I just do … And, it’s true, because you would command a very particular, twisted form of Manhattan respect, also known as envy.” (Page 93).

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The ‘Birkin’ prices range from $11,550 to $150,000, depending on the type of leather and if exotic skins are used, but as Wednesday explains, even if you have the money to shell out on this ‘IT’ bag, acquiring one is not a simple process. The bags are distributed to Hermès boutiques on unpredictable schedules and in limited quantities, creating artificial scarcity and exclusivity. Wednesday does get her beloved Birkin, but if you want to know whether she keeps it, you will have to read right to end of the book to find out.

With the added benefit of Martin’s anthropological lens, the reader gets an inside look at the Upper East Side microculture, from the playdates strategically planned to help your husband’s career, to the disquisition on the differences between the two meccas of fitness: Physique 57 classes or SoulCycle. And what an insight it is!

While SoulCycle was a sweaty nightclub/hot-yoga-class mash-up… Physique 57 was an uptight girls’ school…they are wilder and more fun and cooler, the Birkin to our Kelly…The Queen of the Queen Bees was a SoulCycler.” (Page 124)

Wednesday’s tribal allegiance was to Physique 57 where the work-outs were efficient (less than an hour per session) and gruelling, but created the spectacularly sculpted bodies that belong to the Rockettes or members of the New York City Ballet corps (who also work out at this particular temple of fitness). The Queen Bee Mean Mom was a SoulCycle devotee and generally these mothers were more ‘gangsta’ in their attitudes than the more prim and proper Physique 57 attendees. What they did agree on was that Lululemon was the brand of choice for workout gear.

Not all mothers on the Upper East Side are stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) – some work outside the home, but it is de rigueur that they are glamourous and this costs a lot. Wednesday and her pal, Candace, calculated that it costs around $95,000 (and that’s on the low end of the scale) to be beautiful enough and well-enough dressed, shod, and tended to be in the game.

There are a number of other voyeuristic anecdotes such as the numbing injections that some women get in their feet so they can make it through the night on a $1,200 pair of shoes, which bring about comparisons to the barbaric foot-binding processes that occurred in pre-revolutionary China. But perhaps even more disturbing are the whispers of annual “wife bonuses” some wives reputedly received from their husbands for a job well done – an alleged financial incentive based on the domestic and social performance of glam SAHMs. What is so surprising to those of us who are not Upper East Side natives is that it appears that not only do men control the resources, the gender roles are rigidly scripted, even down to the dinner parties where men and women are sometimes placed in separate rooms.

The memoir becomes more poignant when Wednesday’s life turns upside down, and she learns how deeply entrenched the bonds of female friendship are in her tribe. Cultural rituals aside, ultimately, Upper East Side mothers want the same things for their children that all mothers want: safety, happiness, and success – and not even sky-high penthouses and chauffeured SUVs can protect this ecologically released tribe from the universal experiences of anxiety and loss.

What I most liked about Primates of Park Avenue is that Wednesday Martin is not afraid to put the social science lens on herself. She is honest about her obsession for a Birkin bag and relentless quest for physical perfection – Wednesday admits to having her hair blow-dried before going into labour to ensure that she looked good post-partum. Wednesday moves from being the participant observer to active participant who longs to be part of her tribe. And, in all honesty, isn’t that what we all long for no matter which tribe we belong to?

primates_01_wpPhotographer, Elena Siebert. Photo courtesy of Wednesday Martin

Want to know more about Wednesday Martin?

The self-professed ‘cultural critic at large in high heels’ also wrote Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do – a groundbreaking and unique book for women with stepchildren, men with children of any age who re-partner, adult stepchildren, and anyone who knows and cares about a woman with stepchildren.

For more information visit her website.

 

3 Comments on Anthropology 101

  1. Deb Baker
    January 1, 2016 at 1:24 pm (1 year ago)

    What a fascinating read this looks. This lifestyle is about as far removed from my world as you could get. It would be rather like reading about another species. I honestly don’t understand the fascination and obsession with things like a bag. Looks like a must read. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Paul Margetts
    January 1, 2016 at 8:12 pm (1 year ago)

    This is a beautifully crafted review of what appears to be a pretty serious bit of literature. Well done!

    Reply

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