On the surface, Primates of Park Avenue is an examination of a lived stereotype: an anthropology-inflected, lightly analytical memoir of coming to belong within an Upper East Side community where blonde, thin, status-obsessed moms hip-check each other with their designer bags, where absent men dole out “wife bonuses” for good performance, where maintaining your appearance can cost $95,000 a year, where dinner parties are segregated by gender.
There’s been some incredulousness, already, about whether or not 2015 could meaningfully look like this: a well-heeled combination of the Real Housewives and Sex and the City. There’ve been insinuations that author Wednesday Martin—a Ph.D. with a background in anthropology who taught literature at the New School and Yale—is being harsh, or sexist, or cherry-picking her anecdotes into the realm of fiction.
But, while the book’s publicity and success will run on the endlessly renewable fuel of sexism, the book itself, notably, does not. Martin is astute about the community she’s studying, but she also makes it clear within the book that her house, husband’s money, and habits implicate her within the “tribe” she’s describing. If there’s an overarching social insight to be drawn from Primates of Park Avenue—the book itself, and the reactions—it’s the reminder that two stone-set clichés unite the state of womanhood where softer ones (benzos, Birkins, and now wife bonuses) will never: first, that a woman’s life is subject to constant moral scrutiny, and second, that her identity will be constructed around her domestic relationships.
As these two ways of seeing both circle sex and reproduction—and their attendant economic earning power, or lack thereof—their implications are intertwined, deeply related. (“That stripper is someone’s daughter,” etc.) The combination of intense moral judgment and domestic identity construction results in the current cultural state of motherhood, and maybe even womanhood, in America—one of conversational admonition and constant self-justification, a state of intimacy that comes with unique privileges and is its own unique trap.
Primates of Park Avenue is a case study in how those two things—trap and privilege, pitfall and entitlement—are eternally related for women; how, even for the wives of billionaire financiers who have handbag closets and a private jet at their disposal, the line connecting liberty and bondage is strong, and wrapped around the body. The women Martin describes—and fights to be accepted by—are, in her words, “Manhattan geishas.” They’ll drop $10k in an hour at Barneys, but their lives are still defined by judgment—our eat-the-rich anger diverted to them, often, over the husbands that really deserve it—as well as the person who fucks them, the people they feed. These are women who have disempowered themselves relative to their husbands not only by family-prioritizing choice but as a form and marker of achievement.
It’s a fascinating subject; Martin’s writing is clear, inviting, glossed just enough that I read the book compulsively in a night. She and I talked on the phone last week.
How’s it been in the lead-up to your pub date? I read that Page Six piece about Upper East Side housewives “panicking” that they’ll make a surprise appearance.
It’s funny that people are taking that angle, because the book is not a tear-down. It’s not a tell-all that names names. It’s not even a satire, although parts of it are funny. I hate to sound boring, but Primates of Park Avenue is a work about tribal behaviors. I think of it as cultural critique in a lot of ways. It tells a story about motherhood in one very particular context.
Yeah. I think people might be expecting this book to be a hate-read, but you walking a fine line well; you’re sharp but never cutting. You could very easily have absolutely skewered this lifestyle, taken stuff out of context to make people seem hateable. Were you ever tempted to go more on the dishy side?
In my heart, I’m two things. I’m a feminist, and I’m a researcher who’s interested in the lives of women worldwide, particularly women with children. This has always been my way of seeing the world, because it’s what my mother taught me. She was very interested in biology, she was a feminist; I grew up with Gloria Steinem and Jane Goodall as my role models.
So that was buffering me, even in the worst moments when I felt shut out—when women were competitive and aggressive in ways that I felt I couldn’t understand. Because of my training and my background, I always just turned to wanting to figure it out. Really, you can’t set someone up and figure them out at the same time. As funny as their lives might seem to you, you have to find out a way to engage. Contempt for women is not my thing.
Right. But, contempt for women is a lot of people’s things. It’s interesting to watch the way people are reacting. It’s sort of a litmus test, showing their priorities—it was interesting watching the wife bonus reactions, the range between amused or disbelieving or contemptuous or sorry for the women’s lack of agency. You left those possibilities open.
There’s no point in making people vulnerable to titillate other people. You have to get at the hows and the whys, and tell a bigger story. And there is a bigger story. The piece that went viral in the Times—I think it’s touching on a nerve. Women want a national conversation about autonomy and about economic dependency. We have this discourse that being a stay-at-home mother is important—and I believe that it is—at the same time that we have a lot of cultural practices that denigrate staying at home. And, at the same time, no matter how wealthy you are, self-sufficiency is incredibly important within our culture—the question of whether or not you could take care of your family if you had to.
And so I would like to see this shifted to the larger issues. Why don’t we have high-quality, regulated daycare with a low turnover and high ratio of caregivers to children? If you’re a wealthy woman, you feel virtually compelled to stay home with your children. You may think you’re making a choice, but it’s a false choice. It means something unique to be married to someone very wealthy but not to be earning the money yourself. These issues are really what’s underneath the reactions to the wife bonus piece.
The wife bonus seemed pretty rational within the constraints of this world. I was more surprised by the dinner party with rooms split between men and women.
The sex segregation was the most fascinating thing about this culture. It’s unbelievable! Much more interesting to me than anything else. At coed camps, they’ll separate the kids when they’re not even five years old yet, and when I asked about it, I was told, “Oh, they have such different interests at those ages.” The sex segregation happens institutionally. That, to me, is a conversation starter!
Yeah, you mention in the book that you were one of the few women who would “dare” to talk to a man at a party. I assume that this was related to the main thing that differentiated you from the women you were studying, which was your career. Did you find yourself hiding your independence, leaning on it, both?
I found myself on the one hand really fixating on the foreignness of this world—and on the other, like any primate, just wanting to fit in. Wanting companionship for me and my children, wanting to learn how to work this culture, crack the cultural codes. And just simply, wanting friends. So I did become more and more like the women I was around.
And these women, because their children had not fledged to school, were not in the workforce. The cultural script of intensive motherhood dictates that, if you can afford it, you should spend every minute of your life enriching your child’s life. Taking them to the museum, teaching them fractions; when they’re playing with Legos, talking to them about what they’re building, rather than just letting them build. This intensive parenting fell to the mothers. That was their work, and they are ideologically and personally compelled to do it.
And so, what happens is not any sort of antipathy between non-working and working women. There are plenty of working women on the Upper East Side, but I never saw them. They live in totally separate worlds. And yet, among the mommies, no one ever insinuated that it was weird that I worked, or that other women worked. A lot of these women had left careers at some point, and even if they had never had them, they were interested in work. They had interesting, engaged conversations about whether or when to re-enter or enter the workforce. They weren’t in any way indolent, as the cliché might dictate.
Right. They’re not lying around. They’re constantly occupied by an incredible amount of lifestyle minutiae: household administration, maintaining social status, enriching their children. It’s behavior that I understand is mandatory in a way, and in another way—I don’t want to say it’s pointless, but it’s supererogatory. Like, in one light their work is non-optional; in another it’s remarkably superficial.
Writing a memoir through the lens of social research, it was not my position to judge. So, when I noticed behaviors that struck me as deeply tribal—the ubiquity of the Birkin bag, for example—rather than go to the point of view of “People are caught up and stupid,” I went to the point of view of, “What does this signify or mean?”
It was the same thing with aggression and competition between women. There were levels of aggression that I found extraordinary on the Upper East Side; it’s a body display culture, women far outnumber men, women have to up their game to be noticed and maybe even to hold onto their mates. I tried to see these things in a broader context, and that was it. It’s not in my training to be dismissive. And really, I wanted to understand these women. They’re glamorous, they’re beautiful, they’re wealthy, they give a lot to whatever they do. I wanted to understand their cultural codes.
And you eventually did. The book details your movement between outsider to insider within that community. How long did that take?
It took a couple of years. One the one hand, you could call it losing my perspective; on the other, you could call it finding my footing. And by the time I left, I was at the point where I have some lovely friends on the East Side who are still part of a culture that I’m not part of anymore—but I understand it now, and it’s a gift.
Well, I always joke, Jia, that I live on the east side of the West Side. I live close to the park. And I think one of the reasons I chose that location is that I didn’t really want to have to choose. I wanted it to be easy to cross between the worlds.
I always say the East Side and the West Side versions of femininity are different from one another, but they need each other to make sense.
You talked about your own personal experience a lot with the Birkin bag and with the exercise culture—but not as much with nanny stuff, with money. Was it easier to write about your life when the subjects were more superficial?
It wasn’t so much a conscious decision to pick and choose—I just found the stories of the women all around me compelling. What most interested me was understanding them.
What was it that made their stories more compelling to you than your own when those particular subjects were concerned?
I was an outsider, coming to them. I was coming from another neighborhood, and really, from a small town in Michigan. A lot of these women were raised as New Yorkers—wives and daughters and daughters-in-law and members of the financial and cultural elite. So, while I had a lot of things in common with them—I relied on other people to help me raise my children, I cared about fashion and looking good and being fit, I cared about my charitable causes—I did feel different and alienated a lot of the time. I’m not sure I’m answering your question?
Women did extend me the luxury of friendship, but it wasn’t until I lost my baby in a very advanced state of pregnancy that I felt those differences fully fall away. That was when I really felt the heritage of cooperative breeders, I know that sounds so nerdy—but I felt this compelling thing, after that harrowing event: I saw the best in people who had seemed rigidly hierarchical, indifferent, dismissive, ruthlessly competitive, unforgivably aggressive. Something else came out, and it was a shared sense of loss.
That section in the book is heartbreaking—the way you write the hospital scene in particular, the resolute humor and buoyancy and love in the details. Grief as the great equalizer is a surprising end to the book.
It’s funny how no one is interested in that aspect of the female experience, are they? They’re interested in salacious details, in reveals—in things that make it easy to feel contemptuous.
But I think motherhood, no matter who we are and no matter our circumstances, primes us for empathy and understanding. That’s what my great heroine, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, the evolutionary biologist, said. And I believe it. I saw it! Empathy, for me, was the only way and the right way to end the story. It’s a risk in a town like Manhattan to show empathy. And yet they did, in remarkable ways.
Did it ever bother you that this empathy only came out when you were down? Were you ever like, “Where was this when I tried to get a playdate?”
This is a tough town, Jia, really—a world where the bar is set very high. It’s an honor/shame culture, a body display culture, a never-let-your-guard-down culture. For all of those reasons, it took a lot to override those practices. I was so moved by their kindness, after my loss, that I never wondered where it had been before that. I saw that I hadn’t really needed them before. When I needed them, that’s when they delivered.
Basically about 150 women, who I met at my children’s playgroups, on playgrounds, at schools, all of these being fancy settings in a wealthy neighborhood. They were highly educated, mostly in their 30s. And the ones I met and studied did not work because, like I said, it’s a very gender-scripted society they live in. And, like the 1% nationwide, it wasn’t a diverse community.
The demographics mirrored the 1%, period. Mostly Caucasian—that’s what I’ll say. If you look at the 1%, or really the .1%, there’s not going to be a lot of diversity.
Did you assume that the whiteness of the community would just be implied because of the economic demographic?
Yes, I thought it was implied. Maybe that was my mistake—thank you for asking.
Another demographic question I had for you was about the sex ratio; you describe it as two to one, single women to single men on the Upper East Side. I had not at all realized that that was the case!
The Upper East Side, Jia, is a very specific and unusual ecological niche. One of the reasons is all the wealth. Another reason is the sex ratios. Let me take a minute to back into the fact that in most places worldwide, sex ratios are basically equal. (We’re talking about a heterosexual world here, not that that’s how I see the world, but it’s necessary for the purpose of explaining sex ratios.) And then, a portion of women will be removed from the candidate pool of potential mates, due to pregnancy, childbearing and lactation.
So what happens? There are always slightly more men than women. Women become what we call the limiting sex; it means, on the most basic level, that men have to make a play for women, make an effort, try. Okay! But here we are on the Upper East Side, where due to migration patterns and professionalization and all kinds of things, sex ratios skew heavily in favor of men. Women of reproductive age come here from all over the country and the world, seeking the kinds of opportunity that women get in metropolitan centers—which is a great thing—and what happens is that men become the limiting sex.
So, rather than male rams bashing each others’ heads in for access to a breeding female, what you see on the Upper East Side is very different. It changes the relationships between men and women, and more interestingly to me, it changes the relationships between women. There’s more intra-sexual competition.
It’s so interesting to me that there are so many single women on the Upper East Side. I wouldn’t have expected that to be a place where single women would congregate.
Maybe not necessarily west of Lex, but they’re definitely on the Upper East Side! They’re definitely there. It is endlessly fascinating. People often look at New York’s sex ratios and stop at the conclusion that it’s hard for women to get a date. But what else does it mean? How does it change how women relate to each other in this city?
I miss the self-conscious elegance. I miss the unapologetic attitude towards dressing up, being hyper-feminine. I liked that, and I still like it.
One of the great underlying ironies of Primates of Park Avenue is that the women you’re describing are on the top of the wealth ladder—living in a state of “ecological release,” as you say; detached from scarcity—and yet they are stressed to the bone, barely able to keep up with the demands of their lifestyle. If it’s this hard to be a very rich non-working mother, what hope do any of the rest of us have?
I would never want to be mistaken as saying that high levels of anxiety and the tension that comes from economic dependency is in any way the same as not being able to put food in the table. Apples and oranges, totally different questions and issues.
But I will say that I do not think that any mother’s life is any more or less worthy of study; and so my modest hope is that I’ve told a story that women and men can relate to, but I also hope that this can be a modest contribution to the literature on motherhood. As an NYU professor said recently, the lens of sociology is often turned only on the poor and the disempowered. Why shouldn’t we examine the culture of the elite?
Right. Rebecca Traister wrote that New Republic piece about how marriage in America looks nothing like the world of wife bonuses—that marriage is changing to be more egalitarian for almost everyone.
But not for the elites! And within the culture of the elite, I think it’s important, and certainly valid, to look for the ways that some women there might have unique advantages but unique disadvantages too. If that doesn’t make me sound too much like Marie Antoinette.
Wednesday Martin studied anthropology at the University of Michigan. She earned her doctorate in comparative literature and cultural studies, with a focus on anthropology, the history of anthropology and the history of psychoanalysis, from Yale. She taught cultural studies and literature at Yale and The New School for Social Research, and also worked in qualitative market research and advertising for several years, bringing anthropological insights about consumer markets to a number of Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies and major brands. Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir is out today.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.