Radical Feminist Idea: Independent Identity

2016-2017 Rising Voices Fellow Aliza Abusch-Magder enjoying a beautiful sunset.

Eat Pray Love is more than just a cheesy chick-flick; it is also a commentary on feminist identity. After leaving her husband, Elizabeth Gilbert embarked on a journey that showed her that her identity isn’t defined by her relationship to men. She wrote a detailed account of her travels to Italy, Indonesia, and India in her book, which was later adapted into a movie. Before her formative journey, she defines herself as a wife and a daughter; in other words, by who she is for other people, often men. By the end of the movie, Gilbert steps off the screen and becomes Liz, a friend of mine with whom I’ve explored and grown. Her struggles are relatable, and her story is compelling, giving hope that we too can break free from the patriarchy. By talking about her life with such brutal honesty, Liz Gilbert provides a cautionary tale for women about what happens when we define ourselves by our relationships with men.

The “eat” of Eat Pray Love is spent in Italy, dining on piles of spaghetti, napoleons, and gelato. Liz sits across the table from Sofi, a friend she made in Italy, each with a full pizza in front of them. Between large bites, Liz wipes pizza sauce off her lips, “I am so tired of saying no and recalling everything I ate the day before. Counting every calorie I consumed so I know how much self-loathing to take into the shower.” Without saying it explicitly, she acknowledges the unrealistic beauty standards in the US. This image of a slender, well-kept body is dictated by a society where women's bodies are objectified, and exist only for the pleasure of men. Later, Liz hesitantly buys lingerie but asks out loud: “for who?” Sofi answers the rhetorical question: “For you, Liz. Just for you.” 

I, too, am tired of worrying about how I look. It really is exhausting trying to be something that you aren’t. Liz gives an alternative – eat the pizza, buy the lace panties; you don’t need to please anyone but yourself. Liz can’t immediately change the way she sees herself in relation to men, but she begins a narrative where her actions are based on self-acceptance, and not on some narrow image of beauty that is a direct repercussion of a patriarchal society.

Liz then travels to an ashram in India where she meets Tulsi, a local girl who is set to marry a man she doesn’t love. As a westerner, Liz is in a difficult position; she wants to empower her young friend but also knows that she doesn’t have an understanding of the culture and circumstance. In her conversations with the seventeen-year-old bride-to-be, Liz tackles another feminist issue: how can we be empowered without breaking our ties to tradition, community, and culture?

Tulsi is mature; she wants to study psychology, gives advice on love and “prefers to be with God than a boy [her] age.” She shows her age when she dramatically states, “my life is over.” Liz offers Tulsi companionship; though not a solution to her marital dilemmas, the comfort breeds hope. For centuries women have turned to one another, seeking affection and support as a means of surviving oppression. Liz gives validity to this form of empowerment. She acknowledges that we can’t always be radically independent and outspoken; our identity is made in part from our heritage and community. She hits on the complexity of personal identity in relationship to other people; she explores the seemingly contradicting ideas that our identity is reliant on community while still being independent.

For the last leg of her journey of self-discovery, Liz heads to Bali to learn from an aging medicine man. Everywhere she goes in the small town she is reminded that she is not only single, but divorced, which in Bali is nearly an offense. The medicine man’s assistant tells Liz, “you [will] get a husband and work hard for him… everyone needs a husband.” Even at a bar surrounded by expats, Liz is pressured to be in a “hot fling.” She vocalized repeatedly that she doesn’t need a man to define her, and strengthens her new-found individual identity. By accepting herself in a society that doesn’t accept her, Liz performs the greatest form of resistance. She teaches us that in order to create the world that is accepting of all, radical self-acceptance is critical.

By bringing up so many important issues through the honest lens of her own life, Liz prompts introspection, realization, and change. She addresses issues that I myself face daily, though the halls of my high school aren’t nearly as cinematic as the golden sunset over Rome. Sometimes I turn to her for guidance, asking: WWLD–what would Liz do? Other times she’s a reminder that my struggles as a woman are not uncommon, and there’s comfort in numbers. Liz Gilbert serves as an example of how to act based on your own needs and intentions. She comes to know and love herself, and teaches others to do the same–if that’s not feminist I don’t know what is! 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Feminism, Marriage, Film
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How to cite this page

Abusch-Magder, Aliza. "Radical Feminist Idea: Independent Identity." 27 March 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 29, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/radical-feminist-idea-independent-identity>.

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