Fear of Flying turns forty

“The thump in the cunt": 40 years on, what is the legacy of Erica Jong's feminist novel?

erica jong fear of flying

“A whiny, feminist novel.” That was the New York Times in 1973, reviewing Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. 40 years on, Jong’s debut is now a cultural touchstone of the sexual revolution. Things have clearly changed in the intervening decades – but re-reading Fear of Flying, it’s remarkable how so much has stayed the same. 

Its heroine, Isadora Wing, is a Jewish American woman who accompanies her uptight analyst husband, Bennett, to a shrink convention in Vienna. At the conference, Isadora falls for a bawdy London therapist called Adrian Goodlove (seriously) who convinces her into a two-and-a-half week drunken road trip across Europe, promising she’ll find herself in the process.

More than its engaging, pulpy premise or its witty, concise sexual vocabulary (penises are “warhead pricks"), the best parts of the novel are where Jong uses Isadora’s existential crisis to explore a more human malaise. To stay or go? To settle down together or to strike out alone? Isadora spends most of the novel weighing up her options and testing her self-conceived boundaries. She’s got the “restlessness, the hunger, the thump in the gut, the thump in the cunt, the longing to be filled up, to be fucked through every hole, the yearning for dry champagne and wet kisses”.

“She desires what we all want: the full spectrum of human experience, in all its smutty, fleshy contradictions"

Fear of Flying caused a sensation when it was first published. Jong’s daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, puts the novel in historical context: “My mom was born in 1942, in the middle of World War II… My mother grew up in a world where a woman couldn't eat dinner alone in a restaurant, lest she look like a prostitute.” Needless to say, readers in the early 70s were not used to a book that described “finger-fucking to Frank Sinatra”.

Forty years on, portraying female desire is still taboo. Only earlier today, Evan Rachel Wood took to Twitter to express her anger over the edit of her new film, Charlie Countryman. In order to receive an R-rating for general release, its director, Fredrik Bond, had to cut a scene in which Evans’ character received oral sex. 

“This is a symptom of a society that wants to shame women and put them down for enjoying sex,” she wrote. “Accept that women are sexual beings… Women don’t have to just be fucked and say thank you.”

In a similar vein, Lars von Triers’ Nymphomaniac may never be commercially released in its full form – few distributors are interested in a five-hour long film with explicit sex. And earlier this year, alt lit writer Marie Calloway, who penned the incredibly graphic novel what purpose did i serve in your life, was invited to the Dr Phil show – in part, she says, so Dr Phil could argue with her about what a “bad example” she was setting for young women – only to uninvited because her writing was deemed too “racy”. 

“It’s a matter of priorities – who's getting head? Who's giving it?"

But this isn’t an argument about just showing women having sex. The media has absolutely no problem with depicting sex, so long as a man is on the receiving end of pleasure. As Evan Rachel Wood points out, “It’s hard for me to believe that had the roles been reversed [the oral sex scene] still would have been cut”. It’s a matter of priorities – who's getting head? Who's giving it? – and in Fear of Flying, the priority is always on Isadora’s own lusts and needs.  

Fear of Flying is about female desire, and the radical possibilities of desire, which intoxicate and paralyse in turns. Isadora wants spontaneity, safety, rebellion, no-strings sex (the “zipless fuck”) and marital bliss. She’s a creature of pure want, but her concerns never feel superficial. She desires what we all want: the full spectrum of human experience, in all its smutty, fleshy contradictions. 

That's where Fear of Flying triumphs, 40 years on: while the novel’s conclusion is ambiguous, Isadora doesn’t end up punished for her sexual sins, on her knees and repentent for all that came before. Similar heroines like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are summarily punished with suicide and madness for how, who, and what they desire. Even Nymphomaniac doesn’t seem to deviate from this time-honoured path: in its trailer, we see Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character attend a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting. But in Fear of Flying, the woman wins out. Always. 

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