Who are we mere mortals to question Jenny McCarthy’s wisdom? She’s anti-vaccine because she thinks the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine caused her son’s autism-like symptoms. And there’s more of her special, bright, just-a-regular-mom knowledge crackling saltily in her new book, Stirring the Pot: My Recipe for Getting What You Want out of Life.
The author clearly imagines herself sitting on a barstool, something colorful in a martini glass next to her, rat-a-tat-tatting her banalities, a Dorothy Parker to The O.C. generation in a bright shift dress. She’s your sexy aunt, your horny, bad teacher, brash big sister, sassy Ms. Legally Blonde dishing out good ole homespun realness, with the softening glow of motherhood shrouded around her as both shield and textbook.
The cover of Stirring the Pot features McCarthy doing precisely that, in a retro pink dress, with casserole pot and kitschy electronic whisk. Inside the bowl is a red bra, man’s tie, gold-heeled stiletto, and upturned wine bottle, with McCarthy mugging (“Chaotic old me, managing this shit-storm of real life, ladies!”) over it all. You’ll know this image if you watch McCarthy on The View, where her reformed wild-girl shtick is met mostly by indifference from the audience.
A couple of weeks ago, McCarthy screamed, gutturally screamed that she was engaged, and then her fiancé, the former pop star Donnie Wahlberg, appeared behind her, enfolding her in an awkward hug. The audience dutifully stood and whooped, but the atmosphere was not electric. Always look to Whoopi Goldberg at moments like this. She has to look excited, of course, and she did not. She looked the embodiment of “askance.”
“Wow, wow, you’re awesome!” McCarthy squealed to another recent View guest, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Twenty-first century soft-focus sisterhood: In absence of debate, or anything substantive to say to someone so impressive, just shriek.
As on TV, so on the page: McCarthy professes to know everything because apparently she's been through it all. She's so real. She knows you’ll get drunk, get laid by the wrong guy, she knows what it’s like to have a heavy period—she bleeds, everyone, she really bleeds—but she also knows how to stay true to herself. She’s empowered, she wants to empower, she will be empowering, everyone should be empowered by her being empowered, but, you know, in a good way, so you stay sexy but on your own terms, not his. Like, lose your shit and then retrieve it with dignity, ladies.
McCarthy has written 10 books, including a brace of New York Times best sellers with bold, banner, hectoring titles like Belly Laughs: The Naked Truth About Pregnancy and Childbirth, and Love, Lust & Faking It: The Naked Truth About Sex, Lies, and True Romance. Now, with Stirring the Pot, our heroine again takes to the barricades with her shiny-lacquered Marseillaise, holding forth on love, career, men, and parenthood. Have sex in a cheap motel or car after a first date, we are instructed. Really? Must we?
McCarthy is a super-modern mom, she wants us to know. She knows stuff because she gave birth. She knows what it’s like not to have time, to fail, to screw up. (Although unlike most mothers, she obviously has help like any celebrity keeping her good ship upright. Oddly, we don’t hear much about that.) She’s made mistakes. She doesn’t regret them—the nude shots, the crappo relationships, the professional shames—and hey, she’s not saying she’s learned from them, not totally. But she’s been through them, and McCarthy’s big thing is experience: Once you go through something, that’s big. And if you go through enough of it, this accumulation comes to be your calling card of wisdom.
Now in her 40s, just going through a lot of things gives her the right to shake your hand, slap your knees, and cry loud, “I’m with you, sister!” McCarthy’s experience, to be honest, is an unclear mush, but she went through it. That’s enough.
Reading Stirring the Pot is like having a Day-Glo, dumb-feminism-for-dummies megaphone blasted into your ears. Sporadically there are boxes with recipes in them, not food recipes, but life ones. “Letting Go of Knowing: A Recipe for Success” goes: “Whether the concern is about my job, a guy, or the amount of my next royalty check, I try to imagine it as a bar of soap I’m holding in my hand in the shower. If I squeeze the soap tight to try to control it, it slips out of my hand. So the next time you are consumed with worry or obsessed with making something happen, stop squeezing the soap.”
The soap in my bathroom doesn’t slip out of my hand. It gets thinner, then nubby, so it pops out of my hand, but I try to use it till it’s done. (Frugality: Blame it on having parents bought up during World War II.) Why don’t I grip the soap as hard as McCarthy does? What the hell is wrong with me?
The lessons are endless. “A huge part of self-love is being able to stand up for yourself when you are feeling taken advantage of.” Yes, true. And McCarthy’s no pushover. She is down on bar owners who claim a liquor license means they can’t stay open all night. If reacting to criticism, you don’t always have to take the high road, she says. If your 11-year-old mocks you by making a cawing voice, upturn his dinner plate and mock his mocking voice. How very 21st-century Mommie Dearest!
McCarthy doesn’t really address the anti-vaccine crusade she has become the figurehead of, except to mock experts who think they can “explain the difference between laboratory statistics and what a mother sees with her own eyes.” There you have it: Being a mother trumps all. Darn to heck all those scientists with their dumb-ass specialties and studies and laboratory learning, centuries of endeavor and innovation and helping save lives bullshit.
McCarthy knows what she likes. In her 20s she’d try any diet or exercise fad, she writes, “if it had a celebrity endorsement.” Twenty years later, she doesn’t like new things, so don’t offer her veal scaloppini. She alludes a lot to ambition and wanting fame, the kind of hard-nailed, blinkered ambition that drives actors and actresses.
But there is little detail on the hard-knock life she says she endured before the sweeter-smelling uplands she now finds herself in. Instead, there’s a lot of picking herself up, dusting herself off, and rolling with the punches. She’s her own heroine. You gotta love crazy, flawed ole me, says McCarthy. She’s tied to the train tracks, but look, she’s free, and looking fabulous.
“An open mind, the ability to laugh at yourself, the ability to not laugh out loud at someone else’s expense, a little upper body strength (optional)” reads one of McCarthy’s other “recipe for success” boxes. Heaven forbid we see McCarthy as a professional, as a successful TV host, with assistants and help, and an agent brokering her TV and publishing deals. Occasionally we see a telling glimmer through her pink-tipped clouds, as when she fires one assistant who—how frickin’ dare he?—presents her with a plan to make more of her career.
Jokes are her default. Clunkers. Ones that make you growl with irritation. Rock climbing is a revelation to her, but “There are simpler ways of getting that kind of high, though. And it’s now legal in several states.” She won’t tell us the story of how she ate Chiclets off someone’s ass (quelle tease), but, hey, if an open wine bottle doesn’t look like it’s “breathing, give it mouth to mouth.”
She tells us not to judge, then says she is judgmental. There are jokey notes to her agent about playing Meryl Streep’s daughter in a movie that sound real and wheedling beneath the sunny jokes. You won’t find her out on the town as she did in her 20s with girlfriends “celebrating their femininity”; now she prefers to be at home in sweats, drinking really good wine, watching Bridesmaids, and eating pear gorgonzola flatbread rather than pizza. You can have fun without becoming heifers, ladies!
Stirring the Pot devolves into a series of ever-more-unfunny lists, such as “Five things you don’t want to hear at a class reunion,” including such pearls as “Weren’t you a dude?” Under “Seven things you wish someone would invent,” McCarthy includes “an app that can detect blood alcohol level through keys on your phone.”
Later in the book, there is a sudden, explicit chapter on periods, and how heavy McCarthy’s are. Like her mother, whom McCarthy had to retrieve towels for, so she could get from car to house “without scaring the neighborhood,” McCarthy cannot control her periods “for more than about twenty or thirty minutes” as she gets older. She bleeds heavily on the set of a sitcom and then on a plane, where a male flight attendant loans her his jacket to cover her blood-stained jeans.
This play-acting of disclosure is fascinating. This kind of explicit writing is aimed at being leveling between author and reader, but it reads rather as a cover for a lack of true self-examination. Instead, there are more numbing lists, like “If my bed could talk.” “Signs that your man may be cheating on you” include him claiming the smell of cheap perfume was from a tango lesson—both immediately implausible and unfunny.
McCarthy advises that all she is trying to do is show us “baby steps towards better choices.” But her darting between bawdy and be-your-better-self is confusing, as if a New Age therapist has suddenly started doing vodka shots mid-session. McCarthy instructs us to be “conscious, transparent, and vulnerable,” to be aware of “the reality of the present moment,” and have “orgasms of the soul.” What, in public? It’s all so earthy in McCarthy-ville. She loses it completely when someone confuses her with Jennie Garth (Kelly from 90210), and, realizing their mistake, says McCarthy is clearly too old for that. Ultimately her clearest advice is to eat soup if you’re dieting.
Never be downtrodden, says our heroine. “I believe there is a certain magic, a powerful power, in negative thinking,” she tells us after a hundred-plus pages of telling us to be positive.
She suddenly hymns, “The importance of impatience, the beauty of blame, the blessing of narcissism. The rightness of righteousness.” One of the last recipes for success she composes takes in “1 idea, 1 cup conviction, 1 cup clarity of vision, 3 fantasies, 1 stage real or imagined.” We must compose mission statements, and our own TED talks. Self-promotion improves the self for McCarthy, but how effective, and healthy, is this inflation of the ego?
More fascinatingly, McCarthy’s simmering resentments threaten a late walk-on: not having a chat show like Oprah’s or the latter’s wardrobe budget. But, boo, she doesn’t dwell in the sad space, and suddenly she’s telling working parents not to strain for perfection, that she felt fine bringing some Chips Ahoy and vodka to a party for dessert. “Remember that just by providing a space to be with your kids, you are feeding them,” she says. Well, no, actually you are feeding your kids properly by giving them healthy, nutritious food, and emotional sustenance, too.
But McCarthy, heroine who has won her mysterious battles, vanquisher of demons, telling it real like no one else tells it, is not done. Instead of “nursing the wounds of self pity, I put myself out there, put my ass on the line, and let myself be vulnerable to failure,” she says. If it was The View, someone off to the side would be motioning for the audience to applaud.
But there is no way McCarthy would have countenanced failure. She herself makes clear in the book her determination to succeed, and good for her. Her eyes were always on the prize and still are. That is what her book is all about: a constant, relentless quest for attainment for an unquiet mind; fulfillment is the goal, with un-fulfillment, lack, and restlessness as one’s engine and fuel. No wonder her advice is such a contradictory mess. No doubt she would say, “So what, so is life.”
Wahlberg doesn’t feature in the book, but McCarthy says her ideal mate needs more than a great ass and abs, or to share her tastes in booze and fabrics, to “make it into the inner circle of my heart, my home, or my vagina.” So, well done him. That’s a fearsomely intimidating “recipe for success” he has mastered.