The Chauvinism of Woody Allen’s “The Whore of Mensa”

December 16, 1974. Woody Allen is fast rising in the film industry on his own terms, then most freshly with 1973’s Sleeper, which would establish 1) his inimitable screenplay concepts and 2) an enduring artistic partnership (after a romantic one from 1970 to 1971) with Diane Keaton for the rest of the 70s that would lead to the immortal Annie Hall. Having already gotten his start as a joke writer in the 50s and a stand-up comedian soon after, it was only a matter of time before Allen took pen to paper in short story form to translate some of his humor to a different medium. With “The Whore of Mensa,” published on the abovementioned date in The New Yorker (and subsequently in the 1975 short story collection Without Feathers), Allen firmly asserted his chops as a literary writer (though most who call themselves that don’t seem to understand the merits of humor in literature). As well as one with an inherently chauvinistic perspective on women and their congenitally feebler brains. That is, unless you found a college girl who worked at conditioning it for some ersatz intellectual conversation.

This is the premise at the center of the short story (the title of which is a nod to the oldest high IQ society) detailing private investigator Kaiser Lupowitz’ encounter with Word Babcock, a man who comes to him in fretful terror that his wife will find out he’s been having stimulating conversations behind her back. As he explains it, “I’m on the road a lot. You know how it is—lonely. Oh, not what you’re thinking. See, Kaiser, I’m basically an intellectual. Sure, a guy can meet all the bimbos he wants. But the really brainy women—they’re not so easy to find on short notice.” It is with this line that the cringes come in consistent waves. For, while perhaps “humorous” to mock the shortage of women with brains in the 70s (where the hell was Betty Friedan when you needed her?), it doesn’t manage to hold the test of time–if it ever really did at one of the heights of the women’s movement when this story was initially released.

Try as Allen might to make the concept of “The Whore of Mensa” “cute” with such machinations as Word calling upon Flossie, the madam with a Master’s in Comparative Literature, for his fix of pay-by-the-hour intellectual “release,” the entire affair is almost a how-to in the art of Foot in Mouth Chauvinism. One honestly can’t decide if it’s worse that Allen has no idea what he’s doing or that The New Yorker, in all of its “intellectual wisdom” decided to run the piece based on Allen being a titan in the city in that era (which he certainly isn’t at the moment, based on his present interpretation of how New York “is”–which is to say, as trapped as he can possibly make it in his version of “Old New York”–the one where chauvinism is also just par for the woman’s course).

One can imagine all the times Allen felt this way about his first wife, Harlene Susan Rosen, who was sixteen when they married in 1956. She soon became fodder for his stand-up acts as he referred to her as “generic” and “Quasimodo.” She eventually had to end it when he chose to do so on as public a venue as television. Word Babcock, too, seems to take issue with his wife’s “shortcomings,” remarking, “I mean, my wife is great, don’t get me wrong. But she won’t discuss Pound with me. Or Eliot. I didn’t know that when I married her. See, I need a woman who’s mentally stimulating, Kaiser. And I’m willing to pay for it. I don’t want an involvement—I want a quick intellectual experience, then I want the girl to leave. Christ, Kaiser, I’m a happily married man.” Not that happily, clearly. Since Carla can’t seem to keep up with conversations about “The Waste Land” and “Styles of Radical Will.”

As Kaiser sizes up the guy and decides whether or not to take on his case by toppling down the neck at the center of the Hydra, so to speak, that is Flossie, he ruminates, “So he was one of those guys whose weakness was really bright women. I felt sorry for the poor sap. I figured there must be a lot of jokers in his position, who were starved for a little intellectual communication with the opposite sex and would pay through the nose for it.” Here again, Allen makes a blatant dig at the average woman’s inability to keep pace with a man’s intellectual desires, the only justifiable excuse being if his intent is to be absurdly farcical in presenting the irony that men are about the most brutish monosyllabic creatures on the planet apart from a bear. Not, as “The Whore of Mensa” continuously touts, women. And even supposing we could give Allen the benefit of the doubt in this regard with tone, his overt condescension toward women throughout the narrative does not come across as mere literary device.

Willing to take on Word’s case by posing as one of the men “paying for it,” Kaiser heads to the Plaza for a meeting with a makeup-free redhead named Sherry. Because no makeup usually connotes the stereotype of college girls with a mind more focused on studying than sex. As Kaiser describes the scene, he inwardly balks, “I let her go on. She was barely nineteen years old, but already she had developed the hardened facility of the pseudo-intellectual. She rattled off her ideas glibly, but it was all mechanical. Whenever I offered an insight, she faked a response: ‘Oh, yes, Kaiser. Yes, baby, that’s deep. A platonic comprehension of Christianity—why didn’t I see it before?'” That word, “pseudo-intellectual,” appears in most of Allen’s work, whether written or eventually rendered to screen. He’s particularly fond of using it on women or men who pose a threat to stealing a woman he’s interested in out from under him.

As for the type of woman Allen and, by extension, the men in the story interested in shelling out for meaningful conversation, is attracted to, her prototype is all spelled out in Sherry. It doesn’t take long for Kaiser to scare her into telling the truth behind how she got into this ring once he flashes his PI badge. “It all poured out—the whole story. Central Park West upbringing, Socialist summer camps, Brandeis. She was every dame you saw waiting in line at the Elgin or the Thalia, or pencilling the words ‘Yes, very true’ into the margin of some book on Kant. Only somewhere along the line she had made a wrong turn.” Because “dames” like Sherry can only have such healthy minds from a long history of being groomed, usually by Jewish parents. To that end, Kaiser finally makes his way to the Hydra herself at the Hunter College Bookstore (just a front for the racket). As a secret door behind a bookshelf opens, Kaiser describes, “Pale, nervous girls with black-rimmed glasses and blunt-cut hair lolled around on sofas, riffling Penguin Classics provocatively… For three bills, you got the works: a thin Jewish brunette would pretend to pick you up at the Museum of Modern Art, let you read her master’s, get you involved in a screaming quarrel at Elaine’s over Freud’s conception of women, and then fake a suicide of your choosing—the perfect evening, for some guys.” This utterly grotesque oversimplification of what a woman must be–how “unhinged” she must be–in order to have any kind of viable IQ also appears in Play It Again, Sam (which came out two years prior to this essay). A famed scene in which Allan (Allen) encounters a moody woman standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting and asks her what it “says” to her. She replies, “It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.” Titillated, Allan inquires, “What are you doing Saturday night?” Without missing a beat, she responds, “Committing suicide.” Even more eager, Allan counters, “What about Friday night?”

It is this exact girl–the “pseudo-intellectual”–that comprises the prostitution ring in “The Whore of Mensa.” Because a woman certainly can’t have cognizance beyond the will to cook and clean without being somehow more pretentious than a man interested in something like prose from Noam Chomsky (also mentioned in the story). To make matters even worse for his endless instances of misogyny throughout the story, Allen, through Kaiser, decides that girls without brains, in the end, are more worthwhile in being less effort or trouble. Preferring the visceral non-complexities of a more philistine type. Thus, the closing lines, “Later that night, I looked up an old account of mine named Gloria. She was blond. She had graduated cum laude. The difference was she majored in physical education. It felt good.” Almost as good as it must have for Allen to be so unabashed in airing his male superiority complex to such a high circulation of readers. You know, back when there was a circulation at all. Luckily, the dissemination of chauvinism to the masses can come straight from the president himself in the present epoch.

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