“I’m afraid the masquerade is over and so is love, and so is love”

February 3, 2012 § 12 Comments

When I read about the “Marie Calloway” thing, I wrote a series of tweets and didn’t post them. I saved them, though, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole thing. Also, because blogs are where tweets go to die:

  • + so dignified and cerebral would respond to a young girl sending sexy photos of herself to him over the internet.”
  • “I was hoping he would say something to the effect of how my looks made it so he was already impressed by me,
  • which would ease the immense pressure I felt to be interesting and witty, (which is what I always hope for from men) but he didn’t.”
  • Regimented artifices underlies heterosexuality. Obligatory games, tricks, shenanigans. At last, it all makes sense. Actually no, it does not.
  • It’s interesting to me how Calloway’s piece is constantly referring to her social manipulations (what we all do) & her reactions to it.
  • What’s depressing to me, of course, is the way the Observer piece frames it. Also, maybe, how female Youth & Beauty is always
  • pitted against male Braininess & Power, and one part of me really, really wishes for another kind of story.
  • Smart, talented, ugly young girl and beautiful older man, for example. But who wants to listen to this story?
  • “Dignified, cerebral” straight men respond to youthful female beauty in the vein of Sir Rushdie: “You look so gorgeous & hottt.”
  • “I am intrigued by your proposal that we sleep with each other, as I have a girlfriend, by which I mean, yes, yes, yes, okay.” – Cerebral Man
  • I’ve heard/read/seen this version of the story so often that I cannot help but feel a mixture of sadness and exhaustion.

There you have it. A series of emo-tweets, perhaps a little mean-spirited (that dig at Rushdie comes from the Observer piece). I couldn’t put this thing out of my mind because as I was reading numerous reactions to her piece, I felt unsettled. There was both a subtle and overt need to decide if what Calloway did was feminist or not. Which seemed to me beside the point – surely the point is to be able to look at a woman’s writing and consider it, engage with it, critique it, without first having to decide if her writing is an act of Feminism™ or not-Feminism™?

So I went back to Calloway’s story:

“It then seemed really strange and unfair to me that the possibility of sex relies on just the one thing, the man’s ability to get an erection.”

[…]

“I feel so vulnerable,” he said, his voice shaking.

I felt annoyed he was only focused on his own feelings, after he had just shot a load on my face.”

[…]

We talked more about Gramsci, and then our feelings.

My face felt tight as his cum started to dry on my face. I wondered how he could respect me, have this intelligent conversation with me, when I was laying there with his cum all over my face.

[…]

“I talked about how mean I felt I had been treated throughout my life for my looks. And how I felt like people judged me less now that I was attractive. How even though it’s not true, I can’t get the idea out of my head that I feel safer when I look pretty. How I felt like the defining theme of my life has always, always been the way I look.

“It’s interesting because people always talk about how women manipulate men with their beauty and have all this power because of their physical attractiveness and ability to have sex or withold sex from men, but I’ve always felt like my own physical attractiveness is just like a defense from men. I feel like men have all of the power, and they attack you if you aren’t attractive. And even men who are attracted to me, I feel like they have all the power because they get less emotionally invested in me than I am in them. But maybe I would have more of that power people talk about if I were more conventionally attractive,” I said.”

I think these passages, consciously or not, explore sex and power play and heterosexual gender performance – and for that reason I find it hard to dismiss the story with an offhand comment like “we all like sex”. Do we all really like sex? Especially when we’re looking at heterosexual relations between strangers; or almost-strangers (Calloway and “Adrien Brody” were aware of each other’s digital existence, and perhaps obsessively so, in that way in which online crushes develop). Especially between partners with a significant age difference. Especially in the ways in which narrating a story about sex in such detail, with the interiority of the female protagonist as the thrust of the narrative, is so unsexy.

As such, these passages, consciously or not, attempt to articulate the power matrices that produce murky, messy heterosexual relations – all at once establishing the idea that beauty is a form of privilege, especially for a woman, especially for a young woman. But at the same time it destabilises and undermines that idea of beauty as privilege by demonstrating that the currency of female beauty circulates within the manufactured straight male gaze. If you have the privilege of beauty you are, of course, not “free” from this gaze, and if you do not have the privilege of beauty you are, of course, not “free” from this gaze.

I’m thinking of many women as I write this, and one of them is Janis Joplin, and this particularly line from Autumn’s piece screams out at me because I read it as true:

Janis Joplin, never having been considered pretty, also never had the security of banal prettiness.

The outrage over Marie Calloway’s story, the moralistic posturing of how she’s a bad girl or how fail-y her “values” are (because she still slept with the guy after finding out he had a girlfriend – “Think of the children and the future of all humankind, you harlot!”, etc.) are countered by some thoughtful responses, but it still seems important to emphasise that our capital-driven, heteronormative society prizes female beauty beyond all other female attributes or accomplishments. What? You mean like, after we decided that women are still human and whatever and feminism CHANGED THE WORLD, after all that… STILL? Yeah. In fact, I tentatively put forward this notion: shit is still fucked up and patriarchal.

Being young and comely is a privilege, and it’s an awareness that Marie Calloway herself seems to demonstrate – though, certainly she also embodies the insecurities that riddle a significant number of women: that she’s not pretty enough. “’But maybe I would have more of that power people talk about if I were more conventionally attractive,’ I said”, she writes. I don’t want to make the mistake of reading this piece of writing as a memoir, or a confessional, but certainly the fact that it blurs boundaries is what makes it messy, irregular, and compelling.

Kate Zambreno writes:

We’re bombarded with images of the pretty young girl, and if she’s only an image, and never given a voice, even a flawed, imperfect, bad-faithed perspective, this is a huge fucking problem.

And this is true, we’re bombarded with images of the pretty young girl who’s a blank slate, but this necessarily acknowledges the reverse: we’re not bombarded with images of a not-pretty young girl, ever. That is, a not-pretty smart girl who is not a freak, the boring sidekick, or the ugly duckling who must be transformed into some form of princess. The Hollywood-Disney industrial complex cannot bear an ugly young girl. Think of an ugly young girl wearing her ugliness with pride, like say, a female Sartre, pug-faced and fucking whomever she wants to fuck because she’s attracted to them, and enjoying it, and people swarming around her because she’s brilliant in ways that don’t involve her face and body; ways that don’t involve her glowing, iridescent skin and invisible pores and sun-kissed hair and smooth underarms and shaved pussy and stomach so flat you can eat sushi off it and naturally-bouncy-sticking-straight-out-and-up boobs. Think of this girl portrayed as just another somebody, no big deal, just another human living her life-

YOUR BRAIN JUST EXPLODED AMIRITE LIKE, OMG DO GIRLS LIKE THAT EVEN EXIST JESUS FUCK WHAT

Untitled, Jason Stillman

And so young, intelligent, pretty girls like Marie Calloway will sleep with an older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking Cerebral Adrien Brody, but will the older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking Cerebral Adrien Brody be attracted to an intelligent, confident, not-at-all pretty woman? And let us then stretch this further and imagine the older, awkward, introverted, slightly odd-looking (white) Cerebral Adrien Brody desiring an intelligent, confident, not-at-all pretty (not-at-all-white) girl? Is there room to imagine this story without sort of LOSING OUR SHIT?

A hostage is freed, and on the radio she says, “I have finally been able to have a wax, and wear perfume. I am getting my femininity back.” Or in any case that was the part they chose to broadcast. She doesn’t want to go into town, see her friends, read the papers. She wants to get a wax? Fine, that’s her business. Just don’t tell me I should think it’s normal. Monique Wittig says, “Here we are, back in the same trap, the familiar cul-de-sac of ‘it’s-wonderful-to-be-a-woman.’” Frequently uttered by men. And relayed by their personal assistants, always eager to defend the master’s interests. Men of a certain age love to tell us this. Neglecting to mention the specificity of their “it’s-wonderful-to-be-a-woman”: young, thin, and pleasing to men. Otherwise, there’s nothing wonderful about it. You’re just doubly alienated.

-          Virginie Despentes in King Kong Theory (emphasis mine)

The “power” that men love to bestow upon women – these must be of a certain sort, must rigidly adhere to certain codes. Young, thin, and pleasing to men. Again, I quote Marie Calloway, and this time with feeling: “It’s interesting because people always talk about how women manipulate men with their beauty and have all this power because of their physical attractiveness and ability to have sex or withold sex from men, but I’ve always felt like my own physical attractiveness is just like a defense from men. I feel like men have all of the power, and they attack you if you aren’t attractive.”

Young or old, ugly or pretty, women who want to belong to the social order and earn its “rewards” must assent to what Despentes calls the “system of forced masquerade”. Can we read stories like “Adrien Brody” as attempts by women, who in the words of Joan Riviere in 1927, “wish for masculinity” and “put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men”? And not because masculinity is “better”, but because opportunities to transcend identity appear to be possible within the realm of masculinity?

Jacqueline Rose has this to say in the chapter “George Eliot and the Spectacle of Woman” in Sexuality in the Field of Vision:

We seem to sanitise the very concept of fantasy when allow to the woman who writes only two positions – subordination to the stereotype or release into the freedom of writing from its weight. Yet could it not also be – and at the risk of troubling the concept of an écriture feminine – that, suspending her relation to the very fact of sexual identity, the woman equally uses writing to masquerade?

This seems to be what is occurring in all the responses to the Marie Calloway story; there is a need to determine whether it’s a feminist piece or not, to allow the woman who writes only two positions. But the piece is compelling to many, I think, because it exists in the indeterminate space in-between. Even people who want to mock her writing or her style have to admit that they actually sat down and read the whole thing. Again, I turn to Rose, and her reminder that “the question of our own implication as readers in a structure and images which we challenge even as they bear down upon, and at moments seduce, us all.” We’re seduced by the Marie Calloway story, most especially, I think, when we’re denouncing it and everyone involved.

But it’s equally important that challenging (what seems to be largely spurious, a performance of outrage in defence of some idea of Moral Values) outrage/condemnation of Calloway’s story is not the equivalent of necessarily succumbing to the universal, trite adage that says, “It’s tough to be a woman”, and to leave it at that. It is tough to be a woman in a patriarchal society. It’s tougher – “doubly alienating” – to not be a certain kind of woman. Not-young, not-thin, not-pretty, not-straight, not-cis, not-white, not-pleasing to men? Well.

“Does woman exist if she isn’t desired?” might be the question to ask.

I return to Despentes: “I like myself as I am, more desiring than desirable.” Though it’s not so simple, as Nina Power reminds us in One Dimensional Woman: “What if there’s no longer a gap between an internal realm of desires, wants and fantasies and the external presentation of oneself as a sexual being? If the image is the reality?”

If the image is the reality then what happens to people who don’t fit the socially-constructed ideal image?

Towards the end of King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes asks, “How long do we have to wait, for male emancipation?” Cis, straight men like the “Adrien Brodys”[i] of the world, who no doubt consider themselves feminist or feminist allies, still can’t say no to the pleasures afforded and made possible by cis, straight (white) male privilege: when these men are awkward and dorky and not-so-attractive but in possession of internet “microfame” or some form of socially-acceptable talent/intelligence/whathaveyou, they can and they will have access to pretty girls to fuck even while having a girlfriend. And when everyone finds out about it (like, say, the pretty girl writes a story for Thought Catalog), the outrage will still largely be directed toward the pretty girl. And back to the pretty girl/woman – people seem happy to think about her reasons for sleeping with an older, more intellectually-authoritative figure because she wants the attention or has nursed a crush. But in wanting what “Adrien Brody” has, and in an attempt to master it and maintain the virtues of womanliness or feminine fuckability, Marie Calloway seems to demonstrate (to me, at least, in my reading) exactly what Riviere suggested: a wish for masculinity.

Meanwhile, what’s the male masquerade? There needn’t be any, amirite, not when you possess the phallus that is the yardstick for, well, everything. But what if sleeping with young, pretty girls when you’re an older man with a girlfriend is a form of masculine masquerade; what if, for the cis, straight man, heterosexual fucking is masquerade in an attempt to fulfill the codes of masculinity that so many cis, straight men seem reluctant to question, critique, demolish?

(DEMOLISH MANLINESS)[ii]

(DESTROY MANLINESS)

(JUST SAY NO TO MANLINESS)

It’s rarely ever “just sex”, when you’re an internet thinker/celebrity who writes about the self and social media and microfame, and one of you is an internet writer/celebrity who writes about the self and sex and microfame, and one of you is in a supposedly committed relationship, and one of you is prettier than the other, and one of you is an older man, and one of you is a young woman.

It’s rarely ever “just sex” when the conversation is largely about the young woman in question, and rarely about the man in question and how heterosexual sex is produced, used, performed.

Women are masquerading so hard all the time that they fall into fits of hysteria and take off their clothes and fuck anything that moves – yes, we’ve heard this story before.

I’d just rather spend some thinking about manliness as masquerade.

(*Art by Jason Stillman)


[i] Keeping in mind that “Adrien Brody” is as much fictional construct, if we read it this piece as fiction, as he is “real”, (if we read this as memoir/essay). How much of what is said and thought in this piece, how much of what is attributed to “Adrien Brody” and “Marie Calloway” real/authentic or imagined? Precisely the point, and also beside the point.

[ii] I’m hoping that inserting random comments into a blog post works on the subconscious of the Twitter generation the same way that Satanic chants inserted into all forms of rock music worked on the subconscious on the 80s generation.

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§ 12 Responses to “I’m afraid the masquerade is over and so is love, and so is love”

  • Space Bar says:

    This has to be kept and read several times over. Thank you.

  • Amazing post, wish i could write this eloquently about feminism!

  • ab says:

    This is great, but I think one of the curious facts about beauty is this: one does not actually have to be beautiful to have sex. Men have sex with unbeautiful, unyoung, unthin women. They even, and often, seek it –even men with some authority (intellectual or otherwise) have sex with nonbeautiful, old, heavy women, or even men possessing beauty/youth themselves. Men even betray their (often beautiful) partners in order to have sex with these women who are not beautiful. Beauty of the type discussed here is something other than the means to have sex. Sex is profoundly _haveable_. It requires no special appearance to procure: like the male gaze, everyone can also get fucked. It is perhaps the “power” of beauty to not have sex with those who desire you, rather than to have it, so in this a beautiful female protagonist finds herself so dissatisfied: it was an analytical error: she did not know that the power resided in _not_ doing it — too naive still to understand this machine of power from beauty only works denial of everyone’s desires, including her own.

    • Subashini says:

      Thanks for this perspective — there’s an overlap of sexual desire/availability and beauty that I didn’t quite interrogate. I’m interested in your statement that “sex is profoundly _haveable_”, because it certainly is, but also because I’m curious about how we think about how less/not-beautiful women have it.

  • Jessica says:

    Part of what’s interesting to me about the MC story as far as what you’re examining here is how little MC’s youth and looks appear to matter to “Brody.” I don’t get the sense throughout that he actually cared about her age (if anything, he seemed slightly put off when she tried to get him to talk about their difference in age), and he only acknowledges her looks when she explicitly asks him to. (“don’t you like them?” she asks him of her legs.) MC’s regard of herself (some might call it narcissism but I remain neutral) is the story of youth and beauty here, not “Brody’s” regard of her.

    (I mean, the larger cultural reaction to the piece is the real story here, as you point out. I just thought that was interesting, that he didn’t bite.)

    • Subashini says:

      That’s interesting. The way I read it, it seemed as though “Brody” didn’t have to focus on her age/good looks because it was already a given that she was attractive — he had, of course, presumably already seen her online pictures before quietly accepting her invitation to meet.

  • the author says:

    Reblogged this on GOTFREDSONLAND and commented:
    Interesting literary commentary written as a series of nonexistent tweets.

  • Marie calloway says:

    I found this to be very interesting, thank-you. I was talking today with my friend about privilege awarded to conventionally attractive women who are artists and writers. She said of Nakadate: “i think most criticism directed towards laurel nakadate stems from this place. i don’t think she only gets attention because she’s attractive. but i do think that her work is made possible and could only possibly be made by a conventionally attractive woman. one can’t deny that she uses her beauty as a weapon against men, and there are some (myself included – still don’t know how i feel about nakadate) who think “okay, but what other feminist strategies are available to women who can’t use their looks/aren’t conventionally attractive?’ there is the flipside to this, of course – is a woman not allowed to express herself, to include images of herself in these attempts at expression, just because she is beautiful? hannah wilke often talked about feeling stigmatized for her beauty, interesting to read about…”

    I have had similar lines of thoughts about some of the criticisms about me, but also about my own privilege as young, white, middle class etc where it pertains to getting attention to my writing…

    By the way, all of the passages you quoted where written with the intent you suggested that they might have. Besides being a story about human connection, “Adrien Brody” was an exploration of gender/beauty/power, though through the personal lens of the Marie Calloway character rather than as a blatant/meant to be widespread political statement.

    I really like “One Dimensional Woman” and that passage you quoted has been burned in my brain since I first read it.

    • Subashini says:

      Thanks very much for responding. I don’t know how it must feel to have your experiences discussed and analysed in such detail, with attributions to intent/purpose that may not have been part of your original project. So I appreciate your frank response.

      The questions you have about beauty and privilege and how it is used are precisely the questions I couldn’t answer in my post, and wanted to explore in detail. I wanted to complicate it further, because I think we’re used to a certain kind of story involving young, pretty women. I’ve read a bit about Nakadate, and your friend’s statement is something I think I agree with: “but i do think that her work is made possible and could only possibly be made by a conventionally attractive woman.” I don’t know about her using beauty as a weapon (haven’t paid as much attention to her work as I should have), but the fact that it exists I think relies a lot on her physical beauty, and its juxtaposition against the not as physically attractive, older men.

      And yes, Nina Power’s book is really quite excellent — and I do hope she continues to write on feminism. She hasn’t written much on it since the publication of ODW, sadly.

  • Marie calloway says:

    Excuse my misuse of “were”

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