Hanif Kureishi”s The Nothing

July 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

My review of Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing appeared in The Star last week. It’s available here.

This is the review in full:

In Hanif Kureishi’s brief and caustic novella The Nothing, Waldo is a celebrated filmmaker who is confined to his apartment because of illness and advancing age. He has lately begun to suspect that his wife Zee, younger by twenty-two years, has begun an affair with Eddie, “more than an acquaintance and less than a friend for over thirty years”. This is the story of Waldo’s descent into paranoia, obsession, and sexual jealousy.

Eddie is a scamp, an itinerant shifty dude who has done some film journalism and written about Waldo. Currently, because of money troubles, he is largely living with Waldo and Zee on the pretext of assisting Zee with caring for Waldo. And care for Waldo he does; he has even given him a bath. Waldo has tolerated him and enjoyed his company all these years, to an extent, because Eddie has interesting things to say about movies and “adores the famous” and is a “dirty-minded raconteur”. Waldo describes in detail why he tolerates Eddie and keeps him around, but his exact words are not fit to be printed in this venue.

It is that kind of a book. It’s always a pleasure to read Kureishi, and this is shot through with vivid descriptions and black humour on every page. It’s obnoxious, clever, and bawdy, much like its main character. The whole novel is told from Waldo’s extremely graphic and increasingly paranoid first-person point-of-view. As Waldo says of his detailed, obsessive fantasies, “I like to think I can see it. I was always a camera”. The reader is reminded that “the imagination is the most dangerous place on earth”.

A glimpse into Waldo’s character can be seen in this nugget:

If you’ve once been attractive, desirable, and charismatic, with a good body, you never forget it. Intelligence and effort can be no compensation for ugliness. Beauty is the only thing, it can’t be bought, and the beautiful are the truly entitled. However you end up, you live your whole life as a member of an exclusive club. You never stop pitying the less blessed. Filth like Eddie.

If this makes you want to suffocate him with a pillow, you won’t be the first in line. Certainly his wife is tempted to do the same. But as Waldo reveals more of himself throughout the book, one starts to wonder if all this philosophising is just a cover for a real and actual fear: the slow, creeping realisation by someone on their death bed that all that they hold dear might not be what makes the world go around. If beauty and desirability are the true forms of entitlement and the ugly are to be pitied-from the perspective of someone who has always had both-then what makes an average-looking man like Eddie such a hit with the ladies, including his own wife?

Waldo would certainly bristle if you called him a misogynist; he might counter that he does in fact love women, and would probably privately write you off as a prudish, repressed feminist, which in turn would affirm the fact. That’s the kind of man Waldo is. He does love women, but only if they’re pleasing to his eye and sexually-alluring. If they’re not, they’re dispensed with in one sentence, like Maria, “the kind Brazilian maid”. Waldo’s appreciation for his friend Anita, one of the actresses he has directed, is summed up in an assessment of a physical feature of hers that also cannot be reprinted in this venue.

If you love sharp, snappy writing with a keen sense of rhythm and pacing, this book has it. Waldo’s bon mots are clever and provoking but the whole thing can often feel like one giant quip. And that might be the problem with the book: while Kureishi has established an incredibly vital sense of character through Waldo’s voice, there’s never a sense that anything is truly at stake. The obsession with his wife stays on the surface, though when Waldo tries to contextualise how a rogue like him fell in love with this one deserving woman, it sounds a bit hokey, like something he’s memorised from a Hallmark card.

Thus one isn’t quite sure what was Kureishi’s intention in this character study. Perhaps a man who values looks, charm, sexual allure and glamour like Waldo can always only skate on the surface. As always, one is left wondering about the women whom we have only seen through one man’s eyes. One wants to know more about them and why they are this way. Seen by Waldo, Zee veers from petulant to crazed and fulfills all the stereotypes about attractive women who are constantly threatened by the presence of women who are considered more attractive. Yet she is fascinating; Kureishi gives her some amazing lines.

The book ends abruptly, with a bleak solution. Waldo is no fool and he hasn’t had the wool pulled over his eyes, but things have certainly gone his way-in a sense. Waldo’s voice is memorable and I will probably still think about his pitiful masculine ways for some time. “You have savage eyes”, Zee tells her director husband, and the same could be said of the male gaze in general, as well as of Kureishi. Whether or not one enjoys this book depends quite a bit on how much of this savagery one is willing to sit through.

Dirt and the housewife

May 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

A fragmented history of bourgeois morality, sexual division of labour, dirt, and the middle-class housewife via two books excerpted below; Kipnis’s one on North American feminism (broadly speaking) and Theweleit’s one on the rise of white supremacy and fascism in Germany in relation to gender relations and the advent of capitalism.

Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability:

Note that the dirt-sex dilemma hasn’t only played out in the nation’s kitchens and bathrooms, it’s left its mark on history as well, and nowhere more conspicuously than in the female social-purity movement of  the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The “movement” was actually hundreds of separate organizations and campaigns, with rousing names like the National Vigilance Association and the Moral Reform Union, variously devoted to anti-vice agitation and temperance campaigns, rallying against gambling, prostitution, and general male sexual loucheness. All this first took off in England and the United States, eventually spawning international organizations and world congresses aimed at cleaning up male behavior everywhere. Themes of public hygiene and sanitary reform were tied to morality campaigns, with women undertaking to purify society on all levels, public and private, through legislation, street-corner proselytizing, or whatever it took.

In retrospect it make (sic) sense that with the rise of industrialization in the nineteenth century, a compensatory cult of domesticity took hold. The home became a sanctified realm removed from the tawdriness of the marketplace, and it was the new sentimentality about the home that gave the women the platform to assert a new public authority as guardians of national purity. When Frances Willard, founder of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, pronounced that her goal was “to make the whole word houselike,” she was floating a new political ideology: that the strength of the nation was directly connected to the strength of the nation’s households. The problem with dividing the world into these increasingly separate male and female domains was that it wasn’t just paid work that was assigned to the male sphere, it was sexuality as well. On their side of the divide, men got sexual passion; women got cleanup duty. One again, thanks.

Consider the psychological effects of the flush toilet alone — goodbye to chamber pots, all your bodily wastes thankfully whisked from sight, now only a vague memory — allowing the ever-pertinent question “You think your shit doesn’t stink?” to the enter the social lexicon. Consider too, the new varieties of class contempt directed at the unwashed: if cleanliness is virtuous and the distribution of cleaning advances invariably begins with the moneyed, obviously rich and poor deserve their respective fates. After all, who’s cleaner?

vintage_cleaning_ad-300x201

Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History:

The second characteristic of industrial production is that from the very start, it had the capacity to create specific abundance in the midst of general scarcity: toys and baubles for the rich, fashionwear, and every other kind of garbage imaginable.

Working and making love became exercises in dying, only to a limited extent were they still creative, life-affirming processes. Every single commodity a worker produced was a piece of his own death. Every act of lovemaking carries the bodies deeper into a debt of guilt that accumulated toward death.

Lovers and workers now produce “dirt” from the moment they start their activities. The citizen of a society that began “placing a cover over piano legs, as a simple precaution,” set about keeping both things at a distance, factories and love (flowings as well as machines).

Is it any wonder with all that “dirt” around that the quality of water changed? The habits of washing and swimming in water, including in rivers and lakes, originated in the eighteenth century, in the context of the bourgeoisie’s “moral superiority” over the absolutist nobility. We need to consider the enormously heightened significance of water, in these attempts to implement hygiene in bourgeois society in relation to the simultaneous social proscription of other wet substances (especially those of the body) and the demotion of these substances to the status of “dirt”. At the same time, the phrase “hygiene as a new form of piety” describes only one aspect of the process.

The spring is a kind of natural shower for washing off the “dirt” of society. And showers like that found their way into houses. I’m a little surprised to find that I’ve arrived at the conjecture that plumbing had to be installed in private residences to help carry out the repression of human desires in bourgeois societies. (That repression took the form of gender segregation and sexual repression.)

Starting from the kitchen and the bedroom, Cleanliness began its triumphal march throughout the house. White lines, white morals, white tablecloths: an incessant rustling of white (no longer audible, but ever present). With the drying up of the streams in the bedroom, moving through the water pipes that were the heart of any clean kitchen, the image of the Pure Mother (the propaganda about clean interiors in houses and bodies) slowly gained ascendancy within the house. The housewife gradually came to embody whiteness, while her husband despaired or started dreaming about the sexual allure of nonhousewives (image of the ocean). Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

housework

excerpts from Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies (vol. 1)

March 15, 2016 § 2 Comments

Page numbers are from the pdf version available from Monoskop.

Femininity in particular has retained a special malleability under patriarchy, for women have never been able to be identified directly with dominant historical processes, such as those that gave rise to bourgeois society, because they have never been the direct agents of those processes; in some way or other, they have always remained objects and raw materials, pieces of nature awaiting socialization. This has enabled men to see and use them collectively as part of the earth’s inorganic body–the terrain of men’s own productions. (294)

The Catholic Church offered up the body of the Virgin Mother, more heaven than ocean, as territory for licentious desires. It is possible to trace the process of sexualization of that body through legends surrounding Mary from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onward […] The secular body didn’t remain fictional; real women were employed to give form to its function. In the period that most concerns us here, the initial phase of development of bourgeois society, the first such women were those attached to the bourgeois courts of the Italian mercantile capitals of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. With the expansion of the European world, which followed in the wake of exploration by seafaring adventurers, these were supplemented by images of women from other continents–the black slave woman, the woman of the almond eyes, the Indian squaw, and above all the South Sea maiden. Collectively, these images began to construct the body that would constitute a mysterious goal for men whose desires were armed for an imminent voyage, a body was to be more enticing than all the rest of the world put together. It was the fountain men drank from after crossing the arid terrain of their adventures, the mirror in which they sought to recognize themselves. (296)

Second, and more important, holding out the “high-born” woman as a partial reward for the higher-ranking retainers of princes prevented these men from setting out together with women, as equals; from leaving the European terror behind them, to found new, more human settlements elsewhere. […] The maintenance of inequality between the sexes, its perpetual renewal and exacerbation, has always been an important part of the work of the dominant group. (298)

We have seen how the noblewoman was gradually eroticized, in conjunction with a violent de-eroticizing of the common woman. In the course of that eroticizing, the bourgeois male gained access to a female body that had previously existed only as an image: the transcendent body of the noblewoman. The noblewoman herself is made the possessor of the erotic body for two purposes: for lovemaking and for the representation of the power of her overlord, whose commercial wealth made the secularization of her celestial flesh possible. This development was kept from getting out of hand by confining women to a representational function and by monogamizing the male-female relationship. (my emphasis)

Among the people, the (slower) consolidation of monogamy had a different function. Here it wasn’t a limitation placed on a process of sexualization; on the contrary, it was the final stage of a campaign for the total elimination of sexuality–the “lesser of two evils.” Monogamy surfaced here as the new code for a new set of circumstances within which access to the body of the opposite sex, which had for a brief time been relatively easy, was now to become more difficult for both parties. What had been accessible was now made unattainable because it harbored a potential for new freedoms. Alongside the “divine” one-and-only (inaccessible to the man of low breeding), an “everyday” one-and-only appeared as a boundary for the same low-born male). (324)

These were pages and pages of ideas that have been moving around in my mind over these months — and it’s been months since I’ve started this book. I just got to the bit where Theweleit talks about beauty standards (and accordingly, sexual desirability) under the heterosexual male rule as a means to emphasise the hierarchies between women of nobility and women of the emerging bourgeoisie, and “the extent to which the female body served as an arena of competition between bourgeoisie and the nobility”. What it did was make a certain class of women — who adhered to the beauty norms — the prize for both ruling class noble men and property-owning men, thus ensuring that “lower” class women were accordingly devalued. (Devalued, but their bodies still subject to “common” ownership by men of all classes.) In the current society of the spectacle — and I know people supposedly are over the Debordian spectacle or whatever, for some reason? but I think it has its use still — celebrity is the modern version of nobility. This is why thinkpieces that celebrate Kim Kardashian’s agency or whatever miss the central point, that the redirection of people’s attention towards celebrity beauty is a disciplinary apparatus for us, the commoners. As Theweleit explains, this was a process of indoctrination that began with the bourgeois women of European societies, women who “had to be trained (“cultivated”) for their new responsibilities — to be filled with images, and in the end become images themselves.” To be filled with images, and in the end become images themselves — I can’t think of a better description of the ways in which celebrity culture is put to use in the lives of women who will never, ever be able to enjoy a smidgen of the money and power enjoyed by the famous women they’re supposed to emulate and root for through the combined “training” instruction manuals of lifestyle and beauty magazines and libfem pop-culture analysis.

tweets on magic mike

September 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

I watched Magic Mike early this year and was troubled by it, and in a fit of earnestness composed some grumpy tweets about what I thought, and posted none of it up except, I think, the link to the Joshua Clover article. Recently someone was talking to me about movies and this person had seen Magic Mike, and “as a feminist” was thrilled about how it centered “female desire”, which is something that a lot of people have said about the movie, I think? Or at least that’s how a lot of discussion on it was framed. And I’d have to agree with Clover that this film is not at all interested in women, or “female desire”, whatever that means — I’ve used that phrase before, too, but now it makes no sense to me, and so it made me newly irritated with the film.

  1. Yes: “In the sex work movie, men get happy endings.” Joshua Clover on Magic Mike (& Step Up Revolution) http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/dance-dance-revolution-20130204
  2. Wonder if Magic Mike is entertaining because it doesn’t take sex work seriously when done by men. Think it wants to take precarity seriously
  3. but this is undermined by inability to show how precarity structures lives when focus is on hot white male leads who seem to be having “fun”.
  4. It’s a weird movie & completely unsexy since it is about sex work. So the comments about how this is the sexiest movie ever? Perplexing.
  5. How to unpack the layers of wrong in commentaries that celebrate this film for catering to “female desire” without acknowledging the work that produces it
  6. Talking about male sex work in a not-Soderbergh situation, in a dehumanising capitalist system, female desire comes at what expense?
  7. Not to mention what happens when it’s First World women and Third World men. But here the main leads are conveniently white.
  8. Is this what liberal feminism means when it talks about “equality”
  9. “despite its stylized hetero-swinger proclivities, the film is interested in men”–yes, which is why this is strange: http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=956
  10. Her comments on Heti are astute but MM doesn’t “play with female fantasies of submission” so much as affirm men’s fantasies of dominance…
  11. Which I suppose is contrasted with how their material lives are out of their control/in capitalism’s hands — thus, not about female fantasies.
  12. Because yeah Alex Pettyfer is unemployed but at the end of his first performance he gets a blowjob and an actual job out of it.
  13. Meaning, it you’re an attractive heterosexual man and you’re lucky enough to be a sex worker in a film
  14. with an attractive heterosexual female audience — jackpot!
  15. Heterosexual relations between thin, attractive white people. Rinse and repeat.
  16. How do they know which woman to pluck out of the crowd, who would enjoy being on stage with a strange man’s groin in her face? Important q
  17. I mean, just because you show up to see men gyrate does not mean you want to be gyrated on. Or do you? What is “consent” in this case?

three reviews

December 18, 2012 § 5 Comments

It would seem like after I wrote that last blog post I exhausted myself and my capacity to spew words and collapsed in a crumpled heap near the bottom of my closet while looking for something decent to wear but no, that is not what happened. At least I don’t think so? I have been reading a lot of books lately and wondering why I have a stupid blog, i.e. business as usual. Or maybe more so than usual, especially since you can find any number of comments online about how people want other people to bring back the copy editors because so many articles these days read like crummy, messy, awkward, shit-as-hell, hell-as-shit blog posts.

A blog is a much-maligned thing.

Hug your blog today.

Pet it, stroke it, maybe even write in it.

Can we talk about the fetishisation of edited writing? What are the magical powers of editing that will make a piece of writing automatically better (suited to consumption)?

Let’s not.

I neglect to put up my Pop Matters reviews as they go up, so this is delayed self-promotion in one post. (And that’s a funny thing about self-promotion. It’s never eschewed, only postponed.)

Three reviews:

1)      Jamal J. Elias, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam

This was dense, long, and really fascinating. Probably because it’s such a vast topic –there is so much history to sift through and situate—the book is very disciplined, never straying far from the outline of each chapter. I kept wondering about the women, who were mentioned so rarely. How did they see religion?

aisha's cushion_blog

How did Maymuna know God? Women were illiterate, we see from this example, but they weren’t silent. How do we know which words were their own, which were put into their mouth? And if their words weren’t recorded or archived then how would we know how they saw God? This book takes its title after Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, who makes a cushion (here Elias tells us that in another account, it was curtains) that troubles the Prophet because of its images. Aisha’s artistry in keeping house and making household objects for her husband is a domestic problem, a spiritual problem, a metaphysical problem. In both examples of Aisha and Maymuna, women pose a problem or they neutralise a problem. Men reign, men look, men decide, men theorise, men historicise, men write and this is not so much Elias’ fault as it is a huge gaping hole, a glaring silence, a substantial lack. Aisha’s Cushion is all men, all the time.

2)      Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home

I’m pretty sure I said enough about this book in my review. I couldn’t shut up and keep it brief, but I will add that I enjoyed reading about Hausa popular literature just as much as I enjoyed reading the novel. Although “enjoyed” is a term not without its problems—there was too much to relate to, on the level of the operations of patriarchy through familial and social institutions—that it was a bitter pill to swallow, or more like cough syrup: deceptively sweet but ultimately unpleasant. I’m still wondering what Saudatu thinks of her marriage. I also want to know how the women see, how they look at their men. Yakubu is pretty clever in how she manages to depict instances of masculinity that come off as, in the words of Aaron Bady in this tweet, beyond satire. (And this is also due, no doubt, to Aliyu Kamal’s translation.) The world of Sin is a Puppy is a world that’s too-familiar because most straight men actually want others to believe that their intentions, thoughts, and actions are produced and defined by their hard-ons. They spy a beautiful face, a comely figure, and they are ready to disavow previous wives, existing kids, current jobs and social and political positions. AND THEN THEY’RE LIKE, SHIT! WHY ARE THINGS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT? This is basically the position of Rabi’s husband, who really doesn’t need a name because he’s All The (Straight) Men We’ve Known Before. I was pretty happy to read Aisha’s review because she was similarly troubled by the book’s complexities: I am not alone in my discomfort! I admit I am pretty chuffed, because Aisha is smart and wonderful, and it’s good to be of like mind.

3)      Kate Zambreno, Heroines

 This is another long-ass review where I couldn’t shut up. Heroines is troubled and troubling; I’m frankly quite puzzled by reviews that seem to consider it a superficial or simplistic look at constructions of femininity. It’s also a ridiculously quotable book, and if I were allowed to write like 10,000 words I’m sure I would have quoted multiple passages. Zambreno seems to be circling around mothers in her work—on her blog she has talked quite frankly about her relationship with her own (now deceased) mother: her relationship to her mother, her relationship to her death. There’s a great line in Heroines about “panopticon mothers”, one that echoes a line from her first book, O Fallen Angel: “Maggie was born in a repressive regime (her mother has policed her since birth).” We don’t talk enough about the mother’s all-seeing gaze. (Do we? Is it all-seeing?) What happens to the daughters of panopticon mothers? I also feel like the proper review of Heroines would have entered into the spirit of the book like Helen McClory’s review, because it feels like she really engaged with the form and spirit of the book, although the style of it is still distinctly Helen’s own. But I’m sure this book will continue to ooze out of me in the months to come, in blog posts and other kinds of writing. I would like it to ooze; I’m sick of the capitalist mode of literary production, after all, quite sick, so it’s only expected that books will ooze and fester.

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Porn and the Panopticon

June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

This blog is not dead! It is merely in a state of extreme rest. In a state of hyperrest. (Hyperrest is characterised by placidity or inactivity on the surface, bordering on comatose, as the wheels of the mind’s engine churn and churn in a journey towards who-the-fuck-knows-where.)

My review of Katrien Jacobs’s People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet is up at PopMatters. I enjoyed reading it; Jacobs is an enthusiastic and engaged/engaging writer, but I was troubled a bit by the premise, which seemed to imply that DIY pornography and digital culture are necessarily subversive and/or emancipatory:

Although much of the material Jacobs explores follows the familiar trajectory of pornography that finds men as its main consumers and women as its primary labourers, Jacobs includes plenty of first-person accounts that provides a glimpse into how women negotiate the spaces of propriety and proper “female behaviour”. One blogger who goes by the name Hairong Tian Tian collected and posted pictures of men’s limp penises because she wanted to explore “the root of Chinese masculinity” by showing the “cock in its most mundane state”. Another blogger named Lost Sparrow attempted to compile an encyclopedia of lovemaking sounds “based on the premise that they would sound different in different parts of China”.

These are attempts to remake pornography, but whether or not they succeed in presenting pornography as something more worthwhile than a convenient commodity is hard to tell. For example, the DIY sex videos that Jacobs describes as popular among younger Chinese citizens certainly reify sexual pleasure and emotions and it leaves one to wonder about the emancipatory possibilities of the endless click-and-choose of online porn viewing. As Jacobs research shows, pornography has entered new spaces and is presented and enjoyed within new(er) forms of technology, but the patriarchal structures of society remain unyielding and resistant in the face of all this sexual and technological creativity.

But I also wondered if my own knee-jerk cynicism got in the way of a full appreciation of what was and is taking place. I do recommend Jacobs’s book, even if I had trouble reading it in public because my inner convent-school-educated prudishness kicked in. EXPLICIT PICTURES! CLOSE-UPS OF NIPPLES! IN PUBLIC! OH DEAR! So it was a read-at-home book, but no less interesting because of it.

(I was also reading the Feminism and Pornography anthology while reading Jacobs’s book and Wendy Brown’s “The Mirror of Pornography” was one of the most clear-minded, kick-ass essays in it; it’s essentially a response to Catherine MacKinnon, and I posted a quote from it on my Tumblr. Anyone who’s read even just a tiny bit of MacKinnon might sense the difficulty of countering the force of her totalising arguments against porn. Brown does a sublime job of it while demonstrating how MacKinnon’s style borrows a lot from porn, and reading Brown after reading MacKinnon is like being thrown a lifeline while attempting to swim in choppy moral waters. Sorry, melodramatic analogy, and also vaguely deceptive, because I can’t swim and will technically drown in all waters, but still. Also, this technically doesn’t have much to do with Jacobs’s book but throwing it in here because ♥ WENDY BROWN ♥.)

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“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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