Language & women & art

Three of the books I’ve read recently have disappointed me because of their portrayal of women. Part of what’s frustrating about the feeling is that I worry that I’ve ruined myself for popular media by being so conscious all the time about the injuries the world inflicts on women, minorities, and people who know the difference between there/their/they’re. But dammit, as sensitive as I am as a person generally, and about portrayals of women specifically, I still feel like writers, singers, politicians could just show a little more respect and be a little less rude.

None of the parties in the whole Swift-Kardashian-West fight look particularly good. But I’m still so disappointed that the story seems to be “did Taylor Swift give her permission” instead of “stop referring to people as bitch, Kanye, geez.” Who cares if she was into it? I’m not into it! I didn’t give you my permission! I couldn’t even stomach Frank Ocean saying it. This is a thing I seriously wish I could be chill about! I love hip hop. “Bitch” is a satisfying word to say in English, and it rhymes with so many others. It just continually feels like a slap in the face for that word to be used to refer to women, de rigeur, almost as a ritual.

But it’s not just hip hop, and it’s not just bitch, and it’s not even just curse words.

I recently read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, which, after some dissatisfying science fiction (The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Mistborn), felt refreshing in its imagination and wit. And then, it slowly dawned on me that, out of fewer than five pages devoted to the two only female “characters”, the bulk of their storyline was rapt obsession with a jeweled piece of clothing. All the other characters was charismatic genius men!

Then, I read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl, which, although at least imaginative in its premise, took far too much glee in its description of some parts of female anatomy. Also, although I think that the book imagines itself to be “gritty” and “real,” the eponymous wind-up girl is a Japanese-made cyborg sex slave who is irresistibly alluring to the male character, who is far more protagonist than she.

Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is far less egregious–not only is it a good novel, but it has admirable, complex, and interesting female characters. It just can’t quite figure out how to flesh out relationships between them, or between people in general. Unfortunately, this deficit greatly lessens the poignancy of the book’s premise–a story of human characters whose alienation leads them to literal aliens. Also, out of four female characters, all wives, three of them are highly ambitious career women who had little affection for their husbands and whose marriages were built almost entirely on convenience. One is interesting, two is stereotype, three is caricature. The fourth wife is the one that bugged me the most–basically nameless, and her husband (the novel’s protagonist) shares little with her about the strange stuff happening to him.

Basically, what I’m trying to say, obtusely, verbosely, and in this obfuscating writing style is that shit, people still write about women in a really fucked up way!

Case in point is Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which knows many ways to refer to a woman’s crotch, but clearly prefers only one.

Feminism/criticism has some language to talk about this – words like objectification and commodification. But they feel somehow not completely accurate when referring to the writing of some novelists. Because there’s something so gleeful, so half-self-conscious, or faux-self-aware, about the way that they portray their horny protagonists.

DFW, whose absence I feel even more acutely in these nice times, wrote a take-down of Updike’s prose that felt like sweet, joyous vindication. DFW, even when I disagree with him, has real clear-headed reason and compassion.

His takedown of Updike paints Mailer & Roth with the same broad brush and I don’t mind one bit–finally, confirmation about Roth! I’d struggled through Elegy and The Human Stain but could never quite trust my own assessment that his books were just about horny old dudes.

Of course, I know they’re not. They’re also about the loss of the great American dream, and about the failings of intellectualism and morality, about romanticism and idealism. But I’m beginning to feel more confident in trying to find better books that don’t give me a sinking, sometimes-sick, sometimes-angry feeling in my stomach, books that threaten to force me into completely internalizing a lower self-esteem because of my gender. I’m putting my copy of American Pastoral in the Take-One-Leave-One donation box in Logan Square, and I’m not gonna feel that bad about it.


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