To state that a work of art or literature is misogynistic is to place oneself on a level with the kind of person who looks at a painting and says “my five-year-old could do that”. It is to single oneself out as the person who doesn’t “get it”. Silly, silly you! You’re not meant to confuse art with real life! Haven’t you grasped that yet? And so it is that rather than look at, say, the work of Allen Jones or the writing of Brett Easton Ellis and conclude that far too much of it incorporates gratuitous misogyny, one is expected to offer a thoughtful, nuanced take on things, demonstrating that even if one feels regret at one’s own flawed response, one nevertheless respects the complex interactions that have taken place between the artist, his oeuvre and the world at large.
For instance, Irvine Welsh has written a piece on why Easton Ellis’s 1991 work American Psycho remains “one of the greatest novels of our time”. I remain unconvinced, but that may be because I’m one of those people who “childishly insist on confusing protagonists with their authors”. Or perhaps I “lack the ability to abstract [myself]” from the violent scenes. Or it could be that I “couldn’t get past [my] own shock and discomfort to ascertain [the book’s] true nature”. Sad to say, I just don’t know. Certainly I can admire the slickness of the work, the repetition, the satire, the clever-but-not-all-that-clever study into the self-destructive nature of status obsession. I can see why it “works”. Nevertheless, I still see a book saturated in misogyny and revenge fantasies, holding women’s bodies ultimately accountable for the fin de siècle cultural crisis it depicts.
It’s not that I’m shocked (although I do feel a degree of mumsy disappointment at the lovely Matt Smith taking on the role of Patrick Bateman in last year’s musical based on the book). If anything, I suspect more readers feel unsettled by criticisms of the work than by the work itself. Welsh contends that American Psycho “offers no easy resolutions […] no comforting knowledge […] no […] hiding place for the reader”. I would argue that it does, in the most conservative, unimaginative way possible: watch some women being tortured. When a woman is raped, her fingers nail gunned to the floor, her tongue cut out and thrown to the wall, all while she is still conscious, it is a form of release for the reader. It alleviates the trauma of engaging with a satire on the dog-eat-dog world western men have created for themselves. Watching women die, at pleasingly regular intervals, is the reward for having had to engage with something really traumatic, something that calls into question your own self-esteem and sense of purpose. Take a break while a man sticks his cock into the mouth of the woman he’s just decapitated. Go on, it’s the least you deserve. In an interview Easton Ellis describes how “a lot of [the work] had to do with my frustration with having to become an adult and what it meant to be an adult male in American society”. American society might be fragile and greedy, but the male ego is more so. It’s not surprising that mostly male readers are too frightened to engage with the idea that when American Psycho “holds a hyper-real, satirical mirror up to our faces” it is not simply reflecting, in a reassuringly vague fashion, “the savage society we’ve created” but their own weakness and moral immaturity.
The defence of misogynist art is not dissimilar to the defence of misogynist everything else. Misogyny both creates and thrives on women’s intellectual insecurities, implying that dissent merely signifies one’s inability to access a greater, higher truth. Don’t criticise misogyny in porn or people will say you’re sexually repressed; don’t criticise it in comedy or they’ll say you’re humourless; don’t criticise it in art or they’ll say you’re stupid. In fact, why not save time and never criticise it anywhere? Be a cool girl, not some 1970s earth mother who believes all kinds of hippy shit about women’s bodies, inner lives and creativity being worth something. Welsh describes the outrage directed at American Psycho as “disingenuous”. It’s not clear what he means – perhaps he doesn’t know, either – but it’s made quite clear that a good girl ought to shut up and do what the nice man says.
It’s hard not to follow that advice, especially when you’re young. While studying for my PhD, whenever I came across some aspect of literary theory I found incoherent – particularly in relation to gender – my “this is bollocks” response was almost instantaneously recast as “clearly I’ve missed something here, so I’d better go along with it”. We grow up feeling intellectually inferior to men. When we impress it is because we’re dutiful, compliant plodders, unlike our genius male counterparts. For us it is hard not to feel a fraud and all too easy to panic. When thrown off guard, it is easiest to parrot the supposedly complex, nuanced opinions of those who intimidate us the most (and in a sexist world such people will rarely, if ever, be other women).
Having gained lower-level access to institutions and conversations from which we were previously excluded, women are under tremendous pressure to show that we deserve to be there at all. To prove ourselves the equals of men we need to be people who know (or reflect male “knowledge”), not women who question, analyse and, God forbid, feel. Arguing that something is sexist instantly places one back in the “feeling, not knowing” camp. Hence it becomes harder and harder to say that anything is sexist at all. We find ways around it, complex circumlocutions to try and give our female experience an air of universal (i.e. male) truth. Sometimes it works, but always at the expense of allowing us to say what we really mean. Perhaps we should be going back to basics, calling out plain, unadorned sexism again and again until someone hears us (after all, if repetition is a valid technique for Easton Ellis, why not for us?).
Of course, it is perfectly possible for great literature to be written by misogynists and/or contain within it a misogynist dynamic. Indeed, I suspect a huge proportion of it does. But when violent woman-hatred functions as a palate cleanser within a supposedly complex work, I don’t think our only response should be applause. Neither genre nor perceived intellectual complexity should deter us from naming the words and images that degrade and harm us. So what if people like Welsh resort to calling us childish? As the great artist Adam Ant once said, ridicule is nothing to be scared of. Misogyny’s the thing to fear.