Dirt, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote and as Eimear McBride reminds us, is “matter out of place”. Dirt does not have to be toxic, or rotting, or harmful to be considered wrong. It must only be contextually at sea – as McBride suggests, “a slice of cake on the toilet floor”. So begins her non-fiction debut, a brief and vivid polemic about disgust and shame and how they are used to such successful effect to disempower women. The concept of being out of place or jarring in some way helps to elucidate the conviction that many women and girls hold, which is that there is something fundamentally bad about themselves, even if they can’t articulate it.
It is difficult to argue that women and their bodies are essentially disgusting in an objective, visible way, but it can, instead, be implied that we are doing the wrong thing, that our behaviour is off the mark. Be chaste, but not like that. Have sex, but not like that. Be pretty, but not like that. Lose weight, but not like that. Your body is beautiful, but also an object of permanent potential scorn. In this way, the disrespect, the control, the aggression are indirect and difficult to fight against. This is what makes them so dangerous, and can lead the targets of such behavioural rules to feel gaslighted from internalising so many contradictory messages.#
Many of McBride’s examples of disgust concern food and consumption. She explores the subtle but significant distinction between “meat” and “flesh”, where meat is intended for consumption and flesh is given a moral dignity that renders its consumption perverse. From here McBride relays a vile piece of writing by the rock critic Lester Bangs about Debbie Harry, part of which reads, “She may be up there all high and mighty on TV, but everybody knows that underneath all that fashion plating she’s just a piece of meat like the rest of them.”
This passage, so appalling and open in his hatred of not just successful and beautiful women but all women, seems shocking in its lack of guile. It would be difficult, or perhaps impossible, for such a sentiment to be published by a mainstream title today. But even though overt misogyny finds less official validation nowadays, it has not vanished. This is one of the best aspects of Something Out Of Place: it articulates the strange mental space we find ourselves in when we are politically conscious enough to be aware of how pervasive and powerful misogyny is, but lucky enough to live in a place and time where it is prevented from permanently rising to the surface. Speaking for myself, even after I came to understand that misogyny was real, I briskly internalised it so I wouldn’t have to continually consider or address it. “Well yes, of course some men hate women,” I thought, filing it away for the sake of my own sanity and advancement and ability to do whatever I want to do.
Early on, McBride says that she is not trying to speak for all women. This admission lends more rather than less credence to her arguments, and if McBride is not an academic she is certainly a fascinating thinker – and one whose wit and anger make great company. There is, however, an example of the limits of perspective that rankles. In an afterword written in March 2021 following the murder of Sarah Everard, McBride compares the excessive and violent policing of a memorial for Everard – which was attended largely by women – to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of summer 2020, which she describes as being policed with “discretion and solidarity”. Aside from the conspicuous irony that the BLM protests were sparked by a police officer killing George Floyd, it isn’t true to say that they were policed benignly in the UK (a Netpol report found “excessive use of force and the disproportionate targeting of black protesters”), nor is it useful or illuminating to counterpose racism and misogyny as competing causes.
The attempt to live with dual realities – the reality of misogyny, and the reality that women are people with agency and serious flaws and as much right to the world as anyone else – brings about interesting inconsistencies in our various feminisms. “I think women should wear whatever they like. I cringe when I see women wearing ‘Porn Star’ T-shirts” is an example McBride gives of her own discrepancies. It’s here, in the space among the contradictions, where she challenges us to dwell rather than flee. There is something very exciting about contemplating a future for women where our disagreements about how best to live don’t translate into weakness and division.
Something Out Of Place: Women & Disgust
Wellcome Collection, 176pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage