American Vogue recently published a cover story with Phoebe Waller-Bridge in which the playwright, actress and creator behind Killing Eve and Fleabag declared, “I always want to be dangerous.” Her words struck me as odd. Funny, poignant and entertaining as Fleabag and Killing Eve both are, they still sit squarely within the realm of respectability and good taste. Silly, yes. Occasionally provocative, certainly. But never dangerous.
If discussing anal sex within the sheltered world of London’s garden party circuit is what passes for dangerous now, what space do we have for tackling actually dangerous subjects? Liberal feminism has long been accused of diluting the cause. Compared with even the most tepid and mainstream “feminist” output of the previous decades, today’s feminists seem almost frivolous.
It’s with this in mind that I came to re-reading In The Cut by Susanna Moore. The recently reissued 1995 novel tells the story of Frannie, a mercurial and borderline depressed academic living in New York City. Frannie navigates a world of failed dates, unwanted advances, stolen glances and sly remarks from the police: she is as much forced into sexual liberation by an alienated existence as she is a willing participant. The book’s many plot twists take place against the backdrop of an ongoing murder investigation, for which Frannie becomes an unlikely key witness.
What strikes you on first reading In The Cut is how unlikely its publication would be today. Dubbed an erotic thriller at the time, it delivers a narrative and voice that is troubling and occasionally brutal. In The Cut can be horribly gory, and Moore ventures into a terrain of horror that was, at the time, largely the purview of male authors. The book was published at a point when male authors dominated the literary space, and women writers were often resigned to the escapist tropes of genre fiction. Moore is striking in her exception, with dialogue that is sharp, incisive and witty, treading a careful balance between high-brow and entertaining.
Frannie’s story is an exaggerated version of one that many of us know well: of romantic and sexual uncertainty and the risks of forming new attachments, particularly in the harsh, alienating terrain of the contemporary city where most women learn to avert their eyes and remain inconspicuous. Are the glances that seem to follow Frannie around the city innocent or threatening? Reading In the Cut makes you wonder about seemingly harmless date scenarios and hook-ups. What if there is something darker going on behind the scenes?
In the Cut works because it plays on some of our darkest and most realistic fears, forcing us to consider whether our suspicion of men in individual cases is warranted, or rather the product of deep-seated anxieties. Sadly, the answer to that question only becomes apparent when it is too late for Frannie to escape.
If Sex and the City, which aired three years after In The Cut was first published, explored the complications of women’s sexual liberation, then Moore’s novel explores its dangers. In many ways, the book is the antithesis of the popular television show: same place, same demographic, but a sexual terrain that is treacherous and deadly. In the 1990s it felt as though pop-feminism stood at a juncture, faced with a choice between doubling-down on amusing but somewhat trite concerns of its middle-class subjects, or expanding its lens to encompass broader demographics, and exploring some of the more serious issues about women’s oppression.
The rise of Lena Dunham and Phoebe Waller-Bridge suggest it careered head-long down the first path. The bawdiness of these latter-day liberal feminists is, in part, a reflection that the stakes for liberal feminism are still so low. Of course none of us are immune to the horrors of sexual or domestic violence, but for women who suffer these things without recourse to a rich family entrenched in the British or American high society, like Dunham and Waller-Bridge, the question of sexual liberation and female oppression is hardly one that we can afford to treat with a kiss of the shoulder and a wide-eyed stare, Kenneth Williams style.
In the Cut signalled an opportunity for women to reclaim a genre of literary fiction that had been dominated by men – with female characters devoid of internal monologue and independent thought. It asserted the power of women who dared to be horrific and gory, who could also be jaded, harrowed and depressed. But it also showed clear disdain for authority figures. In the Cut not only considers the harm caused by a society that discards single women, but a bigoted police force’s ongoing oppression of black people and sex workers. Its reissue is an invitation to consider what so much pop feminism of the early 21st century has so far missed.
Eight years after the book was first published it was made into a film, directed by the much-feted Jane Campion. The public reaction to Meg Ryan’s portrayal of Frannie reflected many of the dynamics that Moore’s book railed against. During a 2003 interview with TV chat host Michael Parkinson, which would later be canonised as one of “TV’s most embarrassing moments”, Ryan sits uncomfortably on the stage, her shaggy mop of hair, tan leather jacket and sheer black tights an apogee of early Noughties smart-casual. Trinny and Sussanah watch haughtily from the sidelines.
What’s startling about the interview is that Parkinson seems personally offended by Ryan’s change of career path, from playing America’s girl next door to taking on the role of a sexually liberated, single woman. In response to his questions, Ryan assumes a style of body language that’s defensive, sitting folded in her chair, legs crossed and leaning away from her host. By the end of the interview, her career will be over, her reputation plunged by the tabloid press into accusations of diva-like behaviour. She would recoil from the limelight, only making a handful of films in the years that followed, compared with the slew of 1990s blockbusters that had defined her earlier career. Parkinson gestures towards the What Not To Wear hosts to comment on her outfit. A jokey remark is made about her shoes.
Eight years after the book was published, women were still being aggressively ridiculed on television and mocked for their outfits. Yet the mainstream avenues of feminist culture aimed at tackling such bigotry would become a lot less barbed, and a lot less dangerous, than Moore’s In The Cut seemed to be striving for.
Nathalie Olah is a writer and author of Steal as much as you can: How to win the culture wars in an age of austerity. She tweets @nrolah