Sometime in the year since reading Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, I noticed that I’d been reading a lot of books written by women. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but looking back, it struck me as notable. But just as there are two kinds of racism, there are two kinds of sexism: noting the difference when it doesn’t matter and not noting it when it does. I love the writing of Rebecca Solnit, Chris Kraus, and Lauren Beukes regardless of their gender. I aspire to write like them because they are great writers. Several of the books I’ve been reading though tackle and twist ideas about feminism and femininity into new shapes for consideration.
Megan Abbott already has another novel out, but 2012’s Dare Me (Reagan Arthur) is populated with the illest, fiercest, flyest cheerleaders you’ve ever seen. Chelsea Cain of The New York Times Book Review describes it as “Heathers meets Fight Club.” If that doesn’t sell it for you, then this might not be the book for you. These girls wield power that Thomas de Zengotita’s book Mediated (2005) calls “absolute” (p. 82). Describing the mise en scène of the halls of high school, he writes,
Girls, certain girls, dominate these settings because they are impresarios of an evolving social art. Propelled by incipient sexuality, yes, but across the whole range of its sublimations, they devote enormous energy to mastering an array of symbols and cues, an interplay of appearance, clothes, accessories, music, slang—a totality of customs that constitute their emerging world. And when they understand it well enough to play with it, improvise with it, innovate and disseminate, they take up their positions in that ruling clique and their authority will be recognized by all who know them. It will be their privilege to control the tones and terms that catch and shape the flow of days, and the long weekends. This clique of girls dominates because it presides over a Wittgensteinian language game—meaning, not just a language, not just the slang, but also the whole form of life that goes with it. Everybody who wants to be anybody must live by it, and they are the gatekeepers (p. 82-83).
Addy Hanlon, Beth Cassidy, Brinnie Cox, Emily, Mindy, Cori, Tacy, RiRi—the girls of Dare Me—are these certain girls. Untouchable, they run their school from a level above the workaday drama. To the common masses of lockers, duffel bags, and backpacks, their taut, tight existences carry nothing nonessential. No baggage to see or speak of—or so it seems from the outside. As Louis CK once puts it, speaking about his own daughters,
Boys fuck things up. Girls are fucked-up. That’s the difference. Boys just do damage to your house that you can measure in dollars, like a hurricane. Girls, like, leave scars in your psyche that you find later… That’s the difference between boys and girls. And it becomes the difference between men and women, really. A man will, like, steal your car or burn your house down or beat the shit out of you, but a woman will ruin your fuckin’ life. Do you see the difference? Like, a man will cut your arm off and throw it in a river, but he’ll leave you as a human being intact. He won’t fuck with who you are. Women are nonviolent, but they will shit inside of your heart (C. K., 2008).
All of the musings of men above smack predominantly of one thing: misogyny. Louis is joking, of course, but the inherent irony of a joke is often lost in the laughter. Some of the female revenge stories (e.g., Monster, Hard Candy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo née “Men Who Hate Women,” etc.) may feel like they go too far, but there is rarely a point at which the righteous anger of a woman is not completely justified.
Turning the profile of the predatory pedophile on its head, Alissa Nutting’s newest novel inverts our gender-based perceptions of the perverted. Tampa (Ecco, 2014) tells the story of Celeste, an attractive middle school teacher who preys exclusively on her underage male students. Clare Swanson of Publisher’s Weekly calls it “Lolita meets American Psycho.” Only metaphorically feminist, Tampa is erotica wrapped tightly in satire, or possibly vise versa. Its critique turns on flipping gender expectations but also social mores; Nutting mixes gender-roles with sociopathy. “We can all tell when people have crushes on us, sexual or platonic,” writes M.E. Thomas (2013), “and we enjoy wielding that small amount of power over them. If anything, sociopaths are just a little better at it and enjoy it in a particular way” (p. 218). Always on the inside edge of getting caught, Celeste’s sociopathic obsession with young, male suitors never relents. Thomas explains the intersection of sociopathy and sexuality further as follows:
One of the manifestations of sociopathy in me is an ambivalence in regards to sex and sexual orientation. Sociopaths are unusually impressionable, very flexible with their own sense of self. Because we don’t observe social norms, we don’t have a moral compass, and we have a fluid sense of right and wrong… This extends, at least in some degree, to our sexuality (p. 241).
M. E. Thomas, a pseudonym used by the author of Confessions of a Sociopath (Broadway, 2013), evokes the prominent Victorian novelist M. E. Braddon, about whom Bruce Sterling says, “no one knew whether she was a man or a woman; she was passing for human” (quoted in Smith, 2014, p. 89). “Passing for human” might seem a sad phrase to use for escaping the trappings of gender, but it’s never quite so easy. “The problem isn’t so simple as a man-versus-woman frame,” Rebecca Traister writes in a recent piece for the New Republic. Citing an anecdote from Tina Fey’s Bossypants (Reagan Arthur, 2011) in which Amy Pohler tells off her friend Jimmy Fallon (See “I Don’t Care If You Like It,” pp. 143-146), Traister concludes,
I wish it were different. I wish that every woman whose actions and worth are parsed and restricted, congratulated and condemned in this country might just once get to wheel around—on the committee that doesn’t believe their medically corroborated story of assault, or on the protesters who tell them that termination is a sin they will regret, or on the boss who tells them he doesn’t believe in their sexual choices, or on the mid-fifties man who congratulates them, or himself, on finding them appealing deep into their dotage—and go black in the eyes and say, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”
Abbott, Megan. (2012). Dare Me: A Novel. New York: Reagan Arthur.
C. K., Louis. (2008). Chewed Up. New York: Showtime.
Cain, Chelsea. (2012, August 10). Bring It On: Dare Me by Megan Abbott. The New York Times.
de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.
Fey, Tina. (2011). Bossypants. New York: Reagan Arthur.
Nutting, Alissa. (2014). Tampa: A Novel. New York: Ecco.
Smith, Patrick, A. (2014). Conversations with William Gibson. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Swanson, Claire. (2013, August 22). Q&A with Tampa Author Alissa Nutting. Publisher’s Weekly.
Thomas, M. E. (2013). Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. New York: Broadway Books.
Traister, Rebecca. (2014, July 16). I Don’t Care If You Like It: Women are tired of being judged by the Esquire metric. New Republic.
P.S. In the meantime, Lauren Beukes has written another outstanding novel. More on that one soon.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.