W. P. Johnson

The Theme of Misogyny

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2014 at 7:18 pm


Recently, The New Yorker published a piece by Emily Nussbaum, wherein she criticized the show “True Detective” as being shallow and misogynist. Initially, Nussbaum admitted to being intrigued by the anthology series and the style in which the story was told, cutting back and forth between interrogation scenes that provided the voice over for the initial tale of two detectives solving a bizarre murder of a woman whose body was found naked with deer antlers strapped to her head. However, as the show progressed she found that its portrayal of women presented them as nothing more than sex objects to be ogled, raped, and murdered. Indeed, the opening credits of the show feature cutouts of the two male characters with bits and pieces of the show itself fading in and out, many of said images featuring partially nude women.

I’m conflicted by these types of criticisms. On one hand, there aren’t really any strong female characters in “True Detective” that have any depth beyond one defined by sex (Maggie’s own development hinges on her brief moment of infidelity). On the other hand, the opening credits show cut outs of our male protagonists, an image which Nussbaum describes as “heroic male outlines”, whereas I had always seen it as a symbol of transparency and emptiness, men searching for some kind of meaning in their own weakness. After all, this is a story told by Rust and Marty, therefore, it is their perspective, their “male gaze” so to speak. Granted, we hear one thing and see another, aka, the truth despite what they claim really happened, but I never really felt like the show was misogynist in its portrayal of women. Rather, it is Rust and Marty’s point of view that is flawed. Note that Rust describes Marty’s infidelity as a moment of weakness, not a moment of misogyny, contributing to the idea that this is a story about men struggling with themselves.

Old territory? Probably. Shallow and misogynist? I would argue no, but that’s just my opinion. Maybe it’s an “eye of the beholder” kind of thing, only instead of beauty, its the things we find offensive. We all see the world through the lenses of our beliefs, therefore what is offensive to one person, isn’t to another.

Articles of this kind inevitably breed two types of responses. Some people say that the critic is just another hypersensitive liberal whose sole objective is to be offended and seek out misogyny, racism, etc, whether its there to begin with (see Gawker’s criticism of Seinfeld for a great example of this phony outrage). Seek and you shall find is the general consensus. Others, however, agree with the article by pointing out that despite the various interpretations one could have with Nic Pizzolatto’s intentions in writing “True Detective”, there are, in fact, no strong female characters. Hell, I’ll consent to that fact myself. At the same time, one must ask, why does there have to be?

Months ago I had published a short story called “Cut In Half” with Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. Without giving every detail, the basic story is about a man with a secret fetish for S&M with blind women. When his wife discovers this secret, they try to salvage their marriage by moving out of the city, putting distance between the places he had once frequented to indulge in this fetish. However, when one of the neighbors recognizes the narrator, the fetish is reintroduced and the narrator finds himself longing for this old life. His marriage dissolves, the wife leaves him, and the ensuing confrontation with his neighbor leads to the discovery of his sexual fantasies in a very real, very horrific form.

One might then ask: is this story misogynist?

Obviously as the author of the story I can claim that I had no intentions of this story being misogynist, but as we see again and again, intentions matter little to readers. People will take away what they like and form their own opinions and if you make it easy for them to think less of you, they probably will. I would like to think that the story, while objectifying women as blind objects of worthless flesh, isn’t necessarily misogynist so much as it explores the themes of male dominance and sexual weakness. In particular, it is exploring a character whose sexual compulsion is completely dependent upon the fact that the woman he is abusing cannot see him. The story introduces this character as someone who interacts with consenting adults, women that are sexually excited by the idea of being abused while blindfolded. However, as the story develops, the main character feels this desire grow and fester until it becomes a compulsion. He no longer wants to role play, but desires the actual fulfillment of this fantasy. Without giving away too much, the story ends with him no longer seeking out the partnership of a consenting adult. The woman literally becomes a blind object of worthless flesh for him to use and abuse as he pleases.

So what is the value then? The point of the story? And, seeing how there aren’t really any strong female characters, I’ll ask myself again, is the story misogynist?

Horror writers explore the things that make them uncomfortable. To me, there is something unnerving about fetish. While there are many adults that engage in safe role playing, one cannot deny that role playing is the act of pretending to do something that is, in its true form, unsafe, or even deadly (knife play, rape fantasies, etc). That these things excite people is contingent upon the circumstances of existing boundaries, the knowledge that the knife is dull, that the pain will only go so far. Practitioners of fetish exist within the confines of a safe word. But what happens when someone doesn’t listen to you when you’re telling them to stop?

“Cut In Half” grew from that idea, that someone would no longer find satisfaction in fantasy. It explored the weakness of a man possessed by sexual desire for something non consensual and deadly and it narrated the slow dissolvement of his “normal life”. That it approaches women as objects of flesh is more of an exploration of this character than it is a endorsement of misogyny. After all is said and done, the ending of this story is, as one reviewer put it, “unfortunate”, and our protagonist is not a hero, but a disgusting person.

Still, there are moments when I ask myself the same questions that Nussbaum would probably ask me had she read “Cut In Half”. In my continuing development as a writer, it’s important to me that I don’t tread down the same tired road a thousand white straight male writers have walked before me. A good example of this would be the use of rape as a means of giving female characters depth (Kate Conway’s article is good food for thought). Another would be the manner in which some white authors approach characters of color. One must tread lightly when appropriating the struggles of those who are disenfranchised, especially if there is a heavy dose of edgy satire that would probably be more palatable coming from a black writer (see Revealing Eden by Victoria Foyt, an author whose intentions fell on dumbfounded ears when they heard of the novel in question).

On the other hand, one must not be disingenuous. If I write a story about a home invasion and the invaders are black, and in this story my female character is raped by these men and her entire life is shaped by this event, I cannot go against my gut instincts that this is how the story unfolds. I can, however, question myself and ask why it is I see the world this way. I can challenge myself by asking whether or not this is a story worth telling, if it has value. Maybe it does. But maybe there is a much better story that can be told, a way to explore these characters I have in my head without endorsing awful ideas. After all, everyone thinks that in one way or another, they are doing the right thing. In “True Detective” Marty argues for the stabilizing value of infidelity while Rust sympathetically characterizes it as a weakness we are all capable of. That we see the transparency of this highlights their flaws and in doing so, is less an endorsement for misogyny and more a criticism.

At least, that’s what I think.

Maybe the trick then is to immerse a reader in these truths in hopes that when they reflect them in a mirror built out of their beliefs, something new will bounce back. Nussbaum has already done this with “True Detective”. Maybe it’s a truth I don’t agree with, but it’s her take on things none the less (check out Willa Paskin’s article on Slate for a take more inline with how I feel about the show). As for my own work, I am trying to hold the mirror upon these narratives and I am searching for those cracks, for the different ways I can express myself as truthfully as possible. And I am trying to learn and to grow.

Until next time, here’s to being scary.


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