This is going to be a hard blog post to write, not because I don’t feel strongly about the subject matter or care about what I’m going to say, but because I don’t want to identify anyone as I go. Let me just state at the outset, then, that the observations I want to make here relate to a general impression I have received lately, and I don’t want (and don’t intend) to make reference to any one person or piece of writing in what follows. (Also, this post is possibly triggering for violence, domestic violence and violence against women, though I’ve tried not to be too graphic, of course).
Over the last while, I’ve read several stories which take as their central focus the relationship between women and men. In general, they do not end well. The stories deal with rejection, and pain, and humiliation, and often they deal with death, sometimes self-inflicted. Some of them describe adult relationships, by which I simply mean ‘relationships between an adult woman and an adult man’; some of them describe relationships between teenage characters. In all cases, the stories were written by men.
I have read stories about young men being tormented by young women, made to feel ashamed and guilty for their romantic feelings, humiliated for expressing their softer emotions. I have read stories about college-age men being rejected by a woman in whom they were interested who then go on to take their own lives. I have read stories about men who feel used as playthings by unfeeling women who then take out their anger on one another.
And I have read a story about a man who murders a woman, simply because he can, and even as she lies dead on the floor he appraises the woman’s figure and attractiveness, and describes it for the reader.
I confess to feeling upset and slightly angered by these stories. Of course, I am the first to say that if writing something down makes a writer feel better, or if it expresses something deep within them, or if they feel they have something to say with the story they’re writing, then by all means they must write it. I don’t want to censor anyone’s creativity and I feel writing is a vital part of expressing what makes us human.
These stories worry me.
They worry me because I’m afraid that the men who write them are basing them on their own experiences, and that they feel there’s nowhere else to express how they feel. They worry me because they echo so much else about our culture that worries me: misogyny in music videos; violence against women in computer games; women being seen as objects in magazines and newspapers and everywhere else you care to look; the rise of things like the men’s rights movement, which has sprung – in my opinion – from a profound misunderstanding of what feminism is about. They worry me because men, even some of those whom I love and hold dear, sometimes express ways of thinking about women which seem to me to be dangerous, reductive and upsetting, and the ways in which men and women interact in our world seems to me to be deeply out of balance. They worry me because, as stories, they are not questioning or interrogating or investigating the gender balance; they are not saying anything by making use of tropes of violence or abuse. They are simply describing what it feels like to be hurt, to be humiliated, to feel powerless – and how it feels to express your rage, whether it’s by causing injury to yourself, or a ‘lesser’ man, or a woman. One story in particular seemed to luxuriate in the destruction caused to the person of a female character, and I freely admit it disturbed me.
And here’s the thing: I’m a person who has read (and loved) Bret Easton Ellis’s masterpiece American Psycho, among others. I am not a prude, or someone whose finer sensibilities are thrown out of whack by a little blood. I am a person who has read, and relished, stories about men, women and violence – if they are saying something, at least something more nuanced than ‘this is how it feels to beat someone to death.’ American Psycho is a detailed and brilliant deconstruction of Western consumer culture, and it is skilfully created to allow the reader to both be and despise the serial killer Patrick Bateman, while at the same time constantly questioning whether he is even a reliable narrator – are his murders actually happening, or is he merely fantasising about them? In my opinion, it’s a work of genius, and while I understand you can’t compare a short story to a full-length novel, it should still be possible to express deeper thinking in a short story. A story about a man murdering a woman (or, indeed, a person of any gender murdering another person of any gender) should be about something else as well as merely a murder: it should be an artistic statement, an allegory, an image, a means of satire, a vehicle for expressing a deeper truth about human nature and/or society, and this is no easy thing to do. It takes a writer of unusual skill to pull off something so sophisticated.
If a story is simply about a man killing a woman, luxuriating in the detail, then to me it’s frightening, and it lingers on the border of voyeurism. If (as I’ve also come across recently, far too often) a story is about a man to whom everything comes easy, and who can have any woman he wants at the snap of a finger, and in which women are seen as mere dolls who exist purely for the pleasure of the narrator, then I’m afraid they hold no interest for me. Unless the author is skilled enough to use these tropes to make a statement about something larger, then stories like this blur the line into pornography, and there’s enough of that in the world already.
Thoughts? Am I over-thinking? Am I – even without meaning to – imposing my own values upon others? Am I guilty of censorship? I’d love to know what you make of this.