This post was inspired by therejectionist’s prompt: Is it okay to appreciate a work whose author or the work itself espouses some rather indefensible opinions? Here’s my answer.
There are two kinds of misogyny. I break it down as such: Carrie Bradshaw-flavored and Henry Miller-flavored. One makes me throw a book across a room, and the other may make me squirm a bit but sigh and keep reading.
Bradshaw is about women who claim to have their shit together- they are “career women” who claim to be “liberated” and “empowered” and “the authors of their own lives” while tottering around New York in feet-disfiguring shoes and whining about being childless at forty.
Henry Miller cozies up with Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac on my bookshelves, while the Bradshaws of contemporary lit are never will. How can I stand Miller’s repeated “cunts” while Bradshaw’s internalized misogyny sends me shuffling for the lighter fluid?
Miller’s misogyny stems from female characters with wants and goals that interfere with the narrator’s. The resulting anger and frustration comes from both his love and hate of these women for their power over him and his resulting inability to control these objects of his scorn and desire. Such narrators are more interesting as storytellers because of their fallibility and their self-effacing honesty. All their veiled insults or pseudo-aggressive actions are attempts to empower themselves, which makes for compelling drama. The female protagonists in these books get it, too (though Hemingway scores no points here). They, like their male counterparts, are subtly imprisoned by their own unhealthy obsessions. As a reader, we can relate until it becomes uncomfortable, then we can judge. And then we can relate again.
Yes, the world is full of men who relate to Henry Miller a bit too much to be sane or safe. Yet, as a woman reading these books, I’m in on the joke. I see how cruel all the characters are to each other, to preserve their egos and further their objectives, subtly imprisoned by their need to be loved and respected, while affording neither to one another.
Henry Miller’s misogyny is the kind of Wall Street honchos who hire pro-doms on the weekends to knowingly give their hubris a wicked and necessary dose of humility. Thus, Miller and his cohorts get a pass from me. Carrie Bradshaw can die in a fire, as far as I’m concerned, because she is NOT in on the joke. She doesn’t see her cultural vapidity, her insipid desires, and her deference to class markers and antiquated beauty standards as products of the patriarchy, not a repudiation of it.
As a queer woman reading any “mainstream” book with a central romance, I have to turn a blind eye to gender roles in order to connect with the story because so often the protagonist’s objectives are so far from my own, such as marriage and babies, swooooon. Such a vast suspension of disbelief isn’t demanded from me when reading the so-called “misogynist” texts. Happily ever after for such books doesn’t mean a kiss or a wedding. More often, it means that everyone survived with their dignity intact. Objectives like artistic integrity, escape from bourgeois cultural standards, and lots of superb sex are things I can get behind, regardless of gender or sexual identity.
Chick-lit books like to make sweeping claims on womanhood, then paint their characters as women I would never identify with. This sets me up for complete removal from their world. They tell me What Women Want, and then don’t show me one damn woman wants to wear busted up boots, to shave her head, or see Sleater-Kinney to reunite. The protagonists of chick-lit books are never written as sovereign characters who are fighting a real threat or are aspiring to a level of greatness I would want. Instead, they are half-formed characters looking for completion, whether through career success, material gains, or the love of a man.
So, give me Henry Miller’s sympathetic misogyny, with his four-letter epithets and meaningless sex. Make me cringe with his self-loathing, just don’t make me strap on four-inch heels in the name of liberation.