Poe, Updike, Roth, Mailer: many male authors have contributed to a culture in which the credibility of women is undermined. It’s time to put a stop to the gaslighting, writes Sarah Churchwell
In Patrick Hamilton’s play, the flickering lamps verify the wife’s suspicions; in the Hollywood film of Gas Light, released six years later, they make her further doubt her own senses. “Gaslighting” soon came to denote psychological warfare, the deliberate undermining of another’s sanity. More recently, it has been resuscitated as a metaphor for the cultural sabotage of women’s perceptions, for trivialising their concerns as imaginary. Gaslighting is about women fighting to get men to see their point of view.
The question of credibility gained new currency after allegations about Harvey Weinstein triggered the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns – the latest battles in a war women have been waging for centuries against the prerogatives of patriarchy. Storytelling is a key battleground: for years women used “whisper networks”, gossip as self-protection, warning each other about dangerous, powerful men; this time, controversially, lists were produced and circulated. “Me, too” means the speaker has experienced anything from unwanted sexual contact to assault; but it also means “listen to me, too”. There is a reason we use “voice” as a metaphor for power, agency and activism. Male privilege is the entitlement to be the centre of the story, for male voices to dominate, for male interpretations to define it, for a woman to be dismissed, in the words of the husband in Gas Light,as “a perfect little silly”.
Remarkably little has changed since 1846, when Edgar Allan Poe declared that “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world” is “the death of a beautiful woman”. Even before they die, female characters often barely exist, as in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), when Catherine Barkley informs Frederic Henry: “There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.” Or they don’t make it into the story at all: women appear on approximately two of Moby-Dick’s more than 600 pages. Some of the worst culprits are not the misogynists of old, however, but men telling stories in the very decades that women were making real political and professional gains. Second-wave feminism spurred a backlash among certain men, including influential storytellers whose perceptions framed the cultural moment and helped create an ambient contempt for women’s perspectives. “Please, Ramona,” Saul Bellow’s Herzog thinks, “you’re lovely, fragrant, sexual, good to touch – everything. But these lectures! For the love of God, Ramona, shut it up.” Her body is “everything”; her voice positively objectionable. Bellow won the Nobel prize for literature in 1976 for “the human understanding” in his work.
Twenty years ago, writing about the “Great Male Narcissists” – namely John Updike, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer – David Foster Wallace mentioned a woman he knew who dismissed Updike as “just a penis with a thesaurus”. Lines such as “I slapped her glazed butternut ass, with its infantile puckered aperture, so decisively that she tumbled onto her back” in Toward the End of Time (1997) are unlikely to make many readers leap to Updike’s defence. The standard rejoinder is that this is the character’s misogyny, not the author’s. And Updike does occasionally subvert his protagonist’s misogynistic narcissism, as when his wife points out to Ben Turnbull that “everything you feel has to do with yourself. John feels things about others.” But it’s also true that all that buttock-inventorying doesn’t leave much room in the book for other thoughts.
Roth’s sexual projection is nothing compared with Updike’s and Mailer’s, however. Updike was particularly fond of the long-standing pornographic trope in which women are awestruck when they see “naked, stiff and erect, that wonderful machine” – in the words of Fanny Hill, heroine of John Cleland’s 1749 porn classic, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Just short of 250 years later, in Updike’s 2008 The Widows of Eastwick, a woman looks at two naked men and finds them “so beautiful and monstrous, these glossy erect pricks”, that she just “had to take them into her mouth”. At other times the widows sit around thinking about “their nether parts, hairy and odorous and for many Christian centuries unspeakable”, as you do. It is not unreasonable to judge all this a failure of imaginative, sympathetic, humanistic art – and it was a sequel to Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (1984), which was, he said, “one attempt to make things right with my, what shall we call them, feminist detractors”. Those detractors were taking issue with books such as Rabbit Redux (1971), which describes a woman “liking it, being raped”. This particular line was so objectionable, even 45 years ago, that later editions made it more ambiguous, changing the line to “she is liking it, this attack”.
Mailer’s response to his feminist detractors, meanwhile, was to double down. When Kate Millett called Mailer a “prisoner of the cult of virility”, he responded with The Prisoner of Sex (1970), in which he revealed that he once called his penis “The Avenger”, but had renamed it “Retaliator” – just another penis with a thesaurus. Mailer also declared that a man’s “sexual force” is “his finest moral product”. If this had all been ridiculed as the petty masculine panic it so patently was, it wouldn’t much matter. Instead, Anatole Broyard declared it Mailer’s “best book” in the New York Times, telling women it was “a love poem” to our sex. When cultural authorities tell us to confuse “retaliation” with “love” – that’s when it’s gaslighting.
What would happen if any of these books had ever hinted that feminism might just have a point? The problem is not an author choosing to mock a feminist; they aren’t sacred. The problem is that these stories, granted so much cultural authority, have for half a century and more been subjecting the very concept of feminists to near-universal derision, gaslighting the entire feminist perspective.
A year before The Human Stain appeared, JM Coetzee published his Booker prize-winning Disgrace: both novels concern older male academics who feel unfairly hounded by feverish political correctness; both are accused of sexually exploiting women with less power. Coetzee pushed considerably harder at the imaginative and ethical borders of this subject than Roth, but still couldn’t resist taking satirical aim at people who object on principle to older men sexually exploiting younger women. Professor David Lurie has sex with a student called Melanie a few times, but Coetzee makes clear that she is far from eager. Lurie thinks to himself that it was “not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck.” She accuses him of sexual harassment soon afterwards, and he is fired.
“Not rape, not quite that.” The problem is with a system – let’s call it patriarchy – in which the person who decides whether it is “not quite rape” is the one doing the not-quite-raping. But Coetzee has only just begun. Lurie’s disgrace takes him to the home of his daughter, Lucy, who is gay; subsequently Lucy is violently gang-raped in a way that even Lurie does not find ambiguous. His instant response is to try to fit her rape into a system. “That is how one must see life in this country,” he concludes: “in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them.” But making even that tiny niche for a woman’s feelings to fit into his system causes Lurie’s perspective to begin expanding, despite himself; the capacity of his very limited empathy begins to stretch.
Later, unexpectedly, Lurie finds himself trying to imagine the rape. “He can, if he concentrates, if he loses himself, be there, be the men, inhabit them, fill them with the ghost of himself. The question is, does he have it in him to be the woman?”
As Humbert reveals, in what may (or may not) be his moral epiphany, the great tragedy of Lolita is “the absence of her voice” – an absence that bothers many readers, as it is clearly intended to. One response was by Heather McGowan, in her remarkable debut novel Schooling (2001), which tells a Lolita story from the girl’s point of view – a novel about consent, confusion and betrayal. Simply fixing women’s perspective as the moral barometer can still seem a subversive choice. Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which won last year’s Baileys prize for women’s fiction, imagines a world 5,000 years in the future, when women’s power has become normalised; people use evolutionary biology and misread history to show that men are naturally weaker. One man, trying to push back against this naturalisation with his condescending female editor, who knows less than him about the subject, argues that history was produced by women in the past who chose stories that were more favourable to them. “They picked works to copy that supported their viewpoint … I mean, why would they recopy works that said that men used to be stronger and women weaker? That would be heresy, and they’d be damned for it.”
Recently, the New Yorker story “Cat Person” went viral simply by offering a comparatively nuanced version of a woman’s perspective on consent: a young woman encourages a sexual encounter only to find she no longer desires it, but lets it continue. “The thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming,” Margot realises. Not until the end does Robert turn to abuse; he is not forcing her, but Margot feels pressured all the same. The idea that misogyny only happens when men overtly abuse women is part of the problem the story explores; it describes one small aspect of how male privilege can feel to a woman, creating anxieties over what is permissible because of the obligation to be nice. That Robert feels no such obligation is clear in the story’s ending, when he sends Margot, who has rejected him, a one word text: “Whore.” There is no comparable insult for a woman to hurl at a man who rejects her, and most wouldn’t dare. The issue of consent is hugely intensified by a culture that works so hard to invalidate women’s interpretations of the world.
Even more frustrating, however, is that many women readily assert the importance or greatness of these books. Male readers by comparison rarely use the compliment “universal” to describe a book written by a woman: in fact, it’s difficult to recall a single instance. Women don’t have that option: if we read, we must read about men; if we think, we must think about what men think.
Patriarchy instils doubt about women – in men and women alike. In Gas Light, Hamilton draws on the tradition of the gothic novel, in which women trapped in intimidating and isolated surroundings are terrorised by powerful men who may or may not turn out to be sympathetic. That uncertainty speaks to women’s experience of the world, their need to discover whether men are predators or protectors. The classic gothic – say, Jane Eyre (1847) – tends to validate the woman’s perspective: her anxieties are warranted and legitimate. By contrast, many modern gothics – say, Rebecca (1938), which rewrites Jane Eyre – end with the heroine’s fears revealed as foolish, even hysterical; she misread the man’s perspective, and must learn to read him better in future. In other words, the story is gaslighting its own heroine: she was being paranoid. Given that such narratives encourage the audience to share the heroine’s suspicions, they also gaslight the audience, reinforcing the idea that women are unreliable interpreters of male behaviour.
It might be said that all this is dredging up ancient history; these men were from another era. By a funny coincidence that’s exactly the feeble excuse Weinstein offered when allegations of his decades of sexual abuse surfaced: it used to be fine. But it was never fine. The cultural recursiveness of this is the point, and what makes women call it a rigged game; it never goes away.
It has been much remarked that some of the most influential US male media figures who dismissed the allegations of sexual harassment against Donald Trump were themselves fired shortly thereafter for serially committing the same offence. These men’s vested interest in whether our culture takes sexual assault seriously was allowed to shape the political outcome, to put a confessed sexual assaulter in the White House, and not coincidentally to sabotage the reputation of his opponent, who just happened to be a woman. The media campaign against Hillary Clinton was nothing if not gaslighting on an epic scale.
Meanwhile the White House has just been forced, with notable reluctance, to remove not one but two senior advisers credibly accused of domestic violence. The Trump administration ignored claims that top White House staffer Rob Porter had beaten his ex-wives until photos of Colbie Holderness with a black eye surfaced. Trump was widely criticised for reserving his expressions of sympathy for the men being forced out, not for the women they were accused of abusing. But that, insisted Jennie Willoughby, Porter’s second ex-wife, “will not diminish my truth”.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of “gaslighting”, then, is its tacit recognition that abusers are the untrustworthy ones; the term compels us to believe the disbelieved, not to diminish their truth. The wife in Gas Light is not mad; her husband is a monster. Patriarchy works unseen to valorise men’s perspective, and invalidate women’s. When we don’t recognise the way it shapes the world, then we do not understand that world properly: our perspective becomes unreliable. In other words, patriarchy continues to gaslight us all
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