For all the supposed bravery of her latest novel, the author fails to capture the emotions behind women's urges
MAGIC MIKE, Steven Soderbergh’s new film about a group of male strippers in Tampa, plays with a fantasy of male domination that is familiar to many women, though antithetical to modern ideals of romance: a strong, handsome man is so consumed with lust for a woman that he carts her off and has his way with her, giving no thought to ethical or emotional considerations. An early scene portrays the uptight sister of a new stripper coming to the club to check up on her brother. Normally self-contained to the point of coldness, Brooke is particularly tense at the club, convinced her younger brother has gotten involved in a seedy underworld. But once the eponymous lead stripper starts dancing, Brooke’s reserve begins to dissolve. The camera alternates between a close-up of Brooke’s face and Mike’s exhibition of strength and rhythm — he does back flips, frenzied hip hop moves, and break dances involving a bit of skilled stage humping, all while gazing lustily at the audience from beneath his baseball cap.
As Brooke watches Mike dance, her jaw relaxes, her lips part, her eyes grow wide and soft. He flips off the end of the stage and lands in front of a lace-clad middle-aged woman. He lifts the woman, still seated in her chair, above his head. He drops the chair and catches the woman’s butt in his hands. She emits a brief yelp. Brooke’s mouth falls open. Mike lays the audience member on the stage and parts her thighs with his head. Then he stands over her, unceremoniously removes his shoes and pants, and thrusts the bulge beneath his g-string in her face. The frankness of the gesture returns Brooke to herself, and she looks away, flushed and disoriented.
The scene is a variation on a familiar trope: the reluctant woman cajoled by a man’s aggressive lust. Mike mimics a man taking control of a woman’s body for his own pleasure, right down to the pageant of fear — that little yelp as he drops the woman’s chair. Except in this case, the cliché fantasy is being played out solely for the benefit of the woman. Being deprived of the capacity to make decisions about sexual acts and needs can be highly erotic as a concept or a pose. But in real life, for most people, such suspension of the will can be unsatisfying at best. Brooke — and the audience — get to enjoy the erotic thrill of being overpowered without any of the real complications. The strip club (or movie theater) precludes physical danger and emotional entrapment, just as it precludes real fulfillment: no one is going to get off. They’ll just want to. Several women told me Magic Mike was the sexiest film they’ve ever seen.
Such a calmly authentic and compelling engagement with female arousal is a refreshing alternative to the recent spate of memoirs and autobiographical novels that treat the female desire for sexual submission as a kind of titillating depravity. In the past few years, popular memoirs and autobiographical novels by women have presented anal sex as the key to female liberation (Toni Bentley’s The Surrender), casual sex as a life-destroying addiction (Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl), gang bangs as freedom from psychological suffering (Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M.), and expert blowjobs as the key to a happy marriage (Charlotte Roche’s Schossegebete, forthcoming in English this year). Each of these writers conveys her sex life almost exclusively through confessional details at which the reader is invited to gape — sexual positions, number of partners, penis size, personal hygiene regimens, colors and fabrics of lingerie. The reader can visualize these writers’ couplings easily enough, but has no sense of what the sex feels like or why it is fundamental to a given author’s sense of self. On the contrary, their obsession with the idea of sex seems to distance them from its physical expression. It’s as if a whole host of women with no culinary knowledge started writing cookbooks just because they sometimes eat food.
The most recent addition to this genre is Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, which has propelled the Canadian author into the sort of fame her narrator — a Canadian writer named Sheila — longs for. Sheila is a playwright in her late twenties who spends a lot of time not working on the play she has been commissioned to write. Instead, she drinks and does drugs with her friends, and gives blowjobs to “the sexiest guy in the city,” an unsuccessful painter named Israel. Although Heti fails to produce a coherent portrait of modern social anxiety, she evokes elements of this anxiety that make HSAPB an interesting illustration of the trend of young women portraying themselves though their mediocre sexual experiences. Also interesting is the fact that HSAPB has made Heti a well-known literary figure, while her more accomplished earlier work garnered praise, but not fame.
When she was 24, Heti published a book of quirky, aimless short stories that seemed to promise an imagination that had not yet found its material. After subsequently publishing a historical novel, Ticknor, that dealt ambitiously and movingly with artistic envy, Heti decided to turn away from the “difficulty” of fiction. She published a book of transcriptions of her friend Misha’s philosophy of life, The Chairs Are Where the People Go — an offshoot of her failed attempt to write a novel about Misha. “Work on [the novel] stalled, however,” Heti writes in the introduction, “when I couldn’t figure out how to develop him morally.” So she decided instead to have Misha over for coffee a few mornings a week and type up his words. “I have always liked the way Misha speaks and thinks, but writing down the sorts of things he might say and think was never as pleasurable as encountering the things he actually did say and think.”
Most novelists would agree that chatting with a friend is more pleasurable than writing novels. But the avoidance of rigorous thought and expression comes at a high aesthetic cost. How Should a Person Be?, billed as “a novel from life,” also relies on emails, transcriptions of real conversations, and rote recordings of the minutiae of Heti’s social life: “I shared a breakfast special and a grilled cheese with Margaux. Jon asked for our fries. I don’t remember what we started off talking about, or who was the funniest that day.” As James Wood pointed out in a measured review for The New Yorker, “Heti is at times more enamored of the sparkle of her friends than seems warranted. A fair amount of the conversation has that sloppy, pert formlessness characteristic of university days, so that one occasionally has to remind oneself that the book’s author is thirty-five and not twenty.” This immaturity of both form and content is disappointing, given the carefully crazed voice of Ticknor’s narrator as he grapples with the emotional complications of a quotidian concern: should he or should he not attend a colleague’s dinner party? Heti treats us to Ticknor’s inner monologue as he walks from the party:
I tell myself that evening-time is when my life comes alive, but that is not true either. Instead I left. Now I walk through the streets with my head low, the flowers dragging from my hand. I push them under a pile of leaves to hide them from the rain. There isn’t any hope or even a thought in me of going back while everything around me is calling out my guilt as I pass by; the streetcar lines, the chimney stacks, that storefront on the corner with the fruit in bins, the streetlights and the wires hanging overhead. But what has been the cause this time? Why has it turned out the way it has?
Wood’s was the only review of How Should a Person Be? that made any substantial objections to Heti’s new style. Both he and Lorin Stein — who edited Ticknor but advised Heti to shelve HSAPB — have come under fire for refusing to appreciate what has been identified as the peculiarly female value of Heti’s autobiographical novel. In a Slate article that was widely circulated and lauded, Michelle Dean argued that pure gender bias is what prompted “these influential, ‘serious’ men to plant themselves so firmly in [HSAPB]’s way.” Heti agreed, according to Buzzfeed:
Asked if she might have received harsher criticism because of her gender, Heti said that “the most ancient of philosophical questions are questions of ethics and questions like ‘how should a person be?’” Still, she argued, “If you put these concerns in the mouth of a contemporary North American woman who has sex, it’s called ‘navel-gazing,’ even though it’s the exact same question humans have been asking forever.”
It’s hardly paranoid to suspect that a worthy book might be denied critical support because of the author’s gender — the majority of book reviewers are male, and the majority of books reviewed are written by men. Writers such as Mary Gaitskill, Jeanette Winterson, and Eileen Myles, whose treatment of love, sex, and friendship awaken the reader to the otherworldliness of common emotion, have been pigeonholed as women’s writers at best and man-haters at worst. (Contrary to what Michelle Dean would have us understand, Lorin Stein is not among these reductive critics, as his appreciation of Gaitskill in the New York Review of Books suggests.)
Precisely because of this very real gender bias, it is disheartening to see reviewers go to bat for a book that lends credence to the misconception that to write about one’s inner life is to write for people who do not want to be challenged intellectually. Addressing Heti directly, Dean argued in Slate, “And though he [Wood] just recently raved about a book very similar to yours (that one was written by a man, but one of the same age and same meandering disposition, one who also mixed fiction and fact), the critic’s lukewarm review is written with the air of one holding the offending item out at arm’s length, sniffing warily.”
The “similar” book in question is Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, to which HSAPB has been repeatedly compared. The comparison is apt on the level of content. Lerner’s narrator Adam struggles, like Sheila, with the complexities of making art in an age of heightened self-consciousness, in which one is constantly charged with mediating the ways his image touches — or fails to touch — the outside world. Both narrators use drugs and romance as distractions from their failures to write. And both authors see the nineteenth-century novel as a performance they do not want to repeat. But Lerner finds a new form in which to convey Adam’s inner life, relying on an attention to language that reveals the distance between Adam’s thoughts and his mode of communication. Heti’s rejection of the novelistic endeavor, however, is simply reductive. She presents Sheila through a hodgepodge of traditional forms poorly rendered: essayistic passages devoid of rigorous thought; novelistic scenes shorn of attention to sensual or psychological detail; bland dialogue from plays; emails from, well, emails.
Consider a representative passage from the two books, each of which deals with reconciling the suspicion that art may be useless with the compulsion to make it anyway. Lerner writes:
But my research had taught me that the tissue of contradictions that was my personality was itself, at best, a poem, where “poem” is understood as referring to a failure of language to be equal to the possibilities it figures; only then could my fraudulence be a project and not merely a pathology: only then could my distance from myself be redescribed as critical, aesthetic, as opposed to a side effect of what experts might call my substance problem, felicitous phrase, the origins of which lay not in my desire to evade reality, but in my desire to have a chemical excuse for reality’s unavailability. […] I less thought than felt these things on my skin as I wandered the city.
I am writing a play that is going to save the world. If it only saves three people, I will not be happy. If with this play the oil crisis is merely averted and our standard of living maintains itself at its current level, I will weep into my oatmeal. If this play does anything short of announcing the arrival of the next cock — I mean, messiah — I will shit into my oatmeal. […] I don’t see why I don’t just kick it all to hell and shut up at last about my concern that I might put more shit into the world. The world is full to brimming with its own shit. A little more from me won’t even not make a difference — it’s only natural. It’s to be expected. I should put a lot of shit in the play, so it will be a multicolored shit.
Lerner allows his narrator to be both intelligent and aware of the artifice involved in the kind of elegantly constructed intellectual monologue that figures heavily in the traditional novel: “I less thought than felt these things on my skin.” He directly addresses the un-lifelike clarity of this moment of insight without denying the reader the fruits of the insight: just as a good poem convinces the poet of the insufficiency of language to express what he longs to express, the narrator’s pained awareness of his own posturing stems from his desire for a greater connection with the outside world, greater than the fortress of our minds permit. His self-consciousness about the manufacturing of language is also funny (“substance abuse, felicitous phrase”), a humor that depends upon Lerner’s clarity of expression and purpose.
Heti’s inscrutability is merely a tone. Sheila’s hopes for her play are so exaggerated that the reader assumes them to be ironic. But why is Heti mocking Sheila’s artistic ambition? The novel doesn’t offer answers to this question, so the ironic tone can be neither funny nor revelatory. Then there is the language: vague idiom use (Make a difference in what way? To be expected by whom? Precisely what kind of shit are we talking about here?); sloppy syntax (“won’t even not”); the failed attempt at humor (is Heti making fun of political correctness with the phrase “multicolored shit”? Making a reference to diarrhea? Just using a bad metaphor?); cheap attention-grabbers (cock; shit; shit; shit; shit).
A generous reading of How Should a Person Be? assumes, as many critics have, that the novel’s lazy prose is a deliberate aesthetic choice, one intended to “complicate our notion of beauty and ugliness,” as the Boston Globe put it. But if we are to take Heti at her word that HSAPB is an expression of “all the trash and all the shit” in Sheila, and assume that an inability to write well is part of Sheila’s innate ugliness, we must wonder what is to be gained from gazing at trash and shit whose nature Heti is unable to articulate. For the first few pages of HSAPB, the attentive reader hopes that Heti has affected a voice of stupidity and superficiality, which could be a funny, worthwhile inquiry into the inner lives of socialites like Paris Hilton and the stars of the reality TV show The Hills (for whom Heti has professed genuine admiration. “My mind blew open when I saw that for the first time,” she told The New Inquiry. “It just seemed so beautiful to me, actually”). But this conceit quickly falls away — aside from a fight over the same dress as her best friend and a number of ditzy comments, Sheila is presented as a serious artist who is seriously considering, as Heti puts it, “the most ancient of philosophical questions.”
What makes HSAPB a significant cultural artifact is its embrace by critics. Jezebel, a website “for women” with a readership of three million, honored Heti as one of their 25 “game-changing women.” The Huffington Post called HSAPB “The Most Important Summer Read for Women.” And Adbusters claimed that Heti is “redefining the direction of the next decade of feminist dreams.” Some have even taken its superficiality and laziness as symbols of its excellence; writing for The New Republic, Britt Peterson summed up the flavor of this praise: “It is, in a very new way, the most thoughtfully feminist novel I have read in years — because of its flaws, and not despite them.”
What exactly makes HSAPB’s particular flaws — Peterson labels the prose “ungainly” and the plot “not that interesting” — feminist in a new way? In a word: blowjobs. As Toni Nangy wrote for The Huffington Post, “With her lover Israel, Heti is brave enough to admit all the darkness, grime, and shame that can be involved with lust. She says things most women are afraid to even think.” The “dark” and “shameful” desire to which Heti admits is the longing to be treated — for a short time, and only during sex — as a sex object by a man she finds attractive. Sheila sees Israel around town and thinks he’s hot. They run into each at a party and he invites her back to his apartment. They begin an intermittent sexual affair. Sheila feels “faint” and “intoxicated” whenever Israel calls her, despondent when he is out of touch. The story of Sheila and Israel’s affair is entirely ordinary except for the fact that neither Heti nor Sheila seems aware of its ordinariness.
In a chapter called “Interlude for Fucking,” which is addressed directly to Israel, Sheila reveals that she loves to get “reamed” by him and to suck his cock. Fair enough, but what makes these natural heterosexual urges worthy of our contemplation? Anyone who’s seen an episode on Animal Planet realizes that the eroticism of male dominance (male seeks female, takes control of her body, ejaculates) is hardly a new concept. And this animalistic urge has been referenced in pop art since Liz Phair sang, “I want to be your blowjob queen” on her 1993 album Exile in Guyville. There was then, and there is today, value in a frank expression of the lust to be the instrument of a man’s pleasure — particularly as awareness about the pervasive objectification of women may suggest to many post-feminist girls (and boys) that they should only be turned on by gentle face-to-face intercourse. But Heti makes this erotic compulsion a keystone of Sheila’s quest to figure out what she wants from life and how to get it. To attribute such power to a common sexual impulse could be a revealing endeavor — if only there were a clear articulation of this impulse and the anguish it eventually causes.
Alas, Heti takes it for granted that the reader will find Israel as compelling as Sheila does. Sheila describes him as “a genius at fucking” and asserts that “I am indifferent to whatever you do to me, as long as it feels as good as it did those three times.” Heti never reveals anything about the nature of Sheila’s pleasure in these few encounters, whether physical or otherwise. And despite numerous critical descriptions of the book as “sexy” and “graphic,” there is not even pornographic value to Heti’s writing because the sex is never explicit. It is simply a catalogue of Sheila’s sexual willingness. To wit: “You told me after he told you that he had made out with me, you said to Alexei, You should try fucking her. Lend me to Alexei then, to whichever one of your friends. I will fuck them like I’m fucking you, and think of you all the while — your body, and the greatness of you, that makes me do such things — and I will lick it up, whatever trails you leave and wherever you leave them.”
With such sloppy syntax (“you told me after he told you that he had…”) and incomprehensible imagery (what exactly is Sheila going to lick up? If we’re talking about trails, why is “it” singular? And what comprises these trails anyway? Cum? Gossip? Cocaine?), it’s no wonder reviewers have had trouble making sense of Heti’s writing about sex. In an email interview with Heti, Jessica Ferri expressed admiration for “the chapters about Israel and the blowjob talk and the ‘Interlude for Sex’ chapter. I don’t really know what to ask you, aside from telling you that these parts of the book were refreshing and thrilling to read.” Just as Heti seems unable to describe the nature of Sheila’s obsession with Israel, Ferri — otherwise an articulate interviewer — has no idea what she found so thrilling and refreshing about Sheila’s enthusiasm for fellatio. Interviewer Henry Giardina was equally enamored of and confused by Sheila’s profession of love for Israel’s cock: “I loved the ‘Interlude for Fucking’ section. It’s so visceral and such a departure. I like that it’s even called an interlude for fucking. It was so strange when I read it, I was like, ‘what is this doing here?’”
With no aesthetic clues in the novel as to what motivates Sheila’s lust, the melodramatic tone of her desire for Israel has been universally misread as sadomasochism. Critics have described Israel as a “Dominant BDSM partner,” and have termed their sex “sadomasochistic,” “S&M,” “brutal,” “profane.” One tends to forget the insane, criminally violent Frenchman from whom sadism takes its name. The writings of the Marquis de Sade include such stomach-churning scenes as a young girl being tied naked to a tree and nearly devoured by dogs for an older man’s titillation; a man being fellated by his servant while he slices a girl’s arms and face with a knife until she passes out; men and women being anally raped as they are tortured to death on devices I wish I had never had the misfortune to read about.
The only cruelty attributed to Israel is a forcefulness that Sheila claims to find sexy: “Even when you hear me gagging you don’t stop,” Heti writes in the chapter addressed directly to Israel. Plenty of women find it sexy to gag when performing oral sex; plenty of others don’t. It’s likely that a man in Israel’s position would assume that the smart, capable woman willingly giving him head will stop if she wants to stop. The other perceived cruelty to which Heti alludes is emotional: “I never saw any sentiment in his eyes.” Neither Sheila nor Israel ever express anything other than sexual interest in one another. So Israel assumes the role the situation demands: he takes physical pleasure in their encounters without expending any emotional energy.
The turning point of the book comes when Sheila is working on an erotic letter that Israel requested, “in the style of a letter home from a first-year university student or camper,” explaining “how much you miss my cum in your mouth.” If such a scenario turns both partners on, why not have fun with it? But once Sheila starts working on the letter, she is overcome by a sense of “how sick it was that all this time I had been having so much trouble writing my play, yet instead of laboring away at it, here I was writing this fucking letter – this cock-sucking letter of flattery for Israel!” Crying as she wanders the city streets, Sheila thinks of a painting in which a little girl straddles a man’s neck.
I began to see that the worst thing about child abuse would be the empathy you would have for the grown-up, who feels compelled to do these things. Worse would be the tenderness you would feel for the adult because you love them — because you believe they are being forced by something inside of them to do these terrible things. You would want to help them — to make them feel better — and you would help them feel better by complying, and complying without judgment. To do otherwise would leave you guilty for making them feel so bad.
Sheila’s mental leaps are characteristically unclear, in part because of the grammatical lapses (“worse” than “the worst thing”; vague use of the second person; pluralization of singular nouns). And there is nothing to suggest, either here or elsewhere in HSAPB, that this lack of clarity is deliberate — that the author knows more about Sheila’s emotional crisis than Sheila does. Rather, the mocking, exaggerated tone with which Heti conveyed Sheila’s artistic ambitions and sexual willingness falls away at the moment when Sheila decides not to write the sex letter, suggesting that we are now in the territory of earnest epiphany. Just as Heti’s previous mockery is never connected to the novel’s content, this epiphany is offered without qualification. While Sheila previously found Israel’s “unconcern” sexy, Heti now implies that she was coerced into doing “terrible things” with him. But Sheila is not a child, and Israel has not been forcing her to fuck him. She is a sexually free woman who has found pain in that freedom.
Heti’s defenders accuse “serious, older men” like Wood and Stein of assuming that a frank portrayal of privileged women’s sexuality is inevitably dull. But HSAPB offers no such a portrait; on the contrary, Heti never explains Sheila’s attraction to Israel or her resulting emotional crisis in relation to sex. Lena Dunham’s work in film and television, on the other hand, has shown us that the topic of ordinary uncommitted sex is both culturally and emotionally rich and that her predecessors have failed to adequately explore it. Because Dunham grants her characters — four white girls in their early twenties — bodily and psychological specificity, her HBO series Girls may be the first example of mainstream storytelling that pays close attention to the modern peculiarities of sexual freedom instead of treating female sexuality as a problem to be solved.
Take the question of why a woman might desire sex that is not physically satisfying, an impulse which has been admitted — unexamined — by supposed champions of sexual confession from Anais Nin to Catherine Millet to Sheila Heti. Girls offers one possible motivation for this urge when Jessa, a classically beautiful woman who is always game for sexual adventure, gets together with an ex-boyfriend. The fedora- and vest-clad ex immediately begins bragging about his new girlfriend, who, he says pointedly, “is actually ready for a mature relationship.” When Jessa takes the bait and implicitly insults his new relationship, the ex asks eagerly, “Are you jealous?”
“No,” Jessa says. “I’m not jealous. But what does strike me as odd is that you’re so keen on Gillian and yet you’re calling me.” He insists that he is really happy with his girlfriend. Jessa smiles in her red lipstick and tilts her head. “Really?”
The camera cuts to Jessa’s apartment, where the two have frenzied intercourse standing up. Jessa grips the frame of an open window while he fucks her from behind. A common camera angle in Girls, the shot allows us to see both of their faces, emphasizing the gulf in their respective physical experiences. As Jessa’s ex enters her, his eyes roll back in his head. He thrusts his hips quickly, his face expressing nothing but self-forgetful pleasure. Jessa’s face expresses neither clear pleasure nor pain; rather, and at most, the consuming sensation of a penis moving back and forth inside her. When he groans and slows his hips, she leans forward and moans, aroused, it seems, by his orgasm. Then she walks away and fixes her dress, looking vacant and perhaps a little sad. Only when he leans in to kiss her does Jessa take her own, very clear, satisfaction: She pulls her head back. “What about Gillian?” she says. He looks surprised to realize the extent of his defeat. As he walks to the door, Jessa smiles to herself, calmly triumphant.
Jessa’s pleasure in the encounter is genuine — that of revealing a man to himself, particularly in a way that confirms her erotic power over him. This is not yet another confused expression of low self-esteem that only leaves Jessa emptier than before. Neither does she treat sex solely as a stepping stone. However little regard she has for the man in question, her facial expressions make it clear that the physical experience of intercourse is a potent one, Jessa affected in ways that seem both enjoyable and difficult.
One of the few times Girls depicts a sex act designed for a woman’s pleasure is when Shoshanna, a college student desperate to lose her virginity, is on a date with a muscle-head she barely knows, and it turns comically unpleasant. As soon as they enter her bedroom, he pulls off her clothes and buries his head between her legs. “Oh, and I love to eat pussy,” he says. “I know that sounds weird, but I totally fuckin’ love it.” The camera focuses on Soshanna’s face for the next minute as she grimaces now with alarm, now with disgust, now with anxiety. It’s hardly a surprise that a guy who thinks of oral sex as his personal fetish is not a very skilled performer. And even if he were genuinely interested in her pleasure, Soshanna is not experienced or confident enough herself to relax and direct him. Such ignorance — both willful and innocent — of what makes women feel good is typical of college-age sex, and it’s refreshing to see this ignorance made explicit on HBO (especially when the popular modern erotica du jour — Fifty Shades of Grey — eroticizes such absurdities as a girl coming from having her nipples briefly licked).
“Do you want to have sex …? Now … Instead,” Soshanna finally blurts out. Although she is neither aroused nor emotionally interested in this guy, she is desperate to lose her virginity to him because she wants to have the experience of intercourse.
In scenes such as these, Dunham reveals some of the differences between the ways young men and women enjoy — and fail to enjoy — sexual freedom. Both scenes are also characteristic of one of the sadly realistic aspects of the sexual encounters portrayed in Girls: female orgasms are the exception rather than the rule. Studies (and a plethora of anecdotal evidence) reveal that men do not typically care whether or not a woman has an orgasm unless they have feelings for her. This is not to say that girls can’t enjoy casual sex or that they are always secretly hoping for love, as Laura Sessions-Stepp argued in Unhooked: How Girls Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both. And neither do girls give blowjobs to men who are not their boyfriends only as a ploy to keep “the anatomical real estate” protected, as moral absolutist Caitlin Flanagan argued in her recent Girl Land. Rather, reason and research suggests that most girls have sex and perform oral sex for the same reason boys do: because they feel like it. Desire and satisfaction, Girls reveals, are different matters entirely.
As Elaine Blair argued in The New York Review of Books, Girls does not show “bad sex”; it shows sex that is more complicated than the missionary position lovemaking unrealistically upheld by Hollywood as the keystone of sexual pleasure. By labeling such complicated yet common sex “humiliation,” How Should a Person Be? reinforces this limiting Hollywood cliché. For all the supposed bravery of Heti’s “blowjob talk,” she turns the common desire for submission into a crisis of masochism.
After Sheila decides not to write the erotic letter Israel requested, she realizes that she must undertake a radical revision of her nature if she is to learn how she wants to behave:
How could I castrate my mind — neuter it! — and build up a resistance to know what was mine from what was everyone else’s, and finally be in the world in my own way? That endless capacity for empathy — which you have to really kill in order to act freely, to know your own desires!
This epiphany recalls an earlier conversation with Margaux, occasioned by their mutual appreciation of a video of Paris Hilton jerking off her boyfriend.
You know, this video totally reminds me of once when I was at a party in Texas. I was about thirteen years old, and there was this girl there who was getting pissed on by these two guys. And she really was the most lost girl.
I just wish she had a bit of what this girl has — her freedom, her shamelessness.
You know, sometimes I get really excited thinking about autism. I think, Oh! Over there in Silicon Valley there are all these kids with autism … and I think maybe it’s an advantageous human trait. Maybe it’s sort of wonderful to —
— to lack feelings?
To lack an overwhelming empathy. I sometimes feel paralyzed by my own feelings of empathy. And it’s still such a problem — shame. Maybe what I want in my life is to cut out a bit of the empathy and a bit of the shame.
How Should a Person Be? suggests that the ideal way to manage uncomfortable feelings — such as those that arise from proximity to sexual violence — is to mimic Paris Hilton’s “steady wrist,” which represents the freedom of being valued for doing something easy that makes one feel nothing. As Paris Hilton told Rolling Stone, “My boyfriends always tell me I’m not sexual. Sexy, but not sexual.” To be sexual is to risk shame, vulnerability, disappointment and anger and pain; it’s to court pleasure, intimacy, surprise and delight at the view of the world outside one’s head. Sexiness divorced of erotic feeling is nothing more than a manipulation of an image.
Is this really, as Adbusters suggests, the “next decade of feminist dreams?” If so, then How Should a Person Be? is merely the latest illustration of a new literary genre that might be called Sexy But Not Sexual. Bentley, Millet, Roche, Cohen, Heti: all are far more interested in describing their undergarments than the bodily experience of succumbing to desire.
In an interview with the New York Times, Dunham identified the aspiration toward apathetic promiscuity as one of her motivations for starting Girls: “I heard so many of my friends saying, ‘Why can’t I have sex and feel nothing?’ It was amazing: that this was the new goal.” Despite numerous comparisons of Girls to HSAPB, Dunham seeks the sources of this disturbing trend while Heti embodies it. The end of the book, intended to illustrate the redemptive joys of female friendship, depicts Margaux and Sheila doing their best to live by their ideal of emotional autism. Sheila’s self-help mantra (a gift from Margaux) is: “Who cares?” Margaux asks Sheila in the book’s penultimate scene, “Do you still like me, even though I’m crying?” Sheila suggests that if they ever have children, they should “trade babies,” and Margaux loves the idea. “I think I always want culture to work like that,” she says. “I think it would be so much less emotionally complicated to raise society’s child.”
Through conversations like this one, Heti captures very well a quintessential modern social dynamic: friends encouraging one another to be free from the burden of caring, to turn even the most urgent questions of their lives into jokes. The problem is that this cultural portrait is unexamined and therefore made to feel incidental, rather than — as it is for Dunham — essential. Heti transcribes her real-life conversations without comment, and then upholds Sheila’s relationship with Margaux as the paragon of intimacy (“There was only one Margaux — not Margauxs scattered everywhere, all throughout the darkness,” Sheila realizes near the end of the book). Instead of fostering awareness of the complex social urge toward apathy, HSAPB blindly encourages it.
Chris Kraus, like most of Heti’s reviewers, treats her novel as a memoir, referring to the narrator interchangeably with Heti. This error of criticism suggests the book is being treated less as literature and more as a picture of Sheila’s persona. Heti has indicated a similar lack of interest in her own aesthetic choices. When asked by an interviewer if he could refer to her and Sheila as the same person, Heti said, “Sure. I don’t care. They’re not the same thing, but I don’t care.” While it’s typically unfair to judge authors for their off-the-cuff comments in interviews, it’s worth noting how closely this comment resembles Sheila’s nihilist mantra, “Who cares?,” particularly given how slapdash HSAPB is compared to Heti’s earlier work.
Kraus, also writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, congratulated Heti for “[l]eaving her marriage as abruptly as Elizabeth Gilbert’s in Eat Pray Love.” Kraus is right to compare How Should a Person Be? to Eat Pray Love, and “abrupt” is a good word to describe Heti and Gilbert’s enterprises. Heti and Gilbert both set out on what Kraus calls “an epic quest for a girl,” dogged by an all-encompassing discontent apparently related to being a privileged, ambitious 30-something woman. As evidenced by Gilbert’s cult-like followers, recognition of this amorphous malaise struck a nerve with hordes of young women. But in lieu of self-understanding that might help to clarify the way contemporary circumstances bear on young women’s lives, Gilbert and Heti offer narcissistic formulas for happiness that may assuage the average woman’s panic for a week or two (I’ll just do whatever I feel like doing!), but do nothing to articulate the nature of this panic or the cultural forces shaping it.
Katie Roiphe argued in a recent Newsweek article on Girls and Fifty Shades of Grey that women are fantasizing more than ever about sexual submission because they’re sick of “the dreariness and hard work of equality.” Roiphe is right to bring workplace politics into the discussion, but not because women are overwhelmed by their professional power. Studies in recent years have found that women must work harder than men to achieve the same level of success. And they have shown themselves more than up for the challenge: girls now outperform boys on the SAT and outnumber men in medical and law schools. Women of all races are slated to become the primary breadwinners in most households (a position black women have long been familiar with). Yet women still make less money than men for the same work. And they still do three-quarters of the housework and child care.
In a society that has seen the progressive doing away with straightforward social roles but not with the entrenched patriarchal structures that gave rise to them, freedom has come to mean having to work harder — professionally, socially, sexually — to get what one wants. Women may indeed be drawn to lazy, self-involved role models because they are weary of trying in a world that conflates effort with equality. But the way to ease the burden of this effort is not to add to the superabundance of soporific self-help literature directed at women — all a woman needs is more sodomy and fewer boyfriends, or more handjobs and less empathy, or more true love and fewer blowjobs, or more travel and less marriage, or … ad infinitum.
Heti’s formula for happiness is as unfeasible emotionally (“If someone has to wind up, at the end of their long life, kneeling before a Nazi, it might as well be me. Why not?”) as Gilbert’s formula is unfeasible practically. Recall Gilbert’s hugely popular advice to readers:
If you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting (which can be anything from your house to your bitter old resentments) and set out on a truth-seeking journey (either externally or internally), and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue, and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher, and if you are prepared — most of all — to face (and forgive) some very difficult realities about yourself … then truth will not be withheld from you.
Gilbert’s particular “brave” journey involved getting a book deal to divide a year between an apartment in Rome, a cottage in Bali, and a well-endowed ashram in an Indian river valley. And the “truth” that she discovers at the end of this journey comes in the form of a Brazilian lover who holds her hand as she walks from a sailboat to an Indonesian beach, an activity for which Gilbert is characteristically self-congratulatory: “There’s absolutely no way to do this without getting soaking wet or even banged up on the coral, but it’s worth all the trouble because the beach here is so beautiful, so special.”
It’s not surprising that reducing one’s troubles to a wade through Balinese surf would make a person feel at ease. But it is not the answer to the discontent assailing ambitious women of what used to be called childbearing age. The pervasiveness of this discontent is clear from recent articles and books like Midlife Crisis at 30 (“why do Gen-X/Y women feel such pressure to have the perfect career, body, husband, and kids by the time they are at or around 30?”); Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career-and Life-That’s Right for You; How to be a Woman; and the recent Atlantic cover story that was the most read article in the magazine’s hundred-year history, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” the title of which reveals a lot about the impossible stakes of the quandary: show me a man capable of bearing children and I will show you a happy homemaker who also has a high-status career. I don’t mean to suggest nostalgia for the days of a male breadwinner/female homemaker dichotomy (which is not even financially possible for most modern families). Naturally, there is no single, clear answer to the question of how to make the best use of social freedoms. What is clear is that women are hungry for writing that explores the complexities of the question.
A rise in self-consciousness about fantasies of sexual submission may stem from anxiety over how to feel valued by a world that pretends gender differences no longer exist. Calling attention to the sexual dynamic of male dominance and female submission is one way to name an inevitability: no social movement can change the reality of living inside a female body. Despite the technologies that allow women (with an abundance of money and commitment) to have children at 40 or even 50 instead of 30, this does not change the essential question of how to care for a family and pursue a career.
Margaux Williamson — from whose life and words Heti wrote the character Margaux — is a successful painter, filmmaker, and writer. Heti works as the interviews editor for The Believer and authored four books by the time she was in her early thirties. How could such professionally driven women find the energy for emotionally demanding (and rewarding) relationships? This may be the most important question of How Should a Person Be?, one which Heti doesn’t seem to realize Sheila is asking and then answering with the nihilistic directive to stop caring about other people.
In an unusually fruitful bit of self-revelation, Gilbert begins her memoir with the realization that she doesn’t want to be both a mother and the primary breadwinner in her household. And Heti mentions Sheila’s preoccupation with childrearing several times throughout HSAPB, though she fails to clarify or examine her thoughts on parenthood. The best clue she gives us is that Sheila’s litany of imagined invitations to Israel includes having his children: “I won’t ask for babies or tell you I’m not ready. Shoot it in me when the time is due.” It seems that Heti’s attraction to Israel is based in something much more specific (and interesting) than her need to “comply without judgment” to his “terrible” sexual demands: she’s turned on by the idea of giving herself over to his will, being freed temporarily of the anxiety of making decisions about everything from sex acts to career and family.
Why has such a talented, ambitious writer been undone by the attempt to make sense of her character’s sex life? Perhaps because Heti, like the authors of other Sexy But Not Sexual books, is not preoccupied with sex. She’s preoccupied with success — which means navigating the difficult fact that freedom and power are not equivalent. Instead of acknowledging this difficulty, Heti offers yet another way to ignore it.
If it’s true that women are afraid even to think about the sexual urges Heti describes — if brashness is required to speak of such horrors — then we need art that articulates them rather than judging them child abuse or sadomasochism. Fantasies of domination can only be profitably explored —in art or in life — if admitting to such desire ceases to be a mark of courage or depravity. There is nothing wrong with the desire to be treated as a sex object. There may be a problem with pursuing this desire at the expense of things one wants outside of the bedroom.
When Girls’ Hannah tells Marnie about the pedophiliac role-playing she has indulged with her crush — a guy who rarely returns her calls — Marnie says, “He can’t do that to you. He’s not allowed. He’s not your boyfriend.” Marnie is a caricature of a conventional goody-goody and her pronouncement is simplistic. But the implication is worth noting: that having rough sex with a man one trusts is worlds away from being sexually used by an acquaintance. The only risk of entertaining scenarios of coerced sex or degradation, Dunham suggests, lies in enacting these scenarios in situations where one is truly not in control.
Unlike Heti and her reviewers, Soderbergh, in Magic Mike, takes it for granted that the desire to be the object of a man’s reckless, aggressive lust is neither fetish nor pathology. The strippers’ dance routines are nearly all spectacles of male strength and power: “Tarzan” untying a captive woman and throwing her over his shoulder; “construction workers” thrusting their crotches in women’s faces and pulling their hair; a “doctor” climbing on top of a woman lying on a stretcher. Soderbergh seems to understand that many women fantasize about scenarios they do not want in real life. Just as the strip club precludes the possibility of actual fucking, the film hints at sex without showing it. Magic Mike may be the first example of pop art that plays with female fantasies of submission in a setting that is free of physical and emotional complication.
As the strip club owner (played by Matthew McConnaughy) puts it when he initiates a new recruit, “You’re not just stripping. You are fulfilling every woman’s wildest fantasies. […] You are the one-night-stand, that free fling of a fuck they get to have with you on stage tonight and still get to go home to their hubby.” Women (like men) may fantasize about perfect sex with a stranger, even though they know cerebrally that an actual one-night-stand is rarely satisfying, and that it is not worth risking the relationship with one’s spouse. McConaughy continues, in keeping with his character’s self-important sense of his job, “You are their liberation.”
As evidenced by the depraved good times the strippers pursue off-stage, Soderbergh is not sincerely arguing that male strippers are the key to female liberation. “Money and women,” Mike explains when Brooke asks why her brother Adam would want to start stripping. The strippers have plenty of casual sex, buy and sell hard drugs, spend most of their time drunk. Once Brooke realizes the extent of the strippers’ recklessness, she abandons her inchoate romance with Mike, saying that she can’t “be around his lifestyle.”
This moralizing tone has disappointed critics, but the message is more complex than Soderbergh has been given credit for. Early in the film, Mike encourages Adam to talk to two pretty girls at a bar. “She looks like she doesn’t want to be bothered,” Adam says. Mike, 10 years older and more experienced with women, responds, “Look at what she’s wearing! She came here to be bothered.” Indeed, the girls are celebrating a 21st birthday and want nothing more than to be doted on by two attractive men. They playfully invite Adam and Mike’s attention, and then the four end up sharing a night portrayed as nothing more than thrilling: they flirt, bar hop, make out in Mike’s fancy apartment, jump off a bridge at dawn. If the girls have any regrets about hooking up with men they are never to see again, that is not the aspect of the encounter with which Soderbergh is concerned. The reason girls would desire such an evening is clear — it’s fun.
It is Mike, rather than a female character, who eventually is hurt by the casual sex he invites out of loneliness. And while Brooke may be what Mike calls the “dinner type” — hardworking, quiet, preferring to read alone than go to parties — this doesn’t mean dinner is all she wants. Brooke is visibly aroused by Mike’s dancing, and as soon as he convinces her that he’s willing to give up his rampant partying, she boldly, and believably, invites him into her bed. If Soderbergh portrays the limitations of casual sex a bit too explicitly, it’s nonetheless a relief and a thrill to spend time with a female character who is, at last, more sexual than she is sexy.
Girls and Magic Mike both warrant praise for portraying common social questions in a way that keeps the emotional complexity of these questions intact. Yet there is a limit to what film and television can consider. Yes, it’s become popular to call series like Mad Men and The Sopranos “the new novel.” But even the most intellectually and psychologically compelling TV show or movie unfurls in front of the viewer, while the novel unfolds inside the reader’s mind. This is not to say that one form is inherently better than the other. Rather, they have different functions. We have yet to see a film or show that considers such complexities as why, say, some women fantasize about things they don’t desire in real life. While the discrepancy in male and female orgasms may be one realistic feature of the sex portrayed on Girls, it is never reflected upon as a physical and emotional experience. Dunham’s recent essay in The New Yorker — a lackluster account of her first love — makes it clear that an ability to translate psychologically rich scenes onto a screen is quite different from a mastery over the language of emotion and sensation. If there’s every reason to celebrate an HBO series or a summer blockbuster that portrays authentic female sexuality, the screen is still not the venue for serious reflection on a mind’s contradictory demands and justifications, its mazes of pleasure and desire. That’s what a novelist might reasonably be expected to reach for, to care about.
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