Following on from last week’s post from Helen Walsh, Zoe Pilger explains the impact that the writing of Mary Gaitskill has had on her – and why there’s a problem inherent in the very idea of a “literary bad girl”.
“He sighed. ‘You’re not really a masochist, you know.’
She shrugged. ‘Maybe not. It always seemed like I was.’”
This piece of dialogue comes from the American writer Mary Gaitskill’s short story A Romantic Weekend, published in the 1988 collection Bad Behaviour (Vintage). The protagonist Beth and her unnamed male lover spend a weekend together on the mutual understanding that she is a masochist (derives pleasure from pain, emotional and sexual, inflicted on her) and he is a sadist (derives pleasure from hurting others). In this way, they seem to fulfil archetypal gender roles: she is desperate to melt, swoon, lose herself entirely in the overwhelmingly strong embrace of her man. He asserts too rigid boundaries; he is aloof, cold, cruel. Beth echoes all the heroines of mass-produced romance novels who seek to absolve themselves of the dilemma of their own freedom by submitting to a man with the power to control them. In updated form, this was also the plot of Fifty Shades.
However, A Romantic Weekend is not a conventional romance; the title is ironic – more than ironic, it is painful, despairing, absurd. Because Beth is not a masochist after all. As the weekend goes on, and the couple drink cheap chocolate liqueur in his grandmother’s empty apartment, trying and failing to go through the motions of sadomasochistic sex, it transpires that Beth is endowed with what her lover deems a “hateful self-possession.” She is “not blank enough.” “Her wilful, masculine, stupid somethingness had obstructed their mutual pleasure and satisfaction,” he thinks. “Even the dark burn he had inflicted on her breast and the slight burn from his lighter failed to lend her a more feminine quality.”
It turns out that Beth was only performing the role of the masochist. She was pretending to herself that she liked being hurt because she believed that it would make men like her, maybe even love her, definitely want to fuck her, at least. She thought that being masochistic was feminine. But she is no longer able to convince herself. She lies on the living-room floor towards the end of the weekend and contemplates her lover: “In the ensuing silence it occurred to her that she was angry, and had been for some time.”
I first read A Romantic Weekend in 2010 when I was 25. A few months later, I wrote the first draft of my novel, Eat My Heart Out, which will be published in paperback by Serpent’s Tail on June 26th. The character of Beth inspired me greatly; her hesitation, her ambivalence, indeed, her depth, offered an antidote to the spectre of the swooning woman of countless cultural products of the time. Like the HBO TV series Sex and The City, which came a decade later in the late 90s, Bad Behaviour documents the lives of women trying to find their way in New York. Unlike the writers of Sex and The City, however, Gaitskill doesn’t pretend that the apotheosis of a woman’s life is finding The One.
I wrote Eat My Heart Out more than twenty years after Bad Behaviour was published, but Gaitskill’s themes seemed as poignant as ever.
In Shopping in Space: Essays on America’s Blank Generation Fiction (Serpent’s Tail, 1992), Elizabeth Young argues that Gaitskill’s heroines “embody cruel cultural dilemmas.” As women coming of age in the 1980s, they exist in the aftermath of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, with unprecedented access to education and employment, as well as the right to abortion and the pill. However, cultural attitudes are much slower to change than legislation, it seems, and the 1980s saw a backlash against feminism. The free woman was demonised in the media. It seemed that women were subject to contradictory demands: to be passive, “feminine,” pleasing, on the one hand, in order to catch and tame a man, and to assert themselves, on the other, in order to compete in the neo-liberal meritocracy. Young writes that heroines like Beth demonstrate “the impossibility of internalizing such seismic social change within a short period.”
I wrote Eat My Heart Out more than twenty years after Bad Behaviour was published, but Gaitskill’s themes seemed as poignant as ever. I wanted to explore such “cruel cultural dilemmas” in the character of Ann-Marie, my 23-year-old protagonist. Like Beth, Ann-Marie is caught between regressive and progressive forces. She tells her date Dave towards the end of the novel, “I don’t want to feel free… I want to feel constrained by something that’s not evil, something that I can trust.” Ann-Marie is in search of boundaries; she distrusts the permissiveness which has rendered her generation of young women “caught between the housewife and the whore,” as Stephanie Haight, a second wave feminist icon, tells her.
Ann-Marie is looking for a way out of the dissolution of all moral certainty that she experiences as a young woman growing up in London today. It seems that fun means getting as fucked as possible; that love means losing yourself; that sex means humiliation. She is lost, but she is not a “bad girl.”
Indeed, the whole idea of the literary bad girl is premised on the idea that there is such a thing as a good girl. In fact, to be a good girl more often means being acquiescent. It often means to perform an idea of feminine goodness. To be docile, obedient – Ann-Marie is neither of those things. She professes herself to be crazy, but her decision-making is often considered; she wants to die, but she doesn’t. She won’t give up. She may be brash, narcissistic, unholy, but she is also forcefully honest, which in itself is a kind of morality. She tells the truth, where others lie. She also lies – sometimes. In short, she is a contradiction.
“You’re desperate,” Vic, her disastrous one night stand, tells her in the first chapter. Ann-Marie laughs and says: “No, Vic. I think I’m desperate, I even want to be desperate, but I’m not… Maybe if I was, then you’d love me.”
Zoe Pilger, for Waterstones.com/blog
Meet the “literary bad girls” at Waterstones Piccadilly
Join Observer literary editor Lisa O’Kelly when she talks to three young female writers -Zoe Pilger, Emma Jane Unsworth and Helen Walsh - whose fictional “anti-heroines” are fast becoming poster girls for the modern woman.
Eat My Heart Out is available in paperback from 26th June