I hate it when men talk about Mary Gaitskill. I call for a permanent moratorium on men gassily discoursing on Mary Gaitskill. When men talk about Mary Gaitskill, they express great concern about societal trends. They suddenly take note of “the big picture.” They are spurred to expound upon the alienation and disillusionment endemic to our modern age, and how Mary Gaitskill’s fiction is a both a casualty of and a contributor to this decline. They evoke the phrase “post-feminist era,” which they can’t really define, but nonetheless characterize as some hazily demarcated epoch wherein women began openly extolling variations of sexual preference and practice that hew a bit too closely to the power-differential/fetish-porn model men have been shamefacedly, thrillingly jacking off to for centuries.
When men read Mary Gaitskill, their boners deflate. They feel squeamish and violated and desperate to reimpose a semblance of order and moral authority on their ransacked worlds. Scrambling for purchase, they become pompously diagnostic. Despite insisting that her work is sexually overheated and overwrought, they use adjectives like “icy” and “disengaged” and “disturbing” to describe it, and by extension, her. She is too hot and too cold. She has the temerity to depict sex in all its fumbling, fraught physicality, only to perversely pan away from the money shot: sweet orgasmic release, two spooning, satiated bodies tied up in a big, red, car-commercial bow. She briefly excites with the promise of a tantalizing, nuance-flattening sexual scenario, and then undercuts the primal slide toward arousal with a disheartening intrusion of fussy, idiosyncratic personhood on the part of one or both parties.
In her story “Comfort,” a man says to his girlfriend during sex, “If I fucked you in the ass I would own you.” It’s dirty talk, meaningless and nonliteral, just a rote line intended to cloak them in the erotic camouflage of archetypal roles. But she promptly turns over and says, “No, you wouldn’t. What a ridiculous thing to say.” And in “A Romantic Weekend,” a would-be submissive with a cerebral bent is constantly frustrating her not-too-bright dominant: “I want to make you do things you don’t want to do,” he says, to which she replies, “But I won’t do anything I don’t want to do. You have to make me want it.”
Mary Gaitskill is the consummate chronicler of the cock-block, and to enact this dynamic she enlists no overbearing chaperone, no pepper spray, no kicks to the groin. Her characters block cocks with their minds. And it’s a very specific kind of mind, what yogis would call “monkey-mind”: capricious, fluttering, analytical, too hypervigilant to revel in the unadulterated sensual moment. Even when a woman reaches climax in a Mary Gaitskill scenario, even when she is, at her own behest, tied up and cuffed and degraded, she does not slip into the sweet oblivion of surrender. In the throes of orgasm, she is still ambivalent, still at war, still parsing the ludicrousness of it all in her head. She is still, in short, inescapably herself. The sex is not about the man, not at all. It is about a conversation she is having with herself. And it encompasses her entire history.
And this is why men talk about Mary Gaitskill as if she is raping them with an ice-dildo. They say things like, “The relentless attention to bodily squalor is humiliating, punitive, sadistic. The tone is cold, detached…the syntax probes and penetrates like a dental drill.” This quote is from a reductive, myopic, and laughably moralistic “overview” of Gaitskill’s oeuvre in The Nation by a man named William Deresiewicz, who wrote a smug humblebrag of a book about how the works of Jane Austen taught him to be less of an asshole to women.
When men talk about Mary Gaitskill’s depictions of sex, they tend to not only miss the point, but also unleash invective that is far more prurient, repulsive, and objectifying than the material they purport to be excoriating. James Wolcott of Vanity Fair, for example, described the female protagonists in Gaitskill’s first book, Bad Behavior, as “dishrags and dickwipes, cold little biscuits slapped across Daddy’s lap.” If a female reviewer wrote about Henry Miller or Phillip Roth in such a manner, she’d be denounced as a prude. Wolcott, in contrast, was praised for his condemnation by none other than Susan Faludi in Backlash: a cowardly and misguided endorsement for which I hope she has the good sense to be embarrassed. Wolcott seemed to take offense at the very notion that women would voluntarily seek out, or even put up with, masochistic sex, claiming that Gaitskill promotes a dystopian “sexual Darwinism” of female subservience to males.
Ah, the paternalistic disingenuousness on display when a man tells women what’s good for them, what kind of sex they should and should not have, and how they should feel about it. When men talk about Mary Gaitskill, they like to conjure up a cherry-picking revisionist history of “the feminist movement” and hold her responsible for authoring its most damning and unwittingly self-sabotaging chapter. Here’s Deresiewicz’s primer on the historic struggle for gender parity:
As Ariel Levy noted recently in the New Yorker, feminism had passed in the 1980s from the era of egalitarianism, consciousness-raising, and nurture to a harder-edged embrace of lust and power, a desire to appropriate rather than abjure stereotypically masculine energies, that was exemplified by S&M…If women’s relationship to sex was changing, so was sex itself. The sexual revolution had flown the flag of freedom, self-expression, and guiltless pleasure: The Joy of Sex and The Sensuous Woman, Norman O. Brown and the almighty Pill, hippies, swingers, vibrators, orgies, “free love” and the zipless fuck. Sex was fun, sex was wholesome, sex was natural. By the late ’80s, things had long since ceased to be so simple, and not just because of AIDS.
For the moment, let’s overlook the fact that this twenty-year encapsulation of sexual liberation is missing a few milestones, such as Take Back the Night; Roe v. Wade; acknowledgment and advocacy on behalf of victims of childhood sexual molestation, domestic battery, and sexual harassment in the workplace; the proposal of the ERA; the growing visibility and destigmatization of non-hetero women; Our Bodies, Ourselves; the anti-porn crusade of Dworkin and MacKinnon; and the inclusion of gender studies in the academy, all of which most likely had some minor trickle-down effect on the feminist sexual zeitgeist.
Even aside from all that, Deresiewicz’s facile, glib characterization of “the sexual revolution” as a bunch of happy hippie women with center-parted hair and poufy pubes copulating in fields of sunflowers whilst gazing into the eyes of their mustachioed, pukka-bedecked partners is simplistic in the extreme.
For one thing, it blithely overlooks how sexual inequality ran rampant through the culture of “free love,” and how those much-vaunted communal environments, far from being utopias of sexual choice for women, often devolved into glorified harems wherein a coven of females performed domestic and childrearing labor while men fucked them all in turn. (See Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. And the Manson Family.) Deresiewicz’s version of the ’60s and ’70s, with their zipless fucks and all-inclusive, victimless hedonisms (never mind their back-alley abortions, unprosecuted rapes, persecuted homosexuals, and flagrantly imbalanced workforces) has its polar opposite in the cold and soulless “me-ness” of the ’80s.
And here comes the part where he blames Ronald Reagan for S/M. I can’t bear to transcribe another verbatim quote, so allow me to paraphrase the argument: The ’80s were the “fuck or be fucked” decade. The ’80s were when sex became all about expressing power. It’s Ronald Reagan’s fault, what with his mania for deregulation and bootstrap-pulling-up-by and capitalist excess and jelly beans. The Cold War? It was all about hate-fucking Gorbachev, right in the birthmark.
Ronald Reagan is to blame for a lot of things, but S/M isn’t one of them. Our fascination with sadomasochistic sex predates Reagan, just as it predates Madonna. It predates the Cro-Magnons. Has Deresiewicz never heard of Robert Mapplethorpe? Bettie Page? Has he never looked upon the fucking Village People?
More to the point, kinky sex, as practiced by Gaitskill’s characters, is far less ritualized and rigid and cartoonish than the lurid caricatures waving riding crops and unwittingly enacting a naked variation of Reaganomics in Deresiewicz’s and Wolcott’s imaginations.
In Gaitskill’s world, with very few exceptions, there are no predators and no prey. Nor are women offering themselves up for kinky sex while clenching their teeth in a rictus of endurance, stoking their resolve with a forcibly cheery anthem: “It’s empowering! It’s liberating! It’s fuck-or-be-fucked! Win one for the Gipper!” Not one of Gaitskill’s women is a “sex-positive feminist” in the Susie Bright mold, proudly marching into Good Vibrations for nipple clamps and anal beads. It’s not “liberation” or “empowerment” or snide one-upmanship Gaitskill’s women are seeking through sexual expression; it’s something far less inanely recreational and celebratory, and far more complicated. It’s a kind of annihilation that burns away falsity and reveals a secret, tender kernel of essential selfhood; a kind of absolution of the lingering guilt from past, nonsexual humiliations; and, not least of all, a kind of inoculation against future hurt.
And Gaitskill’s protagonists never attain any of those things. The main character’s disappointment in “A Romantic Weekend” is a typical Gaitskill outcome: “How, she thought miserably, could she have mistaken this hostile moron for the dark, brooding hero who would crush her like an insect and then talk about life and art?”
The truth is that none of the female protagonists in Gaitskill’s narratives are subservient to anyone or anything, beyond their own confused, confusing, deeply ingrained agendas. There are a couple doormat mothers in attendance—the spineless wife of Dorothy’s brutal, incestuous father in Two Girls, Fat and Thin, and the mom of the title character in “Secretary,” who is screamed at by her husband every day and frantically proffers baked goods to everyone in sight with strained, heartbreaking briskness. If any of Gaitskill’s women are “subservient,” it’s these muffled, stymied, desperately cheery mothers. And it’s not masochistic sex that enslaves them; it’s passivity, denial, and blindness. Most are married to tyrannical rageaholics whose thwarted ambitions have rendered them dangerous and savagely poignant as wounded lions.
Too invested in the myth of familial sanctity to protect their daughters from their husbands’ wrath and abuse, the mothers in Gaitskill’s fiction are constantly placating, smoothing, mediating, defusing. They love their daughters dearly, but are useless as role models of female autonomy. The only life advice they’re capable of giving is “be nice to people,” a wishy-washy creed that prioritizes “keeping the peace” over cultivating genuine empathy for and understanding of human frailty. These mothers are broken, and sexual deviance is not the culprit—domestic conventionality is. This is the setting for real sexual subjugation: not the bedroom where consenting adults kinkily fornicate, but the kitchen table, where a husband punches his daughter in the face and his wife lets him, then asks if anyone wants more pudding.
Even the nice things men say about Mary Gaitskill are annoying. Take Deresiewicz, whose praise is even more pathologizing and minimizing than his criticisms. He speaks admiringly of her prose style, with its “neurotic complications of syntax, the anxious poking and probing.” (This happens a lot when men talk about Gaitskill: a reliance on coital imagery.) He allows, albeit with a disclaimer, that her hawkish evocations have an impressionistic power: “This is her greatness as a writer. Her premises are repetitive, her range of characters limited, her plotting unambitious. The genius of her work is all in the details.”
When they don’t completely understand what they’re reading but are trying valiantly to say something nice, this is how certain men talk about writing by women. They inevitably praise the attention to detail: a schoolmasterly, head-patting compliment, as if they’re talking about a particularly intricate piece of embroidery. Men’s work tends to be referred to as “sweeping” and “epic,” bold and fearless in its brushstrokes, grandly, joyously boundary-less as a frontier. It is also more often credited with selflessness and generosity, lauded as a crystal-clear reflection of reality, untainted by petty personal agenda. (Women don’t forget anything. Trust ’em to hold a grudge!) If men’s writing is an expansive mural, women’s writing is a fastidiously arranged diorama, every detail tiny and brittle and exact, a slavish replication of something larger and more vital, as fustily homely as a domestic craft, as claustrophobic and confining as a cell.
Even as he acknowledges the acuity of Gaitskill’s insights, Deresiewicz also manages to imply that they are the writerly equivalent of Rain Man’s interminable numerical litanies: remarkable as odd, performative feats, but fundamentally compulsive, pathological, mere tics that are out of her control and beyond her understanding. She just can’t help it, he implies. She’s in the grip of her own sickness, and she rubs our noses in her aberrant worldview so she won’t have to be alone with it. He impugns her vision of the world by claiming that it’s hers alone, singular and watertight and nontransferable, the product of a bizarre life trajectory, a recitation of maladaptive conclusions having little to do with anyone or anything else, reflecting and illuminating nothing beyond her own damage, with no universal import and nothing to teach us about the human condition.
This interpretation classifies Gaitskill’s work as little more than a sad case file, a record of one woman’s fucked-up-ness, dramatized and cast and staged with the fierce, tunnel-vision narcissism of a conductor whose orchestra consists of clones of herself. “Given the obsessive quality of Gaitskill’s thematic focus, it is hard not to read her work as psychic self-portraiture,” he says. And, later: “The shock value of Gaitskill’s early work comes from the fact that she dared to write about her psychological situation.” Her psychological situation. Hers and no one else’s. Like a serial killer agreeing to be profiled, she “dares” to expose her twisted depravities, so as to allot self-professed well-adjusted “normals” like Deresiewicz a spine-tingling glimpse into the heart of darkness. And that’s all they’re supposed to get out of it: a fleeting gooseflesh thrill.
Once in a while, a man rushes gallantly to defend Mary Gaitskill against other men, and in the process misses the point just as badly. A couple years after the publication of Bad Behavior, Stephen Westfall interviewed Gaitskill for BOMB magazine. He brought up the Wolcott review and countered it with his own interpretation, which amounts to this: “But Wolcott’s wrong, because your characters aren’t all submissive to horrible men! There’s that one prostitute [in “Something Nice”] who’s not happy being a prostitute, and then she sees one of her johns in public and ignores him, making him submissive to her! And there’s that mom [in “Heaven”] who’s kind of resilient when her son dies, and she doesn’t have horrible sex with anyone!” (Again, I’m paraphrasing). Unfortunately, cherry-picking examples of celibate moms or haughty hookers in Gaitskill’s work isn’t an effective refutation of Wolcott’s argument. The object isn’t to point out that not all of Gaitskill’s characters have submissive traits, but to ask why the ones who do chap Wolcott’s ass so much.
What no male critic likes to mention is that Gaitskill’s men are more likely to consider themselves victims than her women. Take her aggrieved succession of furious, stormy fathers who can’t stop ranting about how the world has done them wrong. When Two Girls’ Dorothy takes her father to task for having molested her as a teen, he frantically appropriates her victim status to serve his paranoid internal narrative: “If you think you were raped, you don’t know what rape is. I’m the one who’s been raped, sister. Raped all my goddamn life by the army, the school system, the bosses, the neighbors.” Then there’s the dad with the persecution complex in “Secretary,” continually lamenting his professional emasculation: “I’d rather work in a circus! In one of those things where you put your head through a hole and people pay to throw garbage at you!” The self-pitying father of a lesbian daughter in “Tiny, Smiling Daddy” sees the world in far more dystopian terms than Wolcott claims Gaitskill does: “I’m a tired old man in a shitty world I don’t want to be in. I go out there, it’s like walking on knives. Everything is an attack—the ugliness, the cheapness, the rudeness, everything. I don’t have a real daughter.”
Even when Gaitskill’s men proudly trumpet the merits of stoicism and emotional self-reliance, as does Joel, a low-level gofer for an independent film company in “An Affair, Edited,” it comes off as protesting too much. “Look, I grew up in a normal, happy family,” Joel remembers telling his “damaged” ex-girlfriend from college. “I’m well adjusted. I can’t identify with this self-esteem crisis, or whatever it is you’ve got. Anyway, we’ve only known each other for a few months, and I’m not obligated to listen to your problems. You should call a psychiatrist, and anyway I have to take a bath right now.” He couldn’t stand weak women, Gaitskill has him musing in retrospect, before he goes home to jerk off to the memory of his ex “rubbing her injured-looking vagina.”
Like the titular male character in Mary McCarthy’s “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” Joel simultaneously stigmatizes and fetishizes the woman he “used” and rebuffed, and spends the aftermath of their affair lapsing into half-resentful, half-lustful reveries about it. Too hale with hubris to have gleaned any insight from the experience beyond “bitches be crazy,” too invested in his perception of himself as a sane, normal good guy to admit how much he enjoyed (consensually) sexually degrading his ex, he has the luxury of absolving himself of perversity and blaming the woman for his dismissive treatment of her.
Joel embodies the stark compartmentalization common in Gaitskill’s men: they believe that females need saving, but only if those females are superhumanly noncomplicit in their own oppression; at the same time, they are haunted by the uneasy hunch that they, as males, are too ineffectual to be true saviors. And since the women in Gaitskill’s world are anything but damsels in distress—they are just as vexing, prickly, and self-contradicting as they are doe-eyed and pathetic—their physical and emotional vulnerability is both gratifying and maddening to their male partners, who cannot for the life of them reconcile the inconsistencies.
The men in Gaitskill’s fiction are famously intolerant of ambiguity. They eschew inner reflection as self-indulgent; consequently, they explode into irrational rages and sabotage themselves from want of self-knowledge. The women, on the other hand, can’t stop analyzing, interpreting, dissecting themselves and everyone else with incisive, manic eloquence. And their men lumber away for dear life in the wake of it, roaring like tortured grizzlies. “I’m a very simple person,” a hounded man exclaims in “The Dentist,” backed into a corner by his date’s psychological probing. “I’m bland and I have a low level of emotional vibrancy and I like it that way!”
Comically, certain critics unknowingly act out this very dynamic when professing their righteous, prim disgust for Gaitskill. They become Joel; they become the dentist. Certain visuals and gestures recur throughout Gaitskill’s body of work, sneaking into sentences and paragraphs with intrusive ubiquity and fragmentary helplessness, like the urgent-yet-unintelligible imagistic flotsam of a flashback: the granules that collect at the foot of a bed; a man meditatively stroking his nose hairs with a thumb and forefinger; a lone person thinking exultant, elevated thoughts while eating something ridiculous and vaguely childish, like a bowl of vanilla pudding.
This is what Deresiewicz, the Reagan-blamer, objects to when he says Gaitskill is neurotically, sadistically fixated on bodily squalor. He points to a shameful perversity in the pinpoint acuity of her physical descriptions. Like a couch potato recoiling at the pore-riddled faces on HDTV, he complains that she’s seeing too clearly, and should have the common decency to smear Vaseline on her lens. He is especially chagrined by the repeated descriptions of male nostril-stroking, comparing Gaitskill to a locker-room bully who glimpses the self-soothing, dreamy ablutions of an unsuspecting man only to pounce and mockingly expose them with her “gimlet eye.” Her motivations, he implies, are baleful, her descriptions a series of mean petty thefts. She catalogues the vulnerabilities and oddities of her fellow man and, from a vantage point of “hooded, vengeful outsiderhood,” appropriates them.
He seems to think he’s describing a succubus. What he’s actually describing, unbeknownst to him, is a fiction writer. That’s kind of what they do. For a certain type of man, there’s only one thing more discomfiting than a woman who notices everything, and that’s a woman who writes it down.
At the heart of these queasy, pedantic male polemics on Gaitskill, there is something defensive and tormented, something that feels an awful lot like fear. There’s plenty of gynophobia, yes; but it’s not just fear of vaginas per se. It’s fear of what vaginas can see. Pico Iyer, in a Time essay whose title—“Are Men Really so Bad?”—is as idiotic as its content, says that Gaitskill’s characterization of men in Two Girls, Fat and Thin is just as objectionable as Brett Easton Ellis’s much-maligned descriptions of women being butchered by a serial killer in American Psycho. He charges the public with hypocrisy and “reverse sexism” for failing to condemn Gaitskill’s defamation of the male character. “It is to be hoped,” he says, “that the outrage would be no less if Ellis’s monster had been a woman, or more of its victims men.”
Actually, no. Ellis’s book was attacked by some feminists for its salaciously graphic accounts of women being savaged and killed. This would not have been such a big deal were it not for the fact that women are routinely savaged and killed by men, and that our culture tends to eroticize and insatiably devour portrayals of such atrocities while piously decrying the events that inspired them.
Gaitskill’s book, on the other hand, contains no gleefully festive accounts of castration or forced pegging. All it does is feature some male characters acting shitty in ways that are not particularly surprising, at least not to anyone who’s ever walked the earth as a woman. Also shitty: the “thin girl” of the book’s title, Justine, a former grade-school bully and hellion who at one point sexually violates another little girl with a toothbrush.
There’s a willful, blustering blindness in Iyer’s denunciation, and in others’ as well, a barreling breathlessness that veers away from acknowledging truths that hit close to home. And despite their complaints that Gaitskill’s men are monsters and victimizers, perhaps more unsettling to men like lyer is the indisputable fact that her male characters aren’t all that menacing or powerful. They don’t exactly exude lordly self-possession. As Gaitskill herself says in the Westfall interview, “They’re cowards.” And they are: utter messes, strangers to themselves, the products of violent and unexamined backgrounds, driven by impulses they don’t understand, and mystified by the emotional inaccessibility and unfathomable whims of the women they’re whipping, choking, and fucking.
In almost every sexual scenario, Gaitskill puts the female partner in the director’s chair. A woman tells a man exactly what she wants him to do, and grows frustrated and querulous when his bumbling execution fails to have the hoped-for effect of wholeness, transcendence, and closeness.
The most notable exception is Bad Behavior’s “Secretary,” without a doubt the most misinterpreted, misguidedly embraced and vilified piece in her entire body of work. The critics who tsk-tsk at Mary Gaitskill for her “coldness” and “nastiness” probably prefer the 2002 movie version Secretary—candy-colored, fretfully stylized, comfortingly conventional—to the story itself. Why? Because the movie isn’t bleak. It panders. The neurotic woman stops her incessant bitching and ends up happy!
To encapsulate the difference between story and movie, here’s a brief plot summary of both. In the story, Debby, a young woman of about eighteen, takes a job at a lawyer’s office while living with her parents and sister. The lawyer is colorless but weirdly intense, the office drab and uneventful. Debby’s home drones with a refrigerator hum of low-grade despair and defeatism. Her father, as impotently frustrated as a deposed king, believes the world has failed him. Her sister works at a home “for retards” and spends most of her time asleep. Her mother tries to inject cheer and normalcy into the daily routine with little food-centered rituals, infantilizing and infinitesimally comforting, which center around the provision of “treats”: getting elephant ears at a bakery every morning before dropping her daughter at work, picking out delicacies for her husband at the grocery store.
Debby’s job is fine at first—there’s a certain analgesic appeal in the lulling monotony of her duties—and every evening, after her mother picks her up from work, she takes a long nap. Then, one day, her boss drops a bombshell: she’s been making typing mistakes. He let it slide at first, because she was new, but he can’t tolerate it any longer. Debby is rendered so anxious and miserable by this discovery that she makes even more mistakes, for which he spanks her in his office. The portrayal of Debby’s disorientation, queasiness, and arousal following this event is one of Gaitskill’s most visceral and crushing depictions of a person unmoored and isolated by shame and desire. The singular bizarreness of the episode, the guilty sense of recognition she feels at the lawyer’s characterization of her—“You just shut up the house and act like nobody’s home,” he tells her, and she replies, “It’s true. I do that”—and her own bewildering responses to his violations make her a stranger in her own life. “I felt that I could never have a normal conversation with anyone ever again,” she reports.
The punitive humiliations continue, as do Debby’s frantic bouts of masturbation following each, until one day the lawyer takes it a step further, ejaculating on her as she bends over his desk. Then she stops going to work. She lapses into a haze of constant sleeping and disassociation. The lawyer sends her a letter of apology, along with a check for considerably more than she is owed. Then comes a phone call from a reporter who informs Debby that her ex-boss is running for local office. He delicately hints that there have been allegations of misbehavior from past employees, and probes for dirt from Debby. She refuses to talk. The story ends with Debby in the basement of her childhood home, sitting on a mildewed couch covered with centipedes, remembering the time her parents took her to a psychiatrist who asked her if she ever felt like she was watching herself from a remote and disembodied place. In one of Gaitskill’s most devastating and shattering endings, Debby recalls her answer: “I hadn’t at the time, but I did now. And it wasn’t such a bad feeling at all.”
And then there’s the movie.
In a contrived framing device, Debby, renamed Leah, is sprung from a mental institution just in time for her self-centered, diva-like blond sister’s overblown wedding. Her mother is cold and rejecting. The sad-sack futility and strangled rage pervading the family home, so chillingly poignant in the story, is replaced in the film by a hard, shiny glister of respectability and middle-class striving; everyone else in the family is “normal,” and Leah is the suicidal black sheep. She cuts herself. When she gets the job at the lawyer’s office and he starts spanking her for mistakes, she is enthralled and dizzied with arousal. What’s undetectable is the shame, the conflicting feelings, the roiling muddle of desire and befuddlement and nausea Gaitskill evoked so starkly. As he continues punishing her, she gains sexual confidence. She stops cutting herself after he scolds her for it, and starts making mistakes on purpose to force him to punish her more.
There’s a merry, absurdist sense of irony in every scene of sexual castigation, a winking implication that Leah, once she embraces her role as masochist, is really the one in control. She acquires a milquetoast fiancé who disappoints her by refusing to have kinky sex. On the day she’s supposed to marry him, she goes to the lawyer instead. When he rejects her, she sits in his office wearing her wedding dress for days on end, pissing herself, until he finally relents, moved by her resolve and convinced of her love. He carries her back to his charming bungalow, where he lovingly bathes her. They end up together, Leah a blissful chatelaine who presides over the bungalow and gets fucked while tied to a tree.
The contrast, obviously, is stark. One ending is happy; one is bleak. One ends in glorious self-actualization, the other in self-obliterating depersonalization. One woman comes into her own via the paradoxically empowering effects of sexual masochism; the other is overwhelmed and ambivalent. The story is heartbreaking; the movie is a glittery, ridiculous trifle. But it’s not the happy ending that makes it false. It’s the insultingly chipper premise that things really are that simple, that the mere act of getting off is one of empowerment and bravery.
What Gaitskill’s fiction does so well is illuminate the compartmentalization rampant in sex, how the expression of sexual desire is so often divorced from real life, from self-perception, from self-definition. In the movie, one’s mode of sexual expression is everything. The way you express yourself sexually is the way you are in life, the way you process things internally. Find your true sexual proclivity, and you find yourself. Leah’s craving for punishment used to express itself in self-cutting, until she found a healthier outlet for it: sexual submission! The film’s inference that the motives for both activities are interchangeable is perhaps its most clueless misstep. In the world of the film, there’s a sexual panacea for every emotional wound, and if you are brave enough to embrace this truth, it will redeem and elevate you.
That is not the way things usually work. The world is not made of clear sets of foils. In life, there are no neat polarities: not between sisters, not between lovers, not between emotional states. Leah, unlike Debby, is simple, despite her penchant for self-mutilation. Once you discover her cure, she’s easy to understand and easy to make happy. She will not stubbornly continue to be discontented and self-destructive after you’ve made her come.
Not coincidentally, Leah never makes her dominant feel inadequate or at a loss. Her devotion to him is so steadfast and unflagging that it liberates him from his own self-doubt. Leah and her boss do what Gaitskill’s characters try and fail to do: they transcend the dreary plane of existence and merge into a perfect yin-yang. He is not a disappointment. He is not forced to decipher the motivations and peculiarities of an inscrutable woman. Instead, miraculously, what he gives her is exactly what she needs. And this is why Leah is less threatening to male critics’ sensibilities. She’s also the kind of masochist most of Gaitskill’s men would prefer to the troublesome, fretful women thrown in their path.
Take the unnamed sadist of “A Romantic Weekend,” fed up with the constant, irritating assertions of personhood on the part of his persnickety submissive: “He felt like an idiot. How had he gotten stuck with this prissy, reedy-voiced thing with a huge forehead who poked and picked over everything that came out of his mouth? He longed for a dim-eyed little slut with a big, bright mouth and black vinyl underwear.”
He’s not the only one.