The Thread: Down Girl

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I’m at the book release party for Pam Houston’s memoir, Deep Creek, an event called, “Truth I’d Dare” at Portland’s Revolution Hall with Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed. The first half was like eavesdropping on three badass writers having a slumber party, complete with a round of “truth or dare,” wine, cheese, and copious giggles. They each read passages aloud from the book. They share insightful commentary. And then, toward the end of the second half, Houston shuffles through a pile of audience questions on index cards.

“How do you feel about the fact that this room is filled with femme folks,” Houston reads from the card, “implying that men don’t read or care about your work.”

”There are at least three men here,” Yuknavitch jokes.

“How did they all manage to get in the front row?” Houston chuckles.

But then they take the question seriously. And they all agree that this is a question they get all the time.

A few hours before, at dinner, someone mentioned the book’s review in the New York Times. Apparently, three authors I know had their memoirs reviewed, including Pam Houston. I turn my head to listen as someone describes the review.

“She basically called their books therapy,” one of my dinnermates summarizes. By which she means: the writers were doing something for themselves more than for the readers, writing to save themselves rather than to demonstrate that experience on the page as literature, as art, worthy of praise, writing that could be construed as private, emotional work, journaling of some sort, embarrassingly displayed for the world, a tumble of private details which do not—in the reviewer’s opinion—rise to literature

Three women’s memoirs criticized for oversharing? I’m sure I’ve read this review before, and yet all three books are brand new. I’ve read two out of three of them, and I’ll take home Houston’s Deep Creek tonight. I take out my phone and search “NYT review Zaman.” Because Reema Zaman, a Portland-based writer, performer, and friend, is one of the reviewed.

Before I read it, I have this thought: well, isn’t bad publicity still publicity? I hope that Zaman and Sophia Shalmiyev, the other debut memoirist in this three-memoir pileup, will emerge with a bump in sales despite the New York Times. I’m less worried about Houston, who is, by any measure, an established successful writer with a large following. Though of course, she has feelings, and this reviewer wrote about her as if she did not. But Zaman and Shalmiyev are my peers. They’re the women I sit in workshops with, and whose books I am cheering for hardest of all.

As the page loads, I glance at the byline, expecting to see a man’s name. This is my own bias, but it’s based on what I’ve observed: many men don’t understand the radical, boundary-pushing, feminine writing that I both admire and devour, and sometimes create myself. This writing is considered non-traditional, because the tradition was made by men. I feel its authenticity in my bones, but I’ve seen how women’s language can curdle what men find comfortable and accessible, what men created and mastered. In other words, writing like Shalmiyev’s is cracking a paradigmatic form, demanding space on the shelf and in the canon (or maybe demanding a new canon altogether). It is writing that refuses, as Claire Vaye Watkins once aptly put it, to pander.

It was not a man who dismissed Shalmiyev’s art as embarrassing and Zaman’s anorexia as a trope. It was a woman, Alexandra Fuller the multiple-memoirist, who referred to these memoirs as “galling.” By which she meant (I think) that these memoirs infuriated her by staying inside the personal (what she calls therapy or a diary) instead of forging into the universal and offering an escape route.

Fuller’s odd expectation that memoirs offer a self-help lining seems to be the problem. I’ve studied memoir for at least ten years, and along with personal essays, it’s the lion’s share of what I read. While it’s true that artful personal narratives do more than detail the author’s experience, and some of them offer insights that apply to people with radically different lives, specificity is nearly always the key to this dynamic. Broad proclamations like, “I lived a hard life,” will almost never draw a reader in (even those readers who have also lived a hard life). The nitty gritty—the how, the smell, the particularities of what “hard” means—is what we read for, and it’s what makes us feel the experiences that are not ours at all, and metabolize the lessons that we haven’t actually learned.

Fuller’s vitriol for these three books makes me angrier than it should. I expect women to understand women’s experiences; I am merely grateful when men manage to do so. That is unfair, based on the same sexist ideology that I want blown to smithereens. My disappointment when women let me down is oceanic. The waves of rage that disappointment is made of come from the idea (some optimistic kumbaya idea) that good women hold other women up. It’s a sisterhood based on nothing but gender identity and a vague notion of what solidarity looks like. And I realize that the demand is unfair, but for the first time, I wondered if these expectations are my own internalized misogyny? For all my work (both in therapy and in writing), I am still a woman who was raised in patriarchy, and have been marinating in it for all of my life. Even trying my best, I am a bad feminist.

Kate Manne, a Cornell professor of philosophy, wrote Down Girl, a book that reconceptualizes misogyny. According to Manne, defining misogyny as “hatred of women” creates two problems: the first is defining something that (mostly women) women experience as something that (mostly men) men feel. This shifts the focus from her experience to his interior, from her life to his. The second is that by defining misogyny as an internalized psychological phenomenon, we’ve made it impossible to locate in real life.

How many times have I had this argument in the last three years? I call misogyny, and the man in question (because, admittedly, I mostly see “hatred of women” coming from men) points out a dozen women that he loves and respects. His mother, his sister, his wife, his daughter. Of course, I always hated this defense (#NotAllWomen?) but I couldn’t have articulated why without Manne’s work. From a logical standpoint, if someone “hates women,” they should hate all (or at least most) women. Or the idea of women in the abstract, the concept of the feminine, something broader than “this one good woman over here.” When called on their misogyny, men counter with their feelings of fondness, love, and adoration for some women in their defense. This defense only works when we define misogyny as something that men feel.

I have no idea, truly, what any man (or woman or non-binary person) feels. Neither do you. The vast majority of people I know struggle to articulate what they, themselves, are feeling, even among friends. How can I tell someone that they feel something and not believe them when they say that they don’t feel it at all? If I weren’t talking about misogyny, I don’t think I would. So Manne’s first contribution to my dawning consciousness around misogyny is that she’s redefined it as something that (mostly) women experience, solving the problem of #NotAllWomen.

Manne explains that, actually, it makes no sense to define misogyny as hatred of women at all. Because, as I know, almost no man hates all women, or even most women. They just hate particular women, the idea of women, or particular things that women do—like be shrill, ambitious, ball-busting, aggressive, or unfeminine. They just hate Hillary Clinton. And they’re starting to hate Elizabeth Warren. We hear the dogwhistles of misogyny in that argument, but not because they show hatred of women. In Manne’s view, misogyny is the enforcement arm of sexism. Misogyny is the “shock collar,” she writes, sexism is the rule being enforced.

Sexist gender roles require female caregivers: soft, quiet, calm, loving, acquiescent, and giving. Indeed, many women are these things at least some of the time. As Manne rightly points out, it actually makes no sense to hate women who give us the care and attention we feel entitled to. When women stay in the lane of this gender role, Manne says, they are often adored, or at least they are allowed to be. Manne’s analysis looks away from the feelings of the misogynist in question. No longer am I stuck arguing that he feels hatred, while he points out that no, in fact, he feels quite fond of many women and my theory is bananas. Instead, Manne explains that misogyny is something women experience: the backlash (rage, disdain, ridicule) that occurs when they do not perform what’s expected. She calls it a shock collar, and with that metaphor, I notice misogyny functioning exactly as she suggests.

If a dog wearing a shock collar barks when he’s not supposed to, he receives a shock. When a woman says something she’s not supposed to, she receives a backlash of misogyny. Social media (Twitter in particular) is a veritable petri dish of this enforcement in action. A woman criticizes sexism in video games and receives thousands of angry responses, a large portion of which don’t engage with her criticism at all, but instead tell her to kill herself, call her disgusting, or threaten sexual violence. Misogyny is the electric rage, is the doxxing, is the rape threats (and in some cases, the rape). Misogyny is the punishment for “barking.” Misogyny reminds us of our place: down girl.

Which brings me to my frustration and disappointment in Fuller’s review. I must admit, my own impulse to lash out at her is misogynist as Manne defines it. Fuller’s review is, too. So is that question about femmes at the Deep Creek launch. Not one of these examples show a blanket hatred of women, but instead they illuminate corrective measures taken or considered against women who fail to write as women are expected to.

In 2015, Watkins gave the aforementioned lecture, “On Pandering,” at the Tin House Summer Workshop and it was later published as an essay. Watkins expertly lays out the landscape of pandering, the concept that certain places, certain art, certain creations are aimed at certain audiences. The idea that things were made “for you,” and the question of who “you” is and why we attribute certain “yous” of more creative, critical, or artistic value. Another way of talking about pandering is what Strayed said on stage at Revolution Hall: the myth that women write mainly “for women,” but that (white) men write the universal human experience.

The femmes question, read aloud by Houston to an audience of primarily women, many of them writers, is the first example of misogyny as correction. The question itself says to the women on stage: You think you’re important? You think you’ve accomplished something? Well, you only appeal to these second-class, half-thinking, emotionally driven children (aka “femmes”). What about the Real Readers (aka the men)? It also reminds the “femmes” in the audience that they are being pandered to; that they art they love is second-class, and that the dearth of men in the room is evidence of their lesser importance. Questions like this one encourage women like Watkins to write, intentionally and with great skill, toward male readers. It compliments women who write for the glory and the gold star of (white) men at the expense of the women who don’t. Watkins explains it best in her own words:

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!

Strayed, Yuknavitch, and Houston are not Watkins. Their writing doesn’t pander in the same way and so they receive these corrective reminders all the time. On stage, all three authors acknowledged they’ve answered this question about “women readers” more often than any person should have to. But while they note that the sexist American literary landscape is the reason for the “women authors” section, they also gave the idea credence by addressing it on stage. They answered the question as if it was valid, instead of ignoring it. I wished so much, sitting in the back of the theater, that they had never read it aloud at all.

Fuller’s review was also a corrective administration of misogyny. These three books are about pain, and the ways these authors have saved themselves. The review posits that these memoirs do little to rise above the therapist’s’ couch, that they are mere confessional tales. But each memoir does reach beyond itself, offering something less obvious than self-help and more like one woman’s way. For Houston, it was the earth itself that saved her. For Zaman, it was finding her true voice. For Shalmiyev, it was reclaiming her lost mother. None of them are prescriptive, and they’re not going to work for everyone. Each writer has her own style, but each of them crashes up against what we’re told is unseemly, unattractive, unspeakable. Shalmiyev takes the dainty proscribed role of mother and blows it open, blood and tampons and body secrets spilling shamelessly—because why should these bodily truths be shameful? Houston tells the story, the true story, of her horribly abusive parents, and how her faith in the earth and the land have parented her for fifty years instead. Zaman survives stalking, anorexia, and domestic violence, and dares to speak in her own unique voice about how she found herself in telling her story. And for their trouble, for their revolutionary vulnerability and honesty, they have been shock-collared and reminded of their place. In the New York Times. Down girls.

Here, I become uncomfortable. Here, where I reveal my own failings, my own internalized misogyny, is when I itch to open a new tab, read something else, take a lunch break, talk to a friend, to get up and run. Because it has become relatively simple for me to identify others administering misogyny, but it is very uncomfortable to notice how and when I do it. I expect more and better from women, and I expect it most from myself. I allow men to fail me because I don’t expect more. I consider it good enough if the men in my life are not blatantly sexist, if they keep their gender biases quiet, and if they allow for the fact that women, myself included, experience the world differently. If they believe me when I tell them. If they believe other women.

Instead of angrily correcting Fuller, I could ask more of men. Men could ask more of each other, too. Perhaps we could all raise our expectations above the bare minimum. It’s not enough to say you support equal rights. We need better, and we need to start asking for it with specificity. And men need to start asking for better from their brothers, their fathers, and their sons, which means pointing out this corrective misogyny when they see it happening.

Writing that demands space, empathy, and legitimacy for women deserves to be celebrated. Not simply when the reviewers or readers are women, but because this writing is boundary-pushing, genre-bending, thoughtful, and necessary. Helene Cixous famously said that women write in white ink. I don’t claim to understand everything that phrase encompasses, but at least one of its meanings is surely that what women write is invisible on the page. It’s beyond time that we change that. I can start by noticing my own misogynist impulses when they arise. And I can ask you, all of you, to join me.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.

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The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.


Marissa Korbel's writing has appeared in many publications, including Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch, and The Manifest-Station. She works as a public interest attorney supporting campus and minor sexual assault survivors. Marissa lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler. More from this author →