Recent Reading, On and Offline: Misogyny Edition

I’ve been thinking a lot about misogyny. It’s hard not to, right? I mean, it’s everywhere (it always was, but lately it’s really in our faces).

I Fear I’m Understanding All Too Well

I’m reading Diego De Silva’s I Hadn’t Understood (translated from Italian by Antony Shugaar). It’s kind of like if Nick Hornby were Italian and wrote about a lawyer who accidentally gets caught up with the mob. I’m right smack in the middle of it; it’s funny, and I’m enjoying it, but I’m uncomfortable with its attitude to women (that’s sometimes true when I read Hornby, too, but more so here). The protagonist, Vincenzo Malinconico, feels like a failure in pretty much every way. His wife left him, he has trouble communicating with his kids, and he’s not very successful as a lawyer.

Early in the novel, there’s a scene where Vincenzo imagines the “harangue” he’s like to deliver to his ex-wife, Nives:

I tell her that her intelligence is a feat of prestidigitation… and it’s only because of her attractive appearance that her audience pretends they haven’t seen through the illusion….

I explain to her that [emotional immunity] is a prerogative associated with certain bitches, allowing them to suck up the love of others while giving little more than nothing in exchange. And that we’re fed up with seeing women like her surviving with impunity.

Uh . . . I wanted to think this was just unhappiness talking. But then there’s Alessandra Persiano, the hottest lawyer in the courthouse, who is just so beautiful that every other lawyer (they all seem to be men) wants to be near her. For some reason he can’t figure out–and neither can I–she wants Vincenzo (women love vulnerability, seems to be the theory). Alessandra is smarter and more successful than Vincenzo, but I’m pretty sure her only role in the novel is going to be “object of desire.” 

Or what about his teenage daughter? He says he loves her, but he also tells her, “You know how they say some girls look prettier when they’re angry? Well, in your case it doesn’t apply.” Say what? Or the hot chick he follows down the street and into a subway station? She takes his picture with her cellphone and threatens to send it to the cops; that was a good scene. Women’s attractiveness makes Vincenzo feel powerless; he responds by treating them as objects and devaluing their intelligence.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the novel’s attitude to all this. I feel certain that the female characters are smarter and better at dealing with life than he is, so there’s room in the narrative to challenge his point of view on them. On the other hand, I’m not sure the novel is really inviting readers to see him as wrong, or whether it’s going to end up giving Vincenzo the girl, kicking his ex-wife in the teeth, making him a hero. I’m worried it’s the latter. I putting off reading Miranda Neville’s latest book, Confessions from an Arranged Marriage, because I was just getting into I Hadn’t Understood, and though I’m not sorry I’m reading it, part of me is thinking, Miranda wouldn’t do this to me! She’s up next, for sure.

Links That Shaped My Reading Lens

I was extra-sensitive to Vincenzo’s female problems because I read that article by David Wong on 5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women. I’m sure a lot of you saw it when it made the rounds on Twitter this week. (There’s an excellent response from Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon). Wong makes some valid points about typical media narratives about and images of women. But the idea that misogyny is basically a result of men’s uncontrollable horniness is, as Marcotte points out, ridiculous.

When did “we” start thinking that women are more civilized than men? Who the hell do these men think designed “civilization,” and designed it to keep women in their place?  Wong, and anyone who thinks like him, should be assigned Sherry B. Ortner’s classic essay, “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” Men are only identified with nature when doing so empowers them (“we’re just so much more sexual than you women, we can’t help but think we’re entitled to you”).

My main feeling when I read Wong’s piece was that I did not recognize the men I know in it. Men who get erections at inopportune moments, who think of women as a talking pair of breasts, who think about sex nonstop. Although my breasts aren’t exactly shrinking violets, I’ve never felt that the men I work with are thinking about them instead of what I’m saying. Maybe these men just hide their uncontrollable horniness really, really well? Or maybe they are no longer 15-year-old boys.

But you know, I have encountered men like those Wong describes. In life, now and then. In romance novels, more often than I’d like. There are heroes who treat women as disposable, interchangeable sex objects–until they meet the heroine. They don’t really change their views of women; they just make an exception for one. There are plenty of heroes who can’t seem to stop thinking about sex when they’re with the heroine, who have uncontrollable, instant, and constant erections, even at the most inopportune moments (running from bad guys!). I’m not sure what I think about the fact that some female writers imagine men–and men they depict as heroic–in this way. It seems like an exaggerated, and really not very flattering, idea of masculinity.

There are lots of arguments about why this fantasy appeals to female writers and readers–the idea that a man desires you so much that he’ll do anything to have you, for instance–and I get those. I’ve enjoyed some of these books. I want the man I love to desire me. A lot. But I also want him to see me as more than an object of desire. In some books I read, those other reasons we love each other aren’t very well explored.

I think one reason I’m finding De Silva’s novel refreshing, even though it’s troubling, is that Vincenzo is not meant to be heroic in the way a romance hero is. So I don’t have to root for someone who has a rather sexist view of women (although I suspect he’s going to get a happy ending). And because Vincenzo’s the narrator, I’m not in the head of a woman who’s falling for a man like that, a place I’ve sometimes found uncomfortable when reading romance.

Update On Other Reading

Some of you actually cared that I was reading Dorothy Dunnett. I was. I was loving it. But since I’ve hit the time of the term when I’m exhausted and non-stop busy, I’ve decided to set it aside until I can do give it the attention it needs. I’m looking forward to getting back to Lymond and Co. in a few weeks.

I’m listening to Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. Some of my early memories are of my grandmother watching the Watergate hearings. (I told my parents I wanted to name my son “Nixon” because I liked the sound of it. I recall very clearly their efforts to explain to a five-year-old why that was a bad idea). Perlstein’s argument that we’re still living in the fractured America Nixon both exploited and helped to create seems both especially timely and especially depressing right now.

I’m also listening to Stephanie Laurens’ The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae. Now that I’m past the ridiculous opening premises (the ton does not know that Viscount Whosis is the heir to the Earl of Glencrae, and that the old Earl is dead? Bankers who hand over a pile of money, agreeing to wait until 5 years after the Earl’s death to collect the goblet that is his part of the bargain?) I’m enjoying it more than my last experience of Laurens on audio.

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One Response to Recent Reading, On and Offline: Misogyny Edition

  1. mezzak says:

    I have trouble with some European movies along these lines e.g. one I saw recently about a middle class Italian man made redundant. They have to sell up and move and his wife now supports them in a mundane job. We are supposed to feel for him but all I saw was a petulant man taking out his frustrations and everyone letting him because he was a man and so entitled.

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