Writing from Elsewhere: Radical Misogyny & Female Authorship
BY TILDE FREDHOLM
Misogyny goes well beyond the isolated acts of men, seeping into the everyday as the real thoughts and feelings of individuals – it’s an affective economy that targets as well as incorporates women. This economy is reflected in the ways language is structured and used, and thrives on making women complicit in the circulations of hate and contempt that define patriarchy. In identity politics it can be hard to acknowledge that the discriminated subject is sometimes participatory in the culture that oppresses them, and often in ways not easy to identify.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943) and Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith (1974) are two deeply misogynistic works - not purposefully or satirically so but in a real and embedded sense. And the books’ misogyny stand out because their authors are women. Through the continued operations of the literary canon, reading women writers comes with an exaggerated idea of their ‘womanhood’, defined as such within a history that continues to present white cis straight men as the norm. And, for better or for worse, this has a bearing on how their texts are interacted with. Knowing that they are women creates a strange feeling - that we are, through their works, dealing with a justified negative stereotype that can be (and has been) of infinite value to patriarchy. But this knowledge also allows the reader to create a different perspective, one which it is harder for patriarchy to accommodate.
If we are used to seeing patriarchy from the winning side of male authors, Rand and Highsmith’s misogyny signals something more complex. This becomes most obvious in certain characters, where the authors’ (prescribed) identities and the economy of misogyny meet. Whilst these characters are used to justify oppression they also hint at a point of discord between experiencing and expressing such oppression. This results in a double enforcement of patriarchy as the mode of expression needs to justify the experience. But the question is if it ever does.
The earlier of the two books, The Fountainhead, has a more traditional treatment of female characters. The only woman that matters in the novel is Dominique Francon: an emotionally cold and bored socialite who considers herself intellectually superior to those who surround her. Rand writes out Dominique’s thought processes at length and occasionally offers a present tense stream of consciousness. Throughout her encounters with the main protagonist of the novel, Howard Roark, these streams give a clear account of the internalisation of a submissive role.
When Dominique is brutally raped by Roark, for example, Rand presents an inner monologue that details the experience from Dominique’s point of view. Alongside the pain and horror sits a process of justification, which has Dominique interpreting Roark’s act as a mark of their unusual brand of love – the ultimate proof that she is his. Considering that Rand’s larger ideological framework is concerned with demonstrating how individuals are always free agents, Dominique’s violent oppression is justified through the consent we see her give in her thoughts. This consent, however, is not an easy win. Even though Dominique’s account of her rape frames female submission as necessary and natural, it also shows the hoops through which her thoughts jump to assimilate and accept the situation.
In Highsmith’s absurdist tales, women get the short end of the stick in every situation. In the story ‘Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman’, an attractive Neanderthal is the centre of attention for a lot of the men in her village and is eventually murdered by a jealous wife. Mourning her, the men create sculptures in her likeness. Through this we see a burgeoning of art and culture, as well as its consequential objectification of women. And this is one of the more positive roles that women play in Highsmith’s collection. In subsequent stories, women are killed (intentionally and accidentally) for being stupid, annoying, or treating their husbands badly; alternatively, women kill because they are evil, cold, and promiscuous.
Unlike Rand’s, Highsmith’s stories gain a reflective edge, bordering on satire, in how they blame women for being ‘women’. Each of her protagonists embody a patriarchal stereotype and takes that stereotype to such excess that the killing of these women appears justified. However, this reflexivity never amounts to any kind of liberation, a way out for her characters. In the end, they are what they are. Like Dominique, their victimhood is not only normalised, it is made a necessity.
The significance of these books, to a feminist reader, is their blatant demonstration of the processes of subjugation through the language of patriarchy. But Highsmith’s stories possess, in terms of sheer excess, a more radical misogyny than Rand’s. They approximate the kind of unwarranted hate that men dispose towards women – from a complicit point of view. Highsmith delivers this hate through fable-like prose, which impinges a sense of morality on her texts – as if a lesson is being learned – only to turn into an absurd statement of the idiocy of women. Indeed, when first published the collection was called Little Tales for Misogynists, which is perhaps more appropriate for that particular hatred which brands women as either apathetic/nagging housewives or exploitative/ineffectual feminists.
In the last story, a housewife performs a range of domestic tasks in an obsessive manner becoming increasingly hysterical. The final words: “Knit, knit, knit. And what will Margot think of to do next?” sums up the absurdity of these women and the exasperation on the part of those having to encounter them (including the reader). Through this excess banality Highsmith end up showing not so much idiocy of women as the idiocy of what it is to be a woman and how trivial women’s victimhood is for patriarchy – the dynamic which facilitates and justifies oppression.
Why talk about negative representations, then, when positive ones are desperately lacking from popular narratives? This is because positive representation is no less based on patriarchal norms and is often more efficient at hiding the processes that sustain those norms. Ultimately, patriarchal violence and the hatred of women is part of a subjugating dynamic which is not affected by the inclusion of women into previously exclusive areas. Positive representations are formulated in opposition to victimhood - its ultimate figure being the hero protagonist. This allows even less room for women to signal anything or everything - to be stupid, vile, and petty, or for that matter, clever and caring - without those qualities being tied to her difference from a man, to her womanhood. Highsmith and writers like her represent an opportunity to revise our strategies of representation by considering how language makes us complicit and how, in turn, we may push its boundaries. If hijacked, misogyny can be a radical tool for thought.
Tilde Fredholm is a writer living in London. She writes and researches about representation in history, considering permutations of language, rhetoric and meaning.