It would be silly of course to say that men shouldn’t write about women but sometimes ‘their’ approach to ‘us’ in their work can be very difficult for me to look past. When I read I often bear the gender of the writer in mind – it’s one of those inescapable things about us, that’s all, something too big to opt out of – but that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it has to get in the way. The other weekend, however, I read Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy and it was the most jarringly ‘male’ book I had read in a good long while.
I knew what I was in for from the prologue (though the cover was something of a clue..!); twice in the first ten pages or less Hansen draws attention to the characters’ breasts. At this I sighed inwardly (‘oh dear, it’s one of those…’) but ‘church books’ are one of my biggest weaknesses and you take what you can get. So I read on, and this didn’t go away; about halfway through, increasingly irritated by Hansen’s fixation on the female body, I started counting; in the last seventy pages he mentions breasts no less than six times. Thighs and stomachs I did not count, but of these there were plenty also; twice in the space of very few pages, on two separate occasions, does he draw attention to a nun’s skirts pulled up around her thighs while she’s gardening. Who is this for, exactly? Why is he showing us this woman, a part of her body often hidden, and what are we meant to gain from it? Reviews of the book repeatedly draw attention to its ‘eroticism’ , the presence of ‘the sexual’ – yet there is no sex. Just what is it meant to be doing, and who, when we deal with such passages, is doing the looking? Often, rather than this action being performed specifically by a character, it is the reader who is made to look; rather than seeing through the eyes of another character (‘so-and-so watched as…’) it is simply given to us (‘In her dream Mariette is pregnant and her great breasts ache with milk’, ‘a short passage of tangled wire […] that is taught enough to ingrain itself in the skin underneath her breasts’). It’s not a case of ‘x was looking at y’s breasts’, but sometimes quite the opposite (‘Mariette unseeingly washes […] her insignificant breasts’). If she isn’t looking, who is?
I wonder if this is how certain men think we think, if that’s the logic behind their approach and their descriptions – women are fixated on their bodies, so I must portray them as such. If this is so, that we are constantly aware of our physical selves, watching them (and it would be dishonest, I think, to say otherwise; I am reminded of John Berger’s words, ‘a woman must continually watch herself…’, etc), then I think it is because of the way this is forced upon us. Women aren’t occupied with their bodies innately, fundamentally, biologically (such logic might be seen to require a portrayal that reflects that, supports what’s ‘already there’, if that makes sense). Rather we are occupied with them because we are taught to be, and I think it’s writing such as Hansen’s that does part of the teaching. When our attention is repeatedly drawn to a character’s breasts, her weight, her thighs, the motion of the fabric of her clothes against her skin (as if these things are relevant to the story..!), they are in a way detached from the whole of herself; and how, when confronted with such writing, can we not begin to turn it on ourselves? Parts of our bodies, separated from us, we are taught to evaluate and appraise with apparent objectivity, as we might inspect goods; a split is forged between the self (the mind, what’s ‘inside’) and the body, which becomes an object attached to us, a home to be occupied, burdening us; we become alienated from ourselves.
It would take an exceptional strength of will to shut such things out. We read, we internalise, we learn; and so it goes. Hansen’s words and fixations do not exist in a vacuum but rather remind me of all the other ways in which I am watched, and by whom.
Am I being unfair? Would Hansen describe his male characters in such a way if there were more of them? I wonder, but somehow I doubt it, for so rarely in comparison do I see this very specific attention paid to men in other media. I shouldn’t say any more; I’ve already, by writing all this out, given writer and book too much of my time.