Let’s Stop Telling Women They Can’t Love Misogynist Art

Norwegian journalist Ellen Sofie Lauritzen loves Philip Roth despite being a feminist, she writes at TPM’s The Slice today. She loves his deeply sexist characters, and the filthy things that come out of their mouths. She loves Lil Wayne and other misogynist MCs. Does this make her a bad feminist, or is there a feminist case for her taste?

I personally find a lot of Roth’s writing too misogynist to really dig, even as I value the tradition of feminists engaging with his work (see Elisa Albert’s brilliant story “Etta or Bessie or Dora or Rose,” a postmodern proposal to have Roth’s baby, among other things). So I recognized in Lauritzen’s piece a kinship not quite of taste, but instead of deeply felt affinity for certain paintings, or novels, or songs that objectify women. Like Lauritzen, what I appreciate about music, writing, and films that vary from dated to downright misogynist is the rawness I see expressed, a sheer energy that can’t toe the line of perfect political obeisance. I join her in hoping that we back down from using “problematic” as a censorious bludgeon against creative achievements, no matter how problematic they are.

Yet I wouldn’t abandon the practice of critiquing art for its political stance. I think it’s fair to state what I feel: for instance, that Roth would be a better writer if he paid more attention to female interiority. I’ll continue to make that point until my lips are as blue as Mickey Sabbath’s. But what I won’t say is: you’re a bad feminist if you like Roth. On the contrary, I think your preferences regarding mid-century American fiction have zero bearing on what kind of feminist you are.

I’m not convinced there’s an explicitly feminist case for embracing misogynist art. Instead, I think there’s a case for simply being a feminist who admits to being captivated by misogynist art. The dividing line is a fine one, but to me it’s important, particularly now, at a moment of unheralded cultural power for feminism.

Feminist criticism has become ascendant, at least on the Internet, and as a feminist critic I claim victory. But I worry sometimes that our ideology is being used to define “in” and “out” categories of art. At the moment, it feels semi-verboten to say, “Not only do I like this misogynist song, but I like this song because the misogyny it expresses feels real and dynamic to me, and it excites me even as it offends me.” I squirm to think of what many feminists would make of some of my formative influences — Bob Dylan vengefully dissing an ex in “Idiot Wind” or “Positively Fourth Street,” or early Eminem, too disgusting to quote but undeniably compelling. I think of It Happened One Night and its irresistible humor, despite its clear sexism (he spanks her!). I even think of Twilight, which horrified me and enchanted me at the same time with its twisted fantasy of a young woman whose controlling relationship is pitched as a perfect one.

Lauritzen explains her attraction to Roth’s work thus:

Roth’s prose is brimming with vitality, exploding with life. You can feel him almost choking in the rush to spit it out. He offers an absurd festival of virility in his totally repulsive yet surprisingly compelling protagonist. One is pushed away and drawn back to Mickey Sabbath—and Alexander Portnoy and David Kepesh and Nate Zuckerman—just as one is thrust away and drawn to Roth. That’s the Roth package: he can reel off intense and elegant prose, while being downright ugly and distasteful.

In a sense, what Lauritzen is doing with her piece is a long-form version of “sorry, feminists.” If you look at the hashtag #sorryfeminists, which blows up every once in a while, you see a lot of self-identified feminists jokingly confessing their sins against the fictional sisterhood police: doing things like wearing high heels, relishing doing chores, or confessing that they talk mostly about men with other women.

This is an acknowledgment that it’s impossible to be a perfect feminist, just as it’s impossible to be a perfect male ideal of a woman in a patriarchy. Every feminist who has gotten a shiver down her spine hearing that xylophone intro to the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” or Kanye West crowing on Yeezus, “I fucked your Hamptons spouse,” or who gets a kick out of reading about one of Roth’s protagonists enacting an explicit fantasy — or even finds Christian Grey attractive — knows what I’m is talking about. The stumbling block is that for each cultural consumer, the distinction between what triggers her pleasure centers, as opposed what just triggers her, is both intensely personal and complicated. One feminist’s “Roth the genius” is another feminist’s “Roth the irredeemable scumbucket.”

Can we stop making people feel bad for liking art that’s offensive, while refusing to glide over the offensive parts of art? I think it’s possible. Because essentially, embracing misogynist art is analogous to wearing high heels, or lipstick, and other choices upon which feminists have reached a détente. It’s neither an explicitly feminist act nor does it disqualify the actor from being a feminist. I’d say that it’s a matter of simply being alive, and finding joy and stimulation in a limited world, a world in which “virile” is still a synonym for “vital.”