trigger warnings for misogyny, violence, sexual violence, general kyrarcial bullshit
That I don’t know how to start this post is somehow part of its point. Prompted by recent online discussion of feminists covering or reinterpreting misogynist works of art, I wanted to talk about the multiple intersections between sexuality, (potentially gendered) violence in my head, and the artistic and cultural representations thereof. But those intersections are so various, the layers of influence and response and impulse and connection so intertwined, that it’s tricky toknow where to begin. Perhaps, in accordance with outdated tradition/hidebound convention, with my personal beginnings.
A lot of the art and music and visual media I grew up with, and formed my identity from and around and through, has problematic sociocultural constructions in there somewhere. Certainly I’m not the only one who finds a clash of ideals difficult sometimes , and I’m probably not even the only one who’s lost significant friends over pointing this out in feminist cultcrit (my first boyfriend is no longer speaking to me after the review I wrote of the Stardust movie. Some days, I’m actually quite proud of that.) I’m by no means blind to the issues of problematic art, and I do my level best to behave according to the eminently sensible guidelines for Being a Fan of Problematic Things. But the fact remains that one hell of a lot of the media I absorbed myself in growing up can be seen to fit into the category of ‘problematic’ in some way – everything, from my parents’ beloved Stones and Dylan records to Jane Eyre and LOTR, from Joss Whedon to my beloved historical novels. I’ve been devoted to the Earl of Rochester since age 11, ffs, and whilst my adult academic self can speak authoritatively about a multiplicity of voices, satirical distance, an infinitely frustrated idealist lost amid a cynical world, there’s no denying my younger self simply forgave him his occasional misogyny for the sake of his frequent vulnerability, accepting the former as a logical result of the latter (see also: John Donne, Shakespeare, T S Eliot.)
The thing is, while I think we can all agree that Misogyny and Misogynistic Violence are Bad ™, the vast majority if not all inhabitants of the contemporary West have formed their genders and sexualities in (dialogue with) a society with a hugely significant cultural inheritance of misogyny and (often if not always) gendered violence. Of course it’s in the art, because it was there in the world.
So what do we, as responsible 21st century feminists, do about that? Refute its significance? Refuse to engage? Reclaim, reinterpret, redefine? Personally, I’d regard the first as futile, the second as defeatist, and the third as an opportunity. As the mind-bendingly brilliant Angela Carter put it: ‘I’m all for pouring new wine into old bottles, particularly if the pressure of the new wine causes the old bottles to explode.’ Culture is a toolbox, as a wise man said to me of late, and to my mind there’s no point in using only a screwdriver when you have hammers, nails and a saw as well.
Trouble comes, I suppose, if a man’s using that hammer to threaten, or to bludgeon a woman to death. I’m going to consider mostly traditional misogyny and its intersection with gender and sexuality: partly because that’s my area of expertise, and partly because I don’t really feel myself qualified to comment on much else – I have all the white/cis/able-bodied/middle- class/educated/other privilege, so there are better folk than me to comment on – for example –trans misogyny and racial stereotyping. And a lot of what I’m going to say relates to very personal responses that are themselves conditional upon my possession of those characteristics, which needs to be borne in mind.
So. A couple of things. One, no cultural work is a monolith. People respond to the same material in vastly differing ways. Cross-readings happen all the time, in ways intended by their creators and otherwise.
Take Rochester’s notorious Regime de Vivre, for example. I can’t for the life of me find a decent online version, so here’s the version in Keith Walker’s edn:
I Rise at Eleven, I Dine about Two,
I get drunk before Seven, and the next thing I do,
I send for my Whore, when for fear of a Clap,
I Spend [come] in her hand, and I Spew in her Lap;
Then we quarrel and scold, till I fall fast asleep,
When the Bitch growing bold, to my Pocket does creep;
Then slyly she leaves me, and to revenge th’affront,
At once she bereaves me of Money, and Cunt.
If by chance then I wake, hot-headed, and drunk,
What a coyle do I make for the loss of my Punck! [whore]
I storm and I roar, and I fall in a rage,
And missing my Whore, I bugger my Page.
Then crop-sick all Morning I rail at my Men,
And in Bed I lye Yawning till Eleven again.
What is it – a celebration, an ironic condemnation, an outpouring of self-laceration or self-hatred, a defiantly wry acknowledgement of inadequacy, a careless assertion of success? A takeoff of some unknown other? A cry of despair? Who knows. On the surface, it’s all casual misogyny and sexual violence, but is the narrator endorsing the behaviour he claims as his own? are we meant to sympathise, criticise, congratulate, condemn? Maybe these ambiguities are the most interesting element, reflecting the reader’s own preconceptions back at them? I’ve read critics taking all these positions, and more.
Even cultural products depicting the most unpleasant and damaging ideologies (or realities) are open to reinterpretation and cross-reading. A piece the author intended as serious polemic can be reinterpreted by its audience as satire or comedy (just read some of the evangelical Christian stuff on the net.) There are even feminist Charles Bukowski fans. The world is an infinitely various place.
And not only can work be interpreted or read differently, but it can also be reinterpreted and performed by feminist artists to give an entirely different meaning, or at the very least to interrogate, problematise and question. As an example of this, I’d like (if I may) to take you on a strange journey.
Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Womanis one of the multifarious hugely significant background tracks to my life. My parents played Blonde on Blonde repeatedly during my childhood; I knew the words long before I had any idea what they meant, and lest the onset of a grunge-and-Britpop-fuelled adolescence enabled me to escape those formative influences, my First Proper Boyfriend was sufficiently into Dylan that I must’ve heard the latter play it live about three times, mostly from the front row. So it probably isn’t surprising that it’s always had a fair amount of significance for me. I *do* break like a little girl, still, or I feel very much like I do; and moreover that I appear to and that kind of vulnerability is part of what I (re)present to the world. As for the bridge couplet about ‘this pain in here/ I can’t stay in here’, my response to that is so multivalent as to deserve an entire essay by itself (which I will write, if you ask, I dare you.) I am also, for my sins, very aware of its potential misogyny – all that taking and faking ‘like a woman’ all those curses, ribbons, bows, fog, amphetamine and pearls – and problematic binaries. Dylan’s vocal on the album version of the song is not particularly emotional; he leaves the accompaniment to express whatever sorrow is missing from his voice. Covers, however, are a different matter. (And oh god, there are SO MANY covers. Obviously this is a song that resonates with a wide variety of people.) Jeff Buckley’s makes it a man’s tragedy, long-drawn-out and melodramatic, almost spitting the amphetamines line and slowly drawling the chorus. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s breathy, feminine version is softer, opener, more positive in the verses; more complex, sadder and softer in the choruses, which were probably the most positive part of Dylan’s. CN Lester’s gorgeous androgynous performance gives a sense of depth and understanding, an awareness, warmth and weight absent from the original. Both Gainsbourg’s and Lester’s address the emotions implied by the lyrics in their vocals, particularly their sadness, more than Dylan does; the latter’s ambiguous gender presentation also implicitly questions Dylan’s stark binaries, opening up the song in unexpected ways. No individual piece of work is unassailable – and certainly nothing can’t be subject to reinterpretation in challenging, undermining and revolutionary ways. Reinterpretation is all part of what Angela Carter (again! Sorry) called ‘the investigation of the social fictions that regulate our lives – what Blake called the ‘mind-forged manacles.’ (In her own such investigations, for the record, she ‘found most of her raw material in the lumber room of the Western European imagination.’)
Anyway. Probably one of the most troubling aspects of engaging with work i find problematic from a gender angle is the intersection of potential misogyny and sexuality. Like everyone else in the Western world, cultural products with problematic gender/sexuality ideologies have played a significant part in the formation both of my femininity and my sexuality. Yes, a lot of Western cultural history is problematic according to the tenets of modern feminism, and SOME OF IT I FIND HOT. And that’s ok. 
(There are, of course, a vast range of artists of all genders whom I find sexy precisely because of the ways they inhabit or explore the gender binary or fraught issues of sexuality, oh hai Lou Reed Annie Lennox David Bowie kd lang Justine Frischmann Pearl Jam Amanda Palmer Pulp Brian Molko, but I’m less concerned right now with work whose ideologies I can actually make a feminist case for. I’m damn glad it exists, and I wish there was more of it, and will endeavour to support and facilitate its creation. But.
I’m not arguing so much about the fairly incontrovertible need for MOARR challenging feminist art, but that work manifesting problematic ideals can also still be valuable to feminists. To recap: even the most obviously problematic work is a) interpretable in a variety of ways, b) up for reinterpretation by other artists, and now c) a legitimate source of sexual or emotional or intellectual inspiration.)
Some music/art I find hot because it showcases a kind of young, brash, aggressive, domineering masculinity I only in practice find attractive when it coexists with things like intellect, sensitivity and usually androgyny; some I find hot actually *because of* an undertone of misogynist threat. Which is possibly the most challenging element of this. Sometimes, art that manifests the threat of misogynist violence I find sexy directly BECAUSE of the threat of misogynist violence.
Some personal background, as explanation not excuse (for none is needed): it’s just a fact of my size and shape, let alone the longterm consequences of a decade’s anorexia, that the vast majority of ppl I find attractive, whatever their gender, could probably cause me significant physical damage if they wanted. It’s just a given. I’m not quite as feeble as I look, due to all the swimming, but pretty much. So I associate being physically overpowered with sex in a way that interacts fruitfully with my submissiveness – surrendering to people, trusting them utterly to look after (and pleasure) me, trusting them not to force me to do anything I don’t want or do things that cause me significant damage or that I won’t like EVEN THOUGH THEY BLATANTLY COULD is hugely sexy for me. And the logical correlation is that i find a *lot* of artwork with overtones of misogynist threat *really fucking hot*.
Some examples (trigger warning for sexual violence, gore, and animal abuse in the videos):
Eels – Fresh Blood. This is from an album called Hombre Loco: 12 songs of desire, many of which are in some way problematic. Note the extent to which the video for this is actually *about* the threat of sexual violence; not so much an undertone as a TONE, RIGHT HERE, IN YOUR FACE, of sexual threat. This is the most overtly menacing track – the deep rumble of that bassline – and it’s also the one that makes me alternately want to wriggle seductively and stops me like a rabbit in headlights.
Same goes for NIN – Closer. It’s brutal (the first line is ‘you let me violate you’ ffs), it’s nasty, it’s lyrically and musically and visually violent – and oh god it works. It’s worth pointing out that in the (amazing, horrific, beautiful) video it’s Trent Reznor who’s perhaps made most physically vulnerable – he’s chained blindfold from the roof at 1.48 – and the visual associations between humanity and animal and insect and bones and gore run cross-gender. But still, it’s hard to argue with the potential for violence and misogyny in the lyrics – although Reznor’s use of physicalised iconography to convey emotional states (and vulnerabilities) should also be borne in mind (The latter being, for me, infinitely the dominant factor. I’m actually tempted to do a close reading of the lyrics, complete with detailed emotional exposition of what they mean to me, but I won’t. Honest.)
Almost anything Nick Cave ever did. It’s not that I fancy Nick Cave himself, particularly, although I probably wouldn’t say no if he offered, the man’s a genius (see also: Leonard Cohen). But the overt aggression of tracks like Mercy Seat, Loverman (‘there’s a devil waiting outside your door…with his straining sex in his hand..’) or Red Right Hand (note blindfold woman in bed in the video; another song less than notable for its subtlety) is a) pretty damn hot in itself if you’re me, and b) creates a sense of violence held in check on his more tender songs that’s incredibly powerful as far as i’m concerned. (Actually, Cave might belong with the deliberate explorers of these issues; my personal jury is out on that one. And I partly think he’s a genius because he begins love songs with lines containing words like ‘interventionist’ and produces highly emotional yet relatively complex relationship analyses like ‘we talked about it all night long/we defined our moral ground/but when i crawl into your arms/everything comes tumbling down’, but I digress.)
(You may have noticed that this entire section has been derailed by my spending two hours listening to music i find hot. So shoot me. You may also have noticed that i’m a child of the 90s, musically speaking – so shoot my bleeding body, to use an inappropriately apt metaphor. I’m sure younger feminists have very similar dilemmas about sexual aggression and misogyny in hiphop. In fact, I know that, because some of them write books…)
The sexual attraction of potential violence is not necessarily gendered – some of Le Tigre and the Kills, both female vocalists (and the latter scribes of the immortal line ‘i’m gonna stab your kissy kissy mouth…’) have the same effect – but the non-misogynist examples are not necessarily less hot. They’re just different. And the thing is, i feel that to be asked to deny the sexual pull of the examples cited above is to be asked to deny a significant element of my sexuality – the sexuality formed and expressed in a culture full of precisely these issues. And i have *no* desire to apologise for that – or to construct myself as a victim, or deluded, or without agency, in that expression. An element of violence turns me on, for reasons I have examined and explored, and that’s ok. (It’s also worth gesturing here at the theraputic potential of controlled intersections of violence, sexuality and trauma etc, which folk like Pat Califia and Meg Barker et al know infintely more about than me.) And in responding sexually – or emotionally, or intellectually – to ideologically troubling work, i am not necessarily endorsing their problematic elements, but i *am* saying that arousal, or whatever this track (or book, or film, or picture) does for or gives to me is worthwhile, and welcome, and in itself nothing to be ashamed of, unless it violates my moral code in other, unrelated ways.
Either way, I don’t think that as long as I remain aware of ideological conflicts, my sexuality or anything else should have to be negated by the problematic cultural heritage that was the background for its formation. Anything i can find in or take from problematic work, be it inspiration or ideas or argument or resentment or arousal or encouragement or whatever, is a valid tool to use for creative expression, self-actualisation, and so on. And such appreciation certainly doesn’t inherently negate the premium i place on consideration for others’ wellbeing in terms of how i move through the world.
So. I can’t help thinking that a better approach to living happily in a ideoculturally problematic environment is precisely this: to acknowledge the troubling elements of our particular cultural lumber room, take from it what we will, and make *new* work (or lives, or ideas, or love, or whatever else). Whether the new takes inspiration from the old, ignores it entirely, consists of alternative, challenging, more complex interpretations, or simply takes the form of more thoughtful, interrogated responses. To quote Angela Carter again, because she puts this better than I ever could, maybe we should be trying to ‘transform…fictional [art] forms to both reflect and precipitate changes in the way people feel about themselves – putting new wine in old bottles and, in some cases, old wine in new bottles. Using fictional forms inherited from the colonial period [for example] to create a critique of that period’s consequences.’
Culture is a toolbox. And tools build worlds.
 Nb. For reasons that are personal and psychological as well as cultural (explored in more detail here, here and here; good luck with disentangling the impact of intrafamilial dynamics from wider cultural context, etc) I happen to be a bit kinky, largely but certainly not entirely submissive; I can’t emphasise enough that while some of the works and issues I discuss press those buttons, some of them don’t, and some non-kink-identified folk find these things sexy too. Which a) is ok too and b) by no means implies that they are secretly in denial. People’s sexualities are just different, both in conceptualisation and in practice, and that’s rather the point. I don’t get to call someone else a pervert because x turns them on, any more than they get to call me vanilla because I don’t like canes or fancy Marlene Dietrich in a top hat.