Gender Distress

Elaine Showalter

  • In the Cut by Susanna Moore
    Picador, 180 pp, £12.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 330 34452 8
  • The End of Alice by A.M. Homes
    Scribner, 271 pp, $22.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 684 81528 1

In her iconographic poem ‘Bleeding’ (1970), the American poet May Swenson presents a dialogue between a knife and a cut:

Stop bleeding said the knife.
I would if I could said the cut.
Slop bleeding you make me messy with this blood.

I’m sorry said the cut.
Stop or I will sink in further said the knife.
Don’t said the cut.

The knife needs to cut but is disgusted by blood: the apologetic and self-hating cut has to bleed in order to feel. Swenson’s brilliant poem sets out the archetypal roles of slasher and victim, sadist and masochist, male and female, that have become central obsessions of contemporary culture. Susanna Moore’s novel In the Cut, which laconically describes a ‘liberated’ woman’s fascination with sexual danger, ends in a gruesome encounter between knifer and knifed. ‘This dress is a mess,’ the killer says to his victim in distaste. ‘I don’t like cutting you, you know.’ Similarly, in A.M. Homes’s The End of Alice the narrator insists that a seductive little girl is forcing him to slash and stab. ‘“Why do you make me?” I’m crying. “Don’t make me.” ’

Moore and Homes are among the recent women writers who have chosen to explore the psychology of the cut and the knife in novels that go deep into the relationship, even collusion, between male serial killers or sexual perverts and their female victims. In The End of Alice, Homes alternates between the narrative of an imprisoned paedophile murderer and his prison correspondent, a 19-year-old college girl sexually (and cannibalistically) obsessed with 12-year-old boys. The paedophile is also engaged in a steamy liaison with his cellmate Clayton, a murderer who went to Princeton and wears the Ivy Club insignia in his pierced nipple. Homes is getting a lot of attention with her scenes of anal sex in the jailhouse, her sweaty Little League seductions – and the richly described moment when the coed eats her little boyfriend’s scab.

In the Cut is told from the perspective of Frannie, a divorced NYU professor in her thirties, who is writing a book on New York street slang. Frannie prides herself on her independence and toughness. She freely explores the dark Soho streets, hangs out in the Pussy Cat Bar with her best friend Pauline, and keeps a personal dictionary of words for ‘Vagina’ – Virginia, snapper, gash, brasole – as well as words for ‘guns’, ‘drugs’ and ‘sex’:

oo-wop, n. gun

bomb, n. drug package

skins, n. sex from a female (as in ‘getting some skins from the pretties’)

t’ain’t, n. the space between the vagina and the anus (as in ‘t’ain’t pussy and t’ain’t asshole’)

toasted, adj. burned-out (as in ‘he’s been a detective too long; he’s toasted’).

Frannie did not allow her former husband – a photographer who specialises in pictures of ‘murdered Bengali child prostitutes’ – to take a picture of a scorpion in her vagina; but she does experiment with a number of sexually inventive men, from a married police detective to a black teenage student writing a story about the serial-killer John Wayne Gacy. This is a woman who chooses to live dangerously.

In every respect – her sexual aggression, her intellectual interests, her liberated lifestyle and her feminist leanings – Frannie is the kind of transgressive woman who gets singled out for murder in slasher films, from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs. Carol Clover, in a 1987 essay on gender issues in slasher movies, analyzed the conventions and taboos that have made these horror films about psychokillers so successful, and which now seem to have moved from pulp cinema to feminist literary fiction. According to Clover, slasher films ‘present us in startling direct terms with a world in which male and female are at desperate odds’. The killers are men in ‘gender distress’, whose murderous rages against women are ‘propelled by psychosexual fury’. Sometimes they have found an outlet for this anger in police work. Often they seem to function normally, until suddenly they don’t. Their victims are women who ‘engage in unauthorised sex’ – masturbators like the wife in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, promiscuous coeds in Halloween. Their preferred weapons are knives, razors and icepicks, saws, or even power drills; as Clover dryly notes, ‘all phallic symbols are not equal.’ Knives, for instance, are the most personal, revealing the secret inside of the body to the killer and to the viewer, who also penetrates, thanks to special effects, to the bloody interior.

The figure who gives the slasher film its character, according to Clover, and gives the genre an uneasy ‘feminist’ ambience, is the Final Girl. She is the cleverest, most resourceful, most tenacious of the victims: ‘her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters ... set her apart from the other girls.’ In a sense, she is boyish; and she comes to dominate the film, until by the end her point of view takes over and her resistance leads to a scene of triumph over the slasher. ‘We register her horror as she stumbles on the corpses of her friends; her paralysis in the face of death duplicates those moments of the universal nightmare experience on which horror frankly trades.’ Indeed, Clover argues, the sadistic Killer and the terrified Final Girl seem to play out tensions between the slasher film director and the terrorised audience. Even when she survives, the Final Girl has really been no more than ‘an agreed-upon fiction’, with the male viewer and male director using her as a ‘vehicle’ for their ‘own sadomasochistic fantasies’.

What happens, however, when the writer is a woman? What kind of bargain is being struck between novelist and male or female reader? While ‘abject fear is still gendered feminine’, women novelists seem to be trying to assert narrative and imaginative control over terror by telling the stories themselves. Like the heroines of slasher bestsellers – FBI agent Clarice in Silence, doctor Kate McTiernan in James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls – these heroines are independent and intelligent. Frannie is a reflective narrator, who thinks a lot about irony, destiny and control: ‘I don’t believe in destiny, although I am sometimes tempted by the freedom implied by inevitability at least in an Appointment in Samarra sense.’ If she can learn the language, decipher the signs, stare unflinchingly at the horror, she can, she tells herself, escape it. ‘Do chicks act ... like captives ’cause they be scared of male violence?’ one of Frannie’s students asks. Frannie attempts to ward off her destiny by taking constant risks she light-heartedly calls ‘mistakes’. Her world is inhabited by male friends and official ‘protectors’ who seem to hate women as much as any criminal. ‘You know,’ one detective remarks, ‘all you really need is two tits, a hole and a heartbeat.’ ‘You don’t really need the tits,’ his partner replies.

Of course, male sexual violence, and women’s masochistic attraction to it, are not new subjects for women writers. Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat (1970) was a shocking black comedy about a woman who tracks down a psychotic and taunts him into killing her. In Zombie (1995) Joyce Carol Oates writes from the point of view of a Jeffrey Dahmer-like monster. Like a Diane Arbus with her camera as a shield, these women use fiction to enter the subterranean spaces of the modern city, the physical and sexual spaces forbidden to women. Frannie has rough sex with NYPD Detective Jimmy Malloy, who likes to hold her down and watch her come. ‘I like it in the cut,’ he tells her. ‘In the cut’, as Frannie informs us, is a metaphor for watching, for voyeurism. ‘In the cut. From vagina. A place to hide. To hedge your bet. But someplace safe, someplace free from harm.’

Homes and Moore are elegant writers who make a point of the literariness of their novels. Homes draws on Lolita and Lewis Carroll in characterising her ironic, stammering paedophile. Moore, too, drops many literary clues: Frannie assigns her creative-writing students Orwell, Tolstoy and Bret Easton Ellis, rather than Brighton Rock, in which the murderer, holding a straight razor, says deadpan, ‘Such tits,’ or Naipaul’s Guerrillas because the ‘beating, murdering and dismembering of women’ may distract students from the ‘intelligence’ of the book. In both Moore’s and Homes’s novels, the violence is indirect and implied – until the end – while the sex is explicit, graphic and misogynistic. In The End of Alice, the killer recalls spraying his victims with chemical defoliants to get rid of their repulsive pubic hair. One of Moore’s cops likes ‘fat chicks’ because they ‘are always in a good mood when you call, even if it’s late. They always say: come on over.’

In Post-Modern vein (the jugular, in these books), Homes and Moore also play with analogies between writing and killing. Multiple killers have their own style, their trademark, a detective observes in In the Cut, ‘a thing, a way to kill effectively that they use over and over again’. Killers ‘learn on the job’, as do novelists, who also develop their own trademarks. Moore’s The Whiteness of Bones (1989) ends with a brutal and fetishistic rape. Bodies and paper, words and cuts, seem interchangeable. The murderer in The End of Alice fantasises about masturbating on his letters to the coed. The murderer of In the Cut slices ‘souvenirs’ from the bodies of his victims in order to relive, or reread, the experience in private. Frannie reads an article on ‘The Lust Murderer’ that describes the memento: ‘a finger, a lock of hair, or a part of the body with sexual association’. These mementoes seem related to her own obsession with lists of sexual street words, and her fascination with sexual terms in slang or poetry. As a writer, Frannie tries to be the detective who reduces bodies to problems. ‘You see the body and something in you takes over: how was she cut? Where? Who is she? You’re either a good detective or you’re not. You either get down on your knees and put your nose in the wounds, or you don’t. My tie sometimes gets bloody when I bend over.’ But, unlike the slasher films and slasher novels which allow the Final Girl to escape, these women’s novels confront us with the realities of blood and painful death. Not only slashing, not only sexual mutilation, but decapitation, too, figures in the grisly Freudian symbolism of the plots. Intelligent, adventurous, tough-talking women ultimately cannot control either their bodies or their minds. Trying to be good detectives, they are reduced to blood and souvenirs.

Both Moore and Homes seem to be challenging some unwritten macho literary code: to be taken seriously, a woman writer must look at the body and get right into the wounds. Then she will get male critical affirmation and respect, find a critical Mr Goodbar who gives great blurb (‘stunning, erotic thriller’, ‘she never plays it safe’). Frannie often worries about acting ‘like a girl’. Writing in a diary is ‘a safe girl-thing to be doing’. Even struggling for her life, she worries about being too feminine: ‘I bit him again. Just like a girl.’ Asking ‘him not to hurt me ... seems to be what women say’. Although these are accomplished and skilful novels, women readers are deceiving themselves if they think they can read them ironically and self-protectively, ‘in the cut’. In the Nineties, women as well as men are taught not to act like girls; but both knives and cuts will find that these ugly fantasies of female vulnerability cannot be indulged in without messy wounds or lasting scars.