I Don’t Need to Know the Color of Your Heroine’s Underwear: A Rant

Recently I picked up and attempted to read a literary horror novel called The Reapers are the Angelswritten by Alden Bell. The title is swoonworthy; so is the opening: “God is a slick God. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.” I mean, based on those two things alone (and the zombies, can’t forget those) I didn’t think I would have to put much effort into enjoying this one.

And the beginning of the book is pretty good. Early on, Temple evinces her toughness by dispatching three zombies at once in a dark basement with only one long knife — a scene that, although a tad disappointing in its relentless look-how-tough-this-girl-is! vibewas no real struggle to get through. (Some people like the superhuman character. Usually I find these characters offputting and distant, their badassery so extreme they seem alien.) Not long after dispatching the zombies she runs into some people, a group of men, and it takes about two seconds for one of the guys to start creeping on her.

This was probably when the disappointment started to appear. At this point, clearly there was going to be rape (or attempted rape). My disappointment had a couple of levels to it, ranging from “Good lord another story about the rapeability of women” to “seriously, this is the most creative thing you could come up with?” Maybe I just haven’t yet recovered from George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows or Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the recent furor over the updated Tomb Raider game — but it does seem to me that the world has a lot of stories about tough ladies coming under the threat of rape. And I’m at the point now where I’m ready to read slightly more positive images of women characters, without this constant reminder: “You are a woman, therefore you can be raped!” I mean, women have other stories too, guys. There are even ways to create deep, interesting female characters without resorting to backstories of sexual abuse or rape. This shit happens enough in real life; wouldn’t it be nice if our literature didn’t completely normalize the behavior?

Still, I realize that rape does happen and is an important subject to address in fiction, so although disappointing this isn’t a deal-breaker. I still fully intended to give the book a fair chance, until the character-looks-in-a-mirror scene came along and ruined everything:

Blond hair, lean face with long eyelashes framing two bright blue eyes. She could be pretty. She tries to look more like a girl, holding herself in the way she’s seen girls do, pouting out her lips and lowering her chin and raising her eyebrows. Her little breasts aren’t much of anything, and her bottom is flat — but she has seen glamorous women in magazines with bodies like hers, so she supposes it’s all right.

She dresses again with the new underpants Ruby got for her. They are cotton with roses all over them. Ruby also got her a brassiere, but she doesn’t put that on.

Okay. First, let’s keep in mind that this is how fifteen-year-old Temple is seeing herself in the mirror — it’s third person, but everything up to now has hewed closely to Temple’s perspective. This is her seeing herself in a weird sexualized way, and it also happens to be the first description of her appearance for the reader as well. First we see her kick ass, then we get to know her breast size. Okay.

Second, Temple has just arrived at a “fortress” full of strangers, one of whom is a creeper. Her response to the gross, possessive way the man behaved toward her is to go look in a mirror and wonder if her breasts are large enough. Color me disturbed.

And what is this “tries to look more like a girl” nonsense? She’s already blond, already has really long eyelashes, already has bright blue eyes. She already looks like glamorous girls she’s seen in old magazines. The only thing I get from this description is that she is emphatically a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with the body of a skinny model. I’m also left wondering how, exactly, do girls hold themselves? And — the pièce de résistance — why the hell does she want or feel a need to pout? (Like a magazine model I hope, not because the author thinks all girls pout, right?) Unless it’s to emphasize her femininity, lest we think someone would soon attempt to rape an unfeminine woman, or lest we think she didn’t somehow bring it on herself? At the very least, am I the only one who thinks it’s really gross/creepy/disturbing to build up a character’s sexuality shortly before the rape scene we all know is coming? Especially a character who is only fifteen?

And then we get to see what her underwear looks like, because that’s normal. And guys in books constantly note the color and pattern of their boxers, right? Just like they flex in the mirror all the time. And speaking of underwear, of course she doesn’t wear a bra. After all the rest of that passage, it’s hard not to be suspicious of that little detail.

Anyway, naturally Temple must continue to prove her (sexy) toughness, so she goes to hang out with the tough guys (again, almost implying she brings this on herself, in a way). She gambles with them and wins with brassy aplomb (“Any moron can turn a card.”). She’s so Tough with a capital T that one of the guys tells her he thinks she might be “more dangerous than what’s out there,” i.e., the zombies. (I’m still mystified by that exchange, actually.)

In the very next scene she fends off her attacker, him drunk and her reeling from the influence of an Ambien. She wins — she, a fifteen-year-old, against a grown man with a knife. Have your cake (sexy!) and eat it too (she wins!), I guess. It didn’t matter for me by then — I read a little farther but only through sheer dogged unwillingness to let go of my high hopes for this book. In truth I was already lost, back at the mirror scene, when I was thrust out of the story and into a slow-simmering boil of anger.

The rest of the book might be awesome. I’m not going to read it — Bell lost me as a reader, maybe permanently. There are plenty of books out there I can read without getting ranty, so why try reading through my anger and disappointment? Frankly this year has seen enough crap hurled toward women, thanks, and I think I’ll turn my attention elsewhere.

But I had to write this critical, snarky post. I actually never thought I’d write a negative review here — some kind of uneasiness about writing negatively as someone who isn’t really anyone in the literary world. But even as recently as a year ago I might not have noticed that anything was amiss in the mirror scene. I might not have thought how strange it was to note the color and pattern of her underwear. I might not have gotten angry at all — and that’s ultimately why I wrote this. The male gaze, rape culture, and the fallacy of these rape-revenge fantasies are so integrated in mainstream culture that it’s hard to notice them for what they are. I missed out on the feminist theory courses in college; it wasn’t until I dove into the internet and the blogosphere that I began to understand how pronounced and insidious these issues were. I read what other people said they saw in a work of fiction, and now I’ve learned to see it myself. And I can’t un-see it.

Those blog posts helped me to see things that were wrong with my own fiction, bits and pieces of internalized misogyny and the male gaze and rape culture. That’s probably the real reason this pissed me off so much — it was too familiar, too close to what I’d thought was okay as recently as a year ago. It’s not okay to build up the sexuality of a character before someone tries to rape them. It’s weird and wrong, and sends weird and wrong messages. Sex is sex, but rape is not sex. It’s violence. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too.


9 thoughts on “I Don’t Need to Know the Color of Your Heroine’s Underwear: A Rant

  1. Wow, it’s like you borrowed my brain for this post. Give me back ny brain!!!

    Just kidding, great post. I’ve read way too many books written by male authors where the female characters were rapes, almost raped, or weirdly sexualized. It’s a shame that they’re wired that way.

    And Stieg Larson’s scenes were the worst I’ve ever encountered. Ugh.

    1. Lura Slowinski

      Seriously, why are Stieg Larsson’s books held up as some paragon of anti-misogynistic virtue? There are so many things wrong with that interpretation I don’t even know where to begin.

      I wonder how much of it is biological like you suggest (“wired”) and how much is learned through social norms. I don’t have the answer to that question, but either way I wish it were much less prevalent.

      1. Were Stieg’s books popular before he died? Did he even write anything before he died? I should look that up. I didn’t really enjoy the Millenium series and when I found out his wife submitted them right after he passed away, I figured that’s what made them so popular.

        And I bet it’s equal parts wiring and learned social behavior. Like the nature vs nurture argument.

      2. Lura Slowinski

        “Did he even write anything before he died?” — Haha, I think you mean did he publish anything before he died? I don’t think so. I don’t really understand why they’re so popular, but I do know the Swedish title is “Men Who Hate Women.” I wish I had known that before I read Dragon Tattoo.

      3. Oh my god, really?! I bet a lot of people wish they would’ve known that. Probably wouldn’t have sold as well. Can you believe it was his WIFE that submitted the manuscript? A woman, seriously? Wow. My mother in law asked me if I recommended the series and since she used to volunteer as a forensic nurse (rape kits and the like), I told her to pass.

    1. Lura Slowinski

      I’m glad I stopped when I did, because a negative review I read on Goodreads made it sound like things only get worse. So disappointing.

  2. Yup, like you, I always find that analyzing what DIDN’T work helps my work as much as analyzing what did in a great book. Though it’s certainly hard to emulate the great stuff, isn’t it? Sigh.

    Loved the title of this post. Brilliant.

    1. Lura Slowinski

      I suppose if the great stuff was easy to imitate it wouldn’t be so great…but still. I wish it was at least a little easier some of the time! That said, excellent point about how useful it is to read things that don’t work. Greatness can be hard to analyze, but for some reason mistakes are much easier to pull out and discuss.

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