I studied Peter Carey’s short story collection in high school and there was something about the collection that left me uncomfortable. I still remember responding to one of the texts in my Year 12 literature exams, irritated by a female character’s obsession with high heels, which seemed completely at odds with everything else going on around her. I wanted to respond or critique the idea that the male writer is free to depict women or whomever he chooses with ridiculous stereotypes. I wanted the women from his stories to speak their minds and to destabilise the privilege and platforms white cis male writers have been afforded for too long.
The writer sat at his desk every morning with a rigid posture, black-rimmed glasses and smart clothes, which added to his robust confidence. He believed he was handsome, with an ability to draw the reader into sad, peculiar worlds where characters like Daphne frantically reassembled themselves in order to please men. Characters whom he modelled on women he observed in restaurants or city streets. And imagined found him attractive with his austere writer’s gaze. Over a number of years the writer had gathered an assortment of women who evolved from his imaginings. They were categorised by their physicality before they were carefully placed into a story in order to create an erotic angle. Or make the men in the narrative seem forgivable. He assumed that the women he created craved male affection with ferocious need.
The women fell into hierarchies where those who were beautiful were treated favourably and given interesting storylines. The others, whose appearances did not conform to a white-cis-male ideal, angered the men in his stories who responded in cruel ways. In one short story a woman named Carmen disappointed the aimless, white, unemployed male protagonist as she sat near his front window with only her black pants on. He would like her to have big boobs like the girls in Playboy. This is the only way he would like to improve her, for her to have big boobs (Crab, 1994). His painful disinterest as she removed her clothes repulsed the other women trapped in his imagination, who had witnessed the early drafts, hoping there would be a moment of respite for Carmen. But there were so many women reduced to a terrifying dullness or celebrated for physical characteristics appealing to the male writer that their discomfort normalised over time.
Lily Danko who had a funny face – and little creases around her eyes and small lines beside her mouth. It was a long face with a long chin. (Exotic Pleasure, 1994)
A woman with a name who had hair the colour of a field of corn and a strutting walk she conducted with pointed fingers. She smiled crookedly, had a lisp and the start of a double chin. (A million dollars worth of Amphetamines, 1994)
And Clara who ate ravenously, but in no way neglected to listen with a full mouth of mushrooms dripping from her lips that made her beautiful, not ugly. She was tall, his height, and across the table he noted her hands were as large as his. (The Chance, 1994)
Out of all the women it was Clara who left them most disturbed. Repetitively made to cry out “Tell me I’m beautiful” to her lackluster love interest, they noticed the strain across her face as she spoke to the agonisingly ordinary man. And the way he then bathed in her beauty, delighting in the confidence it brought her. An assumption that was particularly sickening.
Stuck in the crevices of the writer’s imagination, the women watched him craft more versions with such sharp attention to physical detail it was as if they were hollow. Nothing more then a bodily presence designed to serve male impulses, the tortured heroes of his narratives. Men who were vile but got away with their crimes, because they were troubled and had good hearts, which justified their behaviour.
Servicing male characters left them depleted, unable to recognise themselves anymore. But they also noticed something else, a possibility to disrupt the discourse that had muffled their desires and personalities. Desperate for another view, they read Alexis Wright, Hooks, Lorde and Bellear, and saw another view of gender and sexuality, feeling liberated in these moments. And they slowly began to write themselves back into the narrative, rediscovering who they were. They started to craft new stories, which erased cis-men and restrictive concepts of gender. As they worked, one of them came across a quote from Eileen Myles that stated:
I just knew in a quiet way I was ruined if I agreed to be female. There was so much evidence on the screen and in books. I just hated reading work about women because it always added up the same. Loss of self, self-abnegation, even as the female was trying to be an artist she wound up pregnant, desperately waiting on some man.
While they understood that they were part of the evidence Myles described, they also realised that they had never agreed to be women. Words like full breasts; slender, long legs; wide eyes framed by long dark hair were all clichéd attributes aggressively assigned to them by the cis-male writer without their consent. They were more, neither and something entirely different, but these elements were invisible to the reader.
As they fantasised about leaving Peter Carey’s imagination and the hetero-gendered roles they were written into, they were also aware that it could be worse. There were other male writers who crafted equally horrific versions of women. Characters who were abused, neglected, damaged, insecure, lost and stripped of purpose in the hands of Tim Winton, David Williamson, Phillip Roth and John Updike. And for a moment they felt a little relieved as they began to write a new story, one in which the great white cis – male writers were just faint stains in the background and pages from their prize-winning novels were torn and reused.
Daphne was not a beautiful girl, although she had a striking body with very long legs and big tits, which she displayed to their most incredible advantage. Her face however had a flabbiness, a laxness about it that was not attractive. She had a large loose mouth and a birdlike nose, which lay beneath layers of make-up she applied so skillfully.
— Peter Carey, Withdrawal