The J.M. Coetzee Award For A Bad Female POV

1 Mar

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Sometimes female characters written by men make me want to throw the book across the room, for a particular effect that I’m going to call The J.M.Coetzee, and now I’m instituting an award for it—shortly to be granted to another lucky author. I identified this problem a few years ago, reading Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, right after reading Disgrace, which I loved and for which the South African/Australian author of literary fiction won a Booker Prize.

In Diary of a Bad Year one of the three POVs is a young, attractive woman from the Philippines who does some cleaning and typing for an older, lecherous intellectual male character, and we read her supposed thoughts. The three POVs run side-by-side on each page, a neat conceit, and the two male perspectives are great. But in the portion of the book I read before giving up in disgust, the young woman thinks mostly about a) the male intellectual she works for and b) her ass, sex, how hot she is, “my silky moves,” how she is “racy, exciting and exotic,” and her ass some more.

At some point I just wanted to say, “No, dude, she doesn’t. You think about her ass. This is not what any woman thinks about all day long.”

I read submissions for a literary magazine, and I can tell you that it is only male authors who mention a female character’s breasts or nipples within the first few pages of introducing her. Female characters written by women rarely think about their nipples or breasts (shocking!). Women writers also rarely describe their female characters’ nipples or breasts unless it’s relevant to the story. (No one of either gender mentions male nipples, except the brilliant Mark Leyner. Go Mark.)

Someone could write a compelling female character who does nothing but think about her body, or a compelling person-of-color who is really into their own hot racial sex appeal, but that’s not what The Anthology of Clouds Coetzee Award is for. The young woman in Diary of a Bad Year doesn’t have a character. She’s reduced to her skin color and body parts, which is especially offensive when it’s put, allegedly, in her own words.

Coetzee’s heroine also fails some version of the Bechdel Test, which asks in part “Does your female character talk about anything other than male characters?” She thinks an implausible amount about her lecherous old boss and his academic pursuits, which could not possibly be of any interest to her. When she’s not doing that, she’s thinking about her husband (having sex with him), or sometimes God (another man; her religiosity is another racial caricature).

I know I am not supposed to speak for all women, but I will go out on a limb and say that any woman with a lecherous, disgusting boss does her absolute best never to think about him. If she suspects he’s looking when she walks away, her thought is not “Oh yeah, my ass is awesome, let me wiggle it for him to enjoy.” Her thought is, quite simply, “Ew.” She also definitely, totally, never imagines in loving detail how he masturbates about her:

“He hasn’t tried anything while I am with him, but what he gets up to after I exit is another story. God alone witnesses what he gets up to then, God and the blessed virgin and the chorus of saints. There is a pair of panties of mine he pinched from the dryer, I am sure of it. My guess is he unbuttons himself when I am gone and wraps himself in my undies and closes his eyes and summons up visions of my divine behind and makes himself come.”

It’s so ridiculous that I would laugh if I weren’t full-body heaving. Dude, she has never thought that. She cleans your house, takes your money, and gets out of there as fast as she can.

The Anthology of Clouds Coetzee Award goes to a writer who reduces a female character to a male authorial sex-fantasy, and who probably created the female character in the first place in order to tell us more about whatever man they really want to talk about. The girl is there “speaking in her own words” in order to put a lot of sexy sex on the page without the author having to decrease the dignity of the male character by having him cop to it. The girl can also admire the man and talk about what a good lover he is! It’s easy, it’s convenient, and it’s also bad writing if you consider that in good writing your characters are supposed to be human beings who make sense and are motivated by internally coherent concerns.

J.M. Coetzee can and should take on any POV he wants. He’s written very successful women in other books.  Moreover, I defend anyone’s right to write a misogynist character if it seems important to them to do so. Disgrace, the book Coetzee won the Booker Prize for, is a fairly sympathetic portrait of a professor who date-rapes a student, and I loved that book and went out to buy more of his work. But if I’m going to put up with a misogynist character, I demand that they be well-executed.

I will leave you with the words of Coetzee’s heroine, after the male intellectual has treated her to some yucky innuendo:

“I turn my back and off I go with a waggle of the bum, his eyes avid upon me.”

No, I don’t. I promise I don’t.

8 Responses to “The J.M. Coetzee Award For A Bad Female POV”

  1. hodaqani March 2, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

    Reblogged this on hodaqani.

  2. shadowoperator March 3, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    Wow! What a blunder for a major author to make. I’d love to read an interview and find out just why he stumbled (stumbled being the operative word) on such a conceit in the first place. I don’t mean the page divided into three, I mean the woman character being such an internalized version of the male ego. I can see if done in the right way, it could point to a tragic state of affairs (no pun intended) in which she could be represented as a sadly unevolved, unliberated woman being taken advantage of, who conspires in her own downfall. But from what you say, it doesn’t sound as if Coetzee succeeded at or even attempted this. I haven’t yet read anything by this author, though I do have a book on my shelf by him. I’ll try to get around to it soon so maybe we can compare notes, I can’t remember now just exactly which one it is. I’ve been wanting for some time to read “Waiting for the Barbarians,” but my online library module doesn’t work anymore because of an outdated browser, so I just have to wait until I can go to the public library again, weather allowing. Thanks again for the warning about his female POV in the one book, I won’t waste time on it.

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 3, 2015 at 11:47 pm #

      I would be interested to see what you think of some of his other work, if you ever stop the China Mieville bender…. My memory of Disgrace was that there was a female lesbian character who was, while a difficult person, well-drawn. But she wasn’t young and hot. I think the honest mistake that a man attracted to women would make is not being able to imagine how, like, a young attractive woman isn’t distracted by her own tits all day. Tits are distracting! (thinks the man….).

      • shadowoperator March 4, 2015 at 12:09 am #

        Yes, that is a mistake that men tend to make. But then, one can imagine a character, a young and hot woman, who is distracted by her own tits in the sole sense that she is egotistical and self-obsessed (men and even women, or maybe especially women, with their real-life experience of men, have no trouble at all in imagining men who are obsessed by their own dicks in this way. Surely somewhere in life there’s a woman who’s as much of an idiot in this way as a man is sometimes!).

        • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 4, 2015 at 1:02 am #

          That is one of the finer points I was trying to make in the post…. that this character of course can totally exist, she’s even a good character. I’d read about her. But it all depends on making her believable, if your reader believes her. I don’t believe in Coetzee’s young woman who is both totally obsessed with her sex appeal and also making detailed comments about the unappealing older male character’s scholarly papers. Even that could exist, anything could, if it’s what the author is going for, but I don’t think he was.

          I don’t want to sound like I’m attacking male authors though, since probably women are no more enlightened than men when it comes to gender stuff. But then I can’t think of any book by a woman I’ve read where I’ve said “This guy is ridiculous, he’s sheer female wish-fulfillment.” I’m sure it happens all the time in romance genre, but I don’t read that anymore.

  3. diptithree March 3, 2015 at 10:25 pm #

    Reblogged this on dipti three.

  4. burkean June 9, 2015 at 12:14 am #

    Interesting reading; I did read those sections of narration in a different way, though. Did you ever consider that maybe the character’s narration is not meant to represent her thoughts “realistically”, but functions as a kind of projection of the lecherous old man’s desires and imagination onto her? In other words, the obviously ludicrously oversexualized descriptions here are meant to point us towards recognizing them as the absurd fantasies of the male character. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    • Ivalleria June 19, 2015 at 3:05 am #

      Well, this would be the more generous reading and seems like it *should* be the case, since J.M. Coetzee is a smart man and has written very self-aware books about male-female dynamics and lecherous old men in the past. You could be right. I didn’t finish the book, it infuriated me so much, so there may have been a reveal that in fact there was an authorial premise explaining that “her” POV was a fake. But that’s a pretty big gamble to take that the reader will get it or stick around for it. It would have been ok if the ludicrous oversexualization was in the parts where the old man describes her. My problem was that it was presented as her own thoughts about herself.

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