Misogyny Is Boring As Hell

Carmen Maria Machado’s critically acclaimed debut collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, was published just two days before news broke that Harvey Weinstein had been preying on Hollywood starlets for decades and getting away with it. As the world began to pay attention to women’s stories of abuse, her queer, liminal stories held a flickering candle to the subtle forms of cruelty that continue to go undiscussed. In one, an epidemic turns women invisible, and nobody cares. In another, a woman who gets bariatric surgery is haunted by the ghost of what the doctor cuts away. Anyone who grew up with a copy of Alvin Schwartz’s 1984 collection of scary children’s tales, In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, will recognize the kicker of “The Husband Stitch”: a woman’s head falls off when her husband unties the green ribbon around her neck. In Machado’s telling, the husband is “not a bad man.” It’s a case of murder by microaggression — a thoughtless gesture with devastating consequences.

It is impossible to know how Machado’s stories would have been received in another era, but in this one, they have reverberated among readers with the prophetic force of a soothsayer’s divinations. “The way she arcs so gracefully from gothic romance to comedy to horror, feels true to me of how we live our lives,” the author Karen Russell, a fan, told me in an email. “A life story is multi-genre, and in the course of a day your love story might turn into a horror story, or vice versa.” Machado’s knack for capturing the mundane horrors of female existence has brought her attention — from the New York Times, which included her in a feature on literature’s “New Vanguard,” praising her depictions of “everyday” misogyny, and from dozens of Hollywood producers. This spring, Imagine Television optioned her work, with Gina Welch, a writer on Feud and The Terror, pitching it around as an anthology series, a sort of feminist Black Mirror. Samie Kim Falvey, the president of Imagine Television, told me in an email that Machado’s stories “capture the intense, unspoken psychology of inhabiting a woman’s body today.” The series, she predicted, will “undoubtedly be a force in the conversation about gender.”

Given the murky misogyny that pervades her stories, it seems fitting that Machado has also become known for authoring one of the more ambiguous and divisive footnotes in the ever-expanding files of #MeToo. The controversy began last month. Machado was on her way to a writers’ festival in Australia when she saw that another writer there, Zinzi Clemmons, had accused the author Junot Díaz of forcibly kissing her when she was a graduate student. The author Monica Byrne followed, recounting a story of how Díaz had violently shouted “rape” in her face. Machado had her own Díaz story, and in a state of jet-lagged exhaustion, she shared it with her more than 20,000 Twitter followers. Five years ago, at a Q&A at the University of Iowa, she’d asked the Pulitzer Prize winner a question that “enraged” him, she wrote, noting that there was a recording of the exchange. “What really struck me was how quickly his veneer of progressivism and geniality fell away; how easily he slid into bullying and misogyny when the endless waves of praise and adoration ceased for a second,” she wrote. It wasn’t just their interaction that upset her. “His books are regressive and sexist,” she declared. The thread concluded with an ominous prediction. “The #MeToo stories are just starting.” The next morning, Machado woke up to an inbox bursting with requests for comment. She didn’t respond to them.

A few weeks later, we met for dinner at a tapas place near Union Square. The 31-year-old author arrived in a fluster, having walked through the rain from Penn Station, strands of her dark brown hair escaping the constraints of her tight bun. Machado has the presence of an opera diva: high-strung, glamorous, with curves reminiscent of her cartoon idol Ursula. In an essay in Guernica about the “power and danger of women who take up space,” she wrote that she liked to imagine herself as a queen out of a fantasy novel. “I am draped in red silk and sit in a large baroque throne, crowned with a grandiose headdress dripping gemstones that tick tick tick like Yahtzee dice when I turn my head. My feet rest on snoozing bears. I am so fat I can only leave the throne on a palanquin borne aloft by twenty men. I am so fat it takes the air out of the room. I am so fat no advisor tells me no.” At the dinner, she removed her canary-yellow blazer to reveal a quote on her bicep from the author Kelly Link: “She didn’t look back, but stepped off the edge of the known world.”

We’d first met back in March, when we spent a day touring an abandoned cemetery in Philadelphia and reading each other’s tarot cards. We’d talked about intuition, trauma, and her next book — a speculative memoir about her abusive ex-girlfriend. We talked about the dusty trove of Americana from which she draws inspiration: urban legends, Law & Order episodes, pornography. Now, we had to talk about Díaz. Nearly every article about the Díaz accusations had characterized the incident as “verbal abuse,” a description that sparked outrage in some quarters of the internet, where people were quick to point out that whatever took place between Díaz and Machado, abuse wasn’t the word for it. I wanted to ask her about the recording of the Q&A, which I’d listened to the night before. But Machado, for her part, said she found the whole conversation exhausting, enraging, and too depressing to engage in any further. “I have a lot of feelings about it, but they’re more like feelings I’d yell at a friend at 2 a.m.,” she said.

After a sip of the house red, she changed her mind. “I will say this,” she began. “What I think is so interesting about Díaz, specifically, is that his work is so overtly misogynist and has always been that way.” The women in his books are “reduced to tits and ass,” she continued, and yet “people talk about Junot Díaz as if he’s this saint of progressivism.” Sure, she added, Díaz’s condescending behavior at the Q&A didn’t rise to the level of “abuse.” But does that mean the two things were completely unrelated, she asked? “What level of delusional do you have to be to think so?” True to form, the fabulist of weird Americana summoned a metaphor from Dudley Do-Right. “The problem is that people talk about misogyny like it’s a grand, sinister thing of Snidely Whiplash tying Nell Fenwick to the tracks,” she said. In reality, misogyny is “really boring in its presentation, and it barely makes a sound, but it does so much. It’s so sinister in that way.”

The sexism that Machado recalls from her own childhood in the suburbs of Allentown, Pennsylvania, was neither grand nor sinister. Her mother, a “midwestern farm girl,” was a homemaker. Her father, the child of Cuban and Austrian immigrants, worked as a chemical engineer. At family parties, after dinner, the women tidied in the kitchen while the men gathered outside to talk and smoke cigars. Once, in high school, she marched out to the porch and demanded one. Someone offered her a drag, and then the men stared on silently as she coughed. No one ordered her back into the kitchen; their silence said everything she needed to know about their attitude. “It was condescending,” she said. “It was always, ‘Oh, there’s Carmen doing that weird thing she does.’”

She would never dispute that she was weird. She had a loud laugh and an imagination that wandered into strange, disturbing places. The first story she ever wrote was about a turkey that got lost in the big city and tried to find his way back home to the farm. Success comes at the steepest price. The saga concludes with an image of the hero trussed and roasted on a Thanksgiving platter. His last words: “I wish I did not come here.” She was 5 when she wrote this.

Some of the most stringent gender boundaries Machado encountered as a teenager were self-imposed. It was Machado, not her parents, who came up with the idea that she ought to save her virginity for marriage. In an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, she recounts buying a guide to remaining sexually pure after a fellow freshman found her in an empty classroom and made her touch him. She blamed herself for the incident: “This is what happens, I reasoned, when you flirt.” In high school, she “fell in with a gang of evangelicals,” who were more conservative than her Methodist parents. She left the fold when she went to college at American University, in Washington, D.C. Later, when she told her parents she was bisexual, they were “pretty chill.” (Last summer, the family celebrated Machado’s marriage to her wife.)

In 2010, she started graduate school at the prestigious writers workshop at the University of Iowa. Her thesis adviser, the fantasist Kevin Brockmeier, told me that Machado was astonishingly productive in the workshop she took with him: She’d vanish for a weekend and return with 50 new pages of writing. Two of the stories she wrote for his class ended up in Her Body and Other Parties: “Real Women Have Bodies,” in which women disappear into the seams of prom dresses, and “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” – think an episode-by-episode recap of television’s rapiest show written by Angela Carter on acid. Her imagination, Brockmeier wrote in email, “moved with an extraordinary complexity, yet the eccentricity of its course seemed natural somehow, even compulsory, like a pendulum on a planet with multiple suns.”

By the time she met Díaz, a few months after she graduated from Iowa, she’d begun to “radicalize” as a feminist. “I had a super-tightened awareness, a heightened level of anger, and an increased sensitivity to male bullshit,” she said. It was in this frame of mind that she encountered Díaz’s second collection of stories, This Is How You Lose Her. The book, a finalist for the National Book Award, chronicles the loves and losses of a Dominican guy named Yunior, who grows up in New Jersey and becomes a writer living in Greater Boston, just like Díaz. Yunior compulsively cheats on his girlfriends and his fiancée, and he characterizes these women in a way that some readers found misogynistic. (In 2012, Díaz told the Atlantic that “sometimes people — usually women — lambaste him at his readings and public appearances.” “There’s plenty of people out there who are like, ‘Fuck you. You are endorsing this shit. Your portrayal of women is fucked up,’” he told the interviewer. “It happens all the time.”) Machado was one of those readers. In an essay in the Buenos Aires Review, she described Yunior as a “terrible narcissist” who saw his girlfriends as “an amalgamation of significant body parts, sex acts, and nagging, sulking, or rage.”

At the Q&A she tweeted about in May, Machado asked the author if it had been difficult to write a character with a “borderline sociopathic disregard for everyone he fucks.” At some point in their careers, many fiction writers face questions about the moral leanings of their characters. Nabokov, for example, famously corrected an interviewer who argued that there was something “touching” about Humbert Humbert; his protagonist was “a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear ‘touching,’” the writer said. In response to Machado’s question, Díaz argued that Yunior was actually quite hard on himself, and cares about the women he hurts; why else would he spend the whole book “obsessively bear[ing] witness” to all the bad things he’s ever done to them? “What I’m troubled by,” he told Machado, “is how readily you accept the primary narrative.”

Machado found this response supremely condescending, but the experience “sharpened something” for her, she said. “It was a really crystallizing moment,” she told me. As she saw it, Díaz’s work was part of a broader patriarchal culture that, in its most egregious form, facilitates rape, and the fact that so many critics celebrated it as progressive, and even anti-sexist, at once revealed the scope of the problem and made it worse. The interaction with Díaz also perversely inspired her most famous short story. Soon after their meeting, with the conversation still ringing in her mind, she began work on “The Husband Stitch,” perhaps the most clear-cut expression of her perspective on “benevolent sexism,” as she sometimes refers to it. The piece is a virtuoso exploration of the ways in which women’s experiences are never trusted or believed. In 2014, Kent Wolf of the Friedrich Agency, reached out to her after reading one of her humor pieces (“HOW TO ALMOST PROBABLY NOT DIE OF RABIES”). Selling story collections is never easy, as he told me in an email, “and here Carmen had these genre-bending, unapologetically weird, fiercely queer, dark and smart narratives to make it even harder.” After some 30 rejections, her collection found a home at the independent press Graywolf. The book is now in its seventh printing, and has won seven awards, including the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction; she was also the finalist for more than a dozen others, including the National Book Award.

Machado’s tweets about Díaz have found a more mixed reception. She’d first criticized him in April, suggesting on Twitter that an essay he’d written for The New Yorker about his own #MeToo experience had failed to properly address the experiences of women he’d hurt. (Machado, among others, wondered whether the essay was a preemptive move by Díaz to stem an anticipated wave of #MeToo accusations.) After she, Clemmons, and Byrne shared their stories about Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize Board, where Díaz was chairman, and MIT, where he is a professor, both launched investigations into the allegations against him. (As of now, they’re unresolved.) The Boston Review, where Díaz is the fiction editor, also examined the accusations against Díaz and decided to continue their editorial relationship with the writer; last week, three editors resigned in protest of this decision. Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American artist who signed an open letter opposing the “media treatment” of Díaz, told me in an email that she found Machado’s tweets about him to be inappropriate. Díaz’s behavior toward Machado, she wrote, clearly didn’t meet the legal standard of sexual misconduct. “The fact that a man disagrees with a woman about a work of fiction does not make him a misogynist,” she wrote. “Artists are not obligated to agree with their critics. When artists produce challenging and edgy material it is bound to unsettle some — but that is the role of art.” She added that “audience members can harbor desires to steal the spotlight” — a charge that others have made against Machado and the other women who have accused Díaz of misogyny.

Last week, someone released audio of their exchange through an anonymous Twitter account, framing it as evidence that Machado had lied. While Machado had described Díaz as “enraged,” some pointed out that he sounded calm during their back and forth. (“Where’s the rage? Where’s the misogynistic rant? When will she apologize?”) Through his agent, Nicole Aragi, Díaz declined to comment on the recording; Aragi noted, though, that she had listened to the audio and was “glad that the public will soon hear this exchange for themselves.” The exchanges starts around the 33-minute mark:

At the tapas restaurant, I asked Machado whether she thought that “enraged” was the right word to describe Díaz’s behavior. She said she did. I told her I’d played it for some of my colleagues who thought Díaz sounded perfectly polite; didactic, but appropriately so, for a lecture. “Stop lecturing!” she said. “That’s what’s so fucking weird. The level of condescension.” She took a sip of wine and a deep breath. “It still makes me mad to think about it.” She told me that the intent of the tweets was to offer a signal boost to Zinzi Clemmons. Machado had wanted Clemmons to know that she believed her story, and to share context she thought to be important. “It wasn’t about me,” she said. “I’m not a victim of Junot Díaz. I’m a female writer who had a weird interaction with him.”

Machado was on a highway somewhere in the middle of Texas, driving cross country to a residency in New Mexico to finish her next book, when she saw the tweets that linked to the recording. “This makes me feel crazy,” she texted me. She pulled into a parking lot and started to cry. Then she listened to the audio for herself. Her impression of the conversation had not changed over the years. “You are entitled to quibble about tone,” she tweeted from the parking lot. “But to say that what I said happened didn’t happen is straight-up not true. If you think so, you probably aren’t the best at reading subtext.”

The whole saga reminded me of a passage from “The Husband Stitch,” in which the narrator, as a little girl, sees the bloody stumps of toes mixed in among the potatoes at the supermarket. Like Machado, the fictional girl had seen something she’d found disturbing and wanted to talk about it. But once she returned home, her father quashed her experience, pointing out, triumphantly, that if there really were toes, why did no one else see them? “As a grown woman,” the narrator explained, “I would have said to my father that there are true things in this world only observed by a single set of eyes. As a girl, I consented to his account of the story.”

Machado’s fiction is richest when it delves into those internal, haunting moments that mark a woman’s life. As Russell put it, her work shows “how the violence migrates inward, from the wider culture into women’s private minds and bodies. It’s wonderful that we have these stories in the era of MeToo, when there is a need and an appetite for the truths that only fiction can tell,” Russell added. Machado’s tweets on Díaz were not as nuanced nor as subtle as her published writing, but in essence, she was attempting to do on Twitter what she does in her fiction — unearth the misogyny hidden in plain sight. But by wading into real life and naming a real person, she helped provoke an entirely different set of reactions and fears and consequences than those inspired by her fiction. When people talk about the problems of #MeToo, or the fear that the movement has gone “too far,” they invariably circle around one point: the fact that there’s a difference, as Matt Damon once put it, between “patting someone on the butt and rape,” and that conflating the two is wrong and even dangerous. Sure, what Weinstein did was egregious and he should be punished accordingly, but should Aziz Ansari’s reputation also be ruined just because he couldn’t tell his date wasn’t into him?

“What is #MeToo, really?” Machado thought aloud, over a duck egg balanced atop a tower of crisp potatoes. “What does it mean at its core? Is it about power? Is it about gender? Who decides?” She’s thinking about these questions as she writes her next book, which will also explore the thornier regions of #MeToo, but has nothing to do with Díaz, or any man. In March, she wrote a long Facebook post about her abusive ex-girlfriend and the anguish she’d felt about not naming her sooner. This relationship will be the subject of her untitled speculative memoir, forthcoming from Graywolf next year. “There is no council saying, ‘This is the meaning of #MeToo,’” she continued. “There’s no magic council of women in really long robes.” So how did she define this moment that we’re in? “It’s about previously unspoken elements of sexual harassment, rape, and power being brought to light,” she concluded.

But what comes after? “God, what should we do with them?” she said with a laugh. Clearly, men who have committed crimes should be held accountable, but for all the rest, she imagined a sort of fantastical body-swap experiment. “If all things were equal, if it was fair, men would get to experience what we get to experience. In terms of having their art utterly devalued at every turn. In terms of not being taken seriously. Obviously,” she added dryly, “I don’t think that will happen.”

We fell into a hungry silence as the waiter set down a hunk of bone glistening with marrow. It was the perfect dish for a diva of darkness: slightly macabre but inviting, hidden and complex. Machado delicately excavated the creamy interior with a long silver spoon. She took a bite of toast and fluttered her eyes, savoring it. “Delicious,” she said.

Misogyny Is Boring As Hell