This issue of Granta is about patriarchy, and some of the ways in which our gendered culture is now creakily changing. We are not attempting to sum up the current feminist movement – all the usual caveats about (mis)representation apply. But the stories in this collection do all address questions of gender.
We begin with Fernanda Eberstadt’s memoir, ‘I Bite My Friends’. Fernanda was only fourteen when she befriended Stephen Varble, a downtown twenty-eight-year-old drag performance artist. Her liberal Upper East Side parents allowed her to wander into the late 1970s New York scene of drag and chains and leather; that intense countercultural performative space that hardly exists any more, decimated by Aids and tamed by gentrification, antidepressants and marriage equality. What can we say about this young teenager and this hungry activist? Who bit whom? Stephen did once ask Fernanda to suck his dick, but that was probably a joke, and didn’t happen. Mostly they seem to have talked, endlessly – they talked each other up, as friends did in those days. All the amazing things they were going to do.
Sally Rooney’s two protagonists in the excerpt from her forth-coming novel Normal People are friends, too, but the undertone is much darker. Rooney forensically examines the balance of power between her two characters, quietly weighing up all the factors involved.
There is otherwise little friendship between men and women here. TaraShea Nesbit describes her sexual encounters, aged thirteen, with a man old enough to be her father. She vividly captures her persona at the time: a girl not mature enough to understand the manipulative nature of her predator. Stella Duffy interiorised a sense of the helplessness of the man who pawed her as a young girl, and notices that she still wants to protect him: ‘Like countless other women, I am willing to out myself, but not the perpetrator. We are trained into silence, trained to protect men from their poor, hapless, helpless selves.’
Their poor, hapless, helpless selves, indeed. But let’s not forget how brutal and lonely gender oppression can be. In these pages, Lisa Wells finds a way to remember being sexually abused as a child, and Debra Gwartney describes her botched, and secret, abortion. Getting treatment for an abscessed tooth was the code, she later came to understand. This was the late 1970s, and still no one in Gwartney’s student circles talked about it.
Miriam Toews’s next novel is based on the true story of a series of brutal rapes in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. The women are painstakingly trying to process what has happened to them, and decide what they must do. But it’s not just heaven and hell that are unknown to them – the real world, even a few miles beyond their farmland, is terra incognita, and the women are more or less trapped in a system of oppressive and archaic patriarchy.
Both of our photoessays address gender and the question of fluidity: femininity and masculinity in the making. ‘Cross-Dressers’ is part of a collection of found photographs put together by French film-maker Sébastien Lifshitz; ‘Chameleon’, by Tomoko Sawada, consists of a series of staged self-portraits. The projects are serious yet curiously light-hearted – humour vs accusations of humourlessness is of course one of the cultural pivots of feminism and gender rebellion. In honour of that at times forgotten binary opposition, here is a joke from Tommi Parrish’s graphic story about Figure 1 and Figure 2, and their relationship:
Figure 1 is an artist of mounting acclaim. At 36 Figure 1 will say to their therapist that they have always used art to dissociate from life. The therapist will nod gently and ask how this makes Figure 1 feel. ‘It makes me feel nothing’, Figure 1 will say in annoyance. ‘That’s obviously the whole point.’
There is much to say about the current feminist movement, or moment, but Parrish’s ‘genericlovestory’ captures something interesting about the current zeitgeist – an un-gendered, blandly therapeutic world, yet still so weirdly funny.
We are nowhere near gender parity. But perhaps at least we are travelling in the right direction.