Not just born to make meat: resisting the sexism of reviewing culture

Some reviews of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things have identified the story as taking place in a sexist dystopia. But in 2017, when a man who publicly brags about committing sexual assault is president of the United States, it reads more like a realistic depiction of the world in which we live.

That this woman-centric book has garnered the attention it has is significant, because our media landscape is not inclined to listen to or read women. So who is this book for and what is it telling us?

Yolanda was raped by a football team. Verla had an affair with an older colleague, who wooed her with poetry and international travel. They both wake up drugged on a property in the bush, surrounded by electric fencing, with no way to contact the outside world. There are others there who have been involved with some kind of sexual impropriety – at the hands of employers, coaches, or colleagues. They are referred to as girls, and never as women.

 The way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.

One of the imprisoned girls speaks out and her jaw is broken. This is silencing made physical, the aim of language that wants to control the behaviour of women and girls for being sexual, or not sexual enough, for appearing or speaking publicly, for taking control of their own image. Think Leslie Jones, Clementine Ford, Gamergate, or any public figure who is a woman.

Their captivity is not the work of some lone madman – there are intake forms, incident reports, labelled dinnerware. Key to their incarceration is the betrayal of men, of some lover or family member who helped to bring them there. One of their captors tells them: ‘You need to learn what you are.’

 The understanding that she was meat, was born to make meat… her body and her, Yolanda, were not separable things, and that what she had once thought of as a self, somehow private and intricate and unreproducible, did not exist.

A writer with different priorities would have presented the girls’ stories as less matter of fact. Wood treats the abuse of the girls in terms of the effects – she writes their thoughts, their processing. The language used by men to describe them fixates on bodies and immorality. Wood does not titillate readers with graphic depictions of sexual violence, though its presence is implicit.

She’s writing abjection, violence and determination – qualities that are often absent in depictions of young women. The Natural Way of Things won the Stella Prize in 2016. The Stella (the women-only counterpart to the Miles Franklin Prize) is significant in that it has generated discussion of writing by women that would otherwise attract far less attention. Even so, outside of certain groups, I don’t know anyone who’s heard of the book.

The Stella Prize also conducts the Stella Count, a breakdown of books reviewed in Australian publications. The 2015 Stella Count showed that, in terms of books published, ‘the breakdown was 72% female and 28% male… female authors are published widely across all genres in Australia.’

How does it result that there is far more space devoted to discussing the writing of men?

While female reviewers tend to review male and female authors with near-equal frequency, male reviewers are far more likely to review male authors. In most publications, reviews by men of female-authored books constituted between 4–15% of the total review coverage.

Without the Stella Count, the prevalence of reviews of/by men might otherwise go unnoticed. However, more needs to be done to highlight the work of writers for whom femaleness is not their only experience of marginalisation. For example, other writers of women’s resistance in Australia are First Nations poets like Natalie Harkin and Jeanine Leane. These voices already exist, and they should be amplified.

In a novel that works so hard to portray the difficulty and indignity of womanhood, it stings that ‘little Joy’ – the only explicitly non-white girl – becomes obsessed with depilation. Even after she enacts a violent revenge, it reads as superficial given the rest of her characterisation; rather than retaking her agency as point-of-view characters do. It does not do justice to the Australia we live in to primarily write white characters as complex.

Elsewhere, Wood’s writing is nuanced – for example, the portrayal of misogyny and complicity in all the characters. In exchange for favourable treatment, one of the girls, Hetty, volunteers to sleep with their most sadistic captor. The group urge her on, keen to defuse the shared threat of sexual violence. They think her stupid when she suffers, that she has brought it on herself. Another jailer, the itinerant hippie Teddy, is casual misogyny personified. He eats his psyllium husks and does yoga to entertain himself. He’s content to be complicit in the girls’ abuse, and then becomes a perpetrator himself.

A body has to be buried, and neither man even watches. ‘Here, laying the dead to rest, like washing and feeding and birth, is women’s work.’

The food runs out. On the property, Yolanda finds and uses rabbit traps. This keeps them all alive – girls and captors alike. The rabbits are significant in that they provide sustenance and allow Yolanda to imagine a future where she does not rejoin the world that has brought her to this state. Rabbits are not from this place, but they have adapted.

When rabbits are afraid, they freeze. This works about as well for them as inaction works for women in the face of injustice and degradation. For many, just surviving is an act of daily resistance.

Wood’s girls don’t work together as a group: the trauma they’re experiencing traps them in their individual pain, enacting madness in their own way. Sitting in a car in the sun, burning all day. Tweezing hair in a frenzy. You want them to rail against everyone that has treated them this way, but most are placated by prospect of rescue, seduced by comfort.

Some find purpose in the work they make for themselves. There’s a nascent ecofeminist bent in this. In the land, Yolanda finds life; Verla is looking for death. Verla searches for poisonous mushrooms, though she wavers on who should consume them – herself, or the men who imprison them. With Yolanda catching rabbits in traps and wearing their skins, Verla thinks of her ‘twitching in the bush, shrugging into the leaves, digging, burrowing. Mad as shit.’ But she is thriving.

What is the significance of Wood’s portrayal of womanhood as a state of violence and indignity without resolution? The way it’s written, it seems that self-sufficient Yolanda has made the most sensible choice: opting out. Wood does not show us a return to the normal – the damage is done, the rift left ragged.

She came to the first trap now and kneeled to her daily prayer at the stiff furred body, knowing it as her own kind… the temptation to sink and sleep in the murderous ground must be resisted. Why? She did not know, except her instinct told her: resist. Resist.


Image: ‘The Flying Rabbit’ / Felipe Alonso

Alex Gerrans

Alex Gerrans is a nonfiction writer from Meanjin.

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