The subtitle of this coruscating book by Eimear McBride is “Women and Disgust”, which explains the title neatly. The origins of the phrase are uncertain, but “matter out of place” is attributed to various writers as what “disgust” is. The usual analogy is you may be happy to eat something from a plate, but not from a toilet seat. McBride extends this to argue that woman, and their bodies, are often the target of disgust for being out of place with an interlinked group of assumptions, control, capitalism and sheer nastiness. She quotes early on the infamous comment from the “gonzo journalist” Lester Bangs that given the opportunity to spend a night with a “fave-rave poster girl” with “total license” that “75 per cent of the guys in the country would elect to beat her up”. It gets worse. “She may be up there all high and mighty on TV, but… she’s just a piece of meat like the rest of them.” She is indubitably right to be incensed at the double standards and sheer prejudice of our culture.
McBride is a very skilful prose stylist and her neologism “meatify” captures this well. There is, she argues, a distinction between flesh – often seen and judged as imperfect, but rather necessary for living – and to become meat, a mere thing, a receptacle for the projected desires and angers of others. As she wisely points out, certain newspapers made a disgrace of themselves by a kind of rocket launch (and I do intend the phallic metaphor) towards the 16th birthdays of humans like Charlotte Church or Emma Watson. These were the very same outlets that barked loudest about child sex abuse. McBride writes – and it is pleasing to see she was ahead of a recent piece on the satirical website The Daily Mash – that “young women are, in fact, too thin, too fat, too hairy, too stupid, too clever, too ungrateful, too drunk, too uptight, too slutty, too frigid, too fertile, too unconcerned about the length of their reproductive window, too over- and under-educated, too ambitious, too career-minded, too masculine, too androgynous and too feminine… to be taken seriously at all”. She also contends, to my mind rightly, that “girls” tend to be at least middle class and white. Privilege corrodes the system, and corrodes those who perpetuate the system.
McBride does a remarkable thing towards the end of the book, dealing with the problem of “double stagnation”. This is set up by looking at the career of Samantha Fox. Her modelling was a way out of poverty, and her mother was apparently proud of her for doing it. So here’s the bind. Was this liberation or capitulation? Was it entrepreneurial zing or being ogle-candy? McBride deals very honestly with this, and with the tension between “you can choose” and “maybe think twice about that”, using this example: “I think women should wear whatever they like. I cringe when I see women wearing ‘Porn Star’ T-shirts”. She acknowledges that there is an impasse in terms of freedom versus false consciousness. Women are objectified, they are subjected, and they are also rendered abject: there is a very good new anthology, The New Abject, of stories about self-abasing and self-sabotage.
There is also the problem of who is to blame for all this. “In other words”, she writes, in reference to the court case to make the vileness of upskirting a specific offence, “it’s a woman’s job to ensure that men don’t behave like scumbags or get publicly called to account for behaving like scumbags”. The victim has to plead for justice.
At the same time I read Lucy Ellmann’s set of essays, Things Are Against Us, and the books chime in many ways. The difference is that while McBride wields the scalpel, Ellmann rushes in with a UZI. It is unremitting and hilarious, so much so that I think some people might read it and think it is actually a satire written by some sad incel. Ellmann doesn’t aim and hit the wall. The centre of her book is a call for three strikes by women: on housework, on the workforce and on sex, which, as she notes, was first mooted by Aristophanes in his play Lysistrata. But she goes further, insisting – as do some campaigners on the history of slavery – for retrospective damages to be paid. You might think the book an angry rant (and it is angry), but the level of verbal complexity here is glorious. Ellmann deploys alliteration, internal rhyme, catalogues, irony, outburst all to hammer home the point. It’s not just about the status of women, but nuclear power, animal rights, crime writing (she’s not a fan) and Trump, “that tremendously sick, terrible, nasty, lowly, truly pathetic, reckless, sad, weak, lazy, incompetent, third-rate, clueless, not smart, dumb as a rock, all-talk, wacko, zero-chance lying liar...” The litany goes on, and does so with aplomb. Do, if you are at the Book Festival, ask for a copy.
Both books are not the first and certainly not the last blast of the trumpet. Both, crucially, are well-written as well as urgent. This is no longer about “having a debate”. I would say "Come on, men, just be polite", but "don't be an idiot" might be better. I could have used words other than idiot.
Something Out Of Place, by Eimear McBride, Profile / Wellcome Collection, £9.99. Eimear McBride is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26 August, www.edbookfest.co.uk
A message from the Editor
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions