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The portrayal of women in fiction is usually either sexual cardboard cutouts or bland nothings. Typically, a best-selling French author particularly attests to that fact.
“I still don’t think I’m a misogynist, really… The thing that may rub people the wrong way is that I show how feminism is demographically doomed.”
—Michel Houellebecq, Paris Review, 2015
I recently had a discussion with the screenwriter in a project I am developing. I asked him if he was determined to make lesbians hate him, and he got really upset. My question had to do with the fact that he wrote, for the second time in his career, a scene where a lesbian woman only serves as entertainment for a man in a heterosexual couple. I am very fond of the writer in question and I know he means well, so, the argument that ensued made me think long and hard about what was wrong with what he had written.
Although he felt I was making a point about political correctness (a concept he abhors), I realised that I had a problem with the banality of some of his portrayals of women. “Not all lesbians hate men!” he blurted out in a heated WhatsApp message, implying he had had mutually satisfactory threesomes with lesbians.
But that was, of course, beside the point. A woman whose only dramatic function is to be pretty and to give physical pleasure is not only politically incorrect, it’s a flat and poor rendering and it misses out on innumerable dramatic possibilities.
Shortly after that discussion, someone recommended a Houellebecq book to me. The French writer had hitherto been one of those names that we know we must read, but whom I am still uncertain if I had read before. I seem to recall there is one Spanish translation of Houellebecq in my library, but that may well be a book by some Nordic writer with a similar name.
In any case, with the banality of female portrayals still brewing uneasiness in my mind, especially because, as a producer, I was gonna be part of that banalisation in an upcoming movie, I decided to download a sample of Houellebecq’s Sérotonine on my Kindle.
I read the book in a day and a half. The voice was so powerful. The French language prose so limpid and straightforward, the character so alive. There was only one problem: his misogyny made me uneasy. Women were either young (to the point of paedophilia) and beautiful, or old and wasted. Love was only about looks, and, again, youth.
Invoking some earlier conversations with the screenwriter about the people who mistake a character’s views with the author’s, I said to myself, “Monsieur Houellebecq need not necessarily be a misogynistic moron, maybe he just wanted to create a character like that.” I did some Internet searches, looking for “Houellebecq, misogyny,” but only got some inconclusive French blogs and interviews.
It became clear now that Monsieur Houellebecq had no interest whatsoever in portraying real women, or women that were not flattened cardboard figures.
As it is usually the case with every great novel by a prolific writer, I immediately wanted more. So, I tried out samples of a couple and decided on purchasing La Possibilité d’une île. Clichéd futuristic wastelands aside, I was immediately drawn by the cynical character who becomes a famous comic. So, I read on.
But after a handful of chapters, I had to put the book down. It became clear now that Monsieur Houellebecq had no interest whatsoever in portraying real women, or women that were not flattened cardboard figures.
My sensual, naked 45-year-old body, no doubt more so than when I was 20 or 30, was looking at me from the mirror beside my bed. I had just read a passage about a woman who can no longer enjoy sex because she is over 40, whose body has become a sort of abomination, a woman who, at 40, wishes she were 12, the age when girls are most attractive, according to many a Houellebecq character.
I didn’t take offence because the scenes were politically incorrect; I took offence because they were ridiculous. Because there is much more to beauty than age, and there is much more to sex than beauty, and there is much more beauty and pleasure at 40 than at 20, at least in the case of most healthy women I have ever met in my life. I objected because I couldn’t take that character seriously anymore. And I know there must be airheads around who feel like turning 40 is a tragedy, but the problem with Monsieur Houellebecq is that his characters never encounter a woman who isn’t one. I had had enough of “pétasses” et “chattes humides”. In short, I was pained by the endlessly rich universes Monsieur Houellebecq might never even try to discover.
I have been reading books, devouring books, since I was three years old—thousands and thousands of books, usually by serious writers, because I never had a lot of patience for fluff or pulp. And I have never put down a book because I somehow disagreed with the author. (Then again, I never read Mein Kampf.) I don’t believe I have to agree with any writer or their characters; I just want a good story. While Houellebecq is rather capable of providing that, I am yet unconvinced as to whether he is capable of creating a believable female character; and that is not political incorrectness, that is a lack of skill, intelligence, empathy, and powers of observation.