I like Stephen King a lot–his novels, with a few just-too-disturbing exceptions like Cell and Revival, are an odd sort of comfort food for me, one I often return to after a breakup, or when travelling. I’ve been reading them since I was eleven, which probably explains a lot about me, little of it good, and it’s been interesting to come back regularly as I’ve become an increasingly strident feminist.
Not always bad, either. In fact, as I mentioned in my post on Pet Semetary, some of the gender stuff is eerily, and given the time, likely unintentionally, prescient.
Don’t get me wrong: some of King’s books, especially his post-Carrie early novels, are Not Great about women. Susan Norton, Wendy Torrance, and Audra Denborough form a Jesus Fuck, Lady, Do Not Go Down the Fucking Staircase trilogy of idiocy, at points, as notable as any in the slasher movies of my youth (and the fact that Wendy and Susan both mentally lampshade this doesn’t help). Vicky McGee and Rachel Creed seem to exist mostly to be fragile and neurotic; Fran and Nadine in The Stand are nearly literally the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, though King does play with this in interesting ways, and I do kind of love Lucy’s speech as a woman who’s either both or neither. The pre-pubescent girls of the same era–Charlie McGee, for instance–are great, but like C.S. Lewis, early King seems to have a lot of trouble keeping them awesome as they grow.
(This is especially notable in IT. Young Bev, while interested in fashion and gorgeous, plays a central and physical role in the plot–shoots two manifestations of IT with a slingshot, throws rocks, participates in vision quests, and so on, and I’d argue that the sewer orgy was at least her showing a form of agency. As an adult, after admittedly escaping an abusive marriage in a badass way, she…screams a lot, is the object of a love triangle again, gives Inspiring Speeches, and vaguely comforts the dying. Sigh. And I get it on some level–these were the days before Buffy, Ripley, or Sarah Connor, we’re all the product of our times, etc–but man, women in King after Carrie and before Christine are really only useful until they get tits.)
Around 1990some, that changed for the better, a lot, and in ways that really resonate today. Dolores Claiborne is one of the more famous examples, since she got a movie with Kathy Bates, but the companion novel Gerald’s Game is a hell of a thing to read after a few years of #MeToo, incels, “likeability” tests for female political candidates, and But What If He Just Doesn’t Get It being trotted out every time someone complains about a creepy dude.
CW: Abuse, rape, harassment, misogyny. Also spoilers.
The external plot of this book is basically How Not to Do Bondage, Holy Shit. Middle-aged couple fucks around with for-realsies police handcuffs (nope) and no safeword (NOPE) in a lakeside cabin way the hell out in the middle of Maine during fall, with nobody else within hearing distance (NOOOOOOPE). Shit predictably goes ill, leaving the woman of the pair, Jessie Burlingame, shackled to a bed and facing a number of extremely unpleasant deaths.
She survives, in one of the most impressively hard-to-read scenes I can think of–like, kudos to King, but I skip right the hell over that bit every time, because GAAAAAAAH. Think 127 Hours, but with more…skin. There’s a creepy figure who both the Tor and Guardian reviewers think detracts from the psychological blah blah, but I like a serial killer, so I’m glad he’s there. There’s a dog who I feel really bad for, and whose ex-owner I like to believe met aforesaid serial killer with predictable results. And, while Jessie is trying to get free, she faces her sort-of-repressed memory of her dad molesting her when she was eleven.
I’m fortunate enough not to have been molested or raped, so I’m not going to say much about it. Certainly the depiction fits what I’ve heard from actual stories thereof, especially the notion that the act itself often pales in significance to the way that the manipulation from a parent or other trusted adult fucks up someone’s self-image and ability to trust others. But I don’t have the experience to speak with more authority.
What I feel I can write about, and what really gets me, twenty-seven years after the novel’s publication, is the way King focuses the lens of this book on a number of forms of misogyny aside from the abuse itself, and just kind of lets it…linger there, the way he himself describes some of Romero’s shots of zombies.
First, the most obviously ugly. “What’s a woman?” Jessie remembers a joke going. “A life support system for a cunt.” The phrasing changes a little over the years, but this is a sentiment that anyone who’s tried playing online games with a blatantly female name, or refused to talk to a random dude on the street, or been slightly selective about responses in an online dating service will have probably encountered. It’s also what all the whining from “nice guys” and MRAs and “incels” boils down to–how dare the life support system have its own ideas? You tell a certain kind of guy no, you get reduced to what you won’t give him access to, and sometimes–often–the result has a body count.
It’s obvious…but it’s interesting that this version is presented as a joke. Because it always is–hey, it’s just trash talk, it’s just locker-room talk, why are you so sensitive, we were just having some fun–until it’s not, and it’s…always not, underneath. King’s Danse Macabre talks about how the horror reader is often a multilayered creature–wanting to see the mutant but reviling it, but perhaps secretly cheering for it beneath that–and I would argue that a lot of sexism is the same way these days. Oh, he’s being ironic and edgy, he’s all for equality underneath…until non-masculine folks object to him whipping his dick out, or run for President, or sleep with people who aren’t him.
In thinking about that, I realize that the most obvious physical threats in this book aren’t that blatantly misogynistic, and vice-versa: the serial killer is happy to menace Jessie and show her his Box O’ Creepy, but he prefers men, her dad isn’t violent or even blatantly emotionally abusive (I mean, he sure as hell is, as a reader, but he uses manipulation rather than berating and shouting as his weapons), and the stray dog restricts itself to eating Gerald, whose fate as Purina I am totally okay with.
Gerald Burlingame, who presumably has some sort of redeeming qualities somewhere, makes his first appearance by ignoring his wife’s request to let her out of the handcuffs they’re playing with. “Why don’t we just forget this?” she says, and he…just goes on putting the handcuff keys on top of the dresser like he didn’t hear a damn thing. “What do you say? This has lost a lot of its charm for me.” she goes on, and he grins. It’s several paragraphs of dialogue, and an offer of various alternate forms of sex later, when he bothers to respond, with a cheesy line about letting her up if she’s very, very good.
First of all, I can’t claim to know every niche of the BDSM community, everything is someone’s kink, and so on, but I find it hard to believe that many pretend-reluctant roleplay scenes involve that kind of dialogue. Even if people aren’t actually roleplaying as Batman and Poison Ivy or whatever, there’s a certain element of ritual or theatricality to the way you speak when you’re pretending that you want out of bondage, and “Hey, buddy, let’s not do this, let’s do another thing,” is not it, nor do I believe that King (as unversed in kink-qua-kink as he may or may not have been, especially given the time) meant Jessie’s speech to sound that way. This is pretty clearly the point where any reasonable partner, even one too naive to have established specific guidelines, would’ve paused all “…wait a sec, do you mean that?”
Gerald does not. Jessie finally gets through to him, after another exchange where he clearly pauses and then goes on, by saying that she feels stupid and ridiculous–because of fucking course it takes bringing his ego into things for the dude to pay attention.
I’d like to pause here and note, once again, that this is after several paragraphs of conciliatory, hey-nobody’s-at-fault-here, let’s-do-this-instead objections from Jessie. “Well, gee,” say cismen and Aunts Lydia, “you could’ve just been nice about turning him down.”
No. We couldn’t, and we can’t.
So this is what finally gets through to Gerald, and of fucking course he gets mad. “You broke my toy, you bitch, the look [on his face] said,” and again, I think everyone who’s shut down a catcaller or finally told Creepy Guy that he wasn’t going to get sex no matter how many Friendship Tokens he put in is familiar with that look. And we’re definitely familiar with what comes next: the goddamn lawyering. “You said it sounded like fun,” he says. “Those were your exact words.”
Jesus. THAT GUY. And he took the daaaaay off wooooork and she saaaaid it sounded like fun, and he’s clearly got the worst life in the entire world because his wife just wants to have vanilla sex right now. Thank God, Jessie has none of it: getting away for the weekend was what she meant, and she hasn’t been into this in months, and he could’ve realized that at any point if he wasn’t being stupid. (Yes, at this point, there’s some valid “use your words” criticism, but a) that ties into Jessie’s issues in specific and how non-masculine people are and were discouraged from being that frank about things in general, especially back in the nineties, b) also there are a lot of self-preservationy reasons for not directly confronting men about shit, especially when you live with and are economically dependent on them, and c) this is Gerald, and he sucks, and I do not care.)
He pouts–literally–about her “smart, sarcastic mouth,” and how tired he gets of it.
“Gerald, when you get your head really set on something, sweet and low doesn’t come close to reaching you. And whose fault is that?”
I FUCKING MEAN.
He does not unlock the handcuffs, just keeps talking about how he doesn’t like Jessie when she’s “like this,” and oh hey, every guy who “totally loves women” but is horrified when we swear or get “shrill”. Jessie, who I legit started to love at this point, even when I myself was eleven and first read this book, is like, IDGAF what you like, let me the hell out.
And he doesn’t.
He stops being angry, on the surface, and “decides” that this is all part of the game. Even when Jessie yells, even when she threatens to divorce him.
“She took a closer look at him and saw a terrible thing: he knew. He knew she wasn’t kidding…but he had chosen not to know he knew.”
I don’t remember how old I was when people started talking about sexual harassment at conventions. I think that came, for me, before the discussions of street or subway harassment, and long before the ones about the workplace, just due to where my interests lay. I know it was a while back. And I know that someone always brought up the same “point” (and I suspect that they’ve been doing so since cons have been going on–look up “Breendoggle” if you want to barf a lot and hate humanity): But What If He’s Just Clueless? Or Socially Awkward? Or Autistic? You Can’t Blame Him, He Just Doesn’t KNOOOOOOOW.
Other people have covered the fact that non-neurotypical people are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of harassment, and indeed tend to be extremely careful about boundaries *because* they don’t get NT social cues. As for the rest…
John Douglas, talking about the legal definition of insanity, said that he’d never seen a serial killer with so little an understanding of right and wrong that he’d murder someone in front of a cop. The guy who is Just Socially Awkward doesn’t try to give his male boss a foot massage, I fucking guarantee it. Just Clueless And Friendly Dude isn’t going up to random guys on the subway and trying to talk to them about the football game. And an entertainment big shot in the 21st century is not in any way ignorant of the power dynamics and boundary violations at work when he asks a subordinate, or a newer member of his industry, for sexual favors.
They know. And they choose not to know they know.
Gerald then tries to rape Jessie, of course, and she kicks him in the balls, precipitating a fatal heart attack. This is not logistically great, given the situation, of course, and the reason she kicks him is also tied to her own issues.
There’s been a lot of pissy manbabies getting upset on Twitter about a scene (some of which was cut) in Captain Marvel, and asking if we really wanted to see all catcallers have their stuff stolen and their bones broken. Ignoring the fact that the dude in question was doing more than catcalling…I can only answer for myself, but FUCK YES I DO. And similarly, I suspect I’m not the only non-cisguy reader who goes back to Gerald Burlingame’ss fairly painful death scene with a sense of triumph and justice.
And then there’s Brandon Milheron.
Brandon’s the young lawyer who shows up to help Jessie in the epilogue–no, he doesn’t rescue her from the serial killer, or from the bed itself, because King has better sense than that. He’s Gerald’s junior partner who handles his life insurance, and who risks his job to give Jessie some closure, and he’s also where the novel gets most poignantly at the ways patriarchy fucks us all over. Gerald is a pig, the killer is a psychopath, Jessie’s dad is horrible. Brandon…is basically decent, and tries, especially for a guy from 1992…and yet.
Until circumstances prove that the serial killer was indeed a real guy, and really in the house with Jessie, Brandon, like the rest of the men involved with the case, assumes that she was hallucinating, and in conversation, Jessie realizes that he assumes that because he, like them, attributes her perceptions to a 1990s version of that old Victorian classic, feminine hysteria. “I have an idea that’s how most men believe most women think: like lawyers with malaria.”
It’s not a conscious attitude–Jessie never confronts Brandon with that accusation, and the way King writes the character, I think he’d be horrified to even think that about himself–and in some ways that’s worse. It’s the same mindset I see behind a lot of “well-meaning” folks in positions of privilege whenever the experiences of those without come up: the situation isn’t that bad, you must be perceiving things wrong. You must have taken it the wrong way. You must have done something to bring it on.
And thank God, Jessie is right and Brandon is wrong. There was a guy in her room, he’s a bonafide Piece of Work, complete with acromegaly, cannibalism and incest-tacular background, and Jessie confronts him in an excellent courtroom scene, after getting Brandon’s aid in, I promise, the final scene I’ll quote here, where she finally convinces him by starting to cry–because that’s the other side of the “oh, women and their emotional overreaction,” coin. Gerald believed–willfully or not–that she was kidding about not wanting to go on with the bondage games; Brandon doesn’t get swayed by her calmer arguments. “…in another way I recognize it as just another symptom of what’s wrong between the fellers and the girls in this particular square-dance. He didn’t entirely believe I was serious until I started to cry, you see.”
Spend enough time reading advice columns, or Reddit’s Am I The Asshole forums–or spend enough time around het couples, unless your friends are really enlightened–and you’ll hear a version of the same thing. It’s not “take me to court to get closure about this murderer,” but it’s “don’t leave dishes in the sink overnight,” or “stop making ‘jokes’ about my weight in front of our friends,” or “pay your damn child support on time,” and it’s never a big deal, never serious enough to act on it–until the non-guy partner starts yelling or crying. And then that person is super emotional and overreacting out of nowhere but fine, if you’re going to be that way about it, the dude will do the thing. Female political candidates are unfeeling, detached robots until they’re shrieking oversensitive harpies. The only “good way” to be Not A Guy is to be okay with never being taken seriously.
That’s weird for me to say, in a fashion, because I don’t spend a lot of time trying to be taken seriously. I shun responsibility and I don’t really give a damn about most people’s opinions. (Except yours, lovely blog readers who might buy my books! I treasure you and your potential eight to sixty-four bucks above all!) Even for me, though, there are some situations in which I do mind a lot: they can be as basic as “stop fucking bothering me while I’m reading,” or as complicated as “take my goddamn word that I want this medical procedure.”
It shouldn’t take crying to make that happen. It shouldn’t take the equivalent of a fatal kick in the jibblies, either–but as I get older, if that’s what has to happen, I’m more and more okay with that.