A while back I read Look at Me by Jennifer Egan. I had heard good things about it; the story is about a washed up model who gets in a car accident and has to have facial reconstructive surgery. Afterward, while still beautiful, she looks completely different. Her own agent doesn’t recognize her. Since her career was basically over, she looks for ways to work her new face to her advantage. There is also a detective story threaded throughout, and a romance.
The plot was interesting, as were most of the characters. However, what Egan failed to do was, in my opinion, make a likeable protagonist. This is a big flaw; Charlotte, the heroine, is self-absorbed, judgmental, destructive, vain and hard. Now, this doesn’t immediately make her unlikable. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is basically one of the worst human beings I’ve ever adored. He is terrible—vain, manipulative, deceitful and completely immoral. And yet when he (spoiler alert!) dies at the end it is upsetting to the reader. You can be terrible and still completely captivating, and likeable. It’s probably not fair to compare Wilde to Egan but my inability to find any redeeming qualities in Charlotte made it difficult for me to fully enjoy the novel.
The title of the book comes from Charlotte’s ability to look at the “shadow selves” of the people around her. She asks the people she meets to “look at her,” and she is able to see their true selves, see past their projected image and understand if they are a good or bad person. And then, around page 337, I got to a part that made me wonder what Charlotte’s shadow self resembles, when Charlotte rapes her love interest. And, instead of this being some huge moral debate or turning point in the novel, nothing negative happens. In fact, they (spoiler alert No. 2!!) get married at the end.
As I read the scene, which I had to do over and over to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, I was pretty horrified because I knew that if this were a male protagonist climbing into bed with his drunk, unconscious female love interest with whom he had never been intimate with, a bigger deal would be made. Charlotte is aware she is taking advantage of the situation, so that’s good; but she justifies it by the fact that Anthony Halloway, her romantic focal point, is hard and therefor willing. That’s like saying a girl was dressed like a skank and so she wanted it, clearly. Let me give you an excerpt:
“Anthony,” I said, but he didn’t stir. I tweaked a hair from his head and he murmured, shifted. I reached down and touched him, took him in my hand, to which he sighed and tensed, pushing against me—I’m just taking advantage of what’s in front of me, I told myself, I’d be crazy not to—the question was how to do it without waking him.
She then goes over scenarios of things she could tell him if he woke up in the middle of it, like , Nothing happened, you dreamed it all up. Now, in this fictional “romancy” rape, both Charlotte and Halloway come at the exact same time. This is a hard thing to make happen when both of you are working at it like crazy, so the fact that it would happen with one party asleep is completely unbelievable. To make it worse, when Halloway comes he wakes up and Charlotte pretends to be asleep.
“His eyes burst open, but I’d sensed that possibility and shut my own at the very same instant, feigning sleep, awash in satisfaction, the drift of tides, sounds of distant barking dogs, telling myself there was no way he could prove it.”
It gets more startling: “awash in satisfaction,” Charlotte lays there for a few moments while Halloway falls back asleep and then tells him that she loves him. LOVES him. I love you so much, I am going to take advantage of you when we’re drunk, so that the first time we ever “made love,” you were unconscious. Oy vay!
Not to be a rape Nazi, but that is completely 100 hundred percent unconsensual sex. While it was a very subtle, gentle rape scene ( a gentle rape scene—now there’s an oxymoron) it was for sure a rape scene nonetheless. Surely, I thought, Egan put this in here to to show what a demon Charlotte is, and when I Google this tons of readers and critics alike will be up in arms! There were be internet trolls all over the place hating on this scene, I thought.
SO I Google it, and the only thing that involved Egan and writing about sex in any way was this About.com article on sex writing, which features Jennifer Egan and John Freeman. Here is Egan’s advice:
Her solution in writing sex scenes herself is to stick close to her character’s perceptions and to the language that the character would use to talk about things. She never tries to describe the scene from third person omniscient, in other words. She also felt that less is often more — it allows readers to engage in the scene to a greater degree, and keeps them from feeling manipulated. “You have to get at it laterally,” she said.
Get at it laterally! While they’re passed out! But really, I couldn’t help but feeling that if Halloway had instead been using Charlotte as his slumbering plaything, the scene would be considered more monstrous and most likely they would not be married at the end. Shouldn’t a rapist be morally punished and not rewarded by gaining the affection of their victim and living happily ever after? In fiction at least, where you can twist the outcome to meet your own needs. Perhaps had Charlotte seen the error in her ways, addressed them with Anthony and “cleansed herself morally” this would be more acceptable. But she doesn’t. The scene is never mentioned again which got me thinking. Is this rape scene alright because the rapist is a woman?
Feminist Hugo Schwyzer (who, fun fact, told me via Tweet that he is raising his daughter vegan) wrote about this recently, and about how erections do not mean consent.
His piece came about in reaction to the FBI announcing it is rebooting it’s tired and sexist definition of rape, which, since 1929 had been: “the carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will.” While the raping of men may be less common than women, and certainly less reported, that doesn’t mean it does not happen.
As Schwyzer writes: Without getting mired in the tiresome debates over statistics, it’s safe to conclude three things from the recent data and the changed FBI definition. First, men make up a heavy preponderance of those who commit rape, though a significant minority of women does commit acts of sexualized violence. Second, women are statistically at much greater risk of rape than are men. Three, acknowledging these first two truths doesn’t diminish the reality that more men and boys than we realized are victims of rape and sexual violence. We need to avoid the twin errors of claiming false equivalence on the one hand, or denying the reality of male vulnerability altogether on the other.
Ah, male vulnerability. The idea that a man can’t be raped because he could stop it if he wanted, or because if his body is willing, he must be too. Back in the day it was thought pregnancies couldn’t occur without an orgasm. And so, if a woman was raped and became pregnant, her pregnancy would make people suspect she had not truly been raped for if she orgasmed then clearly it was consensual. Luckily those beliefs—that an orgasm must be present for pregnancy to occur, and that an orgasm during rape means it was consensual—have been disbanded, but the stigma that if a man is hard he wants it still remains.
I am glad Egan put this scene in here to show rape from a different angle—from the viewpoint of a woman who is supposed to be the heroine. The fact that she justifies it with his erection and unconscious participation just further highlights the flaws in her character. However, because she not only got away with it but was rewarded in the end is frustrating because I felt it played down the act and made it seem acceptable. Rape is never acceptable, regardless of the sex, gender, relationship or state of consciousness.
Have you read Look at Me? Were you horrified by how casual the rape scene was, and how little it was addressed?