This post discusses elements of, but not the plots of, the short stories in “Difficult Women.”
The prospect of rebellious female noncompliance has become something of a cliche in feminist literature and commentary, such that it obscures the discomforts we often feel about different kinds of feminine behavior, particularly ones that seem to signal passivity and disorder. Fetishizing women who don’t submit can have the effect of pathologizing those who seem to surrender, to live in mess and degradation and despair.
These sorts of women are the subject of Roxane Gay’s new short story collection, “Difficult Women.” Her characters are not avatars of girl power or women who have been labeled troublesome simply because they exhibit the same levels of ambition and self-protection that would be considered normal in a man. Sometimes they’re prickly, but they’re generally not hellcats. Often, they take out much of their rage and shame on themselves.
The rainstorms that rage around a woman rot the rooms she lives in. Gay’s characters buy moldy tomatoes and settle for men who seem like compromises (or who will choke or bite them) and seduce their father’s mistresses. When they’re raped as children, they eat with the express intention of distorting their bodies so that they will be rendered untouchable. They butcher deer and slice open bodies with their fingernails. And they mourn their lost children in ways that make others uncomfortable. “When the car ran him over, I did not look away,” one character recalls of the accident that killed her child. “I saw what happened to my boy’s body. I saw everything, all of him, everywhere.”
This is the greatest strength of “Difficult Women”: The collection makes us look at things we’d rather avoid. If “Bad Feminist,” Gay’s 2014 essay collection, was a comfort, encouraging women to ease up on themselves when judging their own enthusiasm and inconsistencies, “Difficult Women” is a challenge, at times as sharp and as dirty as that fingernail slicing through layers of skin and fat.
And specifically, one of the things “Difficult Women” makes readers look at is fat itself. In one story, a couple find themselves turned on by watching shows about the health challenges of morbidly obese people. “I narrate in explicit detail how the fat is yellow and serpentine and pulpy and slick,” a character explains. The woman with the knife-sharp fingernails describes the “fat, yellow, soft globes that fall away loosely” she cuts through when she delivers her sister’s child. “I don’t cut the fat from meat anymore,” another character explains. “I love to eat it, love to feel it hot and salty and gelatinous between my teeth. I love the way it coats my throat and how it upsets my stomach, reminds me I am doing something I should not do.”
The tendency in feminist discussions of fat is often to encourage us to see the person who lives inside a fat body, or to focus on the social and genetic conditions that produce fat rather than the substance itself. Those approaches are critically important to eliminating discrimination based on body size and advancing the policy goals that will get more people access to healthy food and appropriate medical care. But, as Gay’s writing suggests, these arguments don’t achieve a confrontation with a contradiction at the heart of our thinking about fat: that we love the taste of something that disgusts us so much.
“I never want to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal,” Gay wrote in “Bad Feminist.” “People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off … Consider me already knocked off.” “Difficult Women” proves you can do interesting and vital work at the bottom of the pedestal, down in the blood and guts and rot.