Horror and slut-shaming

I’m working my way through some of my many stockpiled anthologies, and came across a short story I’m somewhat conflicted about. My attitude toward feminism in media is admittedly a bit weird– I’m not bothered by a lot of things others find rampantly sexist, but sometimes things no one else is worried about rub me the wrong way (I’m still shocked that I’m the only one who interpreted the ending of the Daniel Craig crime film Layer Cake as “you can commit lots of terrible crimes and get away with it, but sleeping with a woman will completely fuck you over”).

So, this story. (I won’t give title and author, but if you’re worried about spoilers for a story you’ll probably never read… I guess skip this entry). It’s about a woman and her new husband, who are building a house in a rural area. The woman has a vision of a dead body in a ditch one day when they are driving, but her husband doesn’t see it. She starts seeing it everywhere and feeling uneasy about the new house and her new life, and eventually goes to a psychic to ask about her and her husband’s inability to conceive a child. The psychic does a reading and basically tells her to GTFO because she is a huge slut, and she won’t get pregnant until she resolves the issues in her marriage.

It is then revealed that the incident of “cheating” the psychic is referring to was a moment in the recent past where the woman did sexual favors for a cop in exchange for her husband keeping his license. She says she did it out of love for her husband and the knowledge that the loss of his license would’ve been devastating to both of them (he makes his living as a truck driver). Evidently he allowed the act to happen but has become increasingly resentful about it, although they never discuss it. To sum up the rest, she continues to be haunted by the dead man, one night it shows up in her bed, her husband comes home and sees a man-shaped thing in the bed beside her and assumes she’s slutting it up, and he runs out in a jealous rage and gets himself killed in a car accident.

…so, yeah. I get what the author was going for– un-dealt-with tensions destroy relationships, if you’re not honest with someone you’ll lose them, using a literal haunting to represent the metaphorical haunting of past mistakes, etc. etc. But goddamn, I just found this weird and kind of slut-shaming. For one thing, the narrator is completely devoted to her husband, but to be perfectly honest he is kind of a massive douche. In the first scene, he’s dismissive and angry when she tells him she thinks she saw a body, and refuses to hear her out at all. He meets her at a strip club and then makes her quit her job, not to give her a better life but because “he can’t stand other men looking at her.” She mentions that she can’t even bring up the idea of him getting tested for infertility because it would hurt his macho pride. He does not sound like a winner to me, is what I’m getting at– yet we’re told she loves him for his “chivalry” and he is portrayed as the blameless victim of the piece, which really surprised me because I was expecting from the beginning for him to end up being abusive or something.

Also, yes, infidelity is a bad thing. And if this were a simple tale of a woman who has an affair of her own free will and has it come back to bite her in the ass, I’d be fine with it. But why set up a contrived situation in which it could actually be argued that the protagonist “cheated” for her husband’s sake, then proceed to punish her for it anyway? Our protagonist is made too sympathetic for the karmic retribution she suffers to come off as anything but sour and cruel– she loves her husband wholly until the end and truly believes she did what was best for him. And as she states, he didn’t stop her and was grateful for the way it benefited him, and only resented her for it later. It could be argued that she’s being punished not for the “cheating” but for not talking about it and dealing with it, but why wasn’t that also his responsibility?

And then there’s the psychic, who’s brought into the story to shame and scold the protagonist and tell her that she is Not Good Enough to have a child and settle into domestic motherly bliss because of one act that was motivated not by lust or malice but was actually (in a warped way) good-intentioned. The psychic advises her to fix the relationship before pursuing motherhood, which is good advice, except that she delivers it as though she is talking to someone who eats baby stew rather than, again, a person who did one arguably bad thing for the right reasons and is trying to deal with it and move on.

I am probably thinking too hard about this, but my knee-jerk reaction was that the message seems to be “if you ever make a mistake in your relationship you deserve to have your loved one die” and that seems a little harsh– and combined with the traditionalist gender roles/paternalism of the husband character, the “only Good Women can/should have children” overtones and the fact that nearly all the blame and shame for the situation is placed on the female protagonist, it gives me icky feelings. Interestingly, the author is a feminist and has written books on feminist theory. Which is either another sign that I’m interpreting this all wrong, or a sign that we’ve all got our internalized prejudices and weirdnesses.

What do you think? (Bonus note: I’ve said before that I don’t like Caitlin Kiernan– her overly poetic writing style just isn’t my cup of tea– but I do like her commentary on this piece, and domestic horror in general, here.)

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3 thoughts on “Horror and slut-shaming

  1. katie says:

    Okay, I feel like I’ve read this piece- and I think that you’re both right with your analysis of it, but I also think that that’s the point. I think that the point is that you’re supposed to feel disgusted for the MC because this is frequently how these situations play out- you did something wrong, oh noes, now everything is destroyed!

    • jfpbookworm says:

      Following your link at the end revealed who the author was, and from what I know of her other work I think katie’s probably right, that the real horror in the story is not the supernatural goings-on but the all-too-real-world way in which the protagonist gets blamed.

      • That makes sense. It may be a subtle deconstruction of the traditional morality play it appears to be, and the real reason for the tragedy is the husband’s jealousy and lack of trust. Just ended up being too good of a misdirection for me– the protagonist rightly refuses to blame herself (until the end) and dismisses the psychic as judgmental, but it sort of reads like we’re supposed to take that as self-justification and denial. Might be my own biases coloring that as well, though. Interesting!

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