Beauty and Sadness; Men writing about female homoeroticism (badly)
What’s the most cringeworthy exploration of female sexuality?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Sex, in literature, doesn’t have to be sexy. In fact, if it is sexy, you are probably missing a trick. Sex, like any human interaction, should explore and expose something about your characters, their psyche, and their actions. Of course, when men get hold of female sexuality after centuries of male-auteur based porn, the results are rarely reflective of exploratory.
I’m not saying guys can’t write about lesbians. I’m just saying that the writing they have done is usually extremely kitsch, disgracefully voyeuristic, or so contrived that you wonder if they were drooling too much to push the pencil in the right direction. Even the ‘good’ authors are guilty of the most excrutiatingly bad femmesploitation. From Kawabata to Ishiguro to Hitchcock, there have been some disgracefully bad explorations of lesbianism, female sexuality and what being a gay woman involves.
Let’s chat about Kawabata. Now, I love Beauty and Sadness. It’s a valid book. A thoughtful book. A less murky Lolita set in a changing Japan. If you haven’t read it:
A middle aged man revisits his former teenage lover out of loneliness and nostalgia. Now in her late thirties, his former child-mistress has a beautiful infatuated apprentice. Love triangle ensues. Lots of memories, bitterness and exploration of what it is to ‘love’.
So not intentionally dodgy. I did groan a bit at the premise (lemme guess, the two lesbians talk about a fifty year old man for two weeks and kill themselves over their sudden love for him) but actually, it’s pretty valid. It was nice to see this awkward, anxious man with a deep coldness and arrogance to him confused by the embroidered plotting of the two women. No one is simple here, and nothing is as it seems. A child pregnant by her thirty year old lover. A stillbirth. A society trapped in transition. A girl who is, in turn, trapped by conventions. Talent. Loneliness. Waiting for something.
The trauma isn’t resolved. And that’s pretty nice to read. How can losing a baby at fifteen ever be resolved? How can you deal with the fact you ruined a woman’s life and then just walk back into it? How can you be meaningfully committed to another woman in a society where heterosexuality is not just the norm, but reality? So that’s all fine. It’s a good book, as I said. You’ll find something in it, whoever you are, whatever you enjoy in a small paperback on a short train journey.
However, the sex and homoeroticism is some of the most smirk-stiflingly bad voyeurism that you’ve ever seen.
Okay okay, I am reading a translation. Maybe it is okay in Japanese dialects. But this is a strange, strange book to read as a bisexual woman myself. It is as if Kawabata doesn’t really think that women are people. They are beautiful, fat, bosomly, silent, suicidal, loud, bitter, vengeful: but that’s it. They don’t have the realism that the male characters have. They exist to make food for male visitors, to discuss male characters, to bewail their experiences at the hands of men. At one point, the assistant offers to have the older man’s baby so she can give it to her lover. Then she apologises for being a woman. Totally out of the blue. They will be sobbing, screaming with jealousy, and another character will enter without even commenting on the clear emotional hysteria. Women, ammaright? It is the weirdest, most unneccessary and unlikely scene I’ve ever read.The relationship is sexy. Angry. But always sexy.
The contact is sexy, the sleeping together is sexy, everything they wear is described in exquisite detail that would be bizarre on a male character. They pout, touch eachother, and even mid sexual or romantic declaration, bring up men. Ever read some seriously bad erotica? This is on par with the realism of Sandra and Debbie’s romantic liason in the office store cupboard. Contrived would be too weak a word. It is incredible that from such a brilliant author, with such rich prose and delicious concepts, he couldn’t write a real, human woman.
These women are pretty dolls who say slightly naughty things while curling up in bed in a very elaborately described undressing scene. There’s no small reflections on what they like about eachother, no acknowledgement that they have romantic feelings for eachother, and even why they like eachother isn’t obvious. I’m not even entirely sure that the older woman is into it at all. The voyeurism is crazy. In what universe do two women in a semi-romantic relationship talk about a male visitor in every conversation for the next six months? Women exist in Kawabata’s head as things that are carved and guided by the decisions of men, and have little desires beyond being desired and kept by them. I know, I know. This was written over half a century ago. But it is still so hilariously wrong in a book that in all other ways is so insightful.
So are you a penis-endowed author with a desperate need to write about a lesbian/ homoerotic female relationship? Take my advice:
- Lesbians (and actually women in general) talk about things other than men, especially while having sex
- Lesbians/ Bisexuals/ Women don’t think about what they will wear or how their breasts look all that much
- We don’t kill ourselves all the time over men (?)
- We don’t exist waiting around for men to do stuff to change the plot
- We don’t have to be sexy ALL the time. We can, you know, be people.
So is Beauty and Sadness a good book? Yes.
But my god, men really don’t get lesbians.