Saturday, March 4, 2017

Try to Read "I Love Dick" on the Subway...

Chris Kraus's I Love Dick is a cult feminist classic, one of those books that creates an immediate bond when you find out someone else has read it (and got it - it has its detractors). It's a tough read: fiercely intellectual and taking for granted that the reader will have read thinkers like Simone Weil (yes!) and Baudrillard (oy...), hyper-autobiographical but without any prettifying or concern for likability, and deeply, deeply uncomfortable for anyone who hasn't, at the very least, wrestled with what it means for straight women to unrequitedly love men within a feminist paradigm. Actually, it's probably uncomfortable for those who have wrestled with that idea.

The title is deliberately provocative and meant to have multiple meanings, but at the most literal, Dick is a person. Since the book was published, it's been revealed that the character is based on the writer Dick Hebdige, who has strenuously objected to the book. But for feminists, Chris Kraus's overwhelming, obsessive, at times operatic, at times self-absorbed, ardent, stalkerish, and one-sided adoration for Dick is a very rare instance of a type of passion that has earned adulation for male writers for centuries. What Chris feels and expresses to the world is the same life-altering love written about by men such as Dante, who saw Beatrice a handful of times at most, Petrarch, ditto for Laura, Goethe, who knew Charlotte well enough but had little regard for her lack of interest, and so on and on. What makes the novel such uncomfortable reading for so many people is that Chris stakes a claim on one of the most strictly gendered prerogatives of western culture: to turn her beloved into an object through art.

But just to get to that controversy, one actually has to read the book and for a woman, reading I Love Dick in a public space is something of an iffy proposition. I Love Dick is dangerous, literally. Just try being a woman and reading it in the subway.

The current edition is a white paperback. The image on the cover is fairly bland: a notebook held open by a pen, its recto covered with indistinct cursive writing, and next to it an ashtray. So far, so safe. It's the title that's the problem, thick green letters spelling out words that would yield pornography with a google search. The need for such a book - one that allows a straight woman to hold the same influence over a man that men have held over women for so many centuries - is proved by what we, as women, face when we read this book in public.

Men get a glimpse of that title and suddenly anything goes, any form of harassment from lewd comments to groping, fury at a lack of response to flashing, or pulling up explicit pictures on a phone. Women who appear to show an interest in sex are expected to then show a reciprocal sexual interest in any Tom, Dick (haha...), or Harry who manspreads on the subway. Every single woman who has talked to me about this book has mentioned two things: 1) that it bonds them with other women who have read it; and 2) men seem to take the title as a prod to emulate the most cartoonish version of a man named Dick that they can come up with. The male responses to those words, so widespread, indicate how little power women can wield in public spaces. A book becomes one more excuse, objectively feeble, but culturally sanctioned, for men to behave badly towards women, the literary equivalent of a mini-skirt or one drink too many.

If it weren't a big deal to read I Love Dick on the subway, we could start talking about post-feminism. But it's a huge deal. Ask any woman who's ever dared. Indeed, if we want to judge how safe a public space is for women, we could use the I Love Dick-test. It might go something like this: A woman reads I Love Dick in a public space (subway, cafe, airport, wherever) and the behavior of the first hundred men who react to her, or the book, is recorded. The percentage of men whose behavior constitutes any form of harassment will give an illustration of how safe women are in that space; the higher the percentage, the less safe women are. Though I don't have hard numbers, anecdotally at least, I've yet to hear of any public space where women reading I Love Dick haven't faced harassment. As long as that's the case, women have cause to complain that they do not yet have parity.

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