Troubling Gender Assumptions in Miranda July’s “The First Bad Man”
Maxwell Addington is a writer from Vancouver, Coast Salish Territory. In 2017, he was awarded the Jill Davis Fellowship to pursue an MFA in Fiction at New York University.
I was disappointed to see Miranda July’s latest novel described as “strenuously quirky,” “peculiar,” and “rather odd” in the opening paragraph of Laura Miller’s review in The Guardian. To be fair, The First Bad Man is a weird book, as it playfully twists the tropes of a typical love story. But still, my hackles go up whenever I see fiction described as “quirky” — not least because the word is too often used to write off July’s books and films as twee — but because the word has become synonymous with a whole vein of popular culture that is working to dissolve the constraints of mainstream taste. Because July is not shy about foregrounding non-normative, and sometimes troubling, forms of intimacy, her work can make people uncomfortable. But for Miller to imply that July’s novel requires some sort of unreasonable effort is nothing more than proof that the reviewer has misunderstood the book’s critical significance. With Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble fresh in my mind, I did not find the novel at all strenuous to decode. To make sense of its peculiarity, I prefer to think of the novel as a response to the lasting echoes of Butler’s influential writings on gender identity. When Butler asks, “What kind of gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire” (2551), July’s book responds with a parodic romantic comedy that achieves the ultimate feat of contemporary literary fiction, being at once theoretical and transgressive, without sacrificing humour or readability.
The First Bad Man is narrated by Cheryl Glickman, a Los Angeles woman in her early forties who works at a self-defense dojo and pine for an older man. Cheryl’s mundane life is derailed when her employers’ daughter Clee moves in, begins attacking Cheryl, falls in love with Cheryl, has a baby with Cheryl, and eventually leaves Cheryl to raise the child alone. No summary could capture the book’s brilliant weirdness, though it is enough to establish that the narrative does not fall under that of a traditional love story rubric. The attacks Clee doles out are initially alarming, but Cheryl quickly notices that Clee always holds back from injuring her, which prompts a revelation: “I was in on it. We were playing a game, an adult game”. When Cheryl drafts a contract for their game, Clee feels the need to awkwardly declare her sexuality: “‘I’m not...you know. I’m into dick’”. Cheryl confirms that she too is straight, but Clee clarifies: “‘For me it’s a little more intense.’ ... ‘I guess I’m “misogynist” or whatever’”. Cheryl comments, “I’d never heard of the word used like this, like an orientation”. The moment reads like a disconcerting joke: On one level it is unexpected to hear anyone self-identify as misogynist, because people tend not to freely admit their hideous prejudices; and on another level, it is even more jarring to hear a woman admit that she hates women. And though the moment, when quoted out of context, may sound like the naive, off-hand comment of a clueless teenager, Clee’s admission is a pivotal moment that goes a long way to explaining her hitherto “quirky” behaviour.
Even though misogyny’s provenance has, historically, been attributed to awful men, July’s novel denaturalizes that assumption. Clee, as the daughter of a couple who produce women’s self-defense videos, has grown up watching simulations of vulnerable women being attacked by bad men. But instead of identifying with the victim, Clee learned to identify with the male attackers. By writing this gender discordancy into Clee’s character, July is responding to Butler’s idea that parody “reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin” (2550). Which is to say that, within a culture that sets up and maintains gendered binaries such as female and male, victim and attacker, gay and straight, one’s polarized identity is not reflective of an internal “natural” organizing principle, but of how one has come to imitate and perform culturally assigned roles.
In Gender Trouble, Butler discusses the significance of trouble: “The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms ... : the prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. Hence, I concluded that trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it” (2540). In The First Bad Man, Clee enters Cheryl’s life to trouble her assumptions about gender and sexuality. With July’s inviting an immersive first-person narration, the reader and Cheryl alike must learn how to be in that trouble.
For all its eccentricities, Cheryl’s story is not so uncommon: A woman longs to be with a man, he comes into her life and mistreats her, but still, they fall in love and have a baby, only to see the man grow distant and abandon the woman to raise the child alone. However, July turns this recognizable plot on its head by having the man’s role performed by a 19-year-old woman. This inversion is significant because it upsets both Cheryl and the reader’s idea of what normal is, and causes one to reconsider how a culture can produce and reproduce aggressive men and passive women. Of course, misogyny is a systemic problem of socialization — i.e. an issue of observed and repeated behaviours and attitudes — while sexual orientations are defined by patterns of involuntary, nuanced and largely inexplicable attractions. Thus, to label misogyny an orientation is absurd. However, that absurdity — that seemingly quirky, weird-for-the-sake-of-weird detail July threw in her story — highlights the absurdity of the dominant culture’s inclination to normalize misogynist practices by viewing misogyny as a natural, unavoidable expression of a rigidly demarcated biological gender binary. In other words, I see this instance of July’s quirk as a hyperbolic analogy that points to a broad social issue. However, Miller’s review does not acknowledge the book’s queerness or destabilizing potential. And while I don’t have enough insight to determine whether Miller is afraid of that potential or if July’s work simply doesn’t appeal to the reviewer’s (mainstream) taste, I don’t see the value of a book review that does nothing more than develop clever new ways of saying, I didn’t like it. Miller’s distaste seems to stem from the fact that she does not see herself reflected in the pages. Specifically, she takes issue with the concentration of peculiarity orbiting July’s protagonist, writing: “It is not that such things could never happen; rather, too many of them happen to not enough people.” But the lack of recognition Miller sees in July’s absurdity ought not to be a bad thing: fiction’s power does not only lie in its ability to remind a reader of how life is, but also of how it could be. If authors wrote more stories that questioned and undermined unconscious, unchecked normativity, readers might be less likely to lazily dismiss work like July’s as “quirky” before considering its political significance. Ultimately, we need more authors like July to answer Butler’s call to make the right kind of trouble in a culture where trouble, especially for marginalized identities, continues to be inevitable. I like to think that July has learned to wear “quirky” as a badge of honour.
Butler, Judith. “From Gender Trouble.” Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism.
Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. 2540–2553. Print.
July, Miranda. The First Bad Man. New York: Scribner, 2015. Print.
Miller, Laura. “Strenuously Quirky.” Rev. of The First Bad Man, by Miranda July. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Ltd, 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 30 October 2016.