TRIGGER WARNING: abuse, sexual assault, misogyny, men’s violence against women, violent porn
I fell in love with Sally Rooney’s fiction back in April 2019 when her second novel, Normal People, hit the shelves. I admired her astute psychological observations, rendered in prose that scraped away all pretense. Some readers felt it was an expert depiction of depression. I read the novel as a study in familial abuse and the resulting dysfunction. Marianne, a young woman whose brother abuses her emotionally, verbally, psychologically, and physically, grows into a self-loathing adult who craves violence and humiliation from sexual partners. The young man who loves her, Connell, can never bring himself to participate in Marianne’s self-flagellation, so their sexual relationship stalls out. Yet Normal People ends on a note of hope that these two might still connect and that Marianne might one day accept love.
What I didn’t think about at the time was the necessity of Connell. His presence in Normal People is what delivers both hope and connection as well as the possibility of love. Without his refusal to engage in toxic masculinity, without his horror of both the abuse Marianne has survived and her desire to re-enact that abuse, it would have been a radically different novel. Without Connell, it would’ve been a despairing, nihilistic depiction of millennial women’s isolation and internalized misogyny.
Which is exactly what Rooney delivers in her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You.
Rooney offers no Connell in Beautiful World. There is no Nick to her Gatsby of Alice-and-Eileen. No character grounds us in a world of healthy, loving relationships or even a balanced perspective. Instead two extraordinarily privileged white women with college degrees debate the ecological destruction of the planet, their own consumption of resources, identity politics, and the foolishness of religion—as intellectual exercises for themselves and sometimes as passive-aggressive jabs at each other. They have nothing at stake, or feel that they don’t, and have resigned themselves to the “collapse of civilization” and their role in speeding it along. They assure each other that they “really felt ill” (19) about their complicity, but oh well. And they then happily turn to the subject of their sex lives.
The L.A. Times Review of Books, The Washington Post, and The Irish Times have all flirted with calling Rooney “the voice of her generation.” And the emails between Eileen and Alice certainly capture a specific demographic of Millennials: middle-class white women. It is exactly this intellectual and moral laziness of the more privileged Millennials—who eagerly shame others while buying up everything they claim to hate (brands that use sweatshop labor, gasoline-fueled cars, etc.)—that drives Gen Z and BIPOC people of all ages up the wall. They are willing to wring their hands, take selfies at marches, read books, and “educate” (read: shame) anyone less knowledgeable (read: privileged) than themselves, so long as they don’t have to compromise their own privilege.
But the real problem is that there’s no one in Rooney’s pages to point out the women’s insincerity. Their counterparts—Simon and Felix—are far worse. Rather than shrug at their own complicity, these two men actively prey on and mistreat women. And there’s no character to question that, either, not even the women once they become their targets.
Internalized misogyny, in Normal People, was a tragedy that kept Marianne from love and intimacy. In Beautiful World, it’s simply the way things are.
During one of their first moments of real privacy together, Felix hands Alice his phone and asks her to look something up on the internet. When she clicks the browser icon, it opens onto “a popular porn website.” All fine and dandy—as a Millennial myself, I just expect porn to figure in most people’s lives. But Alice notices he’d been doing a search for “rough anal.” The first two video thumbnails show 1) a woman being choked and 2) “a woman crying, with smeared lipstick, and mascara running” (126). Alice promptly hands back his phone and walks out of the room, presumably done with the misogynistic twat.
Indeed, when Felix eventually confronts her about whether she’s “mad” at him, Alice admits she “found it disturbing.”
Felix immediately objects (which is a pretty big red flag as well; talking someone out of their own feelings is edging awfully close to gaslighting). He then proceeds to challenge her, so she comes back with “You like to watch videos of horrible things happening to vulnerable women, and you want me to say what? That’s fine?”
So far, I’m onboard. This is interesting. Alice is a wildly successful novelist who has no reason to put up with men attacking her intelligence and announcing that their personal take is the only legitimate one. Their battle of wills gets more interesting when Felix doubles down on his dickish behavior. He laughs at her, then promptly shifts attention to what he suggests is “an embarrassing search history” of her own while she dares act “very superior.”
When she disengages from the conversation, he pulls out a classic misogynist maneuver: he accuses her of being “jealous of them” (the women performing Felix’s rape fantasies in the videos).
This is a double-bind that misogynists love. Either you have to prove you’re not jealous of the dehumanized women they find sexually desirable, often by adopting a persona of sexual aggression and confidence (which turns them on because it provides them with a challenge: the more powerful a woman thinks she is, the more powerful they feel once they rape, abuse, and humiliate her). OR option B is (if you still want to have sex with this jerk) resigning yourself to the man reading everything you do as evidence that you are in fact jealous of the women in his torture porn. Accidentally nick yourself while chopping onions? It’s subconscious proof that you enjoy pain. Admit you like any sort of domination in the bedroom? It’s because really, you want a man to control everything.
This is a game designed to ensure women cannot win. It always leads to victory for the misogynist because it ends in either sex or no sex (because you were too scared to admit how you really like to be “taken” by a “real man”), but in either case, it results in what he wants: a boost to his ego delivered by diminishing someone else.
At this point, a savvy woman is done with Felix. He’s clearly into games, loves humiliating women, and is eager to see Alice humiliated, or better yet humiliate herself for his satisfaction. Definite abuser material. But poor Alice is not savvy.
Not only does she not send him packing to the nearest hotel for the night, but she starts flattering him.
If Rooney’s goal is to have us watch a slow train wreck, okay then. I can still be onboard for that. Lots of women, especially us straight women, have to go through a lot of hurt before we recognize these men for what they are. And yes, that’s a story that needs telling.
Felix then pulls out the line: “If you think that’s bad…I’ve honestly done a lot worse.” A dud of a pick-up line if ever there was one. Unless you’re a moody 16-year-old.
But Alice takes the bait and asks, “Like what?”
And this is where we have the first hint that Beautiful World is not the feminist work I’d expected it to be.
Felix proceeds to tell Alice (who still wants to have sex with him after all this) that he talked a girl into having sex when they were both 14. Let’s pause for a second. Felix actually says, “I talked her into it.” The 14-year-old girl was afraid of getting pregnant, he told her it wouldn’t happen (knowing this was a lie), proceeded to have unprotected sex (despite her explicitly stated concerns), she got pregnant, and he ghosted.
Is Felix a rapist? By most definitions, he in fact is (here’s a page from the United States Office of Women’s Health explaining that lying to trick someone into sex is rape; an article from Healthline makes the point that coercive sex is still rape).
In case we still have any doubts (hey, he was just 14; boys will be boys, right?), Felix then tells another story. Apparently, once you uncork a rapist, they just keep on pouring. This story starts out as a tale of statutory rape (“I brought some girl home after a night out, and then I found out later she was…sixteen or seventeen”), then escalates to rape-no-matter-the-age: “We were both drunk, she seemed like she was having fun.”
Okay, quick review for anyone who hasn’t read up much on consent and drugs. As the University of Tulsa reminds its students, alcohol is the top “date rape drug” in the United States, and “an intoxicated person cannot give consent.” CBS News looks into the relationship between alcohol and rape, and offers a list of questions to use to check in with a partner to determine whether they’re too drunk to give consent. But Felix’s “seemed like” means he never bothered to ask if she was, in fact, okay.
Felix got a teenager drunk, took her home, raped her while she was under the influence, and later learned she was underage. And that’s the only thing he feels bad about: she was too young for what otherwise (he thinks) is acceptable behavior. So we can pretty safely assume he’s done this before: getting women drunk, then raping them. As long as they’re over 18.
This is all horrifying stuff. Alice, however, asks our late-twenties rapist some questions to set her conscience at ease. Why she trusts him to be honest, I do not know.
She first asks him to report on how the pregnant teen’s life turned out (it would seem that Alice—and Rooney, by this point I’m starting to realize—assumes if a sex abuse or rape survivor has their life together, the sex abuse or rape “wasn’t that bad”).
Well hello, I’m a sex abuse and assault survivor with a master’s degree, a teaching certificate, and nearly two decades of experience as an educator. Also three decades of consistent abuse during which I accomplished very little and that resulted in PTSD as well as a disabling chronic illness. So hi, Ms. Rooney. Hello there. Both things can be true.
Alice also asks if he ever said sorry. I suspect this is mostly to make her feel better about her goal of sleeping with him because I’m still not clear what the point of an apology is when Felix (and men like him) could have just, you know, not assaulted anyone in the first place.
So here’s an aside on apologies from men to the women they assault: It’s too late. Period. Years ago, I received an apology from one of my assailants the day after he strangled me, and for me, this actually made things worse.
The apology is almost always for the perpetrator, not the victim. Because the subtext of Sorry that I raped or assaulted you or whatever, that’s not who I am, bye is this ugly assertion: I’m still a good person, and you’re not allowed to say otherwise because now I apologized to you.
An apology may make the perpetrator feel better, but it does not change anything for the victim. The violence still happened. The trail of wreckage they left behind still has to be dealt with. But now, not only has the perpetrator acknowledged it happened, but they’ve washed their hands of it and now demanded that their victim make them feel better (by accepting the apology).
Meanwhile, the victim has hundreds of hours, and likely years ahead of them, of grueling work in therapists’ offices, in doctors’ offices, on friends’ couches, with family, or even bosses if it interferes sometimes with their ability to do their job. They also have staggering bills for therapy and medications. So no, unless the perpetrator is signing a blank check to pay all those bills and cover paychecks when someone has to take unpaid leave or quit a job, an apology for assault and abuse is worthless.
So instead of apologizing, maybe just don’t assault people in the first place. It isn’t hard. Just don’t get people drunk, then take them home. Don’t coerce people into sex that they’re not super excited about. Don’t get drunk in public if you tend to get violent once you’re intoxicated. Ask people throughout your time together what they want and how they’re doing. That’s it. If a man can point his dick in the general direction of a toilet, he can easily avoid assault. In fact, as a restaurant worker in a past life, I’ve cleaned urinals. So I’d say for the average man? It’s even easier to avoid rape than to hit the toilet.
And what about Alice? After Felix gives her these far-from-reassuring answers (remember, this is a character who’s happy to feel bad about being part of the problem, as long as she doesn’t have to do anything), she confesses that she once bullied a girl in school mainly because everyone else picked on her. She concludes this with “Maybe we’re both bad people.” And here the novel delivers a spectacular example of the false equivalence fallacy: one behavior is a crime (statutory rape/rape of an intoxicated target), the other is not (schoolyard bullying).
But Alice’s ridiculous statement has its desired effect. Felix admits that she has made him feel better about the assaults he has perpetrated.
And here’s where Rooney really lost me. Not only does Alice reassure a rapist that rape wasn’t any worse than some girlhood bullying. She then apologizes to him, saying she “was horrible” for making him feel guilty about misogynistic porn.
Twenty-four hours later, they have sex. Because, you know, “it doesn’t matter.” As Alice says.
Yes, Rooney, I see quite clearly. You believe that women like me don’t matter.
Men like Felix, however, do. So long as you want to sleep with them.
The novel’s misogyny does not get better. Eileen and Simon also have a disturbing dynamic. Simon is in his mid-thirties, he prefers women just out of college (even younger than Eileen), and their first meeting actually occurred when Eileen was 15 and Simon was 20. A five-year age difference shouldn’t be pedophile-adjacent, but Rooney manages to make it just that. Sometimes Eileen calls Simon “daddy,” and sometimes Simon calls her “daddy’s little princess.” When she confesses that she likes being bossed around, not just in bed but generally, and wants him to tell her what to do with her life, he responds with “That is sexy.” This is followed by a sex scene played more like a re-enactment of father-daughter incest than a love affair.
Meanwhile, Alice becomes increasingly habituated to Felix’s abuse and misogyny. As the abuse ratchets upward, these couples end up together, and we get the sense that Rooney expects us to be—if not exactly happy—at least resigned. Maybe even satisfied.
In the end, it turns out that men’s sexual violence and abuse—like every other issue Eileen and Alice discuss—are just abstract topics that aren’t important enough to take action on. So, as misogynists can only hope, it’s the women who resign themselves to abusive relationships, not men who must resign themselves to the demand that they be better.
Many reviewers have reacted to this novel with sexist condescension. Some claim it proves Rooney’s intellect because characters discuss something other than their own lives. Since her first two novels were about relationships, apparently a number of critics decided her mind was slight and apolitical. This is absurd on its face and patently sexist. First, that a successful writer must “prove” her intelligence to reviewers is inherently a gendered thing, a task never demanded of straight cis male novelists.
Second, it’s based on the (flagrantly illogical) assumption that well observed, psychological portraits of human beings in relationships don’t reflect intelligence, that women’s writing isn’t “important” so long as we’re depicting our own lives, and that it takes more intelligence to depict political squabbles than personal ones. Some of the earliest novels in the English language (Pamela by Samuel Richardson, Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe) centered on women. Yet no one has argued that Richardson’s and Defoe’s intellects are trifling and limited. That was reserved for early women novelists like Aphra Behn and Jane Austen. And here we still are. Having the same, tired debate the literary community has had for decades: But is this woman writer smart enough to be worth listening to?
Let’s just assume that yes, Sally Rooney is highly intelligent, and there was never any need to prove it. Funny, too, that the establishment critics all decide now, after she publishes a deeply misogynistic novel, that she’s actually smart.
She has written three wildly successful books that resonate with Millennials across the globe. So yes, she can achieve things that most people of most generations can’t. She is plenty capable and intelligent.
The discussion worth having is: Do we think she is right?
Realistic fiction (and from a certain perspective, any story at all) presents a certain view of the world we live in. Beginning as realistic fiction and sliding into horror, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” depicts a grim world, asserting that human beings need a scapegoat, a sacrifice to pay the price for society’s sins. Only through this sacrifice can society continue smoothly. It’s horrifying, but there’s a logic to it that we can discuss because, yes, now that we think about, most societies have an oppressed group on which its ideas of criminality and depravity are projected—so that this group can “pay” for the collective sins, and everyone else can sleep soundly in our beds, trusting that the devil is not inside ourselves.
So what is Rooney’s assertion in Beautiful World?
A disturbing one, I’m afraid.
One I absolutely refuse to agree with.
The novel seems to be saying a few things:
- Misogynist men are everywhere, so if you’re inclined to have sex with them, you just have to not think too hard about what they’ve done.
- It’s more important to make these men feel good about themselves, so they want to have sex with you, than to encourage them to stop abusing women.
- What is sexual abuse and assault anyway? It’s just misbehavior. Everybody misbehaves. It’s fine. Whatever. Move on.
- Power plays are just what relationships consist of. Men are socialized to enjoy humiliating women. Women are socialized to play dumb and coy and accept humiliation in exchange for sex. So what? Who cares? We’re all bad people. No one deserves anything better than abuse. We’re just lucky if we’re not alone.
I can imagine a lot of men objecting to this, and that makes me very happy.
However, let’s return to Rooney’s undeniable intelligence. She’s not wrong. I’ve known a lot of men like Felix and Simon. I think most millennials have. Scratch that. Most people have. Misogyny is a pair of old house slippers men are encouraged to inhabit. It’s the path of least resistance. It’s easy to find men who are comfortable humiliating and dehumanizing women. After my divorce, I remember discovering the abundance of such men, the open-season they feel they have on single women, and their self-satisfaction with their own misogyny. Before I was 32, I’d decided it was time to admit that I’d be happier living the rest of my life single.
But that wasn’t the end. I’ve also known a lot of men who would find Felix and Simon grotesque, who actively advocate for equality—not just for their partners and daughters and mothers but for all women—transwomen, lesbian, BIPOC, disabled, low-income. They don’t get off on hurting women and actually find it un-sexy. Their egos swell at giving and receiving consent, not from overpowering a victim. They take pleasure in mutual pleasure.
These men enjoy exchanging ideas and hearing about experiences that are different from their own. It doesn’t mean they’re going to agree with everything someone says, but they are going to seriously consider it and—maybe most importantly—respect and trust that women are the authorities on their own lives.
They know that many more women are raped and never report it than men are falsely accused. They believe in equality, and they know that a world where women are inundated with men’s harassment and sexual violence, is not a world where equality is possible. They want to help us change that. They point out comments and behaviors from friends and relatives that dehumanize women and make abusers feel justified. They challenge misogynistic ideas.
They understand that oppressed groups don’t have to prove their moral purity to be worthy of equality and social justice. Like every other group, women, too, can be abusers and criminals and just plain rotten people. But badly behaved individuals are not a system of oppression, rooted in law, religion, history, education, and (as discussed above) literature. Misogyny is.
They also don’t pit women against other oppressed groups, or pit different groups of women against each other. They recognize that Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of “intersectionality” means that sociocultural markers of femininity and womanhood can co-exist alongside any other identity, even singling out men who don’t fit the accepted notion of masculinity. So they also understand that their own self-interest is aligned with women’s rights. A world that is more welcoming of all women is more welcoming for everyone. And a world where coercive sex and internalized misogyny have gone extinct is also a world where they can be sure their partner’s consent is genuine. And they want that, too.
I’m just sad that it seems Rooney doesn’t know many of these men.
Which is a sad intimation of the misogyny rife in the literary world.
If this is what Rooney sees looking out from her tower, at the top of the literary stratosphere, it is a disheartening sight indeed.