In the opening line of my story ‘Dicks,’ the narrator asserts: “The only thing I like about men is their dicks.”
I’m curious about the reader’s reaction to that first line. Did the reader gloss over it and read on? Did it evoke an emotional reaction? Did the reader think it was a man – or a woman –speaking? How would that affect the reading? And most of all, did the reader read on or decide not to?
I think it’s an appalling thing for anyone to say. Unless they said it in humour, and even then, I think we’d be suspicious about their ‘real’ attitudes towards men. We have to read on to know whether or not the narrator is serious, or joking, or both. Regardless, the assertion is loaded. The narrator, we discover, is a woman. And while she is playful with language, with a wry, tongue-in-cheek humour, she is serious. She means exactly what she’s saying. Or does she?
If a man were to say “The only thing I like about women is their cunts,” we would be appalled and outraged; we would describe the language and the attitude as deeply disturbing; misogynist, sexist; filled with hatred and contempt. Hatred of women; hatred/fear of women’s sexuality; a devastating and profoundly disturbing objectification of women; beyond denigrating and demeaning, such an attitude embodied in language like this utterly dehumanises women.
What underpins ‘Dicks’ is my knowledge (and experience) of men who treat women as if the only or the main thing they value them for is sex; men who objectify women, seeing them as body parts. And the darker side of that, men who abuse and rape and murder women; men whose misogyny and sexism manifests in verbal, sexual and physical violence. And men for whom the only thing they like, or the thing they most like (or hate) about women is their cunts - most like, or hate, they manifest the same. A dehumanisation of women. Men who might never articulate that the only thing they like about women is their cunts/the sex they have with them, but whose behaviour embodies this underlying (or overt) attitude.
What I am asking in ‘Dicks’ is: what if a female character had an attitude ‘like a man’ – the ‘man’ I grew up with? I don’t want to generalise about men, as much as I don’t want to generalise about women. But growing up, I often heard girls and women say: “Boys/men are only interested in one thing.” Or: “Men think with their dicks.” These views were pronounced as truths. Men are driven by and interested mainly in sex; women are interested in relationship (and commitment).
I have known women who, like me, were not (as young women) interested in commitment or marriage; or who, also like me, had relationships with men, but were always ambivalent about them and struggled in those relationships. Although my attitudes were largely the result of the impact of my parents’ dysfunctional marriage, it wasn’t only this that made relationships with men difficult for me. It was my awareness of the fraught politics of gender and sex. It was my awareness of patriarchal structures enfolding all of us.
I remember thinking at eight years old: ‘When I grow up, I will be a writer. And when I do, I will take a man’s name.’ I didn’t mean marriage – I meant – I would use a man’s name, a pseudonym, not my own name. Why? Because I could see all around me that women were less valued; less in the world. I knew the literary canon was dominated by men. I knew women didn’t do things in the world the way men did - males were doctors and lawyers and out in the world; women were my mother, who stayed at home and was deeply unhappy. And I also knew that there were men who treated women badly; who were to be feared. I knew misogyny and sexism existed explicitly and implicitly around me.
And I knew the word ‘cunt’ – the aunt I was closest to used it all the time in her every day language. And my mother too, when she was angry, which was often. I knew that that word was the worst word in the English language. I knew that it represented hatred against women and a hatred against them that was expressed in an attack against both sex and gender. I wouldn’t have been able, of course, to articulate any of that as an eight year old. But I felt it and I knew it in my bones.
In my cunt.
Such a strong, sexy, beautiful word. Or it should be.
As for ‘Dick/s,’ I don’t find ‘dick’ a strong, sexy, beautiful word. I did try substituting ‘cocks’ for ‘dicks,’ but it didn’t seem right; didn’t quite capture something I wanted to express, nor seem to be the word the storyteller would use. It wouldn’t be her voice – it would be mine. I wonder about my reader, what they prefer for the story - dick or cock? Which word they use themselves – in their mind, out loud. I wonder about that first line of my story, where that line came from, where that piece came from, a flow of writing without seemingly conscious thought about any of it. I wonder at my own reaction to my piece: did I really write that?
Our creative work so often expresses a lifetime’s experiences and engagement with critical ideas in startling ways that can even surprise its creators. So, dear reader, please don’t ask me what my story is about. Read it and decide for yourself. That’s why – or one of the reasons why – I write.
Gayelene Carbis (Melbourne, Australia) is the author of the play Cunversations - which ‘Dicks’ was originally written for (though not performed in the final production). Gayelene’s most recent work includes her first book of poetry Anecdotal Evidence (Five Islands Press) - Awarded Finalist - International Book Award 2019; and her play Becoming Mia-Rose - Awarded Best Premiere Production (U.S.).
Gayelene's short story 'Dicks' is part of our Stories About Penises anthology. It is available directly from Guts Publishing (gutspublishing.com/product-page/), at independent bookshops in London, and with online retailers.