A Red Flag for a Bull: On Constance Debré’s “Playboy”

By Lazz KinnamonApril 9, 2024

A Red Flag for a Bull: On Constance Debré’s “Playboy”

Playboy by Constance Debré

AT THE RELEASE of Constance Debré’s Love Me Tender in Los Angeles, Chris Kraus said that many saw the book as too macho, while others “say it’s the most honest thing they’ve read in years.” Debré’s autofiction trilogy—Playboy (2018), Love Me Tender (2020), and Nom (2022)—is a puncture in repression’s longue durée. The books resist notions of fixed selfhood that are common to today, but their importance also has something to do with general truth-telling. Fittingly, the first two books (trans. Holly James) are published by Semiotext(e), which has always been willing to publish work without an overactive superego. The trilogy follows a French lawyer (also named Constance) from an aristocratic family whose turn toward women catalyzes a total life transformation. She deserts the upper-class life of her family legacy—a legacy that includes the prime minister of France, supermodels, journalists—for a life on her own terms. She divorces her husband, quits her job as a criminal defense lawyer, tosses all but a few belongings, sleeps with women, and writes.

Love Me Tender focuses on the story of her divorce and subsequent custody battle over her son. For her husband, Constance’s renunciation of traditional womanhood and her transformation into a butch dyke at 40-something are proof that she’s too perverted to parent. He turns their son against her. In the custody case, he leverages the illicit gay literature she reads to imply pedophilia and incest (as if having Bataille on the shelf amounts to child abuse). Despite the growing estrangement from her son and social ostracization, Constance maintains her course. For her, loyalty to small-minded convention is the problem, and she valiantly continues pursuing what she wants. Amid the gauntlet described in Love Me Tender—where the persecutors are not only the state but also her ex-husband, her family, and seemingly everyone she knows—her North Star is her own desire, which is no small feat for someone designated woman. She presses to see her son despite the difficulty of the custody case, but her mothering runs alongside other activities like swimming, sportfucking, and writing. Grief isn’t mutually exclusive with gamified seduction. She catalogs her conquests in bed: number one, number two, the young one, the skinny one. The affect of the novel is an icy detachment.

The book’s prequel, Playboy, has just been published in English. Yes, this means it’s out of order: in French, Playboy came first and Love Me Tender second. For English-speaking audiences, this makes Playboy feel almost like a reveal. We meet the narrator before she became a cavalier masculine player—before the austere minimalism and cold sexual conquests, before the incest and perversion charges. Playboy tracks the early part of her lesbian becoming. Descriptions of her first relationships with women are interspersed with vignettes of client defense, her family, and her process of transformation.

Both texts are barbed—this is Debré’s style—but in Playboy we see something different. The narrator protects her belly more. She is in a vulnerable state otherwise known as learning—learning how to be a dyke, studying a “lesbian lexicon” of gestures, garments, and grammar: “I look at her to see what a dyke looks like. She has a shaved head, she wears hooded sweaters, she rolls Lucky Strikes. There’s something very gentle about her, too. In her voice, her eyes, her smile. A dyke is a girl, a real girl.” Her first relationship is with a woman, Agnès, whose son she defended in court. Agnès is her transitional object. As the narrator says, “I decided that whatever happened between us would be the most important thing in my life. It didn’t matter who she was.” The courtship’s pace is glacial, and sex is stalled in part because Constance is too petrified to make a move: “[S]he asks where my bed is, I don’t move […] she looks at me, she seems to be waiting for me to do something, I’m too scared. That’s exactly what I tell her, I’m too scared.” Their foreplay is an infinity of microgestures, a long impasse posed as a question—how will this deadlock be broken? The only answer is desire: “Suddenly I stop thinking. Suddenly I want her.” This resolving of passivity is a dyke rite of passage.

Many have described the trilogy as a coming-out story, but it is doubly trans, detailing the relational mechanics of transition and what it actually means to change. The lines between lesbian and trans have always been blurred anyway; to quote French feminist Monique Wittig, “Lesbians are not women.” The narrator realizes that if anything’s going to happen with Agnès, it’s because she’ll have to start “being the boy”; and anyway, she likes being active, which was Freud’s original theory of what it meant to be a man. Agnès can’t get her off but she doesn’t care. It’s more about what her own body can do:

The pleasure of being the one who leans in. When I’m lying down, and I get up onto my elbows, when I lower my body or tilt my face, when my body supports me, when I’m kissing her, her body in my hands, when I’m holding her by the hips, the shoulders, the nape of the neck, when I’m kissing her and it’s my hands stroking her body, or touching her lips, ever so lightly, when it’s my mouth, or when it’s my hand, firmly grasping her ribs.

Her body is becoming different up against a woman’s. This passage is like a body scan registering real-time transformation into a masculine position (versus an inherited feminine-as-passive one). A kind of top phenomenology.

In a similar vein, Constance takes up swimming—an exercise that builds upper body strength—and notes the effects on her shoulders. Exercise is part of her DIY transition: think trans photographer Loren Rex Cameron’s transformation through bodybuilding. She identifies with men in other ways too. She notes her physical similarity (tall, broad shoulders, narrow waist), and then there’s her psychic identification: “I only ever talk to guys. I don’t understand a thing women say.” The authors she references are Bataille, Duvert, Proust, Homer, and Baudelaire.

It’s this transness—Constance’s existence in a crossing or in-between place—that produces some of the most controversial material in the book. At forty-something, she’s becoming familiar with women as lovers. Approaching women from the “other side” gives a whole new view of what women are:

I thought, A woman is something I had never imagined. Something more bare and more raw than a man. Something perpetually verging on obscene. That’s what she made me realize. Men don’t get under your skin. Maybe they don’t have the same capacity to move you, either. But they don’t get under your skin. Yes, maybe it started the first time I saw her naked. Maybe it was later. When I saw that she didn’t want to give me anything. […] To love a woman, is to despise her. I understood the violence of men. I wondered if that’s how they had always felt about us, if that’s how Laurent had always felt about me.

The narrator’s first lesbian lovers share this intractable mix of invitation and inhospitality. She begins to see “woman” as a sleight of hand that promises one thing but delivers another: “I don’t think I’d known anything like it before, this softness of hers combined with something else, something slightly closed off and steely.” You might recognize how this trades on longtime stereotypes of women as deceptive, cunning, malicious, and so on, and you would be right; Playboy’s narrator often adopts patriarchy’s booming voice (case in point is the book’s title). But there is real resonance in the example above. How one might begin to identify with certain patriarchal dispositions as a lived reaction to amorous relationships with women is one aspect of trans and dyke experience perhaps too taboo to admit. Debré risks the question: what if misogyny makes sense? At times, the character produces fresh insights. At others, she seems contemptuous, exploitative, or derivative. The line “a woman’s body is made to be touched and tasted, a woman is made to be fucked,” could easily be lifted from Tropic of Cancer (1934). Still, her virility and selfishness are seductive. It’s hot, it hurts, it’s true, it’s not. This holographic effect defines the novel.

Another in-betweenness at play is what Chantal Jaquet calls “transclass.” Debré comes from wealth and status, but for multiple reasons, what that means for her isn’t straightforward. Her parents’ addictions to heroin, opium, and alcohol meant financial ruin for her family. The narrator recalls an early memory of her father emptying her and her sister’s savings accounts for drugs; her parents’ deaths—and parenting—are defined by addiction. Her status is further compromised by homosexuality, which is partly what leads her to describe herself as “the relegated upper class.” Debré channels the voice of someone who is both outside and in, which complicates her disidentification with her family. In one vignette, the narrator fantasizes about an ornate family dinner where she would tell her “piece of shit” grandfather, the prime minister, that she’s a dyke. She also writes about walking in on him “sitting there in the bath like an idiot, the minister with his dick out, floating in the tepid water.” Fiction or not, these books constitute a real exposure of Debré’s wealthy, important family.

Constance’s turn toward women is when her déclassement seems to gain real traction: “I thought it was strange how everyone was suddenly hating me these days. I didn’t mind. I told myself that was another thing about the girls, they help me to see other people. To see that it takes so little. That it all rests on so little.” Homophobic castigation accelerates her embrace of lack: her belongings shrink, she doesn’t really keep food in the house, she dodges the train fare. On one hand, why malign downward mobility when so much of bourgeois life is worth abandoning? No one said it better than Marx, who wrote that “the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc. […] The less you are […] the greater is your alienated life.” Constance has more of herself when material possessions are spare. And by leaning into her outsider status, she protects her ability to see.

But on the other hand, for everything Constance gets rid of—heels, cutlery, square footage—she can’t relinquish inherited self-importance. Downward mobility and snobbery form an inseparable knot in the novel. For example, she goes to a supermarket (how pedestrian) just to “look at the special offers on processed food for big families, poor families, and families who don’t care too much. […] I leave with a can of tuna, bread, coffee, tomatoes.” She concludes: “Even my shopping cart says I’m not from here and I’m not like them.” Relatedly, Agnès is middle-class and the narrator is often disgusted by her aesthetic choices: “I’m wearing battered red espadrilles and an old pair of jeans. That’s how rich people dress. She’s wearing shoes she thinks are chic and a spotless pair of pants.” To be fair, part of the disdain is because the middle class glorifies what Constance now sees as hollow and false. But classism can manifest as “distaste for pretense, for striving,” as Sarah Nicole Prickett has observed, and this is at play here too. Smugness is a remainder of her class renunciation. She can’t shake it. The novel is as much about how wealth can constitute a bone-marrow-deep confidence as it is about homophobia, sex, or the state. What does Constance ultimately risk when, as she puts it, “[t]he rich always win”?

What I’ve called the book’s transness or in-betweeness is politically significant. Life is process, and process when freeze-framed isn’t tidy. Constance is comfortable with messiness though; what she prioritizes most is something like truth: “[W]e love each other and we never lie,” she says about her son. This commitment to not lying appears throughout the book. On the page, this often looks like unresolved contradiction, and her refusal to smooth it over might be uncomfortable but it’s important because it might help readers develop a taste for difficulty. This matters because, as Adam Phillips warns, “one’s appetite for certainty is going to make one prone to adopt certain authoritative figures and accept their vocabulary.”

For Constance, meaning itself might be its own form of falsehood: as she says, “You can tell whatever story you want.” Both the author and the narrator are conditioned by legal training to separate “facts” from “meaning,” like facts are the basic skeletal structure of a house upon which meaning is overlaid, like decoration. In the courtroom, both the defense’s and prosecution’s jobs are to tell convincing stories. Debré’s books are continuous with her law career where meaning is additive. In this sense, the trilogy hearkens back to key debates in the queer theory tradition, particularly in terms of its affect. Debré leans more toward Lee Edelman’s antirelational nihilism than to José Esteban Muñoz’s collective hope. Where Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004) argued for a queer negativity that “radical[ly] challenges […] the very value of the social itself,” Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) held that the dream of a collective future was an educated, deliberate stance. Muñoz based his “critical idealism” on the work of philosopher Ernst Bloch, a Jewish refugee who fled Vienna under Nazi rule and ended up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he wrote The Principle of Hope (1954). The upshot of this iconic debate in queer theory was that it revealed how both nihilism and hope are choices. When it came down to it, Muñoz thought Edelman’s antirelationality “was the gay white man’s last stand.” It was a marker of lonely Western subjectivity.

When I say that Debré aligns with the powerful, what I mean is that she ultimately disavows vulnerability. Assuming vulnerability can produce certain effects—softening, humor, companionship—and so can denying it. For Debré, autofiction is about the channeling: how autobiographical details are presented. Rather than collapse, the narrator charges into the territory that’s off-limits, “like a red flag for a bull,” as Debré put it at the L.A. release of Love Me Tender. Who knows how Debré actually felt or acted in the crucible of real-life events? Invulnerability is the story the narrator tells about herself. The books are blueprints. Villainy and ruthlessness are how she gets through.

LARB Contributor

Lazz Kinnamon is a writer based in Tucson. They teach feminist theory and interdisciplinary studies at the University of Arizona.


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