Close to the Bone: On Eimear McBride’s “Something Out of Place”

May 12, 2022   •   By Annabel Barry

Something Out of Place: Women and Disgust

Eimear McBride

AT SOME POINT in the course of human evolution, the sense of distaste that protected us from putting poisonous or contaminated things in our mouths developed into the complex emotion of disgust: a nauseating, visceral aversion to a wide range of stimuli, including abstract ideas. If disgust has its origins in eating, no food is as disgusting across cultures as meat. Even for non-vegetarians, any reminder that the meat they are consuming is meat — a rubbery texture, an overlooked bone, a visible vein — is enough to spoil a meal. The governing metaphor in Irish novelist Eimear McBride’s first nonfiction book, Something Out of Place: Women & Disgust, is that women are slabs of meat that elicit disgust from the moment they are gendered in the womb. Not dignified with the human connotations of “flesh,” women’s bodies are widely viewed as akin to decaying animal carcasses, ready to be tossed onto the “off-cuts tray” as soon as they are too old or aren’t trimmed just right. Meaty phrases and neologisms accumulate across McBride’s essay, a collaboration with the Wellcome Collection for the history of modern health and medicine. Women are “meatified” and “chewed down to gristle” by a patriarchal society. Some women are “unwilling to accept the grill” but many are “tempted onto the butcher’s slab.”

McBride’s novels approach the female body from the inside out, formally experimenting with voice to investigate how the experience of being a woman imprints itself on the psyche. Her highly acclaimed debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2013), literally begins in the womb yet eschews a gestational stylistic model as the narrator’s pre-articulate, staccato sentences fail to develop over the course of her life. The Lesser Bohemians (2016) adopts a more conventional grammar but registers the mind’s splitting during sex and violence with typographic innovations including blank spaces, changes in font size, and sentences that break over the printed lines like poetry. In Strange Hotel (2020), embodied action is buried in the passive voice or in descriptive clauses and affect is dulled through formal, wooden diction.

Emotions in McBride’s novels are highly individual responses that can only be excavated by fracturing and reconfiguring language in idiosyncratic ways, but Something Out of Place aims to track disgust as a shared social feeling and a political weapon. In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), British anthropologist Mary Douglas defines “dirt as matter out of place.” A slice of cake is dirty on a bathroom floor but not on a plate; a hair is disgusting in a salad but not on someone’s head. McBride applies this definition to argue that disgust, allied with the taboo, punishes women who transgress social boundaries. While disgust is transhistorical, taboos are protean, continuously slipping into new cultural forms. McBride has always been at her best when writing about violence, and her most aching contemporary example is the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer in London in March 2021. Since McBride’s book went to print, Aisling Murphy was murdered while jogging in Tullamore, Ireland, in January 2022. McBride shows how easily society excuses the brutalization of women’s bodies by accusing them of being in the wrong place — outside alone after dark when they should be inside, inside with an abuser when they should be elsewhere.

The biggest omission in McBride’s account is a genealogy showing how this punishing association of women and disgust came to be. McBride writes that disgust “appears to mystically attach itself to the female body” and refers to disgust as “congenital.” But the kind of disgust that enacts social control is neither magical nor genetically inherited, nor does it subtend women’s bodies alone. All bodies can be gross; we all eat, secrete, and excrete. It’s not that women’s bodies are intrinsically more disgusting, but that women — along with other marginalized groups — are socially constructed to be more deeply associated with their bodies. Do trans women fit into McBride’s essentializing definitions? How would she explain the homophobic disgust that motivated the murders of two gay men in their own homes in Sligo, Ireland, in April 2022? What about police brutality toward Black and brown people of all genders? She bafflingly suggests that “racism is perceived to be a volatile political issue, with deep institutional roots and the potential to cause major social disruption, while misogyny never is,” as if racism and misogyny could be disentangled or compared. In patriarchy’s meat market, it’s not just women who are butchered, and not just men who are cannibals scarfing down their own.

McBride is not an academic, and she stresses that Something Out of Place is “simply an essay, a collection of thoughts, not an objective work of academic research, and so, by its very nature, subjective.” Yet subjectivity is not incompatible with research, and autotheory offers plenty of examples of how one might meld personal introspection with rigorous theoretical explication. She would need to do more historical accounting and conceptual retooling to develop her personal hypotheses about disgust into a genuinely intersectional theory of misogyny that could encompass the experiences of a diversity of women.

It’s difficult to tell how McBride would position herself relative to feminism as an intellectual or political project, given that she doesn’t offer a definition of feminism or address feminists directly. The last few years have seen a proliferation of academic and popular nonfiction books that build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement while questioning the assumptions of relentlessly sex-positive, girl-boss feminism: in 2021 alone, Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Jacqueline Rose’s On Violence and On Violence Against Women, and Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom come to mind. Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2017) demonstrates that misogyny has a consistent logical structure that holds up to the scrutiny of analytic philosophy. For Manne, misogyny is a form of social control that kicks in when men, inured to their relative privilege, wrongly perceive women to be stepping onto their turf. If this initially seems similar to McBride’s concept that women are socially punished for being out of place, McBride offers an opposing characterization of misogyny linking it to the irrational, inexplicable emotion of disgust. With so many converging and contradictory treatments of the same subjects out there, it would have been helpful to see her engage more with contemporary feminist thought.

McBride’s most original contribution to feminist discourse is her ability to turn it inside out to interrogate what she calls its “double stagnation.” This is particularly generative in her treatment of pornography. In her controversial essay The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978), Angela Carter coined the distinction between meat and flesh that McBride returns to throughout her essay. As Carter was writing, the first shots were being fired in the “sex wars” that would rupture the feminist movement over the course of the 1970s and ’80s, permanently drawing a line between “anti-porn” feminists who saw pornography as the locus of patriarchal oppression and “sex-positive” feminists who argued that censoring pornography was another way to moralize women’s sexual choices. Carter’s own position on pornography was complex. She acknowledged that pornographers were complicit in making women objects of consumption but earned Andrea Dworkin’s ire by speculating that the medium could be rehabilitated as a moral tool for the excavation of gender relations. McBride is circumspect about whether pornography could hypothetically be ethical, but she argues that, in the current patriarchal world, “pornification and meatification” go hand in hand. Meanwhile, shame — the corollary of disgust — prohibits most women from voicing their dissatisfaction with porn directly.

Refreshingly, unlike anti-porn feminists, McBride is willing to take seriously the idea that women watch porn, too, and unlike sex-positive feminists, she acknowledges that most porn falls flat for female viewers. She already began to theorize this complexity through form in Strange Hotel, which opens with a woman getting wine drunk in a hotel room in Avignon, France, ordering an adult film on pay-per-view, and falling asleep, only to realize in the morning that the film has been playing on a loop all night, audible to other patrons through the thin walls:

Primarily pinkly personelled pornography. Popularly, perseveringly and — periodically perceivably painfully — protractedly pursuing previously private perspectives of perfectly pumped penii practically pummelling professionally pruned pudenda and precisely depilated, pucely pert or — more pedantically — patently pedestrian posteriors alike. Period — as in Full Stop, and not of the bleeding kind.

The pun on “period” signals a relationship between style and embodiment. The onslaught of alliterative p-words mimics the pounding motion of the bodies in the film, but it more dramatically underscores the numbing repetitiveness of this sequence, identical with any other work of pornography. The sex on-screen and the stilted language that reproduces it are both devoid of emotional interest. In Something Out of Place, McBride writes, “[I]n this great democratisation of sexual pleasure, the sexual pleasure available for women through the use of pornography […] remained largely un-catered for.” Upholding a binary split between those who see porn as fundamentally pleasurable and those who see it as fundamentally violent makes it impossible for women who do get off on porn to protest the fact that almost none of it is made with them in mind. In other words, one big problem with equating pornography with women’s sexual liberation is that, to female viewers, mainstream porn is just boring. And this boredom is another way to keep women in their place, a deliberate calculation to prevent them from enjoying sexual experiences in which men can’t partake.

More consequentially, McBride argues, it is women almost uniquely who have been asked to strike an impossible balance between reveling in the supposed freedom of sexual expression pornography offers while dealing with the significant harms of pervasive internet pornography — from the difficulty of identifying and stamping out videos that are created or uploaded non-consensually to the impact of pornographic narratives on young people’s development. Men, for the most part, don’t worry about these competing priorities when they access Pornhub. Perhaps, by extension, pornography has been able to destroy the unity of the feminist movement because the pressure of navigating “the choppy waters between freedom of expression and protesting the objectification of women” has been left to women alone.

McBride sometimes makes statements that progressives are likely to find stomach-churning. She insinuates, troublingly, that Sex and the City, pole-dancing exercise classes, and BDSM serve primarily to compel women to buy more products and make themselves more sexually available to men — even if women report that they find these options empowering. At moments like these, McBride’s own disgust for women is palpable. What makes such statements productively uncomfortable is her self-awareness that she is teetering on the edge of falling into the patriarchal trap through which women are made “the architects of their meatification.” She admits, “I know that taking care of one’s own children is work. I don’t think that taking care of your children is the same as work. I think women should wear whatever they like. I cringe when I see women wearing ‘Porn Star’ t-shirts.” McBride unfortunately doesn’t cite materialist feminist thought on how the traditionally feminized domains of social reproduction, care work, and sex work relate to the category of labor under capitalism. Still, by dwelling within the contradictions in her own thinking and asking other women to do the same, she provides resources to a growing coalition of feminists who seek a middle ground between exempting desire from political questioning and telling people they don’t really know what they want.

The openness to formal impurity that characterizes McBride’s fiction persists in her deployment of the essay genre. In A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, McBride reached for simple, active vocabulary to a convey a sense of an experience still unfolding and not yet fully theorized; in Something Out of Place, she draws from whatever sources are at the front of her mind, whether that means taking jabs at the Kardashians or close-reading misogynistic journalism about the musician Debbie Harry. The essay is punctuated by provocative headings in all caps: “STOP HITTING YOURSELF!”; “HARLOTS: THE REBOOT.” Resembling the decontextualized fervor of tabloid headlines or slogans on protest signs, these headings serve more to disorient the reader than to offer a roadmap. Indeed, reading Something Out of Place feels like being inside McBride’s head, jolted between rage, boredom, and confusion while attempting to navigate the twists and turns of what she calls patriarchy’s “Escher-like” maze. Still, as the elliptical suggestions about emotions and embodiment posed formally in McBride’s novels become direct blows in her polemical prose, it’s not surprising that some things could stand to be a little more fleshed out.

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Annabel Barry is a PhD student in English at the University of California, Berkeley.