When a creative man divides the critics he is called ‘surreal’ or even a ‘genius’, while a woman is denigrated with the label ‘quirky’ – and that kicks the legs out from under us
I’m reading a book that I love. It is heartbreakingly sad, and thoughtful, and disgusting and hilarious, but it’s Miranda July’s first novel, so the word most regularly being used to describe it in reviews is “quirky”. And what that word does, as it falls on the work like a piano from a great height, is crush it.
Miranda July has written books, and feature films, and made records, and her art projects have involved things like shared emails and phone apps that connected strangers. Every time she unpicks tiny humiliations, exploring people’s inner lives, and every time critics say she’s quirky. To be quirky is to be whimsical. To be frivolous, naive, awkward, self-conscious. To have disproportionately large eyes and a faraway gaze. It is to be twee. It defines a character by her eccentricities rather than inviting you to see them as a whole. Quirky suggests a description of appearance, of colourful tights, beads, and people singing where they’re not meant to sing, but it quietly nods at something deeper. It dismisses the thing, the film, book, woman (quirkiness, I think, has become a gendered trait) as frivolous. Quirky is a pat on the head of art. It is the “Calm down, dear” of the ageing critic, the patronising wink. The “aaah”.
It pisses me off particularly because I find myself being wary of giving an opinion. Framing my conversation about a film or book with facts about myself. “I liked it, but then I wear a lot of eyeliner.” That sort of thing. It’s awful and I’m embarrassed about it. It’s a protective shield, slightly self-hating, that I say, I think, to acknowledge that I know the work is considered “quirky”, but that in spite of this I still enjoyed it. Because to not acknowledge its quirkiness is to risk having your opinion ignored altogether. But that’s what brought me here, with this book that I might have been nervous to admit I love, because that single word crushes not just the novel itself but its readers, too.
I feel it so keenly with July’s work, the unfairness of a label like this, because she writes about intimate female lives – huge terrors, profound experiences – which are often ignored because the voice she writes it in is … girly. Loneliness is not trivial. Death is not cute. To call stories like this quirky is to admit that you haven’t really listened. Occasionally a male artist is labelled quirky, but usually because his style is perceived as feminine. “Surreal”. In fact, male artists who are similar to July, whose work is unusual and prolific and who divides critics, are likely to be labelled geniuses. A genius, perhaps, is a male artist whose work is difficult to define. While with a female artist we have the word right here, ready. It’s “quirky”.
Yesterday I listened to an old episode of Desert Island Discs and was struck by a question Kirsty Young asked Debbie Harry. She asked when teenage Harry decided to follow the “counterculture”. I wondered: is that really a choice one makes, to be different, to veer from the mainstream? In my experience you don’t have much control over whether you fit in. And when you don’t, even if you’re Debbie Harry, there are very few words for you to live within. You are odd, weird, quirky. But in being named, you’re being rendered safe. She’s quirky, she’s harmless. Water is poured on your potential to shock.
Never has this been better articulated than with the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the supporting character of so many films, used to further the storyline of the male hero. She is the flighty muse whose quirkiness renders her charming but impotent. She’s not a woman (she doesn’t want a career, family, or anything scary) – she’s a girl.
This is a problem with writing while female – there are a thousand ways to dismiss you. Your subject matter is petty. Your style is flowery. You don’t look like an author is meant to look. But “You’re quirky”, I think, is one of the worst, because it is said with a grin.
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