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Emma Cline and the War on Female Desire

Emma Cline headshot
Emma Cline is the author of "The Girls."
At 29, Emma Cline had already secured a three-book deal (rumored to be worth $2 million) and been named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Among literary circles, she is regarded as something of a prodigy, “fast-tracked by the Muses,” as James Wood wrote in his New Yorker review of “The Girls.” Cline’s debut novel retells the infamous story of the Manson family from the perspective of Evie, a 14-year-old girl on the periphery of the group.

But Cline’s slew of momentous achievements was tarnished last year by the accusations levelled against her by Chaz Reetz-Laiolo, a former boyfriend who accused her of installing spyware on his computer and plagiarizing material from his unpublished writings. “What should have been a happy milestone—publishing my first novel—has turned into a yearslong nightmare perpetrated by someone I believed I had finally escaped from,” Cline said in a statement to The New York Times. On April 11, a federal judge ruled that “The Girls” does not violate copyright law.

Reetz-Laiolo’s allegations were not only ludicrous—anyone who has read “The Girls” can attest to its intensely intimate knowledge of the female experience—but also cruelly personal, extending beyond Cline’s prose and moving further to attack her ad hominem. In a 15-page complaint, 13 of which included sexually explicit texts and pictures, Reetz-Laiolo threatened to blackmail Cline into silence and submission. “[E]vidence shows that Cline was not the innocent and inexperienced naïf she portrayed herself to be,” David Boies, the lawyer representing Reetz-Laiolo (and previously, Harvey Weinstein), wrote.

It’s sad (not to mention darkly ironic) that Cline’s sexual history is being levelled against her given the themes of her novel. In “The Girls,” Cline adeptly identifies the way young women shape their notions of desire and sexuality, and how they internalize the male gaze in self-conscious and harmful ways. “So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act,” Evie narrates. “Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love.”

Though painful to admit, it’s unsurprising that a successful female writer is being punished for writing about sex. That’s an old conversation and existing convention in Western canonical literature, both for its female writers and its female characters. Western literature makes clear what kinds of female desire are acceptable, and which aren’t: Hamlet tries to rein in his mother’s sexual desires, obsessively instructing her to “go not to my uncle’s bed.” Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest both die for their infidelity. Poor Desdemona, “honest, chaste, and true,” does not even commit adultery, yet she too must perish for the sexual appetite that her husband Othello assumes she possesses. Seminal works of canonical literature, often those penned by male authors, have tended to punish female characters who wield their own sexuality. Just as Cline points out in “The Girls,” the way girls are taught to think about their sexuality is toxic on many levels. They are taught to crave it, then fear it, to simultaneously and contradictorily embody sexual allure and chastity. The moral is clear, both in fiction and reality: When women stray from the narrow definition of acceptability laid out for them, they face severe consequences.

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Cline herself is intensely aware of her own vulnerability, the way she slots into these narratives of so-called “misbehaved” women. In a personal essay for The Cut, “The Price of Smiling for the Photos,” Cline discusses the abuse she suffered at the hands of an ex-boyfriend (widely believed to be Reetz-Laiolo). “I was told I wouldn’t be believed because in the same chat where I confessed my fear, anxiety, and confusion about my boyfriend’s violence, I also made sex jokes,” Cline writes. “I was told I wouldn’t be believed because I’ve looked at pornography, written a sex story, dated older men.”

Though it is not new, this centuries-old conversation about the censorship of female desire is imbued with a new immediacy in the wake of the #MeToo movement which originated with the Weinstein allegations and ricocheted into national consciousness—into the corporate sphere, into blue-collar work environments, and yes, into the publishing industry. The women who came forward with their own stories of victimization and abuse were questioned for not coming forward sooner and for staying with their abusers in consensual relationships. Their testimonies were prodded, examined for logical deficiencies under the microscope of public skepticism, and held to the standard of a perfect victim story (itself a problematic notion). It may seem that sexual assault and the censorship of female desire are disparate problems, but they are not: Sexual power has always been considered the domain of men, and when women decide to claim that agency, the backlash is immediate and the result is often violent.

It may seem inconsequential, but fiction largely sets the script for how we navigate sex and understand consent. “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian’s viral New Yorker short story, gained traction among female readers for identifying the all-too-familiar ways in which women are socialized to accommodate the desires of their male counterparts. Fictional representation matters and it matters who controls it. Our experiences don’t just inform the art we consume. We model our lives on the stories we hear, and when women are the ones writing those stories, the result is fairer, more complex, and more equitable politics—inside and outside the bedroom.


—Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at caroline.tsai@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.

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