“The Humbling” gives us an offensive portrait of a young lesbian

I can’t help but feel like a skeptic when I hear that there’s a major lesbian character in a new novel written by a man. There are men that handle queer women with care (Stieg Larsson, for instance) but there are still those that show how little they know about us by utilizing stereotype after stereotype to create a character.

Case in point: Philip Roth‘s The Humbling.

The New York Times Book Review had Kathryn Harrison give the book a write-up in this week’s edition, and here are the basic plot points: Protagonist 65-year-old Simon Axler is a washed-up actor who keeps having failed plays. He becomes depressed and signs himself into a psychiatric hospital for a month. When he gets out, he meets a young lesbian named Pegeen Mike Stapleford. (Yes, that’s really her name.) And yes — they enter into a sexual relationship &mdash: “The first time she had sex with a man since college.”

Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison gave me exactly what I wanted to know about the major lesbian character in the book, and really makes me cringe:

You don’t have to be gay to find such stereotyping offensive. The bedroom frolics inspired by something as lurid and ludicrous as a green dildo make for embarrassing reading not because of the caliber of their sexiness, but because they demean everyone involved. Including the reader, who is forced into the position of voyeur and thereby made complicit in a vision that doesn’t allow a lesbian to be anything more than a collection of clichés. Representing her sexual orientation — as well as her gender, duplicitous daughter of Eve! — Pegeen is amoral, capricious and cruel.

Wow, sounds like some great visibility! Unfortunately, that’s not all. Harrison writes:

Still, you can take the girl out of the boy, but you can’t take the boy out of the girl. Or is it the other way around? Pegeen moves in on the weekends, and Axler gives her his ex-wife’s study to rehab for herself. Naturally, being — having been? — a lesbian, “she had all the tools necessary for stripping wallpaper at her house.” And, like all gay women, she has a “small plastic bag of sex toys,” among them a “strap-on leather harness” into which she inserts a “green rubber dildo.” When Pegeen cheats on Axler, twice, it’s with one and then another blonde ponytailed pitcher she seduces from the sidelines of a local softball game — because where else would an experienced, predatory lesbian go for eager, young tomboys to corrupt?

I haven’t even read The Humbling and I have an idea of where this idea came from: Philip Roth’s dream world.

Thank you, Kathryn Harrison for reading his 30th novel and giving me many, many reasons to not read it for myself — and hope others ignore it as well.

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