Guest post by Emma Needleman
The other day, I clicked a link to an essay called The Zambreno Doll, a prose poem by Garett Strickland. The essay—apparently inspired by the experience of Kate Zambreno unfriending him on Facebook—disgusted me. In it, Strickland accuses Zambreno of deliberately “occluding” him on the basis that he’s a white male, speculates that she needs to hatefucked by a real misogynist, and gleefully fantasizes about turning her into a doll.
Reading the piece infuriated me. I’m tired of seeing women I respect get treated like this. It made me so angry that I broke my New Year’s resolution to stop fighting with people on the Internet, and I left a series of comments calling Strickland a “dweeb” and a “loser.” I would like to take the opportunity to say that I stand by these statements. Later, I wrote longer comments calling attention to the gender dynamics of Strickland’s piece, and I also stand by these statements, although not to the same degree as my original assertions that he is a dweeb.
Garett wrote comments, too. They said things like:
“Ah yes right. Forgot I’m a man. Just a man. Not a person or a human or a life, but a man. Just a man. Way to put me in my place!”
“I just looked up the definition of misogyny to make sure. No, I don’t hate women. So I wouldn’t consider [my piece] misogynistic.”
“I find all this cultural obsession with gender objectionable to the point of boredom.”
“Rather than simply keep my mouth shut regarding my opinions—or ghettoizing those opinions to conversations where I can make certain I’m only being agreed with, a la Zambreno—I’ve decided to share them out of an obligation I feel toward radical openness.”
Like Strickland, I’m writing this piece because of an obligation I feel towards radical openness. I don’t want to restrict my conversation to places where I know my opinions will be agreed with, like among Mr. Strickland’s ex-girlfriends. That’s why I wanted to write The Strickland Dildo. It’s an exploration of the cultural forces that enable things like The Zambreno Doll to exist.
Garett Strickland looks exactly how I would expect him to. His author photo shows him slumped in a chair, holding a (fake?) gun and looking stoned. He looks like ninety percent of my male friends: scruffy hipsters who earnestly think that people want to hear about their taste in music, dudes who smoke weed all day, and insist that being 1/16 Native American means they’re not “really” white.
I Google him and instantly regret it. It’s exactly what he wants me to do.
The evening after The Zambreno Doll is published, my doorbell rings. When I open it, I see that a small, brown package has appeared on the porch. Could it be? The Strickland dildo? The phallus itself?
I bring the package inside quickly. If it’s the dildo, I already know what I’m going to do with it: take mocking photos of it and post them online. I have a whole series planned out. First, I’ll get my prettiest girlfriends to hold it up and make a face like they’re going to be sick. Then I’ll put a little Santa hat on top of it. Finally, I’ll feed it to my neighbor’s dog.
I tear open the package but find no phallus. Insteadi, it’s a set of twelve toy soldiers, the old-fashioned metal kind. I’m disappointed. I didn’t ask for these. I wanted a doll, or its equivalent. Why should Garett get one and not me?
But I know why. Because he’s had it all along. Because he didn’t have to ask. Tears fill my eyes. This is confirmation of a terrible reality.
Lately, I’ve been sitting in on an undergraduate class on 19th century German philosophy. The class begins with Kant and concludes with Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy of Morality. I like Nietzsche, maybe more than I care to admit. I certainly like him more than anyone else in the class, even though the other people in the class are all twenty-year-old boys, and twenty-year-old boys have historically been Nietzsche’s primary audience.
I like Nietzsche because he understands cruelty. He knows that we need to be cruel and that we need to know that we are cruel. If we don’t see the pain on the Other’s face, we will destroy ourselves. I believe this is true.
But I don’t think that this paradigm applies to Garett, who just wanted to “put Kate in her place”—to make her feel bad so he could feel powerful. He felt so entitled to that power that he became angry when she exercised even the tiniest bit of agency. He implied that she needed to be hurt, that she needed him to hurt her. That’s why I’m comfortable writing things like, “cry harder, dweebus” or “your dick is gross and bad.”
After a few days, I take out the toy soldiers again. Maybe I can do something with them—give them to a thrift store or homeless shelter. I open the box and notice that the soldiers look different, somehow. I squint and lean closer. Suddenly, I realize what it is: each of them has a distinct and highly detailed face. How did I not see it before?
I pick one up and examine it. It’s Garett Strickland. I pick up another one. It’s Sigmund Freud. I pick up another one. It’s the kid from my writing workshop who only wrote stories about women getting murdered. I pick up another one. It’s the man who grabbed my ass the first time I rode the subway by myself.
By now, my heart is pounding. I check the rest of the soldiers and confirm: yes, I recognize all of them. Yes, yes, they’re all here. It’s time. It’s finally time. I know what I have to do.
I go into my bedroom and put on my hiking boots. Then I line up the metal soldiers in two neat rows and crush each one under my feet. Like I said before, I find this cultural obsession with masculinity objectionable to the point of boredom.