For feminists of the postwar Freudian era, it wasn’t so much disgust we were taking on. We were fighting ideas of lacking (penises, capabilities). We were being deprived of power, recognition and opportunity. We looked at the consequences of women’s roles as child bearers and emotional nurturers and how our profound dependency on mothers generated fear. We looked at the terrors, disappointments and desire to control that dependency.
Eimar McBride uses disgust in a visceral sense. The disgust coming at us. The shame and repulsion women feel towards our own bodies. Her framing adds another particularly useful layer to the discussion about dependency and the fear of it. Dirt, as her title reminds us, is “matter out of place”. A woman is an object who has dared to become a subject and is now out of place, wrong. And surely she is right. The backlash against women – from the vicious marketing of “beauty” to the use of rape as a weapon of war and the control of women’s bodies in certain US states that prioritise a foetus over a mother in need of medical treatment (I could go on) – tells us that disgust is a form of social control.
This is a control that is bred into girls from early on. They see their siblings, aunts and mothers taming and transforming the body as though there were something wrong with it. We drench women in shame. We still divide them into the sanctified and the sinner. Where once “sexual ignorance was a sign of a woman’s market value, now any admission of reticence or sexual naivete causes her stock to plummet”. However, McBride writes, women and girls are not only crossing the lines that have been drawn for us, but changing “the very lie of the line”, unleashing danger for those – Harvey Weinstein et al – who cannot, or will not, accept that change.
Her final point, in this satisfying polemic, is that women’s ability to manage conflicting demands could bring complexity and nuance to solving world problems and help us all navigate territories of contradiction. Yes, and well, sort of yes, for the fear that lurks behind the internal patriarch that lives inside us needs to be engaged with, too. Without that, we are destined to fix the pain and vulnerability of individual others rather than society as a whole.