I first heard of She Wants Revenge when Elizabeth Bear posted one of their music videos on her livejournal. As the commenters there discussed, and as I found when I listened through more of their work, the lyrics of a She Wants Revenge song often tend to be simultaneously romantic and disturbing. They’re driven heavily by the male gaze, the one-sided perspective of a man toward a woman, and there lingers in the background a question of whether the other party feels the same.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a song that came up on random, which brought to mind a link to the novel I’d just finished reading, Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest. The song, “Not Just A Girl”, is one of their more straightforward ones, but still that ambiguous perspective lurks within the lyrics: You’re not just a girl/You’re more like the air and sea/I want you so desperately/And nothing’s going to keep us apart. On the surface of things, it’s the lyrics of an ordinary love song, and perhaps in this case nothing else is intended by it. But within the context of She Wants Revenge’s other songs, I can’t help but look deeper into it.
It is the third line of the chorus that takes this out of the romantic and firmly into the blinkered world of the male gaze: The focus switches from the “you” of the rest of the song, to an “I” – the want, the need, is his alone, and because of this, the next line becomes entirely about his desires and not those of the girl he sings about. “Nothing’s going to keep us apart,” he tells her – not even, perhaps, her refusal? In his adoration he raises her up beyond “just a girl” and into something primal, something inhuman, and something he ultimately defines only in terms of himself.
The link with Palimpsest comes through a character in the novel, Ludovico Conti, a bookbinder whose wife, Lucia, walks out on him after her discovery of the city of the novel’s title. From that point forward, he seeks her out, desperate to bring her back home, unable to understand why she would have left. But the reasons are there from the beginning, when the reader experiences his perception of her.
Ludovico understands the world in terms of animals. Infatuated with the Etymologiae of St. Isidore, and particularly, it seems, with his cataloguing of animals, he views the women in his life in those terms – Lucia is “his chimera, his composite beast, his snarling, biting thing”. When she scorns his habits, when she shows anger and frustration, he puts it down to this animal nature he has ascribed to her.
Not only does Ludovico dehumanise his wife with his romantic vision of her, but it is suffused with a possessiveness – she is his chimera – which appears ultimately to have driven Lucia away. Her first response to his appearance before her in Palimpsest: “This is mine. You can’t have it. Please.” In Palimpsest – a city reached in dreams, explored through sex – she thought she had found one thing in her world that he could not lay claim to.
“…to have a thing I didn’t have to share with you was rich and sweet. I was spread out under you so far and so thin, nothing of me was my own.” Lucia looks at her empty cup. “It is so beautiful and awful here, so much more real… well, more real than you. Than the story you told about us. This is my place, now, it’s not yours, it’s not. You have the world, this is mine.” Her voice had grown high and panicked, as if he were preparing to steal something from her.
Lucia is scornful toward Ludovico, but it is clear this scorn has come from her realisation of how stifling his view of her had been. It is one of my favourite scenes in the novel, Lucia’s emotional rejection of Ludovico’s romantic quest ringing so true against the background of his perspective through the novel until that point.
“Give me back eight years of huddling for warmth in a cave of your making. Give me the dress I wore in Ostia, and my cigarette case with the cockatrice on it. Give me everything in me that was stamped out by everything in you. Give me back a girl who had never heard of a chimera, who had never read that stupid encyclopaedia, who had never had to hear herself called an animal. Then I’ll come home.”
Ludovico had done nothing malicious. He had not deliberately belittled Lucia, debased her. But by romanticising his wife in the form of an animal, he reduces her to an object, and robs her of agency. Like the narrating voice in “Not Just a Girl”, without realising he is doing it, he defines her only in terms of himself.