by Amanda Hess
Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful young princess whose one prized plaything was a golden ball. Every day, the princess would escape the palace and steal into the forest with the ball to play with it on the lip of a stream. One day, the golden ball bounded away from the princess’s hands and sank deep into the stream, leaving her despondent on the water’s edge. A frog raised its head to the surface and made the princess an offer: He would retrieve the golden ball if the princess would agree to make the frog her playmate. The frog would live in her palace, share her food, and sleep in her bed.
The princess agreed, the frog retrieved the ball, and the princess promptly skipped away from him into the palace. When the frog hopped his way up to the palace door, croaking about a broken vow, the king forced the princess to let him in and offer up her dinner plate and pillowcase as she’d promised. One night, when she had had quite enough of the arrangement, the princess scooped up the frog from her bed and splattered him against the wall. A wicked ancient spell was broken. The frog transformed into a handsome prince. They married, moved to the prince’s faraway kingdom, and lived happily ever after.
When Leigh-Cheri—herself a princess, and the heroine of Tom Robbins’ Still Life With Woodpecker—tells this story to Bernard Mickey “Woodpecker” Wrangle—her domestic terrorist lover living his life on the lam—through the glass at the jail where he awaits trial for his decades of dynamite work, The Woodpecker asks one question:
The golden ball is not just a ball—it represents, among other things, the fierce individualism of girlhood, and it’s implied that the wickedest spell in the story is not the one that turns the prince into a frog, but the one that turns the princess into a wife. But the ball is also still a ball, an object that gathers and discards its projected meanings as it rolls through space and time, falls into new hands, and bounces into another story. And of course, the ball stirs change in humans, too, as evidenced by the princess’s exploitable emotional state when the ball disappears into the stream. Still Life With Woodpecker is a book about “the possibility of a breakthrough in relations between animate and inanimate objects,” Robbins tells us plainly at its end. And when Danielle turns her attentions to this book—while under the table, an unseen device turns its attentions to Danielle—we’re witnessing a threesome between a person and a couple of inanimates.
The objects that Danielle is making relations with have rolled around in the soup of human ideas more so than most things. Before vibrators represented female sexual independence packaged in the form of glittery rubber bunny rabbits, they were applied to women by doctors to better control their sexuality; before novels were packaged and pushed out as chick lit, they were withheld from women’s hands to better control their minds.
We now know that “hysteria” is what happens when female sexuality is categorically denied, masturbation is outlawed, and sex is narrowly defined as a husband sticking his penis into his wife’s vagina until he comes. As Rachel Maines details in The Technology of Orgasm, what we recognize today as the “normal functioning of female sexuality” has been coded as disease since the fourth century B.C.; professional genital stimulation was proposed as a treatment as far back as the Hippocratic corpus. But bringing a woman to orgasm while simultaneously denying the workings of female desire proved time-consuming, and as the centuries ticked by, medical professionals sought ways to alleviate hysteria more efficiently. In the late 1800s, the invention of the electromechanical vibrator allowed doctors to move their patients in and out at an accelerated clip. As Maines writes, “hysterical women represented a large and lucrative market for physicians,” as “patients neither recovered nor died of their condition but continued to require regular treatment.” Some of them undoubtedly took pleasure in the treatment. By the turn of the century, the vibrator became such an efficient medical tool that vibrator manufacturers began marketing them directly to women themselves as relaxation aids in home magazines like Needlecraft.
For the centuries of human history that women were barred from touching themselves, they were similarly banned from educating themselves, as Belinda Jack details in The Woman Reader. (The vast medical literature on how to treat hysteria was, of course, written for and by men). When men began to read and write, women were kept illiterate; when women finally gained access to written materials, their books were dismissed as socially (and sexually) dangerous; when women started writing themselves, they were accused of being so deranged they were clinically insane—or else, so proficient that they must be men writing under female pseudonyms. (And when Tom Robbins began publishing novels from a female perspective in the 1970s, some critics suspected that he was secretly a woman). Some publishers responded to the crisis of women reading by selling them conservative self-help books penned by male authors; others adapted by shrinking books down to pocket size to make them easier to hide from husbands.
When the vibrator hit Needlecraft, it represented an early dalliance between woman, vibrator, and book—finally, women had their hands on the rudimentary tools necessary to express their own thoughts and access their own desires. Then pornography exploded that narrative. As Maines details, porn producers began featuring vibrators in the early stag films of the 1920s, and the object’s social meaning flipped from medical aid to crude sexual device. Vibrator ads disappeared from women’s magazines. By ostensibly acknowledging the true function of the vibrator to the bodies of women, pornography made it instantly less accessible to them. The control over the vibrator’s narrative passed from male doctors to male pornographers.
Maines wagers that by the 1970s, feminists had succeeded in placing the vibrator firmly into “the hands of women themselves.” Today, the vibrator is an object that’s targeted almost exclusively at women. And yet, the films that depict women masturbating with them are targeted almost exclusively at men. Men produce vibrators in shapes that neutralize female sexuality (infantilizing farm animals) or reinforce androcentric models of sex (veiny phalluses) and then hand them to women, who are expected to keep them tucked privately in their bedside drawers. And now that women make up 80 percent of the fiction market, the conventional wisdom is that they naturally prefer to read their sexual material as opposed to watching it. So their fantasies are contained safely between the covers of harlequin romances and “mommy porn” instead of unleashed on the internet to stream alongside fantasies tailored to boys. The commercial segregation of these sexual experiences—women masturbate, and men watch them—exerts its own gravitational pull on our cultural definitions of men and women. What they are, and what they ought to be.
When Danielle takes a seat at the table, she wrestles with two objects that have been wielded as tools of both female oppression and liberation. Then the video camera clicks on, and Danielle becomes an object of our gaze, too. In Still Life With Woodpecker, the person-as-object changes in nature based on who’s watching. Take the color of a person’s hair. The princess is a redhead. When he washes out the black dye he wears to facilitate his life on the lam, Woodpecker is a redhead. Danielle is a redhead. Tom Robbins is a redhead. I’m a redhead, too. “Red hair is caused by sugar and lust,” a statuesque blonde woman tells the princess in the book. "Highly evolved beings do not indulge in sugar and lust."
Is lust the natural enemy of human advancement? Or is it that, in a culture that has systematically oppressed the sexuality of women, there’s something evolved about accepting the human object as it really is? Danielle chooses to read the section of the book where, in order to prove his ginger bonafides to the princess, The Woodpecker gets her alone, plucks a pubic hair out of his jeans, and presents it to her. In turn, the princess “submarined a hand into the depths of her skirt” and pulls out a hair “as red as a thread from the socialist banner.” And yet when the pair steps out into society, their identical pigmentation separates them from one another on a cultural level. “Red hair is a woman's game,” Tom Robbins writes in his Ode to Redheads. The “same pigmentation that on a man can resemble leaf mold or junkyard rust, a woman wears like a tiara of rubies.” Male and female sexuality is carefully segregated once again, dimming the radical possibilities of their shared experience. Of course, “much of the ‘fatale’ associated with redheads is illusory, a stereotypical projection on the part of sexually neurotic men,” Robbins writes. “Now that women are demolishing those old misogynistic expectations, will redheads lose their special magic, will Pippi Longstocking come to be regarded as just one of the girls?” Robbins is not convinced: “All redheads,” he concludes, “are mutants.” As the ball rolls on throughout time and space, it acquires new social meaning. But it doesn’t completely shake off the old ones.
In Hysterical Literature, Danielle articulates the words of the book, while the vibrator buzzes her toward orgasm. Five minutes later, the vibrator does its trick, and Danielle puts down the book. Some might argue that this is what it looks like to watch the princess’s ball roll away as she falls into the arms of the frog. But isn’t it possible to reconcile female sexuality and intellect by shifting the view behind the camera? In the book, the princess struggles with whether she ought to give “her heart and her ass to an outlaw rather than her mind and soul to a cause.” Her choice is between sexual object and human subject. That’s always been a false dichotomy, one built to separate women into good girls and damaged sluts, then exert control over their sexuality at both ends. Hysterical Literature hits the internet at a time in human history where it is increasingly possible for women to obliterate that distinction, to express our sexuality without surrendering our agency. We don’t just read books and use vibrators, then quietly hide them away. We write our own stories and film our own movies, then disseminate them widely to tip the cultural associations with femininity closer to our own true experiences.
Amanda Hess is a freelance writer reporting on sex, Hollywood, teenagers, and technology for places like Slate, New York, ESPN The Magazine, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NYLON, DETAILS, the Village Voice, All Things Considered, and Al Jazeera. She's a co-founder of Tomorrow magazine and contributor to the forthcoming Book of Jezebel.