Interview: Louise O’Neill

– by Antonella Kinder

Graphic: Ashley Molesso

Louise O’Neill is an eyebrow raiser who brings the F word (Feminism) front and center.

In her satiric 2014 novel, Only Ever Yours, O’Neill introduced a dystopian world where women are raised to compete with one another on a sickly superficial level for the attention and pleasure of men. Beauty and compliance are valued above all and female friendships are impossible because every female, every “eve”, is competition for the most prized role: wife.

Asking For It gives us Emma. The teenager we may have known, or may have been, who will do and say almost anything to maintain her position of what she believes to be power. Emma views her female friends as competition for attention and she plays a hard “cool girl” persona for the guys. Emma drinks, flirts, smokes and wears short skirts. So what happens when a girl like Emma is a victim of rape? Louise O’Neill’s novel mirrors real life rape cases – the Steubenville case, the Maryville case, and let’s not forget the more recent and widely covered case against Brock Turner. Too often society, and even the law, turns against women who aren’t the “perfect” victim and AFI fights loud and clear against the all to familiar idea of, “Wasn’t she just asking for it?”

Louise O’Neill’s novels hit heavy feminist issues, but off paper she takes patriarchal slights with humor.

Exhibit A: Louise O’Neill is criticized for wearing a strapless shirt while interviewing two male journalists because god forbid women reveal their shoulders. She graces the internet with a picture of her in the same shirt while at an all female panel event.

Read our interview with ass-kicker and bold feminist, Louise O’Neill, here:

MGM: The issues your novels tackle are heavy and have prompted such passionate responses, positive and negative, that I can only imagine the emotional and mental toll that might be taking on you.

O’Neill: Writing Asking For It took a toll on me. I was so immersed in this world, utterly consumed by Emma and her story, that I started to have nightmares in which I was being raped. The first draft of the book took about 6 months to write and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to write again. I was concerned that the people might not ‘get’ it or understand what I was trying to achieve so, again, the reactions and feedback – while overwhelming at times – does make all that hard work seem worthwhile.

MGM: You’ve often mentioned the outpour of women coming to you with their stories about their own experiences of assault and rape. Specifically with AFI, do you think that’s really indicative of how necessary it is to have these conversations about consent?

O’Neill: Sadly, I think it’s indicative of how common sexual violence is. Since AFI was published, more and more and more women have shared their stories of assault or rape with me and it’s beginning to feel like this is an epidemic. I wish that I was surprised when I hear these stories but I never am. Horrified, saddened, angry, yes. Surprised? No.

MGM: I know Emma has been described over and over as “unlikeable” (guilty) but honestly after a little self-reflection I saw some of myself in Emma, and especially at that age. She’s flawed. She’s human. She’s stuck in this fishbowl town trying to stay at the top of the food chain. Does it bother you to see Emma often described as “unlikeable”?

O’Neill: Yes and no. I don’t think she’s the monster that she’s painted as. As you said, she’s young, she’s self absorbed, and she has been conditioned from a very young age to value physical appearance above all else. I did deliberately make her difficult to readily sympathize with because I wanted to move away from the idea of the ‘perfect’ victim. Women and men who we find unlikeable get raped all the time – they are still worthy of our support and empathy.

MGM: For those of us able to recognize those less than lovely parts of ourselves in Emma, I think it was almost a kind of relief to see it so clear cut (at the end, of course) how undeniably wronged she was. To show us this character who was drinking, who was flirty and sexual, who said and did things you wouldn’t understand a victim saying or doing and then to show us that it 100% does not matter because what happened to her was wrong… it felt huge. I think it’s just another resounding affirmation to women that you absolutely do not have to be the “perfect victim” and that rape is without a doubt horribly wrong in every single circumstance.

O’Neill: Rape is NEVER the fault of the victim, it is only ever the fault of the rapist. It doesn’t matter what the victim is wearing, how much she/he has had to drink, what their sexual history is – no one ever deserves to be raped.

MGM: As for the negative end of the feedback spectrum… man oh man. I’ve seen the different negative comments that have been said about you and your books and they seem to range from flat out ignorance to outright anger and disgust. How do you deal with this sort of commentary?

O’Neill: It can feel exhausting. Most women will have a story of sexual violence (And one in ten men will have one too) and it seems like we are shouted down when we try to share them. It’s baffling to me that someone’s first reaction to a victim telling what happened to her/him is to scream NOT ALL MEN. I’ve tried to ignore it. It takes up too much mental energy. I write a column for a national newspaper here and I use that to try and raise awareness for these issues.

MGM:  I think those people are the people that really need to be reached and that need to be impacted by this conversation, but how do you get them to really listen?

O’Neill: It’s difficult.  Sometimes I wonder if we are just shouting in an echo chamber, and the only people who are listening are other feminists who already agree with you. I think the conversations have to happen amongst young men themselves. Social currency around ‘bro culture’ and sexist banter has to be removed so the young man making rape jokes or misogynistic comments is the one being ostracized.

 MGM: I think so many trains of thought for people of this mind set just start and end with, “Hey. We all think rape is wrong. No one is saying it’s okay.” or “It’s 2016. Women aren’t suppressed anymore.”, but the issue is so much more insidious and subtle than that, isn’t it?

O’Neill: You only have to look at the Brock Turner story to realize that actually, not everyone thinks rape is wrong. That some men feel that they are entitled to take a nearly unconscious woman and use her body for their own gratification. To hear Turner’s father say that Brock doesn’t deserve to be punished for ’20 minutes of action’ is rape culture in action. 

MGM: Even as a feminist, “Asking For It” had me at questioning myself. And Emma. I had to recognize that there was this ingrained way of thinking going on that was damaging to women, damaging to myself, damaging to this bigger cause, and I had this holy shit moment of, wait, I am the problem. Its me.

O’Neill: We have all been raised in the same murky, patriarchal society that engages in victim blaming all the time. It’s not surprising that many of us have internalized all those attitudes. It would nearly be impossible not to.

MGM: When reading “Only Ever Yours” I kept getting flashbacks of myself as a teenager looking through magazines, seeing these “perfect” women and remembering how much I hated my body at that time. These days celebrities utilize their social media to show their real selves and combat these “perfect” images. They show people their real face and real body. It seems more people on social media have been discouraging pitting women against each other and they want everyone to stop comparing women’s bodies. Social media plays a huge, generally negative part in both of your novels. How do you view it personally?

O’Neill: I’m a huge fan of social media although I skewer it in both books. I do think it can be used for good or for evil and we need to encourage young people in particular to engage with it in a healthy, helpful way. I have found Twitter incredible for creating a sense of community amongst feminist writers in particular – it has opened my eyes to issues of race, intersectionality, body image, fat shaming etc that I would never have been exposed to otherwise. It makes the dissemination of that information so much easier but, conversely, you then have to deal with trolling and abuse online. It’s a tricky balance to find.

MGM: “Only Ever Yours” is set in a dystopian world and it reveals these volatile, fake friendships between girls who have been raised to believe their worth is based on their psychical appearance and to compete with one another for the attention of men. It’s not uncommon to see existing or potential female friendships tainted with an undertone of jealousy. You can get a sense of it when you listen to or see the way some women talk about one another. Where do you think this comes from?

O’Neill: We are encouraged to compete with other in a way that men are not. We are conditioned to compare ourselves to one another – who’s prettier, who’s thinner, who is more attractive to men – and it’s very difficult to form genuine friendships with one another when you are engaging in those types of competitive thoughts. I’ve found that as I get older and understand more about how the patriarchy works, I’m less likely to do so and my female friendships have become stronger and richer than ever before.

 MGM: What message or advice do you have for those working through feelings of jealousy and anger towards other women that are bred from the insecurity of coming short of “perfect”? Or how do we change this mindset?

O’Neill: Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity and of anything good in life, really. None of us are perfect and we never will be and striving constantly for some ideal that is utterly unattainable will only leave us feeling constantly frustrated with ourselves. That’s no way to live. I think it’s about being kind to ourselves, and speaking to ourselves like we would to small child.

MGM: What books have you read that moved you or changed you?

O’Neill: Goodness, so many. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, The Awakening, The Virgin Suicides, Shrill, Rachel’s Holiday, Prep…. I could be here all day!

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