Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure of a trashy popular novel. The writing is straightforward, not overly literary, and yet by the end you realize all of Despentes’s complex feminist points have not only been made, but have found their way into your mind, have changed something about the way you think. This is her genius.
Despentes doesn’t merely explore what it’s like to be a woman in the world. Some of her books are about what it’s like to be anyone in a world that keeps people unequal, whether they be men or women, rich or poor. They’re about how everyone is affected, and affected negatively, by our society’s status quo. Bye Bye Blondie is one of these books.
Published by the Feminist Press earlier this month and translated from the French by Siân Reynolds, Bye Bye Blondie is a story about Gloria and Gloria’s rage. At first we are made to think Gloria’s outbursts are immature, the enactment of “the crazy girlfriend,” costing her relationships with lovers, friends, and family. We learn Gloria was previously placed in a psychiatric hospital by her parents because of these outbursts. And yet as the book goes on, we realize Gloria’s rage is incredibly right and true. It’s the only sane course of action for anyone who sees the world for what it is.
It’s when Gloria is locked away in a mental hospital for a few months that she starts to understand, to crack. There she starts to see the way of the world, how power operates. She realizes that to exist within the system is to betray herself; to get along with others, to have friends or boyfriends or money, she has to be someone else. In the most revealing scene of the book, the scene that feels most directly to have come from Despentes’s life (her memoir King Kong Theory starts out, “I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones”), a specialist asks Gloria why she chooses to be ugly, why she is “refusing to be a woman.” Gloria doesn’t respond, knowing it won’t help her get out of the hospital, but Despentes tells us: “Because agreeing to be a woman means suffering in silence, not fighting back.” And the reader knows this to be true: Gloria is in the hospital “because [her] father started yelling at [her] and instead of keeping quiet, [she] answered back.”
Her saving grace in the hospital is a young man named Eric, a rich boy who’s temporarily lost his memory and remains there until his bourgeois parents come to rescue him. After he leaves, they begin to exchange letters. As main characters tend to do, they fall in love. Eric is the first person she’s ever met who loves her “precisely for what she was most afraid of in herself.” Namely, her rage, her distaste for the world, her ability to see the world and those playing into it for what they are. Because her rage soothes him, makes him think that he too holds the world at an ironic distance, that he too has not betrayed himself and does not live a life of compromise. Being with Gloria allows Eric to forget who his parents raised him to be. In turn, Eric lets Gloria feel it’s okay to be herself.
Once Gloria is out of the mental hospital, they realize there’s only one thing to do: run away. They live on the margins of society for a while. They’re bums, they’re poor, they’re punk rockers, they’re happy. Despentes tells us, “All this time, other people their age were learning to be competitive, disciplined, learning not to set their sights too high, not to ask questions, and that money is what matters most in this world. Eric and Gloria were learning nothing at all . . .”
Suddenly Eric goes missing, and after months of searching for him, Gloria receives a letter from him saying he has decided to enter back into society, or in his words, “reality.” In order to search for him, Gloria, too, re-enters society, where she’ll remain, but always with a disdain for herself and everyone else living this “reality.” Her outbursts of rage are against the world, but also against herself for giving in to what she calls the “pure surrender” of going along with this cruel world.
Twenty years later, Gloria and Eric run into each other in the street following one of her outbursts, and this is where the plot of Bye Bye Blondie begins. They are now in different places in their lives—Eric is a famous talk-show host who is incredibly depressed, and Gloria is a poor and barely functioning member of society living off of government aid. They have their ups and downs and their love story plays out over the course of the book. Gloria seems to be caught in a trap: as soon as she finds herself edging toward success, money, and acceptance in society, she loses herself more and more, and ends up flying off the handle in rebellion, landing back at square one. We watch Gloria and Eric explore how far they’re willing to compromise before they wind up disgusted with themselves, Gloria manic and Eric depressive. But the most interesting thing Despentes does in Bye Bye Blondie is show us how these two ultimately fit together. In this world, love does not conquer all, does not bridge differences. A soul mate is not someone who balances us, or shows us the beauty of the world. A soul mate isn’t even someone who allows us to tolerate the world. Rather, a soul mate is someone who enables us to stomach the compromises we inevitably make to live within it.
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