Thursday, January 11, 2007
Was Noel Coward a misogynist?
Misogynist - or bitch?
The Boston Globe's Louise Kennedy diagnoses Noel Coward's brain as "charming, but misogynist" in today's review of Design for Living. I seem to recall this is one political issue that reliably rouses Louise, so you have to consider the emotional source of the charge. Still, it's true that Coward has his moments. In Private Lives, for instance, there's the notorious quip that "Some women should be struck regularly, like gongs." And in Design for Living, women receive a few nasty putdowns (particularly, ironically enough, from the mouth of Gilda, his heroine).
But is that kind of queeny bitchery really misogyny? Certainly it squares - superficially - with the straight version of the syndrome (which is why, unfortunately, the lines get laughs). But in a way, isn't Gilda calling women "bitches" in Design for Living a bit like Ludacris using the n-word? After all, Coward wasn't just gay, he was a bottom - and, not to put too fine a point on it, bottoms in the end (as it were) will stoop to anything when faced with the competition!
Sorry, but the love/hate relationship of the queen to the female is far too complex to be reduced to "misogyny." This isn't to say that Coward in bitch mode is a pretty sight - it's simply to point out that we should understand him for what he was. I realize, of course, that Scott Heller isn't about to let Louise Kennedy explain tops and bottoms to the soccer moms who read the Globe - still, it's lazy to pretend some pseudo-feminist critique of "the male" is appropriate to Coward's persona. The man who wrote the heroines of Hay Fever, Private Lives, Present Laughter, and (yes) Design for Living certainly had insight into - and even identified with - women, and in particular a certain kind of feminine allure. Perhaps feminism itself has a problem with that allure (and its underside) - but that's not Coward's problem.