Flip­ping the gen­der script

In her pre­scient de­but novel, Any Man, Two and a Half Men star Am­ber Tam­blyn de­picts a group of men who’ve been sex­u­ally as­saulted by the same woman—rais­ing com­pelling ques­tions about gen­der, power, and #Metoo

WHO - - Win­ter Reads - By David Can­field

Walk­ing her dog on a mid-may morn­ing, Am­ber Tam­blyn is re­flect­ing on “I’m Done With Not Be­ing Be­lieved,” an op-ed she wrote for The New York Times last Septem­ber. The piece al­leged that ac­tor James Woods flirted with a then-16year-old Tam­blyn at a restau­rant—and that, when he learned Tam­blyn’s age, he re­sponded, “Even bet­ter.” Woods, via Twit­ter, had called Tam­blyn’s story “a lie,” which only en­hanced its res­o­nance. “I went to some party with my hus­band, and all these women—net­work ex­ec­u­tives, heads of stu­dios, ac­tresses I’d never met—were com­ing up to me al­most in tears,” Tam­blyn re­calls. “For them, not be­ing be­lieved has al­ways been part of the zeit­geist.” Weeks after the op-ed’s pub­li­ca­tion, the #Metoo move­ment would be­gin shak­ing the in­dus­try to its core, a reck­on­ing for its mis­treat­ment of women. Over the next year, Tam­blyn would emerge among prom­i­nent #Metoo voices. Now the ac­tress-writer is turn­ing to a new medium to de­liver her mes­sage: fic­tion. Her de­but novel, Any Man, feels ex­plic­itly made for this cul­tural mo­ment. Blend­ing prose with po­etry, it gives voice to the vic­tims of a se­rial rapist as they wres­tle with trauma

and fend off a me­dia frenzy hun­gry for sound bites. The book, Tam­blyn notes, was in de­vel­op­ment years be­fore #Metoo. “Just be­cause the move­ment it­self hap­pened six months ago doesn’t mean [a lot of us] haven’t been feel­ing it for, like, 600 years,” she says. “It’s the same rea­son why I wrote about [James Woods]: it’s been there.” But as far as get­ting at­ten­tion goes, the tim­ing is serendip­i­tous for Tam­blyn— a chance to con­trib­ute to a vi­tal on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion in a bold new way.

In­deed, Any Man provoca­tively sub­verts ex­pec­ta­tions: The book’s vic­tims are all men; the preda­tor is a woman named Maude. “I wanted to de-gen­der the con­ver­sa­tion around sex­ual as­sault,” Tam­blyn says. She de­picts men as vul­ner­a­ble, emo­tional be­ings in a way that pop cul­ture rarely does, while also nod­ding to the way women tend to be “mythol­o­gised.” She ex­plores the role of me­dia in trans­mit­ting dom­i­nant (and prob­lem­atic) nar­ra­tives about abuse and power. No-one in the story eludes com­plic­ity: “The novel, for me, re­ally felt, even as I was writ­ing it, like an in­dict­ment of our cul­ture— in­clud­ing my­self and most read­ers—for how we are ei­ther com­plicit or com­pla­cent when it comes to the cul­ture of rape.” There’s a beat­ing heart to Any Man— it’s the em­pa­thy with which Tam­blyn, also a pub­lished poet, draws her char­ac­ters that ren­ders the book so po­lit­i­cally po­tent. The first man fea­tured, Don­ald, is loosely in­spired by Emily Doe, from the trial of Stan­ford stu­dent Brock Turner, who was found guilty of felony sex­ual as­sault; we bear wit­ness to the char­ac­ter’s “frac­tur­ing,” the af­ter­math of a life-chang­ing and na­tion­ally dis­sected trauma. But no two ex­pe­ri­ences are the same. “Sex­ual as­sault knows no race, it knows no gen­der—it knows noth­ing, and ev­ery­one pro­cesses it in a dif­fer­ent way,” Tam­blyn says.

She also gen­der-flips the per­va­sive cul­ture of vic­tim-blam­ing with male-cen­tric ques­tions like “Why are men get­ting drunk at bars in­stead of be­ing at home with their wives?” and “How could he pos­si­bly get raped if he had an erec­tion?” be­ing asked of vic­tims. “It’s akin to what women hear all the time,” she says.

Any Man likely won’t be as widely read as Tam­blyn’s Twit­ter feed; it can’t gen­er­ate vi­ral clips the way the TV series and films sharply com­ment­ing on#metoo can and do. But Tam­blyn be­lieves that fic­tion can reach peo­ple and pro­voke thought. “Our minds are pow­er­ful—when you’re there alone by your­self, ab­sorb­ing in­for­ma­tion, you can’t open your mouth and dis­agree,” she says. “You can’t get in an ar­gu­ment with some­one about the way that they think.” Rather, she con­tin­ues, the book in­spires a dif­fer­ent re­sponse—one that’s essen­tial to the move­ment’s longevity: “You have to lis­ten.”

“Sex­ual as­sault knows no race, it knows no gen­der— it knows noth­ing, and ev­ery­one pro­cesses it in a dif­fer­ent way,” says ac­tress and first­time novelist Am­ber Tam­blyn.

Tam­blyn (far left), mar­ried to ac­tor David Cross and mum of one, starred in 2005’s The Sis­ter­hood of the Trav­el­ing Pants with Blake Lively, Amer­ica Fer­rera and Alexis Bledel.

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