Skip to content

Apex Predators and Elena Ferrante

On the vestigial baggage of gender identity

Clad only in my boxers and sporting a partial nocturnal boner, I wrenched a mop handle from the filthy sea anemone at its end and swung for my life. My combatant’s shrieks pierced the night, but the blow had missed, merely angering him. I grunted and swung again, but he danced away with the agility of an aerial Justin Timberlake. My then-girlfriend Audrey sat rigid on my nearby futon with her knees bent, her head pitched forward and buried in the sheets, the thicket of her ample brown curls muffling her incessant screams of terror so that she sounded like a character emoting from a minimized Netflix window. The bat, who didn’t at all resemble the campy insignia emblazoned on Adam West’s pectorals, flared his wings and puffed his chest provocatively. For a moment, I was paralyzed by a collision of contradictory impulses. The humanitarian in me never relished ending any being’s life, but a brutish pride had swelled up that made the idea of getting punked by a gliding demon roughly one-thirtieth my size completely intolerable.

Earlier that evening, I’d read on an animal control website that a bat was only likely to wander into your home and stay there if it had contracted rabies; a normal bat’s keen navigational sense would lead it away from a human household. I’d later learn that this foreboding intel was unreliable, but it nonetheless informed my perception of the stakes that night. Since materializing in the foyer of my mother’s house a few hours before our showdown in my bedroom, the bat had set up shop in the crib like an anarcho-punk squatter’s rights advocate. So it was with a certain urgency that I hoped to dispose of the menace. My dad, my brother, and I had inspected seemingly every dark, enclosed potential hiding space in the house before giving up and turning in for the night. Once Audrey and I had drifted uneasily to sleep, the bat emerged seemingly from nowhere and soared about the room, probably scouting out the perfect place to host his friends to have some beers and form a Soul Train or something. Eventually, intuition yanked me back to consciousness. I awoke with a start, stumbled out of bed, and groped blearily for a weapon.

The bat emerged seemingly from nowhere and soared about the room, probably scouting out the perfect place to host his friends to have some beers and form a Soul Train or something.

“Die you airborne rat!” I bellowed, mainly to embolden myself. The bravado worked. I whipped the mop handle through the air harder and more accurately until the business end struck pay dirt and dislodged the bat’s head from its loathsome body.

“Wow,” my father said, striding into the room and taking in the absurdity of the scene with his typical casualness. “You got him, G.” The felled villain’s eerily still-writhing head crunched beneath my father’s slippered foot. Without lifting his slipper, he rotated his ankle methodically as if emulating Chubby Checker. The bat’s head grew still, flattened and oozed blood. Wielding the blood-speckled mop handle like some crude club, with sweat collecting along my exposed collarbones, I’m sure I resembled primordial man. It was August, and my uncovered form was taut and lithe from a summer of hooping and running distances daily. The boxer briefs I wore had bunched inward during the scrap, and they clung to my pelvis with the blunt utility of a loincloth. Shortly after, my mother emerged from her room and looked on as my father and I assembled a battalion of cleaning agents and began relieving my bedroom of scattered bat viscera.

“You know, it’s actually a good thing,” my mother said wryly. “Audrey needed to see you kill something for her. As primitive as it sounds, that type of thing is still important to women.”

Dog Days

In her 2002 novel The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante deftly dissects just the kind of seemingly vestigial social and historical baggage that remains central to contemporary gender identity. It’s an audacious, unflinching look at the things that are still important to women and why. Reeling in the wake of her husband’s unexpected abandonment of her for another woman, thirty-eight-year-old Olga is vexed by the realization that her sense of self is tethered so tightly to her social roles as mother and wife. The novel’s title is fitting not only for its reference to the sudden dissolution of a marriage, but for Olga’s dereliction of the duties that have come to define her. Bills still pile up, the dog her husband left behind still requires care, and ants threaten to overtake the house when Olga neglects her once undeviating house-cleaning routine.

Ferrante deftly dissects just the kind of seemingly vestigial social and historical baggage that remains central to contemporary gender identity.

Since marrying in her twenties, Olga has grounded herself in relation to Mario, her suddenly treacherous husband. Olga finds herself unmoored without his presence as a complement to her position in the home they’ve made with their two young children. Even walking the dog is a challenging plunge into the unknown—made all the more daunting by Olga’s realization that her former partner, as an entitled dude, moved through the world with an abandon that is counterintuitive to her:

Mario would have certainly let [the dog] off the leash already, just beyond the tunnel, and meanwhile would have accosted the women on the benches to soothe them and reassure them that the dog was well-behaved, friendly to children. I, on the other hand, even in the woods, wanted to be sure that he wouldn’t bother anyone, and only then did I let him go.

In Mario’s absence, Olga begins to appreciate how the primacy of her husband’s needs came at the direct expense of her own. Once she no longer has his love to lean on, she can no longer disregard this unbalanced tradeoff. She enumerates her sacrifices with growing despondency:

I had taken away my own time and added it to his to make him more powerful. I had put aside my own aspirations to go along with his. At every crisis of despair I had set aside my own crises to comfort him . . . I had taken care of the house, I had taken care of the meals, I had taken care of the children, I had taken care of all the boring details of everyday life, while he stubbornly climbed the ladder up from our unprivileged beginnings.

Keeping It Not-So Real

I believed the Supremes when they told us love is a game of give and take, but Olga’s struggle paints the transactional nature of romantic commitment in even more instructive terms. Though the novel is by no means a polemic, it’s hard, as an aspirational post-knuckledragger, not to view the text as a cautionary tale. A heterosexual relationship involves two people who, in a broader context, occupy dissimilar positions of power. And lurking behind this imbalance is the awkward dilemma of just how a man might satisfy the expectations of his venerable gender role while maintaining a less traditional kind of sensitivity to a female partner’s needs. I’m happy to murder displaced animal pests for my girlfriend’s protection if it serves some primeval “order of things,” but I’m less enthusiastic about replicating the corrosive elements of timeless male-female relations. Twenty-first century conversations about identity often devolve into pointlessly abstract musing about whether one can ever fully understand the experience of someone who belongs to a different social group than one’s own. I’m skeptical that a total understanding of another’s experience is ever the necessary threshold for thoughtful coexistence, but great literature provides insight into the experiences of others that might be otherwise inaccessible, and can be a vehicle for the kind of empathy that foments social progress. The Days of Abandonment is richer and more nuanced than a merely schematic handbook for post-sexist masculinity, but Ferrante does detail the perils that attend treating relationships as a zero-sum game in which a man willfully waxes at a woman’s wane.

In my relationship with Audrey, we both more or less understood what we were getting into. Our shared ideological foundation was an inestimable blessing. Audrey described herself as a radical feminist, and for the most part the dynamics of our relationship cohered smoothly with her views. She was the brainy, analytical type who peppered casual conversation with bell hooks quotes and references to favorite passages from Assata Shakur’s autobiography. Locking lips with her in her dorm room, I’d periodically bump my head on an Angela Davis book on Audrey’s bedside table as the Janelle Monae Pandora station blared righteous accompaniment. Once we’d been dating a few months, Audrey hipped me to the fact that early in our courtship, a conversation about the connection between DuBoisian double consciousness and contemporary feminism had been instrumental in her decision to give me a shot.

“If you live life on the margins in terms of your race and class, you should be able to imagine life as it is for people who are marginalized in terms of their gender or orientation,” I’d told her one October school night. My books were open on the table before me, but they were essentially props. I’d perched in the library that evening hoping to run into her. It was that rare, gorgeous convergence where you’re telling someone something that is both what you’re pretty sure they want to hear and the truth.

Still, there were times when controlled doses of old-fashioned male aggression seemed to bring us closer together.

Still, there were times when controlled doses of old-fashioned male aggression seemed to bring us closer together. We’d been in the cafeteria lunch line when a drunken freshman Japanese studies major named Tariq shoved Audrey violently aside in an attempt to cut to the front. It was spring, and I’d recently been hospitalized for congestion and wheezing so intense that I was unable to sleep for consecutive nights. Audrey was visibly enervated from having stayed up with me. I should’ve been comparably drained, but instead I was buzzing with artificial verve; to treat my asthma the doctor had prescribed me Prednisone, a steroid he’d warned could increase aggression and impulsiveness. After I helped Audrey to her feet, I raised an eyebrow suggestively and jerked my neck at the stocky manga aficionado who’d shoved her. She made an “it’s not worth it” gesture with her hands and began to entwine her fingers with mine, but I gently shook her off. Before my better angels could intervene, I wheeled on the dude with all the frenzied determination of a character in a “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong” sketch on Chappelle’s Show.

“Bruh, I don’t know if you noticed,” I barked, yanking the stunned underclassman by the collar so that his face was inches from mine, “but you just knocked my girl down in your haste to be first in line for some substandard dining hall food you have no business ever getting that excited about.” I don’t know why I had to put down the pride of our cafeteria’s friendly, devoted employees, but I like to think that was just the Prednisone talking.

“Look, I didn’t mean . . .” Tariq stammered.

Peripheral vision showed me my friend Desmond, a standout on the school basketball team, nudging a nearby teammate and gawking at the scene as if surprised to learn I had “it” in me. Gradually he began making his way across the cafeteria, prepared to intervene if he thought I wasn’t in control. At 6’4 and 220 pounds, Desmond could defuse the petty squabbling between the two lesser physical specimens at will, and he knew it. A minor crowd had formed around Tariq and I, and if I didn’t want the lasting image of the skirmish to be a dramatically unsatisfying stand-down, in which I was to be effectively boxed out by my friend the shooting guard, I’d have to wrap up my little burst of performative machismo before Desmond could get involved. I abruptly loosened my grip on Tariq’s collar and he stumbled the way you would if the opposing team had slackened their end in a tug of war.

“I don’t know what your deal is, but you made her unhappy,” I pronounced dramatically. “And when you make her unhappy, you make me really unhappy.”

The shaken Tariq swiveled his head toward Audrey with the deference of a squire addressing royalty.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I shouldn’t have done it. I’m so drunk . . .”

Audrey thanked Tariq and deflected the crowd’s attention with characteristic grace. But the gleam in her eye asterisked her words when she kissed me and whispered, “That was hardly necessary.”