The Year of the Female Creep

A new literary character has logged on. It’s unclear how long she’s been here; her arrival itself went unnoticed. Instead of speaking, she lurks. Her profile picture is the default “girl” emoji, seemingly chosen for its inoffensiveness and opacity. No one exactly knows who invited her, but she must belong because, otherwise, she wouldn’t have come. Right?

Vaguely menacing wallflowers have been haunting fiction for a while (Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen,” Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs”), but this year they took center stage. In “The Guest,” by Emma Cline, the main character, Alex, is a sex worker whose ultra-wealthy boyfriend (fifties, fitness nut) kicks her out of his house in the Hamptons. She spends the novel sidling through homes and beach parties, trying to avoid being exposed as an outsider and packed off back to the city. Alex is a careful watcher. She watches, for instance, the neat, friendly, efficient activity outside of a private club—how swiftly a man in uniform moves to eject a sunbather sitting in the wrong deck chair! And, to make sure she fits in, Alex elevates self-inspection to an art, drifting repeatedly to the bathroom mirror to check for food in her teeth or flaws in her makeup. She has a “running list: Keep fingernails clean. Keep breath sweet.”

The narrator of “Nothing Special,” by Nicole Flattery, shares Alex’s knack for trespass. A transcriptionist at Warhol’s studio, she devotes her time to eavesdropping on the lives of his friends, muses, and hangers-on. The narrator of “Big Swiss,” by Jen Beagin, also a transcriptionist, this time for a sex therapist, falls in love with the voice of a client. Other new books feature delusional stans (Esther Yi’s “Y/N”), social-media stalkers (Sheena Patel’s “I’m a Fan”), and biographers who don’t know where to draw the line between life and art (Catherine Lacey’s “Biography of X”). All of these novels have in common a woman who watches or listens to others as a vocation. You could describe her as an onlooker. (Ann Beattie, a past master of this particular character, published a short-story collection with that title this year.) She observes out of a sense of lack: maybe she seeks forbidden knowledge, or a sense of community, or to be close to someone she loves. Maybe she yearns to negate, transform, or transcend her old identity. What’s clear, and unsettling, is the wanting itself, which makes her seem not entirely benign.

Who is this character? Call her the female creep. 2023 was a representational milestone for her; she tends to glide under the radar. Especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, male creeps have sucked up most of the oxygen: “Creep” (2023), an essay collection by Myriam Gurba, focussed on predatory maleness, though Gurba did devote a chapter to Joan Didion, who embedded herself uneasily in the American West and wrote about what she saw. (All critics are certainly creeps.) Always an outsider, the creep is never a conspicuous one: she rejects the idea that women belong on the chickadee end of the binoculars. Instead of performing, she consumes performance; her chief characteristic may be the asymmetry of her longing. She looks and hungers, but the object of her gaze does not look or hunger back.

“Female creep” sounds almost like an oxymoron—the creepiness can seem to sit at an odd angle to the femaleness. Women are taught to reflect other people’s desires: “I’m a mirrorball,” sings Taylor Swift; “I’m a mood ring,” sings Britney Spears. But the creep hasn’t figured out how to embody someone else’s fantasies, perhaps because her own are so insistent. Like her male counterpart, she spies, drools, and indulges in other unladylike behaviors. While I was working on this piece, I came across a TikTok that showed an auditorium full of middle-aged women harmonizing to “Creep,” by Radiohead. The women are oddly affectless, their voices technologically distorted. Singing the chorus of Thom York’s incel anthem—“I’m a creep / I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here”—they sound nothing like women; yet, in the way that their song has become estranged from their bodies, they somehow sound exactly like women. They themselves are gone—they’ve dissolved into yearning for the “fucking special” girl floating “like a feather in a beautiful world.” At Warhol’s studio, Flattery’s narrator experiences a similar sense of dissociation. “It felt,” she reflects, “like my life had been reduced to nothing but the tapes, that I no longer recognized the sound of my own voice.”

Strangely often in these novels, when someone is peeking, listening, or lurking, what holds her fascination is the spectacle of femininity being constructed. In “The Guest,” Alex recalls learning her trade from cosmetics tutorials and from observing other sex workers: “How many videos had Alex watched online, learning how to do this, how many hours had she spent studying the other girls: those girls who had lived with her in that bad apartment, girls who made pancakes late at night and cried for faraway mothers, girl who paused doing their makeup to take a delicate inhale off a joint waiting in the ashtray.” Despite her artful mimicry, Alex never loses her sense of being an interloper. Passing through one of many interchangeable Hamptons soirées, she imagines the “briefest wash” of revellers’ lives “falling on her, like light from a door being opened.”

Greta, the medical transcriptionist who narrates “Big Swiss,” can’t help savoring disclosures not meant for her ears. Her job listening to recordings of sex-therapy sessions grants her, a queer woman, a backstage pass to other women’s heteronormative performances. One voice in particular enthralls her. It belongs to a woman whom Greta nicknames Big Swiss. Greta creepily compiles a dossier of facts about her. Big Swiss is married; she talks about giving handjobs and blowjobs to her husband and “feeling better afterwards” because “it’s sort of like walking the dog and drinking wheatgrass at the same time.” In a sense, Big Swiss is an authority on womanhood. She is a successful gynecologist, and also poised and conventionally beautiful (at first, only in Greta’s imagination, but, when they meet, Greta discovers that this is also true in real life). Typing the transcripts, Greta lingers over Swiss’s breaths, her pauses, parsing each subtle vocalization as though it were a sacred text.

The Book of Ayn,” by Lexi Freiman, crafts a primal scene for the female creep. The adult narrator, Anna, is watching her mother getting dressed for a date. As the older woman dabs on “creams and drops of perfume,” darting gracefully around the en-suite bathroom, Anna remembers “how it had felt watching my parents get ready for a night out. With the bathroom obstructed from view, all the erotic promise of an adult evening seemed to live in that single shaft of steamy light.” Anna, who is single and lonely, feels bereft: how odd, she thinks, “to be nearly forty and not the beautiful, erotic adult woman to my own ten-year-old daughter. To be still the guilty, creeping child.” Anna gets right up to the pane of womanhood, but is never admitted, never initiated. She remains a surreptitious presence, wary of discovery and rejection—waiting in darkness, looking at the light.

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