In the 1970's, Don DeLillo created Cleo Birdwell, a woman who supposedly played for the New York Rangers, and published her "memoir" as a true story, though it was actually a totally fictional hockey-and-sex romp described as "literary vaudeville" by DeLillo's editor. In her piece on Amazons, published this September by the LA Review of Books, Beth Boyle Machlan unpacked the feminist repercussions of Cleo Birdwell's fact and fiction. I spoke with Machlan about her experience reading Amazons and writing her criticism of the book. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
ZH: The first thing I wanted to know was how you first encountered Amazons. I've been around hockey for awhile, and I had never heard of it.
BM: It's kind of embarrassing, from a feminist perspective. I encountered it the same way I encountered Manon Rhéaume, in that a straight white male told me about it. I was working on a screenplay about a female NHL goalie and I didn't know that either of them existed. More embarrassed not knowing about Rhéaume, of course.
ZH: What was your gut feeling about the book? For my part, when I was reading your piece, I felt really pulled in two directions, both wanting to be interested in it because it's a part of hockey history but also feeling kind of cheated that this woman had been invented for sexual fantasies.
BM: Exactly. There are actually some great hockey moments, particularly when they lose in the playoffs and some of the team never even saw the puck, that ring really true. And I kind of love that the only guys who don't use her for sex are her teammates. They barely seem to notice her, really. They take her for granted. It's everyone else that's the problem, and you just wish she could simply play hockey.
The book is also really strong on the monotony of the road, the bad weather, how few people care about hockey compared to baseball and football, etc. DeLillo knows what he's doing, which is why it's so sad that he won't acknowledge the book anymore, much less answer questions about it.
But all that ground had been covered. I thought it was fascinating that, while everyone acknowledged the book was mostly about sex, they clung to the hockey. I thought, someone has to talk about the sex.
There's also a speech given by the owner of Madison Square Garden about how hockey is boring because there's no racial element, and no one in America wants to watch a bunch of white guys hit each other.
ZH: That's interesting, because when you talk about the subsequent purchase of the team by Arabian oil magnates, it seemed like there was a racial or Islamophobic element as well.
BM: Oh, it's hugely Islamophobic, to an almost camp extent. But again, DeLillo is playing with that, because the Arabs don't try to have sex with Cleo... yet they're the only men she really loses her shit at. I think he may have been trying to say something about how easy it is to point to sexism in other cultures, and how hard it is to see it or acknowledge it in our own. Not sure I give him that much credit, frankly.
ZH: Who did you see as the intended audience for this book: men or women?
BM: I honestly don't know who was supposed to read this, but I know people did. I think people saw it as a smutty sex memoir. A lot of them got taken in, probably again because hockey is so under the radar. Apparently the woman who posed for the "author picture" actually appeared at some events.
I was mentally trying to situate it alongside other sports memoirs, one by a trans woman for instance--Renee Richards, who would have been in the news at the time Amazons was published. And Cleo actually says something about how her memoir will be more intimate than those written by homosexuals and transsexuals, which is a bizarre statement in terms of how the character is being positioned there:
Murray Jay [a sportswriter in the novel] says athletes are people with bodies. Whatever that means, I don’t want to overlook it. It’s probably safe to say that except for homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals, no athlete has discussed the intimate details of his or her life with the kind of refreshing candor I plan to use in the pages ahead.
Isn't that nuts? What the hell is he talking about? Reading it reductively, it aligns Cleo's gender with what would have been viewed as "aberrant" identities, reducing everyone except straight men to their sexuality/gender identity. Either that, or DeLillo is dismissing the idea that anyone's candor about sexuality can still be refreshing.
There was so much I wanted to include that ended up not making the cut; for instance, this quotation from a NY Times article about a female Olympian who had too much testosterone for the Olympics committee to let her compete:
Thus, as the court put it, the I.A.A.F. finds itself "in the invidious position of having to reconcile the existence of a binary male/female system of athletics categorization with the biological reality that sex in humans is a continuum with no clear or singular boundary between men and women."
ZH: Do you think that, however misguided, DeLillo was possibly trying to create some kind of "level playing field" with straight/hetero smut?
BM: I don't think he really cares about women in sports. I do think he recognized that the currency of bodies that professional sports represents looks a lot like the currency of women's bodies that American culture is much more up front about. I think he may have wanted to put those two currencies together—a beautiful woman and a professional athlete.
ZH: And we're seeing a lot of that now as women's sports are actually raising to more prominence in the "real world."
BM: Our bodies are always public property, in a sense, in that they are commodified and legislated without our consent. There is a way that athletes experience something vaguely akin to that. We know a lot more about what happens to men when they're injured too young, lose their scholarships, or develop substance abuse problems. DeLillo's male hockey players aren't finely-tuned machines like Crosby and Lundqvist. They're the beat-up toothless old guard who didn't wear helmets. I thought it was interesting that he put Cleo on the Rangers when they were popular, but there's no star on the team. They're just guys going to work.
ZH: Does Cleo have any foil in the book, a particular character who seems to be her equal? Or is it too indulgent to do that?
BM: She has the tennis player, Archie Brewster, who is always traveling and always tired and can't form any real relationships. He sleeps with an older woman (Cleo's agent) the same way she sleeps with older men. He's kind of the guy she keeps trying to get back to, but they're both athletes (and crazy, really) so it doesn't work. Her actual "boyfriend" is a former Ranger who had to quit because he has Jumping Frenchman's disease, which actually exists and is a really pronounced form of Tourette Syndrome. He gets put to sleep in a box and she has to maintain him. It's not much of a relationship.
The most disturbing part is her complete absence of women friends. This book can't even take the Bechdel test, much less pass it. She really has no interest in the companionship of women, and all I could think as I read it was how badly she needed it.
ZH: Right, it seems like a rotating cast of men who let her down, which is a really easy trap to fall into when you're trying to write a "strong woman" and she's also your protagonist.
BM: Yeah, for DeLillo "strong woman" meant "I think I'm better than other women; they have nothing to offer me." Do you remember that awful Tribune piece on fan fiction during the SCF, about Blackhawks fic?
ZH: Yes, definitely.
BM: My friend Anne who wrote a book on fan fiction was quoted out of context in that piece, but she said elsewhere that if a woman wrote a crazy sex scene, it was fic, but if Philip Roth wrote it, it got the national Book Award. That's kind of how I feel about Amazons. She's a literary blow-up-doll who plays hockey. The only problem with the fic analogy is that DeLillo wasn't a hockey fan. But basically it's postmodern fic.
ZH: How did you personally feel about Cleo's sexual harassment of her male teammates? I had to read that passage myself 3 or 4 times because I couldn't believe it—it seemed outrageously disrespectful of not just female bodies and minds but male bodies and minds. Like a really bad Mary Sue fic, but gender-swapped.
BM: But what also strikes you is how completely not frightened the guy is, and how easy it is for him to articulate exactly what he doesn't like about her behavior. He's safe in a way that women in that position are not. Cleo doesn't agree with him, but you know she's not going to grab his dick again, because he said no. And then we're automatically in a different universe.
Which made me wonder if DeLillo is saying "women just need to be clearer about saying no," or is he actually on "our" side and recognizing that the power imbalance is so pronounced that there's no way to make it even?
ZH: I'm almost wondering if there was an intent there, other than to titillate with a woman who would just grab at a man's dick without asking in the workplace, essentially. I think he did probably know though that a man saying no has a lot more effect than a woman saying no, socially speaking.
"Cleo doesn't fit in" seems to be a huge part of her appeal. Despite all of her strength and athleticism, she's somewhat powerless to affect images and perceptions of herself because before anything else, she's a beautiful woman.
BM: The only thing she really does is turn down the two ad campaigns. In one she's naked in a hot tub eating an apple, Eve-like, but she won't pose even semi-nude. And the other one is the Amazons snack food, which is just so sad. She knows she's beautiful, and she knows that beauty has a power. But she's under the illusion that she can control it, or keep others from commodifying it.
She also wears a t-shirt from the hockey team she played on as a kid under all her clothes, instead of a bra. This gets repeated several times and I don't really know what to do with it. She orders duplicates of the original t-shirt from China.
ZH: A sexy image mixed with the innocence of childhood?
BM: Yes, I think so. She wears tap pants instead of underwear, too. You never see her in lingerie. Men are always baffled when she takes her shirt off, but naturally they get over it, because boobs.
ZH: She can't keep others from commodifying her, I guess, because her existence is thanks to a man who created her to commodify her (and, incidentally, deny her).
BM: No matter what happens to her in the book she's still DeLillo's commodity, and she made him more money than anything else had to that point. I wanted to tweet at the woman who is interviewing him at the New Yorker festival, because now seems like the perfect time to ask him about this book... and I'm sorry, but it seems like such privilege to just say "I shalt not discuss it." Or am I being unreasonable? I don't know. Maybe when Toni Morrison does something similar I'll respect it, but to me it's just so fucking pretentious to disown a book like that.
ZH: I was reading up on DeLillo because I've never actually read any of his novels, and I came across this paragraph which heads up his Wikipedia article:
DeLillo has described his fiction as being concerned with "living in dangerous times", and in a 2005 interview declared, "Writers must oppose systems. It's important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments [...] I think writers, by nature, must oppose things, oppose whatever power tries to impose on us."
... Which is possibly the most pretentious thing a white male author could say. Do you have a response to that?
BM: It's so Franzen, isn't it, although I guess the chronology there is the other way around? To not see that one is at the top of the fucking food chain? To not ever write convincingly about race or gender or sexual difference, because you're getting off on systems that you totally benefit from?
White Noise is a great book, I think, particularly about academia and media. But you have to read it with a grain of salt. I think that's been the biggest shock to me as an academic... all the "systems" that academia critiques, loudly, (although often upholds as well) are still in full force in the sports world.
As a literary critic, you would be thrilled to find a forgotten novel in your field; it happened to a friend of mine and changed her life. But sports is so set in its ways, so completely open about its power structures in a way that the other realms I move in are not.
I feel like we are seeing a moment of change, especially as hockey fans because the world is so small. Moment of crisis is probably a better way of putting it. Or maybe I'm too optimistic.
[With respect to Amazons] I think it's important to acknowledge how little has changed, and for people to face that and try to do something.
ZH: How would you advise male authors in their approach to writing about today's very real hockey players who are women?
BM: There has to be a way to talk about women athletes that values their athleticism equally with that of men, while still giving time to the challenges they face as women. Women athletes (and gay athletes and trans athletes and, depending on the sport, athletes of color) are not just quirky deviations from a white male norm. The term I used in my essay was "sideshow" and that's really how it seems sometimes—"Ooh, look! They're trying to play hockey!" I want to see male sportswriters paying attention to the women's GAME, not the mere fact that women are playing it. I want to know as much about Hilary Knight's style of play as I do about Rick Nash's or Jonathan Toews'. And the NWHL gives us the opportunity to see that, so I hope writers take it. Want to tell us that Knight has to buy her own tape? Great. But then tell me what she's like on the forecheck, if she's a defensive forward, that sort of thing. I know that stuff about NHL players because that's what the writers talk about. Let's give that attention to the women's game. Women's hockey isn't a cause, like an endangered whale. (Is Connecticut's whale still in danger?) It's a sport. Treat it that way.
Beth Boyle Machlan teaches writing at NYU and lives in Brooklyn. She writes about sports, culture, motherhood, and mental health. In her own words: "My hockey career was short-lived because my backwards crossovers suck."