Q&A: Amber Tamblyn Takes On Rape Culture with Any Man

Like many people my age, I grew up with Amber Tamblyn being part of my teenage purview. From the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films to the Joan of Arcadia series, her presence was felt in my pop culture consumption—and she always struck me as someone who was fiercely herself, intelligent beyond her years and relatable.

In other words: Tamblyn seemed like an everywoman, which is why I was excited when I heard about Any Man. Tamblyn, also the author of the poetry collection Dark Sparkler and poetry books Free Stallion and Bang Ditto, tells the story of Maude, a female serial rapist who preys on men, in her debut novel.

Ms. spoke with Tamblyn about writing the book, her work with Time’s Up and her arthritic wrist guard.

Photo by Katie Jacobs.

How did you get the idea for Any Man, and why did you want to write it?

I started writing the book about three years ago. The idea started as a seed in my mind about a woman – a terrible, terrible woman—who was not seeking revenge, but specifically doing something for the power. [I thought about] what it would look like if it were a woman who had no consequences for her actions, and you’ll see, when you finish the book, how it becomes a much larger conversation about rape culture.

What do you hope readers gain or take away from reading Any Man?

The book aims to look at sexual assault in a macro way, and degenderize the conversation. Sexual assault knows no gender. It knows no race. It’s so much to do about power over marginalized people.

It was important to me that [the book] did two things at once; that it say “this is what it’s like to be in women’s shoes, this is a daily experience for us, if it’s hard for you to read it, know that it’s been hard for us to live it, but at the same time, to also say “masculinity is flawed, and men have been forced to live in these simple contexts their whole lives and that’s what they’ve been taught.”

It was really important to me to show men as emotional creatures, to show them as multi-dimensional, in the same way that women wish to be shown as multi-dimensional. It was profoundly important to me to indict everyone. If we’re going to have a really hard conversation about where this country is at—where this world is at—in its treatment of human bodies, then we need ownership. We need to say: How can I be different? How can I help change things? How can I be better?

Can you cite some examples of ways you think people might inadvertently contribute to rape culture?

That’s a good question. There’s so much going on right now in our culture, and certainly with the #MeToo movement, and there’s this massive cultural shift where women’s voices are being heard for the first time.

I think the idea of allyship is really important. I think there are a lot of men who want to be allies to women and they don’t know how. I talk a lot about that, at conferences or on panels—the ways in which men and women can be allies to women, non-binary people, trans people, anyone who is an “other” or oppressed. One of the ways to do that is to bring them into the fold, into the luxury of your privilege, and that means looking at what you get to have and what other people don’t get to have it, what kind of rooms you get to walk into that other people don’t get to walk into, what kind of money do you make, what kind of house do you have, what kind of stature you have, who are your contacts—and share those things, and look around you and call out an injustice when it’s happening in front of your face, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

One thing I say to men is: if there’s a woman who works with you, who does the same job as you and pulls the same hours you do, the best thing you can do for her is to tell her how much money you make, and then let her go to her boss so she can say, hey, I found this out. Or support her and go to your boss together, or on her behalf. And I bring this up because it’s related to sexual assault.

Like I said, sexual assault and sexual harassment is not about sex, it’s about power. It’s about holding power—being able to do whatever you want without consequences. And that translates into different versions of abuses of power. What I’m essentially saying is that all of these conversations are connected. The way you stop one, is the way you stop another. But we have to be profoundly broad in what we’re talking about, and include all conversations. We need to re-sensitize our culture; not only to what the abuse is like, but what the aftermath of abuse is like.

I loved the layout of the book, and how you blend poetry with the prose. Why did you decide to write it that way?

I didn’t really decide, so much as that’s just how I write. Prose and poetry are where my heart lies. Poetry is endemic to my creative spirit.

You’re someone who many consider to be a role model. I think people tend to assume that the people they admire don’t have any problems or insecurities. What would you say to people who might think that?

God, I wish they could see the hard plastic carpal tunnel glove I’m wearing right now that a physical therapist made for me, because my central nervous system gets so shot from all of this that my body will literally start rebelling against me. I don’t think this is easy for anybody. I have no problem projecting strength, but I think I also project the truth of my empathy and my fears. And I think that’s wholly who I am; I don’t think I’m one without the other.

I think for most women, all of it is funneled and all of it is propelled by rage and this deep, deep sense of long-term injustice. So even if I am scared, or tired, or my whole body is tingling—you know, there’s work to be done.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would keep it simple. I would say: Don’t think of anything you’re doing as wrong, because you’re doing everything right.

What are your hopes for your daughter for when she grows up, in terms of her self-esteem, outlooks, ambitions?

I think what I want for her is not achievable yet, which is sad, but I have to be honest about that. I look at these young kids, like the Parkland kids and all these young activists who no longer separate their social world with their political world. I wish my daughter could live in a world in which her body wasn’t the only thing that mattered—the way it looks, the size of it, the shape of it, her face—but I don’t think we’ll be there by that point. And who knows what kind of woman she’ll be, if she even wants to be a woman, who knows. It’ll certainly be different from now, just as it was different for my mother, and different for my grandmother.

Why is identifying as a feminist important to you?

Identifying with that word is very important to me. But I’ve always thought that it’s a very personal word, and everybody has a different relationship to it. Some people reject it. I think that young women who reject it and say they’re not a feminist, I think that that in and of itself is an act of feminism. [The word “feminism”] is— like most experiences of women—held to such a ridiculous standard. I think that’s why Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist was so revolutionary. She said it’s okay to not be perfect, it’s okay to like shitty rap music. You can still be a feminist and still care about things and not be perfect. 

What gives you hope?

Those Parkland kids give me hope. My daughter gives me hope. Time’s Up gives me hope. My ability to write down how I feel and have that be taken seriously gives me hope. And to see that there can be consequences for actions—that gives me hope. I think there’s a lot to be very hopeful for.

Anne McCarthy is a contributing writer to The Telegraph, Second City Network, Bonjour Paris, France Today and more. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London and is a graduate of the Writing Program at Second City and the Soho Theatre Writers Lab. She lives in New York City, where she is writing a memoir about life in London.

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