The ‘Slut’ and Social Media

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Why Helen Fitzgerald’s Viral does not get to the cusp of the problem of slut-shaming
Alice Dingle
Books Editor

Glaswegian author Helen Fitzgerald’s most recent novel Viral is a page-turner of a story. Young, adopted teenager Su, just entering adulthood, is accompanying her sister and friends to a party holiday. The gripping first line of the novel, “I sucked twelve cocks in Magaluf”, leads to an explanation of the novel’s premise. After becoming incredibly drunk the protagonist Su is filmed, without her consent, performing oral sex on twelve men in exchange for free alcohol, after which the video is posted online and gains hundreds of thousands of views. Su decides not to return to her home in Glasgow, but stays in Spain until she decides to the find her birth mother in South Korea. Meanwhile, her adoptive mother Ruth loses her job and goes on bizarre revenge rampages on-line.

The story does not manage to sustain a suspension of disbelief in terms of plot, but this is the case with many of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries within her genre. The general ideology of the novel is where the real issues begin to surface; Fitzgerald seems to be unaware the point she’s trying to make, so what comes across is a bizarre muddle of Third-Wave Feminism juxtaposed with outdated patriarchal ideals.

The main issue with this novel is encompassed in the cover’s strapline “What if the worst thing you ever did went Viral.” Fitzgerald goes to extreme lengths to create a hugely stereotypical South Korean protagonist. Su is not “sexy”, she dresses conservatively, she is incredibly driven, smart, money-conscious and polite. Her sister, the biological child of Ruth and her husband, is the antithesis of Su, she is a liar, silly and rude; she dresses like a “slut”, “acts like one” and convinces Su to do so too. Here is where the problem lies within the novel – Fitzgerald loosely uses the term “slut”, amongst similar derogatory terms, and yet makes no effort to reclaim the term in the name of women. Fitzgerald emphasises that Su’s state in Magaluf is her sister’s fault, the girl who is the epitome of sexual freedom, convincing Su to drink more, dance sexier and wear more revealing clothes. But why is this one sex act claimed to be the worst thing anyone would ever do? Who decided this was Su’s biggest downfall? The moment Su expresses her sexuality in a public manner, the rest of the storyline becomes an attack on her.

Perhaps not many women would venture to suck “twelve cocks in Magaluf”, but no woman should ever be told that this is their worst crime, or even be judged for it. While Fitzgerald addresses the very real and important issue of consent while being filmed, Viral becomes yet another sad and outdated commentary on the supposedly immoral values of today’s youth; another elongated tabloid headline telling us how corrupt as a generation we are. What the book does not address is that is not relegated to Magaluf and no generation is without its slutty behaviour, but we are the first to have this behaviour be publicised across a worldwide platform. Our photos and videos, taken with or without consent are ready to go “viral” in an instant, affecting our relationships and careers. Would Su have considered sucking twelve cocks the worst thing she had ever done if the only witnesses to the act had been other party goers? Absolutely not. It is because of the reaction from those at home that Su is completely devastated.

The entire novel is crying out for Fitzgerald to side with Su, to make it obvious that her losing her place at university and her mother losing her job is a ludicrous reaction to the video. But Fitzgerald never does so, instead we have men say “look at what she was wearing, she was asking for it” and no rebuttal is made. There is no anger; nothing but a simmering tutting and perhaps a silent agreement to these misogynistic passing comments in the background.

Fitzgerald should be saying outright that a woman does not have to be modest to be respected, but she fails to do so in this novel.