In Bird Box, author Josh Malerman explores humanity’s basic fear of the unseen, quite literally. His protagonists are unable to safely open their eyes, for fear of seeing…something. No one can be entirely sure of what it is they aren’t supposed to see, because everyone who looks grows violent and suicidal. When their home is no longer safe, the three protagonists strike out on a terrifying course, navigating the outdoors blindly in an attempt to find the last safe place.
Bird Box‘s mysterious antagonist is almost Lovecraftian. It arrives suddenly, and it spreads so slowly that the violence seems sporadic: a collection of isolated incidents, rather than an invasion or attack. Eventually, Malerman’s tale turns post-apocalyptic, as the seeing reduces cities to ashen ghost towns.
The problem with Bird Box lies largely in how Malerman writes women. He isn’t chauvinistic, but he exhibits sweeping ignorance of women’s experiences at some critical points in the novel.
He commits one major offense in a scene involving the purchase of a pregnancy test from a drugstore. The main protagonist and her sister–both women in their early 20s–are presented as having no prior experience with such matters. The protagonist doesn’t know how to conduct the test. She and her sister grow uncomfortable purchasing it from a male clerk and end up lying that it’s for their dog. On the way home, one assures the other: “I’m sure half the people who take those tests aren’t really pregnant.”
Well…yeah? I actually polled my female friends after reading this scene to see if I was just being overly picky. Turns out I wasn’t. Of all the 20-something women I asked, none of them thought the characters’ reactions to the pregnancy test were believable. The entire scenario made me wonder if any of Malerman’s first readers and editors were women. Did he have feedback telling him that his characters would have already had at least one pregnancy scare each by this point? That the trip would be scary, but routine? That, just maybe, they might even have a spare pregnancy test on-hand?
Unfortunately, moments like these, in which Malerman revealed his ineptitude at writing female characters, bounced me out of the story. They were jarring. Here is an author trying to write a character I should identify with, but failing miserably when it comes to replicating the normal female experience. Bird Box was a fantastic horror story, but the author’s obvious indifference toward women’s experiences and input still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
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