Verónica Pamoukaghlián

Women in Fiction; the Houellebecq Syndrome: Political Incorrectness vs. Banality

(40plus bombshells, including the author's fave top models Helena and Tatjana)

Verónica Pamoukaghlián examines the portrayal of women in fiction, particularly in books by Michel Houellebecq. Is he deliberately politically incorrect? Or is it banality?


“I still don’t think I’m a misogynist, really. … The thing that may rub people the wrong way is that I show how feminism is demographically doomed.” —Michel Houellebecq, Paris Review, 2015


I recently had a discussion with the screenwriter in a project I am developing. I asked him if he was determined to make lesbians hate him, and he got really upset. My question had to do with the fact that he wrote, for the second time in his career, a scene where a lesbian woman only serves as entertainment for a man in a heterosexual couple. I am very fond of the writer in question and I know he means well, so, the argument that ensued made me think long and hard about what was wrong with what he had written.

Although he felt I was making a point about political correctness (a concept he abhors), I realized that I had a problem with the banality of some of his portrayals of women. “Not all lesbians hate men!” he blurted out in a heated WhatsApp message, implying he had had mutually satisfactory threesomes with lesbians.

But that was, of course, beside the point. A woman whose only dramatic function is to be pretty and to give physical pleasure is not only politically incorrect, it’s a flat and poor rendering and it misses out on innumerable dramatic possibilities.

Shortly after that discussion, someone recommended a Houellebecq book to me. The French writer had hitherto been one of those names that we know we must read, but whom I am still uncertain if I had read before. I seem to recall there is one Spanish translation of Houellebecq in my library, but that may well be a book by some Nordic writer with a similar name.

In any case, with the banality of female portrayals still brewing uneasiness in my mind, especially because, as a producer, I was gonna be part of that banalization in an upcoming movie, I decided to download a sample of Houellebecq’s Sérotonine on my Kindle.

I read the book in a day and a half. The voice was so powerful. The French language prose so limpid and straightforward, the character so alive. There was only one problem: his misogyny made me uneasy. Women were either young (to the point of pedophilia) and beautiful, or old and wasted. Love was only about looks, and, again, youth.

Invoking some earlier conversations with the screenwriter about the people who mistake a character’s views with the author’s, I said to myself, “Monsieur Houellebecq need not necessarily be a misogynistic moron, maybe he just wanted to create a character like that.” I did some Internet searches, looking for “Houellebecq, misogyny,” but only got some inconclusive French blogs and interviews.

As it is usually the case with every great novel by a prolific writer, I immediately wanted more. So, I tried out samples of a couple and decided on purchasing La Possibilité d’une île. Clichéd futuristic wastelands aside, I was immediately drawn by the cynical character who becomes a famous comic. So, I read on.

But after a handful of chapters, I had to put the book down. It became clear now that Monsieur Houellebecq had no interest whatsoever in portraying real women, or women that were not flattened cardboard figures.


It became clear now that Monsieur Houellebecq had no interest whatsoever in portraying real women, or women that were not flattened cardboard figures.


My sensual, naked 45-year-old body, no doubt more so than when I was 20 or 30, was looking at me from the mirror beside my bed. I had just read a passage about a woman who can no longer enjoy sex because she is over 40, whose body has become a sort of abomination, a woman who, at 40, wishes she were 12, the age when girls are most attractive, according to many a Houellebecq character.

I didn’t take offense because the scenes were politically incorrect; I took offense because they were ridiculous. Because there is much more to beauty than age, and there is much more to sex than beauty, and there is much more beauty and pleasure at 40 than at 20, at least in the case of most healthy women I have ever met in my life. I objected because I couldn’t take that character seriously anymore. And I know there must be airheads around who feel like turning 40 is a tragedy, but the problem with Monsieur Houellebecq is that his characters never encounter a woman who isn’t one. I had had enough of “pétasses” et “chattes humides.” In short, I was pained by the endlessly rich universes Monsieur Houellebecq might never even try to discover.

I have been reading books, devouring books, since I was three years old, thousands and thousands of books, usually by serious writers, because I never had a lot of patience for fluff or pulp. And I have never put down a book because I somehow disagreed with the author. (Then again, I never read Mein Kampf.) I don’t believe I have to agree with any writer or their characters; I just want a good story. While Houellebecq is rather capable of providing that, I am yet unconvinced as to whether he is capable of creating a believable female character; and that is not political incorrectness, that is a lack of skill, intelligence, empathy, and powers of observation.

Bonjour, Monsieur Houellebecq, goodbye, Monsieur Houellebecq, it was … interesting meeting you. And to the French people, next time you want to create a bestselling author, please, be a tad more demanding.


(If all of the other Houellebecq books prove me wrong, please, let me know in the comments.)


Verónica Pamoukaghlián

Verónica Pamoukaghlián is an Armenian-Uruguayan writer and award-winning filmmaker. She is a literary translator at Amazon Publishing and a regular contributor for Lento (Uruguay), Brainblogger, and Africa Insider. Her poetry has appeared in The Southern Pacific Review, The Armenian Poetry Project, The Armenian Weekly, Words Fly Away (Fukushima Poetry Anthology), Prism, Naked Punch (London), Sentinel Literary Quarterly (London), Poesia en el subte Anthology (Argentina), Arabesques Review. Short fiction in Book Lovers (Seal Press 2014) and the SEAF Literary Anthology 2014 (Seattle). Essays have appeared on The Acentos Review, Naked Punch and elsewhere.

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  1. Maria said:

    Thank you for this article. I searched “Houellebecq misogyny” and this article appeared. I agree with your point of view, female characters in “La possibilité d’une île” are pretty flat and underdeveloped. Houellebecq’s understanding of the female psychology seems to be pretty shallow and thus he resorts to clichés: the wild young sexy woman who at the same time needs to be rescued, the mature woman who is aging and feels sad about no longer being desired… his descriptions of the sexual appeal of teenage girls are also disturbing. For me it is an interesting read as it depicts the predatory mindset some men have, in the sense that they cannot approach women, and even teenagers, in a non-sexual manner and that they read sexual chemistry in the slightest gesture. It helps me understand how some men, specially powerful men, are so out of touch. Houellebecq does write well, he has interesting reflections and I enjoy the rhythm of his prose. I, however, don’t find the story compelling or interesting. I see it more as a testimonial piece that allows me to gain more insights into a sexist mindset.

  2. anthony said:

    I rarely post random comments but am compelled in this instance. Like others, I searched for ‘Houellebecq/misogyny’ and found your excellent criticism. As a now sixty seven year old Australian man I must say that I have also found his representations of women shallow, revolting and a potential incitement to violence against women which is the ultimate expression of his kind of contempt towards women. Thank you for having the courage to buck the trend of orthodox fawning over Houellebecq who writes like his imaginary horizons are shaped by and shared with by Jordan Peterson.

    Women, by the way, do have a right to defensive and reactive hatred towards misogyny and the men who reproduce it. No-one expects American blacks to adopt a liking towards their race oppressors. Why should such an expectation be put on women?

  3. Sarah Angling said:

    I totally agree – I am reading La carte et le Territoire and was struck by the depth of characterisation and back story to the main character, compared with the women who are simply beautiful or ugly (I was appalled by the description of the publicist as a woman ‘au vagin inexploré’). This is the first Houellebecq novel I have read, so I googled ‘houellebecq misogyny’ to see if this is just the character’s viewpoint or a more general trait in his writing – your succinct and engaging article has convinced me that the latter is the case! Think this is the last novel of his I will be reading…

  4. Anne said:

    Very nice article! I struggled with the gender issue too, it confused me a lot. Good to see it put into words like this! It is ridiculous indeed.
    Thank you Veronica. Anne