Since the presidential inauguration (and, really, throughout the entire Trump-Clinton contest), the mainstream media have presented numerous perspectives on contemporary feminism, focusing on issues social, economic, and biological. During just one week in February, Amanda Hess wrote about the multiplicity within the women’s movement for The New York Times Magazine; Jia Tolentino wrote about Jessa Crispin’s new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist, for The New Yorker; and a Los Angeles Times op-ed by Debra W. Soh asked whether gender feminists and transgender activists are undermining science.
Among all these voices, the novelist, essayist, scholar, and veritable Renaissance woman Siri Hustvedt presents an alternate version of feminism and the feminist critique in her new book, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind. With arguments that span the humanities, neuroscience, and psychiatry, she offers challenging ways to understand how misogyny became so deeply embedded in our culture and how we (or, at least, practitioners in those fields) can begin to combat it. Her book is composed of three different sections: “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women,” “The Delusions of Certainty,” and “What Are We?” (Many of these essays have been previously published or given as lectures.) The diversity of sources and topics underscores the interdisciplinary approach that Hustvedt advocates so enthusiastically; indeed, she blames our narrow modes of thinking for many of the problems in contemporary society that her book addresses.
If the book’s title is a bit misleading, though, its cover image is even more so. Depicting layers of torn paper placed to resemble a vagina, the picture suggests something much racier than what A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women actually delivers: an intricate, often very academic synthesis of philosophical, neurological, and psychiatric opinions on human nature, with some essays on art and the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard rounding it out. Hustvedt’s primary concern is the relationship between the mind and the body; her book examines the myriad theories that attempt to explain the connections between biology and conscious experience. For the most part, it isn’t about a woman looking at men looking at women, but rather about a woman looking at men looking at the mind. And in a way, the collection isn’t explicitly about feminism at all.
Also, the “sex” to which the subtitle refers is less the act itself than the way that science has treated people with different bodies—within research and in hospitals, across spans of history—and how that continues to nourish a foundational bias for our society. In the introduction, Hustvedt asks: “Why are the sciences regarded as hard and masculine and the arts and the humanities as soft and feminine? And why is hard usually perceived as so much better than soft?” There’s a tempting claim to be made about male potency here, but Hustvedt doesn’t quite go there. Eventually, she discusses how even Aristotle established arbitrary distinctions between the masculine and the feminine. For Aristotle, she writes, “men were warm and dry; women, moist and cold. Warm and dry was naturally better. Metaphors may be basic, but tracing a historical trope back to its origin is by no means simple. Nevertheless, these divisions organized around masculine and feminine run deep in the culture and are often unconscious.”