Once upon a time, half a century ago, American women washed dishes, packed lunches and, being good housewives, downed a pill or two to get through the day. Slowly, a panic overtook the gentler sex: Is this it? The dam broke open: Books were written, meetings were called, marches were marched. Rights–abortion, maternity leave, Title IX, sexual discrimination policies–were won. Brandishing said rights, women stormed the workplace, the halls of Congress, even the armed forces. And while inappropriate squeezes, delayed promotions and a few firings betrayed their second-class status, they persisted. They had arrived. Thirty years later, a generation of new women–young women–entered the workforce expecting to be treated as equals, despite–or was it because of?–the fact that they shaved their underarms. But they still only made 81 cents on the dollar of their male co-workers. They still had to do an awful load of dishes at night. And when there were babies to be had, well, they were the ones staying home and nodding off to Teletubbies. They were disappointed, and confused. Was this that glorious future that been promised them?
And then Laura Kipnis opened her laptop, and lo, it was good. Now the author of Against Love: A Polemic, a smart and brackish book that brought this hitherto unknown feminist scholar and video artist to the attention of The New Yorker and half the blogosphere, has struck again. Her new book, The Female Thing, examines the very question our tale leaves hanging: What happened to gender equality? Why has the movement that once seemed a matter of destiny kind of, well, broken down?
Kipnis turns a mirror on women, observing that if they wanted to smash the patriarchy, they probably could, given their sheer number–so could it be that maybe they don’t want to? Perhaps, she ventures, women ought to stop blaming men and get reacquainted with the “collaborator within,” the one who cleans feverishly, obsesses over her supposed flaws and maybe isn’t so sure she wants to be liberated–whatever that means–after all.
Kipnis devotes a chapter to each of four “topographies”: envy, dirt, sex and vulnerability. They’re linked not so much by a universal thesis (no phallic metanarratives here!) but by a methodology that examines how each has been reimagined over time to serve different purposes. Relying heavily on anecdote, and writing in a style even more befitting cocktail chatter than the very chatty Against Love, she skips around, bouncing from sociological studies to her own observations to the history books. Her goal throughout is to reveal each idea’s continued hold over women’s imaginations, as well as their refashionings over time. In this way she demonstrates that they are stories, not facts, and no matter how powerful, subject to debate.
And the terms of the debate are political. In Against Love, Kipnis used her ostensible subject–modern romance and the thrills of infidelity–to critique the political economy of late capitalism. Americans, she argued, burden love by expecting their partners to fulfill every last one of their needs, and resorting to submission, surveillance and the curtailment of freedoms when necessary. It was no accident, argued Kipnis–a Marxist and Freudian–that these conditions are “remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate.” Accordingly, she urged those shackled by the chains of “companionate coupledom” to jump out of their partners’ beds and into bed with other partners. The Female Thing similarly critiques our capitalist system, pointing out that women’s increased independence from men may amount to little more than shifting that dependency “to the vagaries of the job market: to bosses, customers and time clocks.” In other words, feminism, which once dared to imagine a radical redistribution of goods and resources, has “succumbed to the winner-take-all logic of a winner-take-all economy.” Women have not changed the nature of the capitalist workforce but merely adapted to it; she goes even farther, briskly asserting that female wages are up “because male wages are down”–so much for “real” gains.
Kipnis’s subject is not sexual difference per se; she assumes a certain difference between men and women, but she’s less interested in theorizing that difference than in unpacking the female psyche. Or at least her psyche. In the prologue she states plainly that she’s confined herself to a white, middle- or upper-middle-class experience, and then more or less admits that it’s her own that’s on display–a read on the culture at large refracted through self-analysis. The book is not about love, or about straight romance; since it’s about women, though, it is necessarily about men, and the ways that the former relate to the latter–as lovers, partners or simply the ones with the power. It is noticeably silent on female-female relationships of any kind, be they familial, friendly or sexual.
To be a woman, in Kipnis’s telling, is to be in some way insufficient. She states flat out that femininity–premised on the belief that female disadvantage is inevitable and women ought to turn it into an advantage of sorts–and feminism–the effort to eliminate inequality–are irreconcilable. As femininity depends on the idea that women come up short (there is always something to be fixed, or curled, or straightened, or waxed, or otherwise maintained), it hinges on a lack in women’s lives. Something is missing–and judging from the popularity of the knife these days, she says, one might assume that “something” comes in size DD.
A better name for contemporary femininity would be the feminine-industrial complex, a vast psychocommercial conglomerate financed by women themselves (though any sex can profiteer) and devoted to churning out fantastic solutions to the alarming array of psychological problems you didn’t know you had (“Are You a Love Addict?” “Do You Have Night Eating Syndrome?”); social hazards you hadn’t even considered…and bodily imperfections previously overlooked…. Why, it’s almost as if the whole female condition hinged on some kind of ontological flaw…something’s always broken…. Something needs improving: your lingerie, your stress levels, your orgasms (or lack of them). Are you in a “toxic friendship”? Is your career in the doldrums? Is your boyfriend lying to you?… stop doubting yourself! (Self-doubt is not attractive.) Take this quiz, buy this amazing new moisturizing deodorant (underarms get dry, too!), wax your eyebrows: you’ll feel a lot better once you do.
This monologue recalls an oft-cited nine-page passage in Against Love in which Kipnis enumerated all the things you’re not allowed to do when you’re in a couple: sleep late, not make the bed, not care about not making the bed and so forth. She is clearly a wonderful mimic, although occasionally she overdoes the shtick (men are “playing cleaning chicken: you know, the game where whoever blinks first ends up vacuuming” seems more dutiful than felt). But on the whole her writing crackles: When it’s good, it’s very, very good; when it’s nasty, it’s better.
While it’s easy for ladies to turn to men believing they hold this missing piece, when women do attain whatever it is they thought they wanted–a seat in the corporate boardroom, that law degree–they sometimes find it’s not what they wanted after all. They still want more. They still feel that “thing” nagging at them:
It’s sometimes been suggested that lacking the body part that confers social advantage puts the female sex, on the whole, in a slightly resentful position, which may occasionally express itself in a degree of “overmanagement” when it comes to such domestic interactions, or a heightened focus on trivialities, as if small things mattered…enormously. This is, needless to say, a scurrilous stereotype, though who wouldn’t be resentful about being handed the anatomical short straw, so to speak, at least until the happy day when having a shorter straw finally stops mattering, a day that has not quite arrived, despite all the wonderful social progress and everything.
There is an obvious difference between men and women, and Kipnis sensibly acknowledges that you don’t have to be an essentialist earth-mother goddess to know it. Political difference is a consequence of sexual difference, but one of those things is mutable while the other is not; we ought to be able to get a decent living wage and affordable childcare without turning the current equipment inside out, thank you very much. And you don’t have to be in straight-as-an-arrow lust after men to want what they’ve got and scapegoat them for having it. With a nod to Nietzsche, she explains: “You denounce the source of your pain but still want what he has, or at least you think you do, which creates a sort of perverse psychological bond.”
Kipnis proceeds by way of opposites: Femininity clashes with feminism; the clitoral is at odds with the vaginal; motherhood is opposed to career; dirt is obviously in dialogue with cleanliness. She flips each back and forth, noting the way the cure–feminism–has begun to look “an awful lot like the disease.” That is, the “something’s missing” that propelled women’s entry into the workforce is related to the “something’s missing” that inspires full-body waxing. It’s a conclusion that has the aha! effect of articulating the incompatibility between feminism and femininity, but also the troubling effect of elucidating feminism’s dependence on femininity’s anti-feminism. (Got that?) In her chapter on dirt, she argues that women–widely regarded as the dirtier sex for most of human history–were transformed by the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity and virtue, charged with both cleaning up and cleaning after men. Now they obsessively scrub away at countertops to cleanse themselves of that remaining impurity–not only the impurities that affect everyone, like defecating, but, of course, menstruation. Kipnis doesn’t have any prescriptions for how to get over the dirt-fixation, but please, if any readers would like some advice on how to let the dust build up, I’m available for tutorials.
She is quite good, and very entertaining, in her chapter on sex, which addresses the vaginal/clitoral debate and asks why it is that in these zippy, liberated times, so many women report being deeply dissatisfied sexually. (It is the chapter on sex that confines itself mostly to the trials of straight women, although it advertises life on the other side when Kipnis quotes a researcher who wonders why, if so few women get pleasure from intercourse, they are sexually attracted to men at all.) Given the tiny number of women satisfied by intercourse, plus the fact that “orgasms have become an index of female progress,” it should come as no surprise that women get so worked up about whether they’re having them, how many they’re having and what kind they are. As British post-punkers Gang of Four put it in “Contract,” a very danceable song given its rather socially conscious content, “Our bodies make us worry.”
The evolutions (or is it convolutions?) in ideas about women’s bodies and desires throughout history have not been prompted by new anatomical discoveries but by new social ideals: The female orgasm, believed necessary for conception in medieval times, fell out of fashion in the eighteenth century, when it was “rediscovered” as a doctor-administered remedy for “hysteria.” More modern debates center not on if women experience pleasure but on how often they do, and how. Even feminists have argued that we ought to be doing our business according to certain rules–both Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer dismissed the manual orgasm, with the latter referring to use of the hand as “pompous and deliberate” (as if pleasure were supposed to be some kind of accident). In our own era, the much-lauded (assuming you can find it) G-spot is trumpeted as an example of the female equipment’s superiority; the clitoris is now so popular that some doctors say that actually, men have one, too–a tube inside the penis. “Clearly it’s not simply achieving sexual pleasure that’s the issue for women,” Kipnis concludes. “It’s also achieving some kind of narrative coherence about it.”
It’s not the “truth” of the matter that interests Kipnis–whether or not we all have a G-spot, or hey, maybe men have one too, right next to that clitoral tube–but what it means that we want to have one, that we quarrel about it and insist on “working” on finding it. (If there’s one thing she can’t abide, it’s work: The Female Thing skewers the sexpert advice industry; Against Love railed against introducing the “language of the factory” into relationships. Kipnis herself prefers to spend her downtime on more leisurely pursuits, like writing popular books and articles for Slate and the New York Times.) It’s the stories we tell about our bodies that fascinate her, and one of the “things” she relishes is challenging conventional wisdom–particularly conventional wisdom in staid feminist circles. For instance, Kipnis, who has written extensively on pornography, sees Deep Throat not as a tale of female subjugation but as a fantasy about a “universe where men and women get pleasure from doing the same things…. Pornography’s critics take porn very literally, as if it purports to be social realism,” she continues, “but a better comparison would be sci-fi…. Besides, what’s so great about reality anyway, and if realism can’t compete with pornography, why is it porn that’s supposed to do the apologizing?”
Kipnis’s final chapter takes women to task for perpetuating the notion that they’re vulnerable–that is, vulnerable to rape. She argues that the incarcerated, including men–especially African-American men–are more likely to be raped than women on the street. Why, then, does rape literature continue to propagate the idea that women constantly face the threat of attack? Again, it’s a transformation of a current of feminism into part of the problem, disseminating the idea that women are so many shrinking violets. And as the notion of “injury” in sexual harassment has expanded, so too, Kipnis claims, have the “opportunities to be injured.” She very entertainingly slaps Naomi Wolf for her 2004 New York magazine story about how, twenty-one years earlier, Yale literary giant Harold Bloom had ruined her college career–she, one of his disciples–by putting his “heavy, boneless hand” on her leg. Pointing out Wolf’s refusal to acknowledge the power she had over Bloom, and lampooning her for making a mountain out of one boneless hand, Kipnis says that “the real question about the phallus these days is whether it’s something men try to put over on women or whether women endow men with phallic prowess in order to keep desiring–and disdaining–them.”
Of course, she has been accused of blaming the victim (and of failing to issue a Five Year Plan for feminist progress). But there is a fair dose of medicine underneath the heaping spoonful of sugar–er, I mean, salt. If said victim can toughen up and take some heat for the three hours required to read The Female Thing, she may find herself nodding vigorously in agreement, or underlining a passage or two. And surely the other half of the species might possibly benefit from peering down this microscope. (Perish the thought, a man reading a book about women? Have no gigantic tomes of World War II history been published this month?!) After all, we are each of us, for now, at least, of woman born. Which may account for the possibility that, in Kipnis’s words, “Misogyny is basically just the need for mother-raised humans to overthrow the residues of early female domination, and men aren’t going to give up ruling the world until women stop ruling over childhood…. Unfortunately, women can’t stop ruling over childhood–because we have those maternal instincts to mollify. Also because no one else will do it, of course.”
Maybe it’s putting it a bit strongly to argue that unequal distribution of child-rearing labor and subsequent maternal tyranny are locked in a vicious cycle with grown-up misogyny. (Far be it from me to accuse Laura Kipnis of overstating her case to make a point.) But there’s no question that this “female thing” structures not only half of our whole lives, but the relationships, and the world, that we–women and men–share. Her unusually smart, thoroughly entertaining grasp of the contradictions and ambivalences of modern-day feminism ought, at the very least, make this “female thing” of interest to us all.