On "Against Love", here
"How to Become a Scandal", here
THE FEMALE THING: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability By Laura Kipnis.
The missing kink
Decca Aitkenhead enjoys The Female Thing, an examination of the female condition by Laura Kipnis
Saturday October 20, 2007
by Laura Kipnis
173pp, Serpent's Tail, £8.99
According to its publisher, The Female Thing is a "groundbreaking" work, in the "tradition of The Feminine Mystique and The Female Eunuch" and the "style of Dorothy Parker". Yet feminist insurrection doesn't appear to have been Laura Kipnis's intention, so anyone looking for a self-help guide for gender wars will be disappointed. Instead, she takes us on a spiky, comic romp through all the inner conflicts and inconsistencies which characterise the modern female condition.
Women today, she writes, have been "left straddling two rather incompatible positions: feminism ('Don't call me honey, dickhead'), and femininity ('I just found the world's best push-up bra!') . . ." Kipnis nails the post-feminist delusion neatly. "The main reason that feminism and femininity are incompatible is that femininity has a nasty little secret, which is this: femininity, at least in its current incarnation, hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy. Feminism, on the other hand, wants to eliminate female inadequacy, to trounce it as a patriarchal myth."
Neither camp escapes her eye for contradiction. Kipnis is pretty cutting about self-styled feminists who construct an entire personality/lifestyle out of moaning about men. But her analysis of the "feminine" alternative is even more acute. Femininity, as it is currently formulated, "can never be successfully attained" - because perfection will always elude any amount of relentless dieting, grooming, disciplining. The dogma of self-improvement has created a "vast psychocommercial conglomerate financed by women themselves, devoted to churning out fantastic solutions to the alarming array of psychological problems you didn't know you had".
If you're a modern female, "something's always broken". Femininity is a consumer-driven response to women's profound sense that "something is missing". Freud used to call it penis envy and yet, as Kipnis points out, "it's not actually psychiatrists who peddle this idea any more; it's women themselves, since isn't the notion that 'something's missing' the dynamic driving the entirety of women's culture?"
The Female Thing clatters along at a pace, one minute parodying self-help manuals for singles, the next taking a detour into history, but the author's delight in the hilarity of our muddle over gender somehow connects it all and carries her through. As late as the 1920s, she notes at one point, doctors would commonly bring female patients to orgasm manually, to relieve any number of ailments. "Evidence suggests they found it a tedious, often difficult and labour-intensive chore," she reports, before adding: "Of course, the word is that prostitutes don't much enjoy servicing their clients either."
Kipnis may not be quite up there with Dorothy Parker, but she'd soon silence anyone who thinks feminists lack a sense of humour. Yet it's hard to say whether her detached amusement at women's interminable quandaries is really authentic, or just tactically smart, or in truth a bit disingenuous. Sometimes the tireless quips can feel like camouflage for some quite old-school feminist thinking. For example, her preoccupation with the vagina - "the female thing" - is arguably justifiable, in the literal sense that a vagina defines femaleness. But it does feel a bit, well, literal-minded.
There is nothing old-school, however, about her analysis of women's relationship with rape. "Upping women's awareness and anger about rape," she argues persuasively, has unintentionally reinforced "conventional feminine fear and vulnerability". Most violent crimes are actually committed against men, and rape and sexual assault against women are at an all time low, yet women fear crime far more than men. Kipnis blames this unnecessary fear on alarmist sexual paranoia propagated by radical 70s feminists such as Andrea Dworkin. Even Naomi Wolf, who positions herself a world away from the "all men are rapists" militants, defined herself as traumatically violated by nothing more than a clumsy pass by her professor nearly two decades ago. "It's a genre of feminism," Kipnis writes, "dedicated to revivifying an utterly traditional femininity: wounded-bird femininity."
The Female Thing can read a bit like an extended Julie Burchill column - clever, funny, but just a little too glibly ironic to rouse the consciousness. But as an audit of feminism's progress, it will be recognisable to every woman.
Decca Aitkenhead's The Promised Land is published by Fourth Estate.
October 29, 2006
By ALEXANDRA JACOBS
THE FEMALE THING: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability.
By Laura Kipnis.
173 pp. Pantheon Books. $23.95.
Housekeeping is hot. Not since the 1950’s and their efficient pastel-colored labor-saving devices have dust bunnies enjoyed such a prolonged day in the sun. From Martha Stewart’s now slightly soiled white-linen empire; to Cheryl Mendelsohn’s encyclopedic cleaning guide, “Home Comforts”; to Caitlin Flanagan’s ruminative essay collection, “To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife,” women are cleaning up with books about cleaning up, and Laura Kipnis wants a piece of the action. “What is dirt?” she asks, italics hers, in a slim new volume grandly declaring itself “an account of the female psyche at the 21st-century mark.”
Which raises the question: Who is Laura Kipnis? Answer: The kind of academic who sorely tempts parents to stop payment on their $40,000 tuition checks. A professor of media studies at Northwestern University and erstwhile video artist, a phrase that elicits titters from the YouTube generation, she published two relatively sober studies — “Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender, and Aesthetics” and “Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America” — before her breakout book, “Against Love: A Polemic” in 2003, an impassioned defense of adultery, with a leggy, lingerie-clad woman on the cover that belied the extensive footnotes within. Stylishly written, with intimate flights into the second person that were more novelistic than polemical, “Against Love” successfully established Kipnis as a crossover intellectual, a popular Ph.D. personality in the time-honored mold of Camille Paglia.
The Female Thing” feels like a rushed attempt to capitalize on this accomplishment, a loose collection of ideas knitted together after one too many thimblefuls of sherry at the faculty lounge. Kipnis begins with a provocative if familiar premise: women’s natural instincts make them complicit in their own historical subjugation. But the text that follows is filled with woolly equivocations: “of course ... obviously ... which is to say ... it appears ... needless to say” — more padded than a Wonderbra, as Kipnis might put it(she grasps at cheeky just-us-gals metaphors, comparing the presumably painful state of current gender relations, for example, to “ingrown hairs after a bad bikini wax”). The extensive bibliography appears an anxious effort to demonstrate her facility with both scholarly and mass culture, an awkward arpeggio from Nietzsche to O, The Oprah Magazine; from Freud to Gallup polls to good old Shere Hite, the golden-tressed sex researcher. She also attends and reports back from a couple of dinner parties. Her close reading of Marxist and feminist theory is sprinkled with expletives, a feint at rhetorical daring.
More damningly for an author who promises a reckoning of 21st-century mores, Kipnis’s preoccupations — political correctness, sexual harassment in the workplace, women’s complicity with consumer culture — seem like those of another era: not the 1950’s, but the all-too-recent 1990’s. In a chapter called “Vulnerability” (devoted mostly to another V-word, vagina, already exhaustively explored by the playwright Eve Ensler), she discovers, more than a decade after Michael Crichton’s novel “Disclosure,” that “unwanted sexual advances” are sweeping America’s campuses and offices. “We’re facing a disastrous resource shortage,” she announces earlier, “not oil, not a pair of strappy sandals that don’t cut into your feet like a dozen knives, but single heterosexual men wishing to couple on a long-term basis.” This after even Newsweek repudiated its notorious 1986 cover story about single 40-year-old women being more likely to be killed by terrorists than to find husbands.
It’s as if Kipnis has eagerly Hoovered up every piece of media lint about white upper-middle-class “chicks,” to use her saucy non-professorial parlance, and is now emptying the vacuum bag in our presence.
Alexandra Jacobs is an editor at The New York Observer.
November 26, 2006
To the Editor:
I’ve been asked on a few occasions why I didn’t include a section on competition between women in my new book, “The Female Thing.” After reading Alexandra Jacobs’s attack on the book (Oct. 29), at least I have the material for a new epilogue. Actually, it’s an attack on me (“Who is Laura Kipnis?”); she doesn’t bother reviewing the book. What’s with all the hostility? Sure, everyone understands that takedown reviews are one way to build a career — if that’s the kind of career you want — but there’s something else seeping through the animus, and it has a lot to do with why I wrote this book.
One of the main themes of “The Female Thing” is the depressing intractability of women’s self-loathing, despite many decades of feminist achievement and progress toward gender equity. One obvious solution is to project that loathing onto other women, so as to avoid meeting up with it in oneself. Clearly this is never going to be a vastly popular insight with the women for whom it’s proven a useful strategy. As we see here. Rather than grappling with the book in any intellectually honest way, Jacobs launches a lot of animosity at me, mostly for the crime of teaching in a university, which she seems to regard as self-evidently ridiculous. (We even get clichés about academics swilling sherry — this from someone concerned with my originality.) There are barbs about the book for having a bibliography (has she never previously encountered one?), and the crowning jab: that writing a new book after having written a previous one (“Against Love”) is just an attempt to cash in on the last one. Are book critics generally this resentful toward an author for writing a next book?
But I’m also not that surprised at the level of antagonism, since the book is pretty unsparing about such things as the female capacity for self-deception at the moment, and the price it exacts: intellectual dishonesty, smugness and bad faith. Of course, maybe it’s worth it compared to the pain of any kind of sustained self-examination — especially when it comes to motives for aggression. The frequently depressing situation of women at present is entirely bound up with the brittleness that ensues, both emotionally and intellectually. Thanks for the object lesson.
The Two Faces of Eve
By Carolyn See,
Friday, October 27, 2006; C05
THE FEMALE THING: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability
By Laura Kipnis
Pantheon. 173 pp. $23.95
When Laura Kipnis writes about "the female thing," she refers not just to the predictable genital area, but to "the female psyche at the twenty-first-century mark, which is to say, in the aftermath of second-wave feminism and partway to gender equality." Lest men cringe and read no further than this first paragraph, let me say that the author meticulously stays away from any attack on or critique of men. This is all about conflicts within and between women; put ideologically, it's about women stuck between femininity and feminism. Kipnis is, as always, amusing and smart, but her outlook is -- can't help but be -- depressing.
Femininity: That's when you keep your legs shaved and your weight down; when you ask some man a leading question and then sit, as if poleaxed, listening for hours, eyes wide open, lips slightly parted. Feminism is something else again and pretty hydra-headed. It has something to do with birth control, and higher education, and not doing everything just to please a man, and being -- on the whole -- satisfied with yourself. But each school of thought sabotages the other. "It's sometimes been said," Kipnis writes, "that a colonized mentality far outlasted the political conditions of colonialism; Soviet Communism crumbled virtually overnight, but the inner apparatchik lives on. So too with female progress, it appears."
Kipnis examines this ambivalence in four essays: "Envy," "Sex," "Dirt," "Vulnerability." "Envy" is the weakest because so many of the contradictions she cites have already been pointed out. If we're supposed to love ourselves, how come we're so obsessed with improving ourselves? Women scorn their bodies, the author reminds us, and describes -- twice -- Eve Ensler's recent play, "The Good Body," which has to do with Ensler's tormented relationship with her own "slightly protruding post-forties abdomen." Not everyone is as interested in Ensler's stomach as she is, and that relationship functions as both narcissism and distraction. Whatever women may have, Kipnis writes, it's not enough. Makeovers are the order of the day, self-improvement the staple of women's magazines. "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." The trouble is, we (women) have heard all this stuff before. We know how dopey those quizzes are, even as we take them. We don't need to be told again how silly these pastimes are, how possibly detrimental to a feminist ideal.
In contrast, the essay on sex is a lot of fun, providing, as it does, a short history of why women (are said to) have fewer orgasms than men. Most of this can't be quoted in a family newspaper, but it's undeniably interesting: a series of stories, mainly about how women were supposed to hate sex in the 19th century (just close their eyes and think of England) and love sex in the 20th -- which wasn't exactly true in either case. But plenty of "experts" made money off these skewed expectations.
"Dirt" examines why women crave a clean house and men don't seem to care; how feminists have historically insisted that men do their share of housework and men have manfully weaseled out of it; how the real dirt, it would seem, comes from inside ourselves in the form of various bodily fluids, each (with the exception of tears) more gross, more dirty, more to be scrubbed away, than the next.
This chapter, though laudable and amusing, ignores two important things about dirt, as it occurs in heterosexual domestic contexts: (1) Once you make the bed and stick the dishes in the dishwasher, there isn't any real housework to be done anymore, except if (2) there are children in the house. In fact, children are almost completely absent from this book. It's a shame because motherhood is the shrine-of-choice for femininity, and child care is the Achilles' heel of feminism. Who picks up the dirty socks is merest trivia; who stays up all night with a feverish kid, and has to stay home from work the next day, is a problem for women yet to be solved. Yes, the author does talk about maternal instinct in the chapter on sex (and dismisses it as largely fiction), but instinct is entirely different from a couple of kids down with the flu, or pouring bags of greasy chips all over the couch. How does that kind of "dirty" care get compassionately and fairly divided? The author takes a pass on that.
In the vulnerability chapter, the author argues, somewhat disingenuously, that women are raped less often than men in prison are. In fact, she offers statistics and studies that -- despite what we see on TV crime procedurals -- women aren't raped as often as we think. She revisits the "pornography wars," in which (some) feminists aligned with (some) right-wing moralists, with depressing results. Both sets of women tended to agree that men were rapists-at-heart; that, in the well-worn phrase of our mothers, all men are beasts. She retells two sexual harassment narratives, one by a feminist great beauty, another by . . . another kind of feminist. Both stories sound like fairy tales, which, of course, doesn't mean they're not true. But by the end of all this, the reader sighs. It's all crazy-making! Kipnis is funny and smart, but her material is head-swimmingly bleak.
In the impressive follow-up to her anti-monogamy polemic, Laura Kipnis explains why we feel a little uneasy when the possessor of a brand-new boob job proclaims, "I did it for myself."
By Laura Miller
Oct. 18, 2006 | Feminist punditry has long had a style problem. From the first, it's had a hard time separating how things ought to be from how they really are, which has undermined not only its credibility but its confidence. We all know that "no" does not always mean no, and to have to keep insisting it does over and over erodes even the speaker's faith in herself; stridency is usually a way of sounding more convinced than you actually feel, and it doesn't fool anyone. Then there's the matter of dancing through the eggshell-littered territory of contemporary feminist thinking, knowing that legions of your putative sisters are poised to thrash you for the slightest variation from their (sometimes mutually contradicting) positions. If you anger them, chances are your own life will be dragged out for intensive and merciless scrutiny. If you don't, most likely your caution has made you fatally dull.
On the other hand, for feminism's critics, every day is a field day. Whether it's a nondenominational bomb-thrower like Camille Paglia, a right-wing mouth-frother like Rush Limbaugh or a bargain-bin attack dog like Christina Hoff Sommers, it's hard not to sound like a fearless iconoclast when you're up against such mincing, mealy-mouthed good girls. Whether the good girls have a point or not becomes immaterial. Propriety, which is what too much of feminism has become, is the natural target of humor, too, and if you're funny enough often enough at feminism's expense, you can even get away with never making a coherent argument: case in point being the career of Caitlin Flanagan.
Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University best known for her provocative defense of adultery, "Against Love: A Polemic," does an impressive job of finessing this impasse in her new book, "The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability." Despite the subtitle of her first book, "The Female Thing" is not the work of a polemicist -- nor does it put forth any especially innovative thoughts. Kipnis is like the intelligent woman's version of whatever Carrie Bradshaw was supposed to be on "Sex and the City." You've encountered most of the ideas in "The Female Thing" before, but Kipnis has a way of distilling them down to a well-turned sentence or two that's very pleasing. Hers isn't a gift to be taken lightly, since in the process she makes it clear how untenable many of those ideas are.
Kipnis' knack for epigrammatic sentences fills "The Female Thing" with what amount to some very high-nutrition one-liners. An example: "When it comes to murder, you're actually more than twice as likely to kill yourself as to be killed by someone else, giving weight to the old truism that you're your own worst enemy." She can be acutely funny, though (ironically) the less so the harder she tries to hit that Carrie Bradshaw sweet spot. If you read the four linked essays in this book in order -- and who are we trying to kid; you're going to read the one titled "Sex" first, like everyone else -- you'll have to cruise past a few wince-inducing references to Manolo Blahniks and terms like "the gal set," but don't let that deter you. There's plenty of steak in there, underneath the less convincing attempts at sizzle.
As Kipnis sees it, the situation that educated, middle-class Western women find themselves in is fundamentally absurd. To say so -- rather than pretending the solutions are obvious -- takes nerve. To say so with both humor and sang-froid -- unlike the legions of ethically tormented personal essayists or the pratfalling clones of Bridget Jones -- takes panache.
The absurdity comes from the disparity between our rapidly changing social landscape (including the advances of feminism) and the recalcitrant internal map Kipnis calls "the female psyche." Feminism, she writes, has collided with "an unanticipated opponent: the inner woman." The four essays in "The Female Thing" center on some of the most stubborn aspects of the inner woman, the impulses and irrational passions that suddenly rise up and swamp us despite our best efforts to stick to the designated feminist path. In fact, this rising up and swamping has happened so much in the past 30 years, and women have tried so diligently to redirect the path around the various trouble spots where it does, that by now the path itself is hopelessly muddled. It's like getting lost in the woods and following one promising little trail after another only to see it peter out in an impenetrable thicket.
Kipnis takes a modified Freudian view of this dilemma, which makes her exquisitely attuned to paradoxes. The strongest essay in the book -- "Vulnerability," which is about both sexual abuse and the fear of it -- contains two gemlike analyses of recent confessional writings by Naomi Wolf and the late Andrea Dworkin. Wolf recently favored the readers of New York magazine with a histrionic account of how, 20 years earlier, when she was one of his students at Yale, Harold Bloom put his hand on her thigh after a drunken dinner party. She presented this event -- and the refusal of Yale to address the matter when she finally decided to do something about it years later -- as a deep psychic wound.
"All this is a shade self-dramatizing," Kipnis writes, "but can we say that it's self-dramatizing in a particularly feminine way? The idioms employed have that feminist ring, but it's a genre of feminism dedicated to revivifying an utterly traditional femininity: wounded bird femininity, to borrow Joan Didion's useful formulation." Wolf's drama only makes sense (to the extent that it does make sense) when you understand that she regarded Bloom as so exalted an authority figure that she became "sick with excitement" at the prospect of meeting him, and that she expected nothing less than perfect satisfaction from Yale two decades after she failed to register a complaint. Kipnis' verdict: "this massive overinvestment in paternal figures and institutions has such an Oedipal flavor. The contradiction of Wolf-style devoted daughter feminism is its thralldom to the phallic mythos it's also so deeply offended by." That's very nicely put indeed, so well formulated that if it's not a new interpretation of this minor scandal, it might as well be. In wrestling with Dworkin's writings equating heterosexual intercourse with subjugation -- a more challenging task -- Kipnis is equally astute. "Dworkin didn't read the culture wrong: it's entirely true that all the idioms for penetration -- 'getting fucked,' 'screwed over' -- are about humiliation and exploitation. Which does make it hard to see how anyone can avoid a certain duality about the experience, even when it's pleasurable, as it often is! Dworkin is the great case study in the ambivalence of femininity: after all, she's hardly indifferent about penetration." As Kipnis notes earlier, Dworkin's key work, "Intercourse," hinged around her "wonderfully inflamed" indictment of the practice. "But," Kipnis goes on, "can there really be this much aversion without some corner of desire? The opposite of desire isn't aversion, it's indifference."
As you can see, Kipnis is a great parser of ambivalence -- and she views ambivalence as the defining condition of modern womanhood. In her essay on "Dirt" -- or, rather, about housework -- she reads a passage from Alison Pearson's novel "I Don't Know How She Does It," in which the heroine, a hedge fund executive, resentfully cleans the family kitchen at 2 a.m. after returning from a business trip. Kipnis wonders why so many women obsessively pursue a standard of cleanliness that no one else in the household considers essential. (Despite what such women will tell you, she notes, definitions of what's clean and what's not are neither universal nor unchanging.) "How is it," she writes, "that women have managed to over throw the shackles of chastity -- to cite another rather significant vestige of traditional femininity -- more easily than bondage to the vacuum cleaner?"
She suspects that at the root of this preoccupation lies the buried, primitive association of women's bodies -- and especially menstruation -- with dirt. Kipnis blames this on "the human symbolic imagination, that archaic thing, which isn't fully in sync with external realities like social progress. Maybe some day it will catch up." It probably won't if most of us remain largely unaware of its subterranean influence. "If women didn't have vaginas," Kipnis goes on to speculate, "would we take fewer bubble baths, be less susceptible to the newest cleaning product marketing campaign, let up on the cleaning standards (for those prone to occupying the household enforcer role), and simply not do more than 50 percent of the housework?" Since the vaginas are non-negotiable, the implication is it's time for an overhaul of the symbolic imagination.
In the essay on "Sex," Kipnis mostly focuses on the "erotically mismatched world we've inherited" -- at least for the heterosexual heirs. The lamentable truth is that "the procreative act" -- that is, heterosexual intercourse -- seldom results in orgasm for the female partner, only 20 to 24 percent of the time according to surveys. Kipnis cites the "feminist evolutionary biologist" Elisabeth Lloyd, who has discovered the even worse news that studies of sexual response don't distinguish between women who reach orgasm by intercourse alone and those who need additional stimulation of the clitoris as a "final push." When you subtract those women who (sorry) need a hand, "orgasm-attainment figures are so stunningly low that they seem to imply that reaching orgasm during intercourse isn't normal for the female of the species."
Kipnis compares this situation, hilariously, to "owning one of those hybrid cars that still have a few kinks to work out as your sole source of transport: the engine shuts down unexpectedly, though even when the engine's revved, it can't always be relied upon to get you where you want to go." Combined with the sexual inhibitions most cultures instill in their female members, this leads to a whopping "orgasm gap."
Even the supposedly gone-wild younger generation falls prey to this inequity. Kipnis writes that young women have described themselves as "participating enthusiastically in hookup culture -- one-night stands and booty calls," then complain that "the men involved 'don't care if you're getting off or not.' Yet these girls keep hooking up with them! Without even getting dinner for it! Welcome to the new femininity -- at least under the old femininity, you got taken to dinner." In response to reports from sex researcher Shere Hite, who has interviewed women claiming to enjoy "'emotional orgasm ... an intense emotional peak' followed by feelings of closeness," Kipnis quips, "There's a name for someone who would call that an orgasm: female."
Kipnis sees the current mommy wars as an echo of the old "vaginal-orgasm-versus-clitoral-orgasm dichotomy," in which women who could only climax with clitoral stimulation were told they were insufficiently adapted to their true, natural role as women. "To begin with," she writes, "we have the same cast of characters: the womanly other-directed type versus the masculine-identified striving autonomous type. And in both cases, a socially organized choice masquerades as a natural one, manufacturing a big dilemma where one doesn't really have to exist."
For although Kipnis is willing to admit that some parts of the female psyche have proven ferociously resistant to change, she doesn't think that the situation is intractable. For all her puncturing of feminism's sanguine notions about the malleability of human nature, she doesn't believe that the deep layers of the "symbolic imagination" are hard-wired. Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists may be "the go-to guys of the moment when it comes to thorny questions about human nature and gender roles," but they've yet to come up with a convincing justification for the perverse configuration of the female orgasm, for instance. "This is the crowd," she writes, "who likes to tell us how men and women got to be who they are (and will remain for all eternity) by supplying colorful stories about the mating habits of our hominid ancestors and selected members of the animal kingdom," making the usual comparison to Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories" -- fables about how the leopard got his spots, and so on.
Kipnis' is an exceptionally sensible voice at a time when people seem to believe that any long-standing cultural norm that can't be completely overhauled in a single generation must therefore be indelibly carved on the stone tablets handed down to Charles Darwin at the foundation of the modern world. And for all her low-key Freudianism, she knows when it's time to follow the money instead of the unconscious. During all the foofaraw about the "opt-out revolution" -- those young, Ivy-League women who are now abandoning the career track to be stay-home moms -- haven't you been wishing someone would say exactly this: "Somehow, as highly educated as these girls are, they don't seem to have heard about the 50 percent divorce rate! Somehow, they imagine that their husbands' incomes -- and loyalties -- come with lifetime guarantees, thus no contingency plans for self-sufficiency will prove necessary ... Somewhere Betty Freidan must be cackling..."
In the first essay, "Envy" -- which is not about catfights, but rather about all the things that men have and women want -- Kipnis asks us to consider the slowly closing gender gap when it comes to pay equity. If you look carefully, she points out, you'll see that "women's wages are up to 80 percent of men's because male wages are down, which evens things out. It looks as though the dirty little secret of the last 30 years is that the job market played women off against men to depress pay." While the sexes rage at each other about dating ethics and dirty socks, somebody (probably that little Monopoly guy with the top hat and cigar) has been laughing all the way to the bank.
Perhaps the most daring statement in "The Female Thing" comes in this first essay. Kipnis observes that even so acclaimed a feminist spokesperson as Eve Ensler, creator of "The Vagina Monologues," can turn around and do an entire stage show about how much she hates her belly. "Ensler works herself into intellectual knots trying to come to terms with these painful body insecurities," Kipnis writes, "but there's a simple explanation for the dilemma she can't quite decipher, which is that feminism and femininity just aren't reconcilable." Think about that one for a moment and consider how much an entire school of tortured female rumination hangs on the avoidance of this insight. "Though if internal gymnastics burned calories," Kipnis adds, "we could all have flatter stomachs, with far fewer hours at the fucking gym."
Femininity -- which Kipnis defines as "tactical: a way of securing resources and positioning women as advantageously as possible on an uneven playing field, given the historical inequalities and anatomical disparities that make up the wonderful female condition" -- seeks to ameliorate all these disadvantages by "doing what it took to form strategic alliances with men." But that means that femininity "hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy," which puts it in opposition to the goals of feminism. No wonder we feel a little uneasy when the possessor of a brand new boob job proclaims, "I did it for myself." I believe this is what Marx called false consciousness.
Scolding other women for failing to embody (literally) an appropriately feminist outlook has never really worked, and Kipnis doesn't seem the type to interrupt yet another rousing chorus of "I Enjoy Being a Girl," even if she felt like it. (I don't think she does.) Instead, she's suggesting that we stop lying to ourselves by pretending we can run with the rabbits and hunt with the hounds. No girl should ever be surprised upon finding herself in that archetypal Carrie Bradshaw position of realizing that with all the cash she spent on ruinously expensive and joint-grinding high heels she could instead have bought a roof to put over her head. (That's the revelation that comes right before you learn you need knee surgery.) Don't say nobody ever warned you.
-- By Laura Miller
November 13, 2006 issue of New York Magazine
By Emily Nussbaum
The Female Thing:
Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability
By Laura Kipnis. Pantheon. 192 pages.
W here, oh where, is the great lady pundit of our age? I’m talking about the writer that the 18-year-old freshman can read to pieces. Virginia Woolf, say. Or Gloria Steinem in the sixties, maybe Germaine Greer or Nora Ephron in the seventies, Susie Bright and Mary Gaitskill and Susan Faludi and even the early Naomi Wolf in the eighties. It’s okay if the person is a bit of a wackadoo. She doesn’t have to solve the whole problem at once. But it would be nice—in this era of Camille and Caitlin, that legion of smirking anti-feminist contrarians—to have a truly devastating spokeswoman on the other side.
And it would be wonderful to announce that Laura Kipnis is that woman and The Female Thing is that book. She’s not and it’s not: Although The Female Thing is many terrific things (funny, obnoxious, elegant, and at times quite useful), it’s a little too slippery to love. Like her last book, the seductively contrarian Against Love: A Polemic, The Female Thing is as much a performance as it is an analysis. Yet Kipnis has some wonderfully big targets in mind: She’s making an attempt to diagnose the entire landscape of female unhappiness with (to quote Tony Kushner) “the cold brilliant light of theory to guide the way.”
Kipnis’s main argument is both obvious and radical. As female liberation has spread across the (white, middle-class) Western world, women have mysteriously become more, not less, dissatisfied. But the problem with the female condition is not men, she argues, or at least not primarily, not anymore. Instead, women are driving themselves nuts attempting to reconcile two entirely opposing ideas—feminism and femininity. Each is a system aimed at giving women power, the former by grabbing it directly, the latter by getting at it sideways, redefining female weakness as virtue and maneuvering men into opening all the metaphorical jars. Trying to maintain both stances simultaneously is crazy-making, leaving the “inner woman” divided against herself and tormented by a lack that can never be filled. It’s no surprise that Kipnis believes Freud has been given a bad rap.
In four discursive essays—“Dirt,” “Sex,” “Envy,” and “Vulnerability”—Kipnis uses this central insight as a skeleton key to unlock everything from the Martha Stewart cult to the “orgasm gap.” “Dirt” traces the way women have transformed from the “dirty sex” to the broom-wielding nags of the world, a questionable bit of progress, in her view. “Sex” is a riff on unsatisfying accommodations to the sexual revolution, from Girls Gone Wild to “emotional orgasms.” (“There’s a name for someone who would call that an orgasm: female,” she writes.) “Envy” makes a troubling case for feminism’s role in lowering wages for both men and women.
Kipnis is especially smart on the ways in which the rhetoric of women’s empowerment has turned into an airless culture of complaint, a syndrome one might call “bad-dog feminism”—that defensive “you go, girl!” posture that treats men as brainless puppies who need a good smack on the nose with a newspaper. Such stereotypes are merely a hedge against women’s own insecurity, Kipnis suggests: If men are simply lusty doofuses, we can write them off or manipulate them but never deal with the more difficult task of treating them as human beings (or holding them accountable, for that matter).
But Kipnis really hits her stride when she gets to “Vulnerability.” In a savvy meditation on the uses and misuses of feminist writing on sexual assault, she nimbly detangles the ways actual rape and the fear of rape have been conflated in feminist discussions—and male experiences of violence left out of the picture entirely. Her centerpiece is a nuanced analysis of Naomi Wolf and Andrea Dworkin, a sympathetic yet unsparing exposé of how these writers have blurred the line between testimony and sexual fantasy, reconstituting notions of female masochism and delicacy and erasing the very notion of female power. Absent from Wolf’s account of her “encroachment” by Harold Bloom (published in these pages), writes Kipnis, “is any shred of recognition that the recipients of such advances, gross and unpleasant as they may be, wield just a tiny bit of power too—the power to reject and humiliate the advancer, at the very least.”
Kipnis can certainly turn a sentence, sometimes so well that she comes around 180 degrees. But she is allergic to offering solutions. In one chapter, she wittily denounces “the feminine-industrial complex” and its legion of “Professional Girlfriends.” She herself refuses to be any such girlfriend—far too busy popping the thought balloons of other writers, she doesn’t take the risk of blowing up any herself. And in her determination not to be earnest, not to be prescriptive, she at last ducks out of the implications of even her best insights. The book’s final sentence is very deadpan: “A full accounting of the female situation at the moment will need to start roughly here.” That’s an echo of the final line of Portnoy’s Complaint (“Now vee may perhaps to begin, yes?”) and an intriguing challenge left hanging. Anyone want to take up the pen?
Against feminist orthodoxy
In "The Female Thing," Laura Kipnis airs the dirty laundry of the women's liberation movement.
By Charles Taylor
October 29, 2006
"WOMEN who insist on having the same options as men would do well to consider the option of being the strong, silent type." That, as Fran Lebowitz once framed it, is one way of putting the argument.
Another way of putting it comes from Laura Kipnis, who says, "The idea that women need to get what men have because men have it is what mainstream feminism evolved into from a moment when it seemed to have a more progressive or more widely transformative potential."
The ways in which feminism has and hasn't transformed culture — and the ways in which it has and hasn't transformed women — is the risky territory Kipnis stakes out in her new quartet of essays, "The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability."
Kipnis sets out to chart the conflict between women's urge for social, political and economic progress and what she calls "the collaborator within." "Not to point fingers," she writes, "but without substantial female compliance, wouldn't masculine privilege pretty soon find itself crammed in with all the other debris in the trash can of history?"
Those aren't the words of a bomb thrower or a debunker out to prove that the gains made by second-wave feminism were only imaginary. Only a very lazy reader, or a very doctrinaire one, could take the arguments made in this book as being antifeminist. Kipnis, talking over coffee in New York a few weeks ago, said: "I feel actually like you can't predict the response. The sense of irritation I felt with all the conversations on women, maybe that isn't shared. But of course I could be wrong."
Culturally, this is a difficult moment for independent critical voices. The mood of the country is so divisive right now that criticizing any position leads to the assumption that you're shilling for the other side. And while Kipnis defines herself as a feminist, she also has a critic's impatience with orthodoxies.
"I'm not a real drink-the-Kool-Aid type on any front," she said, adding that she can't abide "that notion of sacrificing saying something honest for saying something that's cheery or supportive."
In conversation, Kipnis, who teaches media studies at Northwestern University outside Chicago, is lively and animated. An easy laugher (and a good one), she's one of those people who fixes you with keen attention when you talk to her. What makes Kipnis such a valuable critic isn't just the sophisticated restlessness of her thinking but the very timbre of her critical voice.
Confident without being recklessly confrontational, persuasive without haranguing, Kipnis is, in an odd way, cheering to read. Puncturing a false sense of comfort in the way that Kipnis does provides its own kind of reassurance to readers — the pleasure of knowing that a writer is being straight with you.
That was certainly true of her last book, "Against Love," an elegant elucidation of the dissatisfactions of monogamy and the unacknowledged contradiction of "working at" maintaining pleasure in a relationship. The book was both mournful and witty, a work that considered the transience of sexual satisfaction while refusing to pretend that sexual liberation, whatever that means now, was any sort of magic bullet.
"The Female Thing" began for Kipnis with a similar impatience with received wisdom and false reassurance. Women's issues were being talked about in ways she found alternately banal, smug and self-congratulatory.
"I find myself in a funny position in relation to feminism," Kipnis said. "Obviously, I'm a feminist. I feel I know these debates fairly well and felt like there were certain things that don't get said because there is such a focus on saying the positive, saying the progressive thing. I would like to think I'm a progressive. But I also felt that there's an element of dishonesty and bad faith in only articulating what's progressed without talking about what's impeded."
What's been impeded, she said, is a chance "to critique the organization of work, the kind of general social distribution of resources. The idea that raising the next generation is just an individual problem instead of one that's along the more European or Swedish model where it's seen as a social good to support the raising of children. The whole question of, what's a good life? That's the question that got left behind in equity feminism. Is it an advance to work an 80-hour workweek and pull down an executive-level salary? That's what stands for progress now."
"The Female Thing" expands on a footnote in "Against Love" in which Kipnis wrote, "It remains to be seen whether feminism's greatest accomplishment was the liberation of women or whether it was redistributing feminine submission more equally between the genders." Kipnis takes that question into the realm of work, asking whether women's increased entry into the workplace in the '70s and beyond gave corporate America a reserve army of labor.
"What's happened over the last 30 years," she said, is that "wages have stagnated. Women's income as a percentage of men's has gone up, but only because men's wages are stagnant. That's what nobody's saying about this whole notion of pay equity and gender progress."
It's a fantasy, she said, to believe that "women can achieve equity even while everybody's standard of living has stagnated, or declined."
That it wasn't women who triumphed but corporate America is not the only disruptive notion in the book.
"I tried to write the things that made me a little nervous. That made me feel, 'Yeah, this is going to get me in trouble.' I felt like I was reopening questions about the relationship of the body to the psyche, and it was a challenge to say the things I thought were true, like the conflict between feminism and femininity."
Those conflicts come out in the chapter "Dirt," in which Kipnis posits that the (learned or instinctive, you decide) feminine obsession with cleanliness and order is a projection of women's feelings about the "uncleanliness" of their own bodies.
The best for last
KIPNIS closes the book with its finest writing, a chapter called "Vulnerability" that contains what may be some of her most controversial arguments. Kipnis shrewdly parses Naomi Wolf's New York magazine article about a pass that literary critic Harold Bloom made at her while Wolf was an undergraduate at Yale, addressing the potentially infantilizing effect of sexual harassment laws on women.
And her discussion of the troubled last days of radical feminist writer Andrea Dworkin allows Kipnis to address the way that the possibility of rape is ingrained in the female psyche — even, Kipnis argues, as figures suggest that, thanks to America's burgeoning prison population, men are just as likely to be victims of sexual assault.
Kipnis is clear, in both the book and in conversation, that sexual harassment is a very real problem. But, she said, it's different from an unwanted sexual advance.
What's become ridiculous, as she sees it, is the rise of "the idea that, one time, somebody can't say 'Wanna?' without your being able to say 'No.' "
Kipnis also notes that the concept of sexual harassment has expanded to cover things like dirty jokes in the workplace. "So that's where it's both infantilizing and where it also overemphasizes female vulnerability," she said. "And I think women have been complicit in this by not being able to separate out being offended from being endangered. The whole issue of our sense of vulnerability to rape is the hinge there."
It's not surprising that, when asked what contemporary writers on feminist issues she admires, Kipnis cites Barbara Ehrenreich, who, she said, "writes about gender in a larger political and economic context." Kipnis says it's hard for her to find younger women writing interesting original feminist theory and that some of the theorists she does admire, like Judith Butler, reach a primarily academic audience.
Surprisingly, she cites Catherine MacKinnon and Dworkin, both of whom she admits she doesn't agree with, though she appreciates that "they really force you to examine questions about the distribution of power and social norms and not take things for granted."
In such a divisive atmosphere, is Kipnis concerned about being accused of giving comfort to the enemy? And it's a mark of how nuance and distinction have become the casualties of our political and cultural discourse that she admits some worry about the book being taken "as one of these right-wing attacks on feminism. But there's enough signs in the book that it's not coming from a right-leaning thinker."
Then, typical of someone who resists orthodoxies, she said, "I'm not somebody who would rule out all conservatives as being automatically dopes."
In such an era of ideological lock step, she's lucky, she said, to "have an editor who's an iconoclast and respects my iconoclasm," even though those "may not be the kind of things that attract readers." She shouldn't worry. When you're doing the kind of writing that attracts thinkers, finding readers will take care of itself.
WHAT A GIRL WANTS
By SARA STEWART
October 15, 2006 -- When is a handbag not just a handbag? When you're shopping with author Laura Kipnis, whose new book, "The Female Thing" (out Oct. 17), tackles the current struggle between feminism (or, as the author puts it, "Don't call me honey, d---head!") vs. femininity ("I just found the world's best push-up bra!").
Who's to blame for this cartoonish tug-of-war, which is arguably distracting women from larger social and political issues? Kipnis (who's been known to play devil's advocate) suggests it may be women themselves.
Take the aforementioned handbag: It's symbolic of a certain part of the female anatomy, says the author - and one of the most highly coveted icons of femininity.
"So much of female culture revolves around the sense that something is missing," Kipnis says over coffee in a Chelsea boutique/cafe. "When you map that against the Freudian story, it's kind of the same. It's a thing nobody wants to hear, but is present in, like, every page of every women's magazine."
In other words, shopping is how women compensate for a nagging lack of something ("not a penis, don't be so literal," Kipnis writes in the book. "Just something").
Fortunately for the clothingbeauty-fitness industries, the quest for perfection never ends.
Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University, says she's not out to offer any solutions for the conflicted female psyche, only to observe, analyze and satirize.
Her 2004 book, "Against Love," took a similarly subversive, witty look at adultery - but was taken by some as a how-to guide for philanderers.
"What I found is if you write a book with 'love' in the title, everybody tries to turn it into an advice book," she says. "And things are really in bad shape if they're asking me!"
This time around, she had some burning questions about her own gender.
Why, she wondered, has the very word "feminism" fallen out of favor? Why do women have such a weird relationship with cleaning products? Why are they obsessed with orgasms, but not with the less-sexy issues of affordable child care or equal pay? What explains women's chronic dissatisfaction with men - and why do they publicly high-five themselves for it?
"I had a certain sense of irritation at the way women talk about the situation of women," she says. "It's gotten more and more smug and self-congratulatory."
Especially, she notes, when it comes to the business of advice. Once dispensed by authoritarian (and mostly male) doctors and experts, words of wisdom are now doled out by what Kipnis refers to as "professional girlfriends."
In "The Female Thing," Kipnis deftly satirizes the type of language found in this type of just-us-girls pop therapy: "Sign up here, because there's a happier, more perfect you hidden in there," she writes. "Be who you truly are. Once you've had a makeover, that is."
"It's like shooting fish in a barrel," says the author. "You could just go on forever in parody mode."
But, Kipnis adds, even she wasn't immune from the glossy lure of women's magazines. Says she, "I thought, if I had read these over the years, I would really know how to accessorize."
The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, by Laura Kipnis
By Cathie Beck, Special to the News
October 25, 2006
Nonfiction. By Laura Kipnis. Pantheon, $23.95. Grade: C+
Book in a nutshell: Kipnis, controversial author of Against Love: A Polemic, rankles readers with her sexual politics once again. This time, she examines and debates, at even deeper levels, women themselves, asking hard questions about feminism's failures.
The Female Thing is a brash work that rests on the premise that, decades after the '70s feminist movement, women remain conflicted and confused about gender and what, exactly, they want. Modern women, she writes, feel as if something's always missing; most chronically want more, and many are forever bent on improving themselves.
Kipnis argues that today's women struggle more than ever with the tension between feminism and femininity. "In lieu of footbinding," she writes, "here are the so-called modern women slicing and dicing parts to achieve a feminine ideal." The book is designed to shed light on the mixed messages, double meanings and blindsiding inherent in the lives of women, who have been historically marginalized, managed and misunderstood.
Best tidbit: In the "Dirt" section of the book, Kipnis writes: "Explanations leave it completely unclear how women have managed to unlearn traditional femininity sufficiently to run corporations, serve in military combat units in Iraq, argue before the Supreme Court, and adopt a thousand other so-called male behaviors - including stomping all over traditional sexual morality - but somehow can't seem to overthrow the imperative to clean or the propensity to generally care more about cleaning than men do."
Pros: The author doesn't blanch at zeroing in on women's complicity in their own struggles, oppression and chronic discontent.
Cons: Kipnis' voice and style is pedantic, dense and often self-congratulatory. Sometimes, she's funny, but not as often as one thinks she thinks she is.
Final word: Women and feminists of both genders may feel like they are the choir being preached to, while conservative readers will find their hackles considerably raised.
In Simone’s Shoes: Laura Kipnis Lets Loose on Big Ones
Roiling Academic Hits Feminists in Female Thing; She Says Don’t Blame Men
By: Sheelah Kolhatkar
“Not to compare myself to Simone de Beauvoir—who is, you know, this vast intellectual heroine—but I remember reading something that she said about when The Second Sex came out in France, and that she just was mocked to death,” said the author, professor, former video artist and feminist pundit Laura Kipnis.
It was the eve of the publication of her new book, The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, and Ms. Kipnis, who said she’s in her “late 40’s,” seemed a tiny bit nervous about how graciously she, and it, would be received. Ms. Kipnis called the book, which critiques women’s conflicted obsessions with cleanliness, romantic love, orgasms and rape, an “update on the topography of the female psyche.” She described the tone of some early reviews with that dreaded word: “mocking.”
“I’m curious to know if that will persist, and if writing about femininity actually will end up being my intellectual downfall and I’ll never be taken seriously again,” she said, looking austere at the Noho Star cafe for breakfast on Sept. 29. She was dressed for urban combat—or perhaps for battles of a cerebral nature—in a black sweater and pants, her white, almost translucent skin and angular features brought out by pink lipstick and smoky eyeliner. On her feet were tweed wedges with maribou poufs on the toes.
“You know, I think it’s not an unaggressive book, actually,” she continued in her elongated Midwestern drawl, an anxious furrow appearing between her eyes. “And I think any amount of aggression you put out in the world comes back to you.” Although that’s obviously something she seeks out: “I’m maybe playing a bit of a provocateur role,” she said. She took a bite of toast.
Ms. Kipnis, who teaches film production at Northwestern University, is not incorrect in thinking that the media needs more sharp, intelligent female writing. Instead, the proliferation of self-indulgent essays—retro first-person tales of dating, wedding-planning and baby-making—seem to do more for the author than the reader. Both the television and print worlds are crowded with self-important boys fighting amongst themselves, but there’s no Simone, Susan Sontag or even a kooky new Camille Paglia on the horizon. The literary landscape is as uninspiring as a girl’s credit-card balance after a Jimmy Choo sample sale—as Ms. Kipnis herself might write in her self-consciously irreverent voice.
“I did think what was missing was an element of honesty,” said Ms. Kipnis, who criticizes the work of Maureen Dowd, Caitlin Flanagan and Eve Ensler, not to mention most feminist academics and theorists (she does admire Barbara Ehrenreich). She refers to much of what goes on as “you go, girl” culture: “It’s a whole men-are-dogs, men-are-untrustworthy kind of advice literature which acts as if men are de facto emotional incompetents, and women are the ones with the soul and the depth and the emotional awareness,” she said, adding that women need to look inward to find the source of many of their problems. “It does seem so smug.”
Ms. Kipnis, however, doesn’t regard this as an irreconcilable problem; having made her name writing “academically” about subjects such as Hustler magazine and porn (a sure way to ensure that one’s college courses are always full), she seems intent on catapulting beyond the walls of academia and filling the void herself.
LAURA KIPNIS GREW UP IN, and now lives in, Chicago, but she’s openly ambitious about her desire to settle permanently in New York (“It’s fucking freezing there,” she said, among other things, about the Windy City).
She attended art school in San Francisco, became known as a video artist and then went on to publish articles in academic journals, which led to university teaching gigs in Madison and Michigan, as well as at New York University in 2002 and 2003. (Ms. Kipnis holds the title of professor at Northwestern without the coveted credential of a Ph.D.)
After publishing books in the academic world—Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America and Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender & Aesthetics—she made her mainstream debut with Against Love: A Polemic, a sassy book-length essay arguing that marriage and monogamy are suffocating and unnatural (“domestic gulags,” in her parlance), which was published in 2003. People—men in particular—seemed intrigued by a single-woman author who made a passionate case for adultery (although she said that she was once in a stable 12-year relationship and isn’t anti-marriage). The book was widely, and for the most part enthusiastically, reviewed.
“I was kind of amazed with that book,” Ms. Kipnis said, marveling at how “intellectually seriously” it was treated. “I thought that it would be polarizing, and I thought there would be some real bashing, but as far as I know, the reviews were just entirely … kinda celebratory and positive to an extent that just ... surprised me.”
Slate’s culture editor, Meghan O’Rourke, reviewed the book and later asked Ms. Kipnis to write for the online magazine. The collaboration led to pieces about Playboy, Deep Throat, Americans’ expanding waistlines and politics. Ms. O’Rourke described Ms. Kipnis as their “maverick voice on feminism.”
Most of Ms. Kipnis’ newest book was written in New York, in an apartment she owns in Chelsea, while she was on a two-year leave from Northwestern. When she’s in town, she hangs out with, among others, Ms. O’Rourke, as well as the New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead and her husband. (Ms. Mead reviewed Against Love for The New Yorker and the two struck up a friendship.) In fact, Ms. Mead’s home was the setting of at least one of the dinner parties mentioned in the book, in which Ms. Kipnis described an “attractive successful single professional female in her mid- to late thirties” who was ranting at the table about what wimps most men are. Ms. Mead said that Ms. Kipnis is “excellent” to have at a dinner party.
“She can always defend herself and argue with people who aren’t necessarily used to being taken on,” Ms. Mead said. “And she’s always game. So I don’t think she’s ever declined an invitation.”
The dinner-party anecdote was meant to illustrate what seems to be Ms. Kipnis’ central point: that women have mixed feelings about their own emancipation. “[B]eing female at this point in history is an especially conflicted enterprise,” she writes sagely in the “Envy” section, “like Birkenstocks with Chanel, or trying to frown after a Botox injection.”
The 160-page riff that ensues is decidedly less focused than Against Love. Ms. Kipnis divides the female psyche into four quadrants (the “dirt,” “sex,” “envy” and “vulnerability” of the title), and within them covers sexual satisfaction (“orgasms have become an index of female progress”), housework (“it’s unclear whether the real domestic problem between the sexes is that men won’t clean or that women will”), rape (“It may come as a surprise to hear that as many men as women are probably raped [in prison] every year in the United States, and possibly more”) and women’s general love-hate attitude towards men. Freud makes an appearance on page 11, Naomi Wolf on page 145, with Nietzsche somewhere in between.
She pointedly avoids giving any sort of advice, which many women have probably come to expect from their fellow women. When asked what she hoped to accomplish with The Female Thing over breakfast, Ms. Kipnis paused.
“I think my ambition is to—I don’t know how this is gonna sound—but for the world to be a bit more interesting than it is,” Ms. Kipnis said. “So I’m … trying to contribute to making these conversations feel a little more interesting. And also, on a personal level, just kinda have fun.”
A COUPLE OF WEEKS LATER, Ms. Kipnis was party to a conversation with a very different tenor. She was the guest of honor at a seminar held at Columbia University to discuss the “Dirt” chapter of The Female Thing. A group of students, many likely from women’s studies (several bandanas and unshaved armpits were in attendance), and a handful of professors gathered around a conference table in a fluorescent-lit basement room. The whole exercise served as a potent reminder of both the perils and the luxuries of academic life.
One of those present, an older woman with short hair and spectacles, was squirming in her seat.
“I still don’t know what this book is about,” she harrumphed, furiously chewing her gum.
Ms. Kipnis swept in and took her place at the end of the table. After a heady introduction by one of the grad students, she explained that “femininity and feminism are in incessant conflict” with one another. She read several passages from the book’s preface aloud (“when it comes to the female situation, contradictions speckle the landscape, like ingrown hairs after a bad bikini wax,” etc.). While she spoke, her lips pursed into a perfect “O” shape that jutted out in front of her face.
“I loved reading this—it was so much fun, I felt like I was cheating,” gushed one young woman when Ms. Kipnis finished reading.
The conversation hopscotched around the table, covering questions of who Ms. Kipnis was hoping to reach with her book (“both academics and readers of Time magazine,” she said); the link between housework and pornography; the question of whether there is a “female propensity to masochism”; and the inevitable theme of ladies’ anatomy: “I kept coming back to the vagina,” Ms. Kipnis declared at one point, by way of explaining why women behave the way they do. “No matter how you get into the theory, it does come back to the fact that you have a vagina. It sounds stupid to say it …. ”
There was heated talk of “cross-cultural claims” and “transformational possibilities,” “social constructionism” and “materiality.” One of the three men in the room piped in that he had had “some impatience with the straight constructionist line” in the excerpt.
Ms. Kipnis seemed to be rather enjoying the friendly banter, until someone put forth a question that demonstrated that even an edgy, feminist contrarian has her limits. A man with a shaggy white mustache gathered the sheaf of papers spread out on the table in front of him with the efficiency of a government bureaucrat.
“I found it interesting that there was no reference at all to oral sex,” the man began. “Feel-ah-shee-o or coo-ne-linguis raises all sorts of issues that you might have discussed—heh, heh! My sense is that feel-ah-shee-o occurs more and is expected more than coo-ne-linguis.”
Ms. Kipnis was staring at him, and somewhere somebody let out a giggle.
“Do you think that oral sex has any role in this discussion?” the man said.
It was a fair point, but Ms. Kipnis was having none of it.
“Uh … no, I didn’t take that up,” Ms. Kipnis said.