The Complex Relationship Between Women and Jerks

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Photo: Hybrid Images/Corbis

The world is full of assholes. That was my first thought when I saw Laura Kipnis’s new collection of essays, Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation. In it, the feminist author and academic examines a specific type of man who takes up space, relishes his power, behaves badly, and is gleefully offensive. You may have met him on the internet, but he certainly exists offline as well. From the bumbling affairs of Tiger Woods and Anthony Weiner to the pseudo-political bloviating of Donald Trump and Larry Flynt, she categorizes these men as scumbags, humiliation artists, gropers, cheaters, Hillary-haters, self-deceivers. They are the men who lurk on MRA message boards. They are the men who puff out their chests on cable news. They are the men who call grown women “sweetheart” at work and expect it to be taken as a compliment.

Vilifying them one by one would be deliciously satisfying. But Kipnis is too self-aware for that—and the situation is more nuanced than that. When I called her to talk about the book, she told me that she was drawn to these men as much as repulsed by them. And so she had to examine her own fantasies and projections about powerful jerks, too. This is a bold move for a professed feminist. Then again, Kipnis has always been provocative — one of her other books is called Against Love. Earlier this year she ran afoul of campus sexual-assault activists for writing an article that asked whether we should all be getting so upset about consensual relationships between professors and students. While she didn’t defend rape or call for an end to organizing against it, she was protested and slapped with sexual misconduct and gender-discrimination charges.

In light of the campus drama, her decision to publish a book about lotharios and scumbags is a pretty shocking choice. But I was most surprised to realize that, on some level, I share Kipnis’s pull toward this type of man. The idea that women love bad boys and dick-swinging jerks is not new — there’s that famous Henry Kissinger quote about power being the ultimate aphrodisiac. But it’s too simplistic to explain women’s attraction to male power in sexual terms. For me, the allure of powerful men is that I might be able to access some of that power for myself, or learn to harness it. I don’t want to sleep with them, I want to study them. But I’m probably fooling myself if I think I could adopt their behavior and get away with it. When women exhibit power the way men do, they’re usually vilified for it.

Kipnis and I had a conversation about what it means when smart, feminist women acknowledge we’re compelled by the type of asshole man who will never call himself an ally.

Many of the men in the book seem to practically embody the patriarchy. Yet you’re so nice to them!
I suppose I have maybe a complicated view of what patriarchy entails. I do tend to think that there’s an awful lot of complicity on the part of women in propping up the patriarchy. It’s almost impossible not to eroticize power. I mean, my god, look at Donald Trump. There’s a lot of weird erotics that circulate around unsavory characters, even the ones who seem despicable or even laughable like Trump.

That’s gross, but I take your point. Is it that we want his power for ourselves?
A lot of the ways women relate to men are based on envy. That works both in terms of the erotic and in terms of the desire to take them down for their power and have some of it for ourselves. I think it’s been a real issue for feminism, the desire to have what men have. Like, become the CEO and have the corner office versus imagining that power could work in a different way.

Most of the men you write about have unabashedly shaped the public narrative about themselves. In the introduction, you say that women writing about manhood tend to have “phallic aspirations.” When you’re a writer, you are crafting the story in a way that a lot of these men have managed to do. Do you think it is possible for women to be more self-authoring, like a Larry Flynt or like a Donald Trump?
I think this is exactly what propelled me toward these figures. In writing about them; maybe there were some covert ways that I was rewriting my own story. I do think that the kinds of mobility you have as a woman — physical, emotional, the ability to fantasize, ways of acting in the world — they're so much more constricted than they are for men. When I was joking about having a phallus as a writer, it was in this imaginary way that you enlarge your own sense of possibilities. Being able to write your own story.

You were protested this year by campus sexual-assault activists. Many of the men you write about seem to think that it’s a badge of honor to be protested or scorned. Is that how you felt?
I remember hearing an interview with Norman Mailer where he said something about having grown a shell as thick as a tortoise. He talked about the double-sided nature of that. On one hand it’s protective. On the other, it closes you off from the world. So the downside of being the swashbuckler or the who-gives-a-shit kind of figure is also becoming a big asshole — or a narcissist, to use the current terminology — and riding roughshod over everyone. That’s where it becomes tough. I suppose to my critics on campus I’m seen as the individualist who doesn’t care about students and their sensitivities. Whereas from my point of view as a writer, they’re trying to impose a sort of conformity.

At one point you write, of a man, “I wanted his good opinion, yet I also wanted to not care what he thought of me.” That resonated so deeply with me. There have been so many men I’ve recognized as assholes, but to whom I’ve wanted so badly to prove my competence, my skills as a writer, all of the qualities that I think such a man would care about.
It was Larry Flynt that I was saying that about — I wanted not to care what he thought of me. Because why should I care what he thought of me? It was interesting to realize how much I did. But for what reason? It’s irrational.

Is it irrational, though? I think that gaining the approval of men like Larry Flynt or Donald Trump is a stand-in for broader approval and success. If I can win over a man who embodies power, that means I can be successful in this world. My conflicted feelings toward these men themselves have to do with my conflicted feelings about power and ambition, and whether it’s possible to make my way as a woman in the world.
It’s exactly that. There’s something that’s always unrealizable or unattainable. I’ve been thinking about the situation on campuses and what young women want from men, and how they end up putting themselves in risky situations to obtain something they deny they really want, which has something to do with male attention. This question, what do women want from male attention, think how many industries that fuels! The cosmetics industry, aesthetic surgery, all the ways women are spending huge amounts of time and disposable income and emotional energy twisting themselves into some kind of supposedly acceptable form. To attract what? A man’s attention? Love? Fidelity?

Those of us who consider ourselves feminist intellectuals still do that in our own way. I do it by wanting men to think I’m smart. In the book you write that you’ve been flattered by men who praise your intellect. I’m the same.
Right, we try to get the approval through our work or intellect, versus some other woman who tries to get it with her flat abs or big boobs. I was really interested in Adelle Waldman’s book The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., and her view of how relations between men and women play out. It’s not my sense that younger generations are approaching it any differently. Even in the St. Paul's case — the prep-school rape case — you’ve got this 15-year-old girl following this guy into this dark room because he was popular and she was flattered by his attention. It doesn’t seem to have changed much despite the last 50 years of second-wave feminism.

But Adelle Waldman also wrote about the letters she’s gotten from men who identify with the manipulative and womanizing behavior of Nathaniel P., and they admitted that they’re aware of — and a little guilty about — the power that they have. Maybe, deep down, Norman Mailer and Larry Flynt secretly felt guilty about their power, but I think there has been a shift. There does seem to be a sense of conflict within younger straight men: They love continuing to wield that power, but they also understand that they shouldn’t love it.
That’s probably true.

You write that “scorn for men has become the post-feminist fallback position,” even as women continue to want to enjoy the company of men. There are a lot of jokes among internet feminists about being a proud misandrist. But you argue that scorning men makes them more emotionally central to us. What’s a heterosexual feminist to do?
It’s just being honest to the extent that you can be about your own desires and tracking your own bitterness. The thing that strikes me about the misandrist jokes and tirades is the self-exoneration of it. It’s taking yourself out of the equation. I think heterosexual women want it not to be the case that men are as central as they are. There’s this kind of denial. You get left in this pretty emotionally twisted-up and contradictory position because you’re denying your own desires, position, contradictions. But I think those tend to seep out anyway.

This interview has been edited and condensed.