The Feminine Mistake

Illustration by Sean McCabe.Photo: Marion Ettlinger/Courtesy of Pantheon

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?

Laura Kipnis’s day job is teaching film production at Northwestern University—so it makes sense that she’s had a career in films on sex (but not sex films). Even more than her books, Kipnis’s movies hark back to the heyday of academic Marxist-feminism. Among them are the 60-minute pastiche Ecstasy Unlimited: The Interpenetrations of Sex and Capital (some of which later worked its way into a book) and Marx: The Video (A Politics of Revolting Bodies), a postmodern lecture given by a Greek chorus of drag queens that Kipnis summarizes as “MTV meets Eisenstein.”

The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability
By Laura Kipnis. Pantheon. 192 pages.

The Feminine Mistake