Books Are Pretty

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Female Thing.

I may be crossing the finish line last in an enormous race of people who have reviewed Laura Kipnis’ latest book, The Female Thing, but I think I can still manage to add something new – a small deconstruction of the cover.

The mostly naked, female form on the cover (love the leaf-as-pudenda motif, by the way) gave me a strong sense of déjà vu, and I went crazy for about a week trying to figure out where I’d seen it before. Finally, it came to me: back in college, my friend Lisa had an old Edgar Winter album, don’t remember which one, but the album’s inside jacket had a photo of a very young Edgar Winter, completely naked, with one hand over his bits. I was simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the image when I saw it, totally appalled that Edgar, who really should never appear naked anywhere at any time, seemed to think it would be a good idea to pose like this and nobody stopped him. Didn’t he have any friends? Did they all secretly hate him?

I have to wonder about the thought process behind putting a female model on the cover of a book about feminism who has exactly the same body as a hairless, anorexic, albino man. Was it deliberate? If so, it certainly backs up Kipnis’ assertion that winds its way through the book – we women are our own worst enemy. Why else would a model with a mostly unattainable body type be used in a book deconstructing the women’s inner battle between empowerment and self-loathing?

Kipnis rather gleefully makes hay with the idea that feminism has reached an impasse, largely due to our own inner battles pitting the skills of femininity – passively manipulating men and circumstances to carve the best niche for ourselves, and feminism – directly attempting to achieve our goals on our own merits.

The book is broken up into four lengthy essays: Envy, Sex, Dirt, and Vulnerability, clearly defining the sticking point barring any further achievements and delineating why women, despite the legal and social gains made through feminism, still feel as dissatisfied as ever, if not more so. While she can dish out the problems, almost daring the reader to disagree, she offers a surprising lack of solutions. In fact, it appears that Kipnis has read one too many women’s magazines in her research and now has an almost pathological aversion to giving advice, branching out only once in support of Soft Scrub bathtub cleanser. No, really. Rather, Kipnis seems to want this book to become the start of a conversation, rather than the end solution, which is fine.

“Envy” describes how progress in the workplace leaves women to finally have the same careers as men, but not particularly enjoying them, as well as depressingly describing how women entering the workforce was used to lower wages for men and women both. Think about Wal-Mart outsourcing to China for cheap labor over more expensive American workers and you’ll get the idea.

“Sex” describes what Kipnis refers to as the “cruel joke” of women’s short end of the stick when it comes to sexual satisfaction, not to mention getting stuck with pregnancy and childbirth. Kipnis takes particular issue with the location of the clitoris, presumably the major spot of sexual pleasure for women (although she and Freud, whom she repeatedly quotes, wonders if that is so, as it seems to have fallen in and out of vogue)* Why, she wonders is the clitoris so far out of the way that most women do not climax through traditional penetration?

Personally, I’m kind of happy it is where it is, safe and out of the way of episiotomies and vaginal tearing during childbirth. But that’s just me. There also seems to be, thanks to a tremendous industry largely fueled by women, an emphasis on having sex “the normal way” or “the right way,” regardless of whether that particular way works for the individual woman.

“Dirt” is a charming history reflecting why women have gotten stuck doing the majority of the housework, blending women’s traditional reputation as being dirty or “unclean” (thanks, Religion!) with why we can’t seem to ignore dirty dishes in the sink.

Kipnis saves the best for last with “Vulnerability,” a potentially controversial piece about how the foundation that structures most women’s behavior is the fear of rape. Given the statistics that she analyzed, she feels rape is not as common as we are lead to believe – not the stranger rape that keeps us in our homes late at night and away from empty parking garages – and maybe we are living in fear for no reason.

My favorite part of “Vulnerability,” and I’ll go so far to say this was my favorite part of the whole book, was Kipnis’ criticism of Andrea Dworkin. Now, I’m a pretty solid old-fashioned liberal feminist – cut me and I bleed Janeane Garofolo's blood - when Kipnis started in on Dworkin I was afraid she was going to move into territory that would ruin the whole book for me. The majority of what I read about Dworkin, when not written by a radical feminist, is reactionary and contains more than a little streak of vindictiveness in it, railing away at things Dworkin never said. That old chestnut "Dworkin said all sex was rape!" chestnut that, despite being thoroughly debunked by Snopes, keeps floating like a rotten egg to the surface of popular culture, like the belief in Spontaneous Human Combustion or Creationism.

So I was delighted to read a critical essay of Dworkin's philosophies that managed to strongly disagree with what Dworkin has actually said, while being respectful of both Dworkin and her body of work.

Although I would be surprised if radical feminists enjoy The Female Thing as much as I think liberal feminists will, Kipnis is actually similar to Dworkin in that, whether or not you agree with their conclusions, they both produce work that challenges you to think about feminism from different angles, ultimately providing many more questions than answers.


*Part of the problem with the mystery surrounding women’s joy buzzers is the fact that until last year, nobody had bothered to map out the nerve endings in women’s sexual organs, often cutting right through them during hysterectomies. Fortunately, a woman scientist, apparently not particularly held back by Envy, is mapping everything out for us as you read this, and hurray for her.

The Female Thing
by Laura Kipnis
October, 2006 by Pantheon Books
Hardcover, 173pp
ISBN: 0-375-42417-2

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