The Female Thing

Must be my lucky day. A feminist critic whose last name means "vagina wig" gets right to it in a Slate dialogue with my new pop heroine Laura Kipnis. Here's Daphne Merkin: I like the way you tease out the … Read More

By / December 6, 2006

Must be my lucky day. A feminist critic whose last name means "vagina wig" gets right to it in a Slate dialogue with my new pop heroine Laura Kipnis. Here's Daphne Merkin:

I like the way you tease out the flavor-of-the-month ideas that are taken as brilliant sociological insights rather than the most recent evolution of the cultural narratives we tell ourselves. (The notion of constructing narratives or stories out of our experience, the better to understand it, is one of your favorite conceits.) We need cultural critics like you, who pay close attention to low-brow appropriations as well as high-brow articulations, who recognize that ideological scripts can't leap over the "abyss between desire and intelligence" (although I'm not sure you really mean "intelligence" in this context so much as "rational thinking" or "the more evolved parts of our brain" or whatever it is that we place in opposition to our unmediated and resolutely unprogressive libidos), no matter how much we'd like to believe otherwise.

The problem of making cerebration intriguing to an elusive female audience who may prefer to watch Sex and the City reruns is one I'm all too familiar with as a commentator on books and culture for Elle, where I'm always worrying that I'll lose prospective readers to the more immediate gratifications of Jimmy Choo ads and Beyoncé interviews. But in being so intent on luring in the masses, you sell your thinking at too low a price of admission—if I may mix metaphors—with the result that you end up shoving some some of your curvier (or, if you prefer, knottier) qualifications into footnotes or passing over them in haste, so the reader won't notice the less glib references—to "compensatory" mechanisms, say, or to "category violations" (a concept I've always been fascinated by)—between the many allusions to vibrators and G spots. It is also to this end, I assume, that you insist on peppering your text with a Cosmo-like seasoning of italics and exclamation marks. (Do you know that Helen Gurley Brown once said that exclamation marks were the sexiest form of punctuation? Don't you just love it?!)

Kipnis, for her part, is less defensive than I'd be in having my reader-friendly prose sniffed at by someone who sounds as if she would rather hear terms like "sociologies of knowledge" and "queering the text" deployed in a book targeted at a mass female audience. However, as a man who makes it a point not to read women's magazines, even I hipped to Laura's game early on in Against Love (which is actually better than The Female Thing because more it's radical and risky):

In Against Love, given the subject (adultery), I tried riffing on the mode of the love letter: The writing was over-the-top and flirtatious, there were a lot of run-on sentences and excessive metaphors, a lot of playing around—you know, like adultery. I was trying to write to the cultural id, and I think people mostly understood that. In The Female Thing, I really thought it would be clear that I was parodying the style of women's magazines and girl culture—not because the publishers were hoping to land me on Oprah (though I'm sure they wouldn't have minded), but as an experiment in appropriation: refunctioning (in the Brecht sense) girly language and turning it on its head, into critique. OK, maybe it was a failed experiment, if that didn't come across. But it wasn't unserious. And the more obvious route—serving up anecdotes about my own life experiences, which I would proceed to explicate, thus enlightening my readers with hard-won lessons in progressive femalehood—this just didn't appeal to me. For one thing, isn't that a pretty tired-out idiom by now?

Marx was as satiric and playful at his best as he was sobering and trenchant. We would not still be reading him if he sounded like some of the gargantuan latterday bores claiming to uphold the materialist conception of history.

Kipnis aruges that female "choice," inaugurated by first and second wave feminism, actually has the look and feel of female slavery all over again. The only thing that's changed since the two-option era of being a pregnant housewife or a secretarial spinster is that women themselves are now the wardens of their own psychic prisons. They want it all or don't know what they want, save to degrade one another through tyrannically high standards of body image, guilt about choosing family over career, etc. As Kipnis writes, once women asked men to talk about their feelings, we never shut about them; and even our magnanimous offers to do more around the house (or, say, college dorm) are met with cold resistance because we just don't do that more with sufficient degree of seriousness/efficacy. (Thus, in an especially illuminating chapter on "Dirt" in The Female Thing, Kipnis describes how women feel even more burdened by assuming both the role of domestic maid and breadwinner — not because they have to but because they choose to.)

Kipnis can get too-clever-by-half: She tries to show how, paradoxically, the Dworken-MacKinnon school of repudiating sex as violent and oppressive to women is more of an obsession with the act than either Dworken or MacKinnon care to admit — though admit this they do, almost by definition, since a forsenic investigator can well be said to be obsessed with murder. (I also found it unseemly for Kipnis to write skeptically of Dworken's rape claim when she didn't even bother to bring up Juanita Broderick's accusation about jizzer-in-chief Bill Clinton.)

The Female Thing is also short on "thinking globally," not that this is a major failing in a book purportedly about the trappings of white, well-educated, middle-class women in America. But a little perspective might have helped where so many have found Kipnis diagnosing well but offering no viable cure for what ails the modern double-Xer. Reading this book alongside, say, Hirsi Ali's The Caged Virgin makes Kipnis seem frivolous or solipsisitc. Also her own worst enemy since one surefire way to put an end to the bifurcated or muddled feminine identity in the West is to devote oneself to struggling for basic rights for womenwho are still treated as chattel in the third world. Am I being unfair? Not unless you think Cosmo really is a worthy distraction from The Economist.

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