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As with her previous titles, such as Bound and Gagged and Against Love, Laura Kipnis examines her subject in The Female Thing with witty, dry humor. Although this lightens and makes her work more accessible, there remain clear levels of access. Not every reader will follow every nuance as she deftly shifts between pop culture references and literate asides that presuppose knowledge of critical theory, psychoanalysis or postmodernism. And despite her frequent glibness, she is probing , provocative and genuinely thoughtful.
Kipnis seems to take on gender political topics primarily in her works, covering porn (Bound and Gaged), romantic coupledom (Against Love) and the political conflict between the ethics and aesthetics of sexual representation (Ecstasy Unlimited). In each case, her take on the topic is less bound to the doctrinaire feminist script than one might expect from work in these areas, and quite a bit more fun. The Female Thing probes the female psyche in pursuit of the thesis that among the many obstacles to gender equality, some of the more intractable might just be the foibles of femininity itself. To the usual refrain that the patriarchy is to blame for how women are, she replies with a short, sharp footnote: 'tell the story that way if you like, but keep in mind that you seem to deny women's agency in doing so,' a response one might expect from the more astute critics of feminism. But Kipnis denies that her's is an anti-feminist book. She's not blaming the victim. Rather, she simply (and rightly) suspects that the rigid male=perpetrator/female=victim interpretation of gender relationships suffocates any genuinely fresh reflection on the situation. In The Female Thing, she focuses on other versions of the story.
Though she acknowledges her list is not comprehensive, Kipnis gathers her target topics under four headings: envy, sex, dirt and vulnerability. Each of these represents an area in which female ambivalence between progress and tradition -- the Feisty Feminist vs. the Eternal Feminine -- plays a role in retarding social progress. Kipnis does not mean to pick on backward or conservative women, though. As she makes clear, she is concerned with the women most likely to accept the feminist message and to have received the benefit of whatever progress has been made. In her analysis, white middle and upper class women set something of a benchmark for charting the limits of progress, for if they are unable to disemburden themselves, for example, of worry over the housework, few others will be.
'Envy' sets out to answer Freud's old question once again: what do women want -- from men? Eschewing the pat answer (not him -- his job!) leads Kipnis into a wandering reflection on male-female entanglement that appears to be the least well-focused of her four chapters. Parts of the Envy chapter examine the sort of anxiety about themselves that makes women vulnerable to the endless self-improvement, lose-the-belly, simple-test-to-tell-he's-leaving, quick-easy-holiday-recipe crap that is pandered through check-out lane women's magazines. But other parts present the problem in the form of the DIY, fixer-upper approach to relationships, in which a male partner plays proxy for a woman's self-improvement. Women continually gnaw themselves in self-loathing (am I desirable enough?), while also projecting the lack onto men (Why doesn't the S.O.B. give me a call?). Both count as envy, one might suppose, understood as sense of inadequacy provoked by another's good fortune, that of other women or of men.
'Sex' goes more directly to the matter -- the orgasm gap. Sexual revolutions aside, there seems to have been little progress toward equality of orgasms between men and women. Much of this topic is a review of the previous done-to-death coverage it has received, plus a reflection on what it means that it has received so much attention. Are orgasms now 'an index of female progress'? If so, we had better assess the situation so we what progress we might expect and identify its inherent limits. Hence, the rehearsal of the evolutionary purpose of female orgasms, the vaginal-clitoral divide, male ineptitude and female reluctance to instruct, the G-spot (or not) and whether falling birthrates have anything to do with it.
The chapter on 'Dirt' starts with the familiar question of 'who takes out the trash', but the real subject is the symbolic value of dirt and its relation to the female psyche. Not long ago, women were the 'unclean' sex: now, the charge of 'dirtiness' gets leveled at men. Progress, albeit warped, or not? If so, why can't women let go of the obsession with cleaning? Even where men are helping out, women seem to fuss over the problem to an extent fit to put a good obsessive-compulsive to shame. So, could there be anything in the deeper connections between dirt and bodily shame and sex? And what about cleanliness, aside from godliness, represents progress anyway?
Turning to 'Vulnerability', Kipnis takes on a more sober topic: the vulnerability to assault imposed on women, simply by possession of a vagina. To judge by exchange value and attention, the vagina has significant social value and status, she notes, but it is far from certain what good this does the woman who possesses it. Maybe it is rather overpriced? In the background, once again, are differing assessments of femininity: the fragile, oh-so-violable flower vs. the give-as-good-as-she-takes modern gal. Perhaps progress requires a less exclusive alternative.
As with her previous publications, Kipnis's books are not intended to convey a body of data to their readers, though she does pass on many intriguing tidbits which one can pursue via the bibliographic endnotes. (In this way, they could lead to further interesting reading.) Rather Kipnis seems to specialize in the polemic, where objective content is secondary to presenting a distinctive point of view. Her books should be read as thought-provoking entertainment and are capable of appealing to a wide audience. It is easy to imagine them used for starting discussions, though they would not support pedagogy very well. So long as this is understood, Kipnis will not disappoint her audience.
© 2008 George Williamson
George Williamson, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK
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