Shoddy and trite - or is that the pesky hormones talking?

The Female Thing
October 5, 2007

There should be a term for someone who treats a truism as a staggering discovery. An obviator, perhaps. Or a gloss adjustor. Step forward Laura Kipnis, whose gleefully heralded premise, as unstartling as it is trite, is that contemporary women face a struggle between the warring instincts of feminism and femininity. Or, as she puts it: "Being female at this point in history is an especially conflicted enterprise, like Birkenstocks with Chanel, or trying to frown after a Botox injection."

And this inelegant prose style, combined with pseudo-cute similes, is another of Kipnis's unfortunate hallmarks - a girly colloquialism that is mistaken by some, not least herself, as witty and iconoclastic. "If you're a chick," she confides, in her analysis of female anatomy, "you're sitting on some pretty valuable real estate." Her appraisal of gender inequality is equally banal: "Let's be frank: women just got a bad hand in the poker game of sex assignment, biologically speaking."

Kipnis's infantile language at least matches the oversimplification of her observations. Here, for example, is her version of the feminist agenda: "Strive for empowerment, smash those glass ceilings, sport-fuck like the guys, celebrate 'strong women' - 'You go, Mrs Thatcher'."

The book reads like a breathless set of confidences shared over a latte by a bunch of sophomores. You're not intended to consider an argument, merely to nod empathetically in recognition.

Indeed, there is no argument here at all, except the poorly evidenced assertion that all women are unhappy and confused in their different ways. There's certainly no acknowledgement of those of us who may feel fulfilled, challenged or liberated.

If we do, according to the Kipnis construct, we're merely denying our self loathing, or unwittingly falling prey to "those pesky hormones females got saddled with".

Her mapping of the female psyche is divided into four sections. First comes "Envy", where Freud's pinpointing of our yearning for a penis is neatly redefined. Women, it seems, just want what men have: "Their salaries, for one thing, or their social privileges, or their access to those coveted corridors of power."

The "Sex" chapter merely regurgitates standard accounts of female sexuality with the wobbly conclusion that orgasms tend to emphasise our tormented sense of inferiority. Then we move on to "Dirt", in which some well-worn cliches about men's and women's contrasting attitudes to housework are explained by yet more self-doubts and the conviction that our vaginas are unclean.

Each chapter reproaches feminism, with increasing volubility, for its dismissal or even downright dislike of men. This subtext culminates in "Vulnerability", the hateful denouement to this sorry splurge of inanities. Dwelling on the views of radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, with a sideswipe at Naomi Wolf for alleging that Harold Bloom sexually harassed her, Kipnis rejects the notion that rape is a crime of male hate, citing estimates that as many men as women are raped every year in the US. This is because of the massive prison population of over 2 million, most of whom are men.

The fundamental flaw in her reasoning is that she cites the sex of the victims, rather than the perpetrators. Whether this oversight is due to carelessness or deliberate obfuscation, it's just one example of the contradictions, misplaced assertions and shoddy thinking that characterise this melange of disjointed diatribes.

Still, it's unfair to be too harsh - as the author tells us in her preface, "rethinking things can be fun".

It may indeed have been fun; it's certainly not serious. Maybe another new word is needed - for a professor whose "rethinking" masquerades as research, and who presents a tired strings of platitudes as polemical. How about "Kipnis"?

Sally Feldman is the dean of media, arts and design, Westminster University.

The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability

Author - Laura Kipnis
Publisher - Serpent's Tail
Pages - 176
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 9781852429812

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