An Interview with Laura Kipnis
There are a thousand books out there telling us what it means to be a woman today. Unfortunately, most of the books focus on what’s wrong with being a woman today: not enough eligible men, our necks look funny when we age, there’s still a lack of gender equity, husbands aren’t helping with the housework, we’re either smothering our children or we’re not devoting enough time to them, and, of course, we’re not eating enough like the French/Japanese/whomever. But if you buy this hardback book for $25.95, the author is happy enough to tell you how to overcome all of that.
Laura Kipnis, who examined the state of modern monogamy in her book Against Love: A Polemic, now focuses on the state of modern femininity in The Female Thing. The book is divided into four sections focusing on what Kipnis sees as being the four problem areas for women: dirt (housekeeping), sex (the “orgasm gap” and the failure of the sexual revolution), envy (the self-help industry) and vulnerability (the fear of rape and physical harm from men). She offers anecdotes such as a power struggle between a husband and wife over the cutting of the dessert at a dinner party and then deconstructs the observations with some serious theory, namedropping Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
Which is not to say the book is impenetrable. At a little under 200 pages, Kipnis manages to be funny and irreverent, never afraid to position her more complicated ideas beside pithy and funny terms like the “feminine industrial complex.” She does not, however, sugarcoat the book with advice on how to overcome these issues. Her final sentence suggests she’ll leave it to the reader to figure out, stating, “A full accounting of the female situation at the moment would need to start roughly here.”
I sat down with Kipnis over a couple glasses of red wine to discuss her work.
The last sentence I thought was very provocative. It seems like a challenge. Was it to other writers or to the individual reader?
To women more than to writers, I guess. I thought of the whole book as a challenge or intervention or course correction. I don’t mean to be grandiose about it. I have a hard time with conclusions because I don’t want to advise people on things. I don’t want to be overly conclusive. I think in both the last two books I tried to end on a questioning note.
Although that’s a common complaint about your books, that you don’t instruct people on what to do now that they’re questioning this large thing in their life.
That was the hilarious thing with Against Love. It turns out if you write a book with “love” in the title everybody wants to read it as an advice book. I was endlessly asked for advice. It was kind of hilarious. The thing I’d want to say to them is, and I’m supposed to solve the problem? There’s this problem with femininity, there’s this problem with love, and I’m supposed to? Any answer would be sort of glib. People ask for these things.
You could have gotten your own Dr. Phil-style show out of that book. Dispense relationship advice in front of a live audience.
Oh yes, I would have been fantastic at that.
I also saw that people would project their own answers on to your books. So I read a lot that Against Love was pro-polyamory. Or pro-prolonged spinsterhood.
I was all things to all unhappy couples. I got mail like that, people assuming I was on the side of polyamory or endorsing adultery. I think I have a bit of an aversion to over-codification. The polyamory people would write and they’d seem to rule-bound also. Or the swinger group. I got mail from those people. It’s just another set of rules. I didn’t feel like it was incumbent on me to be pragmatic. I kind of wanted to mull on things and riff on things without having to figure out how to really organize your life. I guess I’m open to criticism on that basis. There’s so much advice out there.
And you go after some of that advice in The Female Thing with the part about the dating manuals. I get a lot of dating manuals for review, which I think is hilarious, and I read a lot of them because I can’t help myself. Which books did you read?
They are addictive. With all of this advice, reading with this kind of double consciousness, you know, on the one hand as a critic and the other, hmm, should I do that?
He’s Just Not That Into You, of course, that was the big book when I was working on this. And various versions of that, and How to Be More of a Bitch or Men…
Why Men Love Bitches?
We reviewed Why Men Marry Bitches on our site.
There’s a sequel?
I didn’t know.
As I was reading these women’s magazines, I had the thought that if I had been reading more women’s magazines I would really know how to accessorize better. I guess one of the reasons I can’t have the pose of giving advice is I’m writing about things that are dilemmas to me. I’m figuring them out on the page as well and figuring them out where the argument goes. As I was writing The Female Thing I didn’t really know the conclusions, what they were going to be. It’s kind of a dual thing, I’m writing both in a theoretical intellectual way with a distance, and I’m also engaged in all of these things in my own life. Not in any way that I want to go into detail about, but there’s personal investment obviously.In the introduction you said that this was a personal book, but you kept your personal life out of the book. I thought that was fantastic because it’s the opposite of all of these books right now that use personal anecdote to make sweeping generalizations about what it means to be a woman today.
Like Maureen Dowd.
I feel like a kind of a geek in a way at this moment, especially if you’re writing and trying to peddle your book. There’s this presumption that you’re dying to talk about your personal life in great detail, and I’m just not. That seems private to me. But I am interested in writing about my personal life as a sort of intellectual project. I have tried to negotiate these things and the trouble comes afterwards as you do interviews and sometimes you get into this overly girl bonding mode with people. Or the one time you made the mistake of letting the writer into your apartment and they went into the bathroom and counted the number of your toothbrushes.
I like that, not the personal anecdote but the mechanism behind that. I like that that is your territory. You mentioned women’s magazines, did you not read women’s magazines before this book?
I don’t. Not out of principle or anything. I’m always catching up on the other stuff.
Your book references Freud several times, which is sort of a no-no in feminism. When you mention Freud to a feminist, they get a little upset. Were you trying to re-clarify some of his theories on gender from that knee-jerk reaction?
I’ve spent all this time in academia and so there’s all this academic feminism, which has nothing to do with what anybody reads outside of the academy. Inside the academy there are people who are interested in Freud and the relation of Freud to feminism. I think in a way I tried to bridge that by writing about Freud in a book not for academics.
I also have to say that Freud has been a really important thinker for me. I just taught my first class today and I went on about Freud. It was a class on aesthetics. I learned a huge amount on just how to look at things, about aesthetics. He makes you pay attention. He teaches you a lot about cultural criticism. I have to say that I’m not so offended by what he has to say about gender. A lot of it is still pretty relevant. If you can get over your outrage… he’s not prescribing it, he’s describing it.
I once did persuade a whole roomful of women’s studies students that in the Dora case, you know the argument is that this dirty old man is trying to convince her that she’s having fantasies about this other older guy. She actually did desire the older guy because she was all riled up about it. If she was indifferent to him she wouldn’t have been so exercised. The areas you find yourself going all ballistic about are the ones worth thinking about. I think that’s what this book does that a lot of popular feminism doesn’t do. I’m sort of contesting a smugness or complacency in the way that women have started thinking about themselves. They’re always in the right, and they always know what they’re doing. They’re always more conscious of their motives. Freud, I think, is an antidote of that.
I liked your section on penis envy because it did make me rethink it. When I did read about penis envy in my women’s studies class, they have a very different take on that.
That’s another thing about Freud beyond the penis envy thing, but thinking about things and their form. The way penis envy starts looking like the rap you get in women’s magazine, that there’s something that needs fixing. I think that’s something I learned from Freud, how to see the formal similarities between things.
I noticed in your book that you discuss first and second wave feminism, but you completely leave out third wave. Was that intentional? (Laughs) I noticed that eye roll there.
I could be proven wrong about this, because I can’t say that I’m up to date on every new thing that has been written, but it doesn’t seem to me like there are theorists in that generation. That I’m aware of. The last great theorists were Dworkin and MacKinnon. The younger crowd seems more journalistic to me, more descriptive. I did this thing on Slate about that Ariel Levy book Female Chauvinist Pigs, and if that’s an example of the third wave, it seems to be not to be very theoretical. I was interested in what they have to say on a theoretical level that’s not just description.
When I was reading your book, a lot of the third wave feminist books that I’ve read fall into the traps you describe. One of the writers of the books I was reading, her boyfriend gave her herpes and she had this whole section on how sexually irresponsible men are.
Is there anybody that I should have read that you want to tell me about?
No. Most of the third wave literature has mostly made me throw the book across the room.
Like that girl power mode, that post-punk kinda feminist balls-out.
How did you decide on the structure of The Female Thing, with the four chapters?
It was one of those great moments when it just came to me. I had struggled and struggled trying to put together an outline for this book for about a year. I spent a year reading and researching and trying to see if I had anything different to say. I didn’t just want to repeat these things. I think it was one of those moments when things were just kind of stewing, but I was very stuck, also. At one point I was just sitting, thinking what are the issues that still seem to be predominant in terms of what women are peeved about, or that women can agree on, because there seems to be very little agreement on what the issues are.
Your anecdotes about the two dinner parties, I have been in both of those situations. I’m guessing those were actual situations you were in.
No, they were. Now I’m worried I’ll never get invited to another dinner party.
Do they know it’s about them?
I haven’t heard yet. I haven’t gotten the angry phone call or e-mail yet.
I was thinking about The Bitch in the House – which you mention in your Dirt chapter -- and the incompetent husband on the sitcom, which is the new stereotype for men, and the idea that this is where feminism has come.
There’s this managerial thing that women keep taking on, and one of the things that made me ask that question – do women have to clean because men won’t or because women won’t let them? – because there was some kind of revealing anecdotal things in that book about women who acknowledge control issues. Then there’s the second book [The Bastard on the Couch] that has the counterpart stories about guys feeling controlled and over-managed by women. That’s not the only story, but it seems to be a real element. All this anger about it not being the way you want it to be. It’s not just the anger that the guy won’t straighten the bathmat or whatever, it’s something about it’s not the way you want it to be. It’s played out in domestic issues.
Do you think there’s going to be a third book by the children who grew up in these households?
[Laughs] Good question, good question. It’s going to be a scary generation.
You wrote in the book that there isn’t self-help for men, but there does seem to be now books on what it means to be a man, starting with Susan Faludi’s Stiffed and now Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness.
There does seem to be a shift in what masculinity is all about, with a shift towards vulnerability and bodily self-consciousness, and I guess that’s what Harvey’s book is protesting, that he wants to return some more invulnerable idea of masculinity. Well, who wouldn’t?
I remember seeing one of those Oprah programs on the rise of male eating disorders, so I think that’s very interesting that men are being inflicted with all of these things women have been inflicted with. It’s an ironic kind of happy development. If men and women achieve more parity because men are being brought down by the economy, by eating disorders, by plastic surgery. This is how gender parity will be achieved, not that women have it better but men have it worse.
You seem a little Marxist in your conclusion that capitalism took advantage of the feminist movement.
I was advised to tone that section down. It’s kind of my intellectual formation. It’s part of why I do have more distance on feminism than some other people writing on gender. I actually kind of came at it through an interesting Marxism. I have a kind of weird formation as far as my ideas about all of that. Class and economy kind of issues are as pressing to me as gender parity issues.
Did you take their advice and tone it down for the book?
I did somewhat. There’s a line that I took out that I wish I had left in, and I had a big argument with my editor about it, but it was about capitalism having gained because of women entering the labor market, which was a way of suppressing wages. I took out “Well played!” I ended up striking that, but I wish I had left it in.
Who are the feminist theorists that you read?
I spent a lot of time over the last twenty years reading feminist theorists, second wave primarily and academic theory, and just kind of paying attention to what’s going on in the culture. In this book I was kind of trying to underplay the theory and just be more of a social observer. A lot of it is a conglomeration of observations, which is a bit how I was operating in Against Love, a bit of the fly on the wall. So I was playing the fly on the wall and trying to make sense of social behavior and using the theory in the background to make sense of it. I don’t want to be grandiose, but I wanted to be original as a theorist as opposed to just cite people. Weaving my way through a couple of decades of stuff I had read and processed and including in it a psychoanalytic approach along with Marx and theorists who aren’t feminist in their approach but who have been important to me in terms of just how to think about things.
You’re great at the little phrases like the “feminine industrial complex” and the “girlfriend industry.”I figure out a lot of things in the writing. In a way, it is a product of a background having read a lot of Marxism, having read a lot of social theory. I think there’s a wider vocabulary than there is in a lot of feminist writing. I think it’s a part of thinking these things are wider than just being gender issues.