Against feminist orthodoxy

Special to The Times

"WOMEN who insist on having the same options as men would do well to consider the option of being the strong, silent type." That, as Fran Lebowitz once framed it, is one way of putting the argument.

Another way of putting it comes from Laura Kipnis, who says, "The idea that women need to get what men have because men have it is what mainstream feminism evolved into from a moment when it seemed to have a more progressive or more widely transformative potential."

The ways in which feminism has and hasn't transformed culture -- and the ways in which it has and hasn't transformed women -- is the risky territory Kipnis stakes out in her new quartet of essays, "The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability."

Kipnis sets out to chart the conflict between women's urge for social, political and economic progress and what she calls "the collaborator within." "Not to point fingers," she writes, "but without substantial female compliance, wouldn't masculine privilege pretty soon find itself crammed in with all the other debris in the trash can of history?"

Those aren't the words of a bomb thrower or a debunker out to prove that the gains made by second-wave feminism were only imaginary. Only a very lazy reader, or a very doctrinaire one, could take the arguments made in this book as being antifeminist. Kipnis, talking over coffee in New York a few weeks ago, said: "I feel actually like you can't predict the response. The sense of irritation I felt with all the conversations on women, maybe that isn't shared. But of course I could be wrong."

Culturally, this is a difficult moment for independent critical voices. The mood of the country is so divisive right now that criticizing any position leads to the assumption that you're shilling for the other side. And while Kipnis defines herself as a feminist, she also has a critic's impatience with orthodoxies.

"I'm not a real drink-the-Kool-Aid type on any front," she said, adding that she can't abide "that notion of sacrificing saying something honest for saying something that's cheery or supportive."

In conversation, Kipnis, who teaches media studies at Northwestern University outside Chicago, is lively and animated. An easy laugher (and a good one), she's one of those people who fixes you with keen attention when you talk to her. What makes Kipnis such a valuable critic isn't just the sophisticated restlessness of her thinking but the very timbre of her critical voice.

Confident without being recklessly confrontational, persuasive without haranguing, Kipnis is, in an odd way, cheering to read. Puncturing a false sense of comfort in the way that Kipnis does provides its own kind of reassurance to readers -- the pleasure of knowing that a writer is being straight with you.

That was certainly true of her last book, "Against Love," an elegant elucidation of the dissatisfactions of monogamy and the unacknowledged contradiction of "working at" maintaining pleasure in a relationship. The book was both mournful and witty, a work that considered the transience of sexual satisfaction while refusing to pretend that sexual liberation, whatever that means now, was any sort of magic bullet.

"The Female Thing" began for Kipnis with a similar impatience with received wisdom and false reassurance. Women's issues were being talked about in ways she found alternately banal, smug and self-congratulatory.

"I find myself in a funny position in relation to feminism," Kipnis said. "Obviously, I'm a feminist. I feel I know these debates fairly well and felt like there were certain things that don't get said because there is such a focus on saying the positive, saying the progressive thing. I would like to think I'm a progressive. But I also felt that there's an element of dishonesty and bad faith in only articulating what's progressed without talking about what's impeded."

What's been impeded, she said, is a chance "to critique the organization of work, the kind of general social distribution of resources. The idea that raising the next generation is just an individual problem instead of one that's along the more European or Swedish model where it's seen as a social good to support the raising of children. The whole question of, what's a good life? That's the question that got left behind in equity feminism. Is it an advance to work an 80-hour workweek and pull down an executive-level salary? That's what stands for progress now."

"The Female Thing" expands on a footnote in "Against Love" in which Kipnis wrote, "It remains to be seen whether feminism's greatest accomplishment was the liberation of women or whether it was redistributing feminine submission more equally between the genders." Kipnis takes that question into the realm of work, asking whether women's increased entry into the workplace in the '70s and beyond gave corporate America a reserve army of labor.

"What's happened over the last 30 years," she said, is that "wages have stagnated. Women's income as a percentage of men's has gone up, but only because men's wages are stagnant. That's what nobody's saying about this whole notion of pay equity and gender progress."

It's a fantasy, she said, to believe that "women can achieve equity even while everybody's standard of living has stagnated, or declined."

That it wasn't women who triumphed but corporate America is not the only disruptive notion in the book.

"I tried to write the things that made me a little nervous. That made me feel, 'Yeah, this is going to get me in trouble.' I felt like I was reopening questions about the relationship of the body to the psyche, and it was a challenge to say the things I thought were true, like the conflict between feminism and femininity."

Those conflicts come out in the chapter "Dirt," in which Kipnis posits that the (learned or instinctive, you decide) feminine obsession with cleanliness and order is a projection of women's feelings about the "uncleanliness" of their own bodies.

The best for last

KIPNIS closes the book with its finest writing, a chapter called "Vulnerability" that contains what may be some of her most controversial arguments. Kipnis shrewdly parses Naomi Wolf's New York magazine article about a pass that literary critic Harold Bloom made at her while Wolf was an undergraduate at Yale, addressing the potentially infantilizing effect of sexual harassment laws on women.

And her discussion of the troubled last days of radical feminist writer Andrea Dworkin allows Kipnis to address the way that the possibility of rape is ingrained in the female psyche -- even, Kipnis argues, as figures suggest that, thanks to America's burgeoning prison population, men are just as likely to be victims of sexual assault.

Kipnis is clear, in both the book and in conversation, that sexual harassment is a very real problem. But, she said, it's different from an unwanted sexual advance.

What's become ridiculous, as she sees it, is the rise of "the idea that, one time, somebody can't say 'Wanna?' without your being able to say 'No.' "

Kipnis also notes that the concept of sexual harassment has expanded to cover things like dirty jokes in the workplace. "So that's where it's both infantilizing and where it also overemphasizes female vulnerability," she said. "And I think women have been complicit in this by not being able to separate out being offended from being endangered. The whole issue of our sense of vulnerability to rape is the hinge there."

It's not surprising that, when asked what contemporary writers on feminist issues she admires, Kipnis cites Barbara Ehrenreich, who, she said, "writes about gender in a larger political and economic context." Kipnis says it's hard for her to find younger women writing interesting original feminist theory and that some of the theorists she does admire, like Judith Butler, reach a primarily academic audience.

Surprisingly, she cites Catherine MacKinnon and Dworkin, both of whom she admits she doesn't agree with, though she appreciates that "they really force you to examine questions about the distribution of power and social norms and not take things for granted."

In such a divisive atmosphere, is Kipnis concerned about being accused of giving comfort to the enemy? And it's a mark of how nuance and distinction have become the casualties of our political and cultural discourse that she admits some worry about the book being taken "as one of these right-wing attacks on feminism. But there's enough signs in the book that it's not coming from a right-leaning thinker."

Then, typical of someone who resists orthodoxies, she said, "I'm not somebody who would rule out all conservatives as being automatically dopes."

In such an era of ideological lock step, she's lucky, she said, to "have an editor who's an iconoclast and respects my iconoclasm," even though those "may not be the kind of things that attract readers." She shouldn't worry. When you're doing the kind of writing that attracts thinkers, finding readers will take care of itself.

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