“Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation” (Metropolitan: $25) started out as a fight that writer Laura Kipnis had with her longtime boyfriend over whether she talked too much about her exes. (She doesn’t, she insists.) But the conversation made her realize that regardless of how much she talks about former lovers in private, she’s spent most of the last 15 years writing about men, over and over.
“Men” is a collection of essays — new and old, some previously published at the Village Voice, Harper’s, Slate and Playboy — that take a kaleidoscopic look at modern masculinity, and why she can’t seem to get it off her mind. Kipnis’ previous books focused on similar subjects of sex, love and scandal, including “Against Love: A Polemic,” a contrarian look at whether love is really all it’s cracked up to be; and “The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability.” Now, with “Men,” she’s finally turned her eye on the gender that captivates her the most.
“Men have fascinated me,” her book begins, “maybe too much.” Although her essays catalog a lot of bad male behavior — divided into categories of operators, neurotics, sex fiends and haters — Kipnis is far more intrigued than offended by the “jagged edges” of modern masculinity, and the anxiety over shifting power dynamics she sees poking out from those misdeeds like loose wires. Her subjects run the gamut from Hustler publisher Larry Flynt (designated a “scumbag”) and Anthony Weiner (a “humiliation artist”) to the conservative men who despise Hillary Rodham Clinton yet seem strangely drawn to her.
Rather than trumpeting the “end of men” — or the beginning of “New Men” — Kipnis seems beguiled by the modern condition of males for many of the same reasons that men once rhapsodized about the feminine mystique: their complexity, their vulnerability and how their deep inner contradictions frustrate and attract in equal measure. She discussed her latest book by phone from her home in New York City.
Your book often resists making declarative statements, but what do you see as the status quo for masculinity today?
Power relations have shifted considerably and the economic hit that men took in the last recession was a huge aspect of it. Everything that’s been going on in the last 40 years has really changed the power dynamic in a macro sense, from women’s entry into the workforce and the reshaping of the family structure to the economic hit that men took in the last recession. I think there’s a lot of underlying male anxiety about that. I was interested in the subterranean ways that anxiety manifests itself.
There are several moments where you say you should be offended by male bombast but instead find yourself compelled by its vulnerability. Is this just contrarianism, or is there more to it?
I’m always surprised when women are offended at men like [Norman] Mailer, because he’s kind of hilarious and also self-parodying.... The problem with taking all these things seriously is that it puts you in a reactive position that just reinforces the power of the thing you’re reacting against. I’m a believer in irony, because it gives you two positions; it gives you more latitude to think different thoughts.
The problem with being pissed off at men all the time is that you’re in the same position. You’re just spinning your wheels.
In the chapter devoted to Larry Flynt, you discuss your fascination with Hustler magazine and the male anxieties you see in its pages. What is it about obscenity that intrigues you so much?
As I was writing about pornography I started to wonder, what is offense about? And why does being offended feel like being endangered? What’s the connection between those two feelings? When I read Hustler and feel myself being offended in this deep way, it becomes very interesting to me.... Being offended by something really does tell you who you are in the deepest ways.
You also mention not wanting to take “the boring path to the Promised Land of gender parity.” What would a more dynamic path to equality look like?
I think of myself as a bit of contrarian when it comes to feminism. I absolutely call myself a feminist, though I’m not sure my version of feminism is the same as everyone’s. I don’t think there’s one party line on it, if there ever was.… The boring form of feminism takes male power as the absolute, and believes the hype, where I think just a more nuanced and contradictory and complicated field. That’s what I’m trying to get at with the case studies: that male power isn’t as powerful as the old style version of gender relations proposes. And I think that if women recognized that more, it would shift the balance between men and women in some possibly interesting way.
You suggest that women retained more jobs during the recession because they were more adaptable and agreeable — but this also contributed to lower pay. Should feminism encourage women to be more aggressive, to be jerks in the same ways that men are?
I’m intrigued by that parodying of male prerogative.… What interests me about [female] empowerment talk is that a lot of it comes in the guise of what I would call CEO feminism: women wanting to be head of Fortune 500 companies and sit in corporate boardrooms and emulate or aspire to these positions of power that men have always had. In the early days of second wave feminism, there was this idea that if women ran things, that things would be different. That women in positions of power would dismantle capitalism, would dismantle the corporate structure.
But you hear nothing about that anymore. You just hear about women wanting to take over those positions of power and change nothing, so these traditional forms of power just get reproduced. To me, that’s an inadequate form of feminism, one that leaves everything else just the way you found it. Women want to have what men had, just because men had it.… I’d like to ask more questions about whether it’s what we actually want or not.