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The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerabilityby Laura Kipnis
Synopses & Reviews
In the female psyche nowadays, "contradictions speckle the landscape, like ingrown hairs after a bad bikini wax." So writes Laura Kipnis, author of the widely acclaimed polemic Against Love. With "the gleeful viperish wit of Dorothy Parker" (Slate), Kipnis now offers a fresh and provocative assessment of the female condition in the post-post-feminist world of the twenty-first century. For every advance toward sexual equality on the part of women in recent years, she argues, some new impediment just "seems" to appear. Ironically, feminism ran up against an unanticipated opponent: the inner woman.
An ambitious and original reassessment of feminism and women's ambivalence about it, The Female Thing brims with bracing and funny social observations informed by psychological acuity. For all the upbeat "You go, girl" slogans, women remain caught between feminism and femininity, between self-affirmation and an endless quest for self-improvement, between playing the injured party and claiming independence. Feminism is bedeviled by the same impasses and contradictions it seeks to rectify. But rather than blaming the usual suspects — men, the media — Kipnis takes a hard look at culprits closer to home, namely women themselves and their complicity in upholding male privilege, even as they resent men deeply for it. Which makes relations between the sexes rather thorny at the moment, and Kipnis serves up the gory details of the mutual displeasure between men and women in painfully hilarious detail.
In the tradition of The Feminine Mystique and The Female Eunuch, this is a pathbreaking work. As audacious as it is historically and socially grounded, The Female Thing explores age-old quandaries: the war between the sexes, what women "really" want, and to what extent anatomy is destiny after all.
"Three years after her controversial proadultery polemic, Against Love, Kipnis, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University, offers a wide-ranging and equally unorthodox investigation of 'the female condition.' She examines why women want both power and push-up bras, have fewer orgasms than men, why spouses have a harder time staying connected to each other after the wife quits work to stay home with the kids and why feminists keep focusing on rape, even though rates of female rapes are down while the rape of imprisoned men has escalated. Underlying the failure of feminism to achieve full equality for women, Kipnis says, is women's own ambivalence: they want feminism as well as femininity. Some of Kipnis's avenues of inquiry are well trod — Katha Pollitt, for example, has deconstructed the 'opt-out revolution,' whose foot soldiers are Ivy League — credentialed moms who trade high-powered careers for full-time motherhood, and Naomi Wolf long ago tackled the cosmetics industry. Countless critics have wondered why feminism was so easily co-opted by a market economy in which everyone works longer hours than they used to. Though not totally fresh, this fluid, sassy volume is guaranteed to electrify media and cocktail party circuits." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"When Laura Kipnis writes about 'the female thing,' she refers not just to the predictable genital area, but to 'the female psyche at the twenty-first-century mark, which is to say, in the aftermath of second-wave feminism and partway to gender equality.' Lest men cringe and read no further than this first paragraph, let me say that the author meticulously stays away from any attack on or critique... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of men. This is all about conflicts within and between women; put ideologically, it's about women stuck between femininity and feminism. Kipnis is, as always, amusing and smart, but her outlook is — can't help but be — depressing. Femininity: That's when you keep your legs shaved and your weight down; when you ask some man a leading question and then sit, as if poleaxed, listening for hours, eyes wide open, lips slightly parted. Feminism is something else again and pretty hydra-headed. It has something to do with birth control, and higher education, and not doing everything just to please a man, and being — on the whole — satisfied with yourself. But each school of thought sabotages the other. 'It's sometimes been said,' Kipnis writes, 'that a colonized mentality far outlasted the political conditions of colonialism; Soviet Communism crumbled virtually overnight, but the inner apparatchik lives on. So too with female progress, it appears.' Kipnis examines this ambivalence in four essays: 'Envy,' 'Sex,' 'Dirt,' 'Vulnerability.' 'Envy' is the weakest because so many of the contradictions she cites have already been pointed out. If we're supposed to love ourselves, how come we're so obsessed with improving ourselves? Women scorn their bodies, the author reminds us, and describes — twice — Eve Ensler's recent play, 'The Good Body,' which has to do with Ensler's tormented relationship with her own 'slightly protruding post-forties abdomen.' Not everyone is as interested in Ensler's stomach as she is, and that relationship functions as both narcissism and distraction. Whatever women may have, Kipnis writes, it's not enough. Makeovers are the order of the day, self-improvement the staple of women's magazines. 'Take this quiz, buy this amazing new moisturizing deodorant (underarms get dry, too!), wax your eyebrows: you'll feel a lot better once you do.' The trouble is, we (women) have heard all this stuff before. We know how dopey those quizzes are, even as we take them. We don't need to be told again how silly these pastimes are, how possibly detrimental to a feminist ideal. In contrast, the essay on sex is a lot of fun, providing, as it does, a short history of why women (are said to) have fewer orgasms than men. Most of this can't be quoted in a family newspaper, but it's undeniably interesting: a series of stories, mainly about how women were supposed to hate sex in the 19th century (just close their eyes and think of England) and love sex in the 20th — which wasn't exactly true in either case. But plenty of 'experts' made money off these skewed expectations. 'Dirt' examines why women crave a clean house and men don't seem to care; how feminists have historically insisted that men do their share of housework and men have manfully weaseled out of it; how the real dirt, it would seem, comes from inside ourselves in the form of various bodily fluids, each (with the exception of tears) more gross, more dirty, more to be scrubbed away, than the next. This chapter, though laudable and amusing, ignores two important things about dirt, as it occurs in heterosexual domestic contexts: (1) Once you make the bed and stick the dishes in the dishwasher, there isn't any real housework to be done anymore, except if (2) there are children in the house. In fact, children are almost completely absent from this book. It's a shame because motherhood is the shrine-of-choice for femininity, and child care is the Achilles' heel of feminism. Who picks up the dirty socks is merest trivia; who stays up all night with a feverish kid, and has to stay home from work the next day, is a problem for women yet to be solved. Yes, the author does talk about maternal instinct in the chapter on sex (and dismisses it as largely fiction), but instinct is entirely different from a couple of kids down with the flu, or pouring bags of greasy chips all over the couch. How does that kind of 'dirty' care get compassionately and fairly divided? The author takes a pass on that. In the vulnerability chapter, the author argues, somewhat disingenuously, that women are raped less often than men in prison are. In fact, she offers statistics and studies that — despite what we see on TV crime procedurals — women aren't raped as often as we think. She revisits the 'pornography wars,' in which (some) feminists aligned with (some) right-wing moralists, with depressing results. Both sets of women tended to agree that men were rapists-at-heart; that, in the well-worn phrase of our mothers, all men are beasts. She retells two sexual harassment narratives, one by a feminist great beauty, another by ... another kind of feminist. Both stories sound like fairy tales, which, of course, doesn't mean they're not true. But by the end of all this, the reader sighs. It's all crazy-making! Kipnis is funny and smart, but her material is head-swimmingly bleak." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A clever, sarcastic, slender jeremiad....Kipnis offers some sound fodder for talking heads. A reasoned, intelligent, even elegant study, when its author isn't smartly smirking." Kirkus Reviews
"Incisive, engrossing, controversial, and circumspect, Kipnis offers a trenchant examination of the political and personal state of contemporary feminism." Booklist
"You've encountered most of the ideas in The Female Thing before, but Kipnis has a way of distilling them down to a well-turned sentence or two that's very pleasing. Hers isn't a gift to be taken lightly, since in the process she makes it clear how untenable many of those ideas are." Laura Miller, Salon.com
Book News Annotation:
Kipnis (media studies, Northwestern U.) ponders the female psyche in the aftermath of second-wave feminism and part-way to gender equality. Feminism has come up against the inner woman, she argues: masculine privilege would have ended long ago without female compliance. She has not indexed her work.
Annotation ©2007 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Book News Annotation:
Kipnis (media studies, Northwestern U.) ponders the female psyche in the aftermath of second-wave feminism and part-way to gender equality. Feminism has come up against the inner woman, she argues: masculine privilege would have ended long ago without female compliance. She has not indexed her work. Annotation Â©2007 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Laura Kipnis is a professor of media studies at Northwestern University. She has received fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the author of many essays and articles on sexual politics and contemporary culture, and of the book Against Love: A Polemic.
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