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The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerabilityby Laura Kipnis
Over the course of human history, cultures have endlessly vacillated when it comes to describing the differences between the sexes. For some reason, there’s been a certain fickleness. A male characteristic in one society is a female characteristic in another; at one moment men and women are opposites that attract, at another they’re counterparts who repel; they’re essentially similar or they’re essentially different, though typically not both at once. Whereas in our time, in the wake of feminism and the commotion about “roles” and the consequent sexual unrest, it’s now entirely possible for women to be both different and similar to men simultaneously, which promotes a certain confusion among the gal set, bouncing back and forth like tennis balls between competing theories of what women naturally are versus what women can become, or whether women should act more like men (“strong”) or more like powerful women (“strong”), at least once the remaining impediments to gender equality are finally overcome (society, bad self-esteem, the wage gap).
In other words, being female at this point in history is an especially conflicted enterprise, like Birkstenstocks with Chanel, or trying to frown after a Botox injection. But we should be getting used to it, since looking back thirty years or so, you can see the same dichotomies already peeking out from behind contending brands of second-wave feminism. In one corner we had Feminism Plan A: Strive for empowerment, smash those glass ceilings, sport-fuck like the guys, celebrate “strong women”—“You go, Mrs. Thatcher”—and impugn the intelligence of the opposite sex with frequency. In the other corner was Feminism Plan B: Demand respect for women’s inherent differences from men, for our nurturing capacities, our innate moral compass, our emotional intuitiveness, our built-in process-oriented . . . you know . . . process. Women’s power inheres in our bodies, our childbearing capabilities, our female sensuality—all of which deeply terrify men and society.
So which one should it be? The Feisty Feminist or the Eternal Feminine, careers or motherhood, ballsy or baby-doll—or why not all at once! But the truly fascinating question is how it came about that whichever one you chose, what was once construed as a liberation movement somehow ended up producing more dichotomies and more impasses and the perennial sense that despite everything that’s been gained, something’s invariably missing. Of course, in hindsight we see that under Plan A, women demanded to have what men have, without stopping to consider whether it was worth having, or whether men really even possessed it in the first place—and that “empowerment” was always a word with a certain overcompensatory ring to it. And that under Plan B, the essential-womanhood thing quickly started looking like an updated version of traditional femininity, especially once the whole goddess-worshipping New Age veneer got scratched off.
So where does that leave gender progress?
Let’s recall that a long time before either Plan A or Plan B came down the pike, femininity was already an “empowerment program” for women. Appearances to the contrary, femininity was never about being some kind of delicate flower; it was tactical: a way of securing resources and positioning women as advantageously as possible on an uneven playing field, given the historical inequalities and anatomical disparities that make up the wonderful female condition. Femininity was the method for creatively transforming female disadvantages into advantages, basically by doing what it took to form strategic alliances with men: enhancing women’s appeal and sexual attractiveness with time-honored stratagems like ritual displays of female incompetence aimed at subtly propping up men’s (occasionally less than secure) sense of masculine prowess. Thus, lacking body mass, women made a virtue out of delicacy (often a rather steely delicacy); stuck with not just bearing but also raising the children, women promoted the sanctity of motherhood; deprived of upper-body strength, women made men carry things; afflicted by capricious hormonal fluctuations, women used crying as a form of interpersonal leverage; restricted from the public sphere, women commandeered domestic life; shut out of decent employment, gals adopted a “pay-to-play” strategy—men had to pay for sex, with dinners, rings, and homes. Men are also required to kill spiders. All this took some considerable effort: achieving what looks like a passive aim often requires large amounts of activity, as someone once said. (Okay, it was Freud.) The point is that femininity assumes that the world isn’t going to change and endeavors to secure advantages for women on that basis.*
Then came feminism. Feminists saw the unequal playing field differently: they wanted to level it. Feminism assumes that things can change—even men—and bets the bankroll on gender progress. There’s no doubt that feminism has claimed a lot of social terrain over the last three or four decades, has made numerous inroads into the female psyche and overhauled gender identities across the population, even among those who don’t talk the talk. Face it, we all inhabit a postfeminist world: it was, after all, feminism that brought women equal treatment under the law, voting rights, access to public life, some progress toward pay equity, and so on, and even among the most diehard “I like being a woman” set, you don’t find too many arguing with the right to own property or wanting to hand back the vote or anything silly like that.
If the female condition seems especially perplexing at the moment, the reason, it becomes evident, is that women are left straddling two rather incompatible positions. Feminism (“Don’t call me honey, dickhead”) and femininity (“I just found the
*It has sometimes been argued that the conditions of femininity have been imposed by patriarchy. Feel free to tell the story this way around, if you prefer—that is, if you don’t mind reducing women to the status of passive receptacles as opposed to agents.
world’s best push-up bra!”) are in a big catfight, nowhere more than within each individual female psyche. The femininity adherents aren’t giving up their social rights, while even most diehard feminists aren’t about to surrender the advantages that can be secured through deploying femininity when possible—not these days, especially not those of a heterosexual bent. (Honk if you’re pro-choice on cosmetics.)
The main reason that feminism and femininity are incompatible is that femininity has a nasty little secret, which is this: femininity, at least in its current incarnation, hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy. Feminism, on the other hand, wants to eliminate female inadequacy, to trounce it as a patriarchal myth, then kick it out of the female psyche for good. The two continue to battle it out, nowhere more than within women’s relations to their bodies, which is to say, within the entirety of the female self-relation.
Let’s begin with a case study. Our subject is feminist heroine Eve Ensler, the author-impresario behind the worldwide theatrical phenomenon The Vagina Monologues. This was followed by The Good Body, a one-woman show centering on Ensler’s tormented relationship with her slightly protruding post-forties abdomen. According to Ensler, after having said the word “vagina” in public close to a million times, having thought she’d come to terms with possessing a vagina herself, she finally realized that the self-hatred had merely migrated upward to her stomach. Between the obsessive dieting, the exercise, and the agonizing, given all the emotional energy funneled into her stomach over the years, Ensler laments, that pot belly has been her most significant relationship. Note that even a self-proclaimed radical feminist can’t seem to simply jettison the stratagems of femininity or the norms of beauty culture, despite being armed to the teeth with feminist theory and analysis. Early in the evening, the audience is treated to the self-loathing-feminist equivalent of a money shot, with Ensler yanking blouse up and waistband down, and yes, there in all its naked shame, perched upon a perfectly acceptable body, is indeed a small pot. Ensler works herself into intellectual knots trying to come to terms with these painful body insecurities, but there’s a simple explanation for the dilemma she can’t quite decipher, which is that feminism and femininity just aren’t reconcilable. Though if only internal gymnastics burned calories, we could all have flatter stomachs, with far fewer hours at the fucking gym.
In other words, the drawback to femininity, as currently construed, is that it can never be successfully attained. Or not once consumer culture got into the act, since in this configuration, femininity revolves around the anxiety of female defectiveness to perpetuate itself. Between the truckloads of instruction, the endless guidance, the chirpy “helpful hints,” perpetuating insufficiency is clearly the objective. In fact, a better name for contemporary femininity would be the feminine-industrial complex, a vast psychocommercial conglomerate financed by women themselves (though any sex can profiteer) and devoted to churning out fantastic solutions to the alarming array of psychological problems you didn’t know you had (“Are You a Love Addict?”; “Do You Have Night Eating Syndrome?”); social hazards you hadn’t even considered (dangerous infections from unsanitized pedicure bowls, the sociopath who could be living next door); and bodily imperfections previously overlooked (“poor pore management,” unkempt pubic hair). Why, it’s almost as if the whole female condition hinged on some kind of ontological flaw. If you’re a modern female, unfortunately something’s always broken. Girls: be thinner, sexier, more self-confident; stop dating creeps; get rid of those yucky zits; and put the pizzazz back in your relationship. Something needs improving: your lingerie, your stress levels, your orgasms (or lack of them). Are you in a “toxic friendship”? Is your career in the doldrums? Is your boyfriend lying to you? Why not go organic—eco-chic is hot! Here Are Nine Ways to Reinvent Your Body, Mind, and Social Life—you can do it, all in your spare time, because you’re fabulous. Or can be soon—just stop doubting yourself! (Self-doubt is not attractive.) 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.
Eager to feel even minimally less agonized about themselves, the subjects in question enlist in ongoing and usually rather pricey laboring, improving, and self-despair in service to the elusive feminine ideal. But somehow whatever you do, you’ve failed in advance: there’s always that straggly inch-long chin hair, or the cottage-cheese thighs, or just the inexorable march of time to eradicate all previous efforts (even the dewiest ingenue is a Norma Desmond waiting to happen—but keep slathering on that incredibly expensive breakthrough-formula antioxidant moisturizer anyway), and thus the whole endeavor must start up again. Clearly there’s nothing exactly “natural” about femininity, given the potions, regimens, and routine discomfort required to achieve it. At its best—which is to say, its most artificial—femininity does have a certain playful frivolity to it: it’s fun, it’s superficial, it solves the problem of too much spare cash creating an unsightly bulge in your pocketbook. The downside is that women have to fail at femininity precisely to keep working at it, because needless to say, your self-loathing and neurosis are someone else’s target quarterly profits.
Yet let’s consider the great leap forward for women in the self-improvement sphere. Once much of the oppressive advice was handed down to women by remote authorities: doctors, psychologists, domestic scientists—more often than not male. These days, most of the oppressive advice comes from other women: let’s call them Professional Girlfriends—always selflessly ready to aid and comfort another member of the sorority. The top-down management of women’s lives (and everything else) by men was called “patriarchy” by second-wave feminists, and blamed for the various ills besetting the female condition. With feminism’s declining drawing power, the present condition of women has often been designated “postfeminism.” The main difference is this: in place of yesterday’s tyrannical husbands and social restrictions, today we have the girlfriend industry, and voluntary servitude to self-improvement. Sign up here, because there’s a happier, more perfect you hidden in there, just waiting to be set free. Be who you truly are. Once you’ve had a makeover, that is. The genius of the girlfriend industries is temporarily alleviating the sense of anxiety and inadequacy they’re also so adept at producing, while obscuring the fact that women end up more corseted and restricted than ever.
Recall that Freud’s slightly contentious phrase for this bedrock female sense of inadequacy was “penis envy”—which just sounds so retro these days. Who wants some fleshy old appendage swinging between her legs? Not us, we’re quite happy with our own equipment, thank you! Funnily enough, it’s not actually psychiatrists who peddle this idea anymore; it’s women themselves, since isn’t the notion that “something’s missing” the dynamic driving the entirety of women’s culture? Pick up the current issue of any women’s magazine, tune into a daytime talk show, peruse one of the millions of how-to-land-a-man or how-to-fix-something-about-yourself books, and contemplate the sheer magnitude of anxiety about the lack of something on display. If something’s missing (relax, not a penis, don’t be so literal—just something), luckily that elusive missing “something” can be creatively marketed under an infinite variety of labels, none of which ever precisely fixes anything, which is why women make the world’s most dedicated consumers, leaping at the next instant solution to the nonexistent or craftily exacerbated problem, wallets agape. (Purses and pussies: a longstanding symbolic association, by the way.) The female psyche and consumer culture: the world’s ultimate codependent couple.
Of course, husbands and babies have been the traditional—and not entirely unsuccessful—mechanisms for assuaging any nagging sense of female incompletion, except that in our time, or let’s say from sometime around 1960 on, unfortunately the solution became the problem. Something was still missing; husbands and babies weren’t the answer: you could hear the howls of female dissatisfaction bouncing off the kitchen and nursery walls. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique had its inception in a questionnaire Friedan sent to her 1947 Smith College classmates, asking if they were happy with their suburban housewife lives; it turned out they were not. Women wanted more (educated women especially)—traditionally male prerogatives like careers, for instance. Not coincidentally, all this happened right around when the Pill came on the market: once the technology was finally available to sever sex from reproduction, female dissatisfaction with the maternal role really started escalating; birthrates plummeted. Enter the women’s movement, which, come the 1970s (in partnership with recession and the new information economy), began drawing women into the labor force in record numbers. Fast-forward thirty years or so to the new millennium. Now women have those careers, and these days the howls of dissatisfaction are bouncing off corporate suites and boardroom walls. Career women want more—traditionally female prerogatives like husbands and babies, for instance. Or just . . . something. That ever-missing “something.”
On a more positive note: for the first time in history, women are relatively free from certain traditional fetters. No longer is womanhood synonymous with motherhood for those who don’t so choose: let’s hear it for modern birth control! But freedom can be a heavy burden for a girl (well, for the species at large), or so it appears, since a zillion new bodily constraints have instantly blossomed to take the place of the old bodily constraints. One way or another, women just seem to end up defined by their bodies, or defining themselves by their bodies: a source of self-worth, a site of craziness, most likely both. For every bodily advance wrested from nature or society or men, another form of submission magically appears to take its place; for every inch of progress, a newfangled subjugation. And now, most of them self-inflicted! Take the current mania for thinness, the quest for fitness, the war on cellulite. Freed from compulsory childbearing, women have chained themselves to the gym. Once women suffered under whalebone corsets; now your skeleton must show through the skin for that fashionable look. Or consider the popularity of secondary-sex-organ mutilation in those areas of the world where primary-sex-organ mutilation is not the norm—in other words, breast implants. In lieu of foot binding, Manolo Blahniks—surgery optional to reshape recalcitrant feet for a better fit. More irony: here are so-called modern women slicing and dicing body parts to achieve a feminine ideal—and even if “freely chosen,” the cut of the knife is just as sharp as back in the village. You hear a lot of talk about “assertiveness” in women’s culture today, except you hear it from women shopping for baby-doll outfits, or getting Brazilian bikini waxes, or double-D cup breast implants. “I like feeling like a woman,” she’ll assert (or demur). If there’s a “backlash” against feminism, most of those carrying it out these days are women, just trying to “feel like women.”
But back to the positive: with more control over maternity, record numbers of women are now participating in the workforce, meaning that no longer is womanhood synonymous with economic dependency. Let’s hear it for paychecks! In fact, women can now be entirely free from men, should they so choose. Interestingly, it turns out that despite the new possibilities for economic liberty, the majority of women do not so choose. In fact, it turns out there are rather obdurate female longings in regard to dependency on men, despite certain confident pronouncements to the contrary back in those early heady years of the second wave, catchy slogans about vibrators being a girl’s best friend and women needing men like fish need bicycles. What do you know: it turns out that fish are devoted cyclists. In fact, the problem these days is that the bicycles seem to be fleeing the fish, or at least fleeing the padlocks and hatcheries. Now women are dedicated to reeling them back, resorting to complicated algorithms about not accepting Saturday night dates later than Tuesday, or staying on the phone longer than the square root of the number of days since the last phone call. What’s evident about male-female arrangements at present is this: female dissatisfaction with men is a growth industry, and longing to possess a man doesn’t have to include either trusting or particularly liking him.
A tale of two dinner parties. Not typical, not atypical; no big earthshaking events took place—just a couple of cross sections from the sexual zeitgeist.
At the first party, mostly couples, the hostess spent the evening addressing her husband in tones of such well-honed contempt that Edward Albee could have written the dialogue. In fact, among all the married female guests, scorn for husbands was as thick as a wedding album: they had hubbies’ number and weren’t going to let anyone else at the table miss it. The hostess had a wonderfully subtle way of interrupting her husband—who did indeed have much to say—every time he got to the crucial point in an anecdote, invariably to inform him, in candid tones, of some essential task that needed performing at exactly that moment. Which you’d notice if you weren’t such an insufferable long-winded narcissist.
“Richard, do you want to pour the coffee or slice the cake?” she interrupted him once again following dinner. Shut up and help, you self-absorbed egomaniac. Barely glancing at her, he shot back, “Both,” with a triumphant little smirk—got you, you control freak—and kept on with what he was saying. I can’t be bothered to care what you think because I’ve heard it a million times. In one exchange, two concise lines, was everything there is to say about enmity between the sexes at this moment in history. When Richard failed to slice the cake with enough alacrity, not yet finished with whatever shaggy-dog story he now was on, one of the other wives seated at his end of the table grabbed the knife from him, announcing with a display of eye rolling to the guests, “I’d better do this or we’ll be here forever,” soliciting the rest of the females present to bond over this bit of typical male buffoonery. All happily did. Men! Too self-involved to cut a cake! The female struggle continues, one slice at a time!
A week later, at a second party, an attractive, successful single professional female in her mid- to late thirties with a few glasses of wine under her belt was pronouncing (too loudly for the size of the room) that she wished men would treat her more like a sex object, that it’s so boring to be respected, but men these days are babies—they’re all completely threatened by women and afraid of sex, and if you’re not twenty, they’re not interested because you’ve got their number. Thus she was forced to date younger men, who hadn’t yet retreated from sex (usually her assistants, though this rarely worked out well in the long run), but at least they still know how to flirt. It was all very modern and independent, and you could tell just by looking that she was One Strong Babe, except there was a certain note of falseness in the air, between the insistent feistiness and the thinly concealed distress at not having gotten what she disavowed wanting, which was, needless to say, the most traditional thing in the world for a heterosexual female to want despite the post-traditional packaging: a man’s love. Which you also suspected might prove impossible to accede to, since this thwarted quest narrative of displeasing candidates and failed tests would hardly allow for the possibility. You started to get the idea that the true attachment was to the story of her disappointment.
Clearly both male presence and male absence are equally capable of causing chagrin, each in its own unique way. If women are suspended between wanting to have a man and wanting what men don’t have to give, this nevertheless dissuades few heterosexual women from an abiding commitment to the premise that these men could gratify female needs and desires if only they were somehow different than they are. Less like men, for one thing.
If only men could be different—more like women, for instance. In the mid-1980s, psychoanalyst Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer started noticing that her female patients’ complaints about men seemed to revolve around a certain recurring theme: a fixation on the idea that men are lacking something, something crucial. Men are emotionally closed, they’re not receptive or empathetic, they can’t access their inner feelings—unlike the women issu- ing the complaints, whose openness and receptiveness were cen- tral to their entire self-conception. Mayer says it was the rigid absolutism of these characterizations of men that drew her attention, and also the sheer repetitiveness; something seemed a little false about it. Men have no insides! Everything’s external with them! In other words, the obverse of classic male castration anxiety—you remember, the old story that girls are incomplete in some way, because the boy’s reaction to discovering that girls don’t have penises is the unconscious fear that he might lose his too. Mayer’s women patients were describing the female version: men are incomplete, an incompleteness that’s similarly anxiety producing, and similarly congeals into disparagement and contempt.
Out of curiosity, Mayer decided to ask women she knew who’d had boy babies about their responses to diapering a boy. She heard all about techniques for not getting sprayed, but when she probed further, several women described their initial surprise at how closed up and sealed over the babies were behind their testicles—as if they were missing an opening that should have been there. (The title of Mayer’s report on the development: “ ‘Everybody Must Be Just Like Me.’ ”) This propensity to search for an opening resonated with the way the women described their husbands and boyfriends on an emotional level. “Sam is just incomprehensible to me,” complains one wife. “He has no insides! He can’t ever talk about his feelings. It’s always on the outside with him.”
These demands that men be more emotionally available and receptive get their force from shifts in the wider culture, Mayer supposes: this is all taking place in a context where traditional distinctions between masculinity and femininity are under assault. It starts to look as though new stereotypes are being invented to replace old stereotypes. Obviously the “men are closed up” complaint also plays on the anatomical differences between the sexes, and solidifies them as an operative metaphor: he doesn’t have an opening, a route inside, he’s sealed over and impossible to get through to—so how can he love and be receptive? But Mayer also reads an element of self-doubt behind the question: “Could I lose that capacity too?” The irony, of course, is that the worry becomes self-fulfilling: amid all these accusations and disappointments, how could love flourish?
It’s the psyche’s job to transform the body into metaphors that encapsulate social relations, particularly when it comes to social hierarchies, anthropologists have observed. So have historians: consider ancient Greece, where sexual penetration was only considered a “natural” sex act when it accurately represented the social hierarchy. Penetration created inferior status, so only social inferiors could be penetrated: boys, women, slaves; anything else was considered unnatural. (It’s possible that this idea lingers.) New bodily metaphors arise as required, but it doesn’t mean that the old metaphors just die off. As we see: even if men currently fail at openness, women don’t yet seem to succeed at completeness. Having the sexual organs you’ve been assigned obviously isn’t exactly a negligible part of inner life when we’re all dragooned into living out the prevailing bodily metaphors as if they were eternal truths, and experiencing them as our deepest inner realities.
And would there be any corresponding forms of female avoidance or failures of openness at the moment, any questions whose answers might be uncomfortable to hear—or are men the only gender for whom self-knowledge occasionally proves elusive, the only ones who cling to compensatory stories about what’s wrong with the other sex? Take scorn for men, that postfeminist badge of female independence. Can this ever be an entirely good-faith enterprise when what is this scorn but a mask for disappointment, which is to say nothing if not an index of dependency? The venerable scenario: men have the goods (commitment, attention, rings . . .) but can’t or won’t deliver; women need men, but are loath to admit it, wrapping denial in disparagement, whether of individual men or the sex as a whole.
The term “misogyny” has often been proffered to explain the historic male-female predicament. But to be honest, are women really so fond of men at the moment either? Clearly when it comes to compulsively deprecating the other sex, men no longer have a monopoly: the leitmotif of today’s “You go, girl” sisterhood is blanket scorn for the male sex. Just from reading the title of Maureen Dowd’s 2005 best seller Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide you learn most of what you need to know about the current attitude, which is that the variety of ways women can find to dislike men are vast, and few men escape indictment for long. To begin with, every individual man bears responsibility for the oppressions of the centuries, even if temporary exemptions may be made for individual male candidates with whom you’re in love or lust at the moment—that is, until he commits some form of typically male inconsideration or failure, which he eventually will. After all, he’s a man! When it comes to dating, single men are dogs, infants, sex obsessed, moral rodents, or emotional incompetents. When it comes to marriage, husbands are morons, selfish, workaholics, or emotionally and domestically incompetent. Single men lie and mislead to get sex; husbands have lost interest in sex entirely. All men are inherently violent; men are all looking for a mother. Men don’t express their feelings; men won’t stop talking about themselves. Men are powermongers; men are wimps (what man could endure childbirth!). And so on. Pollsters attempting to quantify the rise in female dissatisfaction with men report that in 1970, 32 percent of American women said that most men are basically selfish and self-centered; in 1989, it was up to 42 percent. A 1993 Gallup poll reported that 40 percent of women were often or very resentful of men because of “irritating and just typically male behavior.” Only 20 percent of men felt the same way about “typically female” behavior. Researchers who study men’s attitudes about sex now generally find much higher levels of rage among women toward men than among men toward women.
As masculine failure mounts, female disappointment builds—though at least there are the consolations of female solidarity, meaning that when a woman vents about a man, another woman will invariably cheer her on with her own tale of frustration or disappointment, a comforting female-bonding ritual. (Are Men Necessary? was the print equivalent.) What’s problematic about women’s scorn for men isn’t that it’s necessarily undeserved, it’s that it’s so steeped in disavowal. Disavowal not only takes a lot of useless intellectual effort that could be devoted to other things, but is self-deceiving. Self-deception is deforming.
Q: What is this crucial quantity men are meant to supply, to plug up those fissures in female well-being? A: Whatever’s being asked of them at the moment. Which is to say: more commitment, more sensitivity, more “I love you”s; more housework, togetherness, attention . . . What do women want from men? More.
Copyright © 2006 by Laura Kipnis
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