The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability

The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability

by Laura Kipnis


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307275776
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/09/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,163,819
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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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The Female Thing

By Laura Kipnis

Random House

Laura Kipnis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0375424172

Chapter One



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.


Excerpted from The Female Thing by Laura Kipnis Excerpted by permission.
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