Laura Kipnis makes some people very, very uncomfortable.
It started in 2003 with her breakthrough book, “Against Love: A Polemic,” a raging, funny and daring work that aims to dismiss the current institution of love—note, not necessarily the idea of love—and its relation to marriage, and more specifically, monogamy. Kipnis fights hard against the cultural restraints that have imbedded concepts of love into our collective head, and also against the social stigma against singles. Yes, Kipnis advocates adultery—she relates adulterers to freedom soldiers and even makes jokes (witty ones, at that) about lovers who, crying, confess to cheating. Although adultery may make off like a champion in Kipnis’ prose, the book’s more in support of accepting one’s desires, not being trapped in a confused state of what we have been taught is “love.”
Some took issue. Rebecca Mead wrote in her New Yorker review,“Reading Kipnis is rather like sitting next to an engagingly acerbic guest at a dinner party—great fun for an evening, if somewhat curdling to the digestion.” The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the book “is more an adolescent’s rant than an insightful look into the real problems of marriage.” Even a look at the readers’ comments on the book’s page at Amazon.com—admittedly not the premier forum for public discourse—reveals all six responses from the home page finding the book woefully problematic. On the other hand, some loved it. The book earned glowing reviews from Salon, Publishers Weekly, even the Chicago Tribune. Kipnis drew comparisons to Susan Sontag. Slate said she had the wit of Dorothy Parker. People were talking.
Kipnis’ book was not only entertaining, but also frightening in that, at times, it was so convincing.
“I think I like taking on sacred cows, or subjects that are usually treated with sanctimony, like love,” Kipnis says. “There really is something that irks me about sanctimony.”
This fall, Kipnis released “The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability,” her follow-up to her “polemic,” and the professor of Media Studies at Northwestern finds herself once again in some rhetorical hot water. In “The Female Thing”—part of which was serialized in Slate— Kipnis argues the conflicts found in gender progress, she dissects the battle between femininity and feminism and, bitingly and with “Against Love”-like vigor, challenges women to consider themselves when pondering the shortcomings of feminism. She divides the book into quarters—“Dirt,” or why women are still in charge of the housework and its link to filth in general, domestic or physical (which, the idea of women being “filthy,” she calls “the root of much misogyny”); “Sex,” or, mainly, the “orgasm gap” between men and women; “Envy,” or what women want that men have, or the idea that something is missing, that women are “defective” in some way, in constant need of improvement, and often self-defeating; “Vulnerability,” by no doubt the most controversial section, in which Kipnis analyzes issues of rape, women’s fears and what she feels is women’s psychological inclination to see themselves as victims.
The people she angered with “Against Love” will not be the same with “The Female Thing.” Kipnis dangerously plays against both sides—is she really that confrontational?
“I am a woman, to begin with,” she says about her reasons for writing the new book. “When I wrote ‘Against Love,’ I spent a lot of time not talking about gender. There was still the issue, but there was this sense I got from women’s [culture] in general, this kind of self-congratulatory smugness. I was interested in wanting to puncture some of that smugness.”
Kipnis is defiantly taking on feminist orthodoxy and in turn suggesting that modern women are conflicted about their personal identity. “I’m really not trying to blame the victims, but the question of victimization versus responsibility is an incredibly complicated one in any situation,” she says. “There’s an implicit question here about whether accepting full agency isn’t the better position psychologically, even if not entirely the case, you know, the ‘I’m responsible for my fate’ line. Blaming someone else—for instance men—also assigns them a lot of power, which is paradoxical if defeating male power is the goal.”
“When I started thinking about writing a book on women, I spent a year reading things, trying to figure out if I had anything original to say,” Kipnis says of the book’s evolution, which included studying everything from Simone de Beauvoir to “He’s Just Not That Into You.” “I didn’t want to rehash a familiar argument. If I wrote a book on women, what would I have to say that was original, or at least what I thought was original, that would pass my own criteria?”
Dividing her analysis into sections seemed like the best path. “I kept trying to come up with a thesis,” she says, “I started thinking about what issues women were still in some agreement on. The first thing I thought of was housework. Then I thought about pornography, and how both had to do with dirt. I started thinking about other issues, and I had four headings in three minutes. They were kind of ‘a-ha!’ headings. Figuring out the structure was the thing that put it in motion.”
She laughingly admits that, during her research, she sometimes found herself trapped in her own analysis. “The advice stuff is kind of terrifying,” she says. “I tried to read it as a social critic, but then, on the other hand, you’re looking for tips. Nobody’s unaffected. I was really struck with the thought that if I had stuck with women’s magazines [after my research was finished] my accessorizing would be better.”
In each of Kipnis’ chapters, she almost uniformly turns to the body—something she admits she didn’t set out to do, that it was a result of a “slightly free association” mode of writing—to solidify her argument, drawing questions on the vagina and the penis, the social constructs of both, how one, she feels, is worshipped to a staggering degree and how the other is feared and, however ridiculously true, has been a platform for advantage.
“It’s absurd,” she says. “I think people didn’t like me saying that—they had kind of a resentment against me for saying the most obvious thing. I think I got overly optimistic about intellectual flexibility. With ‘Against Love,’ I said the obvious thing—there’s a lot of adultery going on, it’s this elephant in the room. I thought this book encountered more resistance. Mostly from women…I was prepared for that, I was writing something controversial. But the things I was saying were true to me, irrefutable.”
Did she think that a negative, somewhat defensive response was inevitable? “I find it hard to predict how much intellectual openness or closed-ness there’s going to be on a particular topic, actually,” she says. “When I wrote earlier drafts on some of these things in Slate, I was always surprised at which things proved controversial, and the piece I wrote that first raised the feminism versus femininity issue created quite a shitstorm, both in letters that I got, and on their response site. I think that was one of the things that got me interested in it. It seemed like an obvious point to me, so I was surprised that it was seen as a surprising thing to say.”
She credits some resistance to her ideas to the same world she inhabits. “I think that there’s a desire to say what’s progressive and optimistic,” she says, “as opposed to saying what’s true. I’m accustomed to this in academia. Sometimes [in academia] we forget to do reality checks.”
Kipnis, 50, single, grew up on the South Side of Chicago—she attended Caldwell Academy. “I don’t think I was a happy kid,” she says of her childhood. “But that just means I was closed up in a room reading books a lot of the time.” Her admission that she wasn’t a happy kid comes as a surprise—usually in interviews, Kipnis is quite guarded about her personal life. She moved on to study art and design at the San Francisco Art Institute and, later, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She was a video artist in the mid-to-late eighties, exploring issues of feminism most frequently, until she abruptly stopped and turned to writing. She began teaching at Northwestern in 1991, and in 1993 published “Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender, and Aesthetics.” In 1999, she drew strong attention for her book “Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America,” her dissection of society’s fascination with, and sometimes repulsion by, pornography. Kipnis, who splits her time between here and New York, had been working on another book after “Against Love,” with a focus on American scandal in the 1990s, sparked by President Clinton and others, but she says it wasn’t going well, and she moved on to “The Female Thing.”
The knee-jerk reaction to Kipnis’ work in “The Female Thing” is to wholeheartedly disagree with her, write her off as a wild rebel attacking our cultural institutions or, as she puts it, our desire to be progressive. She takes risks, indeed—like when questioning why the fear of rape in women is so prevalent when the number of reported rapes has fallen with each passing year, while the number of reported rapes of men has risen—as a result, raising the question of whether or not it is more likely for a man to be raped than a woman. (She notes, of course, that the majority of male rapes occur in prison.) She clearly points out that she’s not minimizing the experience of rape, but rather asking why “the issue has dominated mainstream feminism,” using the horrific rape case of late feminist Andrea Dworkin as an example. “I try to write carefully when I’m writing about things that might be controversial,” Kipnis says. Of course, from a writer’s view, she says, “I found the places that were the most interesting were the places that made me nervous.”
She says she doesn’t write with the audience reaction a factor. “I realize that I actually don’t write with that in mind,” she says. “I come out of the art world. I think that there’s this notion that I was schooled in experimentation, and not knowing what the results of something will be when you put it out in the world.”
Kipnis may take criticism for putting the spotlight on what she thinks are societal problems and inconsistencies but not offering any solutions. “These kind of huge problems, these things that are interesting to write about, people want you to solve them,” she says. “What do we do about it? Anything I would say is glib. People are accustomed to books that offer instant solutions, particularly in these areas…I think it’s really American. And I’m deeply American. The idea that you can’t just reflect on something, that you have to fix it. I think Europeans are better educated in that sense, with the tendency to bring philosophy into everyday situations.”
Despite the observations made in “Against Love” and “The Female Thing,” Kipnis does not consider herself a cynic. “I think in a funny way I’m romantic or utopian,” she says. “I think that the people that understood ‘Against Love’ [know] that it was really a romantic book, just outside of social convention of social structures. I wouldn’t say I’m a cynic, but there was something I didn’t accomplish with ‘The Female Thing,’ which was to find a utopian moment, and I did it in ‘Against Love.’ There was more of a strain of utopianism, and [in] ‘The Female Thing’ less so…Each book has a problem to work out. But the problem with this book is ‘Where’s the hopefulness in this?’”
Kipnis says she hasn’t decided on her next project, but has some ideas. “The natural next thing now, which is a problem, is to write a book about men, but unfortunately I’m at a loss on the subject and don’t know very much about it.”