Before she became a provocative academic, Laura Kipnis was a video artist. But from reading her latest essay collection, four meditations on the female psyche, one might suspect her roots were actually in comedy—specifically, the “aren’t people (especially women) so stupid?” school of stand-up. With her dripping contempt for pretty much everything and everyone, Kipnis is like the Dennis Miller of feminist theory.
In 2003, Kipnis killed with the popular polemic Against Love, a feisty tour de force in which she argued that adultery provides an inherent critique of monogamy. But if that was her HBO special, then The Female Thing is a poorly attended stand at the Laugh Shack. Where Against Love put forward a bold idea, her latest merely provides a survey of feminist theory on four topics: dirt, sex, envy, and vulnerability. These essays may be summarized as: Women sure are dumb about cleaning, orgasms, self-help books, and rape.
In “Vulnerability,” Kipnis mocks Naomi Wolf for her 2004 New York magazine article about being sexually harassed by Harold Bloom decades prior; she pities Andrea Dworkin, whose late-in-life cry of rape was widely disbelieved. She then uses both stories as evidence that women are deeply, even unreasonably, terrified of being raped, and yet find “an element of gratification in the fantasy of ‘encroachment.’ ”
Kipnis applies this premise—women have it rough but sort of like it rough—to all areas. “Men raised by feminist mothers will do more cleaning, according to anecdotal reports. But will women let them?” Kipnis writes in the “Dirt” chapter. In “Sex,” she scorns women who report finding sexual satisfaction in intercourse that produces a feeling of extreme closeness: “There’s a name for someone who would call that an orgasm: female.” Rimshot!
Of course, The Female Thing may simply be appreciated as an exercise in style, of which Kipnis has plenty. Her voice is singular: smart, punchy, frequently crass—like a compendium of dirty jokes, only with bigger words and lots more parenthetical asides. “Yes, custodianship of a vagina really is the female Achilles’ heel,” Kipnis writes, “and not just because both are prone to fungal infections (a minor but thoroughly annoying aspect of the vaginal ecosystem).” Unfortunately, her analysis in this book amounts to little more than: “Sex-as-victimhood—what’s up with that?”