Laurie Penny’s Radical Empathy

The author of “Bitch Doctrine” sits down with us before a reading at the Strand


I worry I’ve started off on the wrong foot when Laurie Penny taps the small round pin fastened to her black T-shirt and I mistake the red-and-gold logo for a Wonder Woman symbol. “It’s Star Trek, man!” she cries, horrified that I haven’t seen it. “I could spend the rest of this interview trying to sell you on it. All right, you’ve got to watch the original series. OK, OK. Let’s talk about Star Trek.”

We’ve met for iced coffee on a humid August evening near the Strand, where Penny is scheduled to read from her new book, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults, a collection culled from newspaper columns written between 2013 and 2016. At thirty, the British writer and activist — who has a column in the New Statesman and regularly writes for the Guardian and the Baffler, among other outlets — has published her third volume of essays on feminism, gender, sex, politics, and culture. Bitch Doctrine is a powerful and fiercely funny series of articles laying out a radical vision of a kinder world. It’s a book that argues not only for justice and equality but for humor, for WiFi, for Battlestar Galactica and sugary tea and the pleasure of nuzzling your face in a dog’s neck. According to Penny, revolution and joyful diversion are not mutually exclusive. We can have our cake and our Cake Boss, too.

These days it can be difficult for those of us who want to remain politically engaged to justify our steadfast commitment to TV, movies, and novels. Who cares about the Lawrence-Tasha-Issa love triangle on Insecure when, as Penny writes in her book’s introduction, “there’s a war on”? But as Bitch Doctrine so nimbly illustrates, popular culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. “I firmly believe that social narrative and cultural narrative is incredibly important for politics, particularly pop culture, because those are stories that everyone knows. They’re stories that everyone talks about,” Penny says. Like Ellen Willis — the late, great pop critic–turned–politics writer whom Penny quotes in the epigraph to her book, and whose 2011 collection, Out of the Vinyl Deeps, she surreptitiously stole from the Occupy Wall Street Library — Penny understands that popular cultural is central to our political debates. It’s not a frivolous distraction, but a window into our collective imagination.

In the hour we spend together, Penny flits, with giddy enthusiasm, from Dr. Who (“It’s how Britain wanted to see itself in the Sixties. We sort of zip around the world fixing problems. And we are the cleverest. And we may not own you, but we probably should”) to Anne Rice (“She’s single-handedly responsible for making vampires sexy”) to The Hunger Games, Star Wars, and Stranger Things. Perhaps it’s the half-hour she’s just spent “hiding” in the science fiction section at Forbidden Planet, but Penny has culture on the brain. “The reason Star Trek is amazing is because it’s a post-scarcity story,” she says, embarking on a monologue about the show’s surprisingly non-imperialist tone, its less-surprising sexism, and its delightfully campy, monsters-made-out-of-bedsheets aesthetic. (Later, at the Strand event, she threatened to those in attendance, “I’m gonna start talking about Star Trek if no one asks any questions.”)

Earlier this year, feminist writer Jessa Crispin published a short book called Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, in which the Kansas-born author and activist argues against a contemporary strand of feminism that she deems far too focused on the latest episode of Girls than on the actual liberation of real-life women. Feminism, she writes, has become “a decade-long conversation about which television show is a good television show and which television show is a bad television show.” Reading Crispin’s book — which is powerful in its own way, an entertaining and at times persuasive piece of rhetoric — it’s hard to shake the sense that women are supposed to feel bad for taking pleasure in art and culture that can often be misogynist, racist, or traumatically violent. (In other words, art that reflects the deeply flawed world we live in.) For Penny, though, it’s not possible to keep art from seeping into the realm of politics. “I’m one of those people who understand the world through books,” she says. “That’s why my activism is writing.”

Judging by the predominantly female crowd at the Strand who gathered to hear Penny speak that evening, the stories and images generated by the realm of pop culture do, indeed, matter. One girl with frizzy hair pulled back in a ponytail sported a faded Dr. Who T-shirt; another with short hair and chunky glasses wore a shirt with the image of the superhero She-Ra wearing glasses and reading a pink-jacketed book titled You Have the Power; “SHE-READ” was emblazoned below in yellow and pink block letters.

It’s undeniably appealing, in a darkly romantic way, to imagine ourselves as soldiers on the front lines of the culture wars, our lipstick repurposed as war paint smudged across our furious faces. If we have to fight for our freedom, we may as well look cool doing it. But in Bitch Doctrine, Penny seems determined to defang radical notions that mainstream discourse would like us to believe are scary to the point of titillation — concepts like polyamory (which for Penny “involves making tea and talking sensibly about boundaries, safe sex, and whose turn it is to do the washing-up”) or the fact that trans people sometimes need to use the bathroom. In this telling, what’s “radical” is the idea that a new generation might seek fulfillment not through the nuclear family but through a community of one’s choosing; by getting what you need from people, when you need it, instead of yoking yourself to one person and expecting him or her to be your everything. What’s really scary in a society obsessed with the latest disaster-porn dystopia is the potential utopia that lies beyond it, tantalizingly close to our reach.

“Everyone’s sort of prepping for the collapse of civilization,” Penny remarks. “I’m very worried about that, because I quite like civilization. I like having access to medication and the internet and coffee. I like to be cozy. Look at me,” she says, gesturing to her petite frame. “I’m basically designed by nature to be left on a mountainside when I was born. Civilization is working pretty well for me.”

Last year, Penny published her first book of fiction, a sci-fi novella called Everything Belongs to the Future. She’s found the fiction workshops she’s been taking in recent years have deeply informed her writing about politics: “Oh my god, learning how desire works within narrative. How to drive a plot by putting problems in people’s way, and how individualism works in narrative. Getting over that hero’s journey was so important. You know what Joseph Campbell said about women, right? Women don’t need the hero’s journey; they’re the place the hero is trying to get to.” The concept of the hero’s journey is one that Penny keeps circling back to, particularly in her writing about the alt-right and the new cult of masculinity. “Everybody sees themselves as the hero in their own story, and particularly men see themselves as the good guys,” she says. “What interests me is the architecture of personal narrative that allows them to keep on thinking that.”

In February, Pacific Standard published a scathing reported feature in which Penny follows the former Breitbart writer and sentient cry for help Milo Yiannopoulos, along with the young male followers she dubs “the lost boys,” on a national speaking tour. The piece generated a bit of backlash, with some readers feeling that Penny expressed too much empathy for these confused and angry young men. “I’ve been told I can be a little bit too ‘Kumbaya’ about this,” she told an audience member at the Strand, in response to a question about “angry white men” and the context in which their voluble resentment can be useful. But she sees a distinction between offering empathy and offering a platform for violent or dangerous views; she believes almost everyone can be redeemed. “What matters is not how you feel, it’s what you do with it,” she told the crowd at the Strand. “And that’s Dumbledore, and it’s true.”