Book Review – The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability by Laura Kipnis

I can't decide if the shadows make for an interesting shot or if they're just plain distracting.

The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability by Laura Kipnis

As I read my way through the first chapter, I felt like I was reading a Cosmo or Glamour for feminists, a little trashy and a lot of fluff, but just enough to have some bite. Several times I almost put it down, but I’m glad I kept reading due to taking some perverse pleasure in it.

To some extent, it’s a frustrating read. It is just as dichotomous and contradictory as the subject Kipnis seeks to explain. Her sweeping statements about how great women have it “post-feminism” are irksome (Though she states from the beginning that she is speaking from a middle-upper class white woman’s perspective.). She hits upon some great insights but rarely has the analytical depth to take it further. Instead, the first chapter is replete with mocking swipes at feminists who invoke patriarchy to explain social behavior and the structure of society. To say that a woman’s behavior is influenced by patriarchy is not the same as denying her agency – though Kipnis seems to think so.

Sex and Dirt, the central chapters, are the strongest and quite captivating. An interesting mix of science, history and culture mixed in with her own theories on the subjects at hand. It’s this perfect synthesis, and resulted in one of my favorite quotes in the book regarding women and sex:

As if all that weren’t enough, factor in the whole tedious millenial saga of female virtue, modesty, shame, repression, male ineptitude…in short, a cruel combo of anatomical inheritance and sexual inhibition for the gal set; a nature-culture one-two punch, right to the female pleasure principle.

By the time I was through with them I was eager to read more and genuinely interested in hearing more of her theories.

Unfortunately, Vulnerability went downhill and I felt it was as weak as the first chapter. I thought her analysis of anti-porn feminists and the issue of rape to be way off, both for the same reason. Her discussion of prison rape misses the mark because she maintains that feminists put forth that rape is about violence. This is a glaring mistake, and I’m somewhat appalled that she wrote a whole rebuttal to feminist thought that hinges rape and violence. The feminist mantra about rape is that it’s NOT about violence but about power. Perhaps power and violence are synonymous to her, but when viewing all forms of rape through a lens of power, particularly with a focus on misogyny, the dynamic she scoffs at makes a lot more sense.

She also skewers feminists who have been affronted by the sexual advances of men in power as “female wounded bird syndrome.” Also thought this was way off – it isn’t about expressing delicacy and fragility and “refeminizing” oneself so much as it is about wanting to be seen as a person rather than a conquest. My question in the case she describes of a professor who invites a student to meet with him to “talk about her poetry” and instead makes sexual advances towards her – if the student had been a man, would her professor have taken her body of work seriously rather than blowing it off and using his position inappropriately? At times the last chapter had me pretty infuriated.

Despite my issues with the book, I’d recommend it. There were instances when I definitely felt challenged, and she gave me some things to think about. I genuinely enjoyed it and at times it was hilariously funny. It takes a lot for me to laugh out loud when reading a book, and she had me cracking up.