Speaking About the Unspeakable

Unspeakable ThingsHere’s one of the things I like about Laurie Penny’s book, Unspeakable Things: She says feminism is good for men.

It’s not that she’s trying to soften what feminism is about; it’s that she understands that a real change in the patriarchal social structure is good for everyone. As she says:

Please understand that I have no intention of making feminism one jot less threatening, or persuading men that feminism will not change their lives because it already has, and it will continue to do so before we’re done, and that’s a good thing. It’s not that you can’t afford feminism. However broke you are, you can’t afford a world without it. …

…I can’t wait for us to meet one another as equals. I can’t wait for the liberation of human potential that’s got to come when one half of the human race does not live in fear of the other.

I’ve been very pleased to see the growth of feminist activism among young women today. And while sometimes I’m depressed to see how many things they discuss that were major themes in earlier feminist movements – dear God, we’re still dealing with the pressure to be beautiful and perfect, even though it’s inherently impossible – I’m also impressed by how often they are pushing the boundaries.

I recall from my early years as a lawyer, and from my not so early years as a martial artist, saying things like, “We’re really not out to change the culture here. We just want to be able to do these things, too.” But women doing active, powerful things does change the culture, and writers like Penny aren’t afraid to say so, or to acknowledge that there’s a whole lot about the culture that needs to change.

And she’s a hell of a writer, to boot. She’s not yet thirty and has published four books, as well as working for various publications. Her work is both provocative and readable; the only reason I didn’t read it straight through was because my sweetheart kept grabbing it. We shared it around and then went out and bought a copy for his daughter for her birthday. It’s that kind of book, one you want to give to other people.

In some ways, it reminded me of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, even though Klein’s book is about climate change while Penny’s is addressing gender. Both fault capitalism, Klein in measured tones, Penny in outraged ones, and both come to similar conclusions: things need to change.

Here, from the introduction, is Penny explaining what this book is about (after encouraging us to mutiny):

Nor is this yet another guidebook for navigating the treacherous machine of patriarchy when what we should be doing is smashing the machine and quitting the factory with as many of our loved ones as we can grab. The world doesn’t need another handbook for how to submit with dignity to a world that wants you to hate yourself. … I’ve been reading those glossy guidebooks since I was five years old along with a load-bearing amount of feminist theory, and I’ve still got no idea how to be a good girl, and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.

The most powerful part of the book for me was her reminder of something that I probably knew – certainly should have known: most of the insults thrown at women in power are variations on ugly. That is, women are judged on their “fuckability” or lack of it. Amy Schumer and other women comedians have been playing with this theme for awhile now, so Penny isn’t alone in making this important.

I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of such insults – I can’t imagine that any woman is unfamiliar with them – but I’m not sure I realized before I read Penny’s book how much of the invective had to do with whether or not the woman met the attacker’s idea of sexually attractive.

Here’s how Penny puts it:

Here are the worst things you can call a woman: ugly. Slutty. Fat. Bitter. Bitch. Cunt. The worst thing anyone can say to a woman, in short, is that she doesn’t please you. We must get used to giving the answer: is that all you’ve got?

And finally, this line:

We must be comfortable with knowing too much, but never knowing our place.




Speaking About the Unspeakable — 3 Comments

  1. “She says feminism is good for men.”

    I guess what I’ve never understood is why it shouldn’t be. Feminism is, in my view, a belief in equal rights, with a focus on a group that traditionally hasn’t had them. Yes, I suppose that more equality means less opportunity for the favored group – the group that had the disproportionate share – but we all want to live in a good society, not just one that’s good for us. Don’t we?

    • That’s what I’ve always thought, too. And in fact, I think men get things from feminism besides living in a good society. I see too many men around me who seem to be locked into uncomfortable positions because of gender rules and roles.

      • I suppose it depends in part on how you define “good society”; I’m using the term vaguely but broadly, to incorporate the good things that come from feminism.

        I’ve considered myself a feminist for some decades now, and I’m sorry the term is still around; I thought by now we’d all be feminists. I suppose that’s the optimism of youth, but I’ve been sorry to see ‘feminist’ go from radical to almost-mainstream and slide back to factional. It’s partly a question of vocabulary, but vocabulary matters.

        The resistance on the part of the haves (the old white guys) is unfortunate but natural and the examples too many to state. What’s mistaken, I think, though equally natural, is the tendency toward a personal antagonism. A good example is Ursula K. Le Guin’s throwaway comment last night about old white guys on their way out. The audience cheered and clapped, but the truth is, they shouldn’t be celebrating the departure of old white guys at all; those guys have done some good things, and there’s nothing wrong with old white guys in themselves. The problem is their level of control – they’ve done the good things without letting most others have much of a chance to do their own good things. What we should celebrate is the arrival of other groups. The old white guys will get less attention proportionately, but we still want them to be there, along with young brown trans-gendered people and everyone else.