Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review - Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny

If you don't believe that Laurie Penny gets disproportionate online hate, try tweeting praise of her on Twitter. When I was halfway through her latest book, Unspeakable Things, I was already so excited and inspired by it that I tweetedHalfway through @PennyRed's Unspeakable Things and I already want to go round handing out copies to strangers demanding they read it.” Within ten minutes, a man named Nicopotamus crawled out of the woodwork to tell me “Please don't force that toss on anyone.

I spent the following hour arguing with Nicopotamus, trying to get him to explain what he meant by that. He continued to shower insults on Penny, accusing her of writing simplistic drivel, of hypocrisy, and of being wrong. Yet he was unable or unwilling to support any of these claims. The closest he got to an argument was his suggestion that she was “'anti-capitalist' yet sells her time and her book for profit on Amazon.” It makes about as much sense to suggest that anyone with anti-capitalist views who gets a book published by a major publisher is automatically a hypocrite as it does to just sit there going 'shut up shut up shut up' at anyone whose views differ from your own, and the more I gently suggested that Nicopotamus was perhaps threatened by her for some reason, the more hotly he denied it.

Perhaps Nicopotamus is genuinely not threatened by Laurie Penny, though that would not explain why he chose to spend an hour of his life insulting her in @ replies to me, a random bloke on the internet who had praised her. As the widespread online attacks on Penny, Anita Sarkeesian, Caroline Criado-Perez, Mary Beard and other prominent women show, the fact is that very many cis white straight middle-class Western men feel very deeply threatened by the numerous intelligent articulate women at the forefront of public discourse both online and off, in 2014. And perhaps, sometimes, they are right to be.

For fifty years,” writes Penny in her introduction, “patriarchy has been telling women to get back to the kitchen, first in genuine outrage, and then with the type of ironic crypto-sexism that is supposed to be amusing: get back in there and make us a sandwich, dear. Those who are so eager for women and girls to go back to the kitchen might think again about just what it is we might be up to in there. You can plan a lot of damage from a kitchen. It's also where the knives are kept.”

Yet Unspeakable Things is not a manifesto for actually cutting up men. Quite the contrary. In the five long essays that make up the body of the book, Penny outlines the case for an inclusive feminism that is ultimately about being a decent human being regardless of your gender or sexuality, a compassionate feminism that aims to create a world of decent human beings who treat one another as human beings.

This is of course extremely threatening in the context of a patriarchy that trains men and boys both to see women as less than human and to deny it.

Penny addresses this explicitly in the chapter on men, Lost Boys: “The reason for a compassionate feminist approach to men is not to spare their feelings. Quite the opposite. Compassion is necessary precisely because to live full lives as we move towards a society that treats women as fully human, men will be required to see themselves and their experience in a new and painful light.

The sort of compassion that is useful to men and boys seeking to escape a world of violence, misogyny and emotional constipation is not the compassion of a priest who forgives sins, but of a doctor who looks at a suffering idiot who waited too long to get an oozing wound checked out and says, firmly and accurately: I'm afraid this is going to hurt.

And it does hurt.

The first chapter, Fucked-Up Girls, is particularly searing. In it, Penny combines her highly personal and moving account of her recovery from anorexia in her late teens with a heavily footnoted takedown of the way patriarchal society systematically disadvantages women and dismantles their ability to participate as freely in the world as men do. Women reading that chapter may not find too much in it that they didn't already know, but to a bloke – even to one who has always considered himself some kind of feminist – it reads like some kind of ugly science-fiction dystopia.

It's interesting that 'ugly' is still the insult most commonly thrown at women to dismiss their power, to get them to shut up,” writes Penny. “Female politicians are called ugly and unfuckable by men who can't quite bring themselves to say directly that they don't deserve their power, that their primary purpose as women should be to please and arouse the opposite sex.”

And yet: “The game is rigged. You can't win, because nobody wins. If you don't diet, blow-out your hair, spend your spare cash on beauty treatments and fashionable clothes, you're considered inferior, letting down professional standards – but if you do, you're an idiot bimbo.”

The thing about being a male feminist is that you can walk away. You can forget the whole thing at any time. Society is set up to encourage men and discourage women across the board, and it takes energy for men to attempt to join the rebellion against this, energy which, in these times of austerity and the necessity to struggle constantly just to survive at all, isn't always available. There's only so much you can take in at one time and it is the easiest thing in the world to start shutting down, to start shutting things out. Often the first voices that men shut out are women's voices. It's easy to do. Many of us men weren't really listening to women in the first place, if women were bothering to talk openly to us at all.

What we are asking men to do is hard,” writes Penny. “Let's be perfectly clear: we have created a society in which it is structurally difficult and existentially stressful for any male person not to behave like a complete and utter arsehole.

She goes on to write, “... the old distributive model of patriarchal power is gone. It never really existed for most people anyway. What the men of tomorrow must do is let it go with grace. Retain some dignity over a perceived loss of power, and people who are not men might speak to you honestly about what real powerlessness looks like.

This is why Unspeakable Things is such a powerful and important book, especially for men. It can be hard for men to find let alone listen to open and honest accounts of how very strange and different the world experienced by women is. Unspeakable Things provides five extended essays' worth on the subject – in addition to the chapters discussed above there are chapters on love, on sex and on the particularly unpleasant and virulent brand of sexism that pollutes the online world.

Make no mistake, Laurie Penny's writing poses a threat to the status quo. And lo! - online there is a small horde of determined and largely male haters. People like Nicopotamus are ready to dismiss Penny's work as 'toss' without reading a word. In the stories they tell themselves – and pop up repeatedly, uninvited, to tell her, and us – it simply does not compute that a young woman could possibly have something important to say.

Stories shape us, even the shit ones,” writes Penny. “Even the ones that are simplistic and obviate a great deal of real-life experience by design. Stories are how we organise our lives, how we streamline our desires, and sometimes they fall short, and sometimes they disappoint us, and they always matter.

Unspeakable Things does not fall short. It does not disappoint. It matters. I urge everybody to read it, even Nicopotamus.

He won't.

But you can.

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