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MEN - Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, by Laura Kipnis
NOTA DE LEITURA
O título refere “Homens”, mas o livro trata dos problemas das mulheres. É um livro bem escrito, com muita imaginação e também com muito humor. Acho mesmo que a piada com que a autora escreve tira alguma seriedade ao livro.
É um livro escrito com muita juventude, embora a autora tenha já 58 anos. Lê-se com muito agrado. Só não gostei do Capítulo “The Con Man”, porque analisa um filme (House of Games – 1987 – Em Portugal, Jogo fatal), o que significa querer tirar conclusões da ficção para a vida real.
Dá muita “pancada” num Prof. Harvey Mansfield, que tem uma teoria da “Manliness”, a superioridade do macho, assim mesmo, embora ele aceite que algumas mulheres (como Margaret Tatcher) têm também essa qualidade. A autora ficou, porém, desarmada na discussão que teve pela amabilidade com que ele a tratou.
Um dos capítulos mais festejado é o intitulado “Men who hate Hillary” (Clinton), que de facto, nos deixa estupefactos como a senhora é tão maltratada pelos americanos que escrevem livros sobre ela.
Gostei muito também da apreciação que ela faz de Andrea Dworkin no capítulo intitulado “Women who hate men”
The Washington Post
Notes From an Ongoing Investigation
By Laura Kipnis
Metropolitan. 208 pp.
Diamonds are forever — except if you need to resell them, should your marriage end in divorce. We all know the stats on love’s odds, but we do like to cling to our illusions. Luckily, cultural critic Laura Kipnis is here to stab any balloons of self-delusion and false hope. When I teach a film course on the history of romantic comedy, I like to end with Kipnis’s best-known work, “Against Love: A Polemic,” which challenges our notions about couplehood and is sort of like washing down the wedding cake with a couple of straight shots of vodka.
Kipnis, a film professor at Northwestern University, has made a career out of challenging orthodoxies, especially those pertaining to the war between the sexes. Her firmest belief is that fewer beliefs should be firm, at least when it comes to emotions. She’ll call out our silly adherence to fixed ideas held by feminists as much as our loyalty to those held by misogynists — which is why, for instance, Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler, invited her to drop by for a chat, assuming she’d be a sympathetic ear because she didn’t take a position of simple moral outrage in her book on pornography, “Bound and Gagged.”
With her fourth book, “Men,” an acerbic, wildly entertaining collection of essays, Kipnis does what she does best: She takes a sledgehammer to stereotypes and sentimentality. In discussing figures as diverse as Tiger Woods, John Edwards and paparazzi photographer Ron Galella, she encourages us to question our presuppositions about masculinity. She argues that men are considerably more vulnerable than they feel comfortable revealing and more vulnerable than women want them to be. Chapters with titles such as “The Manly Man” and “Cheaters” consider familiar archetypes of bad male behavior and then aim to deliver “a more nuanced account of male power” than our received ideas generally allow.
So, for example, in her chapter on Flynt, called “The Scumbag,” she expresses her discomfort both with the “obstreperous redneck” pornographer’s lurid product and the First Amendment hero he refashions himself as, after he buys into the hagiography about him in Milos Forman’s film “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Both versions of Flynt, Kipnis claims, are lies. Or at least very partial truths — inventions. When a quote from Kipnis winds up being used in Flynt’s autobiography, she admits to feeling a perverse pride. “I invented a version of him that I found palatable, and he went along with it,” she writes. “If only other men I’ve known had been so compliant.”
This is the quintessential Kipnisian (if we can call it that) situation: Identity is always a construct, fashioned from the flotsam and jetsam of half-baked public discourse and only hazily understood, often masking complicated and contradictory feelings. Especially in a time of rampant social media, we tend to oversimplify and bounce to extremes, when the truth more often lies in a muddy middle: not either/or, but both/and.
Take the case of Anthony Weiner, as she does in the chapter called “Humiliation Artists.” Why oh why would a public figure send lurid texts and raunchy photos of himself to college students in his own name? Kipnis goes further than merely asserting that on the deepest level men such as Weiner and Sen. Larry Craig — he of the solicitation and disorderly conduct in public-bathroom stalls — want to be caught and tried in the court of public opinion. “Electoral politics,” she goes on to claim, looks “more and more like a form of public psychotherapy” in which all of us, as spectators, play out our fantasies and fears. When we become engrossed in a story like Weiner’s, we participate in a kind of theater, and she gives Weiner credit for the “creative expression” he brings to playing his part in our popular culture, which serves as “a shopping mall of obsessions.”
Kipnis’s essays are long, dense and delightfully hard to summarize in sound bites. She juggles a lot of far-flung references — her Weiner essay discusses Jean Genet, “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Philip Roth’s shrink — and she often confesses to a surprising personal connection to the subject. In “The Lothario,” her curiosity about a roman a clef widely rumored to be about a notorious womanizer is sparked by the fact that she was once toyed with by the same man. Her essay “The Victim” discusses a male professor stalked by a crazy female student, a burden that Kipnis also experienced. She considers whether that male prof, or she, had done anything to inspire the tormentor’s nuttiness and decides probably not: “Everyone who’s not a sexual idiot knows that the price of employment in academia these days is that these wayward libidos of ours have to be throttled into obedience. But I suspect that even extremes of self-monitoring won’t prevent professors from sparking the occasional imaginative chord in a student — and sometimes excessively imaginative ones.”
Note that Kipnis views obsession as imaginative rather than simply diagnosable. Here as elsewhere, she avoids assigning blame or coming to pat conclusions, since by her own admission she suffers from the “embarrassing affliction” of moral relativism: “To be honest, calling it moral relativism may dignify it too much, it’s more like moral wishy-washiness. Critics are supposed to have deeply felt moral outrage about things,” whereas she often finds it difficult to get properly upset about offenses such as plagiarism or Lance Armstrong’s juicing. Her wry distance is, of course, a carefully managed stance and an alluring one. Let other writers express their indignation in capital letters on Facebook and Twitter feeds; her job is to cooly analyze such arguments.
“Men Who Hate Hillary” is Kipnis at her charming, disarming best. The essay, which first appeared in Playboy, argues that “you can tell a lot about a man by what he thinks about Hillary, maybe even everything. She’s not just another presidential candidate; she’s a sophisticated diagnostic instrument for calibrating male anxiety, which is apparently running high these days.” Kipnis contends that political correctness has made it impossible for Hillary-haters to admit outright how unsettled they are by the notion of a woman in the White House. “We’re far too enlightened to be debating whether a woman should be president — that would be antiquated and discriminatory. So the qualms must find more creative routes of expression” — such as accusing Clinton of being a lesbian. Or mocking the shape of her legs. In analyzing several biographies of Clinton, Kipnis considers, among other issues, the eternal fixation on Clinton’s hairstyles, which one Hillary-watcher has so many opinions about that he “sounds like an aspirant for the Vidal Sassoon endowed chair on the Clinton-hating Right.”
Her combination of breeziness and erudition makes her unusual among contemporary essayists, and unusually valuable.
Lisa Zeidner’s most recent novel is “Love Bomb.” She teaches film and creative writing at Rutgers University in Camden.
24 November 2014
From Gropers to Men Who Hate Hillary, in a series of essays Kipnis explores a diverse array of males with humour, insight and a contrarian’s point of view
The subject under her magnifying glass might be men, but Laura Kipnis’s exuberant new book is just as interested in women, and in all the ridiculous ways that both sexes keep misunderstanding each other. Her essays are about real men and fictional men and every so often straw men, organised by genus (Operators, Neurotics, Sex Fiends and Haters) and species, including Cheaters and Men Who Hate Hillary.
It’s an ironic taxonomy, because the root of Kipnis’s fascination with men is their freedom not to be sorted, as women routinely are, into reductive categories like madonna/whore. Her aim is not to generalise away what makes particular men interesting, even the scumbags, stalkers and conmen, and it’s certainly not to lock them up in irredeemable categories. She explains in the essay Juicers – which manages to yoke together Lance Armstrong, the New Republic, critic Leon Wieseltier, fabulist James Frey and Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men – that her real problem is what she calls her “moral wishy-washiness”. In other words, her inability to condemn strangers for infractions that derive, after all, from the otherwise esteemed quality of ambition. Or as she puts it elsewhere, in an elegant summary of the exhausting demands of the internet outrage-machine, “I don’t like having to rise to the bait like some sort of earnest marionette.”
Despite her moral relativism, or perhaps because of it, Kipnis frequently calls herself a “contrarian” — although she takes a good swipe at the late contrarian-in-chief, Christopher Hitchens, in an essay, The Lothario, that is partly about funny women – a category which Hitchens claimed didn’t exist. Kipnis’s previous, “rather conflicted” book The Female Thing, explored the pesky persistence of “traditional” feminine roles in a supposedly post-feminist world. A New York Times reviewer took her to task for fighting battles, like workplace harassment and political correctness, that in 2006 seemed passé.
Rising up again in this book, amid the furious resurgence of basic arguments about women’s cultural representation and their right to speak in public, those same fights feel absolutely of the moment. In the essay Gropers, for instance, Kipnis – a professor at Northwestern University – strides into the fraught arena of campus sexual politics, sceptically revisiting Naomi Wolf’s 2004 claim that the eminent Yale literary critic Harold Bloom had placed a clammy and indelibly traumatising hand on her knee 20 years before. It’s an old story about an old story, but such testimonies helped to push the policies of universities, including Kipnis’s own, toward outright bans on relationships between faculty and students, locking them into a predator/victim dynamic that denies the often intense, often mutual desire that can erupt in circumstances of unequal power. (Kipnis does say “for the record” that she’d see “quid pro quo harassers” violently punished.)
But her book is not about monsters, it’s about confused, self-deluding, libidinous men, whom we can’t just lock up or destroy: Tiger Woods,Anthony Weiner, Larry Craig. Kipnis yokes these famous “humiliation artists” to less familiar cases and switches up the lighting, in order to pose more interesting questions about their scandals. For instance, “what exactly is the lure of sex with celebs?” and why would a man have multiple “affairs” with exactly the kind of woman guaranteed to sell him out – ie, one who’s willing to have sex with him in the first place? Freud may be the glass in Kipnis’s lens, but she trains it on an engagingly diverse range of subjects – James Baldwin and People magazine, Jean-Paul Sartre and Weiner’s wiener, Larry Flynt’s Hustler and David Mamet. Altogether, Men is a trip: the driver might occasionally be lead-footed and erratic, and the road might not be going anywhere really new, but bombing down the straight it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
By Laura Kipnis
Metropolitan; 208 pages
’ new book is a study of slimy and sleazy men. One is , publisher of Hustler and champion of bestiality, bodily fluids and free speech. Another is , the former New York congressman who infamously texted lewd photos of his genitals to a college student he’d never met. Even the culturally distinguished figures are generally repulsive; it’s hard to sympathize with the Harvard professor after he attributes the decline of European countries to the “womanliness” of their policies. And the gleefully brutal literary critic is hardly more appealing — after savaging , and many other writers, he proclaims himself “one of the best writers around.”
But Kipnis does something surprising; she tries to like these men. The title of her book suggests a mock-serious stance of studied detachment, but “Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation” is not exactly a dispassionate examination. It depicts the personal process of a writer seeking to overcome the repulsion she feels for her subjects.
Her first essay is a good example of the impulses that run throughout the book. With a suave blend of personal anecdote and cultural criticism, she narrates a meeting with Larry Flynt in Los Angeles. She finds that his face has “a melted quality” and the interior decor of his office seems to result from a bloody war between “armies of rival interior decorators.” A shooting by a white supremacist furious over the interracial pornography in Hustler left Flynt in a wheelchair, but he hastens to inform Kipnis that this does not mean he is impotent. She says she’ll take his word for it.
The amusing anecdotes, however, are part of a broader agenda: to explore the sources of her own disgust with Flynt and his magazine. Kipnis is hardly the only person to cringe over Flynt’s empire of smut. He has fought countless legal battles over the First Amendment, and he once appeared in court wearing an American flag as a diaper. ’s admiring biopic, “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” presented him as a hero of free speech.
Kipnis rejects the film as a simplistic effort to rehabilitate a controversial figure, but she thinks it’s equally reductive to dismiss Flynt as a villain. After poring over back issues of Hustler, she concludes the magazine is upholding “a venerable, centuries-long rabble-rousing tradition of political pornography.”
This is not entirely persuasive. The essay is structured as the narrative of her gradually opening mind, a voyage from the position that Hustler is offensively anti-female to the view that the magazine simply targets all hypocrisy and sexual repression. The many signs of male vulnerability within its pages — ads for penis enlargers — help her to sympathize with the insecurities and anxieties that might underlie some of the less savory imagery.
But she is too quick to conclude that any pornography that stems from male anxiety is necessarily innocent of promoting gender inequality. Motives are not the same as effects; pornography that glorifies rape may derive in part from male insecurity, but its effect can still be pernicious.
The same urge to empathize with the latent trauma behind dubious behavior recurs in many essays. She speculates that Anthony Weiner was probably teased on the playground for his unfortunate last name. His later transgressions were unmistakably public, even suspiciously so; perhaps, she muses, he was driven by a subconscious need to relive the humiliation of his childhood by texting phallic photos as an adult.
In another piece, she investigates the alarmingly popular genre of political commentary about that criticizes her appearance, speculates about her sex life and carps over her perceived lack of feminine graces. No doubt Kipnis is right that the pundits who specialize in this genre have some lingering issues surrounding their own gender and sexual confidence, but this doesn’t make the misogyny less obnoxious.
Sometimes the technique of sympathizing with the seeming villains yields more persuasive results. One essay questions whether universities are right to treat undergraduate and graduate students only as potential victims of sexual advances by faculty. The typical rationale is that the power differential between faculty and students justifies a presumption of student innocence whenever stories conflict. But students, Kipnis argues, are not merely overgrown children. They are sometimes ambitious adults who can wield just as much power as faculty members.
Kipnis is a gifted stylist and inquisitive thinker, and she writes essays in a tentative and self-questioning mode that’s at least as old as Montaigne. Doubting the righteousness of snap moral judgments and empathizing with the vulnerabilities of supposed villains are admirable impulses, but Kipnis sometimes seems stuck at this phase of intellectual inquiry. She puts it best herself: “Every once in a while I succeed in landing a feeble blow or two, but for the most part it’s the limp equivocator who rules the roost.”
Los Angeles Times
November 24, 2014
Laura Kipnis talks about power, anxiety and 'Men'
“Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation” (Metropolitan: $25) started out as a fight that writer Laura Kipnis had with her longtime boyfriend over whether she talked too much about her exes. (She doesn't, she insists.) But the conversation made her realize that regardless of how much she talks about former lovers in private, she's spent most of the last 15 years writing about men, over and over.
“Men” is a collection of essays — new and old, some previously published at the Village Voice, Harper's, Slate and Playboy — that take a kaleidoscopic look at modern masculinity, and why she can't seem to get it off her mind. Kipnis' previous books focused on similar subjects of sex, love and scandal, including “Against Love: A Polemic,” a contrarian look at whether love is really all it's cracked up to be; and “The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability.” Now, with “Men,” she's finally turned her eye on the gender that captivates her the most.
“Men have fascinated me,” her book begins, “maybe too much.” Although her essays catalog a lot of bad male behavior — divided into categories of operators, neurotics, sex fiends and haters — Kipnis is far more intrigued than offended by the “jagged edges” of modern masculinity, and the anxiety over shifting power dynamics she sees poking out from those misdeeds like loose wires. Her subjects run the gamut from Hustler publisher Larry Flynt (designated a “scumbag”) and Anthony Weiner (a “humiliation artist”) to the conservative men who despise Hillary Rodham Clinton yet seem strangely drawn to her.
Rather than trumpeting the “end of men” — or the beginning of “New Men” — Kipnis seems beguiled by the modern condition of males for many of the same reasons that men once rhapsodized about the feminine mystique: their complexity, their vulnerability and how their deep inner contradictions frustrate and attract in equal measure. She discussed her latest book by phone from her home in New York City.
Your book often resists making declarative statements, but what do you see as the status quo for masculinity today?
Power relations have shifted considerably and the economic hit that men took in the last recession was a huge aspect of it. Everything that's been going on in the last 40 years has really changed the power dynamic in a macro sense, from women's entry into the workforce and the reshaping of the family structure to the economic hit that men took in the last recession. I think there's a lot of underlying male anxiety about that. I was interested in the subterranean ways that anxiety manifests itself.
There are several moments where you say you should be offended by male bombast but instead find yourself compelled by its vulnerability. Is this just contrarianism, or is there more to it?
I'm always surprised when women are offended at men like [Norman] Mailer, because he's kind of hilarious and also self-parodying.... The problem with taking all these things seriously is that it puts you in a reactive position that just reinforces the power of the thing you're reacting against. I'm a believer in irony, because it gives you two positions; it gives you more latitude to think different thoughts.
The problem with being pissed off at men all the time is that you're in the same position. You're just spinning your wheels.
In the chapter devoted to Larry Flynt, you discuss your fascination with Hustler magazine and the male anxieties you see in its pages. What is it about obscenity that intrigues you so much?
As I was writing about pornography I started to wonder, what is offense about? And why does being offended feel like being endangered? What's the connection between those two feelings? When I read Hustler and feel myself being offended in this deep way, it becomes very interesting to me.... Being offended by something really does tell you who you are in the deepest ways.
You also mention not wanting to take “the boring path to the Promised Land of gender parity.” What would a more dynamic path to equality look like?
I think of myself as a bit of contrarian when it comes to feminism. I absolutely call myself a feminist, though I'm not sure my version of feminism is the same as everyone's. I don't think there's one party line on it, if there ever was.… The boring form of feminism takes male power as the absolute, and believes the hype, where I think just a more nuanced and contradictory and complicated field. That's what I'm trying to get at with the case studies: that male power isn't as powerful as the old style version of gender relations proposes. And I think that if women recognized that more, it would shift the balance between men and women in some possibly interesting way.
You suggest that women retained more jobs during the recession because they were more adaptable and agreeable — but this also contributed to lower pay. Should feminism encourage women to be more aggressive, to be jerks in the same ways that men are?
I'm intrigued by that parodying of male prerogative.… What interests me about [female] empowerment talk is that a lot of it comes in the guise of what I would call CEO feminism: women wanting to be head of Fortune 500 companies and sit in corporate boardrooms and emulate or aspire to these positions of power that men have always had. In the early days of second wave feminism, there was this idea that if women ran things, that things would be different. That women in positions of power would dismantle capitalism, would dismantle the corporate structure.
But you hear nothing about that anymore. You just hear about women wanting to take over those positions of power and change nothing, so these traditional forms of power just get reproduced. To me, that's an inadequate form of feminism, one that leaves everything else just the way you found it. Women want to have what men had, just because men had it.… I'd like to ask more questions about whether it's what we actually want or not.
NOV. 21 2014
By Hanna Rosin
“Men have fascinated me, maybe too much,” begins Laura Kipnis’ new book, Men: An Ongoing Investigation. “They’re large and take up a lot of space.” From the chapter titles—“The Scumbag,” “The Con Man,” “The Lothario”—you might draw certain conclusions about Kipnis’ attitude toward men. But wounded and indignant is not her style. In fact, she is constitutionally incapable of moral outrage, she writes in the book, and when she needs a hit of it, she trolls the Internet for outrage experts, such as Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic. Instead Kipnis believes in the state of “wracked with conflict” as the natural human condition. And right now, she says, it’s the men who are most wracked.
I talked to Kipnis, a film professor at Northwestern University, whose previous books include Against Love andHow to Become a Scandal, about male masochism, the “good girl” feminists, and the folly of the phrase “unwanted sexual advances.”
Slate: Why did you decide to write a book about men now?
Laura Kipnis: They just seem to be in such a state of anxiety. I had written a book about scandal and so it was on my mind how a lot of men in power seem to be acting in such incoherent ways in public. It’s almost as if something was afflicting them and they had some need to be shamed in public, to be disgraced and act out these private psychodramas in public, and I was just fascinated by that. My disposition generally is to think there are linkages between the private sphere and large scale social structures, so I guess I am always looking for those links.
Did you figure out what the anxiety is all about?
I think I became more empathetic about whatever causes I was speculating about. There’s a kind of precariousness for men now about their position—you’ve written about this. There are changes in the role in the aftermath of feminism as a result of massive economic restructuring, and this is affecting them on an interpersonal level. They don’t know exactly what’s going on in the context of heterosexual male-female relationships, what’s expected of them.
Is there such a thing as the New Man?
There’s a lot of introspection about roles and masculinity. That all gets talked about so much more, and that’s certainly new. You are constantly hearing men indict other men for their misogyny. Like right now we are in this Cosby moment and it gives men a way to separate themselves from the worst, most pathological examples of men. A lot of men take that opportunity to declare their alliances with women.
Are those declarations of solidarity sincere?
I’m not the biggest believer in sincerity. I just believe we are all wracked with conflicting impulses. One side is sincere and the other side is laughing evilly in the background. That actually is the entry point to this book—a sense of conflictedness even on the part of the men everyone likes to mock, such as Tiger Woods or John Edwards. In these various examples I am sort of sympathetic. I just think moral indignation is such an easy place to go. In the case of someone like Tiger, he just seems like such a conflicted and poignant figure, and when a guy like that takes his tumble in public, it’s a way of saying, “I am full of conflicts.” And I can identify with that. I know at times I’ve lived in my life in ways that are not coherent.
I loved your close reading of the video Rielle Hunter, John Edwards’ mistress, made of him, the one where he says, “I actually want the country to see who I am, who I really am,” while she is giggling in the background.
It was actually my father who looked at that video and said, “He’s in love.” It was interesting to look at a man looking at another man and reading his affect. He’s got that goofy, in love with the world sort of expression on his face. And you can hear the giggling so you can tell there is something going on between the two of them. We are at this moment where there is so much out there that’s so private if you just look. You can get these court documents, depositions, stuff that has these intensely private moments. I’ve been accused of being an armchair psychoanalyst, but how can you not be with all this stuff out there!
Do you think when Edwards said, “I want the country to see who I really am,” he was looking to be discovered?
I think he believes he’s a standup guy and wants the world to see him for that. At the same time, how could some part of him not know who else he really is—a guy who’s having an affair with a videographer while his wife has cancer.
You gave your chapters titles like “Scumbag,” “Con Man,” “Sex Fiend.” Did you have in mind your ex-boyfriends, or public men like Anthony Weiner?
I guess they were just terms I found amusing. People have been saying it sounds like I hate men, but I always thought of those titles as humorous. I was trying to weave in my own life, find points of connection, men I’ve known who were, for example, self-deceivers. When I wrote about [novelist] James Lasdun being stalked by a student, I talked about my own similar experience. I’m not someone who writes about myself. I wrote a whole book about love and never used the first person pronoun. This was my chance to put myself in more and experiment in the first person.
Did it make you feel too exposed?
It does, which is a silly thing given all these memoirs out there. But I’m a terribly private person, and I’m horribly self-conscious and shame-ridden. It’s addictive, though. Once I start writing in the first person I find I want to talk about myself more and more.
You write that men these days seek humiliation. What do you mean by that?
I guess when I look at these figures—Edwards, Weiner—there seems to be something not quite random about how they are all flogging themselves in public. I’m still very interested in Freud, and he writes about masochism and aligns it with femininity. But we are now seeing another version of male masochism. I think there’s something about childhood humiliations getting imprinted on you, and I think that was the case with Weiner. I actually talked to someone who dated him, and she said that was the case with him. There’s some form of self-destruction that’s just woven into our constitution.
What about men’s relationships with their bodies?
Men’s bodies are so much more on the line than they used to be. Part of it has to do with advertising culture, which discovered the male body as a commodity opportunity. Think of all the ways in which women’s insecurity has been great for marketing people. Now they’ve discovered men as this great untapped market. So I think men’s self-consciousness is totally on the rise. They’ve started worrying that they have hair in all the wrong places! And men are now aware that women are surveying men’s bodies in the same way men have always surveyed women’s.
If what you’re saying is true, why are women still so afraid of male power? Where’s the disconnect?
Well, there are still horrific levels of violence against women. But I do think the way in which second-wave feminism has focused on women’s vulnerability as an essential property of women has not been that great. There’s a lot of violence in the world and most of it is directed against men. Yet women feel themselves at their core, to be vulnerable, in ways that don’t entirely map onto the reality.
Why is not great for women to conceive of themselves as essentially vulnerable?
Because I think it ends up with women almost over-fetishizing male power. Look at what happened between Naomi Wolf and Harold Bloom, which I write about more in the book. On the one hand she eroticizes his power, and then she resents him for it. She ends that story by saying she never wrote poetry again, but that’s incredibly silly! It all comes out of this incredibly overwrought relationship with this man and his power. He didn’t really exercise it—all he did was put a hand on her knee.
Part of what I am trying to do is take a somewhat more ironic stance towards male power and not stand so much in awe of it. I want to focus a bit more on male vulnerability, to point out that these men are wounded and needy and pathetic. With Harold Bloom I don’t see that as an instance of male power but male pathos. I mean, I think there are many instances of male power but not nearly as many as women tend to think.
Is that why you take issue with the phrase “unwanted sexual advances”?
It’s such an issue on campuses, and my campus in particular. At the time I was writing the book, dating was still permitted between professors and students, but you were not supposed to make “unwanted sexual advances.” I went to this workshop and asked, “How are you supposed to know if the advance is unwanted until you try it?” And there was no answer to that. It’s just a conundrum, a contradiction in terms. A flier got passed around calling all the students who had pressed charges against professors “survivors.” This was regardless of how merit-worthy their individual cases were, so the language has a kind of hysteria to it.
You wrote that you would hate to think that feminism means curbing anyone’s rapacious fantasy life. What do you mean by that?
You shouldn’t have to make your fantasies comport to social realities. I was once asked what my favorite sex scene is. I said it was in Marnie, where Sean Connery’s character rapes his wife on their honeymoon. And then I was horrified that I said it. I thought, “Oh my God, do I have rape fantasies?” And I’m not sure I do, but I don’t think we should all have to police our fantasy life, that every desire should conform to our political idea of what things should look like. I think there’s a good girl complex that has infected American feminism. I’ve mocked the Puritan leanings of American feminism before.
Do you think there’s a different direction feminism should be taking?
I tend to feel pretty distant from what people call feminism at the moment. It’s often about the moral high grounding of men, and that often means taking fairly conservative positions and not going for the radical politics. The most radical thing anyone could do now in terms of feminism is insisting on child care as a social entitlement. But instead we hear a lot about how men shouldn’t be allowed to use the word “boobs” in public. Women are charged with being the moral correctives on men, the cultural superego, and I definitely can’t fall into that role. I just kind of loathe it—it’s a why do I have to be the responsible one kind of thing?
You’ve written that porn is what’s pushed the limits of free speech. Do you still believe that in this age when porn is so ubiquitous?
I wrote about porn before the Internet. I was mostly writing about print stuff. I was also writing about the more outré kinds of porn—transvestite, Hustler, fat porn. I was interested in the margins. But I have to say, I completely lost interest in the subject once Internet porn became so mainstream. In the old days it really was fascinating how it contested all our proprieties in a way that deeply shocked me as a middle-aged, middle-class female. But now, even though there’s a whole new field of porn studies, I don’t think there’s anything interesting to say about it.
In this book you revisit Larry Flynt, creator of Hustler. Do you consider him an old friend by now?
He always surprises me! He’s an American original, and I have a great fondness for him. Every once in a while I get asked to blurb a book he’s written, but he’s nobody I would sit down and be pals with. There’s just too big a gap between our lives and experiences.
What are you working on now?
I’m thinking about narcissism. That’s why I was worried about writing so much about myself!
NOVEMBER 21, 2014
Hot on the heels of some spectacular male ruin this fall – from Jian Ghomeshi to Ray Rice to the lesser known Julien Blanc, an American pick-up artist who has drawn the ire of feminists (and an Australian immigration minister) for his hands-on “seduction techniques” – Laura Kipnis’s incisive new book delves into the male psyche and its excesses.
The book reprises and expands essays Kipnis has penned about her lifelong fascination with men behaving badly, from humiliated politicians to fallen sports icons. But for Kipnis – author of and about women ping-ponging between feminism and traditional femininity) – completely scummy male behaviour is less confounding than some more ambiguous archetypes: “the manly man,” “the critic,” “the lothario,” “cheaters” and, of course, “men who hate Hillary.”
Kipnis points to the “New Man” described by Martin Amis – the post-1970s guy with wounds, rights and “whimpers of neglect.” According to Kipnis, “The updated versions of male panic are no less irksome than the old” – that being the hypermasculine angst of Hemingway.
But the author argues that when women scorn men, it only serves to make men more emotionally central to their lives. And when modern men don’t deliver on expectations, women paradoxically wish that they be “less like men.” Heterosexual women, she writes, want to desire men but end up mostly feeling let down. But while most screeds about men by women try to fix and control, Kipnis’s book is a more voyeuristic exercise. She spoke with The Globe from New York.
There are so many more opportunities for men to be brought down. People compare Clinton to Kennedy a lot: The same forms of behaviour that passed unnoticed 40 years ago are now much more scrutinized. But men in power are acting more self-destructively in these public venues. If you don’t acknowledge that there is an additional level of scrutiny there’s just something self-destructive about that obliviousness. In all these downfall stories of men I find myself speculating about some ambivalence on their part about the positions of power that they’re in. For men, there’s a lot of anxiety around what it’s like to occupy power at this point in time.
You can only look at symptoms, this acting out. Scandal is a symptom of that.
There’s a human tendency to recognize your own vulnerability but see the other person as having caused it, being indifferent to it or not suffering from the same condition. So much of post-feminist attitudes toward men is very condemnatory. There’s a real impatience as if men have it all figured out. In some ways men are in the better position but not necessarily in all ways.
I think it’s both. I sort of identify with men. If I were in that position, I suppose I would probably be doing the same thing. There used to be this idea during second-wave feminism that if women came to power everything would be different and there would be a humanist utopia. I think women are capable of acting just as despicably.
In my own life, feeling the position of heterosexual women in relation to men, there’s a conflictedness. On the one hand there is interest in men and on the other, a disappointment that we hear articulated so much. I was trying to find a tone that straddled those complications. I find it impossible to write without irony: the value of it is it allows you to occupy two positions at once – to find pleasure in the contradictions instead of agony.
It’s sentimental and it makes them harmless. The Larry Flynt that interested me was the one that riled me up. When I read Hustler for the first time I was deeply offended and it taught me something about myself and how I’m socialized and constituted. The deep structure of femininity is to be affronted by bodily stuff. To then turn Flynt into a First Amendment hero takes away all the stuff that’s actually disturbing and radical about what he traffics in.
It’s a lot of work, for one thing. And they get to have the fun while we’re sitting around trying to correct them, playing the 19th-century reformer role. I dislike it because it’s a side of me that I recognize. I’m very quick to be the finger-wagger and I really hate it. I’d rather be the one transgressing and having the fun.
We hear about a sense of disappointment with men on the part of women. But the disappointment is so wide-ranging that the question becomes whether there would be way with men that wasn’t disappointing. It’s probably a dire thing to say but there is a contradiction between feminism and heterosexual desire. Those things come up against each other. In the book I was trying to write from that sense of contradiction between desiring and loving men and also having this critique of masculinity and phallic sorts of behaviour.
I recognize it as an attraction, an equal split between desiring it and wanting to have that, to be that. I don’t have the self-awareness to say why or where it comes from. It is a draw. I try to find it in writing as opposed to in life, where it can present its own set of problems.
The twenty-first-century critic asked to opine on masculinity finds available to her a limited number of explanatory templates, socially acceptable ways of speaking that dominate our collective thinking about the male psyche. Most clearly, there is that of disapproval, talk of privilege and patriarchy and, of late, the much-deployed “rape culture.” There is also the moralizing template, preferred by presidential candidates and megachurch pastors, which merely ascribes desirable qualities to the state of being a man, generally preceded by the descriptor “real”: Real men raise their children, real men don’t cheat, real men, I don’t know, exercise portion control. For those with a lighter touch, there is the template of amused condescension: One might, for instance, elucidate the various phenomena of American male sentimentality—depressive alcoholism, distant fathers, baseball.
Locating a tone that neither scolds nor belittles the subject is only part of the challenge, because, having found an approach, one comes up immediately against a conceptual and moral problem: how to write about masculinity in a way that is neither essentializing nor prescriptive. If we assume that the differences between individual men are far greater than anything that might bind them together, and that a better world would consist of a wider rather than narrower definition of what it properly means to be a man, it becomes rather difficult to say anything at all.
In Texas recently, the reaction to the rollback of abortion rights has prompted a wave of liberal rhetoric to the effect that “Texas women” are uniquely strong-willed, conjuring images of lone cowgirls lassoing steers amid tumbleweeds while keeping the men in line. This is strange for a number of reasons, not least among them that the women of Texas have voting rights, constitute a majority of Texans, and continue to choose legislators openly hostile to abortion. But there can be no male analogue to this, no declaration that Minnesotan Men Will Stand Strong, no righteous demand for a buffer zone outside the local “gentlemen’s club,” nothing that would not be met with confusion and derision. In the case of writing about women, a shared history of oppression, or at least an accumulation of small humiliations, allows for a measure of useful abstraction; feminism is a vocabulary, a language, a kind of permission. The privileged class can write about privilege, of course, just as they can get right to the point by talking anatomy, but it seems that there must be something beyond privilege and penises to discuss.
There is a way out of this for the essayist: focus on the individual case study and hope some generalizations rise to the surface without having to name and thereby defend said generalizations. “A dearth of sweeping theories about the differences between the sexes will be found in the pages ahead,” promises critic Laura Kipnis in her latest book, Men. In place of theories, she assembles divergent examples of the form, a data set designed to flummox even the most determined essentializer. Here we encounter porn mogul Larry Flynt, queer theorist and poet Wayne Koestenbaum, and Straussian philosopher of manliness Harvey Mansfield. Appearances are made by quondam presidential candidate John Edwards, pugnacious author-critic Dale Peck, and a Marxist professor who, upon being denied sex by the author, pronounces Kipnis incurably “bourgeois.” (Idiosyncratic examples aside, women reading this book will do a fair amount of I-know-the-type head-nodding.)
“I met Hustler magazine’s obstreperous redneck publisher Larry Flynt twice,” writes Kipnis, “the first time before he started believing all the hype about himself and the second time after.” Tasked with writing about the paraplegic pornographer, Kipnis had been collecting back issues of Hustler “the way some people go antiquing or collect Fiesta ware.” For the uninitiated, Hustler is not the gauzy dreamworld of Playboy but a magazine given to photo spreads of amputees and hermaphrodites, a magazine designed “to exhume and exhibit everything the bourgeois imagination had buried beneath heavy layers of shame,” a shame to which Kipnis is not immune, though she is, like many of us, “theoretically” against all those repressions. She finds Flynt a worthy subject, his “self-styled war against social hypocrisy,” his “echt-Rabelaisian” assaults on decency precisely as revolting as they need be to show the middle-class imagination to itself. She calls herself “kind of a fan.”
This is not the approach of director Milos Forman, who chooses to make a movie that “sanitizes Flynt’s cantankerous, contrarian life and career into one long, noble crusade for the First Amendment, while erasing everything that’s most interesting about the magazine, namely the way it links bourgeois bodily discretion to political and social hypocrisy.” In other words, Forman took a complicated outsider and reduced him to a redemption story with which pious liberals could live. It was a story Flynt came to like. “America hadn’t been content with simply paralyzing Flynt,” muses Kipnis, “it had to finish the job by reconfiguring him as a patriot and then dousing him in approval for finally growing up. That’s how they get you.”
This theme, of radical malcontents swept into the ranks of the rule-following hordes, of anarchic impulses quelled and awkward histories rewritten, is not limited to Flynt. Kipnis is drawn to obsessive men, in particular obsessive men with bizarre or taboo obsessions. There is, for instance, the photographer Ron Galella, who was said to have made a “curious, grunting sound” whenever he caught a shot of his preferred subject, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Galella trailed her on foot while shouting her name, tailed her in taxis, dated her maid, violated a restraining order mandating that he keep fifty feet away, and sued when secret-service agents interfered with what he deemed “photography” and many would call stalking. Four decades later, Galella was the subject of a 2012 retrospective in Berlin, admiring critical essays, a $300 book of photos (Jackie: My Obsession), and a documentary that spends a curious amount of time exploring the photographer’s interest in artificial flowers. There is a montage of Ron rolling around in bed with his pet rabbits. Says Galella, “They’re cleaner than cats.”
To which Kipnis rightly asks: “What’s with all the fucking bunnies?” Here again was a man made safe, the air of menace softened to mere eccentricity. His admirers seek to “sentimentalize away the aggression and egotism of art,” as if appreciating an artist’s work also entailed transforming him into an acceptable dinner date.
There is much fun to be had in experiencing the way that Kipnis follows her topics into unexpected territory, which is not unrelated to her charming inability to be the kind of easily outraged critic the world often seems to want. (“I mean, how come when they were handing out moral seriousness, Leon Wieseltier got so much and I got so little?” she asks.) The Marxist who accuses Kipnis of being too bourgeois to sleep with him follows up with a condescending letter six months after their nonaffair; she replies, accusing him of being a leftist cliché; he, pointing out that they were sitting on her bed, accuses her of trying to turn a romantic evening into “history itself”: a “battle between Feminism and the Male Left.” What was she doing sitting on her bed with him, Kipnis wonders years later. “The locale seems awfully equivocal.” This all takes place within the context of an essay on the self-delusion of John Edwards, which becomes an essay on the physical ugliness of Jean-Paul Sartre, which becomes an essay on Bad Faith. Most critics, having a moral point to score, would never let their thoughts wander so.
Many of the pieces in this collection are expanded versions of previously published essays.This gives Kipnis the opportunity to encounter these men after writing about them—men whom she has examined, judged, and invariably subjected to Freudian psychoanalysis. Peck, for one, is not pleased. Flynt calls her “feisty.” Harvey Mansfield, to Kipnis’s alarm, appears to admire her and, even after she eviscerates him in a debate, treats her with what can only be called a chivalrous courtesy.
“I find it hard to get that worked up about dumb expressions of unreconstructed sexism,” writes Kipnis of Mansfield’s Manliness. One might even say that there is a kind of pleasure in reading straight-up sexist tracts: how lucid the statements of superiority, how direct the condescension, how aware the protagonist of his sins. It’s the difference between slapstick and wit, and the latter can be exhausting to define and explain to those not attuned to subtle shifts of tone.
That the realm of gender privilege has narrowed to small gestures is, I think, central to this insightful, intelligent, and frequently hilarious collection. “Men have always wrested more freedom from the world and I envy that,” writes Kipnis, “even when it’s a stupid kind of freedom.” I would argue that the freedom to be stupid is not a stupid kind of freedom; more room to be dumb in public is a freedom to riff and ruminate and wonder aloud, as many a silent, anxiety-ridden A-student can tell you. (On this point, I refer you to Kipnis’s piece “Men Who Hate Hillary,” which is among the funniest essays I have ever read.) There is a sense in which men still have a slightly wider circle in which to move, less pressure to conform to type and to remain consistent with their past selves, a greater berth for provoking discomfort and disgust, more right to revel in the entropy that is our universe, and fewer requests to put all the pieces back into place. The men of Men, for all their faults, are worthy subjects precisely because they do not waste that freedom. Larry Flynt likes the version of himself as a brittle, truth-telling outsider; he also likes the consolatory, redemptive feel of his biopic. Among the narrowing privileges of manliness, fewer with every passing year, there is, perhaps, still this: He will never have to choose.
Kerry Howley is the author of Thrown (Sarabande, 2014).