Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation may be the most provocative title in a long list of provocative book titles from essayist Laura Kipnis—a remarkable feat for a woman whose previous works include Against Love and Bound and Gagged. With boldness like that, it’s no surprise that the headline somewhat wryly overpromises. Kipnis doesn’t produce a grand theory of men, which is as it should be, since there’s little you can say definitively about a diverse group of more than 3.5 billion individuals.
But while it’s hard to come to a meaningful conclusion about men, the collective, there is a lot to be said about the idea of masculinity, a tyrannical concept that the whole group must grapple with, whether they like it or not. In this collection of essays, which explores the individual lives and experiences of various male case studies, a theme emerges: men trying to define themselves against the nebulous dictates of their gender, and all the expectations and privileges it implies.
Kipnis, with her keen eye for human failings, delights in the way this lifelong struggle adds an air of ridiculousness to the whole enterprise of manhood. Masculinity is an idealized state, so of course men are in a permanent state of failing at it, and yet they seem unable to quit. “Something about the poetics of masculine panic, old school and new, just draws me in,” Kipnis writes.
Not that she is unsympathetic to the male specimens brought under her microscope. If anything, Kipnis seems to like men a little bit more when their fantasies of virile power are failed by their human imperfections. She’s particularly drawn to analyzing instances in which a man’s desperation for female adoration causes him to act like an idiot, from Anthony Weiner tweeting out dick pics to John Edwards spiking his family and political career in order to carry on an affair with a featherheaded New Age–y type. One essay makes sharp, compassionate observations about the male anxiety and vulnerability splashed all over the world of porn. “The magazine is saturated with frustrated desire and uncertainty: sex is an arena for potential failure, not domination,” Kipnis notes, observing the explosion of ads for penis extenders and erection aids in Hustler’s pages.
Yet Kipnis’ willingness to forgive men their foibles and coddle their insecurities doesn’t extend to the women she writes about. The author spends a lot of time stomping around in ’90s-style critiques of feminism that suggest that women, a group also encompassing more than 3.5 billion diverse individuals, would be better off growing a thicker skin than having institutions like universities embrace stricter sexual harassment policies.
Kipnis’ tendency to empathize with male vulnerability while shaming female vulnerability results in the weakest entry in the series, a piece denouncing Naomi Wolf for her essay describing how Harold Bloom hit on her when she was one of his students. Kipnis is full of pity for Bloom, imagining the “transfixing” power Wolf’s “youth and prettiness” held for “the aging ugly man.” But she spares little sympathy for the student whose writerly ambitions were painfully undercut by her mentor’s lascivious wants; it’s startling to watch Kipnis worry so much about the hurt feelings of a wealthy and powerful college professor and so little about a young woman shaken badly enough by the whole incident to vomit from the nerves.
Kipnis has far too many of these “chill girl” moments, where she props herself up by suggesting she’s unperturbed by the typical things that send hands clutching pearl-ward. “Critics are supposed to have deeply felt moral outrage on things,” she humble brags, but “it’s like I’m shooting outrage blanks.” In her recent interview with Hanna Rosin at Slate, she sounds a similar note, decrying the “Puritan leanings” and “good girl complex that has infected American feminism.”
Perhaps this is why she closes the book with a critical assessment of Andrea Dworkin, an ’80s-era anti-porn feminist who died nine years ago and whose writings are mostly kept alive by those who need a hyperbolic man hater to quote. It’s a fine essay. I enjoyed it in the same spirit as I enjoy reading about obscure punk bands that only record collectors care about anymore. But Kipnis either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that the ghost of Dworkin long ago fled the feminist headquarters, leaving only a memorial straw woman behind.
When she sets aside the need to be seen as too cool, however, Kipnis is a powerhouse of insights about how feminism has dramatically escalated the already existing anxiety men experience. Feeling like a virile man was much easier back in the day, but now, as Kipnis writes, “there’s less reason than ever to pretend to admire” men.
Repeatedly, she zeroes in on how keenly men are rankled by their revoked entitlement to female flattery, and it’s always hilarious. Christopher Hitchens’ fantasy that men and not women evolved humor for reproductive purposes, she writes, has “the slightly musty air of the 1960-ish Kingsley Amis, wrapped in nostalgia for the merry days when sexual conquest required an arsenal of tactics deployed by bon-vivantish cads on girdled, girlish sexual holdouts.” And in a particularly hilarious piece looking at right-wing male reactions to Hillary Clinton, she muses, “You’d think they were talking about their first wives.”
Kipnis paints all this male anxiety in the face of women’s growing power as both humorous and poignant. Thankfully though, despite the residual chill girl tendencies, she never suggests that women should abandon feminism to calm men down. It’s 2014, for one thing, and for another, their panic is just too fun to watch.