Did I Touch a Nerve?

The Female Thing

Did I Touch a Nerve?

The Female Thing

Did I Touch a Nerve?
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 7 2006 5:49 PM

The Female Thing


The Female Thing by Laura Kipnis.

Hi Daphne,

Let me be clear: I meant "bratty" as both a compliment and as a synonym for "impatient-bordering-on-infuriated." Given the context, the outfits, and the level of the discussion by Sheehy et al., brattiness seemed like a good response. So was bringing up your wardrobe choices respective to the other panelists. Way to go, Daphne! (To sound like myself for a moment, according to you.)


I'm going to sidestep the issues we've already disagreed about—Sontag, confessional writing, your not getting when I'm being parodic—and skip to that last question: Whether men need to grow up. I find this totally fascinating. It's one of these phrases you keep stumbling over in the land of women at the moment—a leitmotif in The Bitch in the House, for instance—and it was entirely on my mind as I was writing The Female Thing. I've come across it in your writings, too, including in your first entry, where it's presented as the refrain of the "outer feminist."

My question is whether the premise that men are babies is indeed a feminist idea. If so, I must say it's not a feminism I want much to do with. In fact, this gets to why I wrote the book: I was attempting to disentangle the myriad expressions of female disappointment being voiced at the moment from feminism per se, as the two seem to have become hopelessly mired.

Yes, women's disappointment with men is vast (I'm speaking primarily about heterosexual women here, as I do throughout the book), and you won't find me arguing that men aren't often disappointing. Well, some men. And just for the record, there must also be a few men who are exempt from the immaturity charge, which makes it a bit of an overgeneralization. But then intimates can be disappointing in general, right? Our parents, for instance (not mine, I hasten to say). Though typically we don't respond to parental disappointment by telling them they need to fucking grow up. We just act out our disappointments in other spheres—the romantic one, more often than not.

On this issue of parents: Daphne, I must reveal that one of the scariest things I've ever read was a piece of yours in the Times magazine complaining that if you're a woman over 50, you can't get laid, because men all treat you like you're their mother. I was reaching for the cyanide capsule before I even got to the end of the paragraph. But then I read on, to a line about men being "poor befuddled creatures," and I remember thinking—though maybe it was just a feeble attempt at self-consolation—that if you don't condescend to them quite so much, maybe they won't think you're their mother! I found a small shred of hope in this and put the cyanide away for another occasion.

To return to the question of whether the charge of male immaturity is a feminist one: I'm going to say no. But what I really object to is women deploying the language of maturity, and a certain level of moral superiority about it, to mask what is, in actuality, romantic disappointment, or simply not getting enough action from men on the needs-fulfillment front. These needs of ours are ancient of course—you might even say they're childish, as where else do they originate? That makes them no less real, but they do tend to precede the entry onto the scene of the disappointing man in question—who wants to sleep with a 21-year-old instead of you, or uses dishes straight out of the dishwasher without emptying it first, who "won't commit," or whatever the particular injury is. But the charge of not growing up, of being a baby—I believe it applies to anyone with needs, including the women hurling the immaturity epitaphs around. It kinda starts to look like a projection, with "feminism" providing the cover story.

The point of mine that you sidestepped is the one about self-knowledge as it relates to the impulse to confess. If I were writing about my own romantic life or sexual proclivities in the first person—whether I prefer sexual intercourse to masturbation, for instance, as you wrote in the last round—I think I would be plagued by the idea that I had no way to know what my own purposes were in this. Competing with Mailer and Roth? (The envy question.) Exhibitionism? Soliciting social rebuke, even—after all, who doesn't like a good spanking now and then? I could tell myself that I was doing it to expand the sexual horizons for womankind, and thus performing an important social service and so on, but … I might suspect myself of blowing smoke. If you strive for some measure of clarity as a writer—though that's always the most elusive and next-to-impossible thing—I think there are topics you're too embroiled in to achieve clarity on. Not to say that you won't entertain audiences with the display—as I said, I find them fascinating. But as to whether they further our understanding of anything—I tend to think that understanding comes with a bit more critical distance, if at all.

I think I raised unpopular questions in The Female Thing, and some women have taken umbrage. There's been a certain level of hostility in some of the responses—which leads me to think I probably hit a nerve. But it's clear to me that the issue isn't my writing style or my parody of girl culture. It's that I'm holding women accountable for at least some of our dilemmas; I'm criticizing the transformation of  "feminism" into a platform for moral superiority over men; and I'm questioning whether men are really the authors of every disappointment for which they're blamed. Among other equally difficult questions there isn't space here to get into.

Possibly this makes me a brat, but … is that so wrong?