Laura Kipnis began her career as a visual artist but is best known for her writing on a range of provocative topics, including pornography, and adultery. She is the author of the bestselling polemic, Against Love. Her most recently published book was The Female Thing.
The Rumpus: In The Female Thing, you wrote about the development of femininity as a tool to help women on an uneven playing field. With that understanding in mind, I was wondering what you thought of “metrosexuality” or men playing with traditionally feminine behaviors?
Laura Kipnis: When I was writing the book, I was thinking about the ways that men are becoming more vulnerable in terms of bodily anxieties, which is more comparable to the female position. You see far more articles on male grooming these days, now men have to tweeze their eyebrows too; there’s far more self-consciousness about their bodies than in the past. You can look at it positively and say it’s gender play—there’s more flexibility around gender roles; or you could look at it negatively and say it’s just a redistribution of bodily vulnerability more equally between the genders and that’s actually what metrosexuality reflects.
Rumpus: You’ve talked about capitalism creating more vulnerability in men in a variety of ways. Not just in lower wages but in men getting plastic surgery or using tanning beds
Kipnis: Obviously men are doing these things to increase their attractiveness in various markets, whether it’s the job market, where youth is a plus or the dating market where looks are a plus. But the point is that there’s an increasing commodification of bodies generally. It started with the female body as a profitable territory to exploit, now men’s bodies are becoming an equally profitable territory to exploit. But the fact is that everyone’s perpetually on one sort of market or another, both women and men.
Rumpus: Which comes to the question of just how valuable “equality” is if no one’s life is really being improved.
Kipnis: Exactly! Everyone’s trying to improve themselves but nobody’s actually achieving greater freedom, which was what feminism was supposed to be about. I admit there’s a mean side of me that’s a little happy that men are feeling more vulnerable, since traditionally it’s the female body that’s been the more vulnerable site, but feeling vulnerable isn’t the best thing in the world for anyone really. The point I was trying to make (in the book) is that feminism was initially meant to be about enhancing people’s freedom, as opposed to just spreading the misery around more equitably.
Kipnis: I’m going to make a note of that. Maybe I can use that somewhere.
Rumpus: In The Female Thing you also looked at male on male prison rape and the ways in which rape victimization is not the exclusive domain of women, even though some feminists seem to have an interest in positing it that way. But in my generation, I see more young feminists and more young women taking an interest in prisoner rights and addressing prison rape. I’m wondered if you had any thoughts on why men seem absent in discussions of rape, even when a man is the victim.
Kipnis: I think the way men aren’t absent is in the sphere of joke-making. I was just thinking about this recently, about this endless preponderance of jokes about what happens to men in prison. Though when I was reading about prison rape activism I found there actually were a lot of former (male) prisoners who had initiated the discussion about what was going on behind bars, so I do think some of the activism is coming from men, though they may not intersect much with the feminist anti-rape movement. So I’m not sure if the premise of the question is true. Is it just your impression?
Rumpus: It’s definitely an impression, not anything I’ve quantified. I just feel that, for most women, rape is something they can talk about fairly readily; it’s something they could condemn or discuss publically in a serious way. And given the prevalence of male on male rape in prison, I’d think men would be more interested in stopping it…but I suppose it’s just that most men think “well, I’m not incarcerated, so I’m not affected.”
Kipnis: If you’re a man and you manage to stay out of prison, your exposure to rape is far less than women’s exposure to rape, so I think that’s definitely an element. The other is the orifice issue. This is impressionistic but I think there still is, despite the greater social acceptance of homosexuality, a certain cringe-factor for a lot of men around the question: “would you like to have sex with another man”, particularly “would you want to be fucked in the ass?” I think there’s a large percentage of men for whom that’s just a verboten thought, no matter how sexually enlightened they consider themselves to be. Whether it means there’s some sort of buried attraction to it or not, I don’t know—we can always speculate! But in my experience, a good number of straight men cringe and shudder at the idea of anal penetration.
Rumpus: I read that your next book will be on American scandals.
Kipnis: Yes. It’s called How To Become a Scandal, coming out next year from Metropolitan.
Rumpus: Do you think there’s less of an appetite for scandal now that the economy seems to be consuming everyone’s attention? Would this be an era in which a married governor has a secret boyfriend and the American public for once would say “oh, ok, we’re not interested”?
Kipnis: Well, he did have to resign.
Rumpus: Oh I know. I meant right now.
Kipnis: Oh I see. Well, it’s hard to say—no one really knows what the cultural effects of the economic downturn are going to be. It also depends on how you’re defining scandal and part of what I’m doing in the book is trying to redefine it, or at least clarify what it is. What mostly interests me about scandal is the element of people scattering unconsciousness around in public, and other people punishing them for it. You do have the gossip-level of scandal—Hollywood divorces and the which-starlet-had-a-nose-job items on TMZ—but I’m far more interested in a deeper level of scandal: self-destruction and self-organized downfall. People really wrecking their lives while the rest of us watch and gloat about it. I’m not sure that people’s interest in that is going to abate.
Obviously self-destruction isn’t a trivial thing, It’s a concern for everyone with an unconscious. The underlying question is how people do or don’t reconcile themselves to the reality principle and adhere to the social rules and not completely screw up their lives through some unknown self-destructive element within themselves?
Rumpus: So then would the Madoff story and these finance-based scandals fit within your definition, or are they a separate entity that relates to lawbreaking?
Kipnis: One thing to remember is that scandal isn’t simply law breaking. There’s a lot of law breaking that isn’t scandalous, and there are also scandals that don’t break laws but simply defy community standards—adultery scandals for instance. Someone like Madoff does both: he broke laws but he also defies our idea of what it is to be a proper person. People are really scandalized by Madoff, less because of the laws he broke than because of the inhuman betrayal of trust and leading a double life and so on.
There still are all sorts of unanswerable questions about who he was, how he could have done it, and what he was thinking while he was doing it. How could he have convinced people he was an honorable guy and what form of self-knowledge did he have about his duplicity? The interesting question to me is whether people actually do know what they’re doing when they’re in the midst of doing some irrevocably life-destroying thing. Or is consciousness fundamentally split, such that you can, at some level, be entirely ignorant of your own actions?
Rumpus: So it seems that your position in the book is that our penchant for scandal, when it’s beyond what actress is pregnant by what actor, is legitimate. That it’s not just lowbrow and petty.
Kipnis: I think it’s far from that. I think it’s about classic dilemmas of rationality and irrationality, about self-knowledge and the lack of it. And the consequences of having an unconscious.
Rumpus: Do you think the public should be privy to private information about public figures or is it more that we have a right to be critical of and thoughtful about public behavior?
Kipnis: I try not to make a lot of “should” recommendations in my books, I think I tend to examine things from a bit of a distance without taking policy positions. I would just say the lines have radically shifted about the public/private divide. There’s definitely more of a demand for transparency and in holding people’s private conduct to their public statements; for example, outing a closeted gay congressman who voted against gay rights.
But the really interesting thing to note here is the corresponding economic shifts, and the demand to expose of what was considered private to public scrutiny in the realm of the economic. In what’s been called the digital economy, people are encouraged to voluntarily give up all sorts of private data about themselves and their preferences which is a highly marketable commodity. Then you have all these new cultural forms springing up at the same time in which people also voluntarily give up their privacy: from blogging to Facebook pages to putting up webcams in your bathroom and so on. So people are volunteering all this information about themselves and giving up their privacy in the cultural sphere at the very same time the economy is demanding it of them. Then on the political side you have an increasing abridgement of privacy with the Homeland Security act and other forms of heightened government surveillance. So we see, at this moment, all those levels aligning: the economic, the cultural, the political. That’s how I would think about it rather than focusing on say, whether movie stars should have a right to privacy from gossip magazines.
Rumpus: I thought it was interesting that you’re writing about public disclosure because around the time of The Female Thing, you were getting criticism about the book on the grounds that some people felt you weren’t sharing enough personal examples or…a non-issue that became a big issue, which was bizarre.
Kipnis: That has been on my mind, In the writing of this new book, I’ve been kind of playing around with self-exposure: there’s more first person in it than in other things I’ve written, and though it’s all a bit ironic, but it still has me thinking about privacy questions, and what I want to expose about myself or withhold. I got criticized a lot in Against Love for not giving people advice—people did seem to want to read it as a self-help book. One criticism of The Female Thing was also about it not providing enough answers, not addressing the “What do we do now” question. So it amused me to call the book How To Become A Scandal—it’s a self-help aisle kind of title, but an entirely perverse and useless form of self-help. No one actually wants to become a scandal, presumably.