I got myself on the hold list for Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution because of what Ana wrote about it. And like Ana all I want to say over and over again is “my heart needed these words.” The thing is, I didn’t know I needed these words until I started reading the book. But within the first few sentences I was hooked:
This is not a fairy tale.
This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine.
Unspeakable Things is unapologetically feminist. It is angry and it is not sorry for being angry either because there is a lot to be angry about.
Broken up into five essays that examine gender from different angles, the book is personal — Penny writes of spending time in a mental institution when she was 17 and anorexic — but also broader, historical, systemic, economic. This patriarchal neoliberal capitalist system we live in has damaged us all but especially women and GLBT folks and really anyone who doesn’t fit into prescribed gender roles.
In the chapter “Fucked-Up Girls” Penny looks at the female body and the ways in which it is policed and controlled, the damage such policing does to the psyche of girls and women. In “Lost Boys” we see how patriarchy damages boys and men, makes them promises that are never delivered, and how these failed promises intensifies and promotes hatred of women. “Anticlimax” is about sex, sexual desire, sexual objectification, rape and reproduction. “Cybersexism” is about the promise of the internet to be a place free from sexism and how that has failed spectacularly. If you have been following the horror that is Gamergate over the last few months you will understand just how very ugly it is online. The book concludes with “Love and Lies,” a chapter about the load of bull we’ve been served up about love and romance. I actually thought this final chapter was the weakest. Nonetheless, it was still good and hard hitting.
One of the things I really liked about this book was how Penny doesn’t tone down her language, doesn’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings, refuses to be a nice girl bland feminist who talks about problems but in such way that they can be dismissed as somehow happening somewhere else to someone else. She does acknowledge that all men aren’t rapists or woman haters but this does not let them off the hook:
What we don’t say is: of course not all men hate women. But culture hates women, and men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to. We aren’t judging you for who you are, but that doesn’t mean we’re not asking you to change your behaviour. What you feel about women in your heart is of less immediate importance than how you treat them on a daily basis. You can be the gentlest, sweetest man in the world and still benefit from sexism, still hesitate to speak up when you see women hurt or discriminated against. That’s how oppression works.
What I loved about this book and why, like Ana, I want to say over and over, “my heart needed these words,” is because I feel like I have been recharged. I am reminded of how I felt in my early twenties when feminism found me in a college literature class and I was so very angry about how I had been lied to (girls can do anything!) and how I would challenge men on their sexist comments and behavior. And over the ensuing years that spark dwindled under the onslaught of every day sexism.
The spark was revived for a while when I worked for a feminist nonprofit that no longer exists. Recently, between Mala Yousafzai winning the Nobel Peace Prize, things in my personal life, horrible news stories of domestic violence and rape, and gamergate, I’ve been feeling stirred up, grumpy, and sometimes just straight up pissed off. Unspeakable Things came along and relit the spark. It reminded me I am not alone in being pissed off; not alone in wanting to change the way things work. I’m finding my twenty-something courage again. It’s dulled by life and a thick crust of cynicism, but it’s in there.
In an Afterword Penny writes:
If we want to escape the straightjacket of gender under neoliberalism, we must stop trying so hard to hold ourselves and others up to impossible standards, standards we didn’t set ourselves. We have to resist the schooled inner voice telling us to be good girls, tough boys, perfect women, strong men. If we are to realize a greater collective humanity, we must learn to see one another as human beings first.
Unspeakable Things is a potentially incendiary book. It is dangerous. I highly recommend it.