“Men” by Laura Kipnis – Book Review by Evan Marc Katz
This space is usually reserved for dating and relationship advice, as well as links to relevant articles from around the internet. But every once in awhile, I read something about gender relations that seems pertinent and I want to share it with you. I did this a few years back with a review of Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men,” and I’m doing it today with Laura Kipnis’ “Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation.”
Just when you think you agree with her on everything, she looks at things from a different angle, and forces you to consider a new point of view.
Kipnis is a professor, essayist and provocateur, and this is why I find her take interesting. The general argument of one of her other books, “The Female Thing” is that women are stuck between feminism and traditional femininity, which are incompatible ways of being. No argument here. “Men,” on the other hand, looks at different types of men through a critical lens: the Manly Man, the Lothario, The Con Man, the Cheater, etc. But instead of being a man-bashing fiesta, Kipnis’ observations and ruminations on gender are challenging and thought-provoking. Just when you think you agree with her on everything, she looks at things from a different angle, and forces you to consider a new point of view. And because she’s a woman, she can challenge women in a way that doesn’t sound misogynist. In one section about her interactions with Larry Flynt of Hustler, she writes:
“Hustler isn’t against women so much as sexual repression, which includes conventional uptight femininity, though within its pages, not everyone who’s sexually repressed, uptight and feminine is necessarily female: prissy men were frequently in the crosshairs, too…Once you put aside your assumptions about Hustler-variety porn aiding and abetting male power, you can’t help noticing how much vulnerability stalks these pages…The magazine is saturated with frustrated desire and uncertainty: sex is an area for potential failure, not domination.”
This would be the exact argument I would make about men’s rights activists (MRAs). They are largely sad, frustrated and impotent men who have had nothing but failed relations with women, and, as such, they are trying to reassert their own power, often in an unhealthy way. This is, of course, the flip side of a certain strident brand of feminism, which is adept at collecting grievances about men, but often fails to consider their very humanity. Men are oppressors, women are victims. If you challenge this simplified assertion, you hate women. The fact is, even if men have traditionally held power and are slow adjusting to the changes in a post-feminist world, many of them feel particularly powerless. Writes Kipnis about men’s confessional memoirs, “At least we’re getting a less mythical vantage on men’s inner lives, and closer to the gut material than the familiar Successful Guy musings about careers well played and lives fully led. There’s more vulnerability on view: anxiety and depression, divorce and destitution, urinary and other embarrassing conditions — the sorts of afflictions and woes that were once the hallmark of women’s memoirs.” Thus, it’s not that there aren’t any number of rich, white men of privilege, but there’s also a huge swath of middle-class men who, like many women, are struggling to lead happy lives.
My personal favorite chapter in “Men,” is The Lothario, in which Kipnis dives into the appeal of charismatic alpha males and calls attention to the inherently contradictory beliefs of women who dislike men but still want to be with them.
“Now that men have become less economically necessary and there’s less reason than ever to pretend to admire them, scorn for men has become the postfeminist fallback position, widely regarded as a badge of feistiness and independence. Nevertheless, men remain conduits to things a lot of women still deeply want: sex, love, babies, commitments… It’s a contradictory situation to find oneself in, to say the least….Get a bunch of women in a room, add liquor, and jokes about men’s inadequacies fly like shrapnel. When it comes to dating, single men are dogs, infants, sex-obsessed, moral rodents or emotional incompetents. And once you finally land one, nothing much improves since husbands are morons, selfish, workaholics, emotionally unavailable, and domestically incompetent. Single men lie and mislead to get sex; husbands have lost interest in sex entirely. Men are emotionally autistic, except for all the ones who want you to be their mother. Men can’t talk about their feelings! Except for all the ones who won’t shut up about themselves. They’re macho assholes, except when they’re wimps — what man could endure childbirth? And so on.”
Yes, all of the world’s problems would be solved if men were like women. Of course, they wouldn’t be like men anymore.
Kipnis points out that while the word misogyny is thrown around a lot, researchers generally find far higher levels of rage among women toward men than among men toward women. As she astutely points out in the last line of this essay, women still feel that “these errant and frustrating men could gratify female needs and desires if only they were somehow different than they are. Less like men, to begin with.” Yes, all of the world’s problems would be solved if men were like women. Of course, they wouldn’t be like men anymore. Which leads me to the only criticism I have of Kipnis as an author.
As effective as she is in flipping back and forth between different perspectives – both siding with feminists, and then turning a critical eye towards them – she starts from a misbegotten place: she thinks men and women are the same and that gender is merely a societal construct. Given this starting point, it’s going to naturally affect her observations on how she sees gender. In other words, if we’re not starting with the same definition, how can we ever come to terms with these differences? Yes, men have a feminine side and need to nurture it. Yes, there would be less war if women were in charge. This only goes to validate the perspective that men and women – for better or worse – are different.
Like Kipnis – even less than Kipnis – I’m just an amateur sociologist and observer of people. But ultimately, I try to observe things as they are, instead of how I’d like them to be. So to suggest that gender is ONLY based on what society tells us is to completely diminish the power of biology. Men have more testosterone than women, and testosterone affects men’s sex drives, confidence, aggression, focus, and health. No one is denying that culture plays a large part in gender roles. No one is denying that men and women may be 95% the same biologically. But that 5% accounts for a LOT of the differences we see in general between the genders. Just because some women are physically bigger and stronger than men doesn’t mean men, in general, aren’t bigger and stronger. Just because some women can have sex without emotion doesn’t mean that they don’t, in general, have a harder time with it. And so on. To deny this reality is to wish for the sky to be red or internet comment sections to be calm and reasonable.
With “Men,” Kipnis has written a fast, funny, provocative take on masculinity from a female perspective. I only hope that, in her future writings, she is open to the idea that men and women are not exactly the same, and willing to see how that shift filters down into her writings. I would only assume that she’d be even more incisive than she already is.
Click here to pick up a copy of “Men” and please share your thoughts in the comments below. Calmly and reasonably, of course. 🙂