The three main problems I had with Laura Kipnis’s essays on men

On a process level, Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation is a successful essay collection. Kipnis is a fluid writer with an eye for the mot juste; she varies her sentence structures with grace; nothing she writes ever feels forced. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s because (alas) I have a lot of problems with the sentiments Kipnis expresses in her elegant prose. Here are the main three:

1) So. Much. Freud. Lady, you are aware that further work has been done in psychology since the mid-twentieth century? Kipnis’s references to Freud, Oedipal complexes, and psychosexual development are so numerous they would make an excellent drinking game condition, an idea I am sorry I have only come up with now because I would probably have enjoyed this book more if I had been a bit drunk for it.

Sometimes this leads to interesting insights — there’s a reason Freud’s giant shoulders are the ones everyone’s been standing on — but as a theoretical framework, it’s sharply limited, and you run up against the limits fairly quickly. The essay about Dale Peck and how his harsh reviews are his way of enacting the same abuse scenarios to which he was subject as a child is armchair psychology of the most simplistic variety.

2) Perhaps this is my own limitation, but Kipnis doesn’t seem to be in conversation with much of modern feminism. She does have an essay about outrage culture (framed as a cutesy confession of her own tendencies to moral relativism, gag), but it’s mostly about something else, and in a later essay she says this:

Yes, Dworkin reads like a stampeding dinosaur in our era of bouncy pro-sex post-feminism. Feminist anger isn’t exactly in fashion at the moment: these days, women just direct their anger inward, or carp at individual men, typically their hapless husbands and boyfriends.

Er. What now? There is certainly a strand of bouncy post-sex writing, but — like, Amanda Marcotte, Roxane Gay, Jessica Valenti, Anita Sarkeesian, Mychal Denzel Smith, Lindy West, Jamia Wilson? I’m not even trying hard to think of names of fashionable feminist writers who regularly express anger about feminist issues.

And relatedly:

3) Kipnis has an air of being above the fray when it comes to many of the issues that occupy feminist writers and thinkers. Since she’s written this book, it’s clear that she isn’t above the fray; but she gives the impression that she is far too cool for your petty problems. Her reaction to crappy behavior (whether it’s Norman Mailer being a shit or Harold Bloom hitting on students) is frequently along the lines of “How can you be mad at them when all they want is attention? I just find it rather endearing!”

Well. Neat? I guess? That you feel that way? But that sort of reaction elides and perpetuates the troublesome power dynamics at play. It tells the people who are bothered that they are wrong to be. And it tells the people doing the bothering that they are okay to continue behaving that way, as everyone will just chuckle indulgently. And that, my friends, is how we all end up jumping over missing stairs.

To return to the Harold Bloom example, Kipnis has a lengthy essay about the absurdity of sexual harassment policies at universities. Much of her alarm over these policies feels like received wisdom, given that she admits upon reading her own university’s guidelines that they are “far less prohibitive than other places I’d been hearing about” (where are these mythologically prohibitive universities?). She goes on for a while about how when she was in school everyone slept with their professors and they were totally happy about it, because actually the power was quite balanced: The students had the power of being young and beautiful and desirable, and the professors had the power of, you know, actual power over the students’ futures.

Kipnis feels that the tricky part of sexual harassment is that you don’t actually know until you have already groped the student whether that sexual advance is “unwanted” (prohibited in school guidelines). So what is a professor to do? Here’s one idea, just off the top of my head: perhaps professors could try the radical strategy of waiting until the class is over and grades are handed out, and then to hit on their students by saying “Now that class is over and grades are handed out, I wanted to tell you that I think you’re swell, and I would love to take you out for dinner sometime if you’re interested.” And if that is too much of an emotional challenge for the poor wee vulnerable bunnies in the professorial field, I submit that they perchance should find something else to do with their genitals.


23 thoughts on “The three main problems I had with Laura Kipnis’s essays on men”

  1. Eww… I can see not being too bothered by Bloom, because as ethically dubious as his behavior is, he hasn’t done anything illegal as far as I know. He’s just a typical cad. But Mailer? Does she know the things he’s done?

    1. I can see not being hugely bothered by Bloom, and I can certainly see finding Naomi Wolf extremely annoying, BUT I find it hard to see defending Bloom when he is behaving in an icky manner. And of Norman Mailer, she’s not referring to his, like, stabbing activities — more just the pronouncements he would make periodically about how women writers are no good.

      1. Oh, I see. Still, defending Mailer’s comments about women writers at this point is a little like forgiving Hitler for his poor table manners.

        Yeah, her defending Bloom’s caddishness is gross. I’m all for liking someone or admiring their work in spite of their poor choices (within reason), but it’s dishonest to
        pretend that there was never anything wrong with those choices in the first place.

  2. At my college, where more than one married professorial couple met when she was in his class, it’s not enough to wait until the class is over and grades are handed in.
    The movie Liberal Arts plays with that absolute prohibition in the scene where an alum comes back to campus and has sex with an irascible professor. Because he has graduated and is living somewhere else, they are equals! Except not really, as she points out.

      1. Well, I’m in it! It was filmed in and around Kenyon, so the kids and I spent all day pretending to eat brunch in the background of a now-defunct hotel dining room while Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, and Kate Burton pretended to have brunch and conversation in the foreground. Kate was nice enough to come by our table early in the day and caution us not to actually eat the food, because then we’d have to keep eating it all day. We then gamely massaged jam onto toast, pretended to sip oj, and played with the eggs while the actors tried to get all the lines just right.
        The scene with the alum and the prof is Josh Radnor and Allison Janney, both of whom actually went to Kenyon.
        Now I know what I need to bring as your present when I come to visit in June!

  3. Yikes to the part about sleeping with professors. I wonder how she would have felt if I’d slept with my male students? Eww, you know I can’t even imagine how you would do that. It would be every colour of wrong. And I do completely agree with you about Freud. I was reading a book a while back by a psychologist who was dissing psychoanalysis by quoting Freud. I did long to point out that if I wanted to diss medicine, I wouldn’t get very far quoting doctors from the late 19th century.

    1. Ahahahaha, yep, it’s true. Freud was very flawed! A genius! But flawed. I was coincidentally reading The Chosen at the same time I was reading this, and all I could think was, damn, lady, Chaim Potok in 1967 had a more nuanced grasp on Freud than you have.

  4. Oh, Freud. In a way, I feel like the “new” Freudian thought process (though not very new?) is the way people keep talking about our “primal” selves. Like “Men want to spread the seed and women want to nest.” It really grosses me out and feels extremely sexist, but apparently no one cares because SCIENCE. I am not a scientist but I have this vague idea that maybe it doesn’t quite work that way and not everything about our behavior is explained by evolution but sometimes is just people being jerks.

    1. Oh, yeah, all that evolutionary biology crap. My philosophy teacher in high school made short work of all that mess by telling us that a theory is bad if it’s not able to be proved wrong. And evolutionary biology is like Tarot cards — if your idea doesn’t fit perfectly in one particular context, you turn it around and make it say the opposite. Like I was reading something the other day that said humans cry because there’s an evolutionary benefit to soliciting nurture from the people around you, BUT that people often cry privately because crying in public could be a sign of weakness, so there’s an evolutionary benefit to NOT letting people see you. Bros. You cannot have it both ways. Just admit we don’t know.

      tl;dr: Sometimes it’s just people being jerks.

  5. Oh my goodness. Kipness is totally clueless by the sound of it especially when it comes to sexual harassment on college campuses. Thank you Jenny for reading the book and for your marvelously cranky review. I will not be reading this book. You saved me time and a lot of grumpiness.

  6. I am MORE THAN READY for the end of the belief systems behind the idea that men have absolutely no way to figure out how women feel, or to react appropriately to that information once they have it.

    1. GOD ME TOO. The sooner that can happen, the happier I will be. An excellent step in that direction would be killing with fire the notion that men don’t have feelings and are incapable of emotional complexity. It would help us alllllll.

  7. “Kipnis feels that the tricky part of sexual harassment is that you don’t actually know until you have already groped the student whether that sexual advance is “unwanted”” I…but…whatnow? It really doesn’t seem that difficult to not sexually harass someone. Ugh to this book.

    1. I know, right? I have never ever ever accidentally sexually harassed someone. IMAGINE THAT.

  8. I was debating whether or not to read this book after finishing Men Explain Things To Me, and you have saved me time and effort. Sounds like it’s rubbish.

    1. It is NOT my favorite. I also partly feel frustrated with people who call themselves contrarians, because it’s like — would you call yourself a full-time agree-er with this same amount of pride? Probably not, right? Because probably that would make it sound like you weren’t doing a ton of independent thinking? So why is going all the way in the other direction any better??

  9. Ugh, sometimes I am baffled how people can even write down essays like these. But it’s a free world, I suppose. I would like to read this one, just so I can have some raving yelling matches with myself in the car, which I do a lot sometimes after a particularly distasteful piece of prose I just read or listened to.

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