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.Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution collects some of her best writing on feminism, politics, activism, and economic inequality. The book is divided into five chapters: Fucked-Up Girls, which covers body image, eating disorders, and the experience of struggling with the confines of stereotypical gender roles; Lost Boys, which interrogates masculinity; Anticlimax, which deals with sexuality; Cybersexism, which is about online abuse; and Love and Lies, in which Penny discusses her own struggles with heteronormativity.
Some parts of Unspeakable Things were familiar to me from following Penny’s writing online, but it was interesting to see how even the pieces I knew added to a new whole in the context of the book. I think this approach worked better than a traditional essay collection would have: the chapters were fairly long, but that meant there was room to dig deeper, form more nuanced arguments, and explore the same theme from different angles.
Reading this book helped me in much the same way as reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist did. They’re both books I needed, and that made me glad that 2014 is turning out to be such a good year for incisive and galvanising feminist writing. The excerpt I quoted above touches on some of the same ideas as this recent Kameron Hurley essay: stories (be they fiction or cultural narratives) can confine us or set us free, and we do have the power to change the ones we tell about ourselves and about each other. We can conceive of new possibilities, and that means we can strive to make them true.
One thing I’ve always admired about Laurie Penny’s writing is how it highlights the links between feminist concerns and widespread economic inequality. I like how far she goes when it comes to questioning injustice, and I like that Unspeakable Things is not a how-to-play-the-system-to-your-individual-advantage sort of book. In Penny’s own words,
Nor is this yet another guidebook for navigating the treacherous machine of patriarchy when what we should be doing is smashing the machine and quitting the factory with as many of our loved ones as we can grab. The world doesn’t need another handbook for how to submit with dignity to a world that wants you to hate yourself.What this amounts to concretely is a focus that’s consistently systemic. This isn’t to say that the individual damages oppressive social systems cause aren’t real or worth tending to; only that I always find reminders that a lot of my hurts happen in a context, and that you can’t strive for real change on your own, immensely useful. To quote from the book again,
We were taught, all of us, that if we were dissatisfied, it was our fault, or the fault of those closest to us. We were built wrong, somehow. We had failed to adjust. If we showed any sort of distress, we probably needed to be medicated or incarcerated, depending on our social status. There are supposed to be so structural problems, just individual maladaption.I know this, yet as I said I could still do with daily reminders. It’s much too easy to slide back into thinking that the problem is you, and too much of my daily energy is devoted to preventing this from happening.
I don’t have much else to say, which is mostly a measure of how close to my heart Unspeakable Things is. The fact that feminism is not a monolith means that most of the time, when I read feminist books, I find them useful but also argue with them a bit in my head, or at the very least go “yes, but” at them. This is by no means a bad thing, but Unspeakable Things was more of an exercise in going “yes and yes and yes”, and as much as I find “yes, but” useful sometimes I really need that. That doesn’t mean the book is perfect or that it goes as far as it’s humanly possible for feminism to go, but for me it was the right book at the right time.
As I mentioned before, this was my LonCon book, and I found echoes of what I was reading everywhere I looked — a reminder of how much of what Laurie Penny discusses is relevant to my life. Reading her words was like balm for the heart: coming across such a clear articulation of systemic issues of sexism and oppression is angering, but in an energising sort of way. Her writing gives me hope in much the same way as Cory Doctorow’s does. To paraphrase something Patrick Ness is always saying, you’re more likely to accept hope when it comes from someone who tells you the truth about how bad things really are. We live in a broken world, but there’s comfort in knowing that people who draw attention to the cracks for a living don’t think it’s beyond repair.
I realise that going “my heart needed these words” in a loop doesn’t necessarily make for a useful or meaningful review, but I still wanted to make you aware that Unspeakable Things is out there and is a wonderful read. Thank you for bearing with me as I do so.
More bits I liked:
Of all the female sins, hunger is the least forgivable; hunger for anything, for food, sex, power, education, even love. If we have desires, we are expected to conceal them, to control them, to keep ourselves in check. We are supposed to be objects of desire, not desiring beings.(Have you read this too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)
…and so we start to stifle our speech with apologies, caveats and soothing sounds. We reassure our friends and loved ones that of course, you’re not one of those dudes. You’re not one of those racists, or those homophobes, or those men who hate women.
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 sexist, still hesitate to speak up when you see women hurt and discriminated against. That’s how oppression works. Thousands of otherwise decent people are persuaded to go along with an unfair system because changing it seems like too much bother.
Here’s what I’d like to say to those men. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay not to know what you’re supposed to be, or how you’re supposed to behave. You’re not allowed to question what it means to be a man, or even raise the possibility that there might be a question to ask, because if you did, if anyone did, then we might get answers. We might discover that what we all like to think of as ‘masculinity’ is in fact a front, that ‘masculinity’ is actually fragile, and vulnerable, and hurting, and nothing more than human.
I wrote to survive, but I learned how to be a writer online, and so did millions of other women all over the world. And not just how to write, but how to speak and listen, how to understand my own experience and raise my voice. I educated myself online. Grew up online. And on blogs and journal and, later, in the pages of digital magazines, I discovered that I wasn’t the only pissed-off girl out there. The Internet made misogyny routine and sexual bullying easy, but first it did something else. It gave women, girls and queer people space to speak to each other without limits, across borders, sharing stories and changing our reality.