Laurie Penny’s “Unspeakable Things”

There are two reasons it’s taken me longer than it should have to write out my thoughts on Laurie Penny’s newest book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution. The first is technical: I’ve been ostriching from pretty much everything for the past couple of months while working on other projects, and am only now coming back to things like blogging and social media and leaving the house.

The second is personal: It made me mad.

At this point, for readers who—we’ve all done it—prefer not to voyage beyond the first two paragraphs of a piece, allow me to assure you that Penny’s book is excellent. But it might make you mad, and not only at the patriarchy. If you’re a good girl, it might make you a little mad at that very fact.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Instead, let’s begin where Penny begins in chapter 1: a treatment ward for women with severe eating disorders. Much of what has been written about feminism and eating disorders frames these diseases inaccurately, linking a girl’s refusal to eat to her wish to be more like the skinny ladies in all the magazines, the takeaway being that an unrealistic beauty standard—which, yes, is a feminist concern—is to blame. As Penny puts it about the cultural puzzlings over eating disorders, “The best answer we seem to have come up with is ‘magazines.’ This says rather more about what society thinks goes on in the minds of teenage girls than it does about the cause of an epidemic…” In fact, when I went through an outpatient treatment program for my own disordered eating, I had a definite idea of the kinds of women I would find there. They would be smart overachievers, sure, but they would be caught in the tragic game of trying to be what our culture expects of women—thin, pretty, docile—and isn’t it a shame that they don’t recognize their own potential? They wouldn’t be feminists, they wouldn’t be rebels, and they sure as hell wouldn’t be politicized. And I sure as hell was proven wrong on my first day there.

I don’t want to glamorize women with eating disorders for their rebellion any more than I want to glamorize them for thinness. But when I read one particular passage from Unspeakable Things, the chill of recognition slithered through me:

“In Italy, there is a tradition called ‘sciopero bianco’—the white strike. In English-speaking countries, it is known as work-to-rule. Workers who are not permitted to strike fight their bosses by doing only what is required of them—to the letter. Nurses refuse to answer phones that ring at 17:01. Transport workers make safety checks so rigid that the trains run hours behind schedule. Eating disorders and other forms of dangerous self-harm are to riots in the streets what a white strike is to a factory occupation: women, precarious workers, young people and others for whom the lassitudes of modern life routinely produce acute distress and for whom the stakes of social non-conformity are high, lash out by doing only what is required of them, to the point of extremity. Work hard, eat less, consume frantically; be thin and perfect and good, conform and comply, push yourself to the point of collapse. … We all followed the rules, sufferers seem to be saying—now look what you made us do.”

Penny understands eating disorders as a form of rebellion because she’s been there, and not because she was quite literally dying to be thin. Her clear-minded thinking that cuts to the quick allowed her to regard her time in treatment as instructive in the politicization that now characterizes much of her work. And it’s important to understand that the rebellion of eating disorders is not in refusing to eat, but in its angry nod to the good girl. You want me to be a good girl? Fine, I’ll be a goddamn perfect girl. Fuck you, I’ll disappear, how’s that? It’s a warped logic, sure, but eating disorders are warped. It’s logic all the same.

 

So at some point around here in my reading I began to get mad. I got mad because I’ve spent years trying to understand my own eatingstuffs and my own warped logic, and had come to categorize my improper behaviors as symptomatic of my chronic good-girl-ism: rule-following to the extreme, but with compliance, not the whiff of rebellion, as the goal. Good-girl-ism had become a part of my own personal mythology to the point where I didn’t question it anymore, which means, of course, that I have an investment in protecting the good girl. For I still think of myself that way—a good girl, despite being 38 years old, which should tell us something about exactly how much power we believe the good girl can ever truly have. I do what is expected of me, and indeed, of women in general. I cooperate, I play nice, I am a member of the getalong gang. And part of this shows up in the dress-up clothes of my own politicization: I couldn’t get on board with the whole “ironic misandry” thing because so much of my energy as a feminist over the years has gone into turning cartwheels for men in an attempt to prove to them that feminism isn’t the big, bad, scary monster their bro-friends might have painted it to be. No, feminism can be friendly! Feminism is concerned about men too! Feminists give better head!

And, you know, all of this is true (ahem). But the ring of recognition I felt upon reading Penny’s idea of eating disorders as a “white strike” against the constraints placed upon women’s social roles was too true to ignore. If a beating heart of anger and rebellion—not, as I’d construed it, good-girl-ism—was underneath my own disordered eating all along, then what did that say for the good-girl ways I’d championed feminism for years?

What Laurie Penny calls for in this book is mutiny. Mutiny against the mythology of “falling apart elegantly,” as we’ve constructed eating disorders to be; mutiny against the careful persona curation of social media, which so many women have mastered because we’re so used to being thought of as commodities. Mutiny for sex workers and men who are tired of the patriarchy too and for women who question the institutionalization of “love,” and all of the other people whom Penny addresses in the bulk of the book—which is about far more than eating disorders and good girls, and functions much as a primer on where feminism could go if we want it to. Mutiny against the idea that for queer youth, “It Gets Better” should be sufficient protection in a world where it should be better now. Mutiny against feminism as a show pony strictly for women who have the time, money, and social platform to be the public face of feminism.

I’m a believer in the idea that it takes all types to create lasting social change. It takes palatable feminism, it takes unpalatable feminism. It takes radical feminism, it takes theft of the master’s tools, it takes the servants living in the master’s house who realize how nice it is once their quarters are dismantled. It takes “bro feminists” and humanists and sassy little girls, and the quiet ones too. It takes mutiny. Reading Unspeakable Things didn’t make me think otherwise, not exactly. What it did do was make me question the connection between “good girl feminism” and “good girl”-ism itself. Specifically, what our love of the good girl means for those moments when feminism becomes hip enough to, say, be a focal point of something like the MTV Video Music Awards. I’ll always be glad to see pretty much anyone call themselves a feminist, and as Penny writes in a section that serves as a treatise on The Slut, I’m wary of drawing distinctions between “good” and “bad” women, feminists included.

But when you immerse yourself in the possibility of mutiny—even if only for as long as it takes you to read Unspeakable Things—it makes you a bit testy at the limits of what face of feminism is likely to be beamed onto the main stage. And it might even make you a little bit testy at the ways you’ve been complicit in those limits, without ever having intended to do so.