Published by Bloomsbury on Sep. 16, 2014
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In Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, Laurie Penny writes about today’s toxic patriarchal culture that creates fucked-up girls, lost boys, rape culture, sexism on the Internet, and problematic concepts of love. Referencing her experiences with eating disorders, the Occupy movement, the UK student protests, and online trolls, she presents an incisive, radical perspective on society today.
“Feminism is not a set of rules. It is not about taking rights away from men, as if there were a finite amount of liberty to go around. There is an abundance of liberty to be had if we have the guts to grasp it for everyone.”
This book is broken up into five sections. “Fucked Up Girls” discusses the intense pressure girls feel to meet unattainable ideals — to be thin, perfect, chaste, and good — and the double standards surrounding those qualities. (Eg., “Ugly” is the word often used to dismiss a woman’s power, but if a woman works hard to make herself attractive, she’s considered shallow or a bimbo.) “Lost Boys” examines the way our culture harms men as well as women. Penny also takes a look at the roots of the discomfort individuals feel when men in general are accused of misogyny. In response to the defense that “not all men” are sexist, she says:
“We aren’t judging you for who you are, but that doesn’t mean we’re not asking you to change your behavior. 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 and discriminated against. That’s how oppression works.”
In the section “Anticlimax,” Penny writes about the double standards surrounding sex today, when we teach women how to avoid being raped (however arbitrary those lessons are in practice) rather than teaching men not to rape. “Cybersexism” deals with — you guessed it — sexism on the Internet. Penny examines the ways men try to silence women online and the ways women are starting to fight back with campaigns such as #EverydaySexism and Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes Vs. Women short film series. The final section, “Love and Lies,” deals with our society’s problematic obsession with a particular brand of romantic love, which tells girls that they must look and act a certain way in order to find The One — and that she is not complete until she finds him.
This book is an incredibly difficult one to review. Penny covers a huge array of issues, and I want to discuss all of them, which would be impossible to do short of a dissertation. And although I underlined paragraphs on nearly every page of this book, I had some fairly mixed feelings about it.
I am still fairly new to educating myself about feminist issues. I have read many articles online over the last few years, but I have not entrenched myself in the online feminist community, and this is only the second book I have read about feminism (the first being Roxane Gay’s incredible essay collection, Bad Feminist). I try to educate myself about issues, but I still have a lot to learn. This book caught me a bit off-guard with its radical tone.
While I agree with much of what Penny says about the way our patriarchal society controls women, I often thought to myself, “surely things aren’t THAT bad.” I felt a bit doubtful when she refers to gender as a “straightjacket for the human soul” and when she cites society’s assumption “that most men, given the choice, would want to escape the onerous duties of parenthood.”
Of course, I am sure this is largely due to my personal life. I am straight, white, privileged, and educated, and I am in a relationship with a man who is the very opposite of the toxic boys Penny describes. We have a relationship of mutual respect, and he takes care of me just as much as I take care of him. We split bills and household duties, and he will not ask me to pop out babies and then take care of them while he goes off to work. But I am lucky. This is not the reality for everyone, and it’s important to remind myself that just because I do not see some of the things Penny describes in my own life (or I do not see them to as great an extent as she does), doesn’t mean they aren’t prevalent attitudes and behaviors. It’s important to remind myself how much progress still needs to be made.
Despite personally taking a less radical stance than Penny does, I am glad to have read this book. It pushed me outside my comfort zone, which is an excellent place to go. Unspeakable Things is a thought-provoking book that deepened my awareness and understanding of a lot of issues facing both women and men today. I would definitely recommend this to readers who are interested in a more radical take on gender politics.
“Feminism and radical politics are about demanding more than a choice between one type of servitude and another. They are about insisting on our right to live with dignity, our right to shelter and sustenance and learning and the means to take care of one another.”
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