Laurie Penny’s writing has always struck a chord with me. I’ve followed her columns since my awkward, confused teenage years, into my slightly less awkward but still very confused adulthood, and my copies of Meat Market and Unspeakable Things are covered in pencil marks: underscorings, exclamation marks, questions.
Because of this, a number of the essays in her newest collection, Bitch Doctrine, I’d read before, originally articles placed directly in my reading path after being linked to on Twitter or seeing shared on Facebook.
I was very lucky to be sent a review copy, longer ago than I’d like to admit, and although I read it cover to cover as soon as the download appeared, this blog post has sat in my Google Docs as a mass of notes and half-formed sentences ever since then. Many things have prevented me from editing and publishing – family illness, mental health, just the plain old inescapable hamster wheel of two jobs and PhD study – but here we are, finally.
The essays in Bitch Doctrine, collected and printed after (and almost, seemingly, in response to) Trump’s inauguration, might be thought to develop new meaning given the context of their publication. And yes, there is a renewed immediacy to the writer’s words – what Penny calls a ‘sense of urgency’ – but many of the essays, written before this event, seem oddly prophetic as well. Penny identifies worrying trends emerging in Western society over the last few years, such as the rise of extreme right wing views, transphobia, Islamophobia; social criticism which feels awfully prescient given the inescapable, looming presence of the the US president and all he represents.
Sex and gender runs throughout all these discussions – amongst other examples, such as the accusations against public names such as Julian Assange and Woody Allen, Penny mentions, in ‘Violence’, chapter seven, porn actress Stoya’s speaking out about her rape, and the industry’s surprising response – believing her, and taking action against the man who attacked her.
Editing this review blog post while more and more voices join the #MeToo movement, Penny’s analysis of the ‘pattern of patriarchal power-play’ – as represented by the pussy-grabber himself, and as something that we’ve seen ‘for generations’ as we’ve dealt with ‘household names, politicians, entertainers being revealed as serial sexual predators’ (25) – becomes a rubric for comprehending the scale of accusations that have been made since Bitch Doctrine was published last summer. The collection’s columns and essays were written between 2013 and 2016, and although we live in an ever-evolving world on hyperspeed thanks to technology, there is, to pinch a phrase from Austen, a universal truth to Penny’s discussion of gender in society.
‘Of Madness and Resistance: A US Election Diary’, the opening chapter, is a collection of pieces on a number of themes: entitlement in toxic masculinity, racism, and mental health and political determination of ‘sanity’ in the era of Trump.
One argument I would like to highlight in this chapter is the appropriation of the language of resistance, as rhetoric of revolt is twisted and redirected towards those called the ‘elite’. Not the actual elite, to be clear, but LGBT+ activists, asylum seekers, those with disabilities who need government assistance to survive. In this strange reclaiming of language, somehow, those demanding equal rights – those promoting ‘identity politics’ – become the ‘oppressors’ of “ordinary people”: the white, working classes.
One essay in which this is communicated particularly well is ‘And now we get serious’ (November 9, 2016). It’s a hell of a con trick to suggest that the most vulnerable are those who secretly hold all the cards, but it’s a trick used again and again by those in power to disguise their culpability. Corruption at the heart of capitalist society, greed from what Penny calls ‘corporate neo-fascists’, and entitled politicians bleeding the country dry are what cause the issues which impact the ‘white, working class’ – not the young man fleeing from a war zone, or the single mother in dire need of help. The oppression of “ordinary people” like myself and possibly you, reader – white, working class men and women – is not the fault of immigrants, or people claiming disability benefits. Our disenfranchisement is caused and perpetuated by those who point the finger of blame at those sometimes too vulnerable to defend themselves, who suffer under the exact same political, social and economic systems we do.
As Penny says, identity politics are not the issue: it is the hierarchy that ‘diverts energy and anger away from the vested interests bankrolling the entire scheme’ (4). It’s a remarkably Foucauldian idea, this notion of a self-disguising reinforcement of authority. For any change to be made, however, if there is any potential for improvement or move towards justice, then we must, in Penny’s phrase, no longer cater to ‘those who were willing to fire at the elite directly through the stomachs of their neighbours’ (30), and instead take aim at those who lie, and cheat, and steal, in order to protect their own privileges.
Moving forward in Bitch Doctrine, the book’s second chapter, ‘Love and other chores’, explores themes of childrearing, the benefits of remaining single for straight women, the impact of austerity and anti-welfarism on women’s independence, emotional and domestic labour, gendered social conditioning, consent in sex work and all employment under capitalism, and polyamory.
Chapter three, ‘Culture’, starts with a piece on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I read ‘Change the story, change the world’ when it was first published online, and one particular part of this essay, which discusses the backlash against media with a female, black, or queer protagonist, has stuck with me:
‘It’s only a story. Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constituent ingredients of every human society since the Stone Age’ (98).
I’ve lived and breathed books since my mother taught me to read, and my English seminars are the highlight of my term-time weeks, the semesters when I’ve been lucky enough to be contracted to teach a class. To have the message that stories – ‘the great organising myths’ (101) – contain such power and potential reinforced in no uncertain terms is immensely important. It’s a phrase I come back to regularly when writing about and reviewing media.
Another essay in this chapter, ‘The View from Somewhere’, is a piece I wrote about in an application for a fellowship. In my submission (which went completely unanswered – hopefully not a reflection on my discussion of Penny’s writing), I said: ‘’The View from Somewhere’ reflects on the realities of being a female journalist, objectivity in reporting, and how these factors relate to one’s responsibility as a political activist. In this article, Penny argues that presenting some journalism as ‘objective’ actually enables prejudice to masquerade as the truth. ‘Passivity is a stance in itself’, Penny states, ‘and a dangerous one’. Her dedication to actively campaigning for what she feels is right, and her ability to consciously and self-reflexively allow politics inform her reporting, is something I aspire to as a writer.’ On my fourth or fifth reading of ‘The View from Somewhere’, I still stand by this, and I was pleased to see that this essay is accompanied in ‘Culture’ with a piece about Nellie Bly, intrepid journalist and near all-round babe who campaigned for social justice.
‘Culture’ also covers the slippery rhetoric around ‘quotas’ in the workplace, the fantasies represented within the James Bond franchise, the commodification of feminism as pink-coated ‘empowerment’, setting up the feminine to fail in criticism of Lena Dunham’s Girls, trigger warnings not ‘a rule, [but] a tool’ (150), Barbie, Emma Watson, and the Feminist Hunger Games.
Chapter four, ‘Gender’, explores Penny’s experience as a genderqueer feminist, the paradox of a body positive corporation, bad advertising strategies, transphobia and language, and cultural disgust for the female body as ‘deeply political’, ‘tied into reproductive and social control’ (192).
‘Agency’, the theme of chapter five, examines the variety of reproductive decisions available for women and the fact that all, inescapably, come with some form of social punishment. Female viagra, sexuality, Trump’s beliefs about punishing women for accessing abortions, the unbelievably sexist concept of ‘pre-pregnancy’, and society’s removal of male responsibility in women ‘getting’ pregnant, are other topics mentioned in this section of the collection.
Nerd entitlement and misunderstanding ‘privilege’, white knights and risking social status without anticipation of reward, the intersection of racism and chauvinism in anti-immigration rhetoric as the ‘New Chauvinism’, the ‘Nice Guys of Okay Cupid’, and ‘court jester’ (273) Russell Brand’s paradoxical stance between feminism and socialism are themes covered in chapter six, ‘Backlash’. This section repeatedly reflects on themes of intersectionality, which must be etched into the very bones of resistance: if it is not freedom for black, queer, disabled, trans, and/or working class female or non-binary people, it is not freedom.
The themes in ‘Violence’ get more challenging, as you might imagine: chapter seven of Bitch Doctrine covers ‘The Reddit Defence’ and the myth of lying about rape, Penny’s personal experience of sexual violence, political madness and Emily Wilding Davison, Free Speech 101, and the proof of rape addendum to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.
I’ve been reading quite a few columns by journalists Vonny Leclerc and Ameila Tait, both of whom explore the impact that technology and digital culture can have on wider culture. For this reason, chapter eight of Bitch Doctrine, ‘Future’, was of particular interest to me, with its discussion of female robots, from AIs to sexbots via the ‘boy meets bot’ narrative, and its connection with, as Penny puts it, ‘the basic fear that men have harboured about women since the dawn of feminism’ (337). ‘Get on the Fury Road’, a review of the new Mad Max, makes all the points I usually mention to people I’m trying to convince them to watch this absolute masterpiece: superb visual detail, an anti-patriarchal message in every cinematic facet from the female leads to the ‘get to the Green Place’ narrative, Vuvalini (kick-ass elderly ladies on motorbikes), and huge vehicles cobbled together from mismatched, salvaged tech, driving really fast through a John Martin-esque desert.
‘Future’ also discusses dystopias, utopias, and feminist futures. There are so many important points and interesting discussions made and had in Bitch Doctrine – my original draft of this post was horrendously long, trying to do justice to all the arguments put forward in this collection. I’ve edited harshly – in the hopes that someone might actually read this – so I ask you to please, if you can, get your hands on Penny’s book and give it a go. Even if you find yourself disagreeing at every other turn, the author’s language, which oscillates between high rhetoric and witty one-liners, is cerebral, informative, and entertaining.
I left this book with a reading list, a number of questions, and perhaps most importantly, the feeling that I wasn’t going completely mad, that other people feel the discomfort and anger and frustration I do about the things that simply don’t make sense.
As a teenager, Penny’s writing sat well with me as it reminded me to be bolshy, to ask awkward questions, not to say yes when I really meant no, to make the difficult transition from interrogating the world to interrogating myself and the privileges that I have benefited from. These are all things which necessitate a commitment to honesty, to transparency, and to bravery. We can’t sit quietly and hope that someone else will do the heavy lifting – ‘it turns out’, says Penny, ‘that you can’t stop fascism by turning off Facebook and doing some deep breathing’ (40). Activism is crucial.
‘Bigots are getting brave’, says the writer in Bitch Doctrine’s introduction. Yes, yes they are. Which means we have to learn to be brave too.