Synopsis: Smart and provocative, witty and uncompromising, this collection of Laurie Penny’s celebrated essays establishes her as one of the most important and vibrant feminist voices of our time. From the shock of Donald Trump’s election and the victories of the far right to online harassment and the transgender rights movement, this darkly humorous collection is an unflinching look at the definitive issues of our age.
Penny is lyrical and passionate in her desire to confront injustice; she writes at the raw edge of the zeitgeist at a time when it has never been more vital to challenge social norms. This revelatory, revolutionary collection will give readers hope and tools for change from a bitch who wants to get stuff done.
I had tried to inter-library loan this book but the surprising thing is not many libraries have it. I find this to be an important part of the conversation surrounding the 2016 election and feminism and culture today, so I do recommend this book and wish there were more floating copies about.
My initial knee-jerk reaction is to complain about this book’s shortcomings, but I’m instead going to reinforce that this is a necessary step in the right direction for white feminism. I ended up respecting Penny more after reading this book, I daresay wishing she was one of my friends or my older sister who could help me through life. And Jesus, she’s in her 30s now but some of these essays are rooted in works she began in her 20s. She’s so smart and I find myself in awe of how she can so brilliantly capture my feelings and thoughts in ways I never could. She’s immensely quotable:
“If the female body remains a beautiful mystery, if it remains an ethereal, abstract quantity, you don’t have to feel so bad when you do bad things to it.”
“Rape culture means more than a culture in which rape is routine. Rape culture involves the systematic silencing of victims even as women and children are instructed to behave like potential victims at all times. In order to preserve rape culture, society at large has to believe two different things at once. Firstly, that women and children lie about rape, but that they should also act as if rape will be the result if they get into a strange car, walk down a strange street or wear a sexy outfit. Secondly, if it happens, it’s their own fool fault for not respecting the unwritten rules.”
“Women writers aren’t supposed to be too brave, too sure of ourselves… We’re taught, as women–especially as women–that before anything else, we must make ourselves likeable. We must make ourselves agreeable. We must shrink ourselves to fit the room, and shave down our ideas to fit the times. That sort of thing is death to creativity, death to good writing, death to clear thinking. Accepting that you’re going to be called a bitch isn’t about acquiescence. It’s about choosing freedom. There are a great many worse things that can happen to you than someone not liking what you have to say.”
“The occasional use of ‘trigger warnings’ on campus, for example, has been wilfully misinterpreted by those who did not grow up with them as an attempt to censor classic literature. In fact, trigger warnings are a call for cultural sensitivity and a new way of interpreting important texts. Which, correct me if I’m wrong, is part of what studying the humanities has been about for decades.
“I’m categorically against people being parachuted into positions of power and influence just because of their gender or the colour of their skin. It’s a social disease. It stops us making full use of our collective capabilities. And that’s precisely why we need ‘diversity hires.’ That’s precisely why we need quotas.
In this society, plenty of people are promoted just because of their gender and race. Almost all of those people are white men. What, you think all those Bullingdon boys in government got there by their wits alone? You think the men who make up 81 per cent of the US House of Representatives did not benefit from centuries of racism and sexism, for the promotion of men and white people at the expense of absolutely everyone else?”
“Actually, I’d love to have a child someday. But in this unequal world, my circumstances seem to be aligning so that what i would have to sacrifice in order to make that happen is more than I’m able or willing to give.”
“There is a school of liberal through that seeks only to persuade the undecided through sober and sanguine debate. This has never been my approach to culture war. I place as much importance on comforting the afflicted as I do on afflicting the comfortable, and doing the former with any success tends to achieve the latter.”
“I am not writing as everygirl, because there is no such thing. The idea that any person could speak ‘for women’ is cartoonish in its misunderstanding of what feminism is, what women are. No man is ever asked to speak for his entire sex.”
“When women write and speak the truth of their own lives, it is called ‘confessional,’ with the implication of wrong-doing, of sharing secrets that ought not to be spoken aloud, at least not by nice girls. When men do the same, it’s called literature, and they win prizes.”
“Sometimes, men and boys ask me whether and how they can be feminists. I don’t think anyone needs permission for that, let alone my permission. But merely identifying as a thing is just a start. You also have to take responsibility for your goddamn actions. Feminism is active. It’s not something you are; it’s something you do. It’s what you fight for that matters.”
This just gives you a taste.
I take qualms with other reviews saying she doesn’t pay respect to feminism’s history, as if she’s overtaking it with her tumblr-era spin. That’s not true. There’s a whole essay that begins with Susan B. Anthony. She even talks about Donna Haraway, for god’s sake. That’s rare — I didn’t even know who Haraway was until about a year ago yet all along I should have. I mean, all Penny does is pull from other feminist theory. Sometimes to the point she just glosses over it, sure, but it’s still there — the foundations of it all.
The most meaningful essay, to me, in this collection was “Let’s not abolish sex work; let’s abolish all work.” It talks about the porn industry and capitalism in ways I hadn’t connected before:
“The question of whether a person desperate for cash can meaningfully consent to work is vital. And that’s precisely why the term ‘sex work’ is essential. it makes it clear that the problem is not sex, but work itself, carried out within a culture of patriarchal violence that demeans workers in general and women in particular.”
But now for a critique. Penny calls herself in this book a “D-list digital feminist nanocelebrity,” which speaks to her ability to spark twitter trolls and piss off would-be fans (like myself) by writing things like a love-hate piece over Milo Yiannopoulos.
In that piece and others she acts like a fangirl flirting with the literal devil and many cannot forgive her for it:
She really did seem chummy with him in those pieces back in the day. Like, “look, awe, how cute, these sad boys are so misunderstood and pathetic. I feel sorry for them.” But then they literally turn around and will run you over with their car. Yeah, cute.
Those pieces gave away her susceptibility — it showed her weakness. She was (and still is) very young, so part of me forgives her as if she was naive. But there are consequences to dancing with the devil. It doesn’t allow us to see her very easily as wise. She is smart, but not wise. It often seems like she does things for the sake of a story — for the experience — for the attention and originality. She’ll drop names like Emma Watson, who she went to Oxford with apparently, just so she can talk about how she felt sorry for her. It makes her seem so privileged that you become jealous of her and start to roll your eyes. No wonder she can explain my own feelings to me so well, she’s had the time and money and education to think about these things. But it’s hard to find fault with her for it. She recognizes it herself.
But there is also something lacking in her thoughts. Though she can explain things with courageous strength and righteous bitchiness, there is nothing new in her claims. She’s made no original discoveries or insights. Others have covered this before. Maybe not as well. But this feminism isn’t hers alone, even though she can explain it right and share necessary anecdotes which buttress this truth. This book amounts to an introduction that highlights feminism already in motion — a feminism with deeper roots in other works.
At the end of the day, she’s a Brit who is talking about American politics and I’m getting tired of the British being listened to. I don’t mean to sound isolationist, but it is a fact that Americans listen to British people because we think they sound smart. It’s getting to the point for me where it’s mirroring the Men explain things to me trope. It’s Brits explain things to us. Our own culture, our own politics. Hell, she even thanks Neil Gaiman in the acknowledgments section of this book, the author of American Gods who literally tried to explain America’s religions to us. It’s bullshit. Her lack of talking about Brexit stood out to me. I’m sure she did mention it, but I sure as hell don’t remember it. I do vividly remember all her rants about the 2016 election and racists here. Maybe focus on the log in your own eye, before you point out the spec in ours?
Let it be known that the Brits are the original colonizers, the perfectors of racial slavery, and the first isolationists in this era. America may need to take a good, hard look at ourselves but we don’t need the British to hold up the mirror. I’m tired of turning to the British for perspective.
Other reviews I agree with:
Perhaps this is the problem of journalism, but nothing in this collection had a lot of depth to it or originality of thought. I laughed at a few places or had a collective “mmhmm” head nod, but it felt more like Penny knew the intersectional keywords to drop in and that’s enough for them. Penny brings up some interesting points around intersectional concerns and then leaves them mostly unexplored (except for a few things like the pieces about being poly and genderqueer). Really what I think was irking me the whole time was the conscious/unconscious lack of WOC voices in the articles. Like, look at this: “Sure, I’d like Emma Watson to do better. I’d like Lena Dunham to do better. I’d like to do better myself.” Hey, one way to do better is to stop talking so much about Emma Watson and Lena Dunham. Give WOC more prominence in your work! The piece on diversity in journalism was odd considering their own lack of diverse voices in their own work.
The essays collected herein were previously published elsewhere, so fellow fans of Penny might find them somewhat familiar. Although I think some have been expanded/revised, if you came here looking for a lot of new material, you might be disappointed. Similarly, although Penny and her editors have worked hard to curate a sensible collection, the end result is a little bit more scattershot than a more unified effort like Unspeakable Things. While this doesn’t detract from Bitch Doctrine’s quality as a feminist polemic, it’s just not my personal preference. Other people might be totally fine with it.
On a related note, another one of my few qualms about this book is that I wish the essays had dates on them. They’re grouped thematically rather than ordered chronologically, so as a result, some of the works feel fresh and topic, but others feel a little out of date given more recent political or cultural events. Context is important, and without dates, we lack some information here.
Laurie Penny’s latest collection of essays is an unsettling work. Reading it in today’s world, when the fights described have escalated and the rights threatened have eroded there are segments which feel not like social commentary but something from fiction. A collection of snippets calling out warnings of complacency from a time before The Disaster struck.