Hot on the heels of some spectacular male ruin this fall – from Jian Ghomeshi to Ray Rice to the lesser known Julien Blanc, an American pick-up artist who has drawn the ire of feminists (and an Australian immigration minister) for his hands-on “seduction techniques” – Laura Kipnis’s incisive new book Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation delves into the male psyche and its excesses.
The book reprises and expands essays Kipnis has penned about her lifelong fascination with men behaving badly, from humiliated politicians to fallen sports icons. But for Kipnis – author of Against Love: A Polemic and The Female Thing (about women ping-ponging between feminism and traditional femininity) – completely scummy male behaviour is less confounding than some more ambiguous archetypes: “the manly man,” “the critic,” “the lothario,” “cheaters” and, of course, “men who hate Hillary.”
Kipnis points to the “New Man” described by Martin Amis – the post-1970s guy with wounds, rights and “whimpers of neglect.” According to Kipnis, “The updated versions of male panic are no less irksome than the old” – that being the hypermasculine angst of Hemingway.
But the author argues that when women scorn men, it only serves to make men more emotionally central to their lives. And when modern men don’t deliver on expectations, women paradoxically wish that they be “less like men.” Heterosexual women, she writes, want to desire men but end up mostly feeling let down. But while most screeds about men by women try to fix and control, Kipnis’s book is a more voyeuristic exercise. She spoke with The Globe from New York.
Are men behaving any worse than in the past? Or are we simply at the point historically where women can be really vocal about male mistreatment on Twitter?
There are so many more opportunities for men to be brought down. People compare Clinton to Kennedy a lot: The same forms of behaviour that passed unnoticed 40 years ago are now much more scrutinized. But men in power are acting more self-destructively in these public venues. If you don’t acknowledge that there is an additional level of scrutiny there’s just something self-destructive about that obliviousness. In all these downfall stories of men I find myself speculating about some ambivalence on their part about the positions of power that they’re in. For men, there’s a lot of anxiety around what it’s like to occupy power at this point in time.
Is that what’s come unwired in the male psyche today?
You can only look at symptoms, this acting out. Scandal is a symptom of that.
When you teasingly dissect the Anthony Weiners, Tiger Woodses and A-Rods of the world, you end up finding them more vulnerable than most women might be willing to be.
There’s a human tendency to recognize your own vulnerability but see the other person as having caused it, being indifferent to it or not suffering from the same condition. So much of post-feminist attitudes toward men is very condemnatory. There’s a real impatience as if men have it all figured out. In some ways men are in the better position but not necessarily in all ways.
In your book, doper Lance Armstrong is mostly overambitious; Keith Richards bedding groupies who also wash his clothes finds them ‘curative’; the porn magazine Hustler, though often repulsive, is also a warren of male insecurity with its endless ads for penile enhancement. Do you forgive this stuff because you really like men? Or because of what you’ve described as your own strong moral relativism?
I think it’s both. I sort of identify with men. If I were in that position, I suppose I would probably be doing the same thing. There used to be this idea during second-wave feminism that if women came to power everything would be different and there would be a humanist utopia. I think women are capable of acting just as despicably.
How do women ‘take men too seriously and not seriously enough’?
In my own life, feeling the position of heterosexual women in relation to men, there’s a conflictedness. On the one hand there is interest in men and on the other, a disappointment that we hear articulated so much. I was trying to find a tone that straddled those complications. I find it impossible to write without irony: the value of it is it allows you to occupy two positions at once – to find pleasure in the contradictions instead of agony.
You take issue with the sanitizing of bad boys, like director Milos Forman’s Hollywood makeover of the pornographer Larry Flynt.
It’s sentimental and it makes them harmless. The Larry Flynt that interested me was the one that riled me up. When I read Hustler for the first time I was deeply offended and it taught me something about myself and how I’m socialized and constituted. The deep structure of femininity is to be affronted by bodily stuff. To then turn Flynt into a First Amendment hero takes away all the stuff that’s actually disturbing and radical about what he traffics in.
You point out that women ‘civilizing’ men is a bad idea. Why?
It’s a lot of work, for one thing. And they get to have the fun while we’re sitting around trying to correct them, playing the 19th-century reformer role. I dislike it because it’s a side of me that I recognize. I’m very quick to be the finger-wagger and I really hate it. I’d rather be the one transgressing and having the fun.
You write that ‘the inevitability of an ongoing mismatch between the sexes is apparently our little tragicomedy to endure.’ Where are we at now in that mismatch?
We hear about a sense of disappointment with men on the part of women. But the disappointment is so wide-ranging that the question becomes whether there would be any way with men that wasn’t disappointing. It’s probably a dire thing to say but there is a contradiction between feminism and heterosexual desire. Those things come up against each other. In the book I was trying to write from that sense of contradiction between desiring and loving men and also having this critique of masculinity and phallic sorts of behaviour.
‘I tend to be drawn to excess,’ you write, ‘to men who laugh too loud and drink too much, who are temperamentally and romantically immoderate, have off-kilter politics and ideas.’ Still? And do you want to have sex with these men, or be them?
I recognize it as an attraction, an equal split between desiring it and wanting to have that, to be that. I don’t have the self-awareness to say why or where it comes from. It is a draw. I try to find it in writing as opposed to in life, where it can present its own set of problems.
This interview has been condensed and edited.Report Typo/Error