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Laurie Penny Speaks the Unspeakable

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Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny

The title of British writer and feminist Laurie Penny’s forthcoming book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is somewhat curious. Surely nothing is truly unspeakable these days, provided that it attracts clicks and revenue: the market doesn’t much care what truths we share, provided someone’s paying. The personal is political, but it’s also, often, sellable.

Speakable or not, the book is a compelling, at times exhilarating read: a wide-ranging polemic that darts between topics such as work, cybersexism, love, sex, misogyny, and the Occupy movement. It advocates “mutiny”; Penny exhorts “women and queers and everyone else who’s been worked over by gender and poverty and power…to stop waiting to be rewarded for good behaviour.” As a rallying call, this is somewhat vague, but the author warns at the outset that she doesn’t have any answers to give. She narrates a “fucked-up” world where neoliberalism “colonises our dreams” and where no obvious solution is in sight. It’s hard to argue with her.

The book is written in a snappy Internet dialect—one section is entitled “let’s not talk about boys and girls like that’s a thing,” another, “a lot of kinky fuckery”—but it’s anything but chirpy. Its conclusions are rooted in a fierce critique of capitalism, and in her disappointment that modern feminism is “so tepid and cowardly” that “work itself has been repurposed as women’s liberation.” Penny is decidedly not for leaning in. “Public ‘career feminists’ have been more concerned with getting more women into ‘boardrooms,’ when the problem is that there are altogether too many boardrooms, and none of them are on fire,” she writes.

Unspeakable Things is not all polemics; it’s interspersed with vignettes from the author’s life: as an anorexic teenager, an activist, friend, and writer. A particularly arresting section narrates Penny’s experience of confronting a male acquaintance who has sexually assaulted her and explaining “why what he did was rape, and that it was unacceptable.” Following an angry email from the man’s wife, she concludes that the “worst thing we can do in situations like this is make men feel uncomfortable.” In a recent article, Penny wrote that an early draft of the book deliberately contained “almost no personal content at all,” but that ultimately she “stopped worrying and just wrote the book I needed to read when I was 17…to say, to all the messed-up teenagers and angry adults out there…that the fight for your survival is political.”

Nor is the book only concerned with the survival of women and girls. One of its strengths is its compassion for neoliberalism’s “lost boys,” fruitlessly hunting for bullshit jobs in the shadow of the global financial crisis. Penny insightfully suggests that the “tragedy of male privilege is that it is no longer a guarantee of health and happiness, if it ever was.”

This is a book that does the work of consciousness-raising. As such, it necessarily relies in part on assertions and generalizations; depending on the individual reader, some statements will elicit nods while others won’t resonate. In one instance, Penny muses that “Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story,” while women expect “to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s.” (Really? I didn’t.) Elsewhere, though, she triggers a rush of recognition when she writes, “a lot of the work that women do remains unpaid or underpaid because we think of it as ‘love.’”

At times, the book’s critiques of neoliberalism could also go a little deeper. For instance, Penny rightly slams the stigma often attached to poor women, particularly single mothers, who are “shamed for daring to spawn.” A closer exploration of the material conditions our societies create for these women, as well as the “slut-shaming and social punishment” dealt out by them, would have been welcome.

Ultimately, what Penny wants for both men and women is for us to be free, something that is not presently possible: she notes that “[n]eoliberal patriarchy gives us choice, but not freedom.” It would have been interesting to see some consideration of how, as social animals dependent on others (parents, families, caretakers), humans truly can be free in any event, or what this freedom would look like. Penny writes that you “cannot be a writer and have writing be anything other than the central romance of your life.” Perhaps this is true, but isn’t this model of the unencumbered individual artist a legacy of the patriarchy she critiques?

A palpable sense of rage runs just below the surface of this book, but there is also optimism here. Penny concludes that “the old tired scripts of work and power and sex and love” are being reshaped. One might wish for a little less rhetoric and a little more structural analysis, but Penny is dead right that personal stories matter—and we’ll be well served if she’s a part of their telling.