Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Q&A with Laura Kipnis

Laura Kipnis is the author of the new book Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation. Her other books include How to Become a Scandal, Against Love, and The Female Thing. She is a professor in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University, and she lives in New York and Chicago.

Q: You write, “The book is full of disreputable characters.” Why did you decide to write about this type of man, and how did you choose to write about some of the specific men in the book, such as Larry Flynt, Tiger Woods, and Anthony Weiner?

A: I think something in me secretly identifies with badly behaved men and yearns to be more badly behaved than I feel capable of being in real life. There’s just this extra layer of social constraint placed on women, and most of us born female consciously or unconsciously­ comply with them (even the supposed “non-conformists” among us).  

The whole gender situation is such a big contradiction, and I tend to write about contradictions—between desires and social strictures, as in Against Love, or people running into their own self-obliviousness in How to Become a Scandal… A lot of those same themes continue in Men.

People acting “improperly,” acting out in public—this always catches my attention, as with the Weiner episode. Or when I think other commentators are missing the point, or getting preachy, I find myself itching to intervene, as with the Tiger Woods chapter.

As far as Flynt, he’s such a fascinating figure, and there’s a whole dimension of Hustler that no one talks about—as I realized when I actually forced myself to sit down and read the thing—which is that it’s very political. It turns grossness and disgust into political weapons, and no one had ever written about it from that angle.

Q: A number of the men you describe in the book are academics. What is unique to the academic world when it comes to male-female dynamics?

A: Well, teaching is sort of my day job—it’s where I live, even though what I teach is filmmaking, so I’m not entirely your typical academic. Still, you know how they say “Write about what you know,” and I sure know a lot of male professors.

What’s also so interesting in academia is how much of a contrast there often is between intellectual intelligence and social or romantic ineptitude, and how incredibly dumb very smart people can be.

Q: Would you describe this book as a work of feminism?

A: Oh, I absolutely would, though I suppose it’s my own personal brand of feminism, not that there’s any official line these days anyway. But in my brand of feminism, women aren’t automatically men’s moral betters, which might set me apart from some feminists, and I try to avoid stereotyping men as “dogs” and so on. I’d like to think I take men on their own terms. But then I’ve never understand what women mean when they say they’re not feminists—that they want to give back the vote?

Q: You write, “What strikes me most about these essays is my covert envy of men, including the ones I would also like to thrash and dismember.” Why is that?

A: I think if they’re being honest, most women would say the same thing. After all, what’s all this talk about “empowerment” if it’s not, at some level, about envying male privileges and wanting some of it, plus all the money and social power and so on? It’s hard to deny that men have had more freedom in the world than women have—throughout history and also right up to the present, and who wouldn’t envy that?

But men aren’t exactly without their neuroses and anxieties either, including about women’s opinions of them—in fact I think these are particularly anxious times for men, which is what made them such a fun subject to write about.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a book about narcissism, though it’s meant to be more of a defense than an indictment.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I do think women—heterosexual women especially—are pretty conflicted about men. Men are too emotionally central in female psychology, which invariably leads to disappointment, which prompts a lot of defenses and projections.

I was trying to write about men minus the recriminations, as interesting creatures instead of failed moral beings. Women’s moral judgments of men always seem a little too self-exonerating to me. I should also say that writing about men was a way of writing about my own conflicts and foibles as well, not just thwacking the opposite sex.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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