Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, (Bloomsbury, 2014) 288pp.
Laurie Penny is a self-declared “political creature” who wants “mutiny.” She has a message for the “fucked-up girls” with eating disorders and the “lost boys” who do not “feel able to talk about their own suffering.” Unspeakable Things is a political manifesto filled with autobiographical detail. Penny is someone who was thrown out of ballet classes at an early age “for teaching the other girls how to masturbate,” spent nine months in a mental institution recovering from anorexia, has had friends in prison, once lived with porn stars, has been raped, and enjoyed kissing a girl who was sleeping with the same boy that she was. She is someone with the effrontery to write “hairy cocks and cunts” and not only get away with it, but to get it published. She knows what it is like to have her “arse grabbed in a bar,” to be on the receiving end of an online hate campaign, to be afraid of leaving her house as a result of fear from online stalkers and to be blackmailed with pictures of her semi naked kissing another girl.
Penny becomes a heroine for the angst ridden, left-wing, teen and early twenties girl who stays at home “with a painted-on smile.” Penny tells them that it is okay to shave their armpits, wear lipstick, have a poster of a half-naked Justin Bieber on their bedroom wall, have sex with as many boys as they like, tell the world about it, and still be a feminist. She is proud to “fly the flag for sex, for fucking and for love online.” The Pennyettes with their hands down their pants might be pleased to hear Penny tell them “sex online is real sex and love online is real love.”
The Pennyettes might well raise their eyebrows when she tells them that she does not have the kind of high-flying job that allows her “to think in terms of ‘having it all.’” Here is Laurie Penny, private school, Oxford, and soon to be Harvard educated, 27 years old, beautiful, an author of a number of published books and a blog that was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. She is a journalist for national newspapers, a contributing editor at New Statesman, has regular appearances on television and radio, and criss-crosses the Atlantic for work. She has a hundred thousand, many adoring, followers on Twitter, who tells her readers that she does not have it all. One wonders what a twenty year old, working-class woman stacking shelves in Tesco with cans of own brand baked beans would make of that. The truth is such a person is not really Penny’s natural constituency. Penny is the role model for the 18 year old female, unsure of where she is going in the world, or how she fits in, who, despite a firm belief that a thigh gap and a bikini bridge are necessities to succeed in life, has just obtained three grade As at ‘A’ level and entry to an elite university. Unspeakable Things was written by Penny for her own younger sisters.
And what about the male species? Men as a group “hate and hurt women.” But one must not accuse Penny of “reverse sexism” for saying so. That would be a cheap attempt to “shut down debate.” Patriarchy, she tells us, is violent. It has “oppressed and constrained men and boys as well as women.” “Desire,” she claims, “is socially constructed.” Will the 19 year old male undergraduate with an erection because he is seated next to a hot girl in his sociology lecture believe that? At any rate, who cares if it is true? It sounds like a profound thing for a corduroy jacket wearing, satchel carrying, Foucault reading, Pennyette to say while seated cross legged and sipping a cappuccino in the student union.
After such an analysis of women and men, one might wonder who or what is at fault. It’s the “system” goddammit! All the problems in the “fucked-up world” boil down to one thing: neoliberalism. Penny retreats to the same old Marxist mantra: capitalism and the patriarchy that follows from it. Here is a Penny sentence: “The colonisation of love by capitalist patriarchy is a deeply painful thing.” Being a true Pennyette depends on whether you can 1) take that sentence seriously, and, 2) agree with it. I fail on both counts. Then there are Penny’s unsubstantiated claims. For example: “‘he said’ is almost always more credible than ‘she said’, unless she is white and he is not.” Perhaps Penny writing it makes it true.
According to Penny, there can be no faith in President Obama in the USA or in mainstream left leaning political parties in the UK. There is only one solution: revolution! And that revolution must be a shocking feminist revolution. If, for Penny, “plotting revolution” provides greater happiness than being in love, then so it should for the Pennyettes. Marx, Engels, and Penny. God help us all. It was a lot easier in the 1990s when Gerri Halliwell raised her right fist and said “Girl power.” Now we have Laurie Penny who wants to take a red pen, “annotate the world,” and “scrawl ‘slut power’ in letters too big to ignore.” She lives in a world where the personal is political and the political is personal. But despite all this she admits that she just wants “to be the kind of girl who gets taken in somebody’s arms.” One day she might get married. If so, she might desire a wedding cake inscribed with the words “Smash Monogamy!” It would not be original. Michael Lerner did it in 1971.