Virginie Despentes: King Kong Theory (translated by Frank Wynne)
“I am not sweet. I’m not loveable. I’m not middle-class. I get hormone rushes that trigger searing flashes of aggression. If I wasn’t a punk, I’d be ashamed of who I am. Can’t even fucking fit in. But I’m a punk and I’m proud of not really fitting in.“
This is ferocious: angry doesn’t really touch it. A feminist tract that will likely enrage its fair share of feminists. And with chapter titles like “Who’s taking it up the arse, you or me?“or “You can’t rape a woman who’s a total slut“, she is not taking any prisoners.
“it is not so much the notion of our own inferiority that we women have internalised…It is the idea that our independence is destructive that has penetrated to the marrow of our bones.”
(we women) “…have become a crack team that polices itself…Capitalism is an equal opportunities religion in the sense that it subjugates us all…”
Despentes is an author and film-director, in her early 50s. The book looks back at her younger years (teenage through to late 30s) and takes from her experiences to build this fury against both the patriarchy, in its broadest sense, and against the enablers of that patriarchy. Born into a regular working-class family, sectioned by that family at 15, left home at 17, hitch-hiking round France – her passion was to follow punk bands as they toured, which led her in to all sorts of places that might be considered ill-advised by more timid souls – gang-raped alongside her female travelling companion by 3 young men, in her late teens, she had a flick-knife in her pocket but discovered she was afraid to use it – she went straight back out hitch-hiking again, refusing to be limited by the rape and its violence, she went on to work as a prostitute / escort for a few years in to her 20s. By 30 she had ‘lived a life’.
“…in my case, prostitution was a crucial step in my reconstruction after I was raped.”
Despentes is probably best know for her first novel, Baise Moi, and the film that followed – and got banned – which she co-directed. The film is defiantly a female production – written, produced, directed and starring women, some of whom were better know as porn actors. It is extremely violent and highly sexual – full-frontal nudity, a variety of sexual practices, and bloody death after bloody death. Essentially an x-rated Thelma & Louise, that she has previously described as a comedy. The two main protagonists go ‘on the road’ killing all sorts of men – mainly punters – following a horrific and prolonged gang-rape. The rape scene is difficult to watch, but is there to contextualise what follows.
She is strong on being anti-patriarchy, but also strong on reminding us that the patriarchy is a (mainly) capitalist construct, or at least a convenient cover and enabler for capitalism, which as soon as the going gets tough displays its disdain for working class men, non-white men, almost as much as it has for women (and again the women’s ‘disposability’ is on a sliding scale according to class and race):
“they (men) forget that the political advantages they enjoyed always came at a cost: women’s bodies belonged to men only in as much as men’s bodies belonged to the means of production in peacetime, and to the state in time of war.”
“nowadays states despatch their poor to the frontlines. Battlefields are now equal opportunity…the real disparity is one of social class.”
The language she uses is defiantly not academic, which is a breath of fresh air: it is every day, slang and sometimes crude. None of which detracts from her arguments or thoughts: where she is from, what she has experienced and what she has taken from those experiences, is what matters. Clearly none of that is a commentary on her intelligence or reading around her subject, she has that, she has done that, she just doesn’t care to try and impress anyone by showing it. It is both hugely admirable and hugely accessible.
She describes her time as a prostitute as one of a great deal of personal freedom – contrasting the fact that she could have been working for 40 hours a week in a dead end shop or office job, going home with little money, exhaustion and not much spare time, but instead a few hours work – all at her choosing, with punters she selected – gave her much more money, autonomy and spare time to read. She acknowledges that it wouldn’t be for everyone, and also that in the main she was lucky in having few bad experiences. Her thoughts on her punters are interesting:
“If memory serves…it was not their aggressiveness or their contempt I found difficult to deal with… but their loneliness, their sadness, their pallid skin, their wretched shyness, the flaws they couldn’t conceal, the weaknesses they showed. Their age, their need to feel young flesh against their wizened bodies. Their paunches, their micro-dicks, their flabby arses, their yellow teeth. It was their vulnerability that complicated the whole thing.“
There isn’t much of a “Theory”, despite the title, her reviewing of King Kong – the movie – leaves her with conclusion that the relationship between the giant ape and the movie star is “resolutely asexual“, it is more a commentary on how the world of men seeks to, and usually succeeds in, robbing women of their strengths, often with their unwitting collusion. Talking about being a 15 years old punk in therapy, when the psychiatrist asks her why she “makes herself ugly“, she writes “...I’m sitting there thinking the guys got a fucking nerve – with my bright red Mohawk, black lipstick, white fishnets and fuck-off army boots. I think I look pretty awesome…”
She does not profess to have the answers; this is not a manifesto, but a scream that grows from outrage to fury at all the everyday nonsense and violence that women have to face, pages 111-115 contain a long and eclectic list of “dos and don’ts” contrasting “womanhood” with “manhood”. They are stone cold brilliant.