“They Just Seem to Be in Such a State of Anxiety”

Hanna Rosin talks to Laura Kipnis about what the heck is going on with men

Men, Laura Kipnis
The species in its natural habitat.

Photo by Thinkstock

“Men have fascinated me, maybe too much,” begins Laura Kipnis’ new book, Men: An Ongoing Investigation. “They’re large and take up a lot of space.” From the chapter titles—“The Scumbag,” “The Con Man,” “The Lothario”—you might draw certain conclusions about Kipnis’ attitude toward men. But wounded and indignant is not her style. In fact, she is constitutionally incapable of moral outrage, she writes in the book, and when she needs a hit of it, she trolls the Internet for outrage experts, such as Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic. Instead Kipnis believes in the state of “wracked with conflict” as the natural human condition. And right now, she says, it’s the men who are most wracked.

I talked to Kipnis, a film professor at Northwestern University, whose previous books include Against Love and How to Become a Scandal, about male masochism, the “good girl” feminists, and the folly of the phrase “unwanted sexual advances.”

Slate: Why did you decide to write a book about men now?

Laura Kipnis: They just seem to be in such a state of anxiety. I had written a book about scandal and so it was on my mind how a lot of men in power seem to be acting in such incoherent ways in public. It’s almost as if something was afflicting them and they had some need to be shamed in public, to be disgraced and act out these private psychodramas in public, and I was just fascinated by that. My disposition generally is to think there are linkages between the private sphere and large scale social structures, so I guess I am always looking for those links.

Did you figure out what the anxiety is all about?

I think I became more empathetic about whatever causes I was speculating about. There’s a kind of precariousness for men now about their position—you’ve written about this. There are changes in the role in the aftermath of feminism as a result of massive economic restructuring, and this is affecting them on an interpersonal level. They don’t know exactly what’s going on in the context of heterosexual male-female relationships, what’s expected of them.

Is there such a thing as the New Man?

There’s a lot of introspection about roles and masculinity. That all gets talked about so much more, and that’s certainly new. You are constantly hearing men indict other men for their misogyny. Like right now we are in this Cosby moment and it gives men a way to separate themselves from the worst, most pathological examples of men. A lot of men take that opportunity to declare their alliances with women. 

Are those declarations of solidarity sincere?

I’m not the biggest believer in sincerity. I just believe we are all wracked with conflicting impulses. One side is sincere and the other side is laughing evilly in the background. That actually is the entry point to this book—a sense of conflictedness even on the part of the men everyone likes to mock, such as Tiger Woods or John Edwards. In these various examples I am sort of sympathetic. I just think moral indignation is such an easy place to go. In the case of someone like Tiger, he just seems like such a conflicted and poignant figure, and when a guy like that takes his tumble in public, it’s a way of saying, “I am full of conflicts.” And I can identify with that. I know at times I’ve lived in my life in ways that are not coherent. 

I loved your close reading of the video Rielle Hunter, John Edwards’ mistress, made of him, the one where he says, “I actually want the country to see who I am, who I really am,” while she is giggling in the background.

It was actually my father who looked at that video and said, “He’s in love.” It was interesting to look at a man looking at another man and reading his affect. He’s got that goofy, in love with the world sort of expression on his face. And you can hear the giggling so you can tell there is something going on between the two of them. We are at this moment where there is so much out there that’s so private if you just look. You can get these court documents, depositions, stuff that has these intensely private moments. I’ve been accused of being an armchair psychoanalyst, but how can you not be with all this stuff out there!

Do you think when Edwards said, “I want the country to see who I really am,” he was looking to be discovered?

I think he believes he’s a standup guy and wants the world to see him for that. At the same time, how could some part of him not know who else he really is—a guy who’s having an affair with a videographer while his wife has cancer.

You gave your chapters titles like “Scumbag,” “Con Man,” “Sex Fiend.” Did you have in mind your ex-boyfriends, or public men like Anthony Weiner?

I guess they were just terms I found amusing. People have been saying it sounds like I hate men, but I always thought of those titles as humorous. I was trying to weave in my own life, find points of connection, men I’ve known who were, for example, self-deceivers. When I wrote about [novelist] James Lasdun being stalked by a student, I talked about my own similar experience. I’m not someone who writes about myself. I wrote a whole book about love and never used the first person pronoun. This was my chance to put myself in more and experiment in the first person.

Did it make you feel too exposed?

It does, which is a silly thing given all these memoirs out there. But I’m a terribly private person, and I’m horribly self-conscious and shame-ridden. It’s addictive, though. Once I start writing in the first person I find I want to talk about myself more and more.

You write that men these days seek humiliation. What do you mean by that?

I guess when I look at these figures—Edwards, Weiner—there seems to be something not quite random about how they are all flogging themselves in public. I’m still very interested in Freud, and he writes about masochism and aligns it with femininity. But we are now seeing another version of male masochism. I think there’s something about childhood humiliations getting imprinted on you, and I think that was the case with Weiner. I actually talked to someone who dated him, and she said that was the case with him. There’s some form of self-destruction that’s just woven into our constitution.

What about men’s relationships with their bodies?

Men’s bodies are so much more on the line than they used to be. Part of it has to do with advertising culture, which discovered the male body as a commodity opportunity. Think of all the ways in which women’s insecurity has been great for marketing people. Now they’ve discovered men as this great untapped market. So I think men’s self-consciousness is totally on the rise. They’ve started worrying that they have hair in all the wrong places! And men are now aware that women are surveying men’s bodies in the same way men have always surveyed women’s.

If what you’re saying is true, why are women still so afraid of male power? Where’s the disconnect?

Well, there are still horrific levels of violence against women. But I do think the way in which second-wave feminism has focused on women’s vulnerability as an essential property of women has not been that great. There’s a lot of violence in the world and most of it is directed against men. Yet women feel themselves at their core, to be vulnerable, in ways that don’t entirely map onto the reality.

Why is not great for women to conceive of themselves as essentially vulnerable?

Because I think it ends up with women almost over-fetishizing male power. Look at what happened between Naomi Wolf and Harold Bloom, which I write about more in the book. On the one hand she eroticizes his power, and then she resents him for it. She ends that story by saying she never wrote poetry again, but that’s incredibly silly! It all comes out of this incredibly overwrought relationship with this man and his power. He didn’t really exercise it—all he did was put a hand on her knee.

Part of what I am trying to do is take a somewhat more ironic stance towards male power and not stand so much in awe of it. I want to focus a bit more on male vulnerability, to point out that these men are wounded and needy and pathetic. With Harold Bloom I don’t see that as an instance of male power but male pathos. I mean, I think there are many instances of male power but not nearly as many as women tend to think.

Is that why you take issue with the phrase “unwanted sexual advances”?

It’s such an issue on campuses, and my campus in particular. At the time I was writing the book, dating was still permitted between professors and students, but you were not supposed to make “unwanted sexual advances.” I went to this workshop and asked, “How are you supposed to know if the advance is unwanted until you try it?” And there was no answer to that. It’s just a conundrum, a contradiction in terms. A flier got passed around calling all the students who had pressed charges against professors “survivors.” This was regardless of how merit-worthy their individual cases were, so the language has a kind of hysteria to it.

You wrote that you would hate to think that feminism means curbing anyone’s rapacious fantasy life. What do you mean by that?

You shouldn’t have to make your fantasies comport to social realities. I was once asked what my favorite sex scene is. I said it was in Marnie, where Sean Connery’s character rapes his wife on their honeymoon. And then I was horrified that I said it. I thought, “Oh my God, do I have rape fantasies?” And I’m not sure I do, but I don’t think we should all have to police our fantasy life, that every desire should conform to our political idea of what things should look like. I think there’s a good girl complex that has infected American feminism. I’ve mocked the Puritan leanings of American feminism before.

Do you think there’s a different direction feminism should be taking?

I tend to feel pretty distant from what people call feminism at the moment. It’s often about the moral high grounding of men, and that often means taking fairly conservative positions and not going for the radical politics. The most radical thing anyone could do now in terms of feminism is insisting on child care as a social entitlement. But instead we hear a lot about how men shouldn’t be allowed to use the word “boobs” in public. Women are charged with being the moral correctives on men, the cultural superego, and I definitely can’t fall into that role. I just kind of loathe it—it’s a why do I have to be the responsible one kind of thing?

You’ve written that porn is what’s pushed the limits of free speech. Do you still believe that in this age when porn is so ubiquitous?

I wrote about porn before the Internet. I was mostly writing about print stuff. I was also writing about the more outré kinds of porn—transvestite, Hustler, fat porn. I was interested in the margins. But I have to say, I completely lost interest in the subject once Internet porn became so mainstream. In the old days it really was fascinating how it contested all our proprieties in a way that deeply shocked me as a middle-aged, middle-class female. But now, even though there’s a whole new field of porn studies, I don’t think there’s anything interesting to say about it.

In this book you revisit Larry Flynt, creator of Hustler. Do you consider him an old friend by now?

He always surprises me! He’s an American original, and I have a great fondness for him. Every once in a while I get asked to blurb a book he’s written, but he’s nobody I would sit down and be pals with. There’s just too big a gap between our lives and experiences.

What are you working on now?

I’m thinking about narcissism. That’s why I was worried about writing so much about myself!