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Review: Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny

Laurie Penny with her latest book "Unspeakable Things"
Laurie Penny with her latest book "Unspeakable Things"

Laurie Penny with her latest book “Unspeakable Things”

This is not a fairytale.  This is a story about how sex and money and power police our dreams”.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is publicised as an account of sex and love, power, politics and revolution, in a time of neoliberalism and austerity.  Anyone who has read Laurie Penny’s articles, either as Contributing Editor for New Statesman or as a columnist for The Guardian, Vice, Salon, The Nation and The New Inquiry, will know that she is uncomfortably comfortable with discussing what many others are afraid to talk about, and this book is a combination of her insights into gender politics, pop culture and revolutionary political thought.  She is interested in analysing the gender battles we all face on a daily basis under the watchful eye of late-capitalism.  Her discussion ranges from how girls are made to feel inferior, and how boys are lost in today’s society, to sex, love, lies and the internet revolution.  It’s about the unspeakable things in our culture.  It’s about how our most personal and intimate things are the most political; they impact on our lives in every way and keep us submissive.

The book is witty, irreverent, funny (“You can plan a lot of damage from a kitchen; it’s where the knives are kept”) and emotional.  It highlights the inequalities in society, not just for women, but of men too, whereby the pressure to achieve and retain power and employment whilst living up to often unobtainable standards of a socially constructed masculinity can cause men to question their identity.  Capitalism has created this mess.  It has deflected men’s insecurities, disappointment and rage onto women, for we are the scapegoated reason that men have not succeeded in the manner that they were promised.  As she says herself, “neoliberalism may have set up vast swaths of people to fail, but the real problem cannot be a crisis of capitalism so it must be a crisis of gender”.

She examines justice and equality, with the emphasis on freedom for all, regardless of sexuality, gender, race or class.  It’s about questioning the sexual and political freedom we have allowed ourselves to be mystified into believing we have, and, in order to overthrow existing social boundaries, feminism must be the way forward, and it needs to get braver.  Laurie situates the sexism and misogyny of today in specific socio-political contexts, whilst offering radical, yet easily achievable, routes of activism and thought for both women and men who feel that such hatred and inequality in society must come to an end.

The double-standards for men and women is an issue meticulously explored.  One double-standard particularly hit home: when a man is opinionated, talks too much and demands the respect he deserves, he is seen as “confident”, whilst a woman who behaves in the same manner is deemed to be “attention-seeking”.  It’s a typecast entrenched deep in the human mind.  It’s a social tool for getting women to shut up and keep quiet, but it is also evidence that what she was saying has made an impact, that she has more power than she realises.  It’s a slur that should be, according to Penny, a source of pride.

Feminism needs to become braver and bolder because, in a time of technological knowledge and power, the misogynists of the internet are (supposedly) winning.  They are evoking fear and anxiety into women and men with transgressive identities who openly express their opinions and go against the status quo.  Yet women are not backing down to the misogynists who are telling us to get back in the kitchen.  The internet has become a platform to defend our rights as individuals and as human beings.  Penny is quite right to say that “the power to watch men back is something the web affords women, but men haven’t quite realised that yet”.  We are standing up and making a space for ourselves to challenge the sexist attitudes of the online world.  It’s a space for women and queer people “to speak to each other without limits, across borders, sharing stories and changing our reality”.  The internet still can be a force to liberate us all from gender and boundaries, despite the backlash of violence, rape and death threats that so many of us often receive.  Laurie Penny says that these kinds of attacks are apparently a force for self-censoring anyone who isn’t a white middle class cisgender male.  If we don’t create something because of our fear of the potential repercussions, then patriarchy and the capitalist state wins.

Unspeakable Things is insanely good.  It’s exactly what a polemic should be: passionate and invigorating.  It shakes you out of your soporific, monotonous comfort zone and the truth hits you hard in the face.  Laurie Penny’s discussions were insightful, thought-provoking and often provocative, in the best sense of the word.  Everything commented on was methodically researched and supported with a range of illuminating references, as well as personal anecdotes and, above all, was interesting.  Everyone who can read should read this book.  It is insightful and empowering, and whilst some people may not agree with everything she has to say, when they do agree, they’ll find themselves nodding emphatically.

Frankly, if you’re looking for a well-articulated, nuanced and fearlessly compelling book with a feisty feminist perspective, then you need not look any further.  Unspeakable Things is the type of deeply interesting, transgressive and critical thinking that will push us beyond our horizons to realise that a more idealistic, what some would call utopic, existence is possible.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution (Bloomsbury Press, July 2014: RRP £12.99)

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