In The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability, Laura Kipnis sets out to give an “account of the hetero female psyche at the twenty-first century mark”.

Kipnis starts by talking about progress – gender barriers largely gone (though some remain), dominant patriarchal paradigms largely gone (though some remain), increasing economic independence (if they choose) – parenthetical commentary hers, and yet, she says, we run into some kind of ambivalence, among women themselves. Kipnis says that “feminism came up against an unanticipated opponent: the inner woman,” and spends the rest of the book explaining it.

Kipnis: Plan A is women demanding, and to some extent, getting what men have – without considering if they really wanted it in the first place or if men really had it at all. Plan B is some updated version of traditional femininity, especially with new-age goddess worshipping. … Long before Plan A or Plan B, femininity was already an “empowerment program” for women. ….femininity was never about being some kind of delicate flower; it was tactical. (4-5)

Tactics: methods of winning a small-scale conflict, performing an optimization, etc. This applies specifically to warfare, but also to economics, trade, games and a host of other fields such as negotiation.

The delicate flower or the Victorian “Angel in the House“, for example, was “passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all–pure.” A domestic embodiment of the age-old angel/whore. If these qualities were part of marital negotiations (whether economics or warfare, you decide), what was the upside for the woman? Her children’s devotion? A comfortable home with all of the right amenities? The admiration of other ladies?

The immediate response is probably snort. But, replace “powerless” with “empowered”, “meek” with “husband-bullying”, and with “pure” with “hawt”, and you’re looking at an episode of The Real Housewives of Orange County, or the latest family sitcom. Self-sacrifice (or “indulgence” if you prefer) and motherhood remain closely tied – everything for the children, their schedules, their $100,000 bat mitzvahs. Raising the “entitled” generation.

Have no doubt that modern woman seems to have to manage a lot, including their husbands. Kipnis tells of attending a dinner party where the main sport seemed to be how well each woman could keep her man in check – a constant patter of Can you believe HE did that? or, Of course, I had to tell him what to wear… and so on.

Do men really want to be bullied? Is this what modern marital tactics are meant to provide as woman “power”? There’s a dialogue among some women that positions their husbands as additional children, or maybe bad servants, and always with a undertone of Look at the shit that I have to put up with – he’d be nothing without me, so clearly I’m the one with the power. And also? Men are stupid. And the other women chime in with a knowing laugh or maybe a trump story about how their husband tried to FEED THE BABY but he used a tea-towel instead of a bib and he didn’t do the choo-choo right and who puts peas with bananas?

If this is power, it seems rather petty. I get ticked off in turn: first by the women who think that this is them being competent or being funny or that this is a good way to have a relationship; then by the men who choose this kind of woman in the first place.

I’ve known several men who swear up and down that that’s not what they want. Invariably, they say they want a woman who is not a “wife” woman – I guess meaning one who “doesn’t play games” (again with the tactics), who “cares about more than her looks”, who “has her own life” – the feminist if we must choose. In practice, though, it seems that kind of woman is either a good lay or a dream mistress, cuz most men are all about “feminine” when it’s time to marry.

I guess…, which comes first? – the wife women or the marriage? It’s certainly a female tactic to be more whore than angel before the wedding, else we’d lose a lot of comedic material about pre and post-marital sex lives. It seems modern womanhood has not rid of us the Angel in the House after all.

Kipnis: The main reason feminism and femininity are incompatible is that femininity has a nasty little secret, which is this: femininity, at least in its current incarnation, hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy. A battle that is played out in the fact of a woman’s body. (7)

Kipnis goes into post-Lacanian and Freudian detail about the inadequacy of the female body, with the fact of its openings, the “lack” in psychoanalytic terms, and the associations of the female body with dirtiness going back to the bible, and I’m sure before that. Commericals are a particularly good way of peering at our own zeitgeist, so one need only go so far as whatever they are doing to schlep feminine products to see the truth in this. We’re at the point where we need wipes at that time of the month, to get rid of additional odor. The thing that biologically defines “woman” is blood and we spend a lot of money and effort trying to pretend it doesn’t happen. In fact, there are birth control pills out there now that help to ensure that you never “get it”.

Now, I’m not saying that any of this is a pleasurable experience. If you’re not a woman, let’s just say it’s like someone yanking your privates over your head, while you’re bleeding. But we can’t escape the fact that men never can experience that (nor childbirth). New-age goddess worshipping, of course, tells us it’s life-affirming and beautiful, but it’s also true that we spend more time avoiding it or covering it up or feeling dirty than we do feeling all affirmed. It’s still the case in some religions that women can’t engage in sexual activity while “unclean”, which can be up to two weeks a month – making it really hard, I would imagine, to be in a marriage as a man and a woman.

Female inadequacy. As Kipnis points out, perhaps the clearest motto of modern woman is “something’s missing” (11). Freud’s penis envy need not be literal. Just look at talk shows and magazines and infomercials and self-help books – “contemplate the sheer magnitude of anxiety about the lack of something on display” (11). Which, paradoxically, is why women are the primo consumers of our time. Women buy their way to advice and lifestyles through things for our bodies, for our homes, for our families. Always trying to stave off the lack, so to speak. If there’s one area where women really do have a measure of power, it’s shopping. They control the purse-strings in most households, and certainly keep beauty manufacturers and home stores in the black. It’s also true that single women are the fastest growing segment of first-time home buyers. Though we still are reluctant stock investors or speculators.

The black plague of our “buying in”, though, is “buying in” to a femininity that includes body modifications that simultaneously reinforce our sense of inadequacy (if only I had bigger boobs) and our sense that our bodies are our currency in relationship “negotiations” with men, wrapped in the language (and here’s the insidious part) of feminism (I have control over my body and I’m getting bigger boobs for ME).

There’s a trend in advertising these days that exposes the double edge of it. A female narrator speaks to the camera like a girlfriend, telling women need to know to be thinner, prettier, complete… Speaking directly the voice of inadequacy fueling all this consumer spending. My recent “roll my eyes” is one where a woman is sitting down to what’s clearly a first date, only (gasp), she tells the camera, what if her less-than-perfect teeth are revealed to this potential “Prince Charming” (I swear that’s the phrase used). This one little commercial manages to invoke princess mythology (beautiful woman is found/saved or otherwise taken care of by her prince) while denigrating the viewer’s ability to fulfill the fantasy (a princess can’t have bad teeth) AND reassuring her that she can still be a princess, if only she buys this toothpaste! (because, you go girl, you control your body!). And there you have it: a feminine/feminist dialogue revealing a fundamental “lack” that is “fulfilled” by consumerism – what else says modern woman?

Kipnis: But social history alone doesn’t tell you the whole story about women and dirt. It doesn’t tell you why large-scale social changes–women’s mass expedition into the workforce, for one thing–often leave inner life behind, what sociologists like to call role conflict, and authoritative sounding term that fails to shed any light whatsoever on why a woman is more prone to sniff a rancid dishcloth than her husband is. (83)

I once had a ‘buddy’ who never cleaned his house. I’d go over for a get-together and there’d be dishes on the counter and laundry on the floor. Hell, sometimes there weren’t even sheets on the bed. Did I care? No. If he were my boyfriend, would I care. Hell, yeah. I’d like to think that this one is a female DNA thing, but we I fear there really is a social measurement about housekeeping = a reflection of the female character. How else to explain Home Sense? Granted, I’ve also dated one of the neatest men on the planet, but the female perspective is WAY past cleanliness – we’re talking special china for Arbour Day.

It’s still a fact that many working women come home to their second shift of cleaning, cooking and child-minding, and increasingly, parent-minding. What isn’t clear is how this comes about, and as Kipnis suggests, there is both martyrdom available in this dynamic (woman sacrificing her valuable time for the primary needs of the family) and paradoxical bullying (he can’t do what I can do). Of course, there’s the overwhelming specter of tradition here as well – we may be in the 21st Century, but women are still judged (by society and themselves) on whether or not they are doing “enough” as mothers.

Speaking of, we are certainly not past the battle among women regarding the definition of a “good mother” – is she one who goes to work, has her own life but supports the growth of her children? is she the one who stays at home? (assuming there’s a choice, of course). One of the best quotes I’ve seen about this I picked up from All & Sundry who was quoting Pierre Kaplan, a female VP at Nintendo and a mother who said, But to me, whether mothers should work or not work is a hollow question for women who have that choice. What you need, no matter what your circumstance, is a passion for life you can demonstrate to your kids. What seems inadequate is to choose to stay at home and have no life BUT your kids’ lives.

For those of us that live outside of much of the dynamic that Kipnis explores (non-hetero marrieds with children), it’s like doing an anthropological study of a neighbouring tribe – one whose language is similar to yours, but for which you are lost when it comes to a deeper understanding. Not to stand higher, but more to the side. Not that we’re immune to the clashing forces at work in the collective female psyche; but that we are, at a very real level, disengaged from at least some of the battle (by choice or by chance can make a difference too).