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Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny

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Clear-eyed, witty and irreverent, Laurie Penny is as ruthless in her dissection of modern feminism and class politics as she is in discussing her own experiences in journalism, activism and underground culture.

This is a book about poverty and prejudice, online dating and eating disorders, riots in the streets and lies on the television. The backlash is on against sexual freedom for men and women and social justice – and feminism needs to get braver.

Laurie Penny speaks for a new feminism that takes no prisoners, a feminism that is about justice and equality, but also about freedom for all. It’s about the freedom to be who we are, to love who we choose, to invent new gender roles and to speak out fiercely against those who would deny us those rights. It is a book that gives the silenced a voice – a voice that speaks of unspeakable things.
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I would love to read the book of the blurb of Unspeakable Things. Indeed, I loved reading Unspeakable Things. But Unspeakable Things is not the book that blurb describes. Penny is doing, here, something rather different, and in its own way wonderful…

Unspeakable Things is not a book about all women. It’s not an intersectional book. In fact, Penny openly and throughout acknowledges and discusses that it cannot be a book about all women; that she can only speak to her experiences, even as she speaks about and through the experiences of others. Women are not, as she says time and again, a monolith; women are not a singular entity linked by what she describes as a “hive vagina”, and issues of gender, class and race all have to play into feminism. Really, so much of this book is pegged on, supported by or explicated through Penny’s biography that it is as much memoir (in the tradition of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) as anything else. And that gives it a particular kick; that personalisation of these ideas really works and strikes home.

The ideas themselves are well, and angrily, explained. I read much of the book against a Riot Grrrl soundtrack including Huggy Bear, X-Ray Spex and Sleater Kinney, and the anarchic punk anger of those works clearly informs Unspeakable Things; the approach to ideas, the need to attack structures head on rather than trying to subtly undermine them, the linking of issues into part of a larger problem, all seem to come from that confrontational punk attitude. It’s one of the great strengths of the book; although Penny says “socialism without feminism is no socialism worth having” (p88), this book is about why feminism needs socialism. Neoliberalism, under Penny’s logic, is at the root of most problems, and while in many cases she demonstrates this admirably there are occasional fumbling leaps from point A to conclusion C without the intermediate argument B.

It’s also not just a book about political theory and Penny’s life. Unspeakable Things is as broad as its blurb implies in the range of places it looks at neoliberalism-driven misogyny; her Cybersexism chapter was published independently as an Amazon short and discusses social networks and online abuse of women, while she also talks about love, about women on the internet, about the culture around sex that exists, and so much more. Unspeakable Things is relentlessly grounded; rather than being the kind of book one can, potentially, dismiss as just sociological theory, an awful lot of what Penny is talking about is incredibly real and easy to see; between extensive footnotes, autobiographical anecdote and recognisably real discussions of real-world observable situations, Penny really drives home the ways these problems affect everyday life.

If there’s one major flaw in Unspeakable Things, and almost inevitably there is, it’s a stylistic one: how episodic and bitty it feels. Penny is famous for her journalism and essay/opinion pieces in the New Statesman and the Guardian, and it is in that form that she excels (Meat Market, her pamphlet for Zero Books, is another stunning example); for a continuous-prose work, though, Unspeakable Things feels remarkably like a collection of essays, much like her previous volume Penny Red. Repetition of ideas and even phrases permeates the volume, and the breaking down of long chapters into shorter sections, while useful from a reading point of view, just increases the feeling of the whole being a sort of jigsaw puzzle put together into a new shape. It also feels like a book for the Twitter age; Laurie Penny is a prolific tweeter (@PennyRed for the curious) and there are so many clever turns of phrase, brief motifs and similar little things that just cry out “Tweet me!” in the book that it can occasionally be distracting for the reader.

Of course, a passionate feminist book about how patriarchal neoliberalism (and its attendant consequences including rape culture and objectification of women and so on) is going to be hard for a generally-male-identified, male-sexed blogger to write about. Penny is not, with Unspeakable Things, speaking to men; she’s talking to women about breaking down the system which hurts them. But that isn’t to say it has nothing to say to men:

Thinking in a new way about sex, gender and power can help men to process their gendered pain. Unfortunately for them, as soon as they start to think and speak about gender they run into one awful, unshakeable fact: how much men as a whole have hurt women. Realising the full extent of male violence against women comes as a painful shock to any man of conscience. That means it’s hugely difficult for men to talk about masculinity without coming to terms with how frightening and aggressive masculinity in its modern form has come to be. (p96)

That’s speaking about men, rather than to them, but Penny uses it as part of an attack on the “not all men” idea that continually comes round in any feminist discussion; as she points out, yes all men benefit from generations of patriarchal social structure even if they themselves attempt to extricate themselves as individuals from it or as a group fight it. Unspeakable Things speaks to women, about women and society, but it is also a book for men, about society and how it hurts women. It doesn’t exclude men from its anger, but rather just isn’t focused on or particularly interested in them except as background characters in Penny’s story – and as she points out, that’s an inversion of the norm and can be uncomfortable.

This isn’t breaking particularly new ground in feminism, especially for those plugged into ‘net feminism. But Unspeakable Things is useful for getting feminism from the net into the minds of those not part of that sphere, and despite its flaws, Penny’s impassioned anger is wonderful to behold.


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