‘Unspeakable Things’ by Laurie Penny

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 ‘This is not a fairy tale.

     This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine’.

Unspeakable Things, Laurie Penny, Pg.1

I have never read any of Laurie Penny’s work before. However, as I was idly browsing Twitter one day on the bus I saw a link to an article on the Cosmopolitan website called ‘Why I don’t believe in The One’. I can’t remember how I came across it (because I don’t follow Cosmopolitan and gave up wasting my money on it years ago when I realised how deeply narrow-minded it’s view of female sexuality was) but I was intrigued by the title and clicked on the link to have a little read. I definitely liked what I saw and agreed wholeheartedly with Laurie Penny’s belief that ‘the notion of The One is profoundly unromantic’. I then saw at the bottom of the article that her book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, would be out that same week. As luck would have it I was on my way to the Waterstones Café in Greenwich at the time so I thought I would have a quick look for it. I know that I am supposed to be limiting my book-buying to the Kindle in preparation for the big move, but I reasoned that I would read it straight away (which I did!) so it wouldn’t matter. It seemed like I was destined to buy the book as it was right there on the new releases shelf, just waiting for me, at the front of the store:

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Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things does exactly what it sets out to do – it offers a raw and honest account of the gender constraints under a neoliberal and capitalist society that views gender as a commodity. It voices a harsh reality that is true for many, though at no point does it claim to speak for everybody – ‘I am not writing as Everygirl, because there’s no such thing’ (pg.10). It is a heart-rending tale of female oppression – particularly ‘poor women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould’ (my only criticism is that it could do this more), but it also highlights how (some) men are also hurt by the ‘straightjacket’ of stereotypically constructed gender roles.

‘Patriarchy, throughout most of human history, is what has oppressed and constrained men and boys as well as women. Patriarchy is a top-down system of male dominance that is established with violence or with the threat of violence. When feminists say ‘patriarchy hurts men too’, this is what we really mean. Patriarchy is painful, and violent, and hard for men to opt out of, and bound up with the economic and class system of capitalism’.

Unspeakable Things, Laurie Penny, Pg.70

Penny’s writing isn’t an angry polemic against men, in fact her book is brimming with compassion for men and women alike. Filled with autobiographical elements that are used almost as a platform to dive into wider themes and issues – such as anorexia, rape and cybersexism – Penny writes with clarity and bravery. She is human, like any one of us, with her own scars to bear and her personal interjections only enhance the shocking reality of how far we still have to go.

Beginning with ‘Fucked-up girls’, Penny explores how much pressure there is on young girls to conform to a narrowly defined concept of femininity – a femininity we see everywhere from ‘girls’ toys, women’s magazines and the media. She describes her own unflinchingly honest experience of suffering from anorexia as a teenager and explains how women are taught to fear their bodies, to fear taking up space.

‘The battles of the young girl under late capitalism are the battles of the age, for dignity and gender and identity. The young girl, whose abjectness is part of her charm, is supposed to know better than anyone else that her misery is her own fault. She senses that she is fashioning herself into a commodity, meat for the cubicle moulded in plastic, but when her soul rebels she assumes the problem is that she isn’t a good-enough commodity, and works harder to shave off her strange and painful edges’.

Unspeakable Things, Laurie Penny, Pg.47

It is heartbreaking to hear, in depth, some of the theory surrounding why young women, in particular, suffer from anorexia. From a form of rebellion, which inevitably turns their anger inwards and hurts only themselves to the attempt to return to that pre-pubescent world – before they started developing breasts and a much more obvious ‘female’ body – where life seemed less complicated, Penny doesn’t shirk around the fact that the capitalist culture we live in has created a commodified female sexuality, which is becoming narrower and narrower to fit into. We live in a world where one of the most hurtful insults is to call a woman ‘ugly’. This is particularly prominent in the media where any woman who has the audacity to speak out in the public eye – from politicians, to athletes, to celebrities – are, more often than not, critiqued on their appearance over their substance.

She then goes on to explore the ‘Lost Boys’ of our generation – the young men who have been brought up to believe that they can achieve anything but whose hopes have been dashed by the economic recession. She argues that instead of taking responsibility, the capitalist society we live in deflects this male anger and rage onto women.

However, I felt that Laurie Penny really came into her own in the ‘Cybersexim’ chapter and it is no surprise that, on further research, she has written an entire book called Cybersexism (which I have immediately snapped up). Everything from pornography – which she states is not the problem – sex is never the problem, but people’s ‘inability to deal with sex in a way that is not violent, guilty and contemptuous of women and girls’ – to trolling is explored as well as the many positives for women the invention of the internet has brought – as Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, stated, ‘This is for everyone’ and ‘everyone’ includes women as well.

‘The internet may perpetuate prejudice and facilitate gendered violence, but it also helps us fight it’.

Unspeakable Things, Laurie Penny, Pg.197

Although the internet was cited as a place for everybody, it has not liberated us from gender as many ‘nerds, theorists and hackers’ first thought (pg.152-3). Sexist trolling has been increasingly prominent on social media platforms – there have been many high profile cases in the past few years – which has reinforced the notion that women should be shamed for stepping into a public space. I think if anyone knows about sexist trolling it is Laurie Penny, who has had her [un]fair share yet refuses to be silenced. As Penny states, the internet is a public space and one where a ‘new mood of vigilantism is beginning to take hold […] whereby people with a new understanding of misogyny and what it means aren’t prepared to wait for society to fix itself’ (pg.197-8). There have been many national and global call-to-arms, which would not have gained as much momentum without the internet, such as the SlutWalk movement, which arose from the unwarranted victim-blaming in a rape case by a Toronto police officer, to Everyday Sexism and the No More Page 3 campaign. There are many ways, through the use of the internet, that women are speaking out and making change happen.

The last chapter of Unspeakable Things talks about ‘Love and Lies’ in a society that strongly reinforces the narrative of a heterosexual, monogamous Love™. A Love™ that is hurtful to women as it reduces us not only to sex objects but love objects too. As it tells us that The One is real and should be at the top of our priority for happiness. That those who haven’t found The One yet, or have lost The One, have ultimately failed at life. It is this narrative, amongst others, that is the hardest to break from. But, as Laurie Penny states: ‘Social change happens when the old stories we tell ourselves to survive are no longer sufficient, and we create new ones’ (pg.86). Unspeakable Things is Penny’s attempt to do just that – to break free from the myths of gender that are holding us back, to break free from the narratives that have become so ingrained in our culture that they go unquestioned and uncriticised.

I will end this (rather long and rambling) review with a powerful statement that Laurie Penny makes near the beginning of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution:

‘The revolution will be feminist, and that when it comes it will be more intimate and more shocking than we have dared imagine’.

Unspeakable Things, Laurie Penny, Pg.4

I believe her and am convinced that change is happening slowly but surely. And, just to be clear (from some of the preposterous claims of the #WomenAgainstFeminism group that has gained attention on social media lately): ‘Feminism has never just been about liberating women from men, but about freeing every human being from the straitjacket of gender oppression’ (pg.60).

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7 Replies to “‘Unspeakable Things’ by Laurie Penny”

  1. Great review! I didn’t find it long or rambling at all, I think you discussed the book really well. I’ll definitely try and read this book soon because it sounds really interesting.

  2. Excellent review. Penny’s collected essays released as the book Penny Red is also well worth checking out.

    Just a heads-up though, the ebook Cybersexism is not a separate book but was actually just the same chapter contained in Unspeakable Things released as a preview.

    1. Oh no! That’s a shame, I should have perhaps researched that a bit more. Thanks for commenting. I will definitely check out the collected essays!

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