Laurie Penny has been one of my favourite authors for a while now. Her incisive takes on how feminism can be more intersectional, more anti-capitalist, have continued to be on point as the United States and UK shamble towards their respective political armageddons (armagedda?). Penny’s Unspeakable Things is the feminist primer for my generation. So when I heard that she had a new book coming out, and that it was called Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults, pre-ordering it was a no-brainer.
Let’s take a moment with the wordplay in that subtitle. Penny is big on consent, of course, so I love how she replaces the phrase “consenting adults” with “dissenting adults” and reminds us up front that her feminism is anti-establishment by definition. Penny’s writing is always sharp and unapologetic in its demands on its readers. In every essay, every piece in this book, Penny demands action. She has this to say in the introduction:
The title is a provocation, but so is the rest of the book. How could it be otherwise? Anything any woman ever writes about politics is considered provocative, an invitation to dismissal and disgust and abuse, in much the same way that a short skirt is considered an invitation to sexual violence. That’s the point. I have learned through years of writing in public that if you are a woman and political, they will come for you whatever you say—so you may as well say what you really feel. If that makes me a bitch, I can live with that.
I love Penny’s writing so much, not just for the ideas it espouses but for the skill and care in its diction and style alone: Penny is a good writer, hands down, expressing her ideology so clearly. In many cases she can talk about horrible, uncomfortable things in beautiful ways. In that passage above, she writes with a passion, a zealous devotion born from an anger I can never know. And that’s what sets her apart from me. The privilege of my gender filters my experiences, so that when I write about feminism, I’m not subject to the same torrent of abuse that Penny and other women experience.
Penny is quick to point out, however, her own privilege:
I’m middle-class, white, well educated. I have less to lose by taking my own advice than others do. I have less to lose by seeking freedom than my mother did, and she had less to lose than her mother, although they both had far more to win. There is still a world to win.
I’m not writing as everygirl, because there is no such thing. The idea that any person could speak “for women” is cartoonish in its misunderstanding of what feminism is, what women are. (11)
This is an important acknowledgement even if it seems like Feminism 101 to anyone who reads a lot of this, because this is where white feminists get particularly tripped up. In our zeal for liberation we forget that there are people who have more skin (literally) or other, diverse perspectives in this fight. Penny isn’t perfect, and neither are the essays in this book. The idea that you’re going to be feminist without making any mistakes is as silly as thinking you’ll somehow make a championship NBA team without ever missing a shot.
Penny grounds her understanding of feminism in an anti-capitalist context. That is to say, the patriarchy exists because it’s a way for the dominant group of people to hold on to power:
All politics are identity politics, but some identities are more politicized than others … this is not a problem for the traditional left. It is a problem for the traditional right, which has pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy for centuries … a hierarchy of victimhood that diverts energy and anger away from the vested interests bankrolling the entire scheme. (4)
(That’s why, when feminism became popular and trendy enough, companies started using it to market products—because they really don’t care what philosophy they espouse, as long as it sells.)
Lest you think Penny only targets the “traditional right” though, she has critiques for the “traditional left” too. Though her sympathies are undoubtedly socialist, Penny is quick to condemn those who yearn for the good ol’ people’s revolution:
I’ve heard it said that for a progressive, equal society to come about, the one we have now has to collapse completely. I’ve heard this said almost overwhelmingly by men on the left who nurse guilty hard-ons over visions of dying in battle as martyrs. Civilisation, they say, needs to collapse completely before we can have the revolution we need. (17)
Have I mentioned that, so far, I’ve only been quoting from the introduction?
Suffice it to say, I could quote at length from this book. So much of what Penny has to say here is relevant and topical. I’m writing this as the American media reels from white nationalists marching in Charlottesville and Trump’s completely inappropriate response to it. If you read Bitch Doctrine now you could be forgiven for thinking Penny was writing after those marches; so many of her essays link Trump to the rise of white nationalism and the clouds on the horizon. She isn’t prophetic, mind you—she just has her eyes open. Plenty of people were writing about this and talking about it in the years leading up to and following Trump’s election. It’s not for lack of trying; we didn’t listen.
Penny also has a great deal to say about women’s bodies, reproductive agency, and sexual violence. Most of the writing here is powerful, again both in terms of style and substance. She asks the reader to confront these problems not just as horrible from a moral point of view but as symptoms of a broken system:
It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end—from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them. (236)
This is the kind of passage that I would hope makes readers go, “Whoa” and makes heads explode. I was kind of already in this head-space, and even still, the succinctness with which Penny makes these connections is so powerful.
Penny is equally at home talking about Nazis, politics, and nerd culture. Her nerdy interests mean she can speak to this demographic as one of us rather than as an outsider looking in with anthropological distaste. Even as she critiques the ways nerd culture reinforces patriarchy, she does so with compassion:
Finding out that you’re not the Rebel Alliance, you’re actually part of the Empire and have been all along, is painful.
(Requisite reference to the Mitchell & Webb “Are we the baddies?” sketch now.) That sentence is just so good; it’s such a perfect and nerdy way of capturing the immensity of the betrayal that our society pulls on good people with privilege.
If it’s not comforting to know you’re part of the Empire, then you’re not alone. There isn’t a lot of comfort in Bitch Doctrine. I would say, though, that there is a fair amount of hope. I don’t think Penny would be writing otherwise. And perhaps that’s why I love these essays so much: one can tell from her tone and style that Penny truly believes writing has the power to change the world. This is a powerful form of activism.
The essays collected herein were previously published elsewhere, so fellow fans of Penny might find them somewhat familiar. Although I think some have been expanded/revised, if you came here looking for a lot of new material, you might be disappointed. Similarly, although Penny and her editors have worked hard to curate a sensible collection, the end result is a little bit more scattershot than a more unified effort like Unspeakable Things. While this doesn’t detract from Bitch Doctrine’s quality as a feminist polemic, it’s just not my personal preference. Other people might be totally fine with it.
On a related note, another one of my few qualms about this book is that I wish the essays had dates on them. They’re grouped thematically rather than ordered chronologically, so as a result, some of the works feel fresh and topic, but others feel a little out of date given more recent political or cultural events. Context is important, and without dates, we lack some information here.
Overall, Bitch Doctrine is a nice compilation of a lot of Penny’s best work over the past few years. This isn’t the place to start if you’re on the fence about feminism, and people who read a lot of feminist work might not find a lot new here (lots of nodding and agreement, maybe some areas of disagreement over how Penny tries to be intersectional). On the whole, though, the success of this work lies in whether or not Penny’s particular brand of fire-and-snark is to your taste. It certainly is to mine.