by Elinor Potts
Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory is an explosive medley of feminist theory and anecdotal ephemera in Frank Wynne’s new translation for Fitzcarraldo Editions.
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Who is Virginie Despentes? On first glance, the snowwhite Fitzcarraldo Edition cover offers no aesthetic indicators.
In her own words, Desptentes is ‘a card-carrying punk,’ ‘a prole of the feminine underclass,’ and ‘more King-Kong than Kate Moss’. In cultural circles, Despentes is known as a filmmaker and author of the Man Booker International-shortlisted Vernon Subutex books, as well as the novel which inspired the violent and distinctly polarising sex film Baise-moi (2000).
In King Kong Theory, Despentes situates her voice amongst the 'abject subject' masses, within the 'warehouse of unsold women' in the wretched neoliberal landscape of noughties France. She sides with the misfits; 'massive sluts, the scrawny skanks, the dried-up cunts, those with pot bellies, those who wish they were men, those who think they are men, those who dream of being porn stars,' and all those who deviate from the fictional archetype of the sexy, successful white woman, which structures gendered expectations.
In the chapter ‘Who’s taking it up the arse, you or me?’, Desptenes despondently narrates the history of Western sexual cultures through unpacking the fallacy of femininity. Gender is configured through capitalism, the ‘equal-opportunities religion' which permeates offices and battlefields, equalising all sectors until 'the [last] real disparity is one of social class.’ ‘It is not so much the notion of our own inferiority that we women have internalized,’ she argues, ‘It is the idea that our independence is destructive that has penetrated to the marrow of our bones.’
Leading with a declarative voice, Despentes’ narration of historical sexual cultures falls foul of making sweeping gendered assertions which furrow the modern reader’s brow.
'There was no mention of female desire before the 1950s. The first time women come together in vast crowds [...] is during the early rock concerts of the ‘60s’ she explains, without a shred of hesitancy. She continues, ‘Men adore pretty women, they like to woo them and to brag when they manage to bed one. But what they like most is to see women fall on their faces and pretend to pity them, or openly gloat.’ These abstractions are perhaps founded in Despentes’ punk credentials, offsetting her commitment to historically-weighted criticism. However, King Kong Theory’s most significant misstep is the vague articulation of trans people who ‘think’ they are without explicit authorial recognition.
This is where a contemporary reading foregrounds the antiquated discourse of the 2006 text, indiscriminately lumping trans people into the abject subject masses. Where are trans people in the history of pornography and sexual activism? Desptentes' spirited assertion that 'the democratisation of pornography' is what worries the elite is certainly compelling, but one can't help but ask why trans and non-binary genders are exiled from this.
Despite this, Desptentes’ vernaculared theory is engaging, and the rhetoric littered throughout the book is often uniquely insightful. With unforgiving contempt, she asks, ‘Why has no-one come up with an equivalent of Microsoft for housework? How is it possible that in thirty years, not a single man has written an original essay on the subject of masculinity? When do we get men’s liberation? What connection can you have with yourself if even your pussy is systematically controlled by someone else?’
Unresolved, Desptentes’ interrogatives lead to her problematising of the language of sexual abuse, specifically the word 'rape', which 'loses its specificity [and] can be confused with other forms of aggression: being mugged, hauled off by the cops, held for questioning, beaten up.’ Reclaiming her experience, Desptentes' rape becomes a 'foundation stone' of who she is, 'as a writer, as a woman who is no longer quite a woman. It is what simultaneously disfigures me and makes me whole.’ Sardonically, Desptentes implores victims to, ‘Put concealer on your wounds, ladies, otherwise you might embarrass your torturer. Be a dignified victim. . . Feminism is a revolution, not a restructuring of marketing guidelines, not some vague PR campaign for cocksucking or partner-swapping.’
Ultimately, the 'womanhood' which Desptenes equates with 'whoredom' is far from a universal condition, and whilst the author's compelling fusion of the personal with the political is undoubtedly clever, it leaves a bitter taste without contemporary reflections from its author.