She’s Not Sure What You Are

The Patriarchy Made Me Do It

Not only are [young women seen as] objects, they are abject, terminally unable to cope with the exigencies of adult life, of the bewildering array of life choices modern society offers us, from vaginal butchery to jobs in the service sector.

Yes, I fear Laurie Penny is off her meds again

I hesitate to summarise what it is she’s banging on about in this extract from her latest book, as it isn’t particularly clear to me. Nor is it always obvious how one avalanche of hyperbole and assertion leads to the next. The joining logic is hard to pin down, let alone parse. It’s all rather impressionistic and yet terribly adamant. It’s sort of, “Self-harm-something-something-patriarchy-obviously.”

Western womankind is collectively imagined as a toddler let loose in a candy store, so overwhelmed by the range of options that it has an ungrateful tantrum and is sick on the floor. 

Collectively imagined. As so often in Laurie’s mental landscape, dark forces are at work although the evidence has been lost in a mysterious warehouse fire. We are, however, pointed to the “front pages of celebrity magazines,” on which, obviously, all sane people model their own, actual lives. We’re told that “Successful women on the verge of mental and physical collapse… is a myth that pleases the powerful,” though who the powerful might be is also far from clear. Can she mean the overwhelmingly female readership of Heat magazine?

Meanwhile, huge chunks of rhetoric fall from the sky:

Sometimes we get called rebels and degenerates and troublemakers, and sometimes we are known to the police. And sometimes, in the narrow hours of the night, we call ourselves feminists.

Because it just wouldn’t be a Laurie Penny article without some of that. 


From boardrooms to the streets, women’s anxiety to keep our body mass as low as possible is based on legitimate fears that we will be punished if we attempt fully to enter patriarchal space. No wonder so many of us are starving.

That paranormal “we” again, of which Guardian columnists seem inordinately fond. I wonder, though. Does the above describe you, your family and friends? Are you, or they, fearful of fully entering “patriarchal space” and being “punished” by unspecified patriarchs on account of last night’s pudding? Is yours a “brave new world where empowerment means expensive shoes and the choice to bend over for your boss”? Do you therefore feel inclined to hack at your own flesh, or starve yourself, or rot your teeth with stomach acid, to the point of family alarm and hospitalisation, as Laurie did?

The young women already there [on the eating disorders ward] look like broken dress-up dolls, all of us poured from the same weird, emaciated mould, barely able to stand upright, the same cut marks scored like barcodes in the secret places on our skin. 

Is that what womanliness, your womanliness, is like? Or – and I’m just spitballing here – is there something not entirely representative about Ms Penny and her lurid mental adventures?


In the comments, rjmadden shares his understandable bewilderment,

I’m confused. Is she trying to tell us that women can cope or that they can’t?

As with many articles by self-styled feminists, it’s actually hard to tell. Laurie insists that it’s a myth that young women are “terminally unable to cope with the exigencies of adult life” – a “myth that pleases the powerful” – the unspecified powerful. And yet she also tells us that women as a class of beings are riddled with anxieties about weight and prettiness and are neurotically starving themselves. And dreading whatever torments lurk in “patriarchal space.” This, from a feminist and self-described “radical” whose own coping strategies included quite serious self-harm and a spell in hospital.

Our tearful feminist also seems keen to ascribe her own mental health issues to women in general and then, in the name of feminism, assumes those women to be trivial, feeble creatures, adrift on a tide of celebrity gossip magazines, adverts for cosmetics and other social ephemera. Women, she says, “consume only what we are told to” by “a machine that wants our work, our money, our sexuality broken down into bite-sized chunks.” In Laurie’s world, women are trying to be “perfect girls” who are “compliant,” who “make people feel comfortable” and who “accept the occasional grope in the corridor.” And yet I struggle to think of any woman I know, an actual woman, matching this description. 

Previously in Unhappy Land