Laurie Penny: Love & Hypocrisy in the Time of Covid

*This week’s post about Women’s History is taking longer than expected to research. I don’t want to give you something half-baked, this came across my desk and I just had to…

Laurie Penny’s squandering of talent and privilege comes from the same pain we all feel.

Exasperation In Paris

Ugh, material existence is such a pain in the ass!

Another 80s baby, Laurie used her degree in English to build a personal brand from the remains of 90s Girl Power. She’s somehow been composing feminist screeds for major publications since her mid-20s, possessing an enviable list of credits and media awards.

Her 2016 entry Is Marriage Worth It? is a serviceable example of Laurie’s writing and philosophy. The humblebrag is strong: “I had been struggling to find language for my growing anxiety over the fact that, at almost 30, I still have no desire to settle down and form a traditional family.

“I've been waiting, as open-mindedly as possible, for a sudden neo-Darwinian impulse to pair up and reproduce. And yet here I am, and it hasn't happened.” Having presented herself as the exception, there was always the risk that falling for someone would seem to prove the rule.

Providing evidence that feminist agitation is cured by meeting Mr. Right would be quite the embarrassment!

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Laurie’s Wired article from last December – My Highly Unexpected Heterosexual Pandemic Zoom Weddingdelivers everything the title promises. Drawing upon all her propaganda experience, she weaves her words into a descriptive fabric she hopes is thick enough to obscure the corner she’s painted herself into. 

She tells us her adorkable love story to explain why she’s not a hypocrite – "Romance matters, and right now everyone I know seems to be understanding that in a new way. Everyone needs romance.”

I don’t disagree, but her only reasoning for abandoning her principles is to blame circumstances: “This year, though, the colliding catastrophes …  have made the entire question of normality somewhat moot.” 

"Nobody was more surprised than me when I suddenly caught the ball, in the shape of the heart of the kindest, most brilliant man I've ever met who somehow, inexplicably wants to hang out with me all the time, and there was nothing to do except run with it."

Snarky Typist

Yes, it sure is cute how you keep failing up!

Laurie has a long way to run to feel comfortable in her good fortune. Stuck in the opposition, she’s preoccupied with framing this essential human experience as ‘deviant’ – "The most deviant commodity on the modern internet isn't sex, it's sincerity. It can't be manufactured, and it's difficult to replicate and resell, both of which make earnest enthusiasm suspect.”

But Laurie found her some! She’s just that edgy!

For someone so relentlessly defiant, she sure is worried about being judged: "I had begun to do things that confused those who know me well. Things like wearing bright colors and going outdoors to enjoy the sunshine.”

And just in case anyone mistakes her for Like The Other Girls, Laurie pathologizes pair bonding with everything she’s got – “While I have never had a manic episode, I feel obligated to inform the relevant medical professionals if I'm ever planning to do anything that sounds like someone in a manic state might conceivably do."

…Like fall for a guy she barely knows. Has this woman somehow missed every single Romance film ever made??

Twitterpated

But this sweet, relatable story is very off-brand for Laurie.

I guess I’ve missed her because most of her work has been in the UK. Predictably, Laurie first caught my eye on Twitter.

Responding to someone identifying as, “former CEO of an LBG&T voluntary sector organization” asserting that there was an “overarching, coordinated ideological programme” after adding Trans representation to the their list of concerns, Laurie’s response was straightforward –

“I’d like to know more about this.”

Sly Smile

So you can figure the best way to bury it, amirite??

Good! I thought. Everyone needs to know more about this. Maybe someone’s journalistic curiosity has finally gotten the better of them.

Having looked into it, I think it’s pretty safe to say that’s not the case. The chorus of wry sarcasm flowing from that comment tells me I’m late to the party.

At first, I took her for about a decade younger – Black pleather and magenta hair combined with trendy defiance give the impression of a precocious newcomer to sexual politics. But Laurie is old enough to remember the Before Times. I’d even argue she’s used her status as a woman to build her reputation.

Getting in on the ground floor of blogging in 2007, her first wide exposure seems to have been the English arm of Occupy Wall Street. She gave several interviews in 2011, but my amazingly in-depth research yielded no obvious reason for Laurie as mouthpiece for Occupy.

Regardless, she went on to publish several heavily feminine-coded books. A 2012 collection of blog posts carries the title, Notes From the New Age of Dissent. Laurie has established herself as a dissident and rabble-rouser, that edgy bitch who’s a step ahead of the rest of us.

It must have been terribly embarrassing for her to fall in love! And with an opposite-sex partner from a similar background, no less! How mundane. How positively vanilla. How totally un-oppressed, how non-marginalized. How mainstream. How normal.

Identity Springs Eternal

The Wired article looks very much like Laurie trying to get in front of accusations of hypocrisy: "As I put it to him early on, and this is an exact quote: "I may be a wild and untamable trauma-twitchy anarcha-feminist fundamentally personally and politically opposed to het partnership as a social organizing principle,” but everyone wants romance! Feminism!

“…But I'm also not a fucking fool." Bravery is laying out your principled perspective, then admitting you’d be foolish to follow it.

To be fair, she admits she never expected to face the predicament of Going Steady, "My whole life, the whole of heterosexuality has felt to me like a school sports game I've been reluctantly made to play, and nobody wants me on the team." The reader is left to wonder how she managed to experience the whole of heterosexuality, especially if she never got picked!

Smokin

There are other ways to pass the time, you know…

These days she calls herself Genderqueer, but doesn’t claim to be anything other than straight. All I could find were repetitious iterations of Relationships are weird!

She’s even written a few things critiquing the sex industry, but that’s not on-trend anymore. Gender ideology has taken the place of any feminist ideas in Laurie’s relatively large, public body of work –  forming a nifty case study in the trajectory from Feminist Firebrand to Genderqueer Guerilla.

And, at the risk of riding my own biases, it’s what I’ve suspected for ages – Cognitive dissonance rots your brain!

Form Over Dysfunction

I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the 5th grade. I’m not bragging, but I am a nerd. My grandparents had bought me a whole set of classic books in cheap paperback for Christmas, and that was the year I learned what ‘unabridged’ meant.

Most of them went unread, but I’ve always been attracted to Horror and the unexplained. Mr. Stephenson’s accessible writing was a pleasant surprise.

I sometimes wonder what kind of person I would be if I hadn’t read that book at that moment. In it, I saw a man consumed by his rejection of his less-flattering qualities. I saw an obvious metaphor for mental dysfunction, and to this day I’m not sure if Stephenson meant it that way.

I may have been seeing what I needed to see, and I’m fine with that. I’ve spent the years since learning to practice radical honesty, if only within my own head.

Elder Millennial

The demands of practicality are seldom pretty!

Jekyll & Hyde was horrifying on a level few stories are. Creeping terror inhabits not just the words on the page but the subtext as well, which I couldn’t really understand. Ignorance worked in my favor for once, adding to the otherworldly atmosphere of the novel. 

It shook me, and it taught me a lesson – Shine a light on your flaws, because they only grow in the shadows. And, eventually, they can overtake you. This idea stuck with me as I got older, and I began to recognize it in the world around me. Adult life even has a simple word for it: Denial.

All You Need Is Denial

Allowing cognitive dissonance promotes mental static. Many people appear to deal with encountering contradictory thoughts by championing one and ignoring the other. Things escalate quickly when the unpopular idea refuses to be ignored.

You have to repeat this choice over and over and over to make it stick, performing a type of self-hypnosis. As if changing your personal perception might actually change material reality.

Too much of this makes authenticity impossible, acting without thinking risks breaking the spell.

The most useful emphasis is on being a functional person, rather than vexing ourselves about something untestable like ‘Good.’ It’s pretty easy to tell whether your state of mind is functional or not.

Stumbling into a core human experience shouldn’t threaten to bring your paradigm crashing down. This is a good sign it wasn’t terribly functional to begin with, Laurie my dear.

Oppositional defiance doesn’t work if daily life becomes pleasant. Defining yourself by The Struggle carries the hidden cost of pathological fear of success. If you’re not a warrior for the downtrodden, what’s the point?

Purple Drinker

Without external validation, I’ll have to find meaning in life on my own!

All this points to some pretty dark beliefs – Making your life about The Struggle demonstrates a profound pessimism that it will ever actually end. Insisting you’re on a Holy Mission only hints at a lack of personal meaning. 

The Personal, The Political

Near the end of about 2,000 words explaining why it’s OK to fall in love, Laurie stumbles upon an excitingly relevant question, "What does partnership look like when gender roles and domestic norms are collapsing along with every socioeconomic certainty?"

Feminism has little to say here, and Laurie is no help: "For us it looked like watching the election results come in from Georgia on the television in an Airbnb, clinging like a barnacle to the rock face of central Los Angeles."

When the rubber of theory meets the road of life, Identity Ideologues find they have no traction. Laurie’s 15 years in Journalism and feminist discussion left her completely unprepared for the rudimentary milestone of adulthood: “After a lot of Googling, it became clear that the only way for us to see each other before 2021 was for us to somehow become each other's immediate family. He asked how I would feel about the two of us becoming kin.

“I panicked and went to bed with my phone for the rest of the day. "

In 2016, Laurie was prepared to spend her life alone: “Marriage and babies have always been way down my list of priorities, and they're close to being nudged right off. There's too much else I want to do. I've made the same choice that men my age have been able to make for centuries without being scolded by society, or even having to think about it too much.”

But women are not men! 

“I had in fact specifically designed my life so I would never be obliged to shape it around a man, and was open enough about that fact that the issue had so far failed to come up.”

But neglecting to consider you might have different needs turned out to be a mistake.  Been there!

Steak

How did he make this look so fun??

Like many of us left to figure things out for ourselves while our parents deconstructed society, Laurie wasn’t aware of the startlingly mechanical nature of authentic chemistry – “The distance helped. I could tell myself that I wasn't really falling for him, and even if I was, there was no danger of that interrupting all of my carefully laid plans. 

“We started sending each other cakes and tiny treats, getting friends on the other side of the world to facilitate deliveries. By July, it was becoming horribly obvious that it wasn't just the distance that made this different.”

“It was safe to be vulnerable, to be enthusiastically non-neurotypical.” Well, yeah, you gotta make sure your weird is compatible with their weird! “It was terrifyingly safe to start to care about him, and what to do next was unexpectedly obvious.”

Love Vs. Politics

Old folklore describes love as a sickness, a syndrome with recognizable symptoms. Considering our rosy modern estimation of it, you’d think our society would have something useful to teach us.

But 2016 Laurie reminds us, “The burden [of family life] has fallen on women to such an extent that it has been naturalised, made invisible by the assumption that women and girls are just built to take care of all this stuff, if not by God then by nature, with a great deal of pseudo-scientific handwaving over the specifics.”

Laurie reanimates this ungainly concept by reversing the polarity: “The idea that we might not be, and that we might furthermore be fed up of doing so thanklessly and for free, is profoundly threatening to the smooth running of society as we know it.” To be single is to be subversive.

This is why a proposal from her sweetheart sent her into a panic. Laurie has dedicated so much energy to her tapestry of dissent, she never bothered to really look into what she was rejecting.

Witch Flight

Ooh, I’m telling Dad you went out like that!

"I have no idea what's going to happen next, any more than I can explain why every bizarre thing he does is brilliant." Welcome to life! It's unpredictable and unfathomable. No amount of philosophy will stop it from demonstrating that.

But the jagged pill at the core of all this posturing and denial is that Laurie Penny has been helping discredit feminism for 15 years. She is a loud voice in the chorus proclaiming gender critics right-wing conservatives, and not to be trusted.

Substituting virtue-signaling for ethics means she does what she can to keep other women from discovering alternatives to the philosophy that boxed her in. This sudden Romantic turn feels like a final blow struck as she exits the stage, damage done and profit in hand. 

But I don’t see it that way. Laurie has discovered the embedded trigger that is love. I don’t think this proves a feminist just needs a man, so much as it demonstrates how untrue the supposedly feminist approach to women’s lives really is.

Maybe that newlywed glow will carry her past the vista of her own cognitive dissonance. But I hope she gets a glimpse, I hope it haunts her until she has to figure it out. She’d probably write about it.

How romantic!

Comments

  1. Fredro -

    I hope I didn't sound too cynical, I believe in love (imagine Carly Simon singing). I still believe despite nearing 45 and having a George Costanza like ability to ruin possible relationships. An in/famous local feminist Clementine Ford recently went through the husband & baby bliss thing after spending years "bathing in male tears". A pattern of 2? Apparently she is about to release a new book about love. I suspect a whole generation of men & women were lured into a "spend your 20s & 30s shagging then settle down" lifestyle to find themselves at 40 without a partner and facing lonelitude and massive house prices. They were lured by writers like Penny and her male equivalents.

  2. Fredro -

    Was it ever wise to attribute wisdom and depth to writers like LP? Then be disappointed later as they switch from faux-rebel to wife-wannabe? 1 Before: GRLPWR, you don't need no man! 2 Now: I got a guy, love is wonderful! 3 Later: Men are bastards, we're better off alone! I wonder how soon is stop 3.

    • Brazen She -

      Good question. I figure she’ll make a stop at Tradwife on her way, while she’s happy and before the challenges to her ego overtake whatever connection she’s managed to make.

  3. Haroldmasters -

    Remember, Laurie is Not-Like-Other-Girls™! She's Genderspecial, better than those poor pathetic old washed up ciswomen who believe that biology and chromosomes are real!

    • Brazen She -

      Eeehhhhhhhhhhhhhhh I’m not buying it 😝

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