Virginie Despentes is a bit of a UFO in the French literary landscape: born in 1969, she’s worked as a writer, filmmaker, sex worker, journalist, and sales clerk, among other things. She was an important part of Generation X’s sexual revolution in France, which notably prompted writers and artists to claim freedom from repressive post-war cultural norms; she became a member of the prestigious Académie Goncourt two years ago, but nonetheless still appears as a counter-establishment figure. She’s not here to please.
What’s so striking about her, especially within the context of the French cultural landscape, is that she’s blunt, upfront, and unapologetic about upending normative rules of decorum regarding what can be discussed and how it must be discussed. Throughout her work, she counters two dominant tendencies in contemporary French letters when it comes to gender and sexuality. One strays from political issues, embeds any talk of sexuality into Catholic shame and guilt, and prudishly remains within “safe” ideological bounds. The other seemingly takes pleasure in breaking down taboos but remains staunchly within dominant discourses of misogyny. For the former, “feminism” is still an icky word; the latter sometimes seems to embrace it but mostly revels in the supposed libertine heritage of the Marquis de Sade and Co., without actually dismantling anything.
Despentes will have none of that. She does not shy from describing how being gang raped as a young adult hitchhiking across France affected her: it does not define her, but it did influence her way of thinking about class, gender, and sexuality. Pornography and prostitution feature prominently in her writings and films, but they are wrested away from the male gaze that has so thoroughly defined them for the past centuries in the French mainstream culture. There’s violence, heaps of it, but it’s never mere spectacle. Take the novel (which she later turned into a film) that propelled her into the public eye: Baise-moi, (literally “Fuck me,” though it’s been translated in various ways into English, including “Rape me”) is about two women, both sex workers, who go on a revenge spree after a rape. Both the book and the movie are graphic, over-the-top at times, but they also confront us with the ways we gender and regulate sex and violence. It’s not about showing how women can be just as violent and amoral as men—it’s about asking what happens when people who don’t usually have power decide to forcefully reclaim it. It’s about what we allow women to do, and how easy it is to label them monstrous for displaying the same kind of violence men routinely show without repercussions.
Writing within the confines of what’s socially acceptable is of little interest to Despentes; her descriptions of all kinds of marginalized populations are unflinching and relentless, allowing her to expose and skewer the various hypocrisies of the French late-capitalist bourgeoisie with delusions of ethical grandeur. Among her recent novels, Apocalypse Baby and the Vernon Subutex trilogy depict the kind of France that hardly shows up in foreign accounts: morally bankrupt or shallow, repressive and restricted. Her characters are routinely unlikable, or difficult to relate to, and yet we can’t deny we’re attracted to a few of them, for what they represent: the materialization on the page of some of our most hidden fantasies of violence and freedom from any kind of social injunctions. Don’t go looking for Amélie Poulain in Despentes’ France.
King Kong Theory is where she lays out most clearly her positions regarding the state of feminism and the condition of women in contemporary France. It’s a short book of nonfiction that tackles head-on topics that, for all the libertine heritage French intellectuals love to claim, most of them are hesitant to address clearly and with nuance. Though it can stray into rants at times, it is clearly a wake-up call and a call to arms that hinges on “the personal is political” – Despentes’ life shaped and gave meaning to her feminism. More broadly, King Kong Theory highlights how Despentes is always asking us to consider who gets to control their own story, and how anger might be a powerful tool to reclaim power. In an era where famous French actresses are petitioning for the right of men to “bother” (importuner) women, it’s refreshing hearing Despentes rail about how femininity and feminism have been defanged to conform to social expectations. Anger might not solve everything, but it already provides a dynamic against the immobility imposed by the status quo: anger gives you a voice.
Despentes remains a controversial figure in France, with many claiming that her choice of subject matter and her depictions of violence end up undermining her feminist message. But her “spiky anger,” as Lauren Elkin calls it, is never about mere shock value. “Girls are never, never taught to be violent,” says Despentes, and they’re never taught to be at the center of their own story either. Despentes’ work, however crude or impolite or violent it may be, seeks, first and foremost, to restore or reassert unconditional agency and subjecthood to women. Even if that means getting furious.
Image: Virginie Despentes – Prix Landerneau Découvertes et Roman 2015 (ActuaLitté, 2015)