The “Feminist” Shield
On the Laura Kipnis Affair and the Rhetorical Value of Identifying as a Feminist
By Matthew Stahlman
o those of us who tread in certain political circles, the Laura Kipnis affair at Northwestern is a familiar story by now. Kipnis, a feminist1 cultural critic, film professor, and author of books like Against Love and Men: Notes From An Ongoing Investigation, wrote an article called “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” that was published in Chronicle of Higher Education in early 2015, arguing that a specific strain of campus feminism was taking a turn toward the infantilization of the class it claimed to protect, and specifically fingered professor-student dating bans as an example of what was wrong. People reacted, and some students protested—two filed Title IX claims against Kipnis, arguing that by mentioning one specific incident that had happened on the Northwestern campus, she was engaging in retaliation and creating a hostile environment for women.
Kipnis survived the investigation, and published a second article (“My Title IX Inquisition”) in the Chronicle about how little due process there was in the investigation, and how disturbing the whole episode was. The case gained a certain iconic status, and got a substantial amount of media coverage, including articles on sites like Slate, Jezebel, and The Nation. Most of the coverage was favorable to her. When the American Association of University Professors released a draft report in March on the misuse of Title IX, they cited Kipnis’s case prominently, and when the New York Times published a write-up on this AAUP report, they interviewed Kipnis briefly. Even now, references to Kipnis’s article frequently crop up in online political discourse. The question of why—what the piece did that moved people, including lefty news organizations that had until that point generally sided with protestors in campus disturbances—is interesting. To answer that question, one has to examine the piece’s rhetoric, and in particular, Kipnis’s particular invocation and engagement of feminism.
The basic argument of Kipnis’s piece contrasts two forms of feminism: the form Kipnis says she “came of age under,” which stresses “independence and resilience,” and another, dominant form that she calls “feminism hijacked by melodrama,” characterized by “an obsession with helpless victims and powerful oppressors” and a greater willingness to use bureaucratic power structures to do one’s dirty work. The tension between these two forms of feminism underpins the whole essay. Regulations prohibiting professor-student dating have been on the rise in the last few years, including in Kipnis’s own workplace; these rules can be seen as a litmus test for which kind of feminist one is, since they represent a conflict between agency over one’s own body and protecting potential victims.
Kipnis’s advocacy for an independence-based feminism begins in the first few sentences, and the rhetorical twist therein is striking. She opens with a sarcastic sidelong glance at professors and students who get married. “They used to be respectable citizens—leaders in their fields, department chairs, maybe even a dean or two—and now they’re abusers of power avant la lettre,” she writes, and goes on to wonder about how the children of such couplings now view their parents. She notes that this phenomenon was not, and is not, exactly rare, in her experience: “several such ‘mixed’ couples spring to mind, including female professors wed to their former students.”
We might ask ourselves why she begins this way, especially given that she never returns to the subject of married couples, and (as evidenced in her book Against Love) isn’t exactly a fan of tying the knot. The answer, I think, is that opening this way goes a long way toward disarming one of the most common arguments one might make against her position. The rhetoric one hears to justify banning relationships between people of presumably2 unequal power is that such relationships are inherently non-consensual, that there is something about power differentials that renders consent impossible. But the existence of married couples resulting from unequal-power relationships seems to belie this argument, at least partially. If unequal-power relationships inherently lack consent, Kipnis implicitly argues, what would you say about the marriages that result from such couplings? Are those who wind up in such marriages helpless victims being sexually exploited?
Her line of argument puts ban defenders in an awkward spot. To maintain their position in the face of the anecdotal evidence of marriages that Kipnis presents, they have, as I see it, two choices. They can argue that people in married relationships who believe that they are making free choices around sex are actually being victimized, a position that smacks of overt condescension—though, as Kipnis notes, it actually aligns with a certain strain of radical feminism in the vein of Andrea Dworkin. (“[Dworkin would] have been gratified to learn that her convictions had finally gone mainstream,” she writes.) The other likely position that a ban defender might hold is that that those involved are making free choices, but the reality of power-relationships is such that it’s worth curtailing individual liberties to protect students from victimization. But, again, most feminists would likely not be comfortable openly adopting an anti-civil-liberties, anti-bodily-integrity3 position. In all, Kipnis’s opening gambit exposes the tension within feminism between valuing individual choice and self-respect and valuing protection of victims. This sets the stage for the rest of the essay.
f course, all of this works best, rhetorically speaking, if Kipnis herself is seen as a feminist with strong credentials; wearing the feminist label allows her to speak with an implicit authority regarding feminism, including where it may be going astray. It should come as no surprise, then, that her identification as a feminist is presented in a number of different ways, both subtle and overt. I already mentioned that she says she came of age “under a different version of feminism,” and her text’s references to Dworkin’s work hint at a certain literacy in feminist theory, as the references to Foucault do with regard to contemporary political theory more generally. But there are other examples, too. In a widely-viewed video interview conducted by the libertarian magazine Reason, Kipnis paused before answering the first question to note, “First of all, I was writing as a feminist.” (This didn’t stop Reason from posting the video to YouTube under the headline “Laura Kipnis On How Campus Feminism Infantilizes Women,” to Kipnis’s dismay, as she relayed to me when I met her in last spring. She’d prefer the headline refer to what she’s decrying as “a certain strain of campus feminism,” rather than campus feminism writ large.)
It’s important to note that there’s nothing unsavory about Kipnis identifying as feminist; the fact that it greases her work’s wheels and lends it greater effect doesn’t mean it’s done in anything approaching bad faith. Her books show a great literacy with the feminist tradition as well as critical theory chops of a more general sense; it’s not as if Dworkin is a name that gets cynically dropped into “Sexual Paranoia” to earn cool points. And even if Kipnis’s feminist identification weren’t done in earnest—which it is—there are concerns of self-preservation here that might deserve our empathy. Here’s Kipnis in “My Title IX Inquisition,” describing having to explain herself to the investigative board:
I wrote up a peevish statement asserting that the essay had been political speech, stemming from my belief, as a feminist, that women have spent the past century and a half demanding to be treated as consenting adults; now a cohort on campuses was demanding to relinquish those rights, which I believe is a disastrous move for feminism. I used the words “political” and “feminist” numerous times.
There can be no doubt that Kipnis’s feminism is integral to the essay’s rhetorical positioning. But as I noted earlier, Kipnis’s own words aren’t the only rhetoric surrounding the case, which received extensive media coverage, has acquired a certain kind of cultural cachet, and is still referenced frequently in articles, particularly those pertaining to the state of left politics and Title IX. Did her status as a feminist play into the kind of reception the essay was given?
I don’t think there’s any way of knowing for sure, and my position is speculative, but I think it absolutely did. Some (though not all) of the publications covering the case trumpeted the fact that she identified in this way, often near the beginning of their articles. The right-wing National Review: “Laura Kipnis is a feminist professor at Northwestern University—and not just any feminist.” Michelle Goldberg, at leftist commentary site The Nation: “At Northwestern, the target of the [student] protest was not a person accused of assault, but the provocative feminist film professor Laura Kipnis.” The best example, from a headline of the feminist blog Jezebel: “Feminist Students Protest Feminist Prof For Writing About Feminism.” (Like a lot of publications, Jezebel uses keyword tags so that articles can be easily found later; this one was amusingly tagged as “Feminismism.”) It’s worth meditating on why these pieces play up Kipnis’s feminism. Certainly, part of the reason is that both her essays’ rhetoric and her case’s controversy expose the aforementioned internal tensions between different styles of feminism. All three pieces find these internal tensions interesting; Goldberg, for instance, talks about an “ideological divide” between Kipnis and her critics, and explains a little of feminism’s history to her readers. Relatedly, there’s an Ouroboros-like flavor to the whole situation that can only be properly explored if Kipnis’s feminist identity is highlighted; the Jezebel piece’s last line sentence reads, “It is a stunning example of feminism eating itself.”
But I wonder if there’s another rhetorical aim to underscoring Kipnis’s feminism, especially in the case of the Jezebel piece: by presenting Kipnis, and her ideas, as “feminist,” it helps the authors shield themselves from criticism for agreeing with her. A little context is important. In 2014 and early 2015, Jezebel, and the Gawker blog network of which Jezebel is a part, were notorious for a certain kind of political viciousness—especially when it came to issues around both campus activism and sex. When a couple of journalists—accurately, it turned out—first questioned the validity of a Rolling Stone article on an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, Jezebel’s Anna Merlan put them on blast with a belligerent takedown, entitled, “‘Is The UVA Rape Story A Gigantic Hoax?’ Asks Idiot.” A couple of months later, Jon Chait at New York magazine wrote a relatively high-profile article criticizing certain aspects of campus activism, “Not A Very P.C. Thing To Say,” and Gawker’s Alex Pareene responded with a hit piece (“Punch-Drunk Jonathan Chait Takes On The Entire Internet”) that makes Chait’s centrist scolding look tame by comparison. At that point, if you had to pick a publication that would side against campus activists in a dispute and write in favor of someone in their crosshairs, Gawker/Jezebel would have been far down the list. There was something mobbish and frightening about the way these publications would attack their targets, and the kind of culture their actions reflected and embodied. Goldberg’s piece on the Northwestern case contains a quote from Kipnis, later reiterated in “My Title IX Inquisition,” that reflects the climate: “Someone on my campus—tenured—wrote me about literally lying awake at night worrying about causing trauma to a student, becoming a national story, losing her job, and not being able to support her kid.” This sounds like an exaggeration, but group outrage and shaming on the internet were a big deal at this particular cultural moment, as evidenced by Slate’s referring to 2014 as “The Year of Outrage” and Jon Ronson’s timely book on the subject, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. This pugnacious climate was in large part engendered by outlets like Gawker and Jezebel.
And then, some four months after the Chait takedown, Jezebel published their very friendly piece on Laura Kipnis. As someone who at the time read Gawker sites semi-regularly, with a mixture of morbid fascination and fright—Kipnis’s correspondent wasn’t the only one who would lie awake thinking about this stuff—it was the first time I’d seen them take a position against campus activists and in favor of their opponents. In doing so, of course, they risked exposing themselves to criticism from the same online outrage machine they’d helped spawn. The fact that Kipnis was a feminist, I would argue, helped insulate them from this criticism, allowed them to stake out a relatively safe rhetorical position in which it was more difficult to accuse them of consorting with the enemy. If they had supported, say, Chait—a centrist Democrat who doesn’t come off as overly fond of leftist causes—they’d have had a much tougher job selling their position to their readers, and escaping criticism. I’m not saying the way the Jezebel article is constructed is entirely contrived, but I also don’t think it’s an accident that the article’s headline describes Kipnis as a feminist. It’s a convenient way to deflect the kind of invective that was so prevalent at the moment.
f course, there’s another difference between Kipnis and Chait besides the content of their articles and the fact that one is a feminist and one isn’t, and it has to do with the authors’ gender. So let’s ask another question that may be even more provocative: is part of the effect of Kipnis’s essay the fact that she’s not only a feminist but also a woman? Is there something about being a woman that makes these issues easier to write about persuasively than they would be for a man?
There’s a level at which of course that’s the case, in the sense that it’s probably easier for a woman to persuasively claim to be a feminist than for a man to do the same—arguably, because our capitalist ethos treats self-interested arguments as more valuable than other-directed ones—and as we’ve seen, the establishment of a claim to feminist identity is part of the rhetoric of the piece. Furthermore, a woman making arguments around touchy subjects like sexual violence is shielded from one specific sort of rhetorical rejoinder, the one David Foster Wallace describes in “Authority and American Usage”—the “easy for you to say” rebuttal. Rightly or wrongly, a woman making a claim about sexual violence and power differentials, and the policies we should and shouldn’t have around them, is treated as inherently more credible than a man would be if he made the same argument. This likely helps the essay’s end effect.
Arguably, though, there’s another level of advantage Kipnis’s piece may gain via the gender of its author. This has less to do with rhetorical effect in any direct sense, and more to do with political consequences. Kipnis herself gestures toward this idea in a passage from the “Title IX Inquisition” essay:
When it comes to campus sexual politics, however, the group most constrained from speaking—even those with tenure—is men. No male academic in his right mind would write what I did. Men have been effectively muzzled, as any number of my male correspondents attested.
Certainly, I can share a morsel of my experience. When I wrote an op-ed supporting Kipnis and sent it to the newspaper of the school I attended at the time, it didn’t get published. However, when I met Kipnis, she told me a story about a female student—I think it was at Columbia—who wrote an op-ed along similar lines that was published by her campus newspaper. There are any number of reasons why one piece might get published and the other not; perhaps my writing wasn’t very good, or the editors of the two schools were of different temperaments. But when I mentioned this to Kipnis, she told me she believes gender played into that particular discrepancy, and reiterated to me that she has spoken to a number of male colleagues who feel unable to speak about this issue, hamstrung both by their own fear and the lack of an outlet. So perhaps the author’s gender plays not only into the rhetorical thrust of the piece, but in its even being published in the first place.
One wonders how healthy any of this is. Even beyond any kind of basic cross-cutting fairness claims—that it’s demeaning or illiberal to treat some voices as more worthy of being heard, and others as ipso facto not welcome in the conversation—there’s a sense in which the privileging of marginalized voices, done on a large scale, may open up the possibility of exploiting those marginalized voices for rhetorical ends. This can be seen, for example, in some of the work of the Marxist cultural critic Freddie deBoer, who writes about how white allies use their proximity to activists of color to deflect criticism of their own rhetoric, and how white writers often exploit the language of white privilege and deference to make themselves seem virtuous. Michelle Goldberg, now at Slate, has an excellent recent piece that illustrates another example of this phenomenon: conservative activists deploying a certain kind of elevate-the-marginalized language, the language of honoring the experience of female sexual assault victims, in an effort to justify keeping transgender folks out of female bathrooms. “Obviously, there’s bad faith at work here,” writes Goldberg, “if not among the sexual assault victims themselves, then certainly among the right-wing propagandists who solemnly invoke feminist ideas that they usually find risible.” Indeed. And to the extent that that bad faith exists, perhaps we can say there’s something ugly about it, given that it instrumentalizes the experiences of sexual assault survivors to score political points. Trauma, marginalization, and the values of feminism become not something to be engaged earnestly, but something to be used to win an argument.
But where trauma, marginalization, and feminism become rhetorically expedient, trump cards one can or must play to be taken seriously, this kind of instrumentalization for political ends becomes almost inevitable. It’s worth wondering if something like this can be seen in the Kipnis case. Obviously, it’s hard to fault Kipnis herself for trading on her status as a feminist woman as a means to get her piece published, or to survive investigative hell. But maybe there’s something unhealthy in the way those pieces about her case make that fact that she’s a feminist central to their own rhetoric. Feminism becomes a crutch, an aid to your justification of supporting a controversial professor over student protestors. There’s a way of looking at this issue where if one wants to support Kipnis, one should be brave enough to do so on the merits of the argument, not the identifying characteristics of the author.
Matthew Stahlman is a post-baccalaureate student at Portland State University. His work examines the boundaries between art, philosophy, and culture.