Balls Bigger Than King Kong
By Andrew Stevens.
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory, Serpent’s Tail, 2009
King Kong Theory is the English adaptation of Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Théorie, published in her native France in 2006. As we are frequently informed that so few foreign language titles receive a translation into English (as opposed to the process in reverse), perhaps it’s worth considering why Théorie became Theory (clue: Baise-moi). In the beginning we are led to understand that Despentes presents the book as a spirited account of her own views on gender/feminism after almost four decades of her existence and to this end she provides an opening mission statement:
“I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls that don’t get a look-in in the universal market of the consumable chick.”
So far, so Naomi Wolf, perhaps with a little added hand-on-hip rapid delivery and outsider chic sass. You can already visualise the burning cigarette. And indeed there are customary tips of the hat to Camille Paglia throughout, and to some extent this could be considered an acknowledgement of one author’s debt to another. The book is also presented as a feminist text, the title alone alludes to the objectification of woman in the King Kong films, though this is paid scant regard elsewhere in the book, save for a short chapter on the most recent of the films (which reads like an interesting essay otherwise inserted at random) and another section where Despentes asserts that she is “more King Kong than Kate Moss”. It’s a man’s world alright, as Despentes ventures disapprovingly: “Why didn’t anyone invent the equivalent of Ikea for childcare or Apple Mac for housework?”
There is also little discussion on the various debates within feminism, either by addressing the works of theorists or commentators such as Kate Millett and Andrea Dworkin, in spite of their direct relevance to much of what is discussed, both generally and personally. There is of course plenty of attention paid to the likes of Courtney Love (‘hooker chic’) and a section where Despentes randomly reels off a roll call of her own icons, male and female, in a manner similar to Kathleen Hanna in the Le Tigre song ‘Hot Topic’.
You might assume from my opening remarks that I take a dim view of this book. Far from it, I read it in one sitting and enjoyed it thoroughly. It is an urgent and overdue assessment of gender and culture in Europe in the opening years of the 21st century. I was somewhat disappointed that the writing could not have remained focused on the task at hand and I appreciate that berating an author for not writing about what you think they ought to is somewhat akin to berating a greengrocer for not stocking lightbulbs, but in this case there is some valid reasoning behind this.
As a ‘making of’, King King Theory is actually an ideal companion piece to Despentes’ landmark ‘controversial’ novel Baise-moi. As the title was never translated into English for marketing the book, and later the film adaptation, this led to some debate over the ambiguity of its meaning: “fuck me” or “rape me”? Clarification was later provided by the author, but the notion that the book and film sought to depict rape as somehow ‘acceptable’ stuck and was to cloud any discussion to come (this came on the back of the unjustified fuorore over Catherine Breillat‘s Romance). London Underground banned posters of the film on the grounds that it could offend the English capital’s resident French community, presumably on the grounds that it was acceptable for them to be ‘offended’ on seeing it in Paris. To some extent however, it would have made for reading as a pretty decent memoir and potentially attracted more of a readership than the confines of theoretical discussion otherwise allow. The jacket describes itself as ‘autobiography/feminism’, an increasingly popular yet patronising bracket which stretches from Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch to Lynne Segal’s Making Trouble: can we look forward to more marketing department honesty and see male author books badged as ‘autobiography/masculinity’?
As mentioned earlier, there is extensive room given to the author’s perceived notion that she is “one of the ugly ones”, excluded from the trappings of consumer status or lionised for her appearance. There is also an element of class brought into view, as Despentes contends that women can basically fuck or marry for social advancement while this option is generally denied to men. This justification thread runs throughout King Kong Theory and she enquires as to why no one ever raises the physical appearance of Michel Houellebecq (who appeared in the X-Cités anthology of new French writing alongside her when she was better known) when discussing his writing, while hers is considered fair comment. In this sense Despentes glowingly speaks of Bukowski as a male ideal, whereas all the rest are “just your average fuckwit”. However, this merely reinforces the outsider chic virtue sought, when it is not necessitated. Despentes writes about rape because she was raped at a young age herself and put simply, that’s more than Bukowski ever did. Needless to say, she doesn’t think she was ‘asking for it’ by daring to wear the punk garb of the era and again, were the critics to have known much of what she commits to paper here then I suspect they might have held their tongues a little longer.
The book squarely takes on her numerous critics in France, from the conservative to the liberal, for instance the so-called Paris intellectual house magazine Le Nouvel Observateur’s attacks on her work as “pornography” (they demanded “the right to say no”). In doing so she mounts an impressive impassioned and reasoned defence of cultural freedom and reflects back on the French state’s numerous attacks on this throughout her own lifetime, beginning with the early 70s presidential ban on porn films. There is also a timely rebuttal of the stock arguments mounted by conservatives and liberals alike against prostitution, be they that it remains immoral or exploitation. For Despentes, it is the economic independence asserted by women engaged in prostitution (herself included on that score) which fosters the opprobrium imposed by society. Here she also includes the example of Paris Hilton, politely excused and even applauded for her sex tape antics on the grounds that she was already rich.
For all my stated concerns, this is an excellent book as far as the memoir element is concerned and also her swift kick in the groin of the French state and its satellite media institutions goes too (she in fact compares herself to Bruce Lee for his claim that men were always picking fights with him after his first film). Despentes is as punk now as she was as the hitchhiking teenager. It is difficult to imagine an impassioned essay of this form and on these topics from any English writer, simply because the English literary scene remains for the most part wedded to establishment norms and conventions for career advancement, and such questions are routinely ducked at every turn (or simply just not asked). While there is no comparable movement of writers and filmmakers in Britain concerned with the themes explored by those associated with ‘New French Extremity’, it’s not as if our lives exist without parallel. Do rape, prostitution and violent pornography not exist on this side of the channel?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 10th, 2009.