In 2006, Virginie Despentes published a manifesto entitled King Kong Theory, an origin story that begins with her rape and the shame it caused. She writes: “The moment you call your rape rape, the whole surveillance system is roaring: do you really want people to know what happened to you? Despentes’ skepticism of disclosure stems from her own experience, as a former sex worker turned leading writer, that trauma could break out of its specific context and be turned into lustful attention. His calculation with the public and private aspects of fame and violence now seems almost prescient, in the shadow of the #MeToo movement, which marked a shift in what could be said about rape and assault in the public sphere. . And while the initial wave of anger over the movement was restorative, it was, like Despentes’ own experience, also co-opted and distorted.
Issues of power and consent have been judged primarily in the narrow context of the workplace. Yet, as writers like Jacqueline Rose have pointed out, #MeToo has failed to address a more widespread experience of sexual violence, one more diffuse than what can be argued in a white-collar office, let alone at Hollywood. Somewhere along the way, we lost the plot; after #MeToo, our language around violence has taken on the appearance of obscuring HR. The residual runoff from the movement has left something vital: the injustice of rape – that it happens all the time, all over the world, and that it is a universal historical event to be reckoned with .
King Kong Theory, reissued this year in a new translation from French by Frank Wynne, replaces exasperation with renewed clarity. Rape, Despentes writes, is part of the culture dating back to the biblical era, but it is also the “skeletal framework” of capitalism. It is the indignity of his own rape that starts the story, an event that manifests itself in all his work. She was already famous in France for her novel Fuck me (Fuck Me) and later for directing her controversial film adaptation, although she has yet to gain international fame with the Vernon Subutex trilogy. Anger is his artistic material: “It is a cornerstone. Of who I am as a writer, as a woman who is no longer quite a woman.
King Kong Theory is dedicated to women like her, “a loser in the femininity contest” and “the female underclass”, the ugly girls who “don’t score”. It is women who lose out when it comes to economic and social safety nets and the “femininity contest” that keeps the nuclear family – and, in turn, capitalism – running. Despentes is not interested in a reformed workplace, because the workplace itself is the problem. Capitalism, she proclaims, traps everyone. But winners are also set to fail: “It never seemed particularly obvious to me that hot girls are having such a good time,” she wrote in the introduction. The book’s devotion to the losers anoints them as a crucial and important political subject. Through the ugly and the oppressed, Despentes reveals a higher truth: everyone loses, because capitalism kisses us all.
DDoes this argument sound simplistic? It can be. It’s a manifesto, after all, and should be read more for its affect (especially, the anger that propels the text) than for its nuances. Despentes inevitably takes bad turns. Like Mary Wollstonecraft (cited in this book), who compared the inequality of white women with men to the chains of slavery, Despentes makes a similar comparison of women indebted to men in marriage (in the nuclear family, “we we are all enslaved, deprived of our sexuality, policed, normalized ”). Censorship of the female body is compared to “borders on a map of Africa: taking no account of the realities of the topography, only the interests of the occupying powers”. By crediting the feminists who shaped her along the way, Despentes gets involved in the colonial language which in turn shaped white feminism. She makes jaded and offensive references to identity politics, writing, “Even the craziest guy in hip-hop isn’t treated as badly as a woman. None of those statements would get through now (not that they should have been in 2006), but this book is a relic of its time. It’s a weak spot that’s impossible to ignore, but the central premise it offers remains appealing: the potential of rage as a unifying force.
Despentes takes us on her journey, first as a young girl born in 1969 in Nancy, struggling to get into the fold, not pushed enough to climb the ranks of meritocracy and not “feminine” enough to win the game of domesticity (hence a “loser”). She goes in and out of sex work as a way to earn money and as a way to recover from the agency after her rape at age 17. Then, one day, she read an interview with Camille Paglia in Twirl it changes his life. Rape, Paglia says, is simply a crime that happens to women if they want to venture outside – a cruel but ordinary crime that independent women face every day. The trauma of rape, Despentes argues, is so severe because it occurs in a society that ultimately marks and punishes women for the violence done to them, and not because of the act itself. Here begins Despentes’s thesis according to which, for the victim, the hostility of a Puritan society is as much to blame as the author himself. His anger finds an outlet in the writing. She publishes her first novel, Fuck me, directs its subsequent film adaptation, and becomes Virginie Despentes.
Fuck me, a graphic fantasy of two women seeking violent revenge against rapists, was initially greeted with hostility. But success as a writer and a woman – especially one who writes about sex and trauma – is a double-edged sword, drawing the wrath of critics and readers alike. There are a lot of people, Despentes tells us in the book, rooting his failure. The vitriol that ensues against her for being a woman in public, and the aggravation that she in turn feels, is visceral. She comes to see herself as a target because she has created a work that explores the beyond of rape. But it was also a choice, and as she writes in the introduction, “being Virginie Despentes seems to me a concert more interesting than anything else.”
Suddenly, the things that made her a loser – her decision to pull out of the mainstream economy, her transgressive art – start to force a large readership. She becomes a model of success, a genius who divides. But, despite this unexpected success, she still loses, and with her face attached to her work, the backlash Despentes incites seems almost vindictive. A writer for She calls his work “whiny”; another observer reproaches him for his crudeness. She looks back with nostalgia on her time as a sex worker and compares her past life to her present life, both in professions on the fringes of society. It’s a provocative, albeit cliché, comparison:
There is a real link between writing and prostitution. Emancipate oneself, do what is not done, open up to oneself, expose oneself to the judgment of others, accept exclusion from the group. Most importantly, as a woman: to become a public woman. To be read by everyone, to talk about things that should be kept secret, to be exposed in the newspapers.
A creative personality whose work is anchored in the consciousness of the French public, Despentes is judged first as a woman and then as a writer. Male writers who lead public lives, she argues, are allowed to hide behind their work, while their female counterparts are judged solely on the basis of their femininity. The public scrutiny, she argues, is just as violent and shameful as any of the sexual and emotional trauma she has suffered. The only difference is that it is now part of the traditional economy. It’s both a blessing and a curse, but fame isolates nonetheless.
Despentes consults with healers, therapists and gurus, all apparently familiar with her work, who tell her that she needs to come to terms with her femininity. More than anything, she is marked by her own writing as a public figure immersed in taboos. The argument that led to this is slippery, as she shifts her focus from private to public life, from the bedroom to the screen, from her own experience to the lives of other sex workers. Pornography, she writes, is an intrinsic part of sexual desire in the modern age. How this desire is embodied by young women in their public life is, for her, a burden that is reflected not only socially but also at the level of the economy:. “Misogyny becomes its own kind of class war.
If the jumps in Despentes’ arguments seem messy, it’s because she’s preoccupied with the imprints, faces, visual representations of misogyny coming in and out of the book, as if she is projecting her thoughts for us onto a ghost screen. Sex is represented everywhere: in commercials, flashback images of crowds of women at Beatles concerts (one of the earliest visual representations of female sexual desire, she claims), Paris Hilton’s sex tape, his own face in TV interviews, even the movie named after his book.
Using his own life as a model, Despentes offers a passionate but contradictory and flawed theory about the intersection of writing, sex, and advertising. She writes in the first person in the hope that one can glean an understanding of the broader struggle underway: “Feminism is a revolution, not a further restructuring of marketing guidelines,” she says. It is a collective enterprise for all genres; it empowers everyone, and it blows up the masquerade of capitalism, the nuclear family, power structures in the workplace and in society – everything.
The King Kong girl, appearing towards the end of the book, is presented to readers as part of a dichotomy comprising the blonde damsel in distress (Naomi Watts), whom Despentes nicknames “Beauty” – a burlesque performer in vaudeville sunset and early of the movie era in the 2005 Peter Jackson remake and the titular beast. Although Despentes tells us that she identifies more with “King Kong than with Kate Moss,” and although her image of femininity is dark and macabre, she knows that she embodies both sides of that dichotomy. In the film, the young lady is drawn to a ship that takes her to Skull Island and, upon arrival, is offered as food to King Kong. But the beast does not eat it; instead, the two form a close, “asexual” bond (as Despentes categorizes it). King Kong “has no cock, no balls, no breasts” which, according to Despentes, means a time before the forced binary of sexuality and gender in the 19th century. “Beauty and the beast tame and protect each other, they are affectionate and gentle to each other.” In Despentes reading, no one needs to be rescued, but a man still comes to the island to save the woman, and she is forced to return to the male world, where King Kong is chained and then killed. . It is the death of another form of femininity. But what if the damsel and the beast could have lived in harmony, together?