King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes

Translated by Frank Wynne

Reviewed by Annabel

I write from the realms of the ugly, for the ugly, the old, the bull dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckable, the hysterics, the freaks, all those excluded from the great meat market of female flesh. And if I’m starting here it’s because I want to be crystal clear: I’m not here to make excuses. I’m not here to bitch. I wouldn’t swap places with anyone because being Virginie Despentes seems to me a more interesting gig than anything else out there.

With these opening words, Virginie Despentes issues the reader a challenge in her 2003 book of essays, in the brilliant new translation by Frank Wynne for Fitzcarraldo Editions. Boldly stated, you know what you’re going to get!

For those unfamiliar with Despentes, she is the author of rape-revenge novel Baise-Moi, which she also co-directed as a film making her notorious in France, and in demand in the media. I came to her via her more recent Vernon Subutex Trilogy of novels, the final part of which was published earlier this summer. Following the fall and rise of the titular Vernon, a DJ who becomes homeless, they are a gripping state of the nation portrait of France, (again translated by Wynne) and thoroughly recommended.

The seven essays that comprise King Kong Theory are a mixture of memoir and Despentes’ unique take on feminist philosophy. She talks candidly about her own experiences; she’s been through a lot and some of it makes for very uncomfortable reading, yet she has no room for self-pity; her experience has made her what she is.

In the first main essay she discusses the patriarchy, the traditional roles of men and women, about motherhood and fatherhood, about how there is a view that things were better before the 1970s.

To claim that men and women understood each other better before the 1970s is historical revisionism. We simply spent less time with each other.

In the second essay, ‘You can’t rape a woman who’s a slut’ we hear how she and a friend were raped by three men at the age of seventeen. They didn’t tell anyone, she didn’t talk about it for three years, until an acquaintance was raped, and Despentes discovered Camille Paglia who gave her voice back. She is blunt about the consequences, how those who are raped are perceived, about the sick minds of the men who do it.

If you’ve been raped, the only acceptable behaviour is to turn that violence against yourself. Pile on twenty kilos, for example. Shut up shop in the sex market because you’re damaged goods. Voluntarily give up on desire. In France, we don’t kill women who’ve been raped, but we expect them to have the decency to make it clear that they’re spoiled merchandise, tainted. Whether they become whores or ugly as fuck, they need to get out of the pool of marriageable women.

Despentes’ next topic is prostitution in ‘Sleeping with the enemy’.  She worked as a prostitute, on and off in the early 1990s, whenever she needed cash, using Minitel chat rooms to find tricks. She gave it up when she wrote Baise-Moi and ‘became Virginie Despentes’. She’s lucky, her experience was relatively positive, and she compares and contrasts prostitution and marriage. Compared with the previous essay, she says she found it a difficult chapter to write.

In subsequent chapters, she goes on to consider pornography and the presentation of the female image, using the example of Jessica Lange in Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong as a jumping off point. How are women expected to behave?

I finally came to a conclusion: womanhood is whoredom. The art of arse-licking. You can dress it up as seduction, tart it up as glamour. It’s not exactly a sport that requires great skill. For the most part, it just means behaving like you’re inferior. Walk into a room, check to see whether there are any men present, do you best to please them…

Virginie Despentes

I could go on and on quoting from this book, every page contains thought-provoking statements, all written with Despentes’ punk sensibilities. Having compared and contrasted a few paragraphs from a previous translation, Wynne’s is more nuanced, yet also direct and modern – more punk! 

What becomes obvious is that Despentes, while fiercely sticking up for all women, is not a man hater. This book is not just written for women; I hope that men will read it and recognise how they can be feminists too. I’ll admit that I often struggle with the convoluted language and arguments of many feminist books, but Despentes’ direct and open style spoke volumes to me. Fitzcarraldo Editions should be applauded for publishing this new edition of King Kong Theory and I urge you to read it.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020). 9781913097349, 127pp., flapped paperback..

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