Three things were made to fit in the palm of your hand: a gun, a bottle, and a dick. —Virginie Despentes, Baise-moi
For a long time, whenever I opened a book by Virginie Despentes, I would feel that instead of me reading it, it was reading me. I would squirm under its gaze and soon close it. I smiled weakly whenever she was mentioned. I was ashamed; I worried my discomfort meant I was not as radical a feminist as I fancied myself.
Despentes is a legend in France, especially among young women. Much of this reputation rests on her first novel, Baise-moi (1994), a taboo-shattering book about a pair of young women, Nadine and Manu, who go on a killing spree across France. One has worked as a prostitute, the other as a porn actress; in between murders, they have graphically described sex in hotel rooms with a series of men. In 2000, Despentes codirected a film adaptation with Coralie Trinh Thi that starred Karen Bach and Raffaëla Anderson, all three former porn actresses; because the sex scenes were unsimulated, the film was hotly controversial and was initially banned in France.
But it wasn’t the violence or the graphic sex that stopped me from reading her work. In Baise-moi, I got as far as this description of Nadine’s roommate, Séverine:
Her personality is composed of … a series of cultural references that she wears the way she does her accessories: according to whatever is in fashion, with a real talent for resembling any other girl on the street.
She keeps up her personality like her bikini line, because she knows she has to pull out all the stops to get a guy to fall for her. With the ultimate goal being: become someone’s wife.
Ouch. I read that and felt uncomfortably seen; this is more or less the girl I was encouraged to be by the middle-class suburban milieu that produced me. When we first meet Séverine, she is complaining that she can’t believe a guy would fuck her and not call her again; she likes to repeat that she is “not that kind of girl.” She spouts a vision of heterosexual relations straight out of The Rules, according to which a man has “used” a woman he’s slept with and not called afterward, as if the woman had no agency in what transpired. I spent my teens and early twenties trying so hard to be pretty, bland, and pleasing to men. I played the dating game as if the men had all the power and I had none. Even as I went through my feminist awakening and began to actively fight the vision of femininity instilled in me, I worried that unconsciously, I was still that girl, the one whose instinct is always for pretty.
There was an anger and a sarcasm in the writing that I turned away from. I felt too much empathy for this girl to mock her. Despentes seemed content to judge Séverine superficially, and it felt to me like a betrayal of the novelist’s task to render some human truth on the page. I stopped reading the novel at the part when Nadine kills Séverine for no other reason than that she’s incredibly annoying.
If there was a distinction to be made between Nadine’s attitude toward Séverine and Despentes’s own, it seemed negligible. The book reads as if Despentes had a personal score to settle with some phantom woman offstage. Early on in my education as a critic, I absorbed Virginia Woolf’s critique of Charlotte Brontë, who wrote in a rage where she should have written calmly. I felt that like Brontë, Despentes’s “anger was tampering with [her] integrity,” that she had “left her story to attend to some personal grievance.” Despentes seemed to be lashing out at women who were too weak or dumb to interrogate their complacent embrace of late-capitalist femininity, instead of at the system that created and sustained it.
This spiky, unreconstructed anger reminded me of the kind of thing that repelled me from Kathy Acker’s work as well. Both seemed bent on writing into a masculinist tradition that I viscerally rejected—Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Michel Houellebecq. It felt to me like Acker and Despentes were jutting out their chins trying to prove they could produce work that was as ugly and aggressive as a man’s, in a bid to be taken more seriously and to prove how edgy they were (and, by extension, how much edgier they were than these other women, who sleepwalked through the patriarchy). I thought of them as Michelle Houllebecquettes. I put down Baise-moi and did not return to it for a long time.
“This is my rifle. This is my gun. / This one’s for fighting. This one’s for fun.”
In the past few years, everyone here in Paris has been reading Despentes again. This time, it’s a trio of thick nineteenth-century-style novels called Vernon Subutex, a kind of Comédie humaine for the twenty-first century, about a guy who owns a record shop and ends up homeless, and the aging Gen Xers who are his worried friends (Vernon Subutex will be out in the U.S. from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in fall 2019 and was recently short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize). Well, I thought, devouring one volume after the other, this is actually really good—maybe it’s time to try again with Despentes. This time, I turned to King Kong Theory, a collection of essays drawn from the author’s own experiences that fearlessly confront subjects like rape, pornography, and prostitution. The central issues of King Kong Theory are who gets to tell the story and under what terms. Although society teaches women that being raped is “a crime from which [they] will never recover,” Despentes is determined not to let a crime committed against her define her or her life—even if, as she admits, it “is a founding event. Of who I am as a writer, and as a woman who is no longer quite a woman. It is both that which disfigures me and that which makes me.”
In King Kong Theory, Despentes thinks about the ways in which our experiences of gender, power, and control are bound up in the vast, multifaceted ideology of late capitalism and our lives are organized around satisfying, or disappointing, male desire. I saw how deeply wrong I had been to write her off. “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 who don’t get a look in the universal market of the consumable chick,” the book begins. Speaking on behalf of those who are “more King Kong than Kate Moss,” Despentes points out: “We are just never featured in novels written by men, who only create women they want to have sex with … Even today, when women publish lots of novels, you rarely get female characters that are unattractive or plain, unsuited to loving men or being loved by them … The character of the loser in the femininity stakes doesn’t just appeal to me, she’s essential to me.” Whereas earlier, with Baise-moi, I had been troubled by the question of voice, the blurry line between author and protagonist, reading King Kong Theory I saw that the blur was larger and more intentional than I had thought. There was no meaningful difference between Séverine, Nadine, Despentes, or the reader (me). In the long list of ways in which she describes women who lose the “femininity stakes”—“the ones who shave their heads, those who don’t know how to dress, those who worry that they stink, those who have rotten teeth, those who don’t know how to go about things”—it becomes clear that Despentes is writing about all of us. There is no line to be drawn between the girls who shave their head and the ones who wear their hair in mermaid waves, trying to be pretty. We are all equally grotesque. The idea is to reclaim that grotesquerie.
Despentes also writes about the men who fall foul of the demands of masculinity, those “who don’t know how to fight, those who cry easily, those who aren’t ambitious, competitive, well-hung, or aggressive, men who are fearful, timid, vulnerable … too poor to be attractive, men who’d like to be fucked, men who don’t want to be counted on, men who are scared to be alone at night.” She is pointing out that we are all more King Kong than Kate Moss, that the woman who is always being held up to us as a paragon of style, cool, and success—the one who always knows what to wear, who flawlessly manages career, family, and housework—“doesn’t exist.” Reading King Kong Theory, I realized I could finally encounter Despentes’s work without feeling insecure—or rather, that I now could handle the insecurities it provoked in me and think critically about them.
So I went back to Baise-moi and read the whole thing this time and watched the movie too. It is trashy, crude, and incredibly violent, very much a book of the early nineties and the nascent grunge movement. It grabs the reader by the collar, flings him, her, us, in a chair, places a spike-heeled stiletto somewhere tender, and slowly applies pressure. It is écriture féminine enraged and in revolt. Despentes wrote the novel in three weeks at her parents’ house, on her father’s computer, when she was twenty-three years old. (Confirming my instincts, she tells Broadly in 2015 that the novel “came straight out of Kathy Acker.”) It was rejected by every editor she sent it to, except the tiny publisher Florent Massot. Word got out about it thanks to the proof she sent around to her friends in the punk world, and before the book was even published, there were fifty thousand preorders and ten translation deals in place. In France, the book met with skepticism from critics, who derided Despentes for lacking a “literary style,” for writing how people speak instead of in some kind of literary register. They also, she says in King Kong Theory, couldn’t deal with this novel being published by a young woman. The culture will tolerate certain things from young women but not others.
Some English translations of Baise-moi’s title spotted in critical writing on the book and film:
“Kiss Me” (that’s just wrong)
“Fuck Me” (that’s more accurate)
“Rape Me” (Grove Atlantic’s parenthetical subtitle for its English edition—still not quite right, but the Nirvana reference is appropriate, as there are Hole lyrics scattered throughout the book)
Baise-moi doesn’t want to obey or be liked or admired. Who the fuck cares about being liked? it asks. People with something to lose. Women teaching women to sit politely, legs crossed at the ankle. In Baise-moi, Despentes sits with legs splayed wide. Although we see them suffer extreme trauma at the beginning of the book—Manu is gang-raped, and Nadine’s best friend is shot—the women carry out the murders both as revenge and for no particular reason. They certainly don’t kill for money; that, they agree, would be vulgar. They strive for a kind of purity in their killings; it is important that the people they kill have nothing to do with anything else. But Baise-moi is not a nihilist novel. The violence is a bid for freedom, a perverted display of idealism. As the critic Parul Sehgal writes: “[Despentes] makes the hidden violence explicit, and almost always leaves open the possibility of a happy ending, however unhinged. It’s a commitment to redemption that reminds you that the novels directly channel the life; there’s nothing arid, nothing emptily philosophical in her considerations.” Séverine is the first person Nadine kills, but it’s not because she’s dumb and she deserves it. It’s because she embodies all the power of the patriarchal world Nadine and Manu are trying to destroy; she is its tool and its female organ, complicit in it. Only once she’s throttled her roommate to death can Nadine head out into the world behind the wheel of a car, with a girl and a gun by her side.
“All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” —Jean-Luc Godard
We are so unused to women being the agents of violence that it surprises us when we encounter it, in news stories, in film, in fiction. “Girls are never, never taught to be violent,” Despentes tells the Guardian. “We are accustomed to seeing women being killed [in films], being really afraid, covered in blood. I think it’s good to see the counterpoint … There should be dozens of movies showing lots of violent, angry, sexually active women getting really wild.” The only point of reference anyone could think of for Baise-moi was Thelma and Louise. And they made the reference over and over and over.
Here is a list of the comparisons to Thelma and Louise when Baise-moi the film was released in 2000:
“Thelma & Louise on crack”
“Thelma & Louise on speed”
“Makes Thelma and Louise look like a Merchant-Ivory film”
“Makes Thelma and Louise look like a lighthearted Disney movie”
“Thelma and Louise get laid”
“Thelma and Louise with actual penetration”
“Thelma and Louise with cum shots”
“Thelma and Louise without Hollywood sentiment”
“The French Thelma and Louise”
It’s not that Despentes thinks women should be more violent in real life (though come to think of it, she might). It’s that her work foregrounds an irrational violence that is at odds with our entrenched ideas about femininity. That is where my problems with Despentes’s work originated, and I’m not sure they’ve been entirely resolved by King Kong Theory. Where does it lead, this reasoning of “if men do it, then women should do it”? This argument of “look how badass women can be”? The association of violence, really good sex, and badassery? This is part of the charm of Baise-moi the film: the scopic pleasure of watching women behave like men. But the larger idea behind Despentes’s work, up to and including the Vernon Subutex books, is that masculinity—and the way it is constructed in our society, its associations with money, power, control, and violence—is the problem. And so is the way that femininity takes shape around that, offering pleasure and passivity. This ends up feeling somewhat airless as a worldview; it still leaves us with men as agents and women as reactors. “Is that one of the injustices of ‘phallocentrism’ itself,” Maggie Nelson asks in The Art of Cruelty, “that is, its suggestion that there’s nothing else imaginable under the sun—not even a form of female aggression or rage or darkness—not shaped by or tethered to the male?” Nelson cites Angela Davis, who writes that the photographs of atrocities committed by women soldiers at Abu Ghraib “call for a form of feminist analysis that ‘challenges prevailing assumptions that the only possible relationship between women and violence requires women to be the victims.’ ” In attempting to unhand itself from the male grasp, does Baise-moi only reinforce the stranglehold?
The film, like the book, leaves this question open.
Apart from the bleak realities of its protagonists’ lives, the world of Baise-moi is an unreal one. The carpet in one hotel is a bright raspberry, making Nadine feel like she lives in a cartoon. Everything is artificial, hyped up, on a sugar high: “Manu turns on the TV, tears into a bag of Haribo Tagada strawberries and mixes them with M&Ms.” There is something cartoonish about the film’s violence that allows it to operate in an allegorical space. “The first part of the film,” Trinh Thi says, “the rape scene and the scene in the tabac, that’s all part of everyday France. After that, the film becomes much more like a cartoon, a comic strip. It’s a fantasy, a rather joyful one. There’s a kind of irony in the choreographic death scenes.” The explicit references to the consequence-less world of the video game as well as to the comic strip and the Western are all subtle reminders of how entrenched in our culture is masculine violence. This is the world that produced Nadine and Manu, so it’s the one whose terms they understand. There is no escaping it; il n’y a pas de hors-texte.
Adapting the artificial world of the novel to the screen, Despentes and Trinh Thi commit to a gritty reality that comes through on a technical, formal level—the film was made for next to nothing, and so it looks like something you’d watch late at night on home-access television—as well as through the decision to include real, unsimulated sex acts, even in the rape scene. The sex is real, and the violence is fake, but there is another kind of violence being represented, which isn’t fake at all. And the pleasure isn’t fake either; it’s intrinsic.
This is the trick at the heart of Les jolies choses, Despentes’s 1998 novel, which has just been brilliantly translated into English by Emma Ramadan as Pretty Things (Feminist Press). It shares with Baise-moi an urgent, sketched-out feeling (Despentes says she wrote the novel coked up, over three or four days) that does nothing to diminish its potency. Pauline and Claudine are twin sisters and opposites: Pauline is the brainy one, who trained as a singer at the conservatory; Claudine the pretty one, who knows how to get what she wants by pleasing men. It’s pulpy and aggressive, but there’s a deep sadness present, especially as the twins recall, in flashback, the abuse they suffered growing up, when their father would love only one of them at a time. Early on in the novel, Claudine commits a theatrical suicide. Pauline steps into her sister’s life, impersonating her, using her sexuality to (implausibly, but plausibility is besides the point) become a pop star, the kind you know is manufactured by some corporation, the kind about whom people whisper unkindly (and in this case correctly) that she’s blowing the president of the company.
If King Kong Theory is a manifesto for our times, made even more urgent by the rise of the #MeToo movement, Pretty Things is as well, taking aim at the workings that contribute to the situation in which #MeToo becomes necessary. Like a grimy Les demoiselles de Rochefort, recasting its bubblegum shades in nineties grunge and jettisoning the French seaside for gritty Barbès, Pretty Things wickedly refutes the stereotype of the chic French girl and exposes the sham at the heart of femininity. And it shows our complicity, male and female, individual and corporate, in keeping the sham of femininity alive.
The violence of Baise-moi is largely absent in Pretty Things—or rather, it’s turned inward, on the bodies of its twin protagonists. Over the course of the novel, we see Pauline transform from a grungy, rebellious figure, draped in shapeless clothing, who refuses to shave her legs to a high femme in her high heels, waxed within an inch of her life. Pauline in drag as Claudine brings out the worst in people, even in Pauline herself. When one guy is giving her a hard time, another comes to her aid, taking the opportunity to hit on her himself after he “rescues” her. She tells him to go to hell, then immediately regrets it; he “might actually have been cool, in the end.” She realizes the enemy isn’t (only) men and their ideas about how women should look; it’s the things capitalism demands of us, its practitioners, its subjects. “Contrary to what she had believed, it isn’t about submission to men’s desires. It’s an obedience to the advertisers, required of everyone. They determine the fad, page after page: here’s what we’re selling, so here’s what you have to be.”
This is perhaps a (nonviolent) way out of the double bind of Baise-moi: the anger in Pretty Things is no longer directed at women or at men per se but at their consumer overlords. Pauline is driven by a desire for money, but pretty things, the sort she adorns herself with and lives among, don’t guarantee freedom; they’re an illusion of value. The novel comes down hard on those who can’t see this.
Despentes continues to inspire controversy with her work. A friend who’s currently reading the first volume of Vernon Subutex recently emailed me some sections from the book that offended her, moments when the characters are thinking blatantly sexist, racist thoughts. It seemed clear to me that the passages she was citing were part of an attempt to work in the realist, or naturalist, tradition of Balzac and Zola, showing Parisians at their worst and detailing the ways in which their social contexts shape and limit them; Vernon’s fugue into a life of homelessness in the Buttes-Chaumont stands as a Rousseauesque indictment of his shitty friends. My friend didn’t see it that way. “I thought Despentes was meant to be some radical feminist?” she said. “Should I hang in there?”
“Funny you should say that,” I wrote back. “That’s exactly what I’m writing about right now.”
Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. She lives in Paris.