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on 19 August 2011
Laurie Penny has been a near ubiquitous figure over the last year. Her status as the "voice of a generation" has seen her career blossom as she is consistently pulled in by the BBC and others to give opinion on everything from the situation in the Middle East to student politics; all this while others of her age group (she's in her mid 20s by the way) have been losing their jobs. Here she attempts to capitalize on her popular credentials by chancing her hand at some feminist theory on the DIY publishing imprint Zero Books.

In short, this is possibly the worst piece of attempted theory I have ever read, and its faults, contradictions, and sheer dilettantish gall are to such an extent that to cover it all would require a text the length of which would justify a book of its own. I will address only the main points which will help illustrate not only that Laurie Penny has no idea what she is writing about, but that her faults stem from the fact that she is ultimately a middle class opportunist flirting with the most superficial and bankrupt autonomist thought.

It's also worth noting that her trite blogger/journalist prose makes this a very painful read. Lines like "The ooze and tickle of realtime sex, which can neither be controlled nor mass-produced and sold back to us, threatens both capital and censorship"(pg16) might get Twitter buzzing, but in a monologue it just looks like nonsense. Her bizarre fixation on descriptives for bodily functions also offer up such pearls as "the eroto-capitalist horror of human flesh", "the panting border between dream and secretion", the "dirt and ooze of female power" and "the meat and stink of my body". Perhaps all this is meant to be arousing, but all she succeeds in doing is make sex appear like a scene from a Hammer horror film. You've got to laugh (after throwing up).

The central thesis of the book and the one which underpins the majority of her arguments is the claim that capitalism itself has a fear of female flesh. In order to address this claim it is necessary to read it metaphorically; capitalism after all doesn't think anything, its blind self expansion admits of no agency, certainly not one with an irrational fear of female bodies. Therefore in order to justify her claim Penny would have to demonstrate why the invisibility or the degradation of the female body was a necessary structural component of capitalist economy. She utterly fails to do this. Instead she takes this claim as given and proceeds to give us a break down of why advertising, the media (of which she's a part) and pornography are all ways in which this fear is manifest.

I'm in complete agreement that the representations of women in popular culture are unhealthy and predicated on consumerist rather than emancipatory values, however Penny's arguments are thoroughly confused as to the origin and alternative to these representations, and it is here that her essentialist utopianism comes in. There is a tension throughout the book between Penny's rejection of the images of women and female sexuality offered by contemporary capitalism and her continual references to some authentic experience of the body or sex that exists beyond it. She cites both Baudrillard and Lacan in her exposition; however, if Penny's intention was to evoke these thinkers to defend her theses then they were poor choices. Lacan's work in particular stands against such a reading. It is one of the most basic of Lacan's propositions that there is no intelligible experience of the sexualised body prior to that body's alienation within a system of signs. The signifier allows us to make reality intelligible but at the price of never being able to truly signify what we are or desire. In Lacan's terms this is called the barred Subject, or the subject of lack. All signs that we appropriate (or are sold to us) can never truly be the thing in itself and inevitably fall by the wayside as desire moves on to some other object.

In contrast, Penny's notion which continually appears and counts as one of her prime theoretical failures is that underneath all the signs, all the representations and narratives that we are pressured to appropriate, there is some real sex, some un-sublimated authentic sex involving your real body and real sexual identity. This is nothing but another version of the myth of origins positing a thoroughly disalienated self in some distant past where before we were corrupted by the temptations of consumerism we had full access to "sex and sublimity" (pg 16). It's a view that was thoroughly blown out of the water by Foucault over 30 years ago in his History of Sexuality. Penny offer a familiar story, ultimately reducible to religious motifs involving fall and redemption, not to mention the worst kind of utopian autonomous thought (Proudhon being an example). Of course all of this has little to do with materialism.

Indeed, her claim that capitalism runs scared from the female body would seem to be contradicted by pornography itself. Is it not the case that what marks out the ever expanding taxonomy of pornographic representations is an endless fascination with the materiality of the body? Extreme close-ups that appear more like gynaecological examinations, scatological obsessions and any number of genital combinations that test the capacity of the female body to its limits. Penny fails to notice that it's precisely this promise to "show it all" to leave no sexual possibility unexplored that leverages pornography's appeal as the sexual discourse without limits, that offers tailor made satisfaction to fit the polyphony of contemporary desires. The utopian myth of a real encounter with the body is a necessary component that gears pornography as a commodity to such an extent that it can elevate base bodily functions to the level of a sublime object.

Penny also exaggerates the role of pornography in forming a kind of new totality of alienation, one distinct from the "sweaty reality of sex" (pg 14). A more considered view would recognize that pornography is just one (admittedly quite prominent) narrative of sexual relations engaged in a battle of competing hegemonies along with other apparatus such as the church, the state, and numerous other representations circulating in cultural life, all of which vary across nations and ethnicities. After all even Mills and Boon novels are still going strong in 2011! That's not to disparage the claim that pornography has such a strong influence in western society today. I merely point out that the socially constituted nature of sexual practices is nothing new.

I will gloss over the chapter where she gives the reader a breakdown of her eating disorders as a teenager. This confessional style which while claiming not to glamorise such afflictions does in its form and style do exactly the opposite. This need to tell it all, to confess and leave no part of one's existence concealed is a symptom of the "I Tweet therefore I am" generation which knows no bounds between public and private and whose utterances have been reduced to an endless stream of banal confessions and commentary in sound bite form. This the latest incarnation of confessional discourse that again as Foucault points out has been at the base of power relations and the production of sexualities for near 300 years. The inclusion of this chapter seems designed to give a "realtime" example of how the "eroto-capitalist horror" blights the lives of women. Well at least if you're white and middle class, the demographic that predominantly suffers from eating disorders; a fact she avoids in favour of speaking from a position of false universalism. Eating disorders are a serious problem but Penny only muddies the waters. I will just add that in the book she claims that her problems began after the breakdown of her parents' marriage; not to labour the point but if I were her psychoanalyst I'd probably start there rather than with an analysis of consumer capitalism.

The most important point to make about this book is not that her theories are squiffy or that her style is like a dilettantish sixth-former; it's that from her autonomist utopian theory ultimately springs utterly bankrupt and conservative politics. This fact is made most clear in her discussion of domestic work and the exploitation of immigrants by rich families and employers. Incredibly she claims that the reason such exploitation exists is because men and women can't decide on who does the dishes! Men think it's a women role and those women then employ cheap help to do it for them. The demographic from which these theories emanate is made obvious by this quote: "of the women I spoke to who had found a workable solution to the sharing of domestic work in their household, 90% employed some sort of home help, from a weekly cleaner to a live in au-pair" (pg 60). A workable solution? A privileged middle class solution more like it. These are the people that Penny is writing about and for. This is further illustrated (along with a slavish elevation of lifestyle politics) when she writes: "I know plenty of young women my age, educated and emancipated, who view the baking of immaculate muffins and the embroidering of intricate scarves and mittens as exciting hobbies, pastimes which should be properly performed in high-wasted fifties skirts and silly little pinafores."(pg59) And also "How many times have you heard a home-based women say, her resentment tinged with a hint of pride, that her husband just can't take care of himself - or, if he sometimes deigns to do the dishes, that he's `well trained'."(pg58) Households on the lowest incomes can't afford to have women who stay at home and as for muffins and mittens this is little more than a projection of Penny's own privileged upbringing and environment. None of this has any theoretical value and belongs more in the advice column of Glamour magazine than what is supposed to be a piece of leftist feminist writing.

For the Pièce de résistance we have Penny's solution to the problem of domestic exploitation: "Men and women have been passing the buck for too long. We need to confront our own hypocrisy and find equable, less exploitative solutions to the dichotomy of domestic dysfunction, before more harm is done." (pg 62) That's right, middle class men and women have to sort out a cleaning rota and then there you have it, problem solved! A statement bereft of all class and economic analysis, blind to the fact that it is the economic disparity not the gender disparity that in the last instance puts people into servitude. This statement alone that apes the worst, most confused aspects of liberal thought should be enough to dissuade any left wing group from giving Penny a platform. Here she reveals her dearth of politics in one fell swoop.

Laurie Penny is not alone in being given a platform to spout this kind of rubbish. Since the economic crisis of 2008 a whole host of opportunists have appeared carrying what looks like a red flag but on closer inspection is just a large trust fund. Penny is unique in being quite so inept and yet somehow finding herself put before the masses as an authoritative voice instead of just a silly ill-informed one. Why do the BBC and media elite like to give her a platform? Simple, because she's one of them, an Oxbridge educated careerist who's slightly damaged and far more privileged upbringing makes her from the perspective of the ruling class a prime target to front the increasing waves of discontent sweeping Britain. The official opposition undermining every cause she champions without realizing it herself. That this was even published asks serious questions of the quality control at Zero Books. For anyone interested in the issues Penny fails to address I'd look to the dozens of far more consistent, informed and less self-serving writers out there; there are many of them.
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on 29 June 2014
Whilst I echo the sentiments within the book, and admire some of Laurie Perry's other musings, this book was not well-written (containing a myriad of grammatical errors and poorly structured sentences) and was tiny; more of a pamphlet than a book.
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on 31 August 2013
I am a keen reader of feminist literature and when I spotted this book in a charity shop, I thought it would be worth a read. The link between exploitation of women and capitalism is a very interesting premise, but unfortunately much of the book suffered from a lack of depth of analysis. Too many straw men being set up, and a selective citing of facts that ignore the bigger picture caused this book to be essentially an exposition of the authors preexisting ideas and prejudices, without a willingness to acknowledge the complexities of situation. Disappointing at best, trite at its worst.
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on 21 May 2015
I think the writer raised a few good points on women's issues (which are already discussed in many current feminist writings so nothing new in this one) I found that the views expressed were quite aggressively dealt out and sometimes statements were made without facts to back it up, also the writing was quite unclear in some cases, with some discussions not fully closed or followed through. I have no doubt that this individual is passionate about their take on feminist issues but I feel that in this case the passion they have for the subject has over spilled into the theme and has taken the spotlight.
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on 12 March 2014
First things first. I'm a man who's at least somewhat sympathetic to the feminist cause. There are a few polemics in the genre which I think deserve attention and respect. This isn't one of them though.

I appreciate that this book isn't intended to be the final word on the subject. I'm fine with that. There are many modest little books that are effective precisely because of their focus and directness. With all of that having been said, there's still no getting around the fact that the rhetoric in this book is consistently sloppy. Sometimes this carelessness reaches the point where even sympathetic readers will have trouble taking the author seriously.

Things don't get off to a great start when the author declares, on the very first page, that:

"...one in five women in Britain and America is a victim of rape"
(Penny, Laurie (2011); Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism; Zero Books; Winchester, UK and Washington, USA; P1)

That's quite an astonishing statistic right there, and one that I personally find a little difficult to swallow. Unfortunately, Penny doesn't help matters here, seeing as she omits to include a source for her numbers. I would like to know how large the samples for this study/survey were and where they were found. I'm guessing that there's an interesting back-story to this shibboleth. Still, I will have to concede that in the absence of an actual source to look up my suspicions will have to remain precisely that. Suspicions, and nothing more.

This wouldn't be the last time that Penny set off my warning alarms though. In one of her most dumbfounding chapters she addresses the unjust division of household labour:

"There is a word for what happens when you trap someone within the confines of a house and make them work for no reward for generations and tell them they they're good for nothing else. There's a word for what happens when generations of children of both sexes are raised in environments underpinned by resentment and the control dynamics essential to getting women's work done for nothing. There's a word for what happens when home and work in the home becomes indelibly associated with self-negation, abuse and stifled rage, and the word is trauma. The entirety of Western society is still traumatized by our complex relationship to the economics of domestic labour. No family truly escapes."
(Ibid. P50)

Well, that's a bit much but it's not entirely off the mark. If she toned down the melodrama a tad and included a few substantial qualifiers then we'd be close to agreeing. Unfortunately, she goes on to further muddy the water by bringing in the issue of immigrant labour:

"...nearly all cleaners, childminders and nannies are female, and a large proportion are foreign-born, either legal or illegal migrants. Western women's despair at the very point of asking our male relatives to do their bit, our unwillingness to challenge the system at its root, is such that an entire generation has been willing to simply hand down their oppression to poor, migrant and ethnic minority women."
(ibid. P61)

Firstly, one might wonder in what sense these jobs could be legitimately called "oppression", considering that the alternative is unemployment or any number of even shadier and less legal occupations. What, pray tell, does Penny think these workers would be doing if they were liberated from their oppressive employment..? One cannot broach the topic of immigration without also grappling with the issue of global poverty. What, precisely, does Penny have in mind as a solution to this perennial challenge, and how would we realistically go about implementing her plan?

But wait a tick - she isn't finished yet. Having seamlessly segued into the issue of immigrant workers and the horrors of human trafficking, she launches into this bizarre rant:

"It would be soothing to think that the wealthy men and women employing these unfortunate women are largely ignorant of their plight, but this is not the case. In Westernised areas of the Middle East such as Dubai, the burning of domestics' passports is routine - and illegal residence in the country is punishable by death. In 2007, a wealthy couple from Muttontown, New York, were convicted of enslaving and torturing two Indonesian women who were brought to their mansion to work as housekeepers, and similar cases have come to light across the United States since federal anti-trafficking laws were brought into force in the year 2000. Across the world, disgusting damage is inflicted by our unwillingness to confront our terror of gender-specified drudgery."

Oh boy. Read that last line again. Is that really the first thing that springs to mind when you read everything that preceded it? And what's this about Dubai being "Westernised"? Is she seriously claiming that this is the reason for the atrocities that occur there (y'know, because passport burning and capital punishment for illegal immigrants is so common over here!) And as for people murdering their housekeepers... Just, wow. How on earth did we get here? We started off with men being criticised for not doing their fair share of the housework, and now they're being blamed for seemingly everything under the sun. Men won't do the housework, and that's why Dubai's ruling family and police are so ruthless, and why those guys in New York were psychopaths. If only men would wash the dishes then everything would be fine. Sure.

Need I mention that implicit in the notion of a division of labour is the acknowledgement that it is, indeed, labour? People (especially single people) with money, no matter how progressive and egalitarian, might still decide to invest in workers to deal with these unpleasant tasks. This will be the case even if there's no pressure on women to shoulder the burden alone.

Penny presents us with plenty of other wild claims to gawp at (did you know that a sizeable number of men are terrified of women with large breasts? -p32) but in all fairness I should admit that I did nonetheless find many parts that I roughly agreed with too. It's just that it's all been argued more persuasively elsewhere.

Before I finish I should note one final detail. For all her talk of the capitalist system, Penny never has anything whatsoever positive to say about it, or its role in liberating women. Granted, under capitalism people find themselves reduced to human resources, and this can indeed result in the objectification of women. However, in the interest of fairness it's also worth noting that there has never been a better leveler of the playing field than the capitalist system. In traditionalist cultures family and tribe take precendence over individual merit. In contrast, capitalist countries are driven by the endless search for profit, which pushes employers to seek competent workers from wherever they can find them - and that should include women, presuming that they are as qualified and talented as their male counterparts. An employer who excludes half their potential work force is slitting his (or her) own throat. The fact that there's not even a passing mention of this rather obvious detail suggests that Penny might perhaps be less interested in the verities of capitalism than with finding reasons to get angry.

Even if you're sympathetic to the feminist cause and have an interest in the topic of women under capitalism, it's still safe to give this book a miss.
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on 4 July 2011
I wanted to learn a bit more about modern feminism so bought several books on the subject. This was dire. The writer rants hysterically about 'patriarchal capitalism' but without any attempt to give any context or background - i want to know how did we get here, what are the issues, what can we seek to do, what research has been done and so on. The writer's points are entirely subjective and although she quotes several books that seems to be more of an attempt at validating her ravings than actually adding to or qualifying anything she is saying.

Reading this I could almost hear the writer spitting and frothing at the mouth and these kinds of writings do nothing to either encourage people to the cause or help create a wider understanding of what feminism really is.

I also bought Living Dolls by Natasha Walter and highly recommend this for a great overview of modern feminism, covering a range of subtopics.

My b/f suggested that in my review I add something about the author writing this at the wrong time of the month - I am not quite ashamed to admit that i giggled at this. That is exactly how this book comes across and how it can so easily be dismissed.

I think the writer is very young and it does come across as poorly informed but mostly very immature.

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on 18 March 2012
I read the first chapter and couldn't continue with it. It's that awful. Do not buy this book, it's so poorly written, its a joke.
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on 1 June 2015
Penny Dreadful.
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on 20 November 2011
Never has the current position of women been so clearly stated.

'Meat Market' cuts through the deflationary pessimism of more inept feminists and presents a precise, comprehensive and harrowing list of feminism's failings but also offers hope for its future. I would not be surprised to see reviews on here that are disgusted with her bravery and lack of submissiveness; radical politics are not for those faint hearted dears.

The fact is, that Laurie Penny has had to deal with harassment, death threats and misogynistic abuse for daring to speak the Inconvenient Truth in her articles and books. No where is that clearer than in this particular book. It will infuriate some, and it clearly has from some of the heavy-handed retaliations from the other reviewers, but that is only because it has exposed their complicity with patriarchy in excoriating brightness, at a time when Truth is elusive and scarce.

So buy it and read it. Now!
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on 12 August 2013
Although I found the subject very interesting and topical, it is highly derivative and uses many of Nina Power' theories without really developing them in a coherent manner. The book employs a mix of autobiographical and theoretical approaches, where both path are not really followed though and integrated with each other in a way that works particularly well. As a result, the book is patchy and uses a language which is not really accessible, often convoluted, without expanding on the meaning of some claims that are being made (and awkward terms that are being used!). From a content point of view, the book is excellent and critical; formally it's not and I was surprised it's written by a journalist. Evidently the short format of news articles or columns is very different than that of a book which instead requires a different approach to writing.
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