Virginie Despentes in 1998.
Photographed by Raphaël GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
“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 human flesh.”
So begins Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory, a book that has been exalted—and criticized—for its provocative text and insight into femininity and womanhood. Within the first few sentences of the essay collection, the tone unfolds itself: angry, unapologetic, and unafraid.
Far from poignant, often crude, and perhaps the most honest account of gender to have been written in the twenty-first century, King Kong Theory—originally published in 2006 and reissued by Fitzcarraldo Editions this past August—is a piece of work that has shaped perceptions of femininity globally. Translated from the original French and republished time and again, the book also serves as a sort of prelude to #MeToo; it screamed the need for such a movement before social media did so.
Despentes, a French writer and filmmaker, has been lauded for her work, which speaks for and to marginalized people. And no work is more symbolic of her mission than King Kong Theory. The writer, who also directed the highly controversial French crime-thriller, Baise-moi, has become “a kind of cult hero, a patron saint to invisible women”, as the New York Times Book Critic, Parul Sehgal, puts it. Even the manifesto’s title nods toward women, who, in Despentes’ words, are more “King Kong than Kate Moss.”
King Kong Theory has been described as “part memoir, part political pamphlet”, but it simultaneously voices the fears, fantasies, and failings of subjugated women. These women are sex workers, or those who have been assaulted—Despentes advocates to amplify the stories of those she recognizes as isolated or sidelined. In a couple hundred pages, Despentes journeys through ideals of feminism with her readers. The manifesto touches upon everything from drugs to assault to prostitution (including her own time as a sex worker in France), masculinity, and pornography. Many of her ideas stem from her biographical accounts: stories that outline how Despentes came to be the feminist icon she is today. She recounts her own rape, which took place on the outskirts of Paris in July 1986—an event she didn’t speak on for three years. The horrific things that happened to her manifest as a desire to speak to other women, to dissect notions of morality, control, and violence. “It is a foundation stone,” Despentes writes. “Of who I am as a writer, as a woman who is no longer quite a woman. It is what simultaneously disfigures me and makes me whole.” In between providing windows into her life, she criticizes the so-called sexual revolution of France, tying politics and capitalism to the idea of male power. She declares that porn is a “tranquilizer,” yet society insists on labeling its stars as “victims”.
To those familiar with Despentes’ work, it doesn’t come as a surprise that King Kong Theory serves as a steadfast, unwavering guide for women in France and now, globally. It would also be unsurprising to say that her storytelling and critiques make some uncomfortable. Lauren Elkin, a book critic, writes, “Whenever I opened a book by Virginie Despentes, I would feel that instead of me reading it, it was reading me.”
Sarah Pascoe, an English actress, said King Kong Theory was a book that changed her life, one that is “scalding”, “illuminating” and will “agitate” the reader. Despentes’ writing contains a rawness that holds a mirror up to the reader, demanding—not requesting—that they examine themselves. And why? In part, this is fueled by its brazen, bare-faced prose. But there is also the fact that she spares no truth untold, no system free of criticism. It is her insight into the ways of the world and the chains of gender which is both thought-provoking and a thing of necessity.
“Would I want to be a man?” Despentes asks towards the end of her book. “I am better than that”, she answers. The response, in a fashion synonymous with Despentes’ overarching persona, speaks volumes: she is a woman who does not desire the power of a man. Rather, she seeks to challenge the perception that women would want to be anything other than what they are.
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