Laurie Penny has made a name for herself with her empathetic yet unapologetically radical writing. Far from the contrarian left where all that isn’t perfect is unacceptable, Penny carves out spaces for discussing the biggest issues of our time—all with her eye on progress and an unflinching dedication to helping marginalized communities. So her latest book, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults, couldn’t have come at a better time. With the very forces Penny fights against on the rise, her essay collection connects the dots between identity, politics, economic struggle and the patriarchy.
“You cannot separate issues of gender and identity from issues of political and economic struggle,” the journalist and activist says in a phone interview with Paste. “They are the same struggle.”
Bitch Doctrine proves vital at a time when the President of the United States has spent his first months in office rolling back protections for women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups. But Penny says the book had already been completed when Trump was elected, and she’d envisioned the book being published under President Clinton. Although she did make edits, including rewriting the introduction and adding a few articles about Trump’s election, the bulk of the book remained unchanged.
“The body of the essays—on gender, free speech, abortion rights—are the same,” Penny says. It’s the way in which they are framed by recent events that is different from how she imagined. Penny originally thought the collection would be read in the context of a liberal, historic, female presidency. That didn’t happen, but her points are still important for markedly different reasons. “The arguments are no different. The enemy is different.”
To be clear, that enemy is not simply Donald Trump. The essays, which cover everything from free speech to the HBO show Girls to Penny’s gender identity (and what that means for her work as a public-facing feminist), are aimed at forces far more deeply imbedded in our culture and politics than Trump. Instead, Penny sees Trump as the unavoidable face of society’s much larger issues, like patriarchy and consumer capitalism.
“Trump is a symptom,” she says. “He didn’t come from nowhere, but he makes the crisis feel acute rather than chronic.” What Trump has done, however, is galvanize and rally those who oppose the things he represents. “You aren’t just seeing people mobilize against Trump. You’re seeing people bring new momentum to [social, political and environmental movements].”
If the title is any indication, Bitch Doctrine isn’t a collection that hems and haws. The opening paragraph lays it out: “This is a book about the hard stuff, about the painful places where theory crashes into flesh and bone…about desire and control and contested bodies…about gender and power and violence…” Embracing “bitch” isn’t new—Penny herself calls back to the now iconic Tina Fey line, “Bitches get stuff done.” But under a Trump presidency, that reclamation is about speaking up in distinctly hostile circumstances.
“It’s the job of people who work directly in politics to make compromises and to work out what can be clawed back from an anti-woman agenda,” Penny says. “But at times when the world is turning darker and there are more conservative forces in power is exactly the moment when activists and political writers should be more radical, not less.”
For Penny, being radical isn’t about being hostile. Recent years have seen the concepts of radical kindness or radical softness enter the activist lexicon in greater force, and Penny’s activism and outlook are distinctly warm. She’s clearly someone who cares about others and their well-being, and that passion comes through in her writing. Caring for each other, according to Penny, is also central to making sure activists are able to keep fighting in what is a dizzying and confounding struggle.
“For millennials, anxiety is kind of the background emotional condition of the current state of capitalism in the way that depression was the overall background of the post-liberal, post-Cold War age,” she says. “Managing mental health isn’t optional to the struggle we’re facing.” Penny points to the ways in which her own network help each other when one of them needs to step back, noting that she wishes there was a better societal structure to make that possible.
Wishing for better but acknowledging the now is central to making Penny’s writing not just accessible but forward-facing. In a moving essay about her experience with gender, she points out her doctors, who caused harm as she struggled with her own identity, were genuinely trying to help her based on what they knew at the time. It’s a subtle but powerful move that highlights that social changes are taking place, and our understanding of them isn’t always where we want it to be.
“Rapid social change is uncomfortable, even for people who like to see themselves on the right side of history,” she says.
The past 10 years have seen a remarkable shift in how we understand gender, sexuality and identity. Although Penny knows it poses challenges as we all process quickly emerging conversations, she posits that we can constantly learn new things by listening to others. “No information is complete….I find that a useful approach.”
Anyone who has spent time on social media knows that the left is good at debating within the ranks—to the point that internal strife can turn into counterproductive infighting. The question of whether or not conflict pushes feminism and progressivism forward or serves as a stumbling block is complex; it advances conversation in many instances while creating an impression of disorder. But Penny doesn’t stress about the subtweets and cries not to be distracted from the “real issue”; feminists arguing has never stopped progress before.
“If we make resistance plans that can only be realized when we are all in agreement on everything and no one is ever cross with each other, we’re going to be waiting a long time,” Penny says. “Have you met feminism? There’s never been a time when that happens, and we haven’t done that badly! For people who spend half our time yelling at each other, we’ve been able to get quite a lot done.”
And so the fight continues. For Penny, that means using her platform in service of progress, justice and resistance. “There are lots and lots of different tools for social change, and writing happens to be mine.”
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.