“[Rape] 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.” Virginie Despentes, King Kong Théorie, 2006
I’ve been trying for months to write that post in my mother tongue, which is the language of King Kong Théorie, but I’ve been unable to do so. It is challenging to tackle crude stuff in your first language. I am attempting again to pull my thoughts together on that essential piece of writing.
King Kong Théorie is to the 21st century what The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir was to the 20th: an intellectual electroshock and a feminist Bible.
For many years, I didn’t like Virginie Despentes ; or at least I believed so. Her case was completely misleading and I didn’t have much of a critical opinion on feminism when I first saw her on TV in 2000, the year that her feature Baise-Moi was censored in France. I didn’t like her in interviews. It seemed so unusual to speak on TV with such a neglected hair, saying bad words and not trying to please anyone. Baise-Moi (‘Fuck Me’) is like the rougher version of Thelma & Louise, whose lead characters are played by two porn stars of that time. They fuck and kill all the men they come across to take their revenge on patriarchy. Despentes says that her movie was censored because the heroins are women and female violence is socially unacceptable.
A few years ago, I read her novel ‘Apocalypse Baby’, which I found absurd and unnecessarily trash. At the end of the story, the teenage heroin blows the Palais Royal in Paris with a bomb stuck up her vagina: go figure the symbolism.
In 2012, my opinion finally shifted. Virginie Despentes published a column in Têtu [the most famous French gay magazine which ran out of business last year] as a response to the declaration of a politician criticizing the legalization of gay marriage. It was fierce, smart and brilliant. I was following the debate on gay marriage very closely back then, and I was reading a lot of what was written in both camps. Her words are the only words which really marked my memory. They’ve been staying with me ever since; I remember some of her arguments really precisely because she is the only person who articulated my own position with such precision. I endorsed every single of her words, including the offensive ones. I wished I had written that statement myself as a letter to my anti-gay marriage mother.
Finally, last summer, nine years after it was published, I bought a copy of King Kong Théorie. I got a sudden urge to read it, because so many women seemed to refer to it as a life-changing work. I started reading it during my holiday in France at my 60-something aunt and uncle’s. I was hiding to read, because I was afraid they would see the summary at the back of the book: ‘I am writing as un 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.” I was lacking the guts to justify my literary choices. One evening, as I was reading in bed, my aunt got in the room to kiss me good night. I had the silly reflex to throw the book under the bed so that she wouldn’t see it. It fell in an out of reach spot: I had to move the bed around to get my subversive book back. There I was, an assertive feminist gay woman, moving the furniture in the middle of the night because I didn’t assume my feminist reading in front of my family. I felt utterly dumb. What exactly was I afraid of?
[In the meantime, my courage reappeared and I made my uncle read King Kong Théorie. I warned him about the crudity of the tone beforehands. He devoured it in two days and bought himself a copy, saying that it was a book designed for men. It is one of the small change-the-world achievements that I am the most proud of. My aunt read it too.]
As I was progressing through the pages, I started underlining certain passages which particularly resonated with my experience of living life in a very feminine woman’s body. But I soon realised that I was going to underline the whole book. Virginie Despentes verbalises things in such a striking way that I could finally put words on the confused rebellion which I had instinctively felt all my life, but which I never had the intellectual clarity to articulate, because I had been raised to believe that things were just meant to be that way when you are a girl. But I was discovering that my rebellion was legitimate.
Virginie Despentes relates her own experience of controversial themes where the female body is the common denominator of ongoingly unsolved issues: rape, prostitution, the porn industry, the myth of the ideal woman.
She knows what she’s talking about.
She always considered herself non-attractive: ‘I have always felt ugly. I put up with it and now I’m starting to appreciate it for having saved me from a crap life in the company of nice, dull, small-town guys (…) I like myself as I am, more desiring than desirable.’ Hurray to the concept of the Desiring Girl, that girl who can tell people asking her why she’s pretty yet single to fuck off! It is so much more fun to want (and get) than being wanted.
Despentes worked as a prostitute for a couple of years. Her vision of the job is original and defeats a number of clichés, pretty much like everything she writes about. She hangs out with porn stars and has every right to legitimately blow some fresh air on the heated topic of the porn business.
But in my opinion, the most edifying chapter, the most cult and groundbreaking is the one about rape. ‘The very definition of femininity: “the body that can be taken by force and must remain defenseless”. Virginie Despentes writes how she was raped by three guys with a gun at 17 as she was hitch-hiking with a friend. Just the way she simply writes: ‘“my” rape’ feels like a taboo is breaking. So is the way she explains how many years it took her to call her rape a rape, the difficulty to name it. How everybody, victims and rapists, don’t refer to the act as ‘rape’ but use all kind of hazardous periphrasis. And above all, Despentes describes how she refused to be destroyed by it, how she refused to feel she wasn’t the same afterwards, like society expects a raped woman to be.
I read that chapter again and again. I discover different layers every time, I am more or less sensitive to a passage or another. Those few pages are my intellectual refuge and my reference piece for ever. I have been offering King Kong Théorie to all the boys & girls I care about as an initiation ritual into my world.
Everybody should read it.