Behind the Scenes With Virginie Despentes
The radical French writer and filmmaker known for her book "King Kong Theory" talks about sexism in the publishing industry, how becoming a lesbian changed her life, and whether it's fair to say she hates men.
All photos courtesy of Virginie Despentes
"You're straight?" Suddenly but also totally expectedly, as I was complaining about what I always complain about, men and having to deal with them, Virginie Despentes asked me the question necessary to continue our discussion of the patriarchy and its individual effects. "Are you straight?" Do you sleep with the oppressor?
I am; I do. "Yeah," she said, returning to casually smoking a cigarette among cigarettes. "I think you would have much less problems if you would turn gay." Barring that, she said, I should get a dog.
I realized sometime during my talk with Despentes that I had gone into the interview hoping she could help me--offer me some vague but definitive advice for how to live and form opinions, particularly with respect to feminism. The 46-year-old's books and films--often described as amoral, violent, unflinching, frank, radical, and explicitly feminist--do not prepare you to meet a smiling woman of striking posture. The novel-turned-film for which she is most notorious is her first: Baise-Moi (Fuck Me) is about two women who go on a murder/sex spree after one of them is gang-raped. She wrote it when she was 23, but all of her work engages with themes like rape and violence in vivid, non-theoretical fashion, with masturbation, porn, prostitution, ugliness, and capitalism frequently cameo-ing throughout.
I think you would have much less problems if you would turn gay.
Although mostly unknown in the United States, Despentes is something of a legend in contemporary feminist circles, and her 2010 manifesto-cum-memoir King Kong Theory often passed down to millennial women as a recommendation from a cool, not-that-much-older mentor. (Or, if you're un/lucky enough to have experienced a gender studies program at a small liberal arts college, it might have made an appearance on a syllabus.) As my cool, not-that-much-older mentor wrote when she suggested the book to me, King Kong Theory feels "vital and fascinating" on the subject of rape--though, she continued in the email, "only like eight people" have read it. The reason Despentes returns, over and over, to the theme of rape is because she was the victim of the crime when she was 17, while hitchhiking home from Paris to the northeastern city of Nancy with a friend.
In other words, I expected Despentes to be hard, living in an apartment that was somehow ideologically radically liberal yet also not a gross squat. She would be withering, or at least visibly frustrated, while maintaining a distinguished air of experience and literature that she would espouse through confident, hard-and-fast feminist theory I could take home with me. "Just become a lesbian" was not quite what I had in mind, and ideologically her living situation can only be described as typical. Our van pulled up to Despentes's drab mid-century building and I took a wood-paneled elevator to her extremely normal apartment in Paris's Belleville district, a traditionally working-class area in the process of gentrifying. (A fun word I learned during this research: embourgeoisement.) Inside: IKEA furniture, batik throw pillows, low ceilings Despentes does not care for. In front of floor-to-unfortunately low ceiling bookshelves was a makeshift alter populated by: tchotchke figurines of several religions (mainly Christianity and Hinduism); a grim reaper; and a topless queen wearing red panties, black cape, and sparkly gold boots. (The display is "for prayers.") On one of the bookshelves was a framed photograph of Simone de Beauvoir among French bulldog paraphernalia, and in the bathroom hung two photos of men in purple tutus. In the elevator on the way to walk her dog, she asked me my sign; we got into a brief discussion of astrology; I corrected her on Beyoncé, who is not a Sagittarius; Despentes described herself as an "obvious" Gemini. I asked her how much she really bought the zodiac. She was equivocal--having read about it for 25 years, she thinks she must believe in it, though it's "not so much the signs you are, but the eclipses and how things affect you."
Despentes's status as an underground, cultish figure in the US is not indicative of her reputation in France, where she is much more widely known. Despentes has published nine books--only Baise Moi, King Kong Theory, and Apocalypse Baby have been translated into English--and directed three films. Her 2001 novel Les Jolies Choses was adapted into a film starring Marion Cotillard, and her most recent novel, Vernon Subutex, which is like her other novels in that it is gritty and gumshoe-y and engaged with issues of class and outsiderism, won the inaugural Anaïs Nin Prize for French writers yet to penetrate the US market. (The prize carries with it the promise of translation.) Vernon, which was very well received in Despentes's home country, is the first part of a trilogy Despentes was in the hectic process of working on when I met her; she has "no discipline for writing" because "it's so easy not to do." Three weeks after our interview, Despentes canceled the short American book tour she had planned to promote her most recently translated novel, Apocalypse Baby, because she was too behind on schedule.
At the beginning of the afternoon we spent together, however, this humanizing detail was not yet available to me. After she greeted me at her front door with the customary two cheek kisses and we sat on her couch, waiting for the crew to set up for the interview, I had no idea how to begin talking to this woman who had written a vital and fascinating text on rape based on her personal experience. Finally, she asked me what other pieces I was working on.
"I'm doing this article about farting," I said, because why not; it was the truth.
She smirked as I explained that I am very neurotic about farting, despite having learned many facts about it for the piece. She seemed to be humoring me until something from my findings--"The average person farts between 10 and 20 times a day!"--struck a chord with her, albeit one out of key.
"What?" she said, leaning back in skepticism.
"Yeah!" I said, glad to have broken the ice. "It seems right, doesn't it?"
Despentes frowned. "No," she said. "Do you fart every day? I do not fart every day."
I was momentarily unable to respond.
"I think it is propaganda," she continued. "Do you care if I smoke?"
For Despentes, "propaganda" is everywhere. Gender is propaganda. Television series are propaganda. Advertising is propaganda. Certain post-recession economic policies are propaganda. War is not quite propaganda, but it is fueled by propaganda, as well as by gender and television series. Although her professed diet of pizza is probably more the culprit in the case of gastrointestinal statistics, most of the time, she has a point. With all this insidious messaging floating around--and with her biography--it's a wonder that Despentes can be so optimistic, that she can attribute so much of our society to a bad-guy "collective subconscious" patriarchy and then light a (hand-rolled) cigarette and smile at her Boston terrier, Philomena. (Despentes used to have a French bulldog; she was very sad when she died.) When Philo's moan-esque snoring interrupted our shoot, Despentes was, as in her politics, matter-of-fact and aloof. "You can try to put her on the other side," she said, "but I think she will come back."
So the snoring soundtracked Despentes as she relayed the epiphanic moment she discovered Camille Paglia, sounding very similar to women who describe the moment they discover Despentes. "It was a shock, like something connecting," she said. "I was able to change some perspectives, which didn't erase anything, but if you can build some other thoughts, it changes everything, once you understand that [rape] is not your fault. It's a political tool to make you feel vulnerable in any space."
Although Despentes talks a lot about vulnerability and victimhood, she does not seem to be identify with either anymore. This she attributes to two factors: writing and women.
"I think I changed a lot after having published King Kong Theory," she said. "King Kong Theory here in France was read by many women, and I connected to many, many women. After this book, I made a movie without a rape for the first time. I wrote novels without rape. It was not conscious, but I started to work on [projects] without real rapes [in them]. So I suppose something about healing did work here. I didn't think about being attacked as much."
"Or," she added, "it was because King Kong Theory coincided with me becoming a lesbian."
Talking to Despentes, you almost feel you're being preached the gospel of homosexuality, which she credits with changing her life radically and for the better. Although she was straight for most of her life--even, if not contemplating, at least assuming marriage and children--when Despentes turned 35, she met the Spanish writer and philosopher Paul (then Beatriz) Preciado, and, as Despentes puts it, "became a lesbian." She's been happy ever since
"Now, I'm really surrounded by dykes, and I'm really feeling good," she told me, shortly before she suggested I try the lifestyle myself. "I'm really at ease in that culture."
Why? I asked. "Seduction is different," she explained. "It's a lot less difficult, you know, because you don't have to deal with the guy who has the power in the society. I think it makes you really more feel at ease, with yourself, with your company, with your seduction. You don't see success as a threat to your seduction, which is the case, I think, if you're a straight woman. Having more power, more money, more fame is a threat. At the same time, if you're oversexual, you don't lose any dignity if you're in a lesbian surrounding. I mean, you can really be a serial lover and nobody's thinking, she's not taking care of herself. It really makes many things more simple." Other women also "know exactly what you feel like if you come back home feeling fucking upset because you've been treated like a girl."
But what if you just like straight men? I asked her.
"It's difficult to make it happen," she said, sagely. "I prefer them all to be gay. But, no, I can understand, you can want to deal with some straight men. Some of them, obviously, are nice or attractive or charismatic or talented or have something. But to be a feminist and a straight woman, yeah, it makes you crazy."
(Despite seeming very comfortable with her life as it is, Despentes was careful to clarify that being gay is not a romantic utopia free of struggle. After nine years together, she and Preciado broke up last summer, because they couldn't make non-monogamy work. "I talked with all my friends, all summer long, who are monogamous or non-monogamous, and here I think the problem is exactly the same for straight or gay people," she said. Although sex is political and fundamental to Despentes, it is also, in this case, "annoying."
"It's difficult to have sex with the same intensity with someone you've been living with for years and years," she said. "In the first years, sex--and love--is fantastic. But you might want to experience new beginnings. New stories. Because we [were] always together, how were we going to be non-monogamous? I don't want you to be non-monogamous in front of me, and I don't want to be non-monogamous in front of you.")
While Vernon Subutex is like her previous works in many ways, it is unlike them in one key matter: Its protagonist is a man. It had never occurred to Despentes to write about male characters, and while Vernon Subutex was not an intentional experiment in literary gender politics, Despentes "never realized how easy" it would be to publish a book that centered around a man.
"Journalists were [saying], this is very interesting work about politics, which never happened to me before," she said of the reception of Vernon. "Journalists are men, so now they can identify. If they read about a woman they don't get it. They think they're getting [it], but now I discover they really don't. Now they can identify; most male readers are not able to identify with a female character."
I came into our conversation wondering if Despentes hated men. Before we met, I had read a Google translated version of an article she wrote essentially blaming the Charlie Hebdo attacks on a "shit masculinity," and I'd found an interview she did with the Village Voice in 2010 in which she said, "Who wants to have to deal on an intimate level with regular straight men? It can only be interesting if they might help you with money or your career. Otherwise, how depressing." But when I asked if that was a fair assumption--that she hates men--she backtracked.
"I generalize sometimes about men," she said. "I don't hate them. But I like to be able to treat men like we are treated all the time. I feel comfortable with that. I don't think men--creators, writers, or directors--are asked as many questions about their relationship to women, as we [are asked about our relationship to men]. We always have to legitimize what we've said, what we've done. You never go and ask Fincher, for example, what his relationship to womanhood is. We always have to explain: Do we hate men? Do we like them? Do we treat them fine?"
"I don't have problems with guys," she continued. "I just use them in my work."