Book Review: Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life

Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: it’s a cheeky title for an elegant book. The latest contribution from Mari Ruti includes a blend of “theoretical reflection, cultural critique, and political commentary with personal anecdotes” (xxx). This combination makes for an illuminating perspective on gender, bad feelings, the consequences of consumer capitalism and neoliberalism, and the contemporary cultural moment. And, as Tajja Isen and Philip Sayers note in Ideas to Live by: A Conversation with Mari Ruti in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ruti writes with disarming lucidity.” In fact, this book includes the most accessible explanation of Jacques Lacan’s work that I have ever read, as well as referencing Freud, Foucault, Barthes, and other gods of high theory.

Ruti begins by demystifying the notion of “penis envy” (x) by observing that it’s not the actual penis itself that women envy but the “social prestige” (xi) that attends the penis in its function “as a socially valorized emblem of phallic” power (x). In other words, the penis symbolizes the power of the heteropatriarchy and it’s that power that is desirable. Ruti wonders “who cares what the equipment between your legs looks like?” (emphasis in original, xix), but notes that the world “continues to allow social power to accrue to the possessor of the penis” (xx). Ruti also asserts that men might feel penis envy as well if they “feel like they aren’t able to exercise” the power of the phallus, e.g. poor men, men of color (x, xxxiv).

In the attempt to address our lack (of power, of the phallus), we employ coping mechanisms – the distraction of Netflix, the lure of instant gratification by shopping, for example. But the “final coping mechanism” Ruti identifies is “an individualist and positivity-centered social ethos that valorizes good performance, high productivity, constant self-improvement, and relentless cheerfulness” (xxv). These characteristics  “have one thing in common: they keep us moving” (202), which is good for neoliberal consumer capitalism. We are promised that if we accede to this ethos, we will be rewarded with a good life and it is our “fantasies of the good life that motivate our actions” (xxxvi), even if the promise of good life doesn’t actually or ever materialize. That results in the “bad feelings” mentioned in the title.

Ruti is clear that she is talking about “socially generated bad feelings,” and especially “ones that arise from gender inequality” – not “bad feelings that arise from chemical imbalances or other physical factors and that consequently require medical intervention” (xxxix).

But, what keeps us on the hamster wheel of striving for the good life? For Ruti, one answer is Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, which “consists of subtle control mechanisms that allow us to believe we’re free to choose how we live when in face our choices have been largely predetermined by the political and economic needs of our society” (2). This largely invisible “ideological apparatus” directs us to thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that benefit neoliberal society, mostly without resorting to tyranny or anti-democratic repression (1-2).

The book’s wide-ranging topics include discussions of “dominant happiness narratives” (xlvi), gender obsession and the gender binary, the ways women are taught “to eroticize their sexual objectification” (xlviii), heteroporn, desire, anxiety, and “the paradoxes of neoliberalism” (xlviii).

Ruti acknowledges that she is, as we all are, complicit in the system. She “would not mourn the collapse of heteropatriarchy” but “would definitely mourn the collapse of my DVD player” (xxix), something that feels slightly hypocritical to her. Yet, she asserts – rightly, in my opinion – that “participation in an unequal social order doesn’t–and shouldn’t–neutralize one’s ability to condemn it” (xxx). We can’t help but participate in inequality because our society is constructed to produce inequality. But, we can try to resist or interrupt it by finding ways not to participate in the expected social ethos or behaviors. Our bad feelings might result in us “looking for ways to break patterns of living that are causing our dissatisfaction” (203).

If you are interested in reading a smartly written, incisive, accessible, theoretically-informed, feminist take on the contemporary world with an emphasis on gender inequality, this is the book for you.

Written by Donna M. Bickford, Ph.D., Director, Women’s and Gender Resource Center
August 15, 2018