Filmmaker and Critic Virginie Despentes Is Still, Unfortunately, Quite Necessary

Virginie Despentes’ feminist arguments in her recently rebooted collection of essays, King Kong Theory, remain fresh and frustratingly relevant.

King Kong Theory
Virginie Despentes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
May 2021 (reprint)

In the summer of 2001, I was 19-years-old and exploring independent cinema for the first time. There was a small three-screen movie theater nearby that ran all the hot indies. Every Saturday afternoon, I’d plunk down a couple of bucks for the matinee showing and get myself a film education that was without any greater context than “here’s what’s playing this weekend”. This effort was often wildly against the mainstream blockbusters I’d grown up watching.

Among the gems I discovered that year: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming’s The Anniversary Party, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghostworld, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s Kissing Jessica Stein¸ and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. Nobody ever walked out of these movies, except to pee and then hurry back. I don’t remember much about Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-Moi (usually translated as Fuck Me or sometimes Rape Me), except that a bunch of people walked out of it. A bunch—meaning there were only a half dozen people left in a theater of about 30. It was subsequently banned in France for almost 30 years.

Punk girls know some things about sex and violence. Mainly: that sex and violence are found together as often as peanut butter and jelly, and that the entire planet is conspiring to keep girls down. So those are the two things I was thinking about as I watched the mass exodus in the theater that afternoon. Baise-Moi was using the genres of pornography and ultra-gore to point out really obvious facts about the lived experiences of girls that are hard to disagree with. If the audience couldn’t stomach a reversal, wherein the girls get to do all the damage for a change, then those people leaving the theater were just hypocrites and fraidy-cats.

I made a mental note that Despentes and I were on the same page but never looked into her work further. I was awash in cool ideas and soaking up every possible influence, not yet discerning or disciplined enough to follow the trail or dig more deeply into them.

Thus, I never read Despentes’ King Kong Theory until now. The autobiographical feminist manifesto that first appeared in French in 2006 and in English in 2010 had been out of print, but FSG Originals just released a new translation by Frank Wynne. Wynne has won numerous awards for his translations, including being shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 for his translation of a Despentes novel. It would still be nice for her books to be translated by someone who has lived experience as a girl.

Twenty years after my first encounter with Despentes, King Kong Theory left me in a state of similarly easy agreement on all major points. It’s a series of seven essays on a variety of topics that each head in the same direction in the same bluntly accessible manner. The introductory essay pumps a fist in the air on behalf of all punk girls who don’t fit in. Despentes is keenly aware that most people dislike or are afraid of her, and she flips them the bird.

The second chapter lays out her unified field theory of the oppression of women, taking on government, capitalism, and culture as a patriarchal industrial complex. The third chapter focuses on rape by sharing her experience with it as well as her thoughts on Baise-Moi, with a hat tip to critic Camille Paglia. For my money, Despentes beats Paglia by a mile: she’s more forthrightly personal than self-mythologizing, less densely populated with vague reference materials, and equally full of attitude.

The fourth chapter focuses on sex work. Like the rape chapter, this one is an excellent balance of personal testimony mixed with theoretical analysis in defense of sex work. The picture is not all rosy and Despentes is honest about the pros and cons, using addiction metaphors to help explain how sex work can be great at first but ultimately very difficult to extricate oneself from later on as consequences begin to stack up. The fifth chapter focuses on pornography, and though she does rely on some additional stories about Baise-Moi, this chapter is mostly an impersonal argument in favor of pornography.

“King Kong Girl” is the sixth chapter, and the one alluded to in the title. It covers the many awkward and terrible aspects of the Baise-Moi publicity junket. It also covers how the public at large scrutinizes any successful or creative woman. The title comes from an extended metaphor Despentes uses to open the chapter. This is the least interesting and least successful part of the entire book. She does a five-page literary analysis of Peter Jackson’s King Kong reboot(2005). It’s more disjointed than poetic, less argumentative than impressionistic, straining to replace a quality smart mouth with something slightly more seriously academic.

Obviously, the gist of the point is reasonably made, and King Kong Theory is overall an excellently evocative book title. It stings a little that there isn’t a satisfying deeper dive to be had there. Still, the final chapter is a mighty exhortation to fully enter the battle of the sexes and spark the feminist revolution that benefits everyone—properly full of that gorgeous giant animal power to smash the skyscrapers of toxic masculinity.

King Kong Theory still feels fresh, and it definitely shouldn’t fall out of print until its targets lose their stranglehold on women everywhere. Spoiler alert: Despentes will, unfortunately, continue to prove herself a necessary and sustaining voice. I expect to feel her pain and agree with her arguments no less at 60 than I do now at 40, which is no less than I did when I was 20.

RATING 9 / 10