One Dimensional Woman is aphoristic and polemic from the start. As the author asks as the beginning of the book: “where have all the interesting women gone?”. In this slim volume the philosopher Nina Power attempts to answer this question. Through doing so she offers a compelling account of the place of women within contemporary society and a challenging riposte to the depoliticising tendencies within third-wave feminism. Her main complaint is with the “apparent abdication of any systematic political thought on the part of today’s positive up-beat feminists” which she suggests bears some responsibility for the uncritical reproduction of an idea of female emancipation which “coincides so perfectly with consumerism”: self-expression through consumption, self-confidence through sexuality. It also stands critically blunt in relation to the feminization of labour.
My favourite part of the book was her exploration of the role of sex in society through an inquiry into the cultural history of pornography. Power begins the chapter by counterpoising the empty and mechanical nature of contemporary pornography (“the sheer hard work of contemporary porn informs you that, without delusion, sex is just like everything else – grinding, relentless, boring”) with the joie de vivre she finds in vintage pornography (“the first thing you notice in these early films is the sheer level of silliness on show: sex isn’t just a succession of grim orgasms and the parading of physical prowess, but something closer to slapstick and vaudeville”). Whereas the latter “abounds in sweet expressions and moments of shared affection”, the former acts as a grim reminder of our own alienation: “sex is a type of work, just like any other”. For instance Power points to the bewildering proliferation of porn’s taxonomies since the onset of the internet age. Similarly she observes that one of the most successful porn films of all time involved 251 sex acts performed with 70 men over a 10 hour period. Modern pornography represents a triumph of instrumental reason (more choice, more variety, more sex) and, in so far as it increasingly shapes prevailing cultural understandings of sexuality, it insidiously entrenches the alienation which feeds it.
Another enjoyable section of the book is Power’s insightful (and genuinely funny) analysis of the phenomena of Sarah Palin in terms of Lancanian psychoanalysis. Through an intriguing perusal of the many facebook groups devoted to Palin (“I would totally do Sarah Palin”, “Sarah Palin is HOT!”, “I’d bang Sarah Palin”, “Sarah Palin is stirring things up – and I’m excited!” etc) and the mainstream coverage of her, Power offers an intriguing assessment of the likely future presidential candidate’s political and cultural significance:
“America has found its new hero(ine), and she’s a woman who turns the insults that every successful woman has hurled at her (dog, bitch, flirt) into ammunition to shoot dead her accusers. She turns maternity into a war-weapon, inexperience into a populist virtue and feminism into something that even the Christian right could approve of … although Palin didn’t manage to make Vice President this time around, what she represents – a kind of terminator hockey-mom who calls herself a feminist – is something quite new”
However like many of the other ideas within the book, this one remains ultimately undeveloped. This is inevitable given how short the volume is and Power should be applauded for writing such a accessible and enjoyable text. Nonetheless in spite of its relative brevity this is a complex and multifaceted book. It’s aphoristic style facilitates a range and scope which would otherwise be impossible. There’s something immensely satisfying about a challenging, polemic and enjoyable academic book which can be comfortably read over the course of a long train journey. It’s also another impressive addition to Zero Book’s eclectic range of titles.