Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Introduction: Envy

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Introduction: Envy

Article excerpt

A year ago, I received an e-mail, out of the blue, inviting me to edit an issue of Women's Studies Quarterly on Envy. I had no good reason to say yes, and a couple to say no. I was just beginning writing a book on a completely unrelated topic and very much wanted to concentrate on that book, a project very dear to my heart. Nonetheless, I found myself wanting to edit this issue, for one reason and one reason only-its theme. I had never worked on this subject, had not even thought of working on it, but "Envy" immediately grabbed me. During the time I was thinking the invitation over, every person I mentioned it to responded to the theme as enthusiastically as I had. There was a certain frisson, something edgy about a feminist journal doing envy.

When WSQ was first published in 1972, perhaps nothing would have been more unthinkable than an issue devoted to envy. Not the least of reasons being that the most notorious association at the time likely would have been Freud's concept of penis envy. Feminists were rejecting psychoanalysis because of the concept of penis envy; Freud, on the other hand, understood feminism as a manifestation of penis envy. If nothing else, this made the connection between envy and feminism loaded, to say the least.

But it was not just Freud that made envy so politically incorrect. Back in 1972, feminism embraced the synonym "Sisterhood." The abstract idea of Sisterhood energetically denied the power of sibling rivalry as a big part of the relation between "sisters" (literal and figurative). So feminism in 1972 was in militant opposition to, or denial of, women's envy of (a) men and (b) other women.

Nineteen seventy-two is, to be sure, a very long time ago. In terms of feminism, of feminist theory and academic feminism, it is even longer still. And yet there remains even today, it seems, some thrill, some pleasant little shock about a feminist journal devoting itself to envy.

More perhaps than anything, "penis envy" might represent how far we have traveled since 1972. "Though once at the center of feminist debates, the notion of 'penis envy' now seems just an old saw, more deserving of obsolescence than sustained analysis or critique"-so writes Sianne Ngai in Ugly Feelings (2005,126). Or as Laura Kipnis puts it in her contribution to our issue: "'penis envy' . . . just sounds so retro these days."1

While it might seem "just an old saw," penis envy in fact receives sustained analysis and critique in Ngai's Ugly Feelings (what feeling could be uglier than penis envy?) and, however retro it might sound, Kipnis brings back the concept and puts it to theoretical use in her critique of contemporary feminine consumer culture: "[I]sn't the notion that 'something's missing' the dynamic driving the entirety of women's culture?" In 2006 penis envy for Kipnis is both a concept and a joke; she follows the phrase "something's missing" with a parenthesis: "(relax, not a penis, don't be so literal-just something)." If we no longer need to take "penis envy" so seriously ("relax"), we might have a new relation to it, one that can be seen not only in Kipnis's irreverent wit but also in Grace Paley's casualness in the poem we're fortunate to include here: "One day . . . trying to sleep/ I suffered penis envy."

(While working on this issue, one day, I found myself wondering whether my lifelong overeating wasn't structured by my resentment that men could eat more than I could-for example, the man I've been living and eating with for decades-that it wasn't fair, that I couldn't bear to get less than he could.)

While Kipnis and Paley point to a newly playful and productive take on penis envy, the texts included here are more likely to focus on the other feminist bugaboo-rivalry between women. Woman-onwoman envy is the predominant concern of the articles by Suzanne Leonard, Sianne Ngai, Astrid Henry, and Mary Ann O'Farrell, as well as the story by Catherine Cusset and book reviews by Deirdre DayMacLeod and Kamy Wicoff. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.