Unisex Bloodlust

Rene Denfeld

Kill the Body, the Head Will Fall

Warner Books

"I THINK OF the rock star Courtney Love, who has been accused of assaulting fans and fellow musicians. Love has gloated over her violence, and for the most part, the press has joined her self-romanticization. A male rock star who hit women would not receive this indulgent amusement, which Love doesn't seem to notice is patronizing: Fists in baby-doll dresses aren't taken as seriously as fists thrown by men."

Another observation: "When women are arrested, they are less likely to be prosecuted. When prosecuted, they are less likely to be found guilty, and when found guilty, they are less likely to be sentenced to prison--and when sentenced to jail, they generally serve much less time."

Those are but two aspects of an argument Rene Denfeld pursues in her two-fisted examination of boxing and female aggression, Kill the Body, the Head Will Follow. Denfeld made a splash back in 1995 with The New Victorians, a critique of feminism. About her latest tome, you may sigh, How refreshing, another book about gender. But this one examines a curious point: Women can be mean motherfuckers. Citing female skinheads, women child abusers, and Rwandan schoolteachers who hatcheted people, Denfeld seeks to explode the notion that women are naturally gentler than men.

I can think of a few old-school feminists and old-fashioned ladies who might get indigestion from this prickly tract. Our culture likes the idea that women are inherently better than men; that our mothering would save the world if we only had the power. I remember bumper stickers during the Gulf War proclaiming "War: It's a dick thing." Of course, 40,000 women were proud to take part in that dick thing.

Love and Denfeld have a lot in common with those soldiers. Their generation has stormed some of the more remote male bastions--punk rock, boxing, war--not out of a commitment to feminism so much as pure ambition. Whether their chosen arenas are "good" is beside the point. Someday, whether these arenas are particularly "male" will also be moot. We can build as much ideology as we like about the gender of certain activities, but as soon as our definitions of gender mutate, that ideology breaks down. That's something Joyce Carol Oates didn't foresee, perhaps, in her 1987 book On Boxing, in which she wrote: "Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. [It] excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. And is there, perhaps, some connection? (The female boxer cannot be taken seriously--she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous.)"

Tell that to Denfeld. She works out at a smelly, run-down gym where poor kids train for competition. While gym life has been fraught with awkwardness for the first female, Denfeld was eventually accepted for her "heart," a boxing term that means power over one's survival instinct. Since she began, several young girls have joined as well, some from boxing families. Apparently, boxing was about men when only men boxed. Now, says Denfeld, boxing is about boxing; that is, skill, stamina, power, the willingness to inflict damage. And it seems that those qualities have no penises attached to them.

Maybe you disagree. If so, Denfeld has an arsenal of statistics to convince you otherwise: Women commit as much child abuse as men. They commit some 40 percent of spousal murders, and are more likely to strike first blows in domestic conflicts. Women are physically capable of all military tasks. They sometimes get off too easily in court by blaming men for their violence. Women who murder their kids are viewed as peculiarly unnatural, or less culpable due to female frailty: Susan Smith got life, but what would a black man have gotten for that crime (per her original story)? At the same time, Denfeld doesn't ignore the one-two punch of poverty and abuse that traps women far more than men.

I don't adore this book completely, as Denfeld leaves significant questions unanswered. (What about the circuit of violence from husband to wife to child? How many women kill husbands in self-defense?) Still, it's an important volume. And in arguing for women's profanity, Denfeld may have found the "connection" Oates was searching for 10 years ago. These opposing principles--boxing and birth, destruction and creation--are two faces of a power we all possess, whether we admit it or not. For lots of women, power is scary--we fear we'll lose control, become "monstrous." For myself, I'd like to see what lies beyond that fear. Maybe there's joy. A sense of responsibility. And that indescribable feeling that--as Thelma says to Louise--we're finally awake.

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