Recently, the Denver Feminist Book Club members voted to read “Whip Smart – A Memoir” by Melissa Febos for their November discussion hoping that the book would be a compelling feminist read. Although the book is about a dominatrix, a woman who plays a dominant role in sadomasochistic encounters, the application of the label “feminist” is problematic.
Libraries typically classify “Whip Smart” under the nonfiction and biography/autobiography genres as the memoir narrative style makes the book indisputably an autobiography. Technically, human subjectivity is considered valid non-fictional material, but one wonders what boundary would move subjective conveyance of reality from a nonfiction to a fiction classification. Perhaps the line between fiction and nonfiction when considering the narrator’s perception of reality was too thin to fully support the material’s classification as non-fiction. In rather egotistic fashion, the narrator in “Whip Smart” tended to provide the reader with accounts of other character’s thoughts and lives (as though they were fact), when in reality, the relation of such personal information came off to the reader as judgemental on the narrator’s part.
The narrator’s subsequent egoistic utilization of her perceived reality ties directly into the controversy behind labeling “Whip Smart” a feminist read. Feminism can be generalized as a theory that places high value in increasing the acute social understanding and cognizance of gender inequality, sexuality, gender-influenced power relations, and other gender- and sexuality-based aspects of society. It is through critiquing these aspects of culture that feminists look to promote societal transformation. Fundamentally, feminism advocates for the equality and liberation of those negatively impacted by gender roles and sexism.
On the surface, it would seem potentially feminist that a woman would document an account of her experiences as a professional dominant in sadomasochistic relations. Yet under the surface, the account depicts the narrator’s promotion of her perceptions of patriarchal social structures in others as a means of attaining drugs, social eminence, and wealth. In egotistic vanity, the narrator pridefully exposed herself reinforcing cultural patterns infused with rape and harassment for the sake of personal advancement.
According to the biography portion of Febos’ website, Febos dropped out of high school in order to take night classes at Harvard. She would later graduate from The New School University and obtain an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. This information parallels the background of the narrator’s life presented in “Whip Smart.” Repeatedly, the narrator emphasized her academic brilliance and the ongoing struggle to be intellectually challenged.
Additionally, “Whip Smart” frequently introduced sub-narration of the narrator’s experiences in school amidst the primary narration of her social interactions, work, and musings. As a result, the reader begins to understand how the narrator’s academic eminence fell short to quench the needs of her egoistic nature. The reader also sees how she turned toward satisfying her ego through the social power she gained over others when telling them she was a professional dominatrix. Therefore, rather than advocating the feminist values of equality and liberation, the memoir depicts the use of gender roles to gain the upper hand in social interactions. Simply having a woman as the culprit of such socially regressive behavior did not do enough to make the actions feminist.
While it is possible that dominating another through the use of sexual roles can be a feminist device by illuminating aspects of gender inequality, the accounts in “Whip Smart” do not seem to have brought about a revolution for those mentioned in the narrator’s encounters. In fact, the narrator used the depictions of her work as a dominatrix for the sake of explaining how her experiences were primarily devoid of feminist value.
At one point she said, “Jack came with a typed list of instructions… I would spend an hour having every moment of my tyrannical role dictated to me… I knew what to do, I was good at knowing what to do, but they still whispered the answers to me. I walked out of these sessions flushed with furious humiliation.”
Aside from the description of the book as feminist, the most frustrating aspect of the book was the deceptive title, “Whip Smart.” A majority of the narration depicted the use of domming and sexism to obtain money, drugs, and social advantage by a genius heroin addict. The story concluded when the narrator sobered up, left the domming industry to marry a man uninterested in her taking on dominant roles, and living a heteronormative life. The ending revealed that the aspect of the narrator as a dominatrix was actually of lesser importance and that the entire book was, in reality, about the narrator’s journey from drug addict to married lady. Essentially, the entire book was the journey of a troubled soul becoming “normal” and living happily ever after.
“Whip Smart – A Memoir” failed to provide insight into the life and career of a true and enduring dominatrix, who works in the industry to this day or is retired after a long and successful career. While not for feminists, this book is for those who enjoy reading about the journey of egomaniacs such as Odysseus, from Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Those who look for evocative nighttime reads involving dominatrixes and dungeons would also enjoy this book.