So I said that I was taking a break, but here I am.
I’m writing specifically in response to the number of criticisms of Jessica Valenti’s new book, Full Frontal Feminism. As far as I can tell, several of the critics haven’t actually read Jessica’s book, but that hasn’t stopped them from taking other bloggers’ words at face value, and indeed leveling broad judgments against Jessica because of the book’s cover. So, to start, I’ll say that I have actually read the book. All of it. I finished reading it more than two weeks ago, and have been meaning to write a review, but hadn’t found the time. But after reading the criticisms that other bloggers have thrown at Jessica, I’m a little heated. So, first, review time, and then response time.
Full Frontal Feminism is damn good. It is, very much, a love letter to feminism and a feminist primer. It is not a book that is meant to appeal to career feminists, or to women who have made feminism their lives — however, I am a woman who has pretty much made feminism her life, and I really enjoyed it and I learned from it. The point of Jessica’s book, though, is to explain to younger women why feminism is appealing, and why it’s valid in their lives. It explains why feminism has been important in Jessica’s life. FFF is appealing precisely because it’s conversational. Jessica’s writing is so incredibly tight that she can take complicated topics and distill them down to compelling one-sentence summaries — followed by “fuck that,” or some otherwise perfect, funny and to-the-point dismissal. She takes issues that would take me pages to explain and pares them down to a paragraph. And you’re laughing by the end of it. FFF is not an academic work, and was never intended to be. It’s informative without being intimidating; it’s intelligent and still accessible. Reading it is a lot like talking to Jessica in person — charming, funny, cutting, sometimes foul-mouthed, intelligent, and always fascinating.
Jessica and I differ on several issues, porn and statutory rape being the two that come most immediately to mind. But damn if she doesn’t present solid, grounded arguments for her points of view. And while we may not agree on everything, the fact is that Jessica gets it. She is well-schooled in both academic feminism as well as day-to-day, life-lesson feminism — and as a general rule she errs on the side of lived feminism, which is incredibly refreshing. I’ve done the academic feminism thing — hell, I’m still doing it — and while I love me some theory, at the end of the day, the way women live their lives and negotiate feminism with their lived realities matters a whole lot more than theory ever will. So her book isn’t laden with academic terms. Jessica isn’t trying to remind you that she’s smarter and more feminist than you are. And after spending a semester reading Butler and Foucault, sitting down with Full Frontal Feminism was a nice change. I could read it, be entertained, learn something, and not feel like I was having to work at it.
Full Frontal Feminism is intended to target younger women — high school and early college-aged would be my guess. I didn’t identify as a feminist until college, not because I didn’t have feminist beliefs, but because I hadn’t met anyone my own age who identified as feminist, and because I bought into a lot of the negative stereotypes about feminism. If you had thrown Andrea Dworkin or Judith Butler at 16-year-old Jill, she would have told you it was the most ridiculous thing she had ever read and thrown it back at you. But if you had given me Full Frontal Feminism, I would have thought twice about the feminist label. That was Jessica’s point — not to impress the theory-whores out there. Not to convert the 25-year-old grad student. Not to open the eyes of the 60-year-old veteran feminist who spent her whole life on the front lines. But to reach out to the younger women who have been scared away from feminism by the conservative backlash and an unsympathetic media.
That’s incredibly important. And that’s why so many of the criticisms of Full Frontal Feminism have pissed me off so much.
One of the major criticisms is that FFF is “fluffy.” It’s fluffy, apparently, because Jessica curses, writes in a conversational style, and doesn’t introduce some new, ground-breaking piece of feminist thought. By cursing, she is apparently talking down to younger women.
I call bullshit. I also call bullshit on her criticism of Jessica’s stance on porn. Jessica doesn’t talk much about porn in her book, so the fact that it was mentioned in this post strikes me as a little odd. Dorothy writes, “If you want to watch it, fine. Just don’t pretend it’s somehow making you more powerful when you do.” If she can point to me where Jessica’s book said that porn makes you more powerful, I will be incredibly impressed, because I’d wager every penny in my bank account that Jessica never said that porn is totally empowering. By why let details like those get in the way of making fun of those silly make-up wearing third-wavers?
Jessica is also criticized for ignoring issues of non-white, non-middle-class women — and when I read those criticisms, I have to wonder if the commenters have read the book. Because Jessica recognizes the racism within the feminist movement. She recognizes that white middle-class women dominate the discourse, and that women of color, queer women, and low-income women have often felt marginalized. She does more than pay them lip service — she makes an obvious effort to include a variety of issues and voices in her book. She talks about her own class background, and how that shaped the kind of feminism that she adheres to. But at the end of the day, Jessica is still going to be coming from a place of privilege as a white woman. She gets that. As far as I can tell, she made a concerted effort to offset that privilege as much as possible. And then she was accused of having “white guilt.” It’s a bit of a catch-22.
Another main criticism is that Jessica focuses too much on herself, and that the book is an ego trip — and again, I call bullshit. Fucking sexist bullshit. It is absolute bullshit that a woman writing a book which she describes as her love-letter to feminism should be criticized for having the gall to talk about herself. I wonder if men who use their own personal experiences to illustrate injustice face the same criticisms? I don’t think so. FFF is not Jessica Valenti’s memoir. It is a book in which she explains how feminism shaped her perspective. That does involve personal narrative. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Another criticism is that FFF is selling the idea that feminism is cool. Apparently this is bad, because feminism is supposed to be totally serious, and any attempt to make feminism an identity or anything other than a radical anti-capitalist movement is anti-feminist and dumb. Feminism, apparently, is not about making your life easier, it’s about wiping off that lipstick and looking grim and radical, damn it! A recognition that feminism can actually make your life better and that’s pretty cool is “feel-good feminism,” and Lord knows we can’t have that.
This argument particularly gets under my skin because feminism has made women’s lives better. The whole point of my feminist belief is that feminism should make your life better. It should operate on macro and micro levels, making the day-to-day a little easier, and making the big picture look better, too. But I am probably a “faux feminist” as well.
I do wonder if many of the critics have even read the book. This, for instance, makes me doubt it:
Stripped of any internationalist and political quality, feminism becomes about as radical as a diamanté phone cover. Valenti ‘truly believes’ that feminism is necessary for women ‘to live happy, fulfilled lives’. Slipping down as easily as a friendly-bacteria yoghurt drink, Valenti’s version of feminism, with its total lack of structural analysis, genuine outrage or collective demand, believes it has to compliment capitalism in order to effectively sell its product. When she claims that ‘ladies, we have to take individual action’, what she really means is that it’s every woman for herself, and if it is the Feminist-brand woman who gets the nicest shoes and the chocolatiest sex, then that’s just too bad for you, sister.
No, she does not mean that it’s every woman for herself — she means that we all have to do something, and that we can’t just sit on our asses and let other women do the work. As for the accusation that Valenti’s feminism is “stripped of any internationalist and political quality,” all I can say is, huh? Do you read Feministing? Did you read Jessica’s book? I have the same reaction when I read that Jessica’s feminism has a “total lack of structural analysis, genuine outrage or collective demand.”
Seems to me that Jess can’t win — she apparently lacks genuine outrage, and at the same time is “bitter and negative,” and “heavy” on the “male-bashing.” She’s also “shrill” — this, from a guy who is supposedly way more feminist than Jessica.
So is she a frigid man-hater, or a frivolous faux feminist? Ah, to watch women tear each other down over whose feminism is the purest! This is exactly why feminism appealed to me in the first place.
Jessica wrote her book in a very particular way: She wrote it to make feminism accessible to women who might otherwise reject it. That is her purpose. Railing against capitalism and telling women that feminism is a movement which will not make your life any better doesn’t really seem to further that goal, does it? Neither does blathering on about how awesome high heels and pornography are. Jessica does neither.
The fact is that feminism is a wide movement that encompasses a wide range of thought and theory. And, if we ever want to be successful, we’re going to have to work on a variety of levels. We need the intense academic feminists to push the movement theoretically forward. We need the feminists who are willing to engage with the political establishment, and who can take what we’ve got and try to make it better. We need the feminists who are trying to scrap the establishment and start anew. We need the feminists who don’t make feminism their career, but who do bring feminist thought into various aspects of their daily lives — into raising their kids, into the boardroom, into the classroom, onto the subway and into the street. We need the younger feminists who bring a fresh perspective to the movement. We need the seasoned feminists who have a wealth of wisdom and experience to share. We need feminists like Jessica who do the very tough work of reaching out to women who are otherwise uninterested in feminism — feminists who are patient and generous, and who listen to the concerns and experiences of younger women without branding them stupid or not feminist enough.
What does Jessica get for doing that? She gets branded stupid and not feminist enough. She gets mocked by other feminists.
We cannot keep talking to ourselves. We have to reach out to other women who may feel that feminism is irrelevant, or who may feel marginalized by other feminists. The problem is that apparently there is a large group of feminist women who enjoy nothing more than trashing other feminist women for not being feminist enough. And I’m not talking about the “feminists” like Feminists for Life or the IWF ladies, who throw the word “feminism” on to their anti-feminist action to legitimize it. I’m talking feminists like Jessica, who are well-schooled in feminist thought, who get their hands dirty taking feminist action, who are intelligent and progressive and who toe the line on every major feminist issue — when we’re trashing women like that, it’s time to take a good hard look at ourselves and ask what the hell we’re trying to accomplish.
Criticism is one thing, and I’m not arguing that Jessica’s book should be immune to it. I think that many of the criticisms of the cover have been valid, even if I don’t necessarily agree. But I think we cross the line when we call Jessica a “whore to the patriarchy” or “a feminist version of Ann Coulter.” Jessica’s book is substantive — it’s just not advanced feminist theory. It is factually accurate — it’s also opinionated, and she isn’t trying to do anything else (is any feminist book presented without an opinion?). It is tightly written, and complex issues are whittled down to their essential elements — that’s exactly what makes Jessica a good writer, and is perhaps what I envy about her writing style more than anything.
The whole thing just makes me sad and disappointed. Again, it isn’t about Jessica being above criticism. I don’t have a problem with people taking issue with what she writes, or even with the cover art. It’s the name-calling and the juvenile mockery that really, really bother me. Because what’s the point? Jessica has worked her ass off not only to write this book, but to build an online community at Feministing that is a leader in the feminist blogosphere. She is making a concerted effort to reach out to women who might otherwise reject feminism. She is trying to make this movement a viable one. She is a full-time feminist, and she is doing her part. And we’re cutting her down, calling her names, telling her she’s stupid, and otherwise attempting to silence her.
That bothers me.
I understand that maybe there are some sour grapes. After all, we’re all feminist bloggers, right? We all work hard to maintain these spaces. So why did Jessica get a book deal as opposed to someone else? Why is she getting chosen as the spokeswoman for online feminist action?
So, fine, maybe there’s some resentment or some jealousy. Nothing new to see here. So come up with your own book idea. Contact a publisher. See how it flies. Shape it. Work with it. If you can write a better book than Jessica wrote, do it.
The fact is that even the progressive blogosphere does replay the same hierarchies that we see in mainstream society. White men are still at the top. White women dominate the feminist blogosphere. This isn’t a coincidence. There are valid criticisms to be made of a system that privileges certain voices. But we can attack that system without shitting on some of the very deserving women who do rise to the top. Because at the end of the day, there are lots of us who are smart, capable, and talented. It doesn’t mean that Jessica shouldn’t be in the position she’s in — she absolutely should be there. There should just be more women up there with her. It sucks that there aren’t. But Jessica is the wrong target for that frustration.
So here’s my question: Aside from the cover art, what exactly should Jessica have done differently? Really, I would love to hear answers — answers which take into account her purpose in writing the book, which was to reach out to women who do not identify as feminists. Because the feeling I’m getting is that the only thing she could have done right would have been to not write the book at all.
Do I want people to be reading Angela Davis and Catherine MacKinnon and Helene Cixous and bell hooks and Judith Butler? Absolutely. But none of the previously mentioned are particularly good starting points. And we’ve gotta start somewhere. That’s what Jessica’s book offers — a gateway into feminism, a starting point for the unfamiliar, a way to make feminism accessible and relevant to women who otherwise would be turned off by it. And she does a phenomenal job.
I hate writing this post. I hate being critical of other feminists who I deeply respect, and who I think are incredibly intelligent and interesting. But the attacks on Jessica have extended far beyond measured criticism. They are nasty and unnecessary. At the end of the day, we are fighting within the same movement. That movement still needs to be shaped. It still needs to be more inclusive. But Jessica isn’t an anti-feminist dressed up in feminist clothes to sell books. She isn’t trying to undermine feminism. There isn’t anything in her book that anyone seems to disagree with — rather, people are objecting to what she left out, or how she presented the material. Jessica did not do a single affirmative thing to attack or hurt anyone. She is making every effort to widen and strengthen this movement. The fact that she’s being attacked in such incredibly nasty ways is kind of stunning.
You don’t have to agree with everything Jessica writes, or how she writes it, or how she packages it. Criticism is crucial to building a more effective movement, and to making us all better people. But the snipes and the little cruelties leveled at Jessica are making my skin crawl. I want to believe that we can be constructive in our criticisms, that we can realize that we’re all trying to make progress toward gender equality and/or women’s liberation, and that even if we go about it in different ways, our hearts are in the right place. I want to believe that, while feminism may not unite us, it will at least offer some common ground. I want to believe that even if we quibble on the details, we will nonetheless support each other and have each others’ backs. I want to believe that we won’t cut each other down in the way that the rest of the whole fucking world cuts us down. It makes me incredibly sad to know that that isn’t the case.
Jessica is doing the hard work of making feminism accessible to a wide range of younger women. She is at the forefront of online feminist activism. She is well-versed in feminist theory. She is someone who I’m happy to see taking the lead in my generation of feminists. She is one of the kindest, smartest, most generous people I have ever met. She should be incredibly proud of what she’s accomplished. I’m incredibly proud of her. And I offer her my sincerest congratulations on a job well done.
- Full Frontal Feminism Update by Jill May 19, 2007
- Buy Jessica’s Book by zuzu April 24, 2007
- Strident and Proud by Jill July 12, 2006
- More about that Clinton blogger lunch by zuzu September 15, 2006
- Wherein Ann Althouse Shoots Any Credibility She Had Left by Jill September 15, 2006