Katha Pollitt’s got a piece up at TPM Cafe discussing her new book and, in particular, Toni Bentley’s bizarre “vagina dentata intellectualis” attack on it in the New York Times Book Review. It’s an interesting post, and it’s part of a larger discussion that will take place about the book this week at TPM Cafe, featuring posts by Amanda Marcotte, Jessica Valenti and Garance Franke-Ruta, but I think Pollitt kind of goes astray when she apparently blames Bentley’s review on feminism:
Most of the controversy around Learning to Drive has been around the title story and especially its followup, “Webstalker,’ which are about a painful breakup and its aftermath. As in the other essays, I aimed to put close together sadness and comedy, high diction and low, the romantic and the reflective. It’s not for me to say if I achieved those effects– but that was the idea. What has really floored me, I must say, is that the book is controversial. I thought I was writing about experiences that are shared by many, if not indeed most people, including men. Who doesn’t have areas of incompetence and fear — mechanical stuff for me, maybe foreign languages, or I dunno, cooking, for you? Who hasn’t been hurt in love? And not just young people, either, thank you very much.
This, as I see it, is the pass to which we have come. Women can write about shooting heroin and being sex workers and spending years zoned out on prozac and having nervous breakdowns and hating other women and lord knows what else and that’s okay by feminism, as indeed it should be. But writing that you didn’t learn to drive for years and years out of technophobia and overreliance on men? Loving a man unwisely and feeling terrible for more than a long weekend when he left? Writing about how another person really got to you and how you even, OMG, googled him and the other women in his life rather a lot for a while, which is basically all that happens in “Webstalker”? Oh, that is so unfeminist–and from a longtime feminist political columnist too! That really undermines all our progress. Now we’ll never get the ERA.
Has feminism really become such a brittle, defensive, live-for-your-resume, never-let-them-see-you-cry kind of thing? If that’s true, and I hope it isn’t, the backlashers have truly won. They’ve gotten women to censor themselves to save society the trouble. Feminism, after all, was supposed to enlarge our sense of women’s humanity, in all its messiness and contradiction and individual truth; it was supposed to connect women to each other, and to men, in more honest ways. It wasn’t supposed to be yet another standard of perfection, a mask. Because look where that leads: In one way or another, every woman will inevitably fall short of the feminist-stalwart ideal, as every man falls short of the winner-take-all competitive capitalist ideal that is masculinity. If a writer censors herself to keep up the good name of womanhood, it is most unlikely people with a low opinion of women will be impressed. All that will happen is that other women think that they are alone in what are, in fact, common experiences. This is the roundabout the women’s movement was supposed to help us get out of!
I think Pollitt’s conflating (or at least failing to draw a bright line between) a couple of things here. First, there’s Bentley’s attack on her and her book. Considering that Bentley is best known for an “erotic memoir” about submission to anal sex being the key to her pearly gates or somesuch, and that the review itself is rife with antifeminism, it hardly seems fair to attribute Bentley’s review to some kind of brittle feminism. That’s sort of like attributing stripper-pole parties and Girls Gone Wild to feminism (and in particular, to Third Wave feminism). It’s particularly unfair when you consider the fact that this is the second book of Pollitt’s to receive this kind of treatment in the NYTBR — her last book was also reviewed by a lightweight, Ana Marie Cox, with a connection to butt sex and an apparent axe to grind about feminism. Frankly, I think the modus operandi of the NYTBR is to discredit Pollitt and feminism by treating them with disdain and assigning women who are trying very hard to please the boys to review her books.
But then you do have that brittle, backlashy, unclear-on-the-concept-of-what-the-personal-is-political-really-means sort of reaction to a feminist writer/leader being less-than-perfectly-feminist in her personal life. I don’t think that comes out of the same place as Bentley’s vicious review at all, but I do think it’s worth talking about, because the subject keeps rearing its ugly head. All too often, I’ve seen “the personal is political” raised to criticize someone for the choices she makes, whether those choices involve wearing makeup, shaving, getting married, having kids, staying home with the kids, having certain kinds of sex, doing sex work, having plastic surgery, getting a puppy, what have you. And always, the people who pop up declaring that “That’s not very feminist!” deny that they’re trying to shut anyone up, that they’re trying to criticize the person and not the choice. But that’s exactly what they’re doing. If we can’t speak about our own lives and our own choices with honesty, without having to worry that someone will freak the fuck out about how harmful our lives are to other women, how are we to move forward? How are we to, at the end of the day, live our lives the way we want to? To separate out what we really want from what we’re being pressured to do — whether that pressure comes from the patriarchy or from people who are excessively concerned with what message the patriarchy takes away from our choices?