I’m a feminist; I’m not a feminist. I’m an equity feminist, not a gender feminist. Well, technically – oh, screw it. Current social discourse is so convoluted and contentious we’re damned by just about any honest statement we make about gender-related issues. On one hand, gender is diagnosed as an overestimated, odious construct, but it’s a laser-precise reality on the other hand. Even pronouns are kindling for sociopolitical conflagration. Also, claims of genuine or official feminism clash to the point of becoming nonsensical fog, and the term “feminist” dissolves into a ubiquitous yet sterile pronoun itself, furiously signifying nothing. As Jessa Crispin, author of Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, puts it:
Somewhere along the way toward female liberation, it was decided that the most effective method was for feminism to become universal…They forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible…In other words, it has to become entirely pointless.
This also seems to be expressed in Andi Zeisler’s comparable We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Feminist Movement. Zeisler zeroes in on the clichéd term “empowerment” (which applies only to females, never males) and calls it “apolitical, vague, and so non-confrontational that it’s pretty much impossible to argue against it,” concluding that “if everything is empowering, nothing is.”
Why I Am Not a Feminist bubbles with similar insightful statements, and its wealth of criticism of sacred NOWs alone warrants endorsement. Since so much dehumanizing collectivism has become the rhetoric du jour, divergence from monotonous monoliths pleases greatly. Crispin and I diverge from each other on much (mostly on the merits of what I call bubblegum socialism/anti-capitalism), but I appreciate her overall insight, wit and her ability (and willingness) to question many aspects within the circle of her own ideals. She hasn’t swallowed – or she’s spit out – the hook, line and sinker of narcissistic, thought-policing feminism.
First, at the risk of incensing Crispin by coming to her defense (according to her, “rescue and protection are masculine” – in a bad sense), I’m compelled to deflect some reviewers whose partisan obtuseness has fogged their critical spectacles. The Guardian’s Stephanie Convery complains that “largely absent from the critical response to it has been the question of how this might translate into action.” And she wonders, “What follows from this intervention?” Even after some positive observation Convery calls Why I Am Not a Feminist “another rant into the void, another intervention for the sake of intervention that offers no concrete strategy for meaningful change.” Likewise, at Feminist Current Meghan Murphy, seeing the book as an “armchair critique” that’s “full of holes” and “void of substance,” grouses that Crispin doesn’t really call for anything” and “offers no alternative.”
However, all manifestos aren’t itineraries. Cures mustn’t always accompany diagnoses. “I have more questions than answers,” admits Crispin. “I do not know how this all is supposed to go.” Thank goodness for such self-awareness and honesty. Cocksure (sorry), dogmatic reformers, besides usually being annoying, often leave ruins in the wake of their substance and alternatives. If Crispin’s straightforward admission of lacking a salvational blueprint isn’t enough for her detractors, perhaps some wise words from the legendary Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case For Feminist Revolution might help in this matter:
The classic trap for any revolutionary is always, “What’s your alternative?” But even if you could provide the interrogator with a blueprint, this does not mean he would use it: in most cases he is not sincere in wanting to know…Moreover, the oppressed have no job to convince all people. All they need to know is that the present system is destroying them.
Firestone vibrates throughout Why I Am Not a Feminist, as do other historical feminist heavyweights (whether specifically and nonspecifically), such as Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Emma Goldman, bell hooks, Laura Kipnis, Simone Weil, Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. This, of course, contradicts another problematic complaint by Meghan Murphy’s: that Crispin doesn’t “offer any historical or political context.” Murphy specifies an alleged lack of knowledge of “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” by Audre Lorde, an essay “which explains that working within the system will never bring about genuine change…” Whether Crispin is familiar with Lorde’s essay or not is pretty irrelevant, since its thesis is a central – if not the central – observation in Crispin’s book.
Again and again Crispin identifies what she considers a rigged patriarchal system and stresses the cruciality of seeking redemption outside the system and beyond the system’s rules. And again and again she endorses nothing short of “a full-on revolution…a cleansing fire.” To her, the system “is evil” and fundamentally exploitative, and “the idea that you can make the strongest impact by influencing the culture from the inside is naïve at best, disingenuous at worst.” This idea wasn’t dreamed up from Crispin’s armchair, nor is it presented without historical/academic context. During my entire reading of Why I Am Not a Feminist I couldn’t help but think of Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Force of Circumstance, as mentioned earlier, Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. (Dworkin and MacKinnon? Give me a break.)
For instance, Juliet Mitchell recommends foundation-pulverizing revolution because “clearly nothing will be achieved within this sphere alone: nothing – even ideological – can be changed without a transformation of the economic base.” “[Women’s condition] will change significantly only at the price of a revolution in production,” says Simone de Beauvoir. “That is why I avoided falling into the trap of ‘feminism.’” And Firestone insists that “the goals of feminism can never be achieved through evolution, but only through revolution.” For her “the biological family” is the sustainer of “the tapeworm of exploitation,” so eradication of familial structure and the gender binary is indispensable in the quest for a truly just society. (Sadly, she also imagined a lunatic future when incestual and child/adult sexual relationships would be the norm.) Likewise, Germaine Greer wanted obliteration of the traditional family and gender roles. And, finally, far from being isolated and insubstantial, Crispin adds her opposition to “belief in innate gender qualities” to the contextual chorus. Women “need to consider what we lose by insisting women are distinctly different from men, how that myth both serves us and hurts us,” she writes.
As far as I’m concerned, aside from my appreciation for gender fluidity and such, I do think there is worth in the gender binary as a sort of spectrum base allowing for delineative gender diversity and many gradations, since a term such as “transitioning” is nonsense unless there’s something to transition from. (I root for gender differences, not gender roles/rules.) Besides, I must admit to not wanting to live in a world without Sam and Diane from Cheers, Apollonia and The Kid from Purple Rain, Moonlighting’s Maddie and David, Casablanca‘s Ilsa and Sam, Ralph and Alice Kramden, George and Weezie Jefferson, and Charlie Brown and The Little Red-Haired Girl.
Surely to the chagrin of many one-size-fits-all feminists, however, Crispin asserts that “to insist that all women’s experiences or desires are the same is folly: they simply are not.” This astute attitude accompanies her frustration with the insubstantial, often banal co-opting/bastardization of the feminist movement. “Much of contemporary feminism uses the language of power,” she writes. But “there is little conversation about what that power is to be used for, because that is supposed to be obvious: whatever the girl wants.” A great example of such narcissism is the annoying Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls. Crispin doesn’t pull her punches when she addresses Dunham in an interview with Jezebel:
…the thing is she wouldn’t be popular if she didn’t speak to the desires of a lot of women by saying, “Everything you do is brave and important and you don’t have to think about what it is that you’re doing and you don’t have to think about the consequences of your actions and you don’t have to make yourself uncomfortable and you don’t have to do the hard work of understanding our history. Just do whatever makes you feel good, whatever makes you money, etc, etc. So yeah, Lena Dunham’s obviously a problem.
Even a famous feminist fixture such as Gloria Steinem, whom Crispin calls “that banal, CIA-funded icon for white, middle-class women,” doesn’t evade the book’s crosshairs. I’m reminded of something Camille Paglia said in a Spiked Review interview with Ella Whelan a couple years ago: “[B]y the mid-1970s, Steinem was ruling the roost like the Stalinist politburo. Dissenting voices like mine in feminism were banned from her magazine, Ms., which became the glossy Pravda of the movement – anti-male, anti-sex, anti-pop.” Incidentally, Steinem joined (deathly irrelevant) Madeleine Albright in a preposterous, sexist castigation against any women who voted for Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton. Crispin condemns this nuance-free error of females casting votes for female politicians for only their being female. I think this is one of Crispin’s intellectual strengths: suppressing what can easily turn into female chauvinism and an undue self-righteousness, as well as what Germaine Greer called a “tendency to form a feminist elite.”
And then there’s bitter scapegoating and dehumanization of men. Consider this passage in which she addresses the prejudicial (and popularly accepted) unequal judgment of ganders and geese:
No one talks about toxic femininity, but certainly if we look at certain feminine modes in contemporary culture, it exists. But we prefer to think of toxic masculinity as innate, and any problems with women’s behavior as being socially created. It’s convenient.
Crispin also observes a “disturbing” “hatred of men as a gender” that is widespread and perpetuated online:
…according to a brief perusal of women writer’s [sic] comments over the past few days, men are: overly confident, predatory, helpless, psychopaths, terrified of women, fascists, the reason why the world is in this mess, literally so stupid, and the problem here.
This particular focus attracted me for obvious reasons, but much of my favor comes from its complementing the gender-related insight of Camille Paglia (who may be my favorite living philosopher, next to Slavoj Zizek). I must be careful not to expect Crispin to pat me on the back for my knowledge and insight, however, for, in a chapter called “Men Are Not the Problem,” after clarifying that she doesn’t owe male readers a palatable feminist presentation, she performs a weird – and unwarranted in my case – turn on a dime and gives men a nice middle finger: “I just want to be clear that I don’t give a fuck about your response to this book. Do not email me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own shit for once.” (She slammed a door on which I hadn’t knocked!)
Another favorite focus in the book is on how many feminists who triumphantly rise within the system often make the counterproductive error of adopting coveted thrones rather than changing the very social structure. “In order to succeed in a patriarchal world, we took on the role of patriarchs ourselves,” writes Crispin. The great professional strides women have made over the decades have a dire price: “Now that women are raised with access to power, we will not see a more egalitarian world, but the same world, just with more women in it.” Once again, Juliet Mitchell applies. Almost 50 years ago she warned that “the rise of the oppressed should not be a glorification of oppressed characteristics,” and she stressed the need for revolutionary/political impetus rather than a moral/values-driven one: “[W]e try not to imitate the style and structure of male-dominated radical groups…It is a moral rather than a political decision and has developed out of a desire to preserve moral values rather than to establish a revolutionary organization.” Crispin observes deceptive forms of liberty and success, and sees, rather than an ascent, a descent into the establishment muck, an expansion of participants in societal stress, emptiness and misery:
Now independence is hailed as a feminist virtue. The ability to stand on one’s own, outside of family or men. And now we all have the freedom to go bankrupt, to be socially isolated, to be homeless without any social support network, to labor all your life with nothing to show for it…Women everywhere! Leave the comfortable confines of traditional life and enter this brand new world of struggle, despair and uncertainty! Thanks, and fuck you, but no…
… Not every woman, or man, is ambitious…Not every woman longs to participate in the consumerist mindfuck that is the culture we live in, filling the holes in her heart and soul with shoes and limited edition crop tops from TopShop.
This is in context with Mitchell’s observation that “one of the forces behind the current acceleration of sexual freedom has undoubtedly been the conversion of contemporary capitalism from a production-and-work ethos to a consumption-and-fun ethos,” as well as her realization that “women are crucial for the expansion of consumer-consciousness.” Also, there seems to be an implication that men aren’t exactly fluttering about in utopia either, which is right on. On top of that, traditional male predominance in many professions and in financially stable careers is dwindling more than ever before. (Read Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men.)
My eyes roll at most idealization of nebulous egalitarianism, so the repeated demonization of capitalism in the book irks me. Though I don’t deny its drawbacks and sins, I credit capitalism as a generally positive global sea-change that included improvement of women’s standard of life where it was allowed to flourish. In short, my regard for capitalism agrees with that of Camille Paglia, along with some smidgens of Ayn Rand, who aptly said that “capitalism is the only moral system, because capitalism in its pure, consistent form, is the only system based on the invincibility of individual rights.” (But I daren’t hold my breath waiting for purity and consistency – and a capitalist utopia would be just another kind of dystopia.)
I also nod at Paglia’s spiels about female beauty and sexuality, which jibe nicely with the great Wendy Steiner and, sadly, which Crispin seems to snub in accord with countless feminists’ declarations on the subject, such as Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, Renee Engeln’s Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Carol Duncan’s “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting,” Betty Friedan’s The Female Mystique and Alex Kuczynski’s Beauty Junkies. Beyond her recommendation for demotion of romantic love in women’s lives, Crispin contends that “the only reasonable option is to reject notions of beauty and ugliness altogether.”
That’d not only be a drag, it’d be disastrous. Like it or not, beauty is deeply desired and desirable, and the notion of it is not going away anytime soon. (Beauty is beautiful. That’s why it’s called beauty.) Even intellectual titan Margaret Fuller longed to be beautiful above all else – and not because of social media or fashion saturation. And, like it or not, the main locus of beauty is the female body. Feminine beauty is a form of power, if not the most powerful form of power. Far from deserving scorn or resentment, this fact should be considered positively. Catherine Hakim explores women’s near-monopoly of such power in her splendid Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom. She points to one of the destructive mindsets that lie farther down the slippery slope of what Crispin calls “white feminism”: “sexphobia and antagonism to beauty and pleasure;” and she exposes the puritanical negativity of “lookism,” which “argues that taking any account of someone’s appearance should be outlawed, effectively making the valorization of erotic capital unlawful.” This reminds me of a passage from Janet Radcliffe Richards’ The Sceptical Feminist: A Philosophical Inquiry: “Anyone who has tried looking feminine in a gathering of extreme feminists know the pressures against that sort of appearance are every bit as strong as any pressure about dress in the wider world…”
Anti-beauty oppression springs from beyond uptight feminism, which is attested to in Tala Raassi’s Fashion Is Freedom: How a Girl from Tehran Broke the Rules to Change Her World. Cherishing cosmetics and accessories as the narrator of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 cherishes books, Raasi writes, “I fought my war of independence with lipstick, shoes, braided friendship bracelets, and clothing. My weapon was fashion, and it was just the beginning.”
None other than feminist foremother Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “the woman who makes free use of her attractiveness – adventuress, vamp, femme fatale – remains a disguieting type…Women have been burned as witches simply because they were beautiful.” (Nowadays they’re burned at the social-media stake or figuratively immolated on campus lawns.) As a Marlene Dumas poem goes, “one cannot paint a picture of/or make an image of a woman/and not deal with the concept of beauty.” Going farther, Wendy Steiner calls such disassociation “effectively misogynistic.” While Carol Duncan calls nude models “powerless, sexually subjugated beings,” Steiner marvels at the “female agency and self-fashioning artistry” in Manet’s Olympia and Eunice Lipton is dazzled by its model, Victorine Meurent, gushing in her Alias Olympia book:
…I could not shake the feeling that there was an event unfolding in Olympia and that the naked woman was staring quite alarmingly out of the picture. I could not make her recede behind the abstract forms I knew…were the true content of the work. Her face kept swimming forward, her eyes demanded attention. I saw that unlike other naked women in paintings, Olympia did not drape herself suggestively upon her bed, or supplicate prospective lovers, or droop resignedly. Nor did she smile flirtatiously. Rather she reigned imperiously, reclining upon silken pillows, her steady gaze a dare, her tight little body and proprietary hand an omen…This was a woman who could say “yes,” or she could say “no.”
In her praise of Liz Taylor in 1992, Paglia wrote, “Feminists are currently adither over woman’s status as sex object, but let them rave on in their little mental cells. For me, sexual objectification is a supreme human talent that is indistinguishable from the art impulse.” Even Firestone tempers erotophobia in The Dialectic of Sex:
Sex objects are beautiful. An attack on them can be confused with an attack on beauty itself. Feminists need not get so pious in their efforts that they feel they must flatly deny the beauty of the face on the cover of Vogue. For this is not the point. The real question is: is the face beautiful in a human way…?
My experience has taught me that in many – if not most – cases of complaints against the concept of female beauty the complainers are good-looking, if not strikingly attractive, women. The irony is similar to how most of the socialist-preaching folks I know are pretty well-off. In other words, one can afford outrage at something that they’re relatively comfortable in, paradoxically enough. I blush to say that Jessa Crispin is quite good-looking (even her name is hot), just as Renee Engeln is, just as Naomi Wolf is, just as Alex Kuczynski is, just as Betty Friedan and Kate Millett – well, it’s not a hard and fast rule. “You can have two conflicting ideas,” says Crispin in regard to her disgust and distrust of heterosexual romantic/sexual relations. “You can want to be fuckable and you can want to destroy the patriarchy.” Well, “fuckable” would be pure nonsense in a world devoid of “notions of beauty and ugliness.”
My favorite parts of Why I Am Not a Feminist confront free speech-corroding political correctness and its enabling of mainstreamed vicious, censorial vengeance. Sociopolitical discourse has become a diss court, a cult of The Perpetually Offended who demand groveling apologies but never accept them, a public theater of insincerity and paranoia, a guillotine for anyone who trespasses and transgresses “safe zones.” Instead of debate and discussion, obliteration is the immediate solution. Crispin sums up this rapid, rabid scarlet-letter process:
Names are called out, protests are organized, hashtags are circulated. The results are generally the same: either the figure doubles down on the unpopular position, or an institution, trying to avoid public humiliation or a boycott, quickly discards the offending individual and replaces them.
Outrage is not met with quick fixes – one person fired, another person driven from Twitter, another person forced into an insincere public apology – and people are learning not to speak up…People just get better at hiding their prejudices…Quick fixes are not enough, political correctness that is not matched with institutional change is ineffective, and disproportionate punishment does nothing but create resentment and fear.
“While I agree with Crispin that internet outrage culture is purposeless and that popular efforts to have individuals fired and ostracized over bad jokes and misinterpreted tweets are deeply misguided,” says Feminist Current’s Meghan Murphy, “the fact that she seems primarily interested in defending individual men from this particular form of wrath is revealing.” Uh, revealing of what? I think Crispin offers such specific defense because, as she puts it, “the casual demonization of white straight men follows the same pattern of bias and hatred that fuels misogyny, racism, and homophobia.” She also has a karmic sense of the situation, because “existing in a community means tolerating hard moments and allowing for other people’s weakness, so that our hard moments are tolerated and our weaknesses are allowed.”
If Why I Am Not a Feminist leaves some readers with a bad taste due to its preponderance of questions over pat answers, then perhaps this best line in the book will, at least, serve as a delightful mint: “Simply put, being alive, and being a participant in the world, fucks you up.”
P.S.: Males also have body-image issues.
P.S.S.: Females have rescued and protected me more times than I can count.
– David Herrle