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Clumsy, Indeterminately-Aged Headline Writers and Who is RUINING EVERYTHING

Ladies! What is the most important thing on our agenda today? Is it… fighting about which one of us is the worst feminist, by any chance? Oh, good!

So, I have actually done some research on this question, and I have the definitive answer for you. The definitive answer is: Me. I am the worst feminist. You know that time when sexism was almost over forever, but then it wasn’t, and you were still oppressed? Totally my fault. So, you know, please accept my apologies, and let’s get on to discussing the hootenanny that occurred around that one Rebecca Traister “Clumsy Young Feminists” “Ladies, We Have A Problem” article.

For starters: Who here thought that we were going to get a full New York Times Magazine article about the state of contemporary feminism that didn’t have some undermining involved? It’s not even an NYT problem; it’s a general-culture problem. If you’ve read more than three think pieces on What Feminism Is Today, you know that they all sound a little like Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums. “Everybody thinks that feminism is very necessary, and has been doing a great job with the whole fighting-inequity thing. What my piece presupposes is… maybe it isn’t???

Like, no. You are not a brave warrior, Column Writer Guy! Nobody actually thinks feminism is doing a great job. Which is good, because nobody is publishing the articles about how feminists are doing such a great job. There is no room for them, you see! Because we really, really need to hear the 500th person stand up and say they’re so over feminism. It’s why the piece got that awful web headline, which Traister didn’t apparently choose; no matter how thoughtful and nuanced Traister was, they were clearly under the impression that they were publishing a hit piece. She could have written 27,000 words of useful and respectful disagreement and they would still be like, sweet! Headline it “Clumsy Feminists Wreck Everything, Because They’re Stupid, Also Feminist!” This is just where we are. People are still under the impression that these hit pieces are fresh and interesting. And sometimes, due to the apparently massive communication gap between feminist writers and everyone else, people will act as if you’ve written a hit piece when you clearly have not. 

What I am saying is, I see people fighting around this article, and I just keep thinking about what we could have gotten instead. What there is an endless appetite for, what they wanted you to think you were reading when they came up with that stupid headline. At the end of the day, I’m not getting some bro’s very thoughtful and original opinions about how the feminists, they have lost their way, and are now irrelevant and useless, and he can tell they are irrelevant and useless because they keep making him uncomfortable with accurate descriptions of his behavior, and oh God, oh God, who are THEY to have a problem with him, it’s supposed to be HIS opinions that matter, and then he just has to go to his bedroom and cry and cry and anyway, feminism is over. I’m reading an article by someone whose work I really like, and that person is a lady who identifies as a feminist, and it’s in the New York Times Magazine, and I think that’s pretty super. Even if I don’t agree with the article, I’m glad that someone I respect, and who actually thinks about these things, is getting the space to talk.

But, the thing is, the reactions that are filling up my Twitter feed and my blog roll are from women whose work I like and respect, too. And they’re not wrong. There are reasons to disagree with the article, and they’re not all headline-based. The piece lumps in SlutWalk, Mac McClelland’s piece about PTSD for GOOD, Lara Logan’s assault, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, and just about every other widely-covered bit of lady news this year. It’s off-base on a few things; it obviously relies on the tired and inaccurate idea that SlutWalks are packed to the brim with near-naked ladies, or that near-nakedness is mandatory for attendance, which has been so widely corrected that I don’t even see the point in engaging with it. (What they are packed to the brim with, one feels, is photographers looking for some near-naked ladies.) And it comes away with the conclusion that (a) “young” feminists have an image problem, and (b) this is their fault.

Traister writes that, while reading some of the more overtly nasty and sexist comments on McClelland’s piece, “I found myself again wishing that the young women doing the difficult work of reappropriation were more nuanced in how they made their grabs at authority, that they were better at anticipating and deflecting the resulting pile-on.”

Well. About wishing for feminists — any feminist, maybe just this one feminist, maybe just the one feminist who’s currently sitting in this computer chair and typing this blog post — to be better at anticipating and deflecting pile-ons… let me tell you, I have wished that wish. And I think that anyone who is not kidding herself, and who has been hit with the torrent of shit that comes from identifying as a feminist in public, has probably felt the same way. It’s a hard thing to do. You have to walk right into people’s “NO GIRLS IN THE CLUBHOUSE” feelings, and they’re inevitably going to fight back, and if they’re clever, they can come up with objections that seem or feel legitimate. Or, at least, they seem and feel that way until you take a good solid look at the situation, and realize that all of those objections boil down to (a) “if you were perfect, I would listen to you, but you’re not, so I won’t” or (b) “GIRLS IN THE CLUBHOUSE! AIIEEEEE!”

But the “young” thing is ridiculous. Because (a) I don’t even know how we’re defining “young” here, and (b) which generation of feminists didn’t get piled on, precisely? Was there any generation of feminist movement that did not leave itself open to both reasonable critique and sexist vilification? If so, which generation was that? Would that be the frivolous, slutty young feminists in the ’90s, with their baby-doll dresses and their topless concerts and their writing “SLUT” on themselves in Magic Marker (yes, Slut Walk photographers, it turns out that’s not new) and their vibrators? Or the PC, irrational milquetoast feminists of the same era, who were wrecking higher education forever by asking folks to actually teach some work by ladies and people of color, and who were so stupid they probably said “mailperson” and “fireperson” instead of “mailman” and “fireman?” Would that be the generation of feminists who — we’re told — thought all heterosexual sex was rape, and went all braless and unshaven and didn’t even wear any makeup? Those wacky women’s libbers who tried to destroy [PICK ONE] the sacredness of the family / the unity of the Left? Or how about those unbelievable skanks who actually had the nerve to WEAR PANTS?

But no sooner did a few brave conscientious women adopt the bifurcated costume, an imitation in part of the Turkish style, than the press at once turned its guns on “The Bloomer”… The object of those who donned the new attire, was primarily health and freedom, but as the daughter of Gerrit Smith introduced it just at the time of the early conventions, it was supposed to be an inherent element in the demand for political equality. As some of those who advocated the right of suffrage, wore the dress, and had been identified with all the unpopular reforms, in the reports of our conventions, the press rung the changes on “strong-minded,” “Bloomer,” “free love,” “easy divorce,” “amalgamation.”

I mean, sure: Personal responsibility is great, and we should all give some thought to how we might be creating our own problems. But I somehow doubt that feminism’s image problem is primarily shared by “young feminists,” or that it is primarily created by feminists themselves. I also doubt that any given feminist could possibly be well-spoken and well-rehearsed and subtle and charming enough to change it overnight. Even the most eloquent and acceptable feminist will, at some point, have to get around to that whole “and also I don’t think dudes are better than ladies” thing, at which point people will inevitably start shrieking and calling her names and accusing her of blighting their crops with the foul dew of her nether regions. So, as much as I respect and love to read Traister’s work, this article just doesn’t help. It doesn’t encourage the name-callers to interrogate themselves or their motives. And it encourages feminists to blame themselves when people start screaming.

And then, there’s this: When we talk about the young feminists, and their image problem, and whether their “clumsy,” bad-PR-move feminism is RUINING IT FOR EVERYBODY, we’re ignoring the fact that, well, they’re doing something. They’re not like most people; they’re not standing on the sidelines, contributing their very useful comments on how THEY would NEVER fuck up in that particular way, they’re too smart, they’re too sophisticated, they know what’s wrong with everything, that’s why they never do anything, you see, they are such geniuses it has made them weary. Nobody likes to feel like a fuck-up. And when you fuck up feminism, you fuck up  something that a lot of people need. But the only option, other than going out there and giving it a shot and potentially fucking up and RUINING EVERYTHING, is to stop trying. And imperfect efforts can actually pay off. If, for example, you want to make the point that calling women “sluts” who deserve to be raped because of how they dress is screwed up, and you put together this silly protest by the seat of your pants, well, sometimes that goes nowhere. And sometimes folks end up having conversations about your point. In the pages of the New York Times.

I would rather see a bunch of imperfect people fucking up for the right reasons than see a bunch of perfectly competent, brilliant people doing nothing because they don’t want to take a risk or represent feminism “incorrectly.” To be fair, this isn’t even a direct disagreement with Traister; she writes that “the most sophisticated attempts [at feminism] elicit just as much derision and, frankly, receive a fraction of the attention. All of which suggests that while clumsy stabs at righting sexual-power imbalances may be frustrating, they remain necessary.”

Well, yeah. But did we need a whole article about what’s wrong with them, then? I just don’t think so. I think Traister is too good, and her voice is too necessary, for her to be just another addition to that pile. Which is fine, because I have no doubt that the next time she publishes something, I’m going to love it. She’s like anyone else trying to make things better. She has the right to get a few things wrong.


  1. emjaybee wrote:

    This is also true of liberals–in that, some liberals are constantly being chastized by other liberals for Making Us Look Bad. Howard Dean’s “scream” being a case in point…it was completely irrelevant to anything, and yet suddely it’s the whole reason he didn’t do better, not the culture or the power of the Right or the capitulation of many Democrats to the “only a pseudo-Republican can win!” narrative.

    Saturday, July 23, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  2. BMICHAEL wrote:

    The Traister essay was a little confusing to me because it just seemed like the three penultimate (if that makes sense) paragraphs seemed like they were from a different essay; they were a little bit pat or even palliative. And then the final paragraph is textbook NYT style, completing the circle and making a logic-repelling ouroboros out of the whole thing.

    “Making SlutWalkers of us all,” given her stated vituperation of SW and its principles (I suppose) at the beginning, is a real crisis of a situation. It’s a really chilling conclusion to the essay, I think, and expresses a fairly profound dissatisfaction with being a woman. So given all that, the whole essay–even if she didn’t write the headline–is fairly self-acrimonious and representative of the sort of self-policing that occurs in your classic hegemonic situation. I don’t know, then, in that way it seems powerful to me, but not in any sort of encouraging way, you know.

    Saturday, July 23, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Pidgey wrote:

    This article reminds me why I miss your tumblr!

    (I recognize that you closed tumblr to protect your own mental well being, so don’t feel pressured into bringing it back if you don’t want to)

    Saturday, July 23, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  4. Victoria wrote:

    This afternoon I participated in SlutWalk Indianapolis. We marched and chanted and sweated in 93 degree heat, as many of us (including me) in shorts and t-shirts as “slut” getups.

    This is a town where victim blaming is the unassailed expectation. This is where Mike Tyson raped Desiree Washington and onlookers thought he–a chronic domestic abuser, among all the rest of it–was railroaded. Yet people hung out of car windows and apartment windows and cheered us on. Nobody leered. Nobody cat-called. Nobody whatsoever misunderstood us as titillating or capitulating to cultural norms.

    Sloppy? Perhaps. But as one of those slutty young feminists in the 90s in my babydoll dresses, I was damn happy to see women much younger than me–much older, too–fucking doing something. I felt safe today, with these women and men (my husband among them) all around me.

    Saturday, July 23, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  5. Meg Thornton wrote:

    This intersects with something I’ve seen discussed on blogs about geekery and being female – the idea that one of the things women need to offer ourselves (and by extension, offer other women) is the freedom to fuck up. There’s a lot of women (and I’m one of them) who grew up with the notion that pretty much, if you can’t do it right first time (or third time, at worst), you shouldn’t be doing it, which can be incredibly intimidating to try and work against when you’re faced with a complex process (such as learning how to program computers) which requires extensive practice in order to gain competence. Often, this can intersect with class-based constraints as well (such as the predominantly lower-class one which says that if we can’t afford to fix it, you can’t afford to break it in order to learn how it works, kid).

    So what we wind up with, as a result (and flipping to Traister’s article), is a culture of perfectionism, where we’re all looking for the “ideal” way to express the inexpressible, the way which will make it immediately comprehensible, while simultaneously leaving everyone’s reputations unsmirched and unblemished. But that way doesn’t exist at present – and I suspect it’s one of those things which will not ever exist, until we’ve had enough people fucking up in enough ways to show what works, what doesn’t, which methods roll over the rocks and send the creepy-crawly stuff scuttling for cover (and sometimes, that’s what we’re trying to do – we’re trying to expose the creepy-crawly stuff as it scuttles away out of the light), which ones allow the oppressors to remain secure in their places of oppression and so on. This process of fucking up, of causing controversy, of making mistakes, is necessary. Denying women (whether journalists, feminists, or not) the right to fuck up in public is effectively holding women to an artificially higher standard than the one we hold men to (men being allowed to fuck up big-time, often without any major consequence) and silencing women in the process.

    The freedom to fuck up and learn from it is essential. It’s the primary freedom we have to offer ourselves in order to be able to grow beyond the kitchen, the housework, the boundaries of the domestic, the silence of the housewife; it’s also the primary freedom we have to offer others, in order to allow them to do the same.

    Saturday, July 23, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  6. Alison wrote:

    “I would rather see a bunch of imperfect people fucking up for the right reasons than see a bunch of perfectly competent, brilliant people doing nothing because they don’t want to take a risk or represent feminism “incorrectly.””

    Word, lady. I love this.

    Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  7. Matarij wrote:

    Traister’s piece was good/bad/indifferent in places, but it was visible. As were/are the SlutWalkers. And we – feminists of all ages – are talking about both. All we need to do now is to keep talking, keep being visible and, basically, keep on, keeping on. In doing so, we can get it wrong, can offend each other, can disagree, fight, agree, waver, backtrack, move too fast, and eventually establish a common discourse that allows all of the above, all of the time, in public. Then we will have the power to affect the way people think and then we will change things. We are just beginning really. Exciting times ahead.

    Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  8. Pidgey wrote:

    Oh, and uh Sady, around the 4th paragraph I think you mention “Column Writer Guy” when you meant to say “Headline Writer Guy”. A bit of a typo.

    Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  9. Emmitt wrote:

    “If you’ve read more than three think pieces on What Feminism Is Today, you know that they all sound a little like Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums.”

    Oh my god, this is the most perfect description for those things ever.

    Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  10. Holly wrote:

    As one of the organizers of NYC SlutWalk I can say I’m glad SlutWalk was mentioned in the NYT. If only the strong female voice behind the article had been a bit more informed and articulate it could’ve done so much more to educate people on this 4th wave of feminism that’s happening before our very eyes. We’ll keep working hard to get our message out there!
    Sady – if you, anyone at TBD, or anyone out there in the world wants to get more information on NYC SlutWalk SLATED FOR OCTOBER 1ST please feel free to e-mail me directly:!

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  11. Kathleen wrote:

    “Those wacky women’s libbers who tried to destroy [PICK ONE] the sacredness of the family / the unity of the Left?”

    Sady, you are and remain a hilarious genius.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  12. P wrote:

    Yeah, wasn’t a fan of this article when I first read it. It seemed like an ageist harangue with a phoned-in acknowledgement of the issues of feminism of yesteryear at the end (though transphobia and transmisogyny are absent, of course) to lend a modicum of credibility.

    Monday, August 1, 2011 at 12:05 am | Permalink
  13. John Horstman wrote:

    Great analysis! The Triester article confused me too, as it seemed to suggest that the organizers of/participants in the Slutwalks were responsible for ensuring their accurate representation in any/all news media outlets (as though they have any power to do so; I say “they” as Milwaukee has not had our Slutwalk yet – in a couple weeks it will be “we”). It seems like, “Rape is wrong, and wearing a certain type of clothes does not mean a woman deserves to be raped [and, in fact, no one ever deserves to be raped],” is a relatively simple message that should be easy to get right, and missing/misrepresenting it is on the reporters, not the Sluts.

    As someone coming from a postmodern theoretical perspective, I really don’t think there are any perfect/unproblematic solutions for a given issue, or perfect, unproblematic ways to express oneself (because, at the very least, it would take days and awareness of the perspective of every single person on the planet to list and account for every single aspect of privilege that exists whenever one makes any kind of prescriptive, proscriptive, or even non-scriptive analytical statement). This very much resonates with your statement that people need a space where it’s okay to fuck up (as long as we can honestly engage with and address those moments) if we’re going to get anywhere, because, simply, to err is human (though I disagree with Pope on the second part – to forgive is also human and the flip side of the coin, as we need to be able to do both).

    @5: “Denying women (whether journalists, feminists, or not) the right to fuck up in public is effectively holding women to an artificially higher standard than the one we hold men to (men being allowed to fuck up big-time, often without any major consequence) and silencing women in the process.”

    I’m not sure that’s true, though. I’m also not sure it’s untrue, but the 24-hour news cycle and sensationalist journalism that’s the new norm doesn’t appear to give anyone the freedom to fuck-up in public, men or women. Sending racy pictures over the internet counts as a “sex scandal” that costs (male) politicians their jobs (it’s not just Anthony Wiener, either), Juan Williams got fired for an admission that Muslims in airports make him nervous that was contextualized in an assertion that that fact doesn’t justify discrimination and it means he needs to make an active effort to be open in spite of that, and Barack Obama can’t sneeze without a flurry of articles lambasting him for ruining The Economy/Freedom/Security/etc. As far as I can tell, the sexist bias in the mainstream media discourse has less to do with latitude accorded to men and women when they fuck up and more to do with being female at all, irrespective of one’s actions. Then again, my ‘mainstream’ news viewing is limited to NPR, so my perspective is probably wildly skewed here.

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink