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.