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With Dim Lights: On Feminism and Virtue

Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order…. Many Theresas have been born who found themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes… With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but, after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.

– George Eliot, Middlemarch

Good does not become better by being exaggerated, but worse, and a small evil becomes a big one by being disregarded.

– C.G. Jung, Psychology and Religion

If there’s one thing that might help you to understand me, in any given conversation, it’s that I was a very, very religious little girl. Catholic, to be precise, although our Catholicism took place in a time and a place that was dominated by Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity — a lot of girls in my class, apparently, had Dads who were Promise Keepers — and borrowed a lot from it. My Mom was a convert, and participated with the enthusiasm of someone who had chosen a religion, rather than being born into it; we observed all the saints’ days, even the most minor, attended church very faithfully, prayed over everything. So, for a long time, it was impossible for me to imagine a world that was not drawn, pretty starkly, in contrasting shades of Holy and Unholy, or whose outcomes were manipulated by various magical powers; it was hard for me to organize my thought around anything other than a transcendent Goodness, which I had to achieve, or be punished for failing to achieve. And I loved that. The guilt, the judgment, the flames of hell; none of it bothered me. It was a relief, in fact. To know that there was one universally relevant form of goodness, and what that goodness was, and how to get there: I couldn’t imagine any greater thing.

First I wanted to be a saint. Then a priest. Then a nun: My expectations lowered over the years. And then puberty hit, and the whole thing went right to shit, faster than you can imagine. In a town like ours, it was inevitable; we had, I think, a bigger-than-usual explosion of The Craft-inspired teen witches and adorable wee twelve-year-old Satanists. Our lives were so defined by religion that when we rebelled, we had to do it on religious terms. Me, I read a Tori Amos interview (this one; it was by Francesca Lia Block, which was a whole other explosion of mid-90s spooky-girl chic) and The Mists of Avalon a bit too close together, and got sucked into the “women’s spirituality” vortex. Which, really, was just an excuse for me to ask annoying questions of my Confirmation teacher. If Jesus was without sin, and Mary was without sin, why was Jesus better? Why did I have to be a nun, rather than a priest? And was that the same reason why Saint Paul said “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent?” And if we really had to follow that rule, why was our Confirmation teacher allowed to be here? She was a woman; some of her students were boys. Wasn’t she sinning right now?

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment I stopped believing. Except, oh wait: It’s not. It happened when our Confirmation teacher stood up, in front of the class, holding a goddamn plastic turtle.

“Now, we can look at this turtle,” she said, “and we can ask questions about it. Why doesn’t it have six legs? Why doesn’t it have scales on its back, instead of a shell? Why can’t it fly? Why doesn’t it have fur? But if we ask these questions, the answer is always, ‘if it did, it wouldn’t be a turtle any more.’”

And at this point, she walked over to my chair, leaned over me, and aimed both of her mean little eyes directly into mine.

“And you can ask questions about being Catholic,” she said. “But if you do, you are not a Catholic any more. And you are not obeying our Lord.”

Well. She said it, not me. I wasn’t a Catholic. I didn’t know what I was, exactly. But I could start with the fact that I apparently asked a lot of questions.

* * *

I went to feminism. Of course. And, unsurprisingly, I went from Catholicism straight to the most intense, objectionable, blood-and-thunder portions of the second wave. I read a lot of Dworkin; people seemed good and scared of her, which meant that she had to be the best one. You’d think it would be hard to trace a direct line between the Virgin Mary and Andrea Dworkin; you would think that, until you realized that they both represented a standard of purity and goodness founded upon never, ever, ever wanting to bang a dude.

A girl who loves martyrs — and I did; so many were young girls, always the prettiest ones in the illustrated books of saints, stripped and raped and burned alive or stabbed to death for refusing to indulge the “sinful desires” of the wicked Romans; they could have been imagined, easily, by Dworkin herself — will love the built-in martyrdom of the feminist cause. I “liberated” myself right back onto familiar ground; I found a world drawn, pretty starkly, into contrasting shades of Justice and Injustice, whose outcomes were always manipulated by a magical force known as The Patriarchy, organized around a transcendent Goodness which I could achieve, and punish others for failing to achieve. Which was, for the record, way more fun than being punished. The guilt, the judgment, the Internet flame wars; none of it bothered me. To know that there was a universally relevant form of goodness, and to know what that goodness was, and how to get there: How could you pass that up?

* * *

The problems of belief-based “community” aren’t immediately recognizable until you’ve experienced its dark side: The ability of a community to castigate or police you, to abandon you and turn its back on you, to utilize the language of your beliefs against your being. If you’re on the inside, passing judgment, it’s all good. If not…

My mother isn’t a Catholic any more either, and she can tell you exactly why. Her second marriage didn’t work out. She’s never told me all of her reasons, but she and my stepfather just didn’t work; there wasn’t love there. She was lonely. So she went to the Church, and told them what was going on. And they told her that she could stay with him, or get out of the Faith. “Not loving your husband” was not a good enough reason to leave him; one divorce was acceptable, because there had been brutality within the marriage, and because a priest had reviewed the evidence and decided that her safety outweighed her obligation to stay married. But she had re-married, and marriage was God’s business, and God owned her marriage, and therefore God owned her. Losing the Catholic Church meant losing the thing that had sustained her through her first marriage; it meant losing the community that had supported her as a single mother; it meant losing nearly all of her friends; it meant, most crucially, that the faith around which she had designed her entire idea of goodness, and how to live, had looked at her and deemed her unworthy. It meant losing the idea that the God she had converted for loved her enough to believe she deserved to love.

Well. She got out. But plenty of other people didn’t; this was not an uncommon threat, not an uncommon choice faced by people who didn’t fit in. Queer people, parents with queer children — you can feel that way, you just can’t have sex that way, was our Church’s “tolerant” policy — women with unacceptable desires or who incited unacceptable desires in others, people who watched the wrong movies or listened to the wrong music, people who visited the wrong websites (the porn websites), people who voted for the wrong candidates or supported the wrong issues. Sometimes, a lot of times, people we just didn’t like; we started with the desire to punish them, then proceeded to look for the sins. Vanity, pride, greed, sloth, rebelliousness, lack of true Christian compassion: We managed to attribute all of these sins, some mortal, to the people we didn’t want to deal with. And, unsurprisingly, when faced with the choice between themselves and their values and friendships, a lot of people did not choose themselves. A lot of people chose self-hatred, self-punishment, secrecy and conformity over who they really were.

I ran away. But I didn’t start to realize where I’d run until I’d survived a few Internet fire fights of my own. I’m not talking about legitimate critique here; I can fuck up like anyone else when it comes to dealing with my privileges, and that’s never a good thing. I’m talking about the times I got called “anti-feminist” or a “hater of rape survivors” or “not truly supportive of women” and (most dreaded adjective of all) a “mainstream feminist,” got told I was a crappy writer and a bad person and someone who deserved to be punched in the face over, like, movies. Or other aesthetic opinions. Or, sometimes, just my personality.

I’m talking about my e-mail inbox. Which is when I heard from a woman — who is clearly very smart, and probably very charming and kind to people she likes, and not someone I intend to name here, because this is not about shaming anyone specific; I’ve had many conversations with strangers along these lines, and really disgraced myself and acted like an asshole in some of them — who was incensed over that Game of Thrones post, and was clearly under the impression that she was the first person ever to contact me to share her feelings of being incensed by the Game of Thrones post, and proceeded to call me “anti-feminist” for not liking fandoms, and tell me I was not entitled to be spoken to respectfully in personal e-mails, and that I clearly “hadn’t heard” any of the hundreds of other commenters and e-mailers and bloggers because I didn’t agree with them, and then told me that she disliked “80%” of my writing, and then called said writing “mean” and “horrible” and “dicky,” and then told me that “loving people” was what feminism was “about.” Who then responded with shock, anger, and more insults when I ended the conversation, because her precondition for saying these various insulting things to me was that I not get “offended.”

It was her insistence on my opinions being somehow “anti-feminist” that stuck with me; it was being presented with a choice between my core beliefs and my unrelated opinions about subcultures and Internet behavior. Being told that I could be myself and be cast out, or conform and find acceptance. Being told that there were some things I just wasn’t allowed to think, and that my identity could be stripped from me if I disobeyed. Starting with the desire to punish, and then working backward to find the sins; I clearly wasn’t “anti-feminist,” but it was the most effective thing she could think to say, to shame me. I couldn’t figure out why this was so familiar, why it pissed me off and hurt me in such an old way. And then I got there, figured out where I’d been there before, hearing “love” and “compassion” preached to me by someone who reserved the right to be hurtful and cold, hearing the language of my beliefs used against my being, all in the name of a greater good. It was youth group. It was Confirmation class. It was a woman standing over my head, getting in my face, holding a plastic turtle.

* * *

This is not an anti-feminist tract. I still love and need feminism, still believe feminism is very much needed and very much worth loving. But, as much as I love feminism, I don’t believe it’s the only concept you will ever need, to figure things out. There is one concept I’ve found nearly as useful as feminism, all told, even though it comes from a man who got some things (including women) very, very wrong. So you have to bear with me, while I transport you into my land of semi-mystical woo-woo, because here’s the part where I talk about Jung’s concept of the Shadow.

Everyone wants to be Good. Everyone wants to believe in themselves, and that means believing that they are Good, however they define that. And so, in order to face herself every morning, every person chooses not to see certain things about herself. That time you genuinely wanted to kill him, for saying that to your face: You couldn’t have thought that, couldn’t have really wanted that, you’re not a monster, you were just a little upset. That time you undermined her, chimed in to make her feel less confident about her work or her clothes or her body, right at the moment she was starting to be successful, so that she’d keep needing your approval: You’re not a controlling person, you’re not abusive, you were just trying to help. That time you wrecked a person’s career or reputation: Not your fault, nothing that could have been done, you were just being honest. And on, and on.

This much is simple. But the next part gets complicated. Because there are two rules: First, whatever you’ve decided not to see in yourself, you will see just constantly in other people. And you will hate it. Everything you hate most in the world exists somewhere inside you. You hate her because she’s judgmental; you’ve really judged her to be the most judgmental person you know. You hate him because he’s a self-absorbed whiner; he never focuses on your problems, and you have so many huge problems, you’re in such pain and he just doesn’t care. You hate her because she’s mean; she’s so goddamned mean, you have to send her an e-mail right now telling her that what she said is mean and horrible and dicky, and maybe add in that she’s a bad writer. So far, so normal. But the second rule is more dangerous, especially if you’re a self-defined activist or crusader. Because the second rule is: The brighter the light, the bigger the shadow. Which is to say, the more time you spend chasing the Good, defining the Good, being Good and righteous and pure, the more unaware you become of these “bad” parts of yourself, and the more vicious they tend to get.

This isn’t about mental illness or ableism; it’s not about saying that activists are screwed up or bad; it’s not about saying that only some people do this, or that those people are villains. This is just a part of how people are, how personality works. My personality, your personality, the personality of the guy you bumped into at the grocery store. Everyone engages in this, to a greater or lesser degree. And so does every organization. Particularly when that organization is convened in the service of what it defines as Good.

The Catholic church hates that dirty lustful illicit sex, but there sure are a lot of holy stories about pretty teens getting stripped naked in public to satisfy the lustful desires of the infidels. And, for that matter, more than a few Catholic priests using their own sexual desires to harm their parishioners. Dworkin hated porn, and she dealt with this by watching a hell of a lot of pornography. George W. Bush waged a crusade against his particular Them, saying that They were fundamentalists and extremists, and They were violent and cruel and barbaric, and They oppressed Their women and They hated freedom; he did this while restricting women’s rights, trying to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, being openly fundamentalist in his beliefs, waging constant war and legitimizing torture. Finding your own dark side, or the dark side of your movement, is always as easy as looking for what you hate, what you’re opposed to, which particular light is casting your shadow. If you’re against greed or the desire for power, look for the ways you and your organization are greedy, for power or for anything else. If you’re against war and violence, look for your organization’s tendencies toward violence. If you’re for love and compassion, look for your own intolerance and hatred. And if your movement is against abuse — like feminism — look for the ways your movement is abusive. Because you will find them.

It’s not about hypocrisy. It’s not even about seeing these things where they don’t exist: Odds are, once you’ve decided to hate “self-pity” or “cruelty” or “anger,” you will be able to find these things in a person who is actually a sad-sack or a jerk or a rage junkie. But it’s your job to find them in you. Because they’re there. And you can’t make them go away by clinging ever more tightly to the Good, by moving further and further into your own self-righteousness or into someone else’s rules. You’ll never become less self-pitying, mean, or angry, by doing that. You’ll just be a self-pitying, caustic, angry person who doesn’t know this about herself, and who therefore doesn’t take any action to control it. And when I say “you,” of course, I mean “me.” Because people pretty much always do.

That woman in my e-mail inbox made me angry because of what she did. But here’s the important part: She also made me angry because of how many times I had done the exact. Same. Thing.

* * *

Okay. Woo-woo time is over now. And much of what I have said here is not new; I’ve yakked on about the flaws of the feminist Internet endlessly, over the past few years. And the reason for this yakking is that I have every single one of these flaws, and they trouble me deeply.

I do believe that the feminist movement can act in ways that are troublingly similar to fundamentalism; I believe it can act as a tool for the self-aggrandizement of individual feminists; I do believe that it legitimizes a sometimes appalling, abusive amount of cruelty toward what it deems to be acceptable targets. And I believe this because I have called women “anti-feminist” for disagreeing with me, because I have fed my own ego with my superior feminism, because I have aimed an appalling amount of cruelty at acceptably sexist dudes. And I have been cheered on and rewarded for doing so. I can’t tell you how many people have said they prefer my writing from 2009, which is always a shock — you mean, the year when I was a conceited, sophist dick who never thought for herself and still thought she had all the answers? Okay then. Even now, the thing I’ll be remembered for is screaming at two men on Twitter until my voice gave out. I’m cool with that. I believe I was doing it for the right reasons that time; that it was maybe one of the few times that something like that could work.

But I don’t believe I’ve done it for the right reasons, or in the right ways, every time. I don’t believe feminists, generally, always do it in the right ways or for the right reasons. And I’m fine with admitting that, with allowing that vulnerability; if anti-feminists will get all yippee skippee because they think I’m finally admitting we’re all a bunch of irrational, stupid bitches, that’s their problem. (Because they’re irrational, stupid assholes. See how that works?) We’re not bad or worthless. We just cast a shadow. And I don’t know that I want to be a part of a feminist movement that can’t admit to it. I don’t know that such a feminist movement has any viable future.

The problem is in hammering out a coherent ethics. All of us who call ourselves feminists have made a willful step outside of the value system and behavioral rules of our society. We all do things that are “unladylike,” screwing or not-screwing or screwing in unconventional ways, growing out our body hair or ditching the makeup or heels or wearing unpretty clothes, swearing, getting visibly angry or emotional or opinionated, because we no longer believe the rules against those things are just or that following them will lead to a positive outcome. But once we’ve broken down all the rules, once we’ve stepped outside of the values, where do we go? I’m not talking about language or politics or intersectionality; all of that stuff is vital, and not to be dismissed. But I’m talking about the basics of personal behavior. How we make choices. Which values guide our actions. It’s one thing to say that you can and should be angry, that your anger should not have to present itself in a way that meets universal approval. It’s quite another thing to say that you should be able to do whatever you want because you are angry. I’ve wound up in that second place too often. I’m scared of ending up in it. I’m scared of that second place for all of us.

I don’t know how to fix this. Wouldn’t it be fun if I did? We could all go home and stop blogging about it forever, because I would have figured it all out. There are a few things I do think, though.

One is that nothing should “perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul.” Although George Eliot gets pretty much everything else right, as far as I’m concerned. Me, I’ve led the life of mistakes, I’ve done the inconsistency and the formlessness, I have tried to shape thought and deed in noble agreement even when circumstances were just unbelievably tangled, and I’ve fucked up and contradicted myself and changed my mind about 9 million times, on this blog alone. But the idea of a “coherent social faith and order” giving me all my directions, and substituting for knowledge, is just way more terrifying, whether or not it would make me look better or make my life less complicated. If you keep asking questions about the turtle, it’s not a turtle any more (um, somehow, if you are a turtle-changing wizard), but who said I wanted a turtle? Why is “turtle” so unbelievably awesome? Feminism cannot, and should not, pretend that it can provide all the answers. It should not even pretend that all the answers can be provided. It should never condemn the questions, just because they’re inconvenient.

And this is the second part: If nothing performs the function of knowledge, nothing provides the function of virtue, either. I am deeply, deeply suspicious of the idea that being a feminist makes you a better person. It doesn’t. It makes you a person who opposes a specific political and social structure. That’s not “morality,” it’s not “love,” it’s not “compassion” or “empathy” or “decency” or anything else that we so frequently call it; all it means is that you have looked at one of the world’s more obviously fucked up power structures and somehow, genius that you are, saw that it was fucked up.

The moment you think that being feminist means being good, or start conflating your feminism with your goodness, you add more and more light to the room — I am feminist/brave/strong/loving/compassionate/smart/fair/progressive/superior — and you start casting a bigger and bigger shadow. You stop being able to see where you’re scared/vulnerable/hateful/cold/ignorant/unfair/regressive/flawed. And you need to keep an eye on that. You just do. Some of that stuff isn’t even bad: “Scared” and “vulnerable” are nothing to be ashamed of. And, as for the rest of it, well: Knowing that you can be that way is uncomfortable, but it’s a big favor to everyone else.

In Psychology and Religion, Jung talks about the shift from religious to secular thinking — what happened when we stopped projecting our own dark sides into the supernatural, stopped seeing it as a Devil or demons, tempting us into sin. Not believing in these demons didn’t make them go away, he says; instead, “you can find them spread out in the newspapers, in books, rumours, and ordinary social gossip.” When we took the demons out of Hell, we put them in Paris Hilton. Or Keith Olbermann. Or me, or your evil ex, or anyone else you’ve decided that you hate because they are just plain Bad.

“We are still so sure we know what other people think or what their true character is. We are convinced that certain people have all the bad qualities we do not know in ourselves, or that they practice all those vices which could, of course, never be our own,” he writes. And: “If you can imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all these projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a considerable shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against… Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow, he has done something real for the world.”

Well. It doesn’t have to be a man, Carl. But, like the man says, all this makes you a “serious problem to yourself,” if you’re out to fix Them, or the world. If you don’t think you have God or the Good on your side in every battle, you fight fewer battles, and you have fewer tools in your toolbox when it comes to “winning” them. I’ve run this blog for three years now, and every year, I become a little less enchanted by myself, and give myself fewer options when it comes to what I do next. But who says “winning” is the point of writing a blog, anyway? These are important battles, the ones about gender equality and social justice, and it’s important to fight them. But maybe, sometimes, it’s also important to just write out the truth from where you stand, moment to moment. Maybe having a lot of questions is enough.


  1. Emily Manuel wrote:

    This a wonderful post. I think that there’s still a lot of psychic structures from Christianity kicking around in the culture, even when people have discarded the idea of “God” itself. I’m deeply suspicious of any kinds of purity politics, for the reasons you lay out here..

    What I really like is the way you’ve included yourself in the critique, which I think is the only way to truly avoid this kind of splitting. There’s a line I quote a lot from Dostoesky’s The Brothers Karamanov: “Each of us is guilty before everyone for everyone, and I more than the others.”

    That doesn’t mean wallowing in guilt and giving up on the fight for a more equitable world, but it does mean having the honesty to recognise our own complicity and perpetuation of human suffering.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  2. ladysquires wrote:

    I was also raised in an staunch evangelical/fundamentalist stronghold in which the magical Manichean forces of spiritual Good and Evil had their counterparts in Traditional Values and Secular Humanism, where modernity was viewed as a creeping conspiracy to undermine Truth and Beauty and all that is good and light in the world.

    Then I underwent a crisis, realized a lot of it was bullshit, went to college, went to graduate school, found a liberating new way to articulate my newfound convictions in feminism and political liberalism, discovered the internet and blogging and then had the moment of HOLY SHIT, THIS IS LOOKING AWFULLY FAMILIAR.

    I think that’s why I’ve unsubscribed to a whole lot of feminist blogs in the past year (not this one, thankfully, or I wouldn’t have seen this post). Part of it is outrage fatigue. But part of it is also the exhaustion and cognitive dissonance brought on by seeing the world as divided up among people who are right and people who are wrong, people who value individual autonomy and freedom and people who do not, people who are bigots and people who are not, and then realizing that many of the people who fall on the wrong sides of those dialectics are dear family members and friends. Though I continue to value feminism and political liberalism, I’ve begun to notice that they crippled me in my efforts to understand and empathize with others as much as radical Christianity ever did.

    I think I can come to a more balanced place without jettisoning yet another set of foundational principles. I’m still a feminist. I’m still a liberal, but I’m getting increasingly exhausted with some of the more strident elements of both, not because there should never be a place for anger, but because righteous anger has a way of becoming an excuse for, like you say, appalling cruelty and exclusion.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink
  3. ladysquires wrote:

    Ok, I hate to follow up a really long comment with another comment, but I just wanted to clarify that I haven’t absented myself from internet feminism because I think internet feminists are bad but rather because I’m recognizing the ways in which outrage and righteous anger bring out very unpleasant parts of myself.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink
  4. Prodigal wrote:

    Excellent post, Sady. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  5. margaret wrote:

    This piece is so great, Sady. I really admire you for sharing it, I think it’s extremely insightful.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  6. Hope wrote:

    I’m so glad you wrote this, Sady. I’ve been thinking about anger and it’s value lately and not coming to any coherent answer. On one hand, I feel terribly guilty over getting angry with people, for torching a couple of friendships/acquaintances over political issues (feminism, 9/11 Truther stuff, etc.) and inevitably, the political stuff spirals into ugly personal stuff so so quickly on both sides. In the end, I feel like the act of anger makes me a smaller person. Certainly, I feel tense and stressed afterward, and I don’t feel like I’ve done anything good–maybe even undercut my own credibility with nostril-flairing hostility. And I’ve lost those people. Once you go so far, a toxic pattern becomes set, I think, and the friendship can’t be repaired. But I do care about these issues. What sort of defense do I owe them? I feel like there is no clear answer; do I decide that because this is political, it’s all theoretical, and muffle my disputes with people who disagree with me because I’m committed to trying to treat all people well? As much as I can? But what if they are trying to drive me to anger? Or I’m pushing all their buttons? Or is it a matter of deciding on an individual basis what course of action is appropriate? I read recently that Gandhi thought that non-violence should be practiced in all circumstances and self-defense avoided, even in the face of invasion, and it left me feeling sad–it seems like ironclad principles of any type (even the ‘good’ ones!) place someone in a position of getting hurt in some way. Big and small hurts. Sigh.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  7. Jeremy wrote:

    Sady, what have you done? How am I supposed to judge and denounce others while I have to constantly doubt my motives?

    More seriously, thank you for writing this. Like you, I was raised in a very religious household, and as such my politics have had not-so-hidden religious undertones. This gives me something to think about.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  8. CORA wrote:

    I loved every word in this, an I’ve bookmarked to re-read because I’ll need to, several times.

    I was catholic and wanted to be a saint when I was a child (deeply and seriously) and Dworkin was not my first feminist read but it was the first that I felt really spoke to me. Having low self-esteem and a lot of body issues (and being prone to depression and apathy), it felt great to know someone had my back on me not shaving, not doing make-up, not dying the white hairs… but then I was juged by my image, it made it more difficult to find a job, and while this (the patriarchy) is unfair I realized I was thinking about this and other issues like a “martyrdom” I had to endure. Or better like penitence, to be able to be a good feminist in the end. I also realized that in the “beauty” department I was behaving (externaly) exactly like my mother, who loathes feminism and who has never put on make-up or nail polish because “it’s a thing only whores do”. Different concept of good but same judging others and same result. I’m still coming to terms with these things, and I’m very new at feminism (but almost in my 30s).

    I amire the way you are willing to always go deeper into yourself and your motivations, Sady.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  9. Isidore wrote:

    I remember being intensely religious up to the age of 8 or 9, when I excitedly told my pastor that I wanted to be a pastor too. He corrected me by saying, “You mean you want to MARRY a pastor; women can’t be pastors.” In my little 8 year old head, I was like, f*ck this church sh*t!

    Anywho, I think what attracted me to the church when I was young was a love of philosophy, which is probably the same reason I’m now attracted to reading about feminism. And you’re entirely right that any philosophy can easily veer into fundamentalism and finger pointing. Really great article, thanks.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  10. Randall wrote:

    Thank you for this. Not only is it an absolutely impeccable piece of work and self [and outward] analysis, on a personal level it’s spoken to things I’ve been turning over in my head, even struggling with myself. Again, thank you.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Permalink
  11. Gnatalby wrote:

    This is great Sady. We have very similar backgrounds, as it happens, and I think about these things too.

    I do think feminism makes you a better person than antifeminists because, as with racism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia et fucking al if you look at inequality and decide that you’re cool with that, then you are kind of a crappy person, but it’s not the whole work of being a good person by any means, and it doesn’t immunize you from being fucking awful at all the aforementioned intersections.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Permalink
  12. of making many books wrote:

    I love this post. I love all of your self-reflective writing especially. So much.

    Can I share a personal anecdote that I feel is relevant? (You’re a blog so you cannot respond in real time. So here goes!) When I was 22 I got out of a long, pretty f-ed up relationship with a dude who was a lot older than me. Feminist thought helped me realize the ways it was f-ed up (imbalance in power dynamic! sexual objectification! etc.), which was extremely useful. Feminist thought, at least in part, *also* enabled me to demonize my ex and stigmatize entire swaths of myself that had willingly participated in that relationship. It let me paint him as a one-dimensional villain, rather than a complex human being with his own issues; it erased my own agency in the situation (who, it turned out, ENJOYED having the kind of sexy-sex that looked patriarchal at face value), and led me to think of myself as a victim.

    Eventually I had to figure out that I could not survive if I kept thinking in those terms. I honestly mean that– I would have lost my claim to agency entirely, and the broad brushstrokes just didn’t work. I still deeply believe in how important feminism is for the world, and was and continues to be for me. But I also believe is a means to an end, not an end in itself. In the end we have to accept that our own participation in darkness is a part of who we are, and we have to take responsibility for that in order to understand ourselves (and each other, and the darkness) better.

    Thank you Sady for being here throughout this process, and for sharing yours with us <3

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  13. Kybard wrote:

    Henceforth you shall be known as Sady the Turtle-Changing Wizard.

    This is eloquent, sophisticated stuff. You (the 2011 you) are such a great writer, with a masterful touch on the personal essay writ large.

    I think all intellectual or political movements ultimately must gauge their long-term viability by their capacity for self-reflection; as you say, if you presume to have answers you risk a failure to ask important questions. That kind of intellectual honesty and circumspection keeps this among the few websites I take pains to read on a regular basis.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  14. Katie wrote:

    Thanks. This really helps with some stuff I’ve been working on – how to be less reactive, less punitive in my desire for social justice. Replicating bad patterns (emotionally abusive household, critical/withholding parents, etc.) using social justice as a front is…a double lie. This helps to pick that apart.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Permalink
  15. MryMac wrote:

    I don’t believe there is one true feminism and feminist beliefs are a matter of opinion. There are as many feminisms as there are women, so what is all the infighting about anyway. Its another reason why some women say ‘I’m not a feminist, but..’. Saves you getting into the whole debate about whether you are a real feminist or not. The interesting bit for me is when a consensus emerges about a particular issue and lots of people pool their energy and talent to make that change getting the vote, getting in to universities, getting legal abortions.etc. I love Jung and really enjoyed reading your post.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Permalink
  16. Satyr Magos wrote:

    Sady, I’ve been lurking on your blog since it was purple and consisted mostly of scathing dissections of Judd Apatow movies. Now seemed as good a time as any to chime in and tell you how fucking brilliant you are.

    Rearranging your brain takes a lot of work and involves eating a lot of your own words. Doing it in public is doubly hard, but it also helps others keep to the road. Thank you for sharing.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  17. Hayley B wrote:

    wow, just wow. i want to reread this every day and just keep THINKING. this gives me so much to THINK about. amazing, sady! i.. amazing.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Permalink
  18. PosedbyModels wrote:

    Thanks, Sady. I think I have needed a post like this recently, and I’m so glad that this is the site that delivered it to me. I have been stuck on this piece all day, and it feels good to know that I am not done growing and learning as a feminist, a thinker, and a person. I really appreciate it.

    Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Permalink
  19. Megpie71 wrote:

    One of the truths of the universe I keep being reminded of by various works of fiction is we hate most that which we see reflected in ourselves. We get most upset about being called out on things when we genuinely know we’re wrong. We get hurt most by the little jibes which reflect our own inner self-talk, all our own innermost doubts.

    One of the other universal truths I’ve been learning the hard way: nothing is as simple as it looks from the outside. Everything is much more complicated than it seems to be. Making a judgement call on small evidence means you’ll inevitably be wrong somewhere along the line. In order to be able to make a reasonable judgement, or a fair one, you have to stop and step in, look closer, find out all those tricky details.

    There’s a beautiful scene in “Carpe Jugulum” by Terry Pratchett where Granny Weatherwax is confronting her own shadow (I’d quote it, but unfortunately the book is currently boxed up at the moment). Essentially, she stands on the boundary between light and shadow, and she is challenged to step one way or the other. She turns, faces toward the light, and steps backward, into the shadow, where she is faced with all her regrets, all her fears, all of her choices, and where she has to face the fact that somewhere along the line, she not only might have been, but almost inevitably was wrong. And she has to live with that knowledge, because no matter how much regret we have about these things, we cannot alter the past.

    (Small digression here: I suspect one of the major reasons time-travel is such a powerful meme in fiction is because everyone has these moments of wanting to be able to alter the past, change the present, undo something they’ve done.)

    The point Pratchett makes with a lot of the Granny Weatherwax stories is that “where people stand isn’t important; what’s important is which way they face”. We can stand in the shadows, and look toward the light, and see the good in other people reflecting the darkness in ourselves. Or we can stand in the light and look toward the shadows, and find ourselves unable to see the good in others, because all we can see is the shadow. Or, if we have enough courage, we can stand on the border, and see the chiaroscuro of light and shadow, illuminating and making visible all the little details and complexities of a world which is much more fascinating than either.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 12:37 am | Permalink
  20. Linds wrote:

    This hit very close to home and has given me a lot of things to think about.

    Thank you.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 1:16 am | Permalink
  21. Spiffy McBang wrote:

    Sometimes I come here and say, “Man, I wish Sady would post more.”

    Then I see something like this and I say, “Well, I guess it’s ok if the wait is this worth it.”

    “I am deeply, deeply suspicious of the idea that being a feminist makes you a better person.”

    I’m glad you said this, because it really expands much farther- being a feminist doesn’t make you anything, good or bad. It’s not a cause, it’s an effect. “How can I be a good feminist” is no different than “how can I be a good Christian” or “how can I be a good parent”. Chasing the label might get you there, but it’s just as easy to miss the whole point.

    I’d like to think that feminists are on average better people, but if that’s true it’s only because on average we start in a better place.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 1:39 am | Permalink
  22. Pete Jordan wrote:

    “[W]hatever you’ve decided not to see in yourself, you will see just constantly in other people. And you will hate it.”

    Funny, I was thinking just that a couple of days ago; not a comfortable thought at all. Thanks for this post, Sady, you are a wise woman.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink
  23. Darla wrote:

    This is great, and there’s so much to talk and think about here.

    I grew up in a completely non-religious family, and embraced very young the idea that no one is Bad or Good, people just have actions, and those actions can be damaging or helpful to certain goals.

    So, unsurprisingly, when I came to the feminist Internet, the thing that most spoke to me and clicked for me, was this idea that we aren’t accusing people of being sexists, we’re talking about their words and actions. I’ve kind of ignored the parts that accuse people of being Bad or Good, either by actually ignoring them, or by doing some mental gymnastics to make it so they’re not actually doing that after all.

    Anyway, thanks for talking about this, I mean, as a person who I totally respect a lot and completely can’t ignore so I’ll have to actually start paying attention to this stuff instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.

    Also, I don’t know if I’m coming off as thinking I’m “above” all this or whatever, but that’s not what I mean at all. OF COURSE I judge people, all over the place, and it’s something I should work on just like everyone else. It’s just not within a “good vs. evil” framework for me, and seeing that underlying framework pointed out really does help understand where people are coming from.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink
  24. Darla wrote:

    Sorry to double-post, but I also wanted to say, with respect to 2009 Sady, I don’t know about everyone else, but I came to feminism in desperate need of understanding that anger could be ok, could be good, could be ALLOWED. Women are often taught that being angry is never ok, and it is worse for me, because I come from a long line of women with a particular mental illness that is misunderstood (by themselves and their families) as “a strong temper,” and so I was taught extra-hard to avoid anger at all costs. 2009 Sady was angry, and was RIGHT to be angry (at least a lot of the time), and was AWESOME and FUNNY on top of that. (Not that you’re not awesome and funny and sometimes angry now, I am just saying, the over-the-top anger and self-righteousness happened to be exactly what I needed in 2009, and I am pretty sure no one else did it nearly as well.)

    I LOVED 2009 Sady. 2009 Sady was pretty much my favorite part of 2009. I wouldn’t say I liked 2009 Sady better, but there certainly is a lot of nostalgia for me. I like 2011 Sady, too, though. (So much that I think if I have another daughter, I’m going to name her Sady. Perhaps that is creepy, I don’t know. But anyway, I am not really planning to have another baby, so it probably won’t come up.)

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink
  25. David wrote:

    I’m glad you wrote that, particularly about Middlemarch. I was one of the people who seriously disagreed with your Martin essay, and actually composed in my mind, a point that you could use the some of same arguments and rhetoric against Elliot to paint a picture of her as an anti-feminist: her hatred of pretty women who wanted girly things, the way she punished Dorothea, and then chides the reader for not caring about her dumbass husband with “but why Dorothea”… etc. But then I thought, what’s the point? I think you’re a strong writer and there are genuinely disturbing issues with Martin, and more importantly, with the fandom mentality, which I don’t think is healthy for anything: for feminism, for progressivism, for critical thinking in general. It’s inherently shutting down critical thinking into tribalism and denial- just think of how all the George Lucas fans spent 1999 trying to convince themselves that The Phantom Menace was a good movie because they’d invested so much of their selves and their identities into it.

    And I think it’s sad, not in a putdown way, but in a genuinely sad way, that you spent so much time reading books that you hated. Books that I like but still find a slog at times. You’ve read Middlemarch, you know what good fiction looks like. We’ve only got a certain number of breaths left on this planet. Spend some time writing about the good stuff. Hell, there’s plenty that’s problematic in great artists. I’d love to know how you respond to Marilynne Robinson’s guardedly positive view of religion in Gilead, which is such an amazing book that it made me want to convert to Christianity for several hours after I read it. And she doesn’t use the word “leal” every three sentences.

    I think you’re a good and brave writer, certainly braver than me, who stopped blogging in 2005 and mostly composes posts in my head. And I’m glad to read your self-reflectiveness.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink
  26. k wrote:

    Awesome stuff.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  27. A. Marina Fourneir wrote:

    I’m told Héloise questioned the nuns in school to distraction. Possibly apocryphal, but one question was supposed to be Why, if Adam and Eve were created rather than born, why did they have navels?

    Glad your mom was able to get the first divorce without much tsuris. In the early ’60′s and before (and later as well), regular, continual, battery and rape by your husband wasn’t considered by the Vatican to be grounds for divorce. My mother was told to a) offer her suffering to Jesus b) try not to make her husband angry. Riiiigght.

    A group I’m in is working on acknowledging and dealing with the darker side of ourselves. This is timely beyond what I could have asked for!

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  28. Small Sauropod wrote:

    Growing up, my father seemed to be constantly angry, and it was obvious to me that if he felt his anger was JUSTIFIED, if he was right, he derived a certain pleasure just from being angry. It is an uncomfortable truth in my life that, if I’m honest, there are few feelings that I enjoy much more than being right, and justifiably angry. Feminism has served me well in that regard, only trumped by my ability to get angry at my father for childishly indulging in his own anger.

    I think that as a movement, our anger is important. I think that there are things that we can and should be angry, justifiably angry, about. But I also know that justifiable anger is somewhat indulgent for me personally.

    So I have two things really to say about the post:
    1. I can totally sympathize with the folks who prefer your ’09 writing.
    2. This is exactly the reminder I needed, of my own shadows and the shadows of the communities in which I engage.

    I have a friend who thinks that if we talk about our own flaws and weaknesses we’ll never get anything done. What I am coming to believe is that if we DON’T talk about them, our accomplishments will look much much more like the things we are struggling against.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  29. kingfisher wrote:

    I’m de-lurking to say thank you, Sady. It’s like you crawled inside my head and flawlessly elucidated every apprehension I have about the online feminist community. The policing of other people’s viewpoints has always scared me, even when (as I often do) I agree with the person doing the policing. It’s a fine line to walk and one that I think few of us do successfully. Thank you for subjecting yourself to all the vitriol that you do in order to get your voice out there. Thank you. Thank you. This piece is beautiful.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  30. Vivian wrote:

    Really really great post. I am in the middle of having sort of a THING about feminist and racial issues and I appreciate your clarifing some of the things that I think my brain was trying to tell me :)

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  31. Devery wrote:

    Sady, thank you for this excellent post.

    I was watching a re-run of “The Office” a few months ago when I turned suddenly to my husband and exclaimed, “Holy shit! My shadow is Dwight Schrute!!” It was one of the more valuable and humbling insights I’ve ever had.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  32. Lynne wrote:

    Wow. There is so much to this post.

    First, I am so sorry that there was brutality in your home. That must have been hard.

    When you talked about having your values used against you, I was reminded of when I was living with an abusive man who used my Christianity against me (I was to forgive, and forgive, and admit my own faults, and forgive some more.) My own best self was used against me, and that had as lasting an effect as the abuse.

    As an aside, the word “victim” is often used pejoratively. I don’t see it that way. I was a victim of domestic abuse as in, it happened to me. It wasn’t my fault (though I felt responsible at the time and for a long time after) and it does not define the whole of my being. It was a bad part of my life and it is long over.

    About being a feminist not making you a better person: I felt the same about being Christian when I was devout. I believed, I tried to live my faith, but I was demonstrably no better than many fine non-religious friends I had.

    HOWEVER, about feminism, it isn’t all about social and political equality and safety. Some of it is about process. And to the extent that feminists discuss even heated topics in a collaborative way so that everyone feels safe to voice her opinion, well, that’s feminism in action and in that way, yes, we are better people for being feminists. I only wish that happened more often.

    Wonderful, complex, thought-provoking post, Sady. Thank you.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  33. The Lady In Question wrote:


    This is actually not at all how our email exchange went, in fact the very first thing I said to you was that you’ve definitely heard from a lot of Game of Thrones fans. The rest of very clearly taken out of context.


    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  34. Finisterre wrote:

    Top-class print-out-and-read-several-times post, Sady. Nice one.

    Resonated particularly because, as an English reader of the Guardian, I see a lot of (justified) complaints from feminists about the misogyny of their comment forums, and how people have given up. And I don’t like the thought of leaving the arseholes (see? I’m doing it here!) to have it all their own way, so I’ve been posting a lot there. And god, is it easy to get The Attitude: they’re just arseholes for the sake of it, blah blah. In fact I came here (and to IBTP) last week in the hope of a nice refreshing blast of anger/sarcasm.

    And yet I have also been feeling what you are expressing here, that anger and vitriol achieve little and aren’t who I want to be. I ended up reading some of Nine Deuce’s classics to satisfy my need for a bit of raaah, and (although I think she is a fantastic writer and thinker) I found it not as satisfying as I thought.

    I’m going to read this post a few times, over time. I think it touches on the feeling that sometimes feminism can be a bit one-dimensional, that oppression isn’t the only enemy we have.


    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  35. FeministSub wrote:

    Thank you so much for this.

    “And I don’t know that I want to be a part of a feminist movement that can’t admit to it. I don’t know that such a feminist movement has any viable future.”

    Yes! A movement that doesn’t allow for human vulnerability is pretty much worthless in my mind. Because we are all vulnerable and imperfect – a movement that doesn’t allow that can’t make real change because it’s not built for real humans.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink
  36. misuba wrote:

    (Just as a sidebar: how come nobody on the other side ever seems to get outrage fatigue? Doesn’t seem fair.)

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  37. Jenn wrote:

    This post really resounded with me in a visceral way. I “came into myself”, so to speak, in my early 20s. The process began when I was 19, and I slowly came to figure out instrumental things to my identity. Things like I was never going to be thin unless I was anorexic (which I had been, off and on, since puberty) which was not a good thing (the anorexia, not the fatness), that I liked girls more than boys, that feminism made almost everything make sense, and that the religious upbringing foisted on my by both my mother and father had deeply, almost irreparably, scared my childhood and threatened to so the same to the rest of my life without some difficult introspection.

    I too went almost immediately to Dworkin, who I read before I even read classics like Friedan or Wolf. I intensely identified with radical feminist thought, as it appealed both my the conservative religious upbringing (the whole black/white mentality and use of hyperbole to establish theory) and the disgust I finally stopped apologizing for when I contemplated a life of heterosexual God-sanctioned monogamy.

    Part of it, like you, was the product of Catholicism. But in a round-about way. Instead of being Catholic, I was Jewish — as dictated by the tradition of children inheriting their mother’s faith. Except my father was deeply French Catholic for most of his life (before he married my mother, that is). This had little to no impact on my life until I lived solely with him after my mother’s nervous breakdown during the time puberty hit me with all the subtlety of a freight train. The only part that seemingly stuck with my father was that sexuality, particularly female sexuality, was extremely dangerous. I was constantly policed and made to apologize for my breasts and my hips. And my father and stepmother — who was also raised in a religious household by her pastor of a father — facilitated a very unhealthy body image in which there was the assumption that one could starve the hips and breasts off of me. Which, of course, led to rampant disordered eating. Both of which were fostered by the fact that I was one of those children who touched themselves as soon as they figured out they had hands that reached down there, and that both my father’s sister and my stepmother herself had gotten in way over their head in adult sexuality before they were adults (my aunt with many abortions, and my stepmother with a baby at the age of 15).

    Complicating matters was my mother’s faith, which I shared (if not in faith, than in culture). My father, of course, was both contemptuous of Judaism, and contemptuous with my half-hearted dedication to it. If I was going to not be a good Catholic girl, and have large breasts and a childhood colored by his memories of walking in on me touching myself from the age of 3 on, I could at least be a good Jew. So I was Bat Mitzvahed in a Hassidic congregation. This was an environment where sleeveless was extremely salacious, as was presuming that I, a woman, was permitted to touch the Torah or not be sat behind a partition while the men, leaders of the congregation, were allowed to pray and participate while I and the other women and girls sat silently and unseen.

    And like other girls stifled by their father’s dismay at their burgeoning womanhood, and the trappings a conservative religion that hated women (not one, but two, no less), I rebelled. Hard.

    Some of that righteous hellfire, I fear, colors my feminism. And I wonder if my preference of radical thought over seeing the good that could come of legal prostitution or stripping — or the good that “fun” feminists swear could be — is testament to an upbringing where sex was almost as bad as chewing with your mouth open at the dinner table (I was spanked more, and harder, for that than anything else in my childhood).

    And sometimes, I wonder, am I fooling myself? Am I still playing the righteous pure girl, even as a cavort with other women (a terrible sin in both religions)? I often find myself wanting to enjoy things that my friends enjoy — things like drinking to excess, dancing, casual or short-term relationships, raves, parties, and various substances. But I almost always abstain, even as I talk hard, swear profusely, and flirt shamelessly. Sometimes I wonder if parts of feminism have replaced that fervor and moral uprightness that religion (culturally, more than spiritually) used to. I really hope not, because that part of my childhood is toxic, and I have no desire to have it play out unchecked in my adulthood.

    So thanks for this post. It made me feel like I’m not alone in feeling like I do, and that I’m also not alone in feeling intensely betrayed by patterns of thought I struggle to unravel.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  38. Sady wrote:

    Hi, Lady!

    As you know, I don’t want to continue this fight with you, and won’t be open to doing so in the comment section. It’s very clear to me that you don’t feel you crossed a boundary or that you behaved in any way hurtfully or badly; you’ve sent me that message before.

    You opened your e-mail by saying that I was “probably sick” of hearing about this, then proceeded to give yourself permission to talk about it anyway. When I told you that we had closed the comment section, at the request of some other editors, so that all of us (including me) could move on and not stay stuck in a conversation which had become hurtful, and that I had attempted to draw a firm, clear boundary there, you replied with “no where have I stepped over a boundary.”

    When I said that sending me an e-mail in which you said “you should remember [my points] in the future and possibly, you know, act like a feminist next time” was hurtful, you replied with “you’re not acting like a feminist and I’m fucking mad,” and said that my experience of feeling hurt or my opinion that you had crossed a clear boundary was irrelevant because “I don’t like the conversation being derailed to make it about you.” When I replied that my boundaries were “about me” by default, you rejected that.

    When I told you that voices like yours had been heard, and that it was unnecessary for you to cross a boundary and prolong Internet drama in order to make them heard, you replied with “it’s very clear that our voices have remained unheard because at no point have you been like, ‘you know, I probably should not have been so cruel to other human beings.’” And then there were the other comments I’ve listed in the post, and a few more on top of those, which continued (and intensified) after I said that your comments had remained boundary-crossing and inconsiderate and I was no longer willing to have a conversation with you. You closed out by excusing your own actions once more, by saying “I’m simply not fluffy as a person.”

    As I’ve said: It’s very clear to me that you believe you did the right thing. You clearly don’t believe you were being inappropriate. You’ve said as much, several times. My opinions differ. I don’t want to shame you, and I don’t think you’re a bad person. But I have the right to opinions about my experiences. You don’t have the right to tell other people whether or not your comments were hurtful, and you don’t have the right to tell other people where their boundaries are and whether or not you’ve crossed them, and you don’t have the right to tell other people how they experienced your actions. As for the rest of my opinions about this, and about one or both of us being “cruel to other human beings,” they are in the post.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  39. octopod wrote:

    Very interesting stuff. However, I’m seriously unsure about the claim that the traits which most anger us in other people are the ones which we ourselves have. No doubt it’s true for some people more than others, and everyone sometime. However, I’ve been on the lookout for this particular thing since I read Jung (12 years ago now? sheesh). Based on intensive conversation with friends whom I trust to be totally honest with me about my failings, I’ve had to conclude that my most undesirable traits are often ones which I actually LIKE when I see them in other people, and the faults for which I have the least tolerance are the ones in which I share the least. I don’t think this is helpful, but I just have to let it out there in case anyone else is worrying as I was that they’re somehow uniquely failing to see the Shadow.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  40. scyllacat wrote:

    I think I would be better if I made it more explicit, like you just did, Sady, that I mean _me_ as well, when I talk about things I don’t like.

    Just a quick example: I hate bullying. I hate it because I was bullied; but being stuck at the receiving end of bullying means you learn to come back with a nasty or smart-ass remark, because the only defense is to play along. And then you think you’re free, only to find yourself thinking of witty, mean, sharp attacks to emotionally derail your “opponent” (oh, look, another error in thinking), rather than honestly saying what you think and why you believe it’s important. Because if you do that, you’ve made yourself vulnerable, and you’ve given the other person ammunition. And so conversation ends up not happening, and flaming does.

    And of course, by “you,” I mean _me_. Not being big Jungians, we (me and my BFF/OBF) call the Shadow (which seems monolithic) the Invisible Dwarves–the things, whether foolish or inept or wrong or evil, that you are so busy avoiding, you can’t see them sneak around you, get underfoot, and trip you up again. And again. And again.

    Thanks for writing. I don’t agree with everything, but I feel what you say, and that’s a good thing, to me.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink
  41. Justin wrote:

    I liked this a lot. I also like The Song of Fire and Ice and I quite liked your article on it. There seems to be very little that’s perfect. I’m trying to learn to enjoy what I can and not to get to attached to the rest. I can still fight when I need to but I like being able to lay down my sword at the end of the day.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  42. Justin wrote:

    OK, embarrassing. One of those to’s should have been too.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink
  43. Diverkat wrote:

    This post is beautiful, and timely. I’ve bookmarked it, and I just want to say thank you for being honest. Being brave enough to face one’s own shadows is difficult, but when someone else does it with grace, it makes it just a bit more easy for me. Admittedly I’ve been getting caught up in the anger and self-righteousness that seems to come with feeling slighted by institutional prejudices, and I wish I had the courage to let go of those. I’m trying, but it’s really easier to hang onto sanctimoniousness and relish in that feeling of “I’m RIGHT!” instead of acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers. I am trying to fight those tendencies.

    Thanks again – reading things like this makes me understand it more, and reminds me that I must see my own shadows for what they are.

    Monday, September 12, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink
  44. Other Becky wrote:

    This is an amazing piece, Sady.

    Something that has always confused me is the idea that Christianity is about being good and virtuous and living up to the ideal. To me, a large part of the point of Christianity is that human beings are fundamentally incapable of living up to the ideal — and that’s okay. What’s important is trying, not succeeding.

    I try hard to approach both my faith and my feminism the same way: by asking myself where I have screwed up recently, whom I have hurt, and how to do better next time. If the imperative is to succeed, then I start ignoring my own faults and flaws and errors, so that I can believe I’m a Good Person. If the imperative is to keep trying, then I can acknowledge my failures without their existence making me a Bad Person.

    It’s actually in the baptismal vows of the Episcopal church — one of the promises is, essentially, “when I screw up, I’ll repent”. The expectation of failure is built into the promise with the word “when”. I love that acceptance and anticipation of imperfection. “Hi, [God/Feminist Internet/romantic partner/dear friend], I fuck up regularly. I’m never going to be perfect. I’m going to say and do stupid, hurtful shit. I’ll try not to, but sometimes I’ll fail. But I’ll keep trying to do better.”

    That attitude doesn’t keep me from screwing up, by any means, but I think it helps me act like less of an asshole when it’s pointed out to me that I’ve screwed up. I don’t have to find a way to make my failure actually a success and the other person wrong and stupid for thinking it was a failure; I can add it to my list of things to work on. (So if this comment makes me come off like a self-righteous, proselytizing jerk, please let me know.)

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  45. emjaybee wrote:

    I appreciate this very much. My own feminism was a later-in-life acquisition, meaning that by the time I knew much about it, I had already made some choices that tend to be Frowned Upon (tradtional wedding, taking husband’s last name, etc.) by some people in the feminist community. I was also not entirely willing to tell all my less-feminist friends and family to Fuck Off, Losers, I’m a Feminist Now. So purity was never much of an option for me.

    It does help to see younger feminists say that purity is an illusion even if you have passion–it makes more room in feminism not just for us, but for those inclined to feminism but afraid to call it that.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 1:58 am | Permalink
  46. Glittertrash wrote:

    I loved your 2009 writing so much, and I love your 2011 writing as well. This is a well-timed post for many thoughts I have been having recently about the role of purity in my local political community (re: vegetarianism/veganism/hello holy shit food purity problematic!, the pursuit of unimpeachably Good Politics, Good vs Bad relationship choices, the power structures that allow certain people to define who is Good and who is Bad, etc).
    It’s also an inspiring post because I wrote A LOT OF STUFF, in public, when I was younger and angrier and more certain that I was right, but when I lost my certainty in being right all the time, when I became aware of changeable and mutable Truths and the bogusness of declaring allegiance to an easily-defined Good and the pursuit thereof, I lost my ability or desire to write in public. I got to the liberating point of acknowledging my fallibility but didn’t manage to come through the other side to being brave enough to be wrong, in public, on the record, and to leave a public trail of the evolutions of my truths. I’m working hard on that because I don’t like not-writing because I’m too scared of writing. Essays like this from people who are spectacularly good writers, and who are grappling with the same issues of evolution (in public, on-record) in the face of the fierce firestorms that exist to make being wrong (in public, on the record) so scary, are so helpful to gaining the courage to begin being loud again. Your courage inspires me, so, thank you. You are a lady to admire and inspire.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink
  47. Glittertrash wrote:

    Will follow up to add: of course, those firestorms exist to make being right scary, too. They exist to make being loud and saying anything scary. I think they just make it even harder to be wrong, or to graciously acknowledge ever being wrong.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink
  48. I must say, you are very insightful! Whereas I do have beliefs that I hold on to quite strongly and I will keep fighting battles promoting these one should always try to look as deep into one’s soul as possible.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  49. Teigh wrote:

    Thank you so much for this post. I can relate to so much of it – being raised Catholic, pushed out of the Church and falling directly into the Women’s Spirituality movement etc. – and your detailed breakdown of The Shadow in internet discourse could not have come at a better time. Is it woo-woo? Maybe. I personally tend to think otherwise. Regardless of personal opinions, it’s a useful and accurate mirror. So yes – thank you for the reminder.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  50. Joy wrote:

    There is so much good in this, and such a quiet, even light you’ve cast. Thank you.

    Like many have said, I loved 2009 Sady and her righteous anger. It was a time for that. Now it is time, for you and for me, to be The Adult in the Room and see anger as problematic. 2011 Sady is still made of awesome at a time when I am trying to find my own awesome, seeing many shadows and instead of hiding, name them. Thank you.

    SrsBz done, there is a nice little ditty which has been stuck in my head for two days now, and is, in the very simplest terms, what I am working on, what it seems you’re working on too…there is a 15sec youtube with a simple line drawing character, singing “It’s okay to not like things, it’s okay, but don’t be a dick about it. It’s okay to not like things. Don’t be a dick about the things you don’t like.”

    Yup. Working on it.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  51. Another delurking thank you! This was powerful, challenging stuff.

    I love your vulnerability and honesty here. Self-reflective writing is the best. It’s challenged me to do the same. As a Baptist preacher’s kid, I had fundamentalism baked into my bones, so that even having rejected it, I have a powerful urge toward it. A demon that wells up in me at tense moments to strike out in RIGHTEOUS ANGER; a reflect to sort the world as it is that instant into RIGHT and WRONG, JUST and UNJUST, GOOD and EVIL.

    Hint 1: I’M never sorted as wrong, unjust or evil.

    Hint 2: People I love often are.

    Maintaining outrage, resistance and subversion without becoming what you fight is tough. Thanks for helping me examine it. This was the second time in as many days that I encountered a reference to the Jungian Shadow, which in mystic woo woo land means something is trying to tell me something.


    PS This post helps me to engage with your writing, too. I’ve struggled, lately, with some of the cruel things you’ve said about opponents. I’ve wanted to like your thoughts and keep reading and learning from them, but was turned off by meanness, and was trying to decide whether to stop following.

    Trying, in other words, to sort you into a box marked GOOD or BAD.

    Seeing this wonderful reflection reminds me to avoid that dichotomy, and offers assurance that you’re just a person honestly wrestling with shit like the rest of us. I look forward to being enriched by your exploration.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  52. slutego wrote:

    There is very much good stuff in this post, and while I’ll add props to the chorus in the comments, I actually chimed in specifically to nod at the comment by Glittertrash.

    See, I too barely maintain any sort of internet presence anymore, or even comment, for precisely those same reasons. And have horrible terribad confidence issues now, partly because of this, because deep down, to me nothing is worse than seeming stupid and failing – I realize this is not hugely conducive to growth. This reuslts in my feeling as if I can’t even play in the sandbox properly to say props without fucking up! Which is, uh, something I’m working on! Because it’s not very healthy or mature or happy. Obviously. Hence recent delurkation.

    Arghleblarghleblargh basically, all of this insight is super relevant and helpful to me right now. So thanks.
    And more of an overall thanks for this space. I can’t remember a post (or comment section) that didn’t spark some sort of revelation for me, even if they were the teeny subtle sort. <3

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink
  53. Beth wrote:

    I spent yesterday understanding why Orson Scott Card writes what he writes, believes what he believes and why his world would end if being gay were okay.
    I think I do understand now. Or at least, if I had lived his life and made the choices he’s made, I could see how I would write the stories he writes and responds the way he responds and join the board of NOM.

    To me, that’s the answer. It is to abandon the language of good and evil, of attack and defense. To understand why other people might not, why sometimes such language might even be justified, but not to embrace it day to day. When I can understand the people I despise, when I can show them compassion, when I can help those people I meet unravel their fear and hatred for themselves by loving the parts of them that they so despise (I love Orson Scott Card’s sexual ambiguity; it is why I loved his stories when I was 12. What he hates most about himself, I love.

    And sometimes when I approach these topics with courage and authenticity, willing to reveal my fears and vulnerability and reach out to touch the ugliest side of humanity and name it for what it is, it changes people. Not the world: that’s what changing the national discourse and making things unacceptable to say in public and shaming companies for their advertising is for. But instead I can connect with individuals who have been so isolated by privilege and oppression as to loose sight of those ties we all carry to everyone else.

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  54. Beth wrote:

    Oh, I forgot though: sometimes it doesn’t work at all. Most of the time, actually. People will take that vulnerability and authenticity as an excuse to ignore what I’ve said about their behavior, and others refuse to believe they don’t already have the answers, and still others get instantly defensive and lash out at any hint that their fear of other people’s choices (not what people might do to them, that’s rational, but what they might think or read or believe or do consensually with third parties) might not be 100% about other people.

    But what I have, personally, found is that it doesn’t bother me any more. As long as I am being honest and authentic and not trying to hide from my Shadow, they can’t use it against me. Once I can hear the fear in their voice, I hear “fear” instead of “hatred”. I know fear is dangerous and can lead to violence, but it’s not personal anymore; it’s not about me. I make sure I assert my boundaries and needs and leave when necessary, but it has kept me from burning out (even as I have become alienated from every “community” that used to prop me up in righteous anger). Understanding doesn’t make behavior acceptable or excusable, but it means that I no longer take it personally. It means that I have hope that it will change.

    Maybe, in the end, it is that hope that has helped the most. If I can show compassion to others and myself, then humans are capable of compassion. I can grieve for those who choose fear and denial instead, without giving into despair.

    I’m also by no means perfect or “there” yet; these are ideals I strive towards because I’ve noticed my life is better when I succeed, not a destination I’ve already reached. And I work hardest on compassion-without-excusing when I fail myself.

    I am renewed to see someone else whom I have long admired wrestling with the same issues of Good and Evil.

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink
  55. Smadin wrote:

    I think that’s a really good point, Beth — it’s hard to let go of the idea that there’s such a thing as “good people” and “bad people,” but it’s important. People are complicated, and their reasons for acting the ways they act are complicated, but there are always reasons. The better you can empathize with them and understand their reasons, the better chance you have, I think, of reaching them (or people who think similarly).

    I try to conceptualize people’s words and actions in terms of being helpful or harmful rather than good or bad — that is, I think it’s useful to focus on effects rather than speculating on inherent qualities. If that makes sense?

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Permalink
  56. Eric wrote:

    Hi this really moved me.

    It helped put in perspective the scorched earth policy feminist that I see online occasionally. They are not bad just trying awfully hard to do the right thing.

    Friday, September 16, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  57. Miranda wrote:

    Thank you for writing this. You have identified something which I recognize in myself and have been trying to articulate for some time.

    Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 3:36 am | Permalink
  58. Kiri wrote:

    I think you can guess my opinion of this post. :) I really appreciate your writing it, and your making me think.

    Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  59. ventureforth wrote:

    Thank you. This piece is beautiful and I am delurking to say so.

    Monday, September 19, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  60. Dissonance wrote:

    I agree with many of the sentiments in this essay. It also reminds me of your essay “Dirty Girls and Bad Feminists: A Few Thoughts on ‘I Love Dick’ in which you wrote about how feminism or any good cause shouldn’t be used as a pass for the same sorts of simplifications and bad faith we deplore in the status quo: “I’ve oversimplified things I was supposed to be critiquing, for the sake of making a point; I’ve rationalized and politicized my tastes and personal dislikes and bad personality traits, to make myself seem like a better person or a better feminist…Every time I yell at some pathetic anonymous commenter and people cheer, every time I get all righteously outraged without talking about what I’ve done that is the same or worse as what the person I’m outraged about has done, every time I play the toreador and gore a bull for your entertainment, I shudder a little. Because I’m helping it happen: Aiding in the creation of a discussion where we reward outrage and scorn and hatred and Othering of the ideologically impure, the bad feminists and unfeminists and anti-feminists, all the while pretending to a purity that none of us, living in this our inherently compromising and mindfucking world, actually possesses.”

    I think you are a very insightful writer.

    I also think life has many contexts which and so the right answer or valid argument may involve imperfect, complex or somewhat conflicting ideas.

    For example: One can both criticize sexist attacks on Ann Coulter while using non-sexist insults to criticize her ideas.

    I also recognize activist blogging means being hesitant to back down, plus everyone has trouble copping to their own flaws. Especially if the flaw is in an otherwise valid arguement.


    The system which feminism opposes is one of excessive double standards, bad faith, contradictions and hipocrisy. One of the rationalizations for patriarchy is pretending there’s no difference between inequality and the small contradictions all humans express.

    So while I think everyone at times uses rhetoric similar to what you criticize, the better argument is willing to cop to those bad faith moments. Even if the other side will falsely use it as a gotcha moment.

    And I think, Sady, there’s been some bad faith in recent posts.

    Your criticism of Game of Thrones was valid. Presenting it with blanket pre-emptive attack on nerds and fandom was questionable. That other fandoms had freaked out about previous posts does not quite justify the pre-emptive pot stirring generalizations about all fans being jerks.

    A similar thing seemed to be going on with that post about the Gizmodo uproar. You had a valid point about the misogyny and the sexist presumption of being liked no matter what, but again the framing seemed to flirt with bad faith. If the genders had been reversed in that situation, if it had been a guy making a trolling post on Jezebel naming and mocking some date for her Twilight Fandom and implying she was asking for it because she went on dates with two gawker staffers, the response would have been different and justifiably furious. And if some male blogger had responded “yes it was wrong, but” and gotten a few more licks in at twilight fans and “don’t get mad if I don’t like your subculture” this blog might have deemed as downplaying and excusing the real issue.

    I will admit, this criticism may be invalid because it’s about what wasn’t written instead of what was, but I do think there was some valid points which were couched in the same sort of problems which you identify elsewhere.

    And because you do show awareness that it’s possible to be right and yet wrong at the same time, it might help if Tiger Beatdown was a bit more able to criticize itself. Not just in general “I haven’t always been perfect” terms, but when people say “I agree but I don’t…”

    Monday, September 19, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink
  61. Dissonance wrote:

    One last sentence. So while I totally get the titanic nerdboy misogyny that prompts such sharp words, it ends up being a bit scorched eath to allies within those communities as well and maybe that nuance and issue might be worth addressing; it’s not just whiners whining and dimissing one’s critics as mere whiners is pretty much what the status quo does.

    Monday, September 19, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  62. Rosalina wrote:

    I appreciate every word of this. I constantly debate my anger, in my own mind. I am still angry, with feminism, with the patriarchy, with religion, and especially how much I have to negotiate with the world, what it means to be me. Happiness and anger have kept me moving, and I really think that it was with feminism I was able to be a better me, not perfect, but better inside.

    “The problem is in hammering out a coherent ethics. All of us who call ourselves feminists have made a willful step outside of the value system and behavioral rules of our society.” -This was an interesting thought, it may be the lack of this code of ethics that has allowed for an unharnessed evolution in what each of us believes to be feminism. When I think of all of the negative energy directed towards feminism, I try to think of ways to save the world or all of the feminists, as if by saving the true definition of feminism we can finally make progress and get people to like us. But then I think of what it has done for me, and I remember that I don’t have to care about everyone else’ opinion, and that’s a gift from feminism. We can’t own the definition of feminism, or feminists. All we truly control is being our version of good, and to remember it’s perfectly fine to be flawed.
    Sady, I love your version of feminism, because of this self criticism, you are multifaceted and it’s in making those past mistakes that you become a better critic and a great conduit to opening the discussion about the worlds glaring truths.

    Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  63. Jamie wrote:

    Just a late and little comment to say that I like this post and look forward to thinking about it some more. I haven’t thought about Jung’s ‘shadow’ since the days when my dad was re-training as a psychotherapist and used to talk to me about what he was studying. It was an idea he found helpful too, and I’d forgotten it. I think it may be a timely thing for me to remember. Thanks.

    Monday, September 26, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  64. Maria wrote:


    That is my favourite scene in all of Pratchett for that reason! I was thinking of it too!

    “Top-class print-out-and-read-several-times post, Sady. Nice one.”

    Ditto. I approve of your longform, Sady, precisely because you only ever use it to write long tracts that I want to read, reread, and continually learn from. Nobody else on the internet does that for me.

    Thursday, October 6, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink