You know, part of me is grateful to Nina Power, author of One Dimensional Woman, for writing that my “desperate,” “tired” feminism is nothing more than consumer-friendly navel gazing. Seriously! Because Power’s criticism is indicative of a larger feminist elitism that is stunting the growth of the movement ““ and now I have a good excuse to write about it.
I came across Power through this Guardian book review:
She has harsh words, too, for upbeat “consumer”/”self-help” feminists such as Jessica Valenti, who subsume “the political and historical . . . under the imperative to feel better about oneself”. In this logic, “Almost everything turns out to be ‘feminist’ ““ shopping, pole-dancing, even eating chocolate” ““ and feminism is sold as the “latest must-have accessory”.
First of all, why anyone wouldn’t want feminism to be the latest must-have accessory is beyond me ““ because that would be awesome. If fighting for gender justice were as popular as jeggings, women would be in pretty good shape. (Sadly, they would still be wearing jeggings.)
In any case, I found it hard to believe that anyone familiar with my work would write that I adhere to an anything-goes kind of feminism (since I frequently argue the opposite), or rely on hackneyed depictions of younger feminists as always-shopping pole-dancers, so I checked out excerpts from Power’s book myself to see if her words were taken out of context. Yeah, not so much.
Stripped of any internationalist and political quality, feminism becomes about as radical as a diamantÃ©phone cover. Valenti “truly believes’ that feminism is necessary for women “to live happy fulfilled lives’. Slipping down as easily as a friendly-bacteria yoghurt drink, Valenti’s version of feminism, with its total lack of structural analysis, genuine outrage, or collective demand, believes it has to compliment capitalism in order to effectively sell its product. When she claims that “ladies, we have to take individual action’, what she really means is that it’s every woman for herself and if it is the Feministâ„¢ woman who gets the nicest shoes and the chocolatiest sex, then that’s just too bad for you, sister.
What I find most offensive is that the premise of Power’s book assumes that no one (except her, of course) has been doing the hard thinking and research necessary to tackle issues of sexism. Yet in her mean-spirited criticism, Power cherry picks quotes and makes sweeping generalizations that indicate she’s either not done very good research or deliberately ignored the bulk of my work.
In fact, in the same breath that Power bemoans the lack of deep thinking and context in contemporary feminism, she manages to limit the scope of my work to some quotes in a Guardian article and the first few pages of Full Frontal Feminism. She conveniently omits the fact that I co-founded Feministing, a community of more than 600k people a month who have successfully rallied around issues like reproductive justice, media accountability, and legislation (collective demand, anyone?), co-edited Yes Means Yes (genuine outrage if I ever saw it) and wrote The Purity Myth, a, yes, structural analysis of the way American religious, political and cultural institutions use women’s sexuality to limit their rights. My bonafides go far beyond pointing out that feminism can be fun, but that wouldn’t support her thesis and therefore goes unmentioned. It’s intellectually dishonest, to say the least.
Power’s focus on FFF and things I’ve written evangelizing feminism to younger women is telling. (If you’re not familiar with the book, its purpose was to make feminism more accessible, so the writing style is conversational.)
A common critique of FFF, and of Feministing when it first started, was that they weren’t “serious” enough. For some reason, some people think that if you’re making feminism palatable or giving it mass appeal, you must be doing something wrong. Better that feminism is limited to an elite few, and that anything written about gender justice is reserved for those lucky enough to go to grad school or who live in a world where feminism is readily available and discussed often.
Power also takes issue with me being too “upbeat”, and suggesting that feminism can make women’s lives better. (We like our social justice movements dour, not joyful!) By ignoring how important and transformational it can be for women to see the world through a feminist lens and recognize everyday personal inequities, Power disregards how this kind of individual realization often leads to collective action and activism.
Are theory and political history important? Of course. But there’s more than one feminist project and accessibility, substance and radical thought aren’t mutually exclusive (something Power would know had she read my books or or any of the amazing blogging at Feministing). A huge part of my work has been creating entry points for young women to become involved in the movement; I’ve made deliberate, strategic choices about the language and tone I’ve used in my writing and the topics I’ve covered. And guess what? That shit works.
Thanks to that approach and the incredible people I blog with, Feministing has over half a million readers from all over the world and our traffic keeps growing. And as proud as I am of my more recent books, it’s FFF that young women email me daily about. They don’t write about how the book made them understand how capitalism and patriarchy support each other (though the book does indeed cover that) – they email me about how they see the world differently, about finally identifying as feminists, and about the joy of having the language to describe the injustices they’ve often felt and seen.
Everybody ““ whether or not they take Women’s Studies, have read Judith Butler or heard of Foucault ““ deserves to have feminism in their lives.
People like Power – who think the only kind of important work being done is in their own head – ignore the reality of women’s lives and eschew the practical thinking it takes to create more feminists and subsequently, more feminist power. But perhaps that’s the point. Because if feminism were available and accessible to everyone, then writers like Power wouldn’t be able to feel so superior.
And that’s what really irks me about this kind of elitism – how some people talk of breaking down power structures while simultaneously using feminist rhetoric to place themselves at the top of a new intellectual feminist hierarchy that does nothing to further justice.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to be part of a feminism that’s so “serious” that only 2% of the population can relate to, or understand it. I’d rather be part of the movement that understands that talking about feminism as cool, fun and interesting is a political act, that something being accessible doesn’t mean it’s not radical (and in fact the accessibility itself may be part of what makes it subversive); and that getting mainstream attention for a marginalized cause is smart. Because the last time I checked, a fairly integral part of progressing a political movement is building popular support.
And, yes, I am proudly someone who tries to convince women that feminism will make their lives better – not only because it’s the truth, but because then those same women go on to change their families, communities and even country. So while Power waxes dishonest about contemporary feminism (it’s not just me she bashes), I’ll continue to be upbeat, accessible and active, and other feminists will continue on with their work – be it academic, online, on the ground, in an organization, or even just in their own personal lives. Not because of any of us believes our way of doing feminism is the “right” way, but because we have a hierarchy of our own: we trump creating change and furthering justice over making ourselves feel more ideologically righteous than the rest of the movement.