We Don't Need Another Anthology
Remember that “Is Feminism Dead?” Time magazine cover story from 1998? Even if you didn’t read the article, the cover and its rhetorical question are infamous. Eight years later it’s still getting attention, much of it coming from the feminists who were its target in the first place. I can think of a couple anti-feminist threats more pressing than a magazine cover with an Ally McBeal reference. So why does an aging article in a boring (if ubiquitous) magazine still seem like an important thing to disprove?
Maybe it’s because feminist struggles themselves are feeling awfully repetitive. Are we really still butting heads over abortion? Haven’t we been fighting “the mommy wars” forever? How much longer do we have to deal with this whole wage gap thing? In an article in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, writer Peggy Orenstein was baffled at her young daughter’s obsession with pink, pretty princesses and their associated merchandising schemes. A couple days later, the Times ran an editorial bemoaning sexualized preteen girls, headlined “Middle School Girls Gone Wild.”
In this stalled cultural climate of Britney Spears, Disney princesses and an embattled Miss USA (let’s just forget about Nancy Pelosi for a moment), there’s been an avalanche of anthologies encompassing nearly every issue and subgroup within feminism. Seal Press first published Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation in 1995 (a second, expanded edition followed in 2001), the same year Rebecca Walker claimed to be “Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism” with her anthology To Be Real. The more academia-flavored Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism followed in 1997. In the years since, there have been the more specialized Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image (originally published in 1998 as Adios Barbie), Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (2001), Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism (2002), Young Wives Tales: New Adventures in Love and Partnership (2001), Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire (2002) and Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class (2004)... to name a few. By the time The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism came along in 2004, I was pretty tired of reading the same book again and again.
In the absence of validation from outside the world of Women’s Studies, these anthologies function as justifications of feminist activism and politics. They read like progress reports, but also like P.R., calculated proof of feminism’s vitality and diversity. Each new anthology builds the same case from scratch: How is feminism not dead? Let me count the ways. There are essays by sex workers, performance poets, queer women, questioning women, transwomen, abused women… maybe a man or two. In this format, diversity has become its own formula. And all these voices mashed together have come to sound a lot like background noise.
Third wave feminists may be the most obvious abusers of the anthology format, but they weren’t the first to embrace it. The now out-of-print classic This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color was published in 1984. Second wave writing was compiled in 1970s Sisterhood is Powerful, followed by Sisterhood Is Global in 1980 and Sisterhood is Forever in 2003. These were earnest attempts to capture the spirit of the many voices of women’s liberation, as had been accomplished earlier by mimeographed zines and 1968’s Notes from the First Year. They were consciousness-raising bibles. The writing in them didn’t need to be beautiful or poetic (though it often was); it was fresh and its context made it incendiary.
Seal Press, currently the main perpetrator, is responsible for at least four new anthologies this winter: She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff; Homelands: Women's Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time; Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender Conformity; and We Don’t Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists. Though often edited by excellent, surely well-intentioned writers (like Michelle Tea, Annalee Newitz and Mattilda a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore -- whose latest anthology is her fourth), there’s a uniformity to these books. The individual essays are confessional, with loving -- if frequently self-critical -- descriptions of what the writers and their communities are up to. Sure, the heavy emphasis on personal experience is always made insistently political, but after a certain point I’m not really interested in how someone's history of abuse has impacted her masturbation habits.
There are too many instances where the writing is stubbornly insular, self-referential and bordering on self-indulgent. What good is a primer if the people who read it are already primed? Some of the pieces in the new We Don’t Need Another Wave read like college application essays. Some have endings like public service announcements (“if you have experienced sexual violence, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline”). Others feel like cursory organizational profiles, or even grant applications. There’s a presumption of passion and interest on the part of the audience, but little sense of urgency.
It’s to feminism’s credit that newer accounts don’t sound unique: a freer exchange of stories proves that there’s been at least one benefit to all this rehashing. But it’s time to stop talking -- and writing -- so much amongst ourselves. We don’t need another anthology.