In 2000, South End Press published bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody, a slim, optimistic handbook that broke the elements of feminism down into concise parts. Its author had a seemingly simple goal that accounted for the book’s modest size: she hoped to make feminist politics easy to understand. In the introduction, hooks explained that the book she had written was one she had been longing to read, and she encouraged others to produce similar explanatory works: “There should be so many little feminist primers, easy to read pamphlets and books, telling us all about feminism, that this book would be just another passionate voice speaking out on behalf of feminist politics.”
Two new feminist primers -- Megan Seely’s Fight Like a Girl: How to be a Fearless Feminist and Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters by Jessica Valenti -- take up her challenge. By explaining feminism’s relationship to and engagement with a list of issues (things like sex, reproductive rights, violence, body image and electoral politics) these books exist to prove, in Valenti’s words, that “the fight is far from over.” The project undertaken by both authors is essentially the same, but carried out in distinctly different styles. Valenti, founder of the feministing.com, writes and rants with the personal flourishes you’d expect from a blogger. Seely, who was the youngest-ever elected president of California National Organization for Women, diligently tows the feminist line. Both authors’ clear desire to make their books accessible means they begin by laying out some oft-repeated basics. So, altogether now: feminists are not all angry, hairy, bra-burning, man-hating lesbians. The all-knowing dictionary (an apparent source of neutrality) defines feminism as nothing scarier than “the belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” and “the movement organized around this belief.” From here, things get (in one case) rather messy, and (in the other) far too neat.
I love that Valenti comes right out with statements like “I’m better in bed than you are. And I have feminism to thank for it.” But that’s where she stops working. She’s feisty, but in a repetitive way that drags on without modulation through the whole book. Her writing can seem both dumbed down and not explanatory enough, relying too much on assumptions about what readers will know or believe. She has a tendency to over-explain, pointing out how shocking something is instead of just letting information resonate. When she mentions a big number, she’ll follow it with “that’s huge.” She offers repeated confirmation of her own points: “‘Nuff said,” “See?” “Ain’t that the truth,” “You can’t tell me that’s not amazingly fucked up.” Some of her conclusions are dubious (“There’s really no winning when it comes to motherhood,” she writes at the end of a section on the pressures facing mothers), and her citations, when she provides them at all, are shaky. She’s clearly psyched for people to critique her “potty mouth,” but it’s her generalizations and overstatements (along with an apparent lack of editing) that threaten to run her arguments into the ground.
“Do you really need any more convincing?” Valenti writes. If her goal is to convince and convert, she needs to do more than say “trust me.” It’s this self-confidence, though, that could make Full Frontal Feminism a good entry point for the particular kind of rebellious teenager so many of us once were, ripe for a political intervention that appeals to a need to be angry and unequivocally contrary. The less defiant adolescent could pick up a copy of Megan Seely’s Fight Like a Girl, a painstaking lesson in feminism that covers many of the same things as Full Frontal Feminism. Seely’s careful approach, though, makes the book a rather plodding read. Devices like historical timelines and bolded dictionary definitions of concepts are particularly unengaging (and sometimes unintentionally condescending). Her over-explanations are presented more formally than Valenti’s; phrases like “it’s important to understand” and “this presents opportunities and challenges” make multiple appearances. In addressing violence against women, Valenti writes “Violence in relationships tends to follow a pattern -- a cycle of abuse. Sounds technical, I know,” while Seely includes a diagram of that cycle. The logic behind the order of the chapters is unclear, and it’s hard to get your bearings amidst so much information. Seely’s lesson on self-exams (complete with a couple of vagina illustrations) seems especially misplaced. For all the purposes it’s trying to serve, Fight like a Girl is definitely not a health resource, nor should it be. It’s an intensely informative book -- a textbook, really -- but, despite its author’s stated passion and her intention for it to be a “call to action,” hardly rousing.
What’s going on here? Clearly, the proliferation of books, articles, conferences and presentations that attempt to explain what feminism is and why it’s vital are proof that these conversations are necessary. Maybe it’s also a sign that the tactics aren’t working. I’m skeptical of whether many of these books reach the uninitiated audiences their authors and publishers claim to want. Take a look at the back covers: a whole lot of them feature laudatory blurbs by Amy Richards and/or Jennifer Baumgardner (best known as co-authors of Manifesta), Lisa Jervis and/or Andi Zeisler (co-founders of Bitch magazine). My respect for these writers notwithstanding, habitually deploying the same names to recommend very similar books doesn’t really seem like the best way to find new readers. More importantly, feminism as a whole is too big for a book. Trying to include all of its lessons and ideas between two covers is kind of a strange undertaking, no matter how it's styled.
I wonder, too, if people are really likely to find feminism through a book whose agenda is plastered across its cover. It tends to be a more slippery process, without one clear entry point. Feminism is at its best when its politics have some room to breathe... its best expressions are books and music and movies and ideas that live in the world, rather than trying to explicate it directly. That’s why so many people embody feminist politics without recognizing them as such. A lack of specific identification with feminism is not what’s holding back the movement.
I’m tired of reading justifications of feminism when there’s so much proof of it every day. Just because there are still so many looming threats doesn’t mean that feminism isn’t active and visible. It means there’s more to do, and defending a philosophy hardly seems like it should be at the top of a long list of priorities. I’m also tired of the guilt factor that continues to edge its way into these discussions. Sometimes I’m reluctant to write critically about feminism because it’s already under fire from outside the community, or even because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings (a very special girl problem, I know). At others I’m tempted to be the belligerent daughter, just because I’m fed up with the tenor of the discussion. So I have sympathy for Valenti’s inclinations, even though her book made me gnash my teeth and scrawl angry question marks in the margins.
It’s time for us to demand more of feminist books. Sure, let’s recognize their authors for giving it a shot. With that gesture out of the way, let’s get real. Good intentions aren’t enough to make for a convincing argument, a useful resource, or even just a good book. Feminism has come far enough for us to stop worrying about hurting it with our criticism. We have to take ourselves seriously enough to hold feminist work to task.