This Is What a Burned-Out Feminist Looks Like: A Sign-Off
Back in college, I spent hours upon hours of late nights and cups of coffee poring over articles with titles like “Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature,” and “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion,” highlighter at the ready. Last week I pulled open my file cabinet to quickly check a quote and ending up getting a little lost in the thick sheaves of stapled pages left over from my time as a Women’s Studies major, the blurry photocopies riddled with emphatic notes and copious underlining. True to form, I’ve kept all of it. There are shelves of books too, of course, many with those bright orange “USED” stickers on the spines, broadcasting their campus bookstore origins.
Looking through this stuff, I got a sort of pinched feeling of loss. My hands on all that paper brought me back to the deliciously nerdy excitement that came with being handed a syllabus full of things I was truly, desperately interested in, the perfect exhaustion of having more obscure reading to do than I could possibly get done in the allotted amount of time, the writing of deeply serious papers about things that were spine-tinglingly theoretical, being sleep-deprived and trying to bend my brain around the many, many tiny words in front of me until a 3 am breakthrough suddenly revealed the cold, hard genius it all.
I got all excited about readings that were less self-consciously academic, too. In the margins of page 93 of Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’s Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future, I scribbled “Not proactive!!” (This was in response to their description of some feminists’ reaction to a 1998 Time cover story asking “Is Feminism Dead?”.) I first read Manifesta in a class devoted to third wave feminism, which at the time felt like the most amazing, immediate subject possible. That class was also my first contact with an early crop of anthologies -- including Rebecca Walker’s influential To Be Real and Barbara Findlen’s Listen Up -- along with other books and articles tackling generation, technology, and activism. Manifesta, though, loomed large. It had been published most recently, and though it had drawn predictable criticism for not being all it might have been, it was still a pretty coherent document of contemporary feminism. My classmates and I had a sort of combative relationship with the book, but that basically meant we loved it. In the world of Women’s Studies (as in much of academia, really), picking a fight was often the greatest form of praise.
Time flies, and this spring marked the tenth anniversary of Manifesta’s publication, along with a new edition to mark the occasion. The new cover is satisfyingly self-referential -- a photo of a well-thumbed, dog-eared copy of the original edition. In a brief preface, the authors survey what’s happened since the book’s original publication -- 9/11, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton as a viable presidential candidate, Hurricane Katrina -- and own up to “how limited our perspective had been” in some areas, notably transgender issues. They look back at how they approached their expansive subject ten years ago, reflect on what they got right, what they couldn’t have anticipated, and what their own lives looked like at the time. “How could we not realize that our references to Monica Lewinsky and the Spice Girls would soon feel dated?” they write, a little abashedly. It’s sort of poignant: the authors of a book about how feminism is constantly changing are basically acknowledging that they’d hoped to write something timeless. But those Spice Girls references were essential; they were the reference points of the moment.
I meant to write about the new edition when it came out in March, but I had a hard time getting into it the way I wanted to. I’ve been writing this column -- allegedly about some combination of feminism and books -- for five years, give or take a couple fallow periods. When I started in 2005, it was invigorating to have this kind of outlet, a regular place to write about the feminist-y books coming down the pike. Predictably, I ended up writing about books by Inga Muscio and Nora Vincent and Ariel Levy, but also about girl-centric novels like Francesca Lia Block’s Necklace of Kisses, Michelle Tea’s Rose of No Man’s Land, and Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World, along with hard-to-categorize nonfiction like Jessica DuLong’s My River Chronicles and Sarah Katherine Lewis’s Sex and Bacon. I wrote about some books that I thought were really terrible. And particularly at the beginning, I took their badness very, very personally.
I would hunker down on my couch and chew through a book in a day, jotting down cranky notes and feeling the thrill of righteous anger. I would nitpick, zoom in on any sentences that seemed even a little wishy-washy or inconsistent, and lay into the writer for contradicting herself. I chose some easy targets; knocking them down made me feel really smart. It was a kind of catharthis that let me hate on a book like Jennifer Baumgardner’s bisexual manifesto Look Both Ways more than it probably deserved. I stand by my reviews, but I don’t mind admitting that my preconceptions about some books were what really made me want to read them, if only to confirm the ideas I had about them long before cracking their covers. It was hard for me to read feminist books in any other way, and it actually felt like the most honest way to read them: not as isolated statements I pretended to be detached from, but as part of a conversation I was finding increasingly exhausting. I told myself I was just taking these books and their authors seriously and holding them to the high standard they deserved, but sometimes I was probably asking more of them than I should have.
It used to feel urgent to pick up the latest explicitly feminist book and pick it apart -- maybe especially if this meant tearing it to shreds. Maybe it’s just part of growing as a person and a writer, but other people’s books don’t feel like such personal affronts to my politics and sense of the world anymore. I have as little patience for bad books and crappy arguments as ever, but it’s gotten hard for me to work up the same amounts of indignation about them -- or to choose to read a book just so I can get angry about it. But I know that this relative mellowing would seem like a cop-out to my 20-year-old self.
The semester after I took that third wave feminism class, my friend Lauren and I proposed that we do what we cheekily called a “codependent study” on the topic of post-feminism. Basically, we were looking for an excuse to earn college credit while getting angry and writing about how people like Katie Roiphe, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Camille Paglia (all of whom we’d read about in Manifesta) were wrong-headed verging on dangerous. Our first target, irresistibly, was Roiphe’s The Morning After, the book she published in 1994 as a challenge to liberal ideas about rape and consent. It had pissed off a lot of people, including Baumgardner and Richards, who titled a chapter of their own book “Who’s Afraid of Katie Roiphe?” Lauren and I hated it just as much as we had planned to, writing a paper called “Why Would Anyone Be Afraid of Katie Roiphe?” which contained truly horrifying, caffeine-fueled sentences like, “In addition to her problematic reliance on an archaic inscription of femininity, Roiphe’s disavowal of her colleagues’ agency is unabashed,” and wore our presumptions on its sleeve.
We would have been truly confused to know that our simplistic arguments -- not to mention our writing -- would be laughable to us years later. Despite the embarrassing way we approached the subject, though, I still think we were basically right. The Morning After was a deeply flawed book, full of sweeping generalizations and privileged assumptions, and too satisfied by its own audacity. As time went on, Roiphe’s name continued to be synonymous with a certain kind of anti-feminism we thought was laughably transparent.
A few years later, I enrolled in a graduate program where (coincidentally) Roiphe was a popular professor. In my final semester, on the recommendation of nearly everyone I talked to, I took a class with her called “A Short History of Women Critics.” Sitting in a small classroom with the object of my feminist ire at 9:30 am didn’t result in any fireworks or implosions or radical shifts in perspective. It didn’t suddenly dawn on me that Katie Roiphe was a multidimensional person, that reducing people’s arguments to their most unsubtle parts was not worth all that much, or that Katie might have some worthwhile things to say about feminism. I knew most of that already. But it did feel satisfying in a quieter sort of way.
Katie was a really good teacher, smart and interesting and provocative when it came to the work of writers like Rebecca West and Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick and Joan Didion, and in pointing out what we might learn from them to use in our own writing. She knew how to push the envelope and get under people’s skin; she loved the word “polemic” and could write one in her sleep. After taking her class, I still thought The Morning After was terrible, but the summer before I’d been totally taken in by Uncommon Arrangements, her portrait of seven unconventional marriages between artsy types (among them Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, and Vanessa and Clive Bell). Still, at least one essay she wrote for Double X made me roll my eyes as soon as I saw the subhead (“Why won't feminists admit the pleasure of infants?”). It was confrontational in a way that felt conventional, and I was disappointed when the feminist blogosphere took the bait.
Years of reading feminist books in all kind of situations have left me as much of a feminist as ever, but I’ve gotten pretty tired of having the same arguments. Sometimes I think I’ll scream if I have to justify the relevance of young feminists’ perspectives yet again, prove that third wavers really are grateful for the strides made by our foremothers, and explain why it’s not the end of the world if Lady Gaga doesn’t call herself a feminist (and also why I love it when she does). That doesn’t mean I don’t think those questions are important, or that I won’t continue to read and rant about them in other places and conversations. But the fact that I think the answers are painfully obvious is a sign that it’s time to pass the torch.
Big thanks to Jessa and Michael, the many writers who keep Bookslut awesome, and everyone who read these columns over the years. You can find me writing about nostalgia for The Faster Times, and about other stuff at erynloeb.com.