Fluffy Feminism Redux

Last month, in one of HAT’s most commented posts, Lauredhel riffed off a trenchant criticism of the marketing around Jessica Valenti’s book Full Frontal Feminism to make some larger points about the common co-option of “sex-positive” feminism into the Feminist Sex Wars that perpetuate the sexist fuckable/unfuckable allocation of female value:

I’ve mentioned my dislike of the term “sex-positive” in my bio, but haven’t really elaborated. Here’s my take: Any set of ideas that insists that I affirm my personal sexual availability every time I talk about my politics, as not even a footnote but a mandatory adjective, is not for me. What’s liberatory about this? Are women to be freed of everything except their paramount sexbot role? “Sex-positive” functions like “pro-life”; it only serves to construct a false category of “sex-negative”, which is, of course, automatically “bad”. Consensual sex is lumped in with the worst of rape-roleplay and exploitative porn and everything in between, and those who are against some must of course be against the other in this particular binary. Why is one of the biggest divisions in feminism all about sex? Why are we categorising women using sexual attitudes as a primary descriptor? Whose hands are we playing into by maintaining this as our focus?

Lauredhel, not having read the book at the time, was very careful to point out how much she agreed with in Valenti’s Guardian article and other writings about feminism, and while she was critical of some of Jessica’s choices in presenting meaty feminist issues inside a fluffy “fun-feminist” frame as she promoted the book, Lauredhel didn’t descend into frenzied Jessica-bashing. There’s been many other criticisms of FFF since then, some more substantive than others, and sadly quite a few have indeed been frenzied bashfests of a woman who has done a hell of a lot for feminism just by founding Feministing, and she’s done a lot more than just online newsclearing – she lives an activist life. Not that doing some good things makes anyone immune from criticism over anything else they do that’s not so good, but it does help to keep some perspective.

Last week Jill of Feministe waded into the fray, loyally defending her friend and making some very good points about the nastier snipes in the commentary. Unfortunately, she let her emotions get in the way of a thorough and accurate analysis of some of the criticism of Jessica, and lumped in some critical posts that were not bashfests with some of the nastier bashfest posts. The comments erupted in acrimony. Piny rounded up links to substantive critiques of Jessica’s book in response to requests from that thread, and added some of her own thoughts.

Today Jill has apologised for fucking up. Go read it. The level of self-examination and honesty is powerful and so refreshing. Jill quite rightly still stands by her own criticisms of the actual bashfests, but fully acknowledges that many of the criticisms she linked to weren’t bashfests and that her post contributed to a sense of exclusion for already marginalised voices.

We so rarely see people with a public voice own up to fuckups and apologise clearly and with dignity. I’m very impressed. I do however have one caveat – as Jill points out, her reactions to what she reads are unavoidably coloured by being a middle class educated heterosexual white women, and that’s me as well – there are some things that simply aren’t immediately visible to us unless we listen to other voices about their experiences. So what do other feminists with different backgrounds and experiences feel about the various critiques of FFF, Jill’s initial response and now her clarification and apology? Does it work for you?

Categories: Culture, gender & feminism

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26 replies

  1. Well, good for her for apologising. I think the apology may have been much stronger if she hadn’t used the other 95% of her post as a defence of everything she wrote.
    She has missed the mark on one point about the marketing, I believe (I’m not commenting on the whole book):

    ”She does not try and draw lines between those old dowdy feminists and the shiny new hot girls.”

    Yet the book excerpt, right in the first chapter, reads:

    Most young women are feminists, but we’re too afraid to say it “” or even to recognize it. And why not? Feminists are supposed to be ugly. And fat. And hairy! Is it fucked up that people are so concerned about dumb, superficial stuff like this? Of course. Is there anything wrong with being ugly, fat, or hairy? Of course not. But let’s be honest: No one wants to be associated with something that is seen as uncool an unattractive.

    She goes on to say it’s not “wrong” to be UFH (which rankles also, because she assumes the position of Judge by doing this), but I think the damage is done, the stereotype is fixed, the lines are drawn. This happens again in the Guardian article, so it’s not a fluke, it’s a theme:
    “All the ugly stereotypes about feminists – that we’re hairy man-haters who hate sex – had permeated my consciousness and put me off entirely. […] Feminists do it better.[..] So much for that myth that feminists hate sex.”
    So perhaps being UFH and eschewing sex is not “wrong”, but it’s certainly not anything she wants to be associated with, and it’s not something she thinks any young woman wants to be anywhere near. That’s a line alright, and it’s well and truly drawn.
    Her repeated “No one wants X” trope is possibly what perhaps bothers me the most about the marketing and interviews I’ve read. Universalisation from her own highly privileged and specific experience is a very effective excluder and silencer – it doesn’t even say “I don’t want to listen to you” or “you’re not my target audience”, it says, “You don’t exist”.
    Another example people have picked up on is in this interview: “I’ve taken a lot of shit about the cover […] But let’s face it, no young woman is going to pick up a book with the woman’s symbol with a fist on it.”
    I addressed this briefly here, with a nod to the awesome All Girl Army.

  2. I think the apology may have been much stronger if she hadn’t used the other 95% of her post as a defence of everything she wrote.
    Ah well, putting on my hypothetical mindreading hat, I think Jill may have been attempting to write the post she felt she should have written in the first place there. It may have worked better if she’d done the apology and the reworking of the defence of FFF in two separate posts.
    Your other point about FFF appearing to perpetuate the divisive feminist stereotypes I agree with on what I’ve read so far, although I wonder whether perhaps, like Charles Darwin did in Origin of Species, she brings up these divisive stereotypes in order to effectively argue against them later in the book.

  3. Well, as a college age man, I’m certainly in no position (nor do I have a desire) to assess blame here, but I do have an observation and a question.
    I went to Cornell, which is the size of public school, but is in fact an Ivy League school. Even here, I think I can safely say that the vast majority of the women I met were stunned if I called myself a feminist, and simply confused if I called myself a feminist ally. And these were all smart, capable women. Certainly, there were also amazing women doing important work at the Women’s Resource Center and with events like Take Back the Night, but I’m assuming FFF is aimed at that well-educated afeminist majority.
    Clearly, this marketing scheme is one way of getting their attention, but it definitely seems to be reinscribing old stereotypes about feminists. Is there a less problematic way to get the attention of the sorority set? Or is the bottom line that we simply need to work harder to bring more minority and working class women into colleges (and thus into the discussion) in the first place?

  4. Good questions, Justin, and I don’t have good answers. I went to uni here in the early 80s before the backlash really took hold, so my experiences there aren’t really relevant. Although I’m getting more and more interested as my daughter and son get older.
    Also, despite the growing number of women receiving higher education, is reaching out to more college women and extending the college experience the only way to go? What about working class women and grassroots activism? It’s not just tertiary-educated households that have computers now, plenty of less-educated households have them too. Feminist blogs and other online forums are a great way to reach out to women outside the college set, and college-educated feminists are not necessarily best placed to lead that outreach.
    I get the feeling that Jessica’s book is mainly aimed at collegiate women because that’s the experience she has shared and can vividly describe her journey to feminism within. Did she ever claim that her book was meant to be a universal primer? She’s always described it as her love letter to feminism, what it’s done for her and what it could do for other young women who relate to her experiences. Obviously she’s personalised it, and done so in order to give the book a clear voice grounded in her own life, to give the reader a real person to relate to as she’s reading it. I can see the reasoning for that choice, and certainly it does limit the scope of the book, but was it ever realistic to expect that Jessica could/should write a book that spoke to/for every feminist idea?

  5. Feministing’s Celina has done an interview with Jessica about Full Frontal Feminism. [link]

    I wrote a very personal primer on feminism that I’m hoping will resonate with a lot of people, but I certainly don’t expect it to resonate with everyone. And that’s OK. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it or respond to every bad review or criticism that comes my way. That’s just not useful. But I have to say that I’m really proud of the book. It came from my heart and I wrote it with complete honesty and love of feminism””and I think that’s what going to get across most to readers.
    And at the end of the day, I’m really interested to hear what those readers think. While I’ve heard from some young women who found the book wasn’t for them, the majority of feedback I’ve gotten from women who have read the book has been overwhelmingly positive. One high school girl emailed me to tell me that she now calls herself a feminist because of the book and that she bought copies for all of her friends. Another young woman at a book event said she especially liked the book because she thought it was “homo-inclusive.” Things like that make everything worthwhile.

  6. I just picked up my copy and haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but in principal I very much agree with the above: it would be better to have a lot of very specific, very personal feminism primers than to spend a lot of time sniping about exclusions and minor problems.
    That said, where are the feminist books and blogs aimed at a non-academic working class women? I’m sure they are out there, I just haven’t found them yet. For many of my friends in Kansas college isn’t really an option, or even really a good idea, and it would be great to have resources which might help them get excited about feminism as well. Pandagon is probably a bit, well, acidic for their Midwestern working class taste.
    (Sorry, I know I’m skewing back towards ff101 territory)

  7. Why aren’t there working class feminist books and blog? Maybe because working class women can’t blog at work, and they don’t have cleaning ladies, and that doesn’t leave much time to chase a book deal.
    There is feminism at Trades Hall, but it’s pretty concentrated on protecting pay & conditions, rather than talking theory.

  8. Can I indulge in a moment’s peevulation about the term “theory whores”? Seriously, “theory whores”? In a thread thrashing out issues around divisiveness and dichotomies in the femiblogosphere?
    I don’t think all the thrashing is useless or trivial or petty, for what it’s worth. The most pressing issue in the world? No. A useful learning experience for quite a few people concerned? Probably. I know it has been for me. And I do admire the WOC and LGBT women who are chipping away at the wall bit by bit, though it must be as frustrating as all get-out. I’d like to see some other marginalised voices in the conversation: disabled women spring to mind.
    One more aside: in all these conversations about particular sets of taken-for-granted characteristics among A-list femibloggers, people have been reciting the litany: “white, skinny, educated, well-off”, yadda yadda. There’s been a rather striking absence of the term “American”. Striking to me, anyhow. Is nationality that invisible from within the Alistosphere? Or is citizenship and location swallowed up within the race aspect of the discussion, instead of separated from it? The conversation is littered with “across the country” type references that stand out like a sore thumb to me, but that no one else has remarked upon, as far as I can see. Any thoughts?
    [sorry about the length and fragmentary nature of this comment. It’s after midnight, I get rambly.]

  9. Yeah, “theory whore” is a rather breathtakingly stupid term.
    I really hadn’t thought of the nationality issue until you brought it up, but in retrospect it’s a large gap in the discussion.
    Perhaps part of the problem has to do with the ridiculous Catch-22 for women’s issues in Islamic countries. American feminists who voice complaints about their treatment, or who give platform to Middle Eastern feminists, risk being co-opted as war fodder by the neocrazies. And then, just because feminists refuse to say we should start more wars of aggression, you get disingenuous accusations from people like Christina Hoff Sommers that American feminists just don’t care about their Muslim sisters.

  10. ” It may have worked better if she’d done the apology and the reworking of the defence of FFF in two separate posts.”
    I couldn’t agree more, I’m with Lauredhel, I don’t think Jill’s apology was adequate because her first post was so obnoxious. Not only did she unfairly mischaracterize specific arguments (like for example, acting as if Dorothy’s an old fogey who’s going to get vapors if she hears someone cursing, when what she actually said was that she finds Jessica’s *use* of hackneyed phrases offputting), she recycled incipid cliche after incipid cliche, “making fun of those silly makeup wearing third wavers,” “Feminism, apparently, is not about making your life easier, it’s about wiping off that lipstick and looking grim and radical, damn it!”
    When she’s apparently looking in her own hate mail to find snappy insults and making up strawarguments to counter, I think a more specific, less self justifying apology is in order.
    But what do I know, I’m a freak of nature, apparently the only young woman on Earth who’d RUN to buy a book with the women’s symbol and a fist on it. 🙂

  11. I hate the 3rd wave vs 2nd wave shit as much as anyone, and I feel that simplistic stereotyping on both sides has really played into this bashfest. In part I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here in face of a really nasty blogstorm about this particular book, which so many people have blogged about without actually reading. But in part I’m looking at some of the criticisms that go beyond the book and into depersonalising Jessica as some sort of embodiment of everything that’s wrong with white liberal feminism, and I really don’t think that’s fair.
    I guess I’m going beyond just the fluffy feminism stuff here. I am remembering that she chose to roster that group blog with a very racially diverse group of feminist bloggers, not just fellow white collegiate types, so that Feministing would be an inclusive space. Samhita posted about that today, and how the attacks on Jessica as the “face” of Feministing are feeling to her as belittling and silencing her efforts there for the last two years.
    I may well eventually read the book and come back and recant every putative defence I’ve made of it here. But I won’t know until I read it.

  12. One more aside: in all these conversations about particular sets of taken-for-granted characteristics among A-list femibloggers, people have been reciting the litany: “white, skinny, educated, well-off”, yadda yadda. There’s been a rather striking absence of the term “American”.
    Yes. I noticed it ever since I started reading those blogs from over a year ago. Well, most American blogs actually, I often think “hello ? the other 95% of the world’s population are out here, hello ?”
    I have more thoughts on this whole thing, will try and come back with it later.

  13. Thanks therealuk, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  14. re: Americanness:
    I’m from the US, but AFAIK this book is largely being marketed in the US (although I know that Jessica has blogged at The Guardian). And I also think that most of the WOC who are angry about the book are American, too. There are a few WOC (non-US) blogs around, but I think most WOC blogs *are* American and probably a bit guilty of being America-centric. That being said, one thing that I love about the feminist blogosphere is that I get to have fantastic discussions about feminism with women from other countries, who I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise.

  15. “American” works a bit the same way as “white” and “male” and “able-bodied”: in the blogosphere, it’s the un-marked attribute.
    Within that world, bloggers are either just bloggers, or bloggers with a nationality that isn’t American.

  16. I’m looking at some of the criticisms that go beyond the book and into depersonalising Jessica as some sort of embodiment of everything that’s wrong with white liberal feminism, and I really don’t think that’s fair.

    I think you’re right about that. But I also think it’s a predictable result of how Jessica’s handled the kerfuffle.
    It’s been my experience in multiracial progressive organizing that the one thing a white person has to do when he or she winds up on the hotseat is demonstrate early and emphatically that he or she “gets it.” You can disagree with a particular criticism, you can reject a particular premise, you can push back against a particular detractor, but first you have to demonstrate that you have a handle on the very real problems of white racism and white privilege. If you can accept and validate some portion of the criticism in a generous, thoughtful way, so much the better.
    I haven’t been following this dustup in huge detail, but I get the strong impression that Jessica didn’t do that, and I can see with my own eyes that Jill didn’t.

  17. I very much see your point, Brooklynite. I don’t have much to add to it, but I didn’t want to just leave it hanging there.

  18. I’ve just been reading a couple of responses to this episode of dissension over at Feline Formal Shorts. They’re very much worth reading for her in-depth breakdown of some of the issues, of some of the sources of conflict; and she goes off in the direction of contemplating Anti-Racism 101, which is interesting stuff.

    “I really shouldn’t get into this”

    ”Oh good gracious”
    ”Dynamics of Oppression”
    ”Who gets to have an opinion?”
    and ”Here we go again.”

  19. More links.
    One of the things women keep telling men when men are talking over them, trying to talk for them, attempting to defend themselves when they are being clearly told their actions and words are sexist, is “Listen”. “Shut up, and just listen”.
    Women of colour are telling white women the same thing. It’s up to us to decide how to respond to that.

    I mean for me one thing that was accomplished was that it has exposed just how little regard or close attention is paid to what certain women say. It also added one more site to places I don’t feel comfortable commenting on. […]
    It’s about that when we went and we’ll be over here the people most likely to chastize obfuscate and try and infringe on us without even considering how we feel are WOMEN.


    Having said that, I personally (other woc bloggers have their own opinions) take issue with the idea that “intersectionality” and “inclusivity” are in anyway linked.
    In short, women of color are brought up lots and lots of times as a part of the “problem”””but we are patently ignored as “not part of the target audience” when it comes to solutions.


    It’s just like a young woman told me after I took that Philosophical Issues in Feminism class, and I raised my hand to ask what about us? What about young black women and Latinas and Asian women and Native American women and lesbians of all colors and poor women of all colors? I said, there’s likely not going to be any great advances for “women” until we tackle the system that makes all these other things possible. What are we supposed to do in the meantime if these issues of cosmetic surgery and choosing stay-at-home motherhood over white-collar jobs really don’t include us? And this young woman “” one of the ones who proudly told the class the first day that she thought feminism was irrelevant and she felt like she didn’t need it because she felt empowered, human, and whole “” this young woman told me, “Yes, that stuff is important, but you see, we have to deal with these issues first.”

  20. I’ve been catching up on reading a lot of those and others from Piny’s roundup as well, Lauredhel. It’s very illuminating. As usual when listen, I see a whole pile of perspectives that I’d previously missed.

  21. I’ve read some really interesting and insightful criticisms of the various attitudes taken during the general blogspat. The ones about racial criticisms taken out of context within a general feminist space, the various demands of the nature of discourse within various spaces, etc. Its certainly been a learning experience, and not all I’ve learnt has been pretty.
    Most of the criticisms of the book itself I do find unsatisfying — so many of them seem to be either “this book isn’t all things to everybody”, or “I’d have written it differently, and aimed it at a different audience”. Both of which are perfectly valid reviews, but not terribly useful as criticism. And the few that do seem to be making more insightful criticism (of which there are certainly some) are largely lost in the noise.
    The Right at its worst is an echo-chamber. The Left at its worst dissolves into omni-critique.

  22. The ones about racial criticisms taken out of context within a general feminist space,

    Can you explain this one to me please, David? I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Thanks.


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