Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Case Against Contemporary Feminism

It’s the same with feminism as it is with women in general: there are always, seemingly, infinite ways to fail. On the one hand, feminism has never been more widely proclaimed or marketable than it is now. On the other hand, its last ten years of mainstream prominence and acceptability culminated in the election of President Donald Trump. (The Times published an essay at the end of December under the headline “Feminism Lost. Now What?”) Since November 9th, the two main arguments against contemporary feminism have emerged in near-exact opposition to each other: either feminism has become too strict an ideology or it has softened to the point of uselessness. On one side, there is, for instance, Kellyanne Conway, who, in her apparent dislike of words that denote principles, has labelled herself a “post-feminist.” Among those on the other side is the writer Jessa Crispin, who believes that the push to make feminism universally palatable has negated the meaning of the ideology writ large.

Crispin has written a new book-length polemic on the subject, called “Why I Am Not a Feminist,” in which she offers definitions of feminism that are considerably more barbed than the earnest, cheeky slogans that have become de rigueur—“The future is female,” for example, as Hillary Clinton declared in her first video statement since the election, or “Girls just want to have fun-damental rights,” or “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” The dissidence at the root of these catchphrases has been obscured by their ubiquity on tote bags and T-shirts, and for Crispin the decline of feminism is visible in how easy the label is to claim. Feminism, she tells us, has become a self-serving brand popularized by C.E.O.s and beauty companies, a “fight to allow women to participate equally in the oppression of the powerless and the poor.” It’s a “narcissistic reflexive thought process: I define myself as feminist and so everything I do is a feminist act.” It’s an “attack dog posing as a kitten,” and—in what might be Crispin’s most biting entry—a “decade-long conversation about which television show is a good television show and which television show is a bad show.” (...)

Crispin’s argument is bracing, and a rare counterbalance; where feminism is concerned, broad acceptability is almost always framed as an unquestioned good. “Somewhere along the way toward female liberation, it was decided that the most effective method was for feminism to become universal,” Crispin writes. And the people who decided this “forgot that for something to be universally accepted, it must become as banal, as non-threatening and ineffective as possible.” Another, and perhaps less fatalistic, way of framing the matter: feminism is a political argument of such obvious reason and power that it has been co-opted as an aesthetic and transformed into merchandise by a series of influential profiteers. (...)

Here, and in some other places where Crispin’s argument requires her to take a precise measure of contemporary feminism, she—or this book’s production schedule—can’t quite account for the complexity of the times. From 2014 to 2016, I worked as an editor at Jezebel, a site that, when it was founded, in 2007, helped to define online feminism—and served ever afterward as a somewhat abstracted target for women who criticized contemporary feminism from the left. These critics didn’t usually recognize how quickly the center is always moving, and Crispin has the same problem. Much of what she denounces—“outrage culture,” empowerment marketing, the stranglehold that white women have on the public conversation—has already been critiqued at length by the young feminist mainstream. Her imagined Dworkin-hating dilettante, discussing the politics of bikini waxing and “giving blow jobs like it’s missionary work,” has long been passé. It’s far more common these days for young feminists to adopt a radical veneer. Lena Dunham’s newsletter sells “Dismantle the Patriarchy” patches; last fall, a Dior runway show included a T-shirt reading, “We Should All Be Feminists.” (The shirt is not yet on sale in the United States; it reportedly costs five hundred and fifty euros in France.) The inside threat to feminism in 2017 is less a disavowal of radical ideas than an empty co-option of radical appearances—a superficial, market-based alignment that is more likely to make a woman feel good and righteous than lead her to the political action that feminism is meant to spur.

The most vital strain of thought in “Why I Am Not a Feminist” is Crispin’s unforgiving indictment of individualism and capitalism, value systems that she argues have severely warped feminism, encouraging women to think of the movement only insofar as it leads to individual gains. We have misinterpreted the old adage that the personal is political, she writes—inflecting our personal desires and decisions with political righteousness while neatly avoiding political accountability. We may understand that “the corporations we work for poison the earth, fleece the poor, make the super rich more rich, but hey. Fuck it,” Crispin writes. “We like our apartments, we can subscribe to both Netflix and Hulu, the health insurance covers my SSRI prescription, and the white noise machine I just bought helps me sleep at night.”

That this line of argument seems like a plausible next step for contemporary feminism reflects the recent and rapid leftward turn of liberal politics. Socialism and anti-capitalism, as foils to Donald Trump’s me-first ideology, have taken an accelerated path into the mainstream. “Why I Am Not a Feminist” comes at a time when some portion of liberal women in America might be ready for a major shift—inclined, suddenly, toward a belief system that does not hallow the “markers of success in patriarchal capitalism . . . money and power,” as Crispin puts it. There is, it seems, a growing hunger for a feminism concerned more with the lives of low-income women than with the number of female C.E.O.s.

The opposing view—that feminism is not just broadly compatible with capitalism but actually served by it—has certainly enjoyed its share of prominence. This is the message that has been passed down by the vast majority of self-styled feminist role models over the past ten years: that feminism is what you call it when an individual woman gets enough money to do whatever she wants. Crispin is ruthless in dissecting this brand of feminism. It means simply buying one’s way out of oppression and then perpetuating it, she argues; it embraces the patriarchal model of happiness, which depends on “having someone else subject to your will.” Women, exploited for centuries, have grown subconsciously eager to exploit others, Crispin believes. “Once we are a part of the system and benefiting from it on the same level that men are, we won’t care, as a group, about whose turn it is to get hurt.”

by Jia Tolentino, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Liang Sen Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux