Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I wish fake feminists would cut it out.

"You can't claim to be a feminist simply because you're a woman."--Julie Bindel

"There is no such thing as a bad feminist." --Jess McCabe

Being controversial may not always be fun, but it certainly guarantees that people will pay attention. This is exactly what happened with Double X, the new site launched by Slate earlier this month. Double X describes itself with a slight nod toward feminism without explicitly mentioning the dirty F-word itself:
Double X is a new Web magazine, founded by women but not just for women, that Slate launched in spring 2009. The site spins off from Slate's XX Factor blog, where we started a conversation among women—about politics, sex, and culture—that both men and women listen in on. Double X takes the Slate and XX Factor sensibility and applies it to sexual politics, fashion, parenting, health, science, sex, friendship, work-life balance, and anything else you might talk about with your friends over coffee. We tackle subjects high and low with an approach that's unabashedly intellectual but not dry or condescending.

Double X targets its demographic with both barrels smoking, presenting itself in pastels, pinks, and purples and offering stories on motherhood ( "Why are moms such a bummer?"), breast cancer ("Enough with patenting the breast cancer gene"), and first-person, "it-happened-to-me" testimonials (I Wanted to be Blondie. Now I Write for Colbert").

By now, it may be clear that this is not your mother's feminism. The site is playful, mouthy, and just a little self-indulgent--normally exactly my cup of tea, except...well, if you were, say, a 30-ish, self-described feminist living an out-of-the-mainstream lifestyle, you might be a little worried.

This is not necessarily about topic choices--it's about the fights Double X has picked in its opening weeks. As this Guardian article by Amelia Hill and Eva Wiseman points out, Double X galloped out of the gate, chasing down and pummeling the popular site Jezebel. In "How Jezebel is Hurting Women", Linda Hirshman explains that

[t]he Jezebels are clearly familiar with the rhetoric of feminism: sexism, sexual coercion, cultural misogyny, even the importance of remembering women’s history. But they are also a living demonstration of the chaotic possibilities the movement always contained.... From removing the barriers to women working to striking down the criminal laws against birth control and abortion, feminism was first and foremost a liberation movement. Liberation always included an element of sexual libertinism. It’s one of the few things that made it so appealing to men: easy sexual access to women’s bodies. (And to their stories about sex, which helps explain why 49 percent of Jezebel’s audience is men.)

But unregulated sexual life also exposes women to the strong men around them, and here, the most visible of the Jezebel writers reflect the risks of liberation.... How can women supposedly acting freely and powerfully keep turning up tales of vulnerability—repulsive sexual partners, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, even rape? Conservatives have long argued against feminism by saying women are vulnerable, and we need to take care of them. Liberals say there’s no justification for repressing sexual behavior.

The Guardian article highlights the conflict that has erupted out of this attack (Jezebel, of course, struck back, prompting a response from Double X...there is, so far, no end in sight), pointing to the heart of the issue: A struggle over how to define feminism in 2009.

It's a struggle that strikes close to my heart, as I see the term, if not the ideals, taken up in disheartening, even terrifying ways by friends and colleagues. Men calling themselves feminists push for "open," commitment-free relationships, since "that's what women want." Women shove their way to the top of corporations at the expense of (male and female) coworkers, and proclaim victory in the name of feminism.

For that matter: Women who call themselves feminists and push for "open," commitment-free relationships, and men shoving their way to the top of corporations at the expense of (male and female) coworkers.

It's no wonder so many young women and men are so loath to consider sexism as an ongoing issue: Feminism has been co-opted in vile ways for the purpose of self-advancement. Why would anybody want to associate with a movement whose name is responsible for so much abominable behavior?

Feminism, at its heart, is not about political justification of personal behavior. At its very best, feminism is about setting aside petty personal interests and considering what's best for an entire culture--and considering the best approaches for making the kinds of changes that will enable this culture to emerge. The Double X-Jezebel debate threatens to obscure this larger point beneath vitriol and, on the part of anti-feminist observers, the most loathsome kind of schadenfreude.


ZedWord said...

I don't necessarily see the evidence that "Feminism has been co-opted in vile ways for the purpose of self-advancement"

Also, I sense an undercurrent of vilification regarding open relationships that I think is undeserved and implicitly supports / validates hetero-normative monogamy.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Oooh, way to call me out on the mat! I agree with your second point; as for your first, I will gather further evidence in order to more fully convince you that this is happening.


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