While the world should certainly have respect for feminism, I’d like to see feminism have a little more respect for chaos and ambiguity.
The worst part about writing everything you’re about to read has been the ever-present thought, Please God, do not let Women Against Feminism think that I am even remotely on their side. I will never, ever, be “against feminism” — whatever that means. But I’d like to have a chat about it, a moment to engage in a little womansplaining.
My issues with an ascendant strain of feminism — wherein attacks and likes and tweets and retweets are substitutes for thought, and actually reading what someone wrote — did not begin with The Fault in Our Stars, but it’s a good place to start. Back in June, Slate published a piece about adults reading books meant for kids, making the case that we should read more sophisticated, age-appropriate material. Three days later, Medium published a response entitled “Why Criticizing Young Adult Fiction is Sexist.” If irritation were fatal, I’d have perished where I sat.
But my patience with regard to other purportedly feminist issues had been tried in smaller ways.
Like last year, when Sheryl Sandberg declared that the word bossy needed to be reclaimed. #BanBossy, the moms on my Facebook feed chorused, bragging about how they were going to teach their daughters that being bossy was actually great. Now, there is a reasonable conversation to be had about how women’s assertiveness is not valued, but #BanBossy was not my idea of a conversation. It was a cheap commodification of something more complicated.
#BanBossy was just one of the feminist flavors on Facebook that I tasted and immediately wanted to spit out. There is also the persistent complaint about airbrushing in magazines, as if fashion magazines have ever promised to be a woman’s friend, as if someone were forcing us to buy them. I’m not a fan of airbrushing any more than I am a fan of violent pornography, but I refuse to be surprised or upset that it’s at the heart of the beauty industry, and I don’t look to Anna Wintour for my sense of self-worth. When Jezebel offered $10,000 for the unretouched photos of Lena Dunham’s photos in Vogue, I cried to the heavens, “Wake me up when it’s over.” My celestial alarm clock remains unrung.
The University of California, Santa Barbara, shooting was a rallying point for many feminists, but even as I watched Elliot Rodger on YouTube saying horribly misogynist things, I couldn’t get behind the idea that he’d done what he did because of an endemic hatred of women. My mind, skidding over the insanity, found traction on the issues of guns and deteriorating mental illness. But according to my social-media feeds, I had gone to the wrong place. “If you don’t think this is about misogyny there is something wrong with you,” proclaimed one status. After a Wall Street Journal opinion piece drew a psychological connection between the shooting and the entertainment industry, blame shifted haphazardly from the shooter to Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen.
The theme continued last month when Benjamin Wallace profiled Terry Richardson for New York magazine. (I know Wallace but have not seen him in more than 10 years). Whatever I think of Richardson, Wallace had written clearly and thoroughly about a complicated subject. His reporting had also uncovered new allegations. The headline —“Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” — seemed a reasonable way to suggest culpability without getting sued.
So I was surprised by the attacks on him. Guardian writer and feminist journalist Jessica Valenti tweeted, “Maybe Terry Richardson will lay off coercing girls now that he got such a huge BJ from NYMAG.” Jezebel reported that Wallace withheld portions of an interview with a source so he could “placate the powerful.” Really? Or was it possible that reporting and writing about a convoluted situation involving lots of people didn’t lead to simple conclusions? Of course a discussion about that wouldn’t be as exciting or as tidy as accusations of a hidden agenda.
In some ways, the tendency to see sexism everywhere is proof that feminism is healthy and vigilant, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, because misogyny is insidious and rampant. Fifteen hundred women are murdered each year by their male partners, 1 in 5 female students in the U.S. has been sexually assaulted during her college tenure, and women who write about such issues are stalked and threatened. Never mind the discrepancies in the workplace or household. We need feminism. Still, the pain that we experience as women — even physical — does not give us the right to tell people there’s one way to think or feel, or to assume that we have some godlike understanding of everyone’s motivations. Believe me, I have walked out of at least one Judd Apatow movie because I didn’t enjoy his female characters, but I do not believe the man belongs anywhere near a conversation about mass murder.
A few months ago, I read Nassim Nicholas Talib’s The Black Swan. One passage in particular sticks with me: “Categorizing is necessary for humans, but it becomes pathological when the category is seen as definitive, preventing people from considering the fuzziness of boundaries, let alone revising their categories…” I think about what’s going on in Nigeria right now. Hundreds of girls have been kidnapped; less reported is that fact that their male counterparts have been murdered. #bringbackourgirls is effectively telling the majority of Americans the story of Nigeria — not because it is an accurate or complete story but because feminism helps us categorize and make sense out of what is actually chaos.
I have always called myself a feminist and have no plans to quit. But while I think that the world should certainly have respect for feminism, I’d like to see feminism have a little more respect for chaos and ambiguity. Right now we are in a loop of “This is good.” “This is bad.” “This person is sexist.” The Internet and its outrage machine are to blame for some of this lashing out. So is the human desire to lay blame, shouting “It is you who did this! You who thinks adults shouldn’t read teen books! You who make movies where not-so-hot guys get hot girls! You who wrote an article about a bad person and didn’t say he was as bad as I think he is!”
I think back to the Facebook comment about the Santa Barbara shooting: “If you don’t think this is about misogyny there is something wrong with you.” I suppose the thing that is wrong with me is that while I can’t escape the urge to categorize, I am aware of its potential to become pathological.