Anyone who’s been reading the feminist blogs in the past week knows that we’ve come dangerously close to forming the proverbial circular firing squad. The issue this time is Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism.
For some background, see Jill here and here, and Piny here (both at Feministe). If you read Piny’s post, you’ll see that she has posted links to many of the most prominent negative reactions to the book. They’re worth a read.
I reviewed Jessica’s book two weeks ago, and gave it a enthusiastic endorsement. Indeed, I’ve made the decision to add FFF (as it is now widely abbreviated) to my women’s studies course syllabus beginning with the fall semester. I think it’s that good and that important.
The bulk of the negative reaction seems to focus on two things: some feminists are troubled by what they perceive as the “breeziness” of Jessica’s text. It seems too chatty, too informal, and too frequently punctuated by profanity. Others, more troublingly, accuse Jessica of ignoring or underplaying the important role of women of color in the feminist movement. FFF, it seems, comes across as too white. Blackamazon’s ringing denunciation came here, and I quote it because it seems typical of most of the criticisms I’ve seen:
As a 22 year old women reading this book , I felt disrespected. As a teacher of nearly 9 years especially of “at risk ” youth, I was appalled.
Young women do not need friends who reduce their problems with feminism to some issue with the coolness factor.
The definitely do not need it from people who would choose a very specific half naked torso and various approximations of Valley girl lingo .
I am a young woman who is NOT a feminist. I am a young woman who is one of many young women who has disagreed ,disengaged, delinked, and been disrespected by many of the feminist sisterhood.
I am part of a much longer line of women who has been caricatured, stolen from, and used.
So I reread much of FFF over the past couple of days. And frankly, I don’t think the criticism is warranted. Of course, I’m a moderately privileged heterosexual white man, so perhaps my ability to sense the “silencing” of women of color is inherently suspect. But Jessica has her numerous defenders among young women of color, not least among them her colleagues at Feministing like Samhita and Celina. Samhita has an anguished post up today, decrying the way in which some of Jessica’s critics have silenced her and other women of color who have embraced FFF.
I’m late to this battle, but I’ll weigh in once again with an emphatic defense of the book. I may be white and male and middle-aged and middle-class and married to a woman in blissful heterosexual privilege, but dang it all, I do know a thing or two about teaching young people of color. Community colleges are ladders into the middle class; they are intellectual reception centers for those who have no other gateway into academia. In my women’s history class, my students are overwhelmingly female (not surprising), and overwhelmingly women of color. The majority are first-generation college students. Few come to the class knowing much of anything about feminism, and what they have heard has left them suspicious and doubtful about its relevance to their own lives.
I do not expect my students to read Full Frontal Feminism and accept it as gospel. It has a colloqial, even confrontational style that invites debate and discussion. It’s feminist apologetics at its best, and as someone who is fond of good Christian apolegetics, I think there’s a lot to be said for a text that makes an impassioned (yet often humorous) appeal for folks to abandon their skepticism. I like to think of Jessica Valenti as the Max Lucado or Lee Strobel of contemporary feminism, and I can only hope that her work (both FFF and whatever she produces in the future) will have as powerful an impact on the cause of gender justice as the work of Lucado and Strobel has had in spreading the gospel. (I suspect I’m one of the few people out there who reads both Jessica Valenti and Max Lucado. All others, raise your hands.)
Why have FFF on the syllabus? My course in women’s history deals with both past and present; in the latter part of the class, we ask whether feminism continues to be relevant for young women. I don’t grade my students on their feminism; I do, however, expect them to be able to understand what feminism really is, distinguished from the distortions created by popular culture. The stereotype that feminism is a “white thing” is as much a misrepresentation as the notion that all feminists don’t wear bras. While it is true that the contributions and concerns of women of color have been marginalized in both academic and political feminism, we’ve collectively come along way towards integration. Feminism has never had so many powerful non-white, non-heterosexual, non-able bodied, non-middle-classes voices. Can we do better? Sure. Could Jessica’s book have done better? I don’t think so. It’s pretty darned inclusive as it is.
I gave a copy of FFF to a former student of mine last week. She’s 20, Latina, daughter of Mexican immigrants. English is her second language. She said she was a bit put off by the profanity, but otherwise loved the book. She’s getting a copy for her younger sister, still in high school. (And unlike me, she was utterly untroubled by the cover. While I wondered about objectification, she saw assertiveness and power.) She endorsed wholeheartedly my decision to assign the book to my future students. “It explains why feminism still matters for everyone”, she said. Good enough for me.
Part of being committed to social justice — particularly as a feminist and as a Christian — is learning to not only listen to criticism, but to really hear it. The left is famous for its internecine wars; in the feminist world, the most common accusations are of “privilege”, “insensitivity”, and “marginalization.” All of us who are committed to gender justice understand that an atmosphere of honest dialogue and accountability is important. As we build and expand a movement, it’s vital that no group gets left behind. But at times, as in any family, the criticism of our loved ones is harsher and uglier than the criticism of our actual opponents. This has been an ugly week in the feminist blogosphere, with many folks feeling exasperated, misrepresented and hurt.
Here’s hoping we can get our eyes back on the prize.
UPDATE: This thread is limited to feminist or pro-feminist commenters — or, at the least, those who are not generally hostile to feminism. When we’re having a family squabble, those who are generally our ideological opponents are unlikely to promote much healing.