Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jessica Valenti is my feminist icon (but I still like Carrie Bradshaw)

I've been singing Jessica Valenti's praises since I first picked up her book Full Frontal Feminism in 2007. I bought it, went home, read it cover-to-cover, and thought, "At last! I've found her! My feminist self!"

She was funny. She was realistic. She said 'fuck' (a lot). But mainly, she was dead fucking on. As I blogged for The Bloomington Alternative after first discovering Valenti:
"The writing is accessible, funny, full of the actual f-word and other profanities, but most importantly, right to the point. She’s not talking strictly to heterosexual, white females; she recognizes that men also face sexist standards; and she addresses issues that young women deal with on a daily basis, whether we’re conscious of it or not."
Finally, I had found my brand of feminism. I was already a dedicated Bitch magazine reader; I'd taken a gender studies course or two; I had read plenty of feminist lit. Yet still not one feminist voice had completely struck a chord with me since my mother, the ultimate and initial feminist force in my life, had passed away in 2002. Valenti was speaking my language. I was in love.

Soon, I was jumping full-force into feminism in a way I never quite had before. I bookmarked Feministing, the blog Valenti founded, on both my home and work computers, and began telling anyone and everyone who would listen about it. I began paying attention to the news, advertisements, and pop culture in a way I never quite had before—and began blogging about it more and more. When I was interning for In These Times last fall, I suggested interviewing Valenti for a Web feature, "20 Questions," and actually squealed when I saw a reply email from her in my inbox. (I didn't actually interview her ultimately, but ITT did run the piece.)

In the last year, I really feel like I've grown into my feminist identity, and I have Valenti to thank for a lot of that. But my feminist identity started at a young age, with my mother constantly expounding feminist rhetoric my way (even if I didn't recognize it as such). I'd be remiss if I also didn't mention my father's role in shaping me as a feminist. He might not use the F-word directly, but damn if he isn't more of a feminist than some of the women I know. Not only did I get a first-hand glimpse of male-female relationships with an equal power balance from witnessing his relationship with my mom, he was always (if not so loudly as my mother) vocal that I could do anything a boy could do. I didn't realize until I was an adult how big of an influence that had, and continues to have, on the way I view relationships and my world in general.

And this is another reason why I so quickly fell in love with Valenti's brand of feminism: She got it! Men are feminists too! As she wrote in Full Frontal Feminism, "The same social mores that tell young women that they should be good little girls are telling guys to be tough, to quash their feelings, and even to be violent. Their problems are our problems, ladies. Men aren't born to rape and commit violence. Men aren't naturally 'tougher' emotionally. These gendered expectations hurt men like they hurt us."

Exactly. If more young men knew that feminists held this viewpoint, I think we'd have a lot more men claiming to be feminists, as well. I'm not a feminist because I want to be treated better than a man. I'm a feminist because I want to be treated equally to a man. And that means, as a feminist and a woman, I need to pay attention to sexism on both ends of the spectrum. One of my favorite fellow feminists who has always understood this is my older brother Jay (after all, we had the same kickass feminist parents). Thanks to his psychology training and education, he articulates this idea better than I can quite often.

How could I have a feminist icon that wouldn't include Jay in the picture? Valenti wrote, "Can men be feminists? Hell yeah; I've been lucky in my life to be surrounded by feminist men (hi, Dad!), and I see the difference it makes, so I'm all for men joining in on the fun, and I believe we need male allies."

I couldn't agree more.

But in recent months, I've come to a somewhat refreshing realization: I don't always completely agree with Valenti (or the other bloggers at Feministing, or the bloggers at Bitch). And THAT'S OKAY. It doesn't make them "better" feminists than me or vice versa. Maybe it just means that we're all allowed to disagree once in awhile.

A few months ago, I wrote an admittedly snarky blog post in response to Bitch's blog post review of the movie "Jennifer's Body." Imagine my complete and utter shock when Kelsey Wallace, Bitch's Web Editor, responded in the comment thread! Heart pounding, I read her comment, which read as follows:

"As the web editor for Bitch, I can tell you that we were thinking that 'Jennifer's Body' was written/directed by women, lots of our readers wanted to see it (and hear our thoughts on it), and we figured we'd do a quick "review" to let them know it didn't live up to our feminist standards. Sorry if the post didn't live up to yours, but I don't think that warrants your questioning of our feminism or abilities as bloggers."

Yikes! I felt like I'd been caught by my feminist teachers, flashing a crowd at a Chris Brown concert. I wasn't quite sure what exactly I'd done, but I knew I'd fucked up. Wait...Did I? Sure, I was snarky, and I hated on their post, but I certainly hadn't intended to question anyone's feminism (or abilities as bloggers, for that matter). I LOVE Bitch magazine. But I disagreed with them one time, and now I felt, by the defensiveness of her comment, that I had been blacklisted. I read and re-read my post, trying to determine where I'd gone wrong. I was dismayed. I contemplated emailing Wallace an explanation.

But then I realized: What the fuck? If any other person had responded to my post in a similar fashion, I would have gotten my gloves out and started swinging. Come on. I mean, I love President Obama, but that doesn't mean I never disagree with him. If, as feminist bloggers, we can't take criticism from each other (and in the future, my criticism will be more constructive and much less snarky) how will we take it from those who completely disagree with our views? We can't just love on one another all the time.

Although I've yet to completely disagree with anything Valenti writes, I do, from time to time, see where our viewpoints differ. For example, in her post, "Carrie Bradshaw isn't my feminist icon," a response to Naomi Wolf's article claiming the fictional character of Carrie Bradshaw as the feminist icon of the decade, Valenti hates on this idea left and right:

"But this is also the same series that told a story to its young viewers of women whose primary life concerns were men and shopping. A show with nary a person of color in sight (unless as backdrop or sassy assistants). A show that depicted a New York City of wealth, luxury and privilege – certainly not the city I knew and grew up in.

After all, it wasn’t equality or politics that SATC made popular (unless you count the episode where Carrie dates a political candidate who likes to be peed on) – it was Manolos.

Is this really what we want to call a feminist milestone?

I understand Wolf’s inclination to write the piece; I think pop culture is incredibly important and that writing about it can open up feminism to a more mainstream audience. And as Tracy at Broadsheet points out, Wolf is careful to write that Bradshaw 'did as much to shift the culture around certain women’s issues as real-life feminist groundbreakers.' (Emphasis mine) But when we give more power to fictional characters whose contribution to feminist discourse is questionable at best, we do a disservice to to the real feminist heroes out there."
Again, I'm with Valenti on this one—for the most part. For one, let's not call a fictional character the feminist icon of the decade. Christ. That's embarrassing. Especially one, who as Valenti points out, is largely concerned with men and shopping. However, though I'm often embarrassed to admit it (due to all these reasons Valenti states in her post), I'm a fan of "Sex and the City," and Manolos aside, Carrie Bradshaw and her posse were a cultural phenomenon, kicking the sexual double standard squarely in the balls and emphasizing friendship between four independent women. It wasn't always just about Manolos and men (in the series, if not the movie); in fact, I'd venture to say the characters' primary life concern was simply finding happiness, each in her own way.

But would I call Carrie Bradshaw the feminist icon of the decade?

Fuck no.

That accolade, in my book at least, goes to Jessica Valenti.


  1. Great post. This kind of thinking is what the feminist blogosphere needs.

    When writing to spread a message, I think the audience needs to feel respected, even if the part of the audience that might not be treating the words as gospel. Part of that respect would seem to come from allowing the reader to feel like they have the right to disagree in some ways without the writer automatically thinking they are an asshole, idiot, bigot, misogynist, etc.

    Never be afraid to intelligently disagree. Rigid groups of idealogues are dangerous even when well intended.

    Also, Sex in the City makes me want to throw up a little. What a typical man.

  2. Aw, thanks for this! And I think you're so right about the importance of disagreement and debate. That's what feminism SHOULD look like; that's how we move forward - challenging each other. Besides, there's never been one "true" or "right" feminist platform, feminists are too different for that!

    Anyway, thanks again. :)

  3. You are very welcome! Thanks for reading/commenting!

    And Jay, I'm getting you the Sex and the City series as a wedding gift. Enjoy.

  4. Hmmm... I just wonder whether or not Valenti has appeared in public enough to claim ICON status. Gloria Steinem is still out there swinging, appearing on Bill Maher and The L Word, etc. I read a little blurb in The New York Times Magazine, a Q&A with Valenti, a few weeks ago. I guess I just don't know her enough to consider her as our new ICON. Of course, what does "our" mean when the feminist movement is quite fractured.

    And I'm with you about the lack of back and forth on some blogs. My blog is small - just me - and I get lots of hits some days but no comments. I really want comments - snarky or otherwise - so that I can challenge and shape my views. Where do you recommend I go for the meat of the feminist discussion that's online? Feministing is overwhelming to me. I want something a bit more intimate. I need to stay away from radical feminist blogs, however. I've read enough cruelty therein to last a lifetime!

    Back to Valenti, it is my task to learn more about her, I suppose. Perhaps, I secretly want to be the next icon myself. ;) Don't you?

    The challenge for any woman we elect as such is that she has the almost impossible job of managing celebrity and what our superficial culture requires of such people, while still trying to remain true to the cause. For instance, the ICON can't be anorexic. That would defeat the purpose of fighting for women's happiness: demonstrating that thin is the only kind of beautiful. But if she's not thin, how many women and men, beyond those of us Internet philosophers, will listen to and read what she produces?

  5. Alison,

    I totally agree. Debate is always important, even (especially?) in the feminist blogosphere. And don't worry, you have not been blacklisted :)

    Thanks for this post!

  6. @Kelsey: WHEW! Thanks for coming back and reading this post.

    I really enjoyed your post covering the decade in feminist pop culture--an overwhelming topic to tackle, for sure!

    If the rest of you haven't seen it, check it out.

    @femspotter: I would def recommend checking out any and all of Valenti's books to learn more about her, or, if Feministing is a tad overwhelming, go to Valenti's site for some good reads.

    I mainly get my feminist daily fix by going to Feministing, Bitch blogs, Feministe, and Salon's Broadsheet, but am always searching for a new one!

    I agree with you about Steinem, and she is certainly a role model of mine. Valenti speaks to me more as an icon for the younger generation of feminists,but I think it would be remiss for anyone to ignore Steinem's previous and continued work!

    And, regarding your comment about what our icon should physically look like, I'm so intrigued by that discussion that I think it warrants an entire blog post! Thanks for reading. I'm bookmarking your blog. :)

  7. Thank you, Chica! I'm curious what will come of this query: what are the physical and emotional parameters for a 21st Century feminist ICON who will have to appear on television regularly to keep our collective attention?

    I'm only 30 myself, so I'm definitely looking for a role model of my generation even though I think Steinem is a rock star!

    BTW - here's a recent Steinem interview in Smith (College) Alumnae Quarterly Magazine (see page 7) and there are several other interesting pieces by feminist Smith grads in there too.