The Debate Over Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism

Dear readers,

Below is a really long comment that I wrote about Jessica Valenti’s new book, Full Frontal Feminism, which sucks. It’s been sparking a lot of debate all over the blogosphere. Among many other things, a male-identified blogger named Queer Dewd has used my comments about it to try and get revenge for a debate he lost with me way back in January.

(Important update: girldetective has written one of the funniest feminist knockout punches, ever. It’s here.)

So, a couple of things. First of all, if you want some constructive feminism, do not pass go: go directly to BlackAmazon’s site or to Bitch Ph.D., or figure out a way to get brownfemipower back in the game. In general, if Queer Dewd is attacking somebody right now, they’re probably worth your time. Thus LittleLight.

If you want to see Truly Outrageous satirizing Valenti, and read the wonderful thread that hooked me into this, go here.

If you want to read the post that made Queer Dewd so angry, it’s here: “On Pitilessness.” If you want to read Queer Dewd losing the follow-up argument, go here.

A good night to you.

***

It’s ironic, but now the same thing is happening to these threads that was allegedly happening to Valenti’s book. They’re being characterized without being considered.

Of course it’s frustrating when a new work of unabashed feminism is the target of a lot of criticism from feminists. It’s frustrating — but not as much as the book itself. The criticisms are justified.

You write that the book is meant “to reach out to the younger women who have been scared away from feminism by the conservative backlash and an unsympathetic media.” But all your descriptions of the book emphasize its conversational style. That’s not much of a tactic. Conversational or not, a book that poses an ideological challenge to conservatives is still going to get ignored some places, attacked others. An unsympathetic media is going to latch onto things like Valenti’s tendency to swear, and they’re going to do it from a standpoint unsympathetic to feminism.

You write,

One of the major criticisms is that FFF is ‘fluffy.’ It’s fluffy, apparently, because Jessica curses, writes in a conversational style, and doesn’t introduce some new, ground-breaking piece of feminist thought. By cursing, she is apparently talking down to younger women.

The point is not that Valenti says “fuck.” In some other book, that might work for her. The point is that she uses phrases like “fuck it” or “fuck that” when she can’t figure out something better, which is apparently pretty often. For example, she writes,

And after marveling at the ridiculousness of things like the sexual double standard and the faux-sexy crap that’s forced down your throat, you just learn to say fuck it.

The funny thing about socialization is that if your best weapon against it is the phrase “fuck it,” the old double standards have a way of creeping back in. To be strong, you have to be articulate; to have options, you have to be able to name them.

At a lot of places in this post, you go after various kinds of supposedly inaccessible feminisms. This is one example:

Do I want people to be reading Angela Davis and Catherine MacKinnon and Helene Cixous and bell hooks and Judith Butler? Absolutely. But none of the previously mentioned are particularly good starting points. And we’ve gotta start somewhere. That’s what Jessica’s book offers — a gateway into feminism, a starting point for the unfamiliar, a way to make feminism accessible and relevant to women who otherwise would be turned off by it.

A lot of these are bad test cases. In order to understand Judith Butler, you have to be well-read in more than certain works of feminism; you have to have done some reading in postmodernism. But, more to the point, high school and early college is when a lot of women (and men) find their way to Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, and Virginia Woolf. In terms of Amazon.com sales, as I pointed out over at Truly Outrageous, both A Room of One’s Own and The Second Sex are holding their own with FFF, despite their venerable age.

Furthermore, a concerted effort has been made to make feminism appear both unhinged and ivory tower-ish. Think of all the movies and television shows where feminism is part of some awful seminar, and the protagonists are glad when the bell rings. Claiming that “Angela Davis isn’t a good starting point” for young feminists equals giving in.

Just as important as these authors, in more than one way, is Ani DiFranco. Ani, back in her glory days, had a huge, rabid, deserved fan base that included a lot of young listeners. She was conversational and foul-mouthed in her lyrics, but she was also as eloquent as she wanted to be. Ani was never forced into compromising the way Valenti did with this cover, because she went out and started her own fucking record company. And (as she’s reminded us in maybe one too many songs) it wasn’t particularly easy. Feministing is a good blog. It’s not beholden. So when I come across a piece of work that has been compromised, I feel no need to stand up and applaud.

So, fine, maybe there’s some resentment or some jealousy. Nothing new to see here. So come up with your own book idea.

First of all, anybody who can read the book has a right to praise or criticize it; anybody who has seen a picture of the cover has a right to judge that. That’s how it works with fiction, with pop culture, with nonfiction, and with books on feminism by Jessica Valenti.

Second, a lot of the impetus behind feminist blogging comes from a dissatisfaction with conventional media. It’s too conservative, too anti-democratic, too uni-directional (book and reader, instead of an open dialogue). The bloggers who are criticizing Valenti do have a different idea, and it’s called blogging. We all know that Valenti’s book comes pretty hard on the heels of her editorial calling for older feminists to make room, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that she means for her. Then a series of bloggers, all of whom are investing time into blogging networks, and often taking risks for the sake of that writing, are being told to keep quiet about an infuriating book unless they can get a publishing contract. A lot of them reject what that contract might force on them, in terms of style, content, and notoriety. A lot of them reject a top-down, hierarchical model of what feminist solidarity means. They’re making room, instead of telling others to get out of the way.

There isn’t anything in her book that anyone seems to disagree with — rather, people are objecting to what she left out, or how she presented the material.

These are two of the most important cultural objections in feminism: sexist societies leave things out all the time, or send mixed messages because of the way they present material. Something may claim to be “feminist,” or at least “empowering,” in order to raise sales or evade criticism. Valenti’s vague pronouncements frequently boil down to not taking shit and doing it your way, which is already an American mantra, and not empowering to anybody. She tells the whole story of “Boobgate,” which is specific to the point of being irrelevant, and then concludes, “So anyway, just wanted to point out that we’re all subject to this kind of bullshit all the time.” We still read de Beauvoir is because she can write sentences like this: “People confuse the free woman with the loose woman.” We still read Faludi because she writes, “In times of backlash, images of restrained women line the walls of the popular culture’s gallery. We see her silenced, infantilized, immobilized, or, the ultimate restraining order, killed” (from Backlash, p. 70). Where Valenti is self-absorbed, these writers are universal. Where she falls down into useless vagueness, they are precise.

***

Above all else: where is Valenti hiding? If these are in fact feeble criticisms made by intelligent people, she should have no problem changing minds, and there are numerous good reasons to reach out. It would be a service to these feminists, and a service to the book. She’s acting like royalty, and posts like these are encouraging her to keep it up.

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