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Feminism Is a Failure, and Other Myths

A new book blames women and feminism for the lack of positive sexual female role models. But women aren't the problem.
 
 
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Every few years, feminism gets kicked up to marquee status under the rubric of having failed, like a stain-remover that just didn't do what it promised.

The media story goes like this: since feminism didn't provide equality, happiness or the perfect date, women are fleeing the feminist "lifestyle" in droves, taking their husbands' names, kvetching about catching a man, or rushing to show their breasts in a Girl Gone Wild video.

You hear about feminism's futility from obvious antifeminists such as Ann Coulter, but you also hear it, more provocatively, from women who aren't raving misogynists, such as Maureen Dowd, whose book of ambivalent observations on the liberated single girl's life has launched some heated conversations. And most poignantly, you hear the feminism-is-a-failure mantra from New York Magazine writer Ariel Levy, in her new polemic, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture , in which she argues that today's women have, in their thongs and stripper-wannabe antics, disappointed feminism.

Full disclosure: Levy refers to me in the book, and dismissively. Still, I was sympathetic, especially at first, to her and Dowd's feminist critiques. I can certainly relate to the fumblings of women as they negotiate their lives and relationships. Feminism has brought much coherence to my life, but in the complicated and often-awkward world of sex and desire, it has proved less useful. If pressed, I'd venture that at least half of my sexual experiences make me cringe when I think about them today. Taking top honors is the many times I made out with female friends in bars when I was in my early 20s, a rite of passage Levy much disdains throughout the book. I'm embarrassed about the kiss-around-the-circles, but if I didn't have those moments, I'm not sure I ever would have found my way to the real long-term relationship I have today. If all my sexual behavior had to be evolved and reciprocal and totally revolutionary before I had it, I'd never have had sex.

Still, Levy accurately points out the continued confusion around feminism and sex. Much as I fought it, though, there was a certain dissonance in my attempt to be a good, actualized feminist and my desire to still get the love and sexual attention I wanted. In college, I partied weekly at the same frats I would denounce in class as the center of date rape and misogyny.

Levy swings hardest at this conflict in her book, arguing that the daughters of feminism's second wave are eager to prove how beyond sexism they are, "making sex objects of other women -- and of themselves." These women, according to Levy, "think they are being brave... and funny" but Levy thinks "the joke is on them."

The book opens with a Girls Gone Wild video shoot, which is every bit as awful as you'd imagine. The formula for this reality video cash cow is to station a film crew at spring break locales where the alcohol is plentiful and the girls young, then egg the women on to show their breasts or thong-clad buns or to make out with female friends.

Levy then lists her compendium of raunch: female Olympic athletes posing nude for Playboy, the rise in breast implants and "vaginoplasty," and a spate of porn star memoirs including Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star . Levy argues that women embracing raunch means women accepting misogyny -- a premise that is powerful and, in a way, true. But in exposing the permeation of porn in responsible society, she squashes all public displays of female sexuality into the box marked "objectification."

Female-run "Cake" parties are written off as cheesy fake lesbian performances for men in suits. Female-to-male transexuals are portrayed as wildly emulating the most crass and immature high school guys. She finds some depressing examples -- teen girls using the Internet to post photos of themselves fellating a Swiffer. And while Dowd's assumption is that feminism just isn't sexy, Levy's message seems to be that sex and sexiness can't be used by women -- only against them.

Levy is actually taking a strong stance in an old debate for feminists -- and her side is what was once called the anti-porn side. One famed example of this debate: On April 24, 1982, Barnard's Center for Research on Women hosted a sexuality conference that soon became infamous within the women's movement.

The radical feminist movement (the women that brought us the word "sexism," protests of Miss America, and changed the culture rapidly between 1968 and 1975) had succumbed to several splits (black-white, gay-straight, etc) and purges (Gloria Steinem accused of being in the CIA; any good public speaker accused of seeking "male privilege").

A new burning issue had emerged -- porn -- and feminist thinkers like Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller had created an organization to oppose it: Women Against Pornography. At the conference, women who believed the anti-porn feminists were censoring sexual freedom clashed with the women who believed we will never know what free female sexuality is as long as there is a base trade in women's flesh. Carol Vance, one of the initiators of the conference, wrote, "As individuals, our personal experience with and attitudes toward sexuality were diverse, but we all felt that this sort of feminist sexual politics was problematic: first because sexuality confronted women with opportunities for pleasure as well as potential for danger."

The battles at this conference -- which by all accounts devolved -- set the stage for transgenderism, pro-sex feminism, and ongoing fights around whether women can be participants in public sexuality without being victims of it. But Levy doesn't refer to this decades-old conflict. Instead she writes as if there was once a good, clear feminism, and now there is an army of women who wax every hair on their nether regions and take cardio-striptease classes.

Levy writes: "Imagine how Susan Brownmiller must have felt. She had become engaged in the women's liberation movement when it was a unified, sure-footed quest for change, and suddenly she was in a maze of contradictions."

Not exactly true. Brownmiller entered as a writer when the movement was dominated by activists and generated much controversy herself; she was accused of trying to rip off the movement for personal gain. Part of the reason it appeared unified to her is that several of the earliest leaders (notably Shulamith Firestone, the author of The Dialectic of Sex and founder of several radical feminist groups) abandoned the movement when latecomers like Brownmiller joined and challenged some of the hegemony.

Unlike Susan Faludi or Naomi Wolf, who critique the way society has dealt with feminism, Levy places most of her blame on women, especially young women. Levy is particularly critical of Cake founders Emily Kramer and Melinda Gallagher, who host women-only parties in attempt to create a space for women to "explore, express and define sexuality for themselves." Levy writes: "If the whole point is change and redefinition, then I wonder why the Cake imagery is so utterly of a piece with every other bimbo pictorial I've seen in my life." Levy uses the same imagery on her cover -- without any ironic flourish -- which leads me to believe that she may suffer from the same conflicts she is so troubled by in others.

While Dowd's book has some feminists of my acquaintance furious ("I don't recognize the world she is describing at all," a 35-year-old editor at the Washington Post told me), Levy's is more dangerous. Intentional or not, Levy contributes to that mean finger, pointed only at girls, that says "You think you are being sexy, you think you're cool and powerful, but you're not. You're a slut and people are making fun of you."

Feminism has given me a powerful lens with which to view the world. What I needed as a young woman, and what I think women need now, are not more critics shaking their fingers, but more models and examples of the free, powerful sexuality that Levy says she advocates.

Jennifer Baumgardner is the co-author of "Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism" and "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future." This article is part of her exclusive monthly series of articles for AlterNet on gender, culture and reproductive rights.