Full Frontal Feminism
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Editor's Note: An excerpt from Full Frontal Feminism follows the interview.
As executive editor of the popular blog Feministing.com ("by and for young feminists"), Jessica Valenti has schooled millions of readers on the issues that affect everyday women. Her cadre of feisty female bloggers cover everything from breaking news (the heartbreaking federal abortion ban) to pop culture indignities (sexism in reality TV) with smarts, passion and political aplomb.
As the public face of Feministing, 28-year-old Valenti has helped bring third-wave feminism to the masses. But she doesn't only want to reach the stereotypical feminist suspects (women's studies majors and middle-aged, middle-class white women). In her new book, " Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters," Valenti hopes to pass the political torch to younger women who might feel and act like feminists but be too freaked out to call themselves that. The book is written in a light, sometimes sarcastic tone that aims to make women's rights cool again -- to make feminism a lifestyle as well as a movement.
AlterNet spoke with Valenti via telephone.
Why was writing this book important to you?
It was a natural extension of the stuff I've been doing at Feministing. I've wanted to write something like this for a long time. It was a book I wish I had when I was in high school. So much feminism out there isn't accessible to younger women who aren't in women's studies classes. I [see the book as] a fun, easy intro for younger women who might buy into the stereotypes; something really accessible that girls can talk about with their friends ... So many young women are afraid to get involved in politics; they think they don't know enough to get involved. They have the views but don't have the language.
So you mainly wrote the book for young women who aren't necessarily politically active?
Yeah, I'd say so. But I hope the book will be a refresher for women who already think of themselves as feminists.
Why do you think so many young women hesitate to call themselves feminists?
I think younger women have bought into the stereotypes because the stereotypes are so intense and pervasive. I think most younger women have feminist values; that's where the whole "I'm not a feminist, but ..." syndrome comes in. The language and the word [scares women away from using it]; that's how effective anti-feminist rhetoric has become. It's strategic; they're trying to keep you away from something. What's the best way to keep young women away from something? To tell them it's ugly and uncool, and that boys won't like them if they do it. We need to frame it as someone trying to pull the wool over young women's eyes, or get one over on them.
When did you first start identifying as a feminist? Have you always been politically active?
I've always been a feminist, but I didn't have the language to say so. My mom was a feminist. I didn't start identifying as a feminist until college, in women's studies classes. I was afraid to identify as a feminist at first, partly because I was [afraid of] people confronting me about it, asking what it meant. Then, in college, it was a feeling like 'I wish I had known about this, or gotten involved in this, earlier.' It would have affected my life.
In high school, I talked about feminist issues with my friends, and we were politically active in the ways that high schoolers are. But when you're a younger woman who is loud and opinionated, speaks her mind and is candid, you fall into the trap of believing people when they say you need to quiet down, be ladylike and not talk so much. Finding something that told me it was OK to be loud and candid would have been positive ... something that validated who I was.
What are the three feminist issues you're most passionate about today, and why should people care about them?
The idea of the care crisis: childcare and work/life issues. For younger women, that hasn't been as much of a political priority. It needs to start with younger women, though, instead of us worrying about it later on ...
Also violence against women, which has become so normalized that I find it intensely disturbing.
Also close to my heart is the sexual double standard, and how that affects younger women when it comes to repro rights and violence against women. The abstinence-only education thing falls into that, as well ... the idea that women shouldn't like sex; creating legislation that enforces traditional gender roles, or legislation that says that women shouldn't have a say over what happens to their own bodies ... like the case where the girl was gang raped on video in California.
What's one of the more outrageous or scary pieces of information or research you came across while writing this book?
I don't think anything was that shocking to me. But if you've been posting about different issues every day, writing about this stuff on a bigger scale is intense and horrifying. You'd like to think we had come so far, but as I was putting the book together I was like, "Jesus Christ, this is depressing."
How bleak is our reproductive rights climate right now, and what can we do to change it?
It's really bleak. It's insanely bleak. It's not just about Roe anymore. The different kinds of legislation going on in different states is terrible ... it's become a slippery slope -- not just about abortion but about contraception and pregnant women. Anti-choice laws are going to affect all women, not just women who want to have abortions, but also those who want to have babies. Like that [health provision] last year stating that women should treat themselves as pre-pregnant. It's become a slippery slope, using reproductive rhetoric to slowly chip way at women's rights -- all of our rights.
Are you hopeful that things will change for the better in 2008?
I try to remain optimistic. It's hard when you're writing about this stuff every day, but doing Feministing helps keep me positive about the future. So many people are writing in and doing stuff on a grassroots level to make change in their communities ...
What are some of the biggest misconceptions you see out there about the state of feminism and women's rights today?
That we're not out there; that we're dwindling or dying. The same anti-feminist organizations that say we're already dead are setting up groups across college campuses [to fight us]. If feminism is already dead, why are they trying so hard to kill it? If it's dead, leave it alone and let it die.
Something that we fight against on the website is [the idea] that feminism is just for older women; that it's useless, that we're trudging along not doing anything.
But there's a vibrant young feminist community on- and offline. Women are really interested in this work. Are you familiar with the Real Hot 100? Things like that prove that women are doing real feminist work all across the country. They might not even necessarily identify as feminists, but [they're doing feminist work].
Could you talk a little about the Kathy Sierra online death threats debacle? As a female blogger yourself, what issues did that raise for you? What can we do to prevent that sort of horrible cyber-harassment from happening again?
I think her situation was horrible and everyone felt awful for her, but it was good that it shed some light on misogyny online, as well as racism ... The anonymity of using the Internet allows people to be the biggest assholes they want to be. So many feminist bloggers have gotten death threats, including Feministing; we've had to call the FBI. It's sad that it's part of being a feminist, or even being online. But that's bullshit; being harassed daily shouldn't be an accepted part of your daily experience or your work.
You wrote a piece for TPMCafe about how there are generational "feminist sororities" within the movement, and how it's harder for younger feminists to be taken seriously. What prompted it?
I felt like that conversation needed to be had. It happens behind closed doors, but no one wants to talk about it. The backlash against feminism is so intense that showing any sign of strife is scary, because you don't want to give ammunition to the right.
It had been on my mind for a long time, and I finally put it out there. I think most people were great in their responses, like Katha Pollitt's -- it got the conversation started about what we can do to bridge the gaps. So many of us put forth this united front that all is great ...
I just think there needs to be an open discourse. The WAM list (Women Action Media) and their conferences are fantastic help. Not necessarily for women writers, but in national organizing scenes, the onus is on older feminists to pass the torch and make sure younger women aren't just fetching coffee but are in decision-making positions, being taken seriously.
What are your thoughts on the HPV vaccine? It's been debated quite a bit among feminist circles.
Ann [Friedman of Feministing] has written about it. I go back and forth about whether it should be mandatory. It's a really complicated issue. I think it should be affordable and available to younger women. But whether it should be mandated or not, I haven't really figured out yet ...
I know you responded to Carrie Lukas' recent Washington Post piece about the wage gap being a "bargain," and about how women make less money because they choose to. I'm guessing you think that's bullshit.
She used statistics to make a completely tired, crappy argument that women hate making money, that women would rather sit around changing diapers than make money. No one pisses me off more than women anti-feminists; they're selling us all down the river for a pat on the head from men. This is a woman who was well-educated and on the speaker circuit, who works her ass off and makes good money. Come on; tell a working single mother that the wage gap is a bargain!
In "Full Frontal Feminism," you write about how the "romance industry" keeps women distracted from larger issues by teaching them to obsess about their love lives. How destructive is this "industry," and how can women fight the obsession?
I'm glad you brought that up. Samhita [of Feministing] calls it the romantic industrial complex ... I feel like it's destructive to both men and women, because it reinforces these ill gender roles that position women as only caring about finding a partner as their form of personal fulfillment. But it also positions men as the caretakers, as only interested in sex and beer. The whole thing is so ridiculous and limiting for people. It's damaging all around, but to women, specifically, it's insane.
When I think about the amount of time, the number of things I could have done if I hadn't been obsessing about some boy ... it's incredible thinking about it. [Romantic obsession] is not a natural state of being for young women; when you have teen magazines shoving things down your throat, it's a little hard to break out of it.
When it comes to combating it, I don't know. People are subverting it in small ways. But I'm not going to sit and tell someone [they're] buying into the bullshit if they celebrate Valentine's Day or let their boyfriends buy them dinner.
Some feminist bloggers have taken issue with your choice of cover image for the book (a slim white woman's navel with hands on hips). How do you respond?
I can see why people find it controversial; I liken it to Feministing's mud-flap girl icon. It's ironic, and we're tying to flip it around as a fuck-you to the standards.
The book cover has this commercial image, but scrawling "feminism" across the stomach -- I liken it to Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre) scrawling "slut" across her stomach. I'm comfortable with the idea that a teen girl is going to buy it because she thinks it looks poppy and commercial, and then get the knowledge dropped on her.
You're always going to piss someone off.
Copyright 2007 by Jessica Valenti from Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters. Reprinted by permission of Seal Press ( www.sealpress.com), an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
What's the worst possible thing you can call a woman? Don't hold back, now.
You're probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank.
Okay, now what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy. I've even heard the term "mangina."
Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult. Now tell me that's not royally fucked up. Recognizing the screwed nature of this little exercise doesn't necessarily make you a feminist. But it should. Most young women know that something is off. And even if we know that some things are sexist, we're certainly not ready to say we're feminists. It's high time we get past the "I'm not a feminist, but ..." stuff. You know what I'm talking about: "I'm not a feminist or anything, but it is total bullshit that Wal-Mart won't fill my birth control prescription."
Do you think it's fair that a guy will make more money doing the same job as you? Does it piss you off and scare you when you find out about your friends getting raped? Do you ever feel like shit about your body? Do you ever feel like something is wrong with you because you don't fit into this bizarre ideal of what girls are supposed to be like?
Well, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but you're a hardcore feminist. I swear.
For some reason, feminism is seen as super anti: anti-men, anti-sex, anti-sexism, anti-everything. And while some of those antis aren't bad things, it's not exactly exciting to get involved in something that's seen as so consistently negative.
The good news is, feminism isn't all about antis. It's progressive and -- as cheesy as this sounds -- it's about making your life better. As different as we all are, there's one thing most young women have in common: We're all brought up to feel like there's something wrong with us. We're too fat. We're dumb. We're too smart. We're not ladylike enough -- stop cursing, chewing with your mouth open, speaking your mind . We're too slutty. We're not slutty enough.
You're not too fat. You're not too loud. You're not too smart. You're not unladylike. There is nothing wrong with you.
I know it sounds simple, but it took me a hell of a long time to understand this. And once I did, damn, did it feel good. Why go through your life believing you're not good enough and that you have to change?
Feminism not only allows you to see through the bullshit that would make you think there's something wrong with you, but also offers ways to make you feel good about yourself and to have self-respect without utilizing any mom-popular sayings, like "Keep your legs together," or boy-popular screamings, like "Show me your tits!"
Really, imagine how nice it would be to realize that all the stuff you've been taught that makes you feel crappy just isn't true. It's like self-help times one hundred.
But all that said, I really do understand the hesitancy surrounding the f-word. My own experience with the exercise that kicked off this chapter -- "What's the worst possible thing you can call a woman?" -- was presented by a professor on the first day of a women's literature class after she asked how many of us were feminists. Not one person raised a hand. Not even me. My excuse-ridden thinking was, " Oh, there's so many kinds of feminism, how can I say I know what they're all about? Blah, blah, blah, I'm a humanist, blah, blah, blah. Bullshit. When I think back on it, I knew I was a feminist. I was just too damn freaked out to be the only one raising her hand.
Most young women are feminists, but we're too afraid to say it -- or even to recognize it. And why not? Feminists are supposed to be ugly. And fat. And hairy! Is it fucked up that people are so concerned about dumb, superficial stuff like this? Of course. Is there anything wrong with being ugly, fat, or hairy? Of course not. But let's be honest: No one wants to be associated with something that is seen as uncool an unattractive. But the thing is, feminists are pretty cool (and attractive!) women.
So let's just get all the bullshit stereotypes and excuses out of the way.
But Feminists are Ugly!
Yawn. Honestly, this is the most tired stereotype ever. But it's supersmart in its own way. Think about it, ladies. What's the one thing that will undoubtedly make you feel like shit? Someone calling you ugly.
Back in fifth grade, the love of my life was Douglas MacIntyre, who told me I'd be pretty if only I didn't have such a big, ugly nose. I shit you not when I say that for months, every day after school I would stand in front of the three-way mirror in my bathroom, staring at the offending body part and trying to figure out how a nose could go so horribly, horribly wrong.
Ugly stays with you. It's powerful, and that's why the stereotype is so perfect. The easiest way to keep women -- especially young women -- away from feminism is to threaten them with the ugly stick. It's also the easiest way to dismiss someone and her opinoins. ("Oh, don't listen to her -- she's just pissed 'cause she's ugly.")
Seems stupid, right? I mean, really, what's with this na-na-na-boo-boo kind of argument? Have you ever heard of a Republican saying, "Oh, don't be a Democrat; they're all ugly"? Of course not, because that would be ridiculous. But for some reason, ridiculous is commonplace when it comes to the f-word.
For example, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh says that feminism was established "to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society." Okay -- have you ever seen Rush Limbaugh? Yeah, enough said. Oh, and by the way -- I think I'm pretty hot now. So screw you, Douglas MacIntyre.
But Things Are Fine the Way They Are! What do I know? Maybe things are fine for you. Maybe you're lucky and superprivileged and you wake up in the morning to birds chirping and breakfast in bed and all that good stuff. But chances are, that's not the case.
There are plenty of folks who argue that feminism has achieved its goal. The 1998 Time magazine article "Is Feminism Dead?" said, "If the women's movement were still useful, it would have something to say; it's dead because it has won."
There's no doubt that women have made progress, but just because we get to vote and have the "right" to work doesn't mean things are peachy keen. Anyone who thinks women have "won," that all is well and good now, should ask why the president of Harvard can say that maybe women are naturally worse at math and then have people actually take him seriously. Or why a teacher can still get fired for being pregnant and unmarried.
Seriously, are things really cool the way they are when so many of us are upchucking our meals and getting raped and beat up and being paid less money than men? And being denied birth control, and being told not to have sex but be sexy, and a hundred other things that make us feel shitty?
Methinks not. It can be better. It has to be.
Laura Barcella is a former associate editor at AlterNet. Her writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Salon.com and the anthology "BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine."