Survival Guide for Life in a Sexist Society

Editor's note: Since this Q&A was conducted, it has come to light that It's a Jungle Out There contains racist cartoons of "natives" in a jungle setting. AlterNet does not condone nor promote books that contain this kind of problematic imagery. In light of the controversy, the publisher has taken responsibility for the images, and agreed to pull them from future printings. The author has also apologized.

It's not easy being a feminist. From silly stereotypes (hairy armpits! lots of cats!) to anti-choice nuts (who support the right to life unless the life in question belongs to a person who has already been born) to the dudes who think women's rights advocates are "cute" and challenging (until they figure out that you won't do their laundry for them), there's a lot to leave a woman frustrated. But as Amanda Marcotte argues in her new book, while it may be impossible to escape the jungle of sexism, there are at least some fun -- and funny -- ways to wade through it.

It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments is Marcotte's how-to manual for feminist-minded women to take on a sexist society and have a good laugh along the way. And Marcotte herself is no stranger to wielding humor against misogynist attacks -- as a blogger at Pandagon and Offsprung and a writer for RH Reality Check, she regularly does battle with anti-choicers, right-wing extremists and anti-feminists of all stripes.

She was also at the center of controversy when Sen. John Edwards hired her as a blogger for his presidential campaign. Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, launched an attack on Marcotte and encouraged his supporters to put her in her place. The right-wing blogs fueled the assault, the mainstream media picked up the issue, and Marcotte was subjected to a flood of hate mail that could be summed up, as she put it, "You have a potty mouth, you stupid cunt." She eventually resigned from the campaign, but her experience with right-wing hit men has clearly shaped her determination to fight back instead of shutting up.

And her book is the ultimate instruction manual in fighting back.

Jill Filipovic: What inspired you to write It's a Jungle Out There in the first place?

Amanda Marcotte: Well, with the very personal nature of blogs I get a lot of questions on how to fight back against sexism on a personal, day-to-day level. I also live in a red state, albeit in a blue city in a red state, so I felt like I had a unique perspective on how to confront the sexism that's still out there, since I feel like I get it more often than a lot of other feminists do. I came up with a survival guide, a la The Zombie Survival Guide. I thought that it would just be a fun book for feminists to read and have a laugh at the unending sexism we address on a daily basis.

JF: Is the book aimed at nonfeminists too?

AM: I tried to address the issue of women who don't call themselves feminists but who are in fact feminists by kind of making fun of the whole debate. If you're afraid to call yourself a feminist, it's probably an unfounded fear. So I would hope that women who don't like sexism but who are still scared to call themselves feminists read this and walk away identifying themselves more accurately. But there are other books that address the issue more thoroughly, so I didn't want to deal with it too much.

JF: I know you're a long-standing Insufferable Music Snob, but what was the reasoning behind including recommendations for feminist-minded movies and music?

AM: I'm published on Seal Press, and with a lot of their books they ask you to put a resource section at the end. I've read a billion feminists books, and they all have the same resources sections -- here's a list of books, here are some blogs. When I started to write it, Jessica [Valenti]'s book [Full Frontal Feminism] had just come out, and I thought, why use the same resources section? So I thought, you know what would be more fun? Let's make the resource section the kind of stuff that women engage with on a daily basis. And what do women engage with more than pop culture? I was definitely looking for stuff that you could look to in order to give you energy on a daily basis.

JF: Like a lot of feminist and pro-choice writers, you write quite a bit about the anti-choice movement in your book and on your blog -- and the anti-choice movement does some really ugly things that you and other writers expose. But it seems like they've largely gotten a pass from the public simply by billing themselves as "pro-life," even though, as you point out, they don't really care about life at all. How have they done it? And what can the pro-choice movement, which simply can't rely on the same kind of rhetorical posturing, do in response?

AM: They do it with a big assist from the mainstream media that refuses to expose them for what they are. I don't know if it's laziness ... it's a lot like the Iraq war and the WMDs. You have a perfect storm of laziness, with journalists and editors who are so unwilling to look up to the next level in the story, and media outlets pandering to the right because they're afraid to be called the "liberal media." I think they just like the controversy. I get the impression that people in the mainstream media like watching liberals spin in outrage because they're laughing at us. And it's a shame because they're playing this game with peoples' lives. As for what the pro-choice movement can do ... we're left in a situation where we have to fight for mainstream media attention. Maybe instead, we should turn to alternative media. That's really the only thing we can do, because they're not going to give us a fair shake anytime in the future, unless we create competition that forces them to deal with the issue.

JF: What were the hardest parts of the book to write?

AM: The thing I struggled with the most is the fact that people are looking for the magic bullet, and the way to opt out of the patriarchy. There's never going to be a plan where you just do XY and Z and you are exempt from sexism. You're in the dominant paradigm. There's no escape hatch, we can only change society. I tried to write it as, "There's no escape from the jungle, it's just surviving."

But just as hard as not having all the answers was balancing inclusiveness with authenticity. When you're writing humor, you're only funniest if you're coming very much from your own perspective. But there's a lot of pressure to be very inclusive on the left, which isn't a bad thing, but it can make writing humor very difficult. If you try to be too inclusive, you can' t be funny because you lose your voice, versus if you're too much from your own perspective, you lose your audience -- that was the hardest thing, that balance.

JF: One issue you tackle a lot is the feminist compromise -- how far feminists can or should bend to a patriarchal system in order to just get through their lives, and where feminists should draw the line. The same arguments spring up in the feminist blogosphere from time to time, whether they're about marriage or bikini waxes or housework or taking your partner's last name. So where do you think feminist responsibility comes in? Where do we have an obligation to make the feminist choice instead of the choice that's the easiest for us, and what should women not compromise on?

AM: It's probably going to be different depending on your situation. Women need to challenge themselves and say, 'The world is not going to get better unless those of us who have the privilege to live our lives in a more feminist fashion also have a responsibility to do so.' One way we're going to change the world is to model a different way of living. So if you're privileged enough to have the opportunity to live your life a little more freely than others, you should be grateful for it and not, say, get married if you don't have to. Or just launch some other strike against the patriarchy if that's something you can do. I know Linda Hirshman gets a lot of grief, but she has a good point that those who can should take leadership roles, because until we see more women in those roles, we aren't going to understand that women can be leaders. I wish women with more privilege would realize that they have a responsibility to give back and try to make the world a better place where they can.

JF: What role does blogging play both in giving back and in building feminist movements?

AM: I couldn't be more enthusiastic about it. I think the Internet has a really amazing potential to create community where it couldn't be created before because of time and geography. There's the No. 1 thing you need to change the world -- a group of like-minded citizens behind you. We have this myth in America of the one individual who changes things, but even Martin Luther King Jr. was part of a movement. No one person can change the world alone. Feeling like you have a community really helps women go out there and make changes big and small, and feel like someone has their back. Blogging makes that community where there just wasn't one before.

JF: Do you think online communities are sufficient substitutes for real-life interaction? Or is feminist activism suffering because too many of us are at home on our computers instead of outside organizing?

AM: I dispute the notion that feminists ever had large-scale face-to-face interaction.Ms. Magazine did more to create feminist solidarity across the nation than just about anything else in its time. I think women in New York or L.A. or big cities can probably create those communities in their own cities, but for most of us out in Podunk, the feminist media has always been the community. A lot of women didn't realize they were feminists until they subscribed to Ms. Magazine in the '70s. With blogs, you get a chance to actually participate, to talk back and have an identity, to have a voice. Maybe real-life activism is preferable, but it's just not possible for most women to have that face-to-face community on a regular basis.

JF: Without the face-to-face community, how can we help each other survive the anti-feminist, misogynist jungle you describe in the book?

AM: The No. 1 thing you need to do is be politically active. I think a lot of workers would probably like to live more empowered lives, but they actually need power. So work towards a set of goals, because women across the country are going to have to be active in government policy before we actually get equality. That's the big thing. You can talk to your friends and talk to your mom and talk to other women. Sometimes there's a fear there, especially when it comes to talking to women who aren't feminists or even progressives. But I think you'd be pleasantly surprised if you'd speak to women outside of the ear-shot of men, especially in more conservative communities. I think you'd also be surprised at a lot of the common ground you'd find with other women if you talk to them.

JF: Obviously working with other women is crucial to the feminist movement, but what role do men play -- if any?

AM: The biggest thing a man can do is be a feminist but quit piddling about it. I was reading your blog [Feministe] the other day and there were all these women who were like, 'My boyfriend is great, he cleans, and he is a feminist, he just doesn't call himself one, he's a humanist, blah blah blah.' It's OK, guys, get your mouth around the word "feminist." Say "patriarchy" out loud. Accept it. I think once men take that step and let women truly define our own movement -- instead of trying to control it and trying to take away the language that's already established or trying to find some other way be the boss of it, once they actually allow women to have leadership in our own movement -- I think they'll find that what comes next starts to figure itself out. But they do have to take that big first step to trust that women know what we're talking about on our own issues.

JF: I can already hear the MRA (men's rights activists) response: "Well if that's the case, then you feminists should let men define their own issues, too."

AM: [Laughs]. Men have been defining the dominant paradigm of society forever. The notion that men are not being allowed to define something is ridiculous on the surface. The best MRAs seem to be able to do is, "But what about child support?" Well, I don't want to pay my cable bill! Can we put that next on the agenda?

JF: At least one prominent men's rights activist came out of the feminist movement, which is a little scary. And plenty of them seem to appropriate feminist language for their own purposes. Do you think women can ever prevent an MRA from forming?

AM: As far as the MRAs who came out of the feminist movement, they did it precisely because they were alarmed to come into a situation with a bunch of women and to not be given the major leadership role. That's what caused them to split out. Their own story is proof of what happened. I think the major thing that's caused a lot of MRAs to get some traction has been the use of the word "choice" in the reproductive rights movement. Making things seem like they're options as opposed to rights has given a lot of men this notion that if you can choose to have an abortion, I can choose not to support a child that's actually alive. The No. 1 thing a feminist can do preemptively with men is just talk about reproductive rights as a matter of physical bodily autonomy. Use words like "rights" and get away from talking about choice. Make this about your own physical integrity, your right to control your fertility, and make it clear that they have 100 percent equal rights to control their fertility. Their body is theirs, your body is yours. Framing it that way is the best way to upend their arguments, because they're really working the word "choice," so that it's completely stripped of what it was originally supposed to mean.

JF: You've also criticized some feminists for using choice language to justify patently anti-feminist choices as "empowering" -- the argument, in other words, that something is empowering or feminist just because a woman chose to do it. You seem to say instead that there are compromises we all make, and we should just own up to them instead of trying to twist them into feminist decisions.

AM: That came out of my frustration with the ongoing wars in the blogosphere over personal choices that are in fact compromises. I don't really appreciate the whole notion that feminism is all about choice and that if it's your choice to get breast implants, then that's totally feminist and anti-patriarchy. It's gotten to a point where it's ridiculous. Obviously this choice or that is a compromise, and everyone makes compromises. I can sit here and make a list of things that I do that buy into sexism, because you have to pick your battles. Once I admitted that I felt a lot of relief, without the cognitive dissonance of trying to tell myself that I'm a perfect human being who is above it all. So I want to press upon other feminists that it's OK. You will be a much happier person if you just admit that you've made choices that are compromises to sexism. You are not perfect. No woman is an island in perfection. You are part of society, that's fine. I get a little harsh about it sometimes, but I do it out of the goodness of my heart, because I want other people to experience the relief of realizing that you are not an island. Other feminists are right here with you.


Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments. "Quiverfull" refers to a conservative evangelical Christian movement that opposes the use of all types of contraception, including the rhythm method.

The logical conclusion of the anticontraception, antiabortion wingnut thinking, where women are nothing more than walking uteruses begging to be filled and refilled, comes to fruition in the Quiverfull movement. Yes, they spell it that way, and no, it doesn't appear to be done to make people grate their teeth, though more research is needed. Quiverfull appears to have started because some Protestants envied the supposed Catholic ability to beat women into thorough submission through repeated childbirth. From the way that Quiverfull men tend to strut around like roosters, there also seems to have been some envy of the virile reputation Catholics have in circles that believe all Catholics are Mary-worshipping idolators who are going to hell but are having a lot of sex on the way.

The movement disdains any birth control at all, even using the rhythm method, in no small part because avoiding sex at certain periods of time makes God horny and irritable. Or the husband. It's hard to tell, because Quiverfull types tend to mix up "God" and "husband" quite a bit. For example, the blogger Shakespeare's Sister blogged about a sign she saw in a dry cleaner's that said "MOMS ARE GOD'S BABYSITTERS," which is fairly typical of the treacly slogans that send Quiverfullers and similar wingnuts into raptures. But since the actual day-to-day work of babysitting is done at the financial behest not of God but of husband, it's hard not to imagine that the sign subtly implies that your snoring lump of bathroom-hogging, all-too-human husband should be regarded as the god of your life.

Still, the Quiverfull movement exists outside the mainstream. That said, they aren't that far out of the mainstream, considering how much they have in common with more mainstream conservatism. Take your typical antichoicer, make the subtext of male anxiety about the emasculating nature of contraception really obvious, add some homeschooling, and you've got the Quiverfulls. The various ways that Quiverfulls are like regular wingnuts, only more so, are too numerous to be discounted.

The bizarre notion that what the world really needs is more white people

The most favored phallic imagery in the Quiverfull movement is the image of an archer shooting child-bows into the world. As Kathryn Joyce, writing for a November 2006 edition of the Nation, noted, Quiverfull followers tend to be obsessed with the idea that they've been chosen by God to pump out one baby after another to be warriors for Christianity. And by "Christianity," they mean "white people." Joyce documented the obsession among followers with keeping track of following the population trends in countries where any group, from Muslims to Latinos, is becoming a bigger percentage of the population.

The fear that brown hordes are pouring over the border and can only be stopped by white people ferociously procreating hardly sticks to the outskirts of wingnuttery, but is the major selling point for shows like The O'Reilly Factor and Lou Dobbs' entire career as of late. It's a little more subtle, of course. Bill O'Reilly prefers to scream about the brown hordes and let the audience draw the implications themselves. When in doubt, racists can always bring up the specter of a pregnant Mexican national swimming across the border to give birth on the American side and have an "anchor baby."

And then there are a few mainstream conservatives who find hinting around tedious and get straight to the point, understanding full well that a good half of their audience doesn't have the mental acuity to draw inferences too well. Mark Steyn, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times in November of 2006, got straight to the point -- Scarlett Johansson needs to understand that her pale complexion obliges her to start procreating early and often. After scaring his audience with a story of a Palestinian woman who started procreating at twelve and didn't stop until she had eight live babies, he proceeds to whine that Scarlett Johansson is too busy using condoms to have babies, having wasted ten years already.
In a bit of light Bush-bashing the other day, she attacked the president for his opposition to "sex education." If he had his way, she said, "every woman would have six children, and we wouldn't be able to have abortions." Whereas Scarlett is so "socially aware" (as she puts it), she gets tested for HIV twice a year.
Well, yes. If "sex education" is about knowing which concrete condom is less likely to disintegrate during the livelier forms of penetrative intercourse, then getting an AIDS test every few months may well be a sign that you're a Ph.D. (Doctor of Phenomenal horniness). But, if "sex education" means an understanding of sexuality as anything other than an act of transient self-expression, then Scarlett is talking through that famously cute butt.
What the Quiverfulls and the mainstream conservatives neglect to do on a regular basis, when trying to raise fears about the world's average skin color browning a couple shades, is to argue for why anyone should give a shit. Hard as it may seem for them to understand, most of us who like our sheets a little less pointy don't really see why it matters what skin color gets the biggest slice of the pie chart.

Appeals to the grandeur of "Western civilization" from Shakespeare to Einstein usually substitute for real arguments in favor of fetishizing whiteness, but anyone who's witnessed the transcendent beauty that is Baywatch can probably quarrel with the idea that white people have a universally positive effect on the culture.

You can have a uterus or be a full-blown adult human being, but not both at once

Quiverfulls demonstrate a refreshing honesty about their view of women as brood mares. In her Nation article, Joyce quoted Jan Hess, the author of the most popular book promoting the movement, as saying, "Our bodies are meant to be a living sacrifice." The "Quiverfaq" online addresses the objection of a woman who doesn't want to wear her body out with constant pregnancy: "There are many very good Biblical reasons that she doesn't 'get to call the shots.' Our generation has absorbed the feminist rhetoric of 'my body, my choice,' forgetting that our bodies are the Lord's, to be used to His glory, and that wives are to be subject to their husbands and under their authority." Your body belongs to God and your husband, and the only use they can find for it is sexual release and baby release.

To be fair, Quiverfulls find women useful for wiping butts and washing clothes, as well. The most famous Quiverfull family in the nation, the Duggars, had their own reality show where Americans could get a full eyeball of the butt-wiping-laundry-doing duty load for Mrs. Duggar. Many viewers ended up wondering how she found time in the day in between wiping butts and washing clothes to make even more babies.

Much as I'd like to assure anyone that this view of women as ambulatory uteruses falls far outside the mainstream, the evidence suggests otherwise. After all, the Supreme Court, which was considered mainstream last I checked, ruled in favor of the federal late-term abortion ban, with Justice Kennedy suggesting in the majority opinion that women who get abortions to save their own lives or health will regret going against their nature, which is ruled completely by uterine productivity. He argued in the opinion against abortion by stating that "respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child." The woman is her uterus, and uteruses are meant to reproduce by nature. Interests outside of bearing more and more children (including the interest in staying alive despite a difficult pregnancy) do not compute.

In the mainstream media, you see this view as well, with Dean Barnett, writing for the Boston Globe on May 21, 2007, discussing how simple the antichoice position is. His editorial was noteworthy not just for its intellectual vapidity, but also for his thoroughness-in an entire op-ed about women's health-care, he did not use the word "woman," "women," or "pregnant" even once. He used the noun "pregnancy," though, leaving the distinct impression that he thinks that pregnancies exist all on their own and have no bearing on the bodies of real human beings.

Selective opposition to modernism

Quiverfulls reject birth control, even the rhythm method, as unnatural, positing instead that the natural order of things is for the god-husband to hump to his heart's content and what body-changing pregnancies that result are just a matter of course. Hysterical Luddite reactions to the sci-fi horrors of the birth control pill and the condom generously pepper Quiverfull literature. From the No Room for Contraception site:
Society has a lust affair with birth control to the point of not being able to think outside of the box. We live in a contraception "matrix" where it's impossible to believe that there are any harmful effects on marriage, society, and the health of women. This "contraception deception" is the primary force behind the attacks against the contra-contraception message.
For the most part, society doesn't want to hear the message. This message is that, in our culture, contraception leads to increases in abortion, teenage sex, affairs (and subsequent divorce), health problems, and statutory rape.
For people who claim to oppose lust so much, they have a way with breathlessly written literature. Sublimated sexual urges, most likely. The arguments for how contraception somehow increases abortions by reducing unwanted pregnancies are a first-class example of how to craft an argument with zero relationship to the real world. Many anti-birth control activists liken the birth control pill to "pesticide," hoping to link people's discomfort with ingesting toxic chemicals with the horrors of taking a break from being pregnant all the time.

All this suspicion against the miracles of modern medicine is suspiciously absent when addressing the miracles of modern medicine that allow you to bear six, ten, or eighteen children without dying or having your uterus just fall right out of your body from the stress. When it comes to making sure the uterus is in good working order and able to keep producing, technology loses all its sci-fi scariness and instead becomes a good thing. This approach to traditionalism is nothing new to Quiverfullism, though. They cribbed the selective adherence to their own traditionalist ideology from the larger movement in general.

Libertarianism especially has the art of pick-and-choose politics down, with your average libertarian decrying the horrific modern practice of taxing the public to pay for public services, in between bounds of driving on publicly funded roads and sending his kids to publicly funded schools. Or, closer to the Quiverfulls on the batshit-crazy scale, you have people adamantly refusing to accept the theory of evolution while only too happy to avail themselves of life- and health-preserving medical treatments that were developed using the theory. It's a tad tough to swallow the idea that we should submit to conservative dictates on how to live when they can't submit to their own ideologies themselves.

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