I’m having one of those weeks. I’ll spare you the details, except that I somehow managed to orchestrate a perfect storm of incoming papers from students, crazy bad news about tenure decisions for important friends, and a long delay in getting reimbursed by my university for moving expenses. 

In response, I’d like to direct my rage at Slate.com. Why does this online journal feel it necessary to play such a major role in logrolling the new book, The End of Men, by its own editor-writer Hanna Rosin? Does it feel no conflict of interest considering that Rosin’s husband is the journal’s senior editor, David Plotz? Does this journal, owned by the Washington Post, have no journalistic credentials to uphold?

Here’s how it looks for the past 6 days:

  • Friday, Sept. 14: Alyssa Rosenberg (why, Alyssa?) writes “The End of Men, Fall TV Edition.”
  • Friday, Sept. 14: Rosin’s friend Emily Bazelon writes “Why Feminists Fear The End of Men,” an angry retort to a highly critical review of the book in the NY Times Book Review by historian Katherine Homans. (That’s right: let’s blame feminists, which is Slate’s bread and butter.)
  • Tuesday, Sept. 18: Rosin posts three separate pieces entitled, “What Happens When the Wife Earns More?” drawn from the book.
  • Wednesday, Sept. 19: Rosin appears on the Slate podcast, “The Slate Culture Gabfest,” to discuss the book with colleagues who, although ordinarily quite dependably intelligent and critical, refuse to ask hard questions.
  • Wednesday, Sept. 19: June Thomas writes “The End of Men, TV Titles Edition.”

That’s right: 6 days, 7 articles. (Two of which appeared before noon today.) If only the rest of us who write books had the ability to transform one’s professional journalistic job into an in-house publicity machine.

Let’s not even mention the many other times Rosin has received logrolling attention from its staff for the same material in the past, including plugs by her husband on the podcast “The Slate Political Gabfest,” plugs for her public talks including a TED talk, plugs for her original and controversial Atlantic Magazine article that earned her the book contract, and on and on.

I can barely stand to read her arguments, which all too often take some kind of anecdote — the story of a couple in Alabama who have seen the husband’s income decline as the wife’s grows — and then extrapolates this as some kind of world-historical shift. Even worse, she cherry-picks hard evidence such as employment figures and ignores other evidence in order to hammer it into the shape of her overall argument. And worst of all, her title: The End of Men, as reviewer Homans puts it, is not a title but a sound bite utterly misleading about her argument.

After spewing all my righteous bile about Slate’s failure to act professionally with regard to one of its own editor/ writers, perhaps I should add one tiny note of relief: at least Rosin is engaging in political-cultural criticism, unlike Monday’s article about how hard it is for women with small waists and big breasts to find a bra. Seriously. Slate: the online journal equivalent of listening to teenage girls’ conversation at the mall. Kill me now.

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Is it feminist or not?

17 March 2011

In my professional life I happen to be writing about the question of political expediency, and it’s affecting the way I think about feminism and pop culture. To wit: I’ve become concerned that when feminists debate publicly whether something is feminist, it leads antifeminists to hold up a banner saying WHO OWNS FEMINISM?, as if us feminists are angrily policing some kind of fortress. I strongly believe that feminism is not such a plastic word that it can encompass both Audre Lorde and Sarah Palin; but here’s my question: for the sake of political expedience, should feminists restrict their public battles to decrying anti-feminism, rather than parsing what counts as feminist?

I got off on this question after watching Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent Feminist Frequency video (if any of you are unaware of her terrific pop culture analysis, give yourself a treat and get up to speed NOW) about whether the character of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, right) from True Grit is a feminist character. In doing so, Sarkeesian responds to a number of mainstream articles claiming that Ross is feminist; she maintains “it’s a bit of a leap” to make such a designation. She advances two key reasons for disagreeing: 1) Mattie’s character doesn’t change but remains “basically the same person from the first scene to the closing credits,” and 2) Mattie’s strength, independence, and grit are all coded as male; that is, she’s accepted the rules of a male-dominated society and plays along. In contrast, Sarkeesian says,

“The feminism I subscribe to and work for involves more then women and our fictional representations simply acting like men or unquestioningly replicating archetypal male values such being emotionally inexpressive, the need for domination and competition, and the using violence as a form of conflict resolution.”

Oh, the mixed feelings. On one level I agree with Sarkeesian on all counts: it’s one thing to say it is a feminist act to place an interesting, complex female character at the center of a film and watch the events through her eyes and a far different thing to call Mattie Ross a feminist. One might even go so far as to say that the question of her feminism is irrelevant to the film, the era it describes, and the range of emotions it covers. Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood has a neat way of drawing a line between feminist movies (with female leads as well as narratives that seem to promote women’s equality) and movies that she’s “not so sure they are feminist but they are about women.”

It’s great to hold high standards, but have you noticed that most female characters onscreen aren’t just one-dimensional but so stereotypical that I want to hurt someone? Is it really important to dicker about whether Mattie Ross (or Uma Thurman in Kill Billor Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica, or Chloë Moretz in Kick-Ass) is a feminist? Wouldn’t it be better to complain about all those rom-coms oriented around weddings and bridesmaids — or, for that matter, Slate.com’s consistently contrarian rejections of all feminist issues? Katee, hand me that gun so I can blast some holes in Hollywood execs’ heads!

I “hear” myself write that paragraph and laugh, because as an academic I spend a lot of time on far more esoteric questions no one gives a shit about. And, frankly, I’d love to engage in a debate about the relative feminism of these characters — these discussions are fun. So why do I suddenly care about political expendiency such that I’m willing to argue we keep those arguments amongst ourselves?

Because the battle to define feminism is ultimately not just a distraction but a zero-sum game, and I’d rather leave those definitions open enough that we feminists can stay focused on denouncing anti-feminism. I would rather see writers at Slate spending their time analyzing the deeply misogynistic notions that women need to have 24-hour waiting periods and detailed explanations of sonograms before being permitted to get their legal right to an abortion — rather than read some idiotic essay about how the Tea Party is feminist simply because it has a lot of women in it. Look: women can be just as effective anti-feminists as men can be. (WHERE is that gun? Chloë?)

And because Chloë Moretz was the best part of Kick-Ass, and likewise Katee Sackhoff was one of the best parts of Battlestar Galactica. I’m not sure it’s a rejection of feminist values when films depict worlds in which not all women exhibit the characteristics of cooperation, empathy, compassion, and nonviolence. I think it helps us all question whether there’s anything necessarily male about being violent, emotionally inexpressive, dominating, and competitive (can I introduce you to some of my female colleages?). More important, such characterizations offer opportunities to explore complex expressions of gender identities. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to see just a bunch of gun-totin’ women in film (for gods’ sake, I live in Texas already). Besides, wasn’t True Grit just a great story with a great female lead? 

What do you think: is it useful to have these public discussions about whether something’s feminist or not, or it is more politically expedient to avoid having them publicly?

The Double X Shuffle

1 April 2010

If only it were an April Fool’s joke.  A week after Slate’s XX Factor featured the pro-Goldman Sachs article by KJ Dell’Antonia telling working mothers to give up on a humane work schedule, now it’s got Angie Kim blaming feminists for demise of the mommy track. (In the meantime, their editor Hanna Rosin asked first and foremost on their Double X Gabfest whether The Three Weissmanns of Westport, the new book by the eminently smart and literary author Cathleen Schine, is “chick lit.”)

Of course the real question is why I keep picking this scab — why can’t I leave Double X alone, if all I get is a schizophrenic antifeminism under the guise of “what women really think”?  

When it launched on May 12, 2009, Double X posted such self-consciously provocative stories as “Why I Am Bored With Feminism” by Terry Castle (Terry, why?) and “Yes, Virginia, Feminism is Really Dead” by Susanna Breslin. Subsequent stories would state that feminists don’t understand Muslim women, while Christina Hoff Summers claims that men are now the “second sex”—propounding the newly popular line that there is a new “gender gap” for boys. As Breslin chirps about feminism, “I mean, didn’t we kill it already?” 

I think the reason I can’t leave it alone is because the Double X writers’ antifeminism indicates a particular generational malaise about the subject.  A site created by smart, educated, cosmopolitan women, many of whom are in their late 20s or 30s, seems to feel that in order to appeal to female readers, it needs a straw feminist to bash around—schizophrenically claiming that feminists are malicious, irrelevant, boring, or dead.  Apparently, the readership they anticipate looks exactly like them — coastal, highly educated, highly privileged, mostly white women who’ve already established themselves professionally and benefited as much as possible from the feminist legacy.  Now if only they could recognize that feminism might hold strong relevance to someone besides them.

There are a lot of reasons to feel exasperated by such a perspective (not least for its logical inconsistency).  I think my frustration with this perspective comes from living and teaching in Texas, a place that Molly Ivins (of course) described best. In Texas, she wrote, “the cultures are black, Chicano, Southern, freak, suburban and shitkicker. (Shitkicker is dominant.) They are all rotten for women.”

Maybe because of the rampant machismo here, Texas has long featured strong, outspoken women leaders from Ivins to Barbara Jordan to Ann Richards — and I’ve begun to see a new resurgence of feminism by young Texas women and men, as witnessed by the upcoming Feminist Action Project, among other efforts.  If Double X wants to succeed, its editors should recognize not only that feminism is relevant outside their small hothouse, but that many young people today who may not call themselves “feminists” nevertheless share frustration at the easy sexism and cheap homophobia appearing with such regularity and with so little check from media, politics, workplaces, and families.    

Take back the F word not merely from the Texas bubbas who still like the term “feminazi,” but from the women at Double X who moved up the ladder only to kick it out from the younger generation trying to move up.

Why does Slate’s XX Factor exist?  Initially the site told us it was “A Magazine By Women, But Not Just For Women” (the language of which is exasperating enough), and now it’s “What Women Really Think.”  Personally, I can only read it if I hold my nose.  Although its writers take on questions of interest to women, they most often embrace a shocking anti-feminism — appearing to assume on the one hand that women are fully equal to men, and dismissing with the other hand feminists who think otherwise.  

Take, for example, this post by K.J. Dell’Antonia that might as well be a big gift to so many corporations, law firms, and universities who treat their female employees as second-class citizens if they dare seek a reduced work schedule in order to bear and raise children.  Dell’Antonia writes about the female Goldman Sachs executive who was offered a “mommy track” to reduce her hours while she adopted the primary caregiving responsibilities in her family; when she wanted to return to her full-time job, she was then told by Goldman that her position had been eliminated.  Suck it up, Dell’Antonia advises — Goldman can only be expected to be compliant up to a point.

That’s right, women:  we are exactly the same as men, and are so fully equal to them in all respects that our requests for “special treatment” like serving as primary caregivers are abhorrent, full stop.  You’re in or you’re out, moms!  Employers must have their rights protected, even when they giveth a part-time job with one hand, and then with the other taketh the entire job away when it’s less convenient.

Now, I’m not saying that questions about the mommy track are simple.  In fact, the question of motherhood and involvement in the workplace have been percolating for years, punctuated by the New York Times Magazine‘s famous “Opt-Out Revolution” article by Lisa Belkin and the terrific response by Susan Douglas, first in In These Times and then her book, The Mommy Myth. 

But no matter how contentious these questions remain, I can assure Double X that taking Goldman Sachs’ perspective is not “what women really think.”  But Goldman sends you a big kiss anyway.