The title of Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto is good marketing—but its author Jessa Crispin is an objectively a more devoted feminist than most. She says she just wrote the book out of dissatisfaction with how marketable and easily appropriated feminism has become.
And it is difficult to argue with her on that point. Has feminism become a slippery buzzword that can be applied to any and all situations that involve the experience of women? Is it a term that by virtue of trying to include all meanings now includes none? Sure. Welcome to 2017. You cannot deny that female empowerment has become a marketing tool, that girl power can sell lipstick, pencil cases, t-shirts, albums, TV shows. What you can argue about, seemingly endlessly, is whether or not this matters. Crispin says that it does.
"To work, feminism has to be a conversion experience. If you're coming to feminism say, through Taylor Swift, then you're coming to it in this very polished, nonthreatening way. And I honestly don't think that this leads to a greater engagement," she explains.
It seems possible, to me, that a young pop music fan might use girl power lyrics as a stepping stone to a type of activism that is more useful and more philosophically-grounded. Surely there are teenage girls out there who discovered feminist theory through Beyonce, and who Google searched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and then kept reading. But Crispin says maybe not.
"They said that about the Harry Potter books too—that at least it was encouraging kids to read. And that it would somehow lead them to reading James Joyce or something," Crispin says flatly. "But as we've seen, kids reading Harry Potter just led to more Harry Potter. It's like how marijuana isn't a gateway drug, although it's convenient to think of it that way. I don't see people coming to feminism through the gateway of Taylor Swift, and then doing the equivalent of the heroin level of feminism."
But marijuana level feminism sure is convenient. It is harmless and fun and sometimes involves attending power brunches hosted by female CEOs. All you have to do to become a feminist in 2017 is pledge that you believe in gender equality, and Why I Am Not a Feminist cautions that this is extremely dangerous. Deep societal change, it argues, requires a level of sacrifice and self-reflection beyond being a movement that welcomes the perspectives of all. Unfortunately, Crispin preaches, not every woman can be a feminist simply by virtue of calling themselves one. Feminism cannot encompass every single competing ideology.
"But that's how it's being played out now in feminist literature and writing," says Crispin. "I've read so many books by feminist writers from the past five to 10 years that say things like 'oh, you don't really have to change your life to be a feminist. You don't have to do anything that's uncomfortable, you don't have to read feminist history. You just have to call yourself a feminist.' It's led to us to this shallow place where just using this magic word is supposed to make change happen. The real work of feminism is still really unpopular and hard. It's much easier to put on a t-shirt than work with local government to create subsidised childcare."
Feminism, Crispin says, has become a kind of shield to hide behind. Women are now too eager to label themselves feminists in order to escape deeper scrutiny on a personal or public level. Her book gives the example of Bjork, who has publicly rejected the feminist label. Bjork embodies every feminist ideal there is: she has spent decades in a male-dominated industry as an unapologetic ambassador for womanhood. Yet she cannot be hailed as a feminist heroine, because she does not think of herself as one. We take it very personally when celebrity women don't call themselves feminists, because the prevailing school of thought is that anyone can be a feminist. So why wouldn't they be?
Feminism is now so wholly embraced by the mainstream that you tend to forget that its universality is a recent phenomenon. "It's always been the case that mainstream women's culture has been the enemy of feminism, from the very beginning," Crispin says. "During first wave feminism, women with money and cultural acceptance—they were married and rich and comfortable—they fought against the suffragettes, they wanted nothing to do with them, they were embarrassed by them. And same with the second wave. It just so happens in this culture that the mainstream, which is still the enemy of feminism, is now using the word too. So it's the same situation, but just more confusing."
A compelling aspect of Why I Am Not a Feminist is its brutal deconstruction of self-care culture. You know the type of thing: Trump is president, so you should take a nice long bath tonight to cope with that. Your male colleague interrupted you during a meeting, so you should buy yourself a bunch of flowers after work and take it easy. The concept of self care as an act of political resistance originates with feminist scholar Audre Lorde, but Crispin argues that its original intent has been entirely lost.
"The idea of self care was about taking care of yourself and make sure that you're healthy because the system is so fundamentally working against you," she explains. "And somehow we've interpreted this as, 'oh yeah, you should go get your nails done, that's so important.' Look, it's not self care if someone else is doing your nails. That's exploiting immigrant labour."
Being able to pass off going to brunch or sleeping in or getting a manicure as a vaguely political act is, obviously, awesome. I do it all the time, to be honest with you. But Crispin is wary of how easy it is to justify consumerism with meaningless political platitudes. She wants a feminism that is difficult, that requires activism on a scale that will lead to tangible discomfort and re-thinking of one's core ideology.
"These ideas of self care disguise what is actually going on, which is usually the exploitation of other people's labour. But if you use the word 'feminism' then that somehow forgives it because you're empowered and you're taking care of yourself and all of these things are somehow feminist acts. Which means you don't necessarily look at the consequences of your actions. Feminism has somehow just become a disguise for selfish behaviour."
The book also questions the concept of equal representation, a cause celebre in contemporary feminist debate. Feminist women want to be represented in every single traditionally male-dominated industry—we want to be the romantic leads in Hollywood movies, we want to make partner at the law firm, we want to be President. None of this, Crispin says, necessarily signifies progress.
"You know, the thing about representation is that generally in order to get into a high position of power within government or a corporation, you have to take on the behaviour and values of your male colleagues in order to be accepted. Take representation in the arts—if you look at certain literary magazines that have bettered their quotas of male contributors to women contributors, a lot of the time all they did is add women contributors who came from the same socio-economic backgrounds and education system that the men do. So it's nothing to do with becoming more inclusive, it's just slightly changing the demographic set up."
Why I Am Not a Feminist takes particular aim at millennial, college-aged women, who have embraced the feminist label with more fervour than any previous generation before them. In this respect, I can't help but critique Crispin for being a little out of touch. Many of the most ardent young feminists I know actively revile symbols of white corporate feminism like #GirlBoss self help books and designer "The Future is Female" t-shirts and Lena Dunham tweets. It should obvious to any thinking person that buying a Taylor Swift album does not equate to activism. We should not need a manifesto to tell us this.
Conversations about privilege and race and class and wokeness are pre-eminent among young feminist women right now. Many young progressive women—the same narcissistic college girls that Crispin frequently decries in her book—could not stomach Hillary Clinton because her election campaign, with its cringe-worthily insincere pro-woman bent, felt like marketing. As activism, it did not ring real or true. Are we really not being forceful enough? Or are the obstacles we're coming up against too heavy to push against?
Crispin says they're not. But the work ahead isn't for the faint of heart.
"If you accept discomfort and simplicity you can live a life that aligns with your values. I know it sounds crazy but that's how I try to live my life," she says. "If we want to destroy the patriarchy, it's not just about putting women in power. It's about re-structuring and reimagining every single aspect of our society."
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