“No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.”
“Feminism is not a set of rules. It is not about taking rights away from men, as if there were a finite amount of liberty to go around. There is an abundance of liberty to be had if we have the guts to grasp it for everyone. Feminism is a social revolution, and a sexual revolution, and feminism is in no way content with a missionary position. It is about work, and about love, and about how one depends very much on the other. Feminism is about asking questions, and carrying on asking them even when the questions get uncomfortable.”
Two well-known feminist authors/columnists, Roxanne Gay and Laurie Penny, released essay collections. Roxanne Gay is a GenXer and has much more life-experience than 27-year-old Laurie Penny. Although with all her protest and underground movement experience, Penny might think she has more life experience. Gay is American and makes her living as a cultural critic and teacher. She grew up in a mostly white town with a middle-class upbringing. Penny is British with a career as a political reporter. She’s a contributing editor at New Statesman and editor at large at the New Inquiry. Penny seems to do a lot of protesting, squatting and couch surfing.
Both women write essays on what it means to be a feminist, on various women’s issues such as contraception and pay equity and a feminist perspective on various news and pop culture items. Both are serious about being feminist and about the importance of feminism in today’s world. With different writing styles—Gay tends to write with humor and a cheerier flair while Penny utilizes a more aggressive approach– they both present a clear message about the urgency facing feminists today. Read both works. They’re well-crafted, dynamic and provocative particularly for any woman who’s ever heard a man say “Oh you must be some kind of feminist.”
Being close in age to Gay, I could relate to nearly everything she said– except that I never read Sweet Valley High. I was reading other books. I was riding ponies and horses. Penny represents the newer generation of feminists who embrace lifestyles and methodology that I’m not used to. In fact, Penny had this to say: “The young women of today know far better than their slightly-older sisters who came of age in the listless 1990s how much work is still to be done, and how unglamorous much of it is. They know how bloody important it is to talk about power, and class, and work, and love, race, poverty and gender identity.” I could’ve stopped reading right there. Listless 1990s? I was in my 20s and it was a fantastic time. I’ve identified as a feminist since 5th grade and have been active and outspoken about my feminism all along. I found this a bit dismissive and offensive. What happened to sisters supporting sisters? Gay writes in “How to Be Friends with Another Woman”: “Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses—pretty but designed to SLOW women down.”
Gay breaks down Bad Feminist with these sections: ME; GENDER & SEXUALITY; RACE & ENTERTAINMENT; POLITICS, GENDER & RACE; BACK TO ME. Essays within each section. Penny has five chapters in Unspeakable Things: Fucked-Up Girls; Lost Boys; Anticlimax; Cybersexism; Love and Lies.
“I get angry when women disavow feminism and shun the feminist label but say they support all the advances born of feminism because I see a disconnect that does not need to be there. I get angry but I understand and hope someday we will live in a culture where we don’t need to distance ourselves from the feminist label, where the label doesn’t make us afraid of being alone, of being too different, of wanting too much.” —Roxanne Gay
Gay has a penchant for pop culture and some feminine frippery, thus she labels herself a bad feminist. Can you be a feminine feminist? Can you like looking pretty and favor the color pink. Is a feminist a sell-out if she wants to be taken care of by a man. If she wants the support and constant of a serious relationship. If she doesn’t want to know how her car functions, sometimes fakes orgasms and closes her office door for a good cry? Gay likes watching reality shows, listening to questionable hip-hop and picking apart cultural phenomena. In clear, strong words she thoughtfully writes about Chris Brown, the song “Blurred Lines,” The Hunger Games, The Help, Django Unchained and Fifty Shades of Gray.
“A culture that treats women as objects, that gleefully supports entertainment that is more often demeaning toward women than it is not, that encourages the erosion of a woman’s autonomy and personal space, is the same culture that elects state lawmakers who work tirelessly to enact restrictive abortion legislation.”
In the essay “Girls, Girls, Girls” she discusses the Lena Dunham vehicle Girls as well as women on television. “Girls have been written and represented in popular culture in many different ways. Most of these representations have been largely unsatisfying because they never get girlhood quite right. It is not possible for girlhood to be represented wholly—girlhood is too vast and too individual an experience.” She also adds: “There are so many terrible shows on television representing women in sexist, stupid, silly ways. Movies are even worse. Movies take one or two anemic ideas about women, caricature them, and shove those caricatures down our throats. Indie films provide the most expansive and feminist representations of women. Unfortunately Hollywood’s a sexist environment and there are less female writers, directors and producers making films and television programs than men.
Gay writes about serious matters such as violence against women in “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” where she addresses society’s desensitization. “While there are many people who understand rape and the damage of rape, we also live in a time that necessitates the phrase “rape culture.”) As I read about her dislike for the term triggers in the “Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” I fervently nodded in agreement. “Trigger warnings also, when used in excess, start to feel like censorship. They suggest that there are experiences or perspectives to inappropriate, too explicit, too bare to be voiced publicly.” In “When Twitter Does What Journalism Cannot,” Gay says: “Social networks are more than just infinite repositories for trivial, snap judgments; they are more than merely convenient outlets for mindless joy and outrage. They offer more than the common ground and the solace we may find during culturally significant movements. Social networks also provide us with something of a flawed but necessary conscience, a constant reminder that commitment, compassion, and advocacy neither can nor ever should be finite.”
In the essay “The Alienable Rights of Women,” Gay accentuates all the issues with birth control and women’s constant fear that we’ll lose every personal right for sexual freedom we possess. “Birth control is a pain in the ass. It’s a medical marvel, but it is also an imperfect marvel. Most of the time, women have to put something into their bodies that alters their bodies’ natural functions just so they can have a sexual life and prevent unwanted pregnancies.” Penny too tackles the attack on women’s bodies. She writes in “Anticlimax:” “The backlash against abortion access and contraceptive availability is a sexist backlash, rooted in fear of female autonomy and hatred of women’s sexuality.”
Both women are avid readers and both women like Kate Zambreno. I have Green Girl sitting here and must read it soon. Of Green Girl, Gay writes: “She wants to put her fist through a window but doesn’t because she knows that’s not what is expected of a green girl. She knows she is beautiful but does not necessarily feel her beauty inside. Throughout the novel, these tensions are brightly exposed over and over. At times, the novel makes it seem that to be a green girl is to be in a rather hopeless predicament.” Of Heroines, Gay writes: “They say that every writer has an obsession, and in Heroines, that obsession is reclamation or, perhaps breaking new ground where women can be feminist and feminine and resist the labels and forces that too often marginalize, silence, or erase female experiences.” And in explaining how her career intimidates men, Penny writes: “I would have understood what Kate Zambreno means when she says, in her marvelous book Heroines, I do not want to be an ugly woman, and when I write, I am an ugly woman.”
Women must be likeable which usually means not being terribly outspoken, loud or opinionated. And who wants to be like that? Both Gay and Penny often felt like (and sometimes still do) outcasts for various choices, career goals and how they express themselves. From “Not Here to Make Friends”: “As a writer and a person who has struggled with likeability—being likable, wanted to be liked, wanting to belong—I have spent a great deal of time thinking about likeability in the stories I read and those I write.” An unlikeable man in literature becomes intriguing, dark, compelling. An unlikable woman on the page remains perplexing, a complete outcast and rather hopeless. In her essay “Fucked-Up Girls,” Penny discusses her struggles with an eating disorder and the rampant desire for perfection combined with society’s unrealistic expectations for women. Penny writes: “Of all the female sins, hunger is the least forgivable; hunger for anything, for food, sex, power, education, even love. If we have desires, we are expected to conceal them, to control them, to keep ourselves in check. We are supposed to be objects of desire, not desiring beings.” Dark prospects indeed. The pressures of being female. She adds: “The perfect girl is a blank slate, with just enough personality to make her interesting enough to take to bed.”
Penny has been a young activist in various political movements such as Occupy and she pays careful attention to address gender, race, sexuality and class structure. She focuses on her activism and the underground cultural movement. The radical methods to address conflict and issues in our culture. She elicits a call to action for men to become involved in the feminist movement in “Lost Boys.” As someone who’s been cyberharassed for four years, I took solace in a kindred soul in Penny. In “Cybersexism” she boldly and rightly states: “The Internet creates offline prejudices and changes them, twists them, makes them voyeuristic, and anonymity and physical distance makes it easier for some individuals to treat other people as less than human.” She adds: “Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to abuse and silence others with impunity.”
The veracity of Penny’s ideas on independence and not giving in to societal expectations to couple up, have a monogamous relationship are poignant and quite how I feel as a never-married, childfree by choice feminist of 45. The entire chapter “Love and Lies” is a brilliant turn-about on societal expectations for coupling, for love to be the ultimate goal for everyone’s happiness and to sustain one’s own self and one’s own interests to be satisfied. This IS OKAY. Penny writes: “But I refuse to burn my energy adding extra magic and sparkle to other people’s lives to get them to love me. I’m busy casting spells for myself. Everyone who was ever told a fairy tale knows what happens to women who do their own magic.” And this: “We are all encouraged to feel sorry for ourselves if we are single, to consider ourselves incomplete, but women in particular are urged to consider themselves inferior if their time is not spent comforting and cosseting a man, and ideally children too.” What a sad sad thing. You’re still single? How about people’s obsession with Renee Zellweger, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston finding the “right” man, get married and procreating. It’s revolting and we need to revolt against it. Fight. Speak up. Be yourself and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re less than.
Laurie Penny reads at Harvard Book Store on Friday, September 26, 2014 at 7pm.
Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxanne Gay. Publisher: Harper Perennial [August 2014]. Feminism. Essays. Paperback. 320 pages.
Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny. Publisher: Bloomsbury USA [September 2014]. Feminism. Essays. Paperback. 288 pages.
Review by Amy Steele