Where The Bad Feminism At?


I. On Why Life Is Shit

Sometimes, after I read about another man who raped another woman I respect, I think about an idea I read once in a Marie Calloway article that female separatism is the event horizon of feminism. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I visit this idea like a vacation. It drapes over my mind like a beam of afternoon light, like the hazy dream that it is.

Unfortunately, I’m mostly straight. Fated or doomed to want men, depending on the day. It can’t be a coincidence that most of my closest female friends have expressed, at some point, that they wish they were born a gay man. I’ve said it too, and for me it’s less the wish to be a man than the sublimated desire to be attracted to people who aren’t also your oppressors. To unshoulder the burden of politicized power dynamics in a way that straight girls, regardless of the membership count in the rec league of male feminists, never will.

Never, at least, under patriarchy and the Intersectionality of Why Life Is Shit (also known as white-supremacist capitalism, or insert your preferred awkward phrase here) that patriarchy is married to right now. And reading this essay was all it took to convince me, years ago, that we’ll be living under the consequences of WLIS for more years than can be claimed in one or ten lifetimes, unless we self-destruct first. To paraphrase Tumblr’s resident genius Lazenby, just look at how long it took for most of the human race to become literate.

The printing press, Wikipedia informs me, was invented sometime around 1045 AD. Nine hundred and sixty-nine years later, I learned almost every true thing I know about feminism from reading the internet, the only liberal-arts program that moves faster than a Tinder swipe. I divide the semesters of my education by the websites that I frequented: finding Tiger Beatdown at nineteen was like crashing a junior course without taking any pre-reqs, and early-era Jezebel compensated as a witty, accessible entry into F-101. Right after I turned twenty, the girl-cult that rose around the new classic I Love Dick whispered into my ear and it was my Book That Changed Everything (I wasn’t the only one).

When a Philosophy in Literature professor for an actual college class asked me, after I turned in a paper declaring Zorba The Greek to be artless masculine trash, to recommend some books by female authors for future syllabuses, I sent him a link to Chris Kraus’ Wikipedia page. He never replied.

II. On 3014 AD

It wasn’t until I got a Twitter account in 2012 — and suddenly had easy access to the smartest women — sex workers and queer women and women of color and combinations of all of those checkbox words for the vastness of Othered existence — that I realized the decrepitude of what passes formainstream feminism right now, its insidious uselessness. The appropriation of radical rhetoric by agendas that secretly, smarmily hate women: that’s my millennial feminist inheritance. That’s the third wave.

The third wave is “sex-positive,” a concept that seems like it could have been invented by the Koch brothers, a mainstreaming of female “empowerment” without the redistribution of any actual power. Just slap some rhetorical window dressing on normative sex dynamics and call it progress; call it done.

The third wave is a PC spin on the status quo whose primary purpose is to bolster the bank accounts of rich men. It’s a white man talking on a major feminist platform about why “jizzing” on your face is A Good Thing while doing everything in his power to silence black women. It’s blonde ladies who cry for solidarity while condescending to women who aren’t in their demographic zip code.

The third wave is a listicle that a hot, smart girlfriend of mine posted on Facebook called “28 Most Iconic Feminist Moments of 2013.” Ever-curious about the thought processes occurring in minds other than my own, I clicked. The #1 moment is — spoiler alert — Jennifer Lawrence inspiring women to love their bodies. (The irony inherent in a thin white actress congratulated as a feminist heroine of body acceptance goes unremarked. This isn’t J. Law’s fault but it might be ours.) The rest of the article positions internet criticism of a Robin Thicke music video and a tampon commercial alongside “International Outrage After Gang Rape in India Sparked Historic Change In Laws.” Iconic!

But the only reason I still remember this list at all is moment #26, in which various women’s groups created a petition for Facebook to “remove its gender-based hate speech.” I quote: “Seeing the potential damage this could do to the company’s brand, Facebook issued an official response. In it, the company recognizes that ‘systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work’ and vowed to correct the problem. This was hailed as a huge feminist victory.”

I remember staring at that last sentence for a solid minute. It’s a phrase that has dropped into my head, randomly and incessantly, nearly every day since I read it. This was hailed … as a huge … feminist victory. If the biggest Big Brother of corporations “vowing to correct” a problem-not doing anything but vowing to-is a huge victory, who wants to win? I’d rather hang myself from the bleachers. In a game with such low stakes, victory’s as cheap as the minimum wage.

Which is a useful metaphor, because almost every “issue” can be clarified through the lens of money, and actually has to be if you want to get at any truth. Here’s some: Poverty rates are higher for women than for men. Women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic groupsBlack and Latina women face particularly high rates of poverty. Over half of all poor adult women are single with no dependent childrenElderly women are far more likely to be poor than elderly men. And that’s just in the United States.

This isn’t “problematic.” It’s The Problem. The Ryan Gosling meme economy can wait. I Don’t Care About Your Corporate Feminism and I’m drowning in a million words about the sexualization of Disney Girls and it’s difficult to picture what a “huge feminist victory” might actually look like and I think I’ll just go to sleep, I’m so tired, someone wake me up in a hundred years.

Sometimes I think about the trajectory of feminism, which is thought to have begun with the first wave, around the start of the 19th century. That means the modern feminist movement has been around for about 214 years, and if we pretend that the third wave ended on Jan. 1st, 2014: three divided by 214 equals an average of seventy-one years per wave. The better part of a century, and we’ll be well dead in a hundred years; between now and then is the world that I’ve got, and I’m a materialist at heart. The only real question to me is what’s possible right now.

But as soon as you start taking the idea of possibility seriously, it’s hard to resist becoming an armchair futurist. Sometimes I think about the girls who’ll be coming of age a thousand years from now, which would situate them, in this cosmology, in the middle of the fifteenth wave of feminism. In 3014 AD. The apocalypse as a thought experiment is the easy way out; I think it’s far more likely we’ll go on and on; we’ll merge with robots until we’re more machine than flesh and maybe then women will finally witness the disappearance of rape, poverty, violence, and VIDA.

In the meantime, I’m scratching at my skin and wondering — where the bad feminism at? Where you hiding?

III. On Getting Paid

I already have an idea of the answer, although right now it’s more of a hypothesis than a theory. It’s hiding in the best writing on the internet. The girls slash women I admire most among my peers are subversive in ways that are distinctly post-empire. Cat Marnell might vocally support Terry Richardson but she’s so much herself it’s intoxicating; her writing is its own drug. She’s self-made and directing her own shitshow of a life, doing exactly what she wants to do and send God the bill, and what looks ignominious about that act to basics feels vital to me.

Like plenty of people who lost the white-male lottery, my ideas became radicalized through the self-centered desire to do what I wanted; and from there, out of the necessity of becoming a whole, full person in order to do that. In a culture so diseased, the starkest struggle in feminism is converting yourself. To not only stick your finger down your own throat again and again, purging whatever poison you’ve internalized — but to find a way to feed yourself replacement ideas for those parts of your insides, and to do all this while managing to remain alive. Surviving in a world filled with the worst thing in world, other people.

Rashida Jones famously told women to stop acting like whores but I want more women to start thinking like them. Because being beautiful is still the inherited job of every woman but sex workers are the only ones getting paid; and in case you’ve never tried it, appealing to straight men, especially in an extreme (and extremely anhedonic) Maxim way, is real work.

Reading the French feminist Virginie Despentes on this unpaid effort felt like a fast slap in the face. From her book King Kong Theory, emphasis mine:

“Whether walking around town, watching MTV or a talk show, or flicking through a women’s magazine, you will be struck by the explosion of the outer-limits slut look—and very attractive it is too—cultivated by lots of young girls. It’s a way of apologizing, of reassuring men. These kids in G-strings seem to be proclaiming, “Look what a hot girl I am, in spite of my independence, my culture, my intelligence, all I care about is pleasing you. I can do anything I want, but I choose to alienate myself through these efficient seduction strategies.

We thought you’d approve.

And Despentes summing up the last decade of pop feminism in a single paragraph:

“Never before has society demanded as much proof of submission to an aesthetic ideal, or as much body modification, to achieve physical femininity. At the same time, never before has society allowed women so much physical and intellectual freedom. The overbranding of femininity is an apology for the loss of the masculine prerogative, a way of reassuring ourselves by reassuring them. ‘Let’s be free, but not too free. We’re happy to play the game, we are not after your male phallic power, we don’t want to scare anyone.’ Women spontaneously put themselves down, hide what they have recently acquired, play the seductress, fit back into their role all the more blatantly since they know, deep down, that the whole thing has become a sham.”

When I was a desperately-broke twenty-one-year-old I got a job as a receptionist that required me to be sitting at my desk by nine a.m. Which is a normal hour for the straight world but was absolute torture for the nocturnal party girl that I was. Even worse, I quickly realized that the reason I had been hired had nothing to do with my resume — which did not, and still doesn’t, include a servile attitude towards other people in exchange for a slave wage — and everything to do with the fact that I happened to be conventionally-prettier than the other interviewee, who was fidgeting across from me in the lobby that day and whose interview lasted about two minutes.

It was obvious that the job requirements encompassed being a front desk decoration, and subsequently I started putting on my face and brushing my hair at nine a.m. every day at my desk. One time my male boss informed me that the CEO was flying in the next morning and asked me to not put on makeup at my desk that day; I complied by showing up without any, in the frumpiest business-casual outfit I could find (my employment didn’t last long).

That gig forced me to consider that beauty is labor, and work for what? Approval from men is not exactly its own reward, unless you’re getting something else from the deal, something you actually want or need (like, for instance, money.) Validation, like a diamond ring, is something women have been conditioned to want from men; but taken alone it’s about as tangible and useful an offer as a craigslist internship for “experience.”

IV. On Complexity

And yet I continue to put work into the way I look, which is fairly femme, with a concomitant and envy-tinged respect for women who don’t. Like all women, I can contort into being more conventionally pretty through sheer, straightforward effort; but style is a skill, a magician’s trick, and I can’t stand inhabiting my body without a dash of the glamour it endows.

If I can’t eradicate my socialized desire to be desired — if I deep-down suspect that I was closer to being born into a degree of alienation from my body than choosing it — then there’s at least a real aesthetic pleasure to be derived from the knowing contrast. Self-presentation as a foil for the self, myself, a molten human core neither masculine nor feminine, a little strip of pavement over an abyss; and I deep-down suspect that even John Wayne felt the same way.

I think it’s true what they say about knowledge and power, and to recognize the performance you’re playing is to understand that it can be wielded like a weapon. Power is an exchange and I admit to wanting more of it than my checkbox-identity is generally allotted.

It’s not the only emotional resource that’s been unevenly rationed. In the internet’s most recent Demoralizing Incident, the journalist Natasha Vargas-Cooper published a personal essay about dating a man with a mentally unstable ex-girlfriend. She writes, “Misty would eventually bring violence into my bedroom, and violence is ugly, and it brought out something terribly deformed and ugly in me.”

She goes on to admit to sheer anger, to pettiness, to an obsessive infatuation with the man in the equation, and to her attempts at armchair diagnosis; in short, to all of the unfeminine but deeply recognizable and utterly common failings of adults. And right on cue, hoards of scandalized self-righteous commenters descended in a wave, immediately summoned by the piercing dog-whistle of female transgression.

The general sentiment, among both men and women, seemed to be — “How dare she??!” To which I’d like to respond, as a public service announcement, always and forever — “I dare you.”

V. On Solid Solidarity

My first boyfriend as a legal adult was an elitist hipster, five years older than me. True to type, he had respect for nerdy preoccupations without any deep investment in them, and an utter disdain for all things feminine and frivolous in pop culture; but like a true elitist, his sensibility was genuinely idiosyncratic, his taste fascinating to me. As a teenager who spent her adolescence in a perpetual, profound alienation from the suburban-Christian ethos that was my birthright, I was just another dumb young thing who assumed that a boy knew better. Better than them and, though it took the dissolution of my first self to realize it, better than me.

When I met him I was still burning on angsty teenage fumes, bleached and smeary-eyed like Courtney Love with a lip ring. But he had that vice, rampant in boys everywhere, of declaring what he did and didn’t find sexually enticing like it was a revelation from God, and he soon informed me that the “natural” look was better. I dyed my hair and stopped wearing makeup. He told me he liked “just a little of that eye stuff,” and bangs, and “soft, girly” style; I got bangs and stopped wearing my favorite oversize leather jacket. He told me he didn’t much like my friends; I actually spentmore than one Saturday night watching him play video games with his.

Now, when I look at pictures of myself during that time, I see a caged pet. My face piercing is long gone but the scar is more stubborn. Now I assume that men don’t know much, least of all about things that matter to me, until they force me to reconsider. Usually they don’t.

I’m not alone. To the discomfiture of men everywhere, many women (at least the ones in the tiny corner of the internet that I care about) seem to be mobilizing around a communal malaise; maybe we’re finally tired of watching the bloody wreckage of third wave feminism’s dismal failure wash ashore while we put on tanning lotion and argue about televised award shows. But in investing our time and energy into vocal discontent with The Institution of Men, maybe we’ve got it backwards, or at least sideways.

The writer Gabby Bess recently tweeted something I’ve been thinking about ever since:

It’s stuck with me too. I don’t know this particular man but I’ve known plenty with the same mantra, the ones who never want to war with you, babe, because they’ve been winning for longer than our revisionist history can remember, and they’re always the most threatened by this concept. Lately it seems like the most feminist thing you can do when it comes to clueless men is to just ignore them; competing with men to give support and encouragement to the women I respect, like, or love — that’s the only vision of solidarity I can solidly get behind. New vectors of validation, a feminist theory of attention economics: it’s something possible right now. It’s a start.

image ­ Mike Atherton

This post originally appeared at Medium.com.