Don’t become a feminist. I mean it. Because then you might end up like Katha Pollitt. Wait, isn’t Pollitt an award-winning poet and columnist? Isn’t her “Subject to Debate” column what most of us turn to first when The Nation arrives? As the sharpest feminist commentator in the country, doesn’t Pollitt make feminism seem cool?
Not if you’re the New York Times Book Review, which has rarely met a feminist it liked. The former ballerina Toni Bentley, author of a book on the delights of crotchless panties and the epiphanies of anal sex (I quote: a “direct path … to God”), was assigned to review Pollitt’s latest collection of essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, and apparently didn’t like it. Fair enough. But Bentley, possibly disappointed by the lack of sodomy, used her review as an opportunity to trash feminists and to trash Pollitt for both being one and not being one who is stereotypical enough.
“Groaning and moaning from clever, sassy women has become a genre unto itself,” writes Bentley of feminist writings, “the righteous revenge of the liberal, pre-, during- or postmenopausal woman,” meaning that even feminists cannot escape from being governed by their hormones and their wombs. Feminists, as we know, are always angry and “shrill”; they are “enraged, educated women” whom Bentley labels “vagina dentate intellectuals.”
Back in the early ’70s when women’s liberation became a major news story, the most frequently used image to illustrate the movement was a woman learning karate; male editors actually insisted on this. That way, you could convey quickly that all feminists were threatening, man-hating Ninjas. Similarly, Bentley likens the feminist writer to “a kind of intellectual Mike Tyson” (now there’s an oxymoron!) whose “pugnacious prose is her lethal weapon.” But what feminists really need – heard this before? – is a good fuck. “[S]he is still not as likely to be seduced into bed as the bombshell bimbo, one reason she’s so irate.” Ignoring a host of recent feminist books, particularly those written by young women, Bentley cites Daphne Merkin’s essay about being spanked.
Bentley’s review is part of a robust tradition in the Times Book Review to stereotype feminists as single-minded, humorless ideologues who march daily to some shrine where we all genuflect before images of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and then impose a rigid dogma on all other women. In Karen Lehrman’s June 1997 review of Meredith Maran’s memoir Notes From an Incomplete Revolution, Lehrman informed readers that feminism, for women, is about being able to “spit, smoke and sit with their legs apart,” that “good feminism” invariably produces “bad mothering” and that the women’s movement has “a line” about how all women should behave. Feminism is “outdated, repressive and condescending.”
This wasn’t surprising given that Lehrman was author of The Lipstick Proviso, which argued that women should reject feminism because what feminism is really about is forbidding women to wear lipstick or pantyhose. Even in Laura Miller’s critical review of Lehrman’s book, we learned that a “handful of college professors” and women in “women’s studies programs” do fit Lehrman’s stereotype of feminists as “a battalion of scolding academics who condemn makeup.” What feminists want for most women, as the title of this review suggests, is to be “Oppressed by Liberation.”
Pollitt was also profiled in the New York Times Magazine, and here the focus was on whether Learning to Drive–a personal memoir about motherhood, aging and betrayal by her boyfriend of seven years – made her a traitor to feminism. Did admitting to her fear of and inability to drive actually reinforce stereotypes about “female ineptitude and ditziness?” What did her “girlish confession” about her anguish over her boyfriend’s philandering “say about the current state of feminism,” as if one person, however prominent, stood for millions of others? Pollitt was also asked about the proliferation of nail salons, as if that somehow indicated that women no longer want equality.
Why is it unimaginable that the millions of feminists in this country might be complex people? That they might also have a sense of humor? Feminists, especially in the age of Bush, couldn’t make it from one end of the day to the next without a sardonic joke and a good laugh. Indeed, as Pollitt’s new book lays out in often eloquent and unsparing honesty, women – even ones as formidable as Pollitt – remain pulled between the powerfully competing ideologies of feminism and anti-feminism, between feminism and femininity.
Women, especially young women, are not about to give up the gains won by feminism, but they also see the costs of failing to conform to a narrow, corporate definition of femininity. This ongoing negotiation of defying yet acquiescing to prevailing norms about what a good, enviable, worthwhile woman should be is the story of most of our lives, nearly 40 years after the second wave. Stereotypes of feminists such as those proffered by the Times misrepresent and demonize women of all ages who continue to push for equality of opportunity for all, which has yet to be achieved.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.