Saturday, July 5, 2008

What I Know (For Now)

Last week I wrote an article that synthesized my most basic notions of feminism and reactions to a very intense event into one piece that somehow got catapulted across the blogosphere. Josh and I are the first people to admit that this blog is more personal than anything. A few weeks ago someone from The College Blog Network wanted me to do some platform work with him, and he asked me a set of questions, including who we consider our audience to be. The thing is, Josh and I write for ourselves, we don’t sit down and consciously type up articles that are targeted at a certain demographic. We don’t put that much forethought into it. I write what comes to me, and I post it, and some people just happen to read it.

But when your audience grows, maybe you have to make some mental shifts to incorporate them into your line of thinking. I don’t want to censor myself, but ever since the whole Jezebel fiasco I feel a much deeper need to explain myself: what do I mean when I say that Moe and Tracie are my “heroes?” What kind of feminism do I believe in? Does it stray from Jezebel philosophy at all? In some ways, I’m grateful for this opportunity, because this existential crisis has been a long time coming. I’ve written a ton of articles on sex and feminism on this blog, and for NYU Local, but ever since the whole Shoot the Messenger thing - and Lizz Winstead calling me out for “backpedaling” on my criticism on The Huffington Post - I’ve decided I really need to put some serious thought into these issues. And of course, since I’m a millennial, that process is going to unfurl in a public forum.

Here are the basic things I know I believe about feminism and sex:
  • Women should be equal to men in all aspects: in the workforce (including equal salaries), at home, in society.
  • Women should be able to enjoy sex in the same way a man does. We should be able to make our own decisions about who we sleep with, without the criticism of society.
  • Women should be allowed to talk about sex without being considered slutty. We should learn about our bodies so we know what we like and don’t like. This extends to comprehensive sex education.
  • Women should not be forced to conform to societal beauty standards, and instead should make choices about our character and appearance that stem from our own desires of how we should look.

But here is where it gets complicated...

Using sex to gain power: This is probably one of my more controversial beliefs as evidenced in this article. This is where I break away from traditional Old Guard feminism. I used to staunchly believe - though now I’m not so sure - that because women are at a disadvantage in society, we should be allowed to use our assets in order to gain entry into public spaces we may have previously been barred from. I borrowed this line of thinking from women in Iran who are against forced veiling laws, but instead of outright protesting, choose to wear the veil so that, as women in a society that inherently distrusts and hates women, they can at least achieve the best possible life that they’re allowed. If we have this thing - our bodies, our sex appeal - that we can use to wield control over the patriarchs in our life, then perhaps there’s nothing wrong with using that to our advantage. Nancy Pelosi knows what I’m talking about. The trouble comes when you become known more for your body than your mind. It’s a delicate balance. And maybe using sex appeal to manipulate men is societally acceptable, almost desired, dominance wears lipstick, etc. Maybe that’s why everyone hated Hillary so much - because she refused to conform to basic notions of female sexuality and use those to her advantage.

These are things I’ll need to think about, talk about in posts to come, and above all - read about. Jezebel, Feministing and random galleys Josh brings home from his job are no longer going to be my primary sources. I’ve read a couple books on feminist theory, but they mostly centered around sex and porn. If anyone has books on further feminist topics you think I should read, I’d be happy to hear your recommendations.

So the thing about this post is that I was too quick to deem Moe and Tracie my “feminist heroes.” I’ve been an avid Jezebel reader and commenter for awhile, and I certainly agree with much that they purport through their writing on the site, but perhaps I didn’t think about the repercussions of idolizing people who don’t want to be idolized. Because that’s the point, isn’t it? They don’t want to be role models, and so they just plain don’t act like them. Some of the commenters questioned my desire to “live like Moe and Tracie,” i.e. supposedly promiscuously and drunkenly. But that is in NO WAY why I look up to these women. I rarely drink, and though I’m pretty liberal about my sexual beliefs, I can count the number of people I’ve had sex with on one hand. I am not stupid. I am young, but I’m not stupid. I don’t see Moe and Tracie and immediately want to emulate them and thus go out to a bar, get hammered and hook up with some guy. I look up to them because they know themselves, because they do live this lifestyle, and they are proud instead of ashamed, and above all, they are so fucking honest about it. They make choices that women 100 years ago would have never even considered making, and then they write about them in a graphic and detailed way in a public forum so that we can all decide how to parse our notions of feminism, sex and women. That is why I respect them: because they are strong women writers unafraid to voice their opinions and histories so that other women can make their own decisions.

So I do look up to them, or I did, I’m not sure: Tracie wrote on her personal blog that she was “disappointing” 21 year old girls in the audience at Shoot the Messenger, like it came as some big shock that girls would look up to her. But she and Moe put themselves in the public eye with their writing, opening themselves up to criticism, but also to respect and admiration. I regret pumping them both up with false ideas about who they are and what they believe in, because of course I would be let down. But Moe and Tracie, if you’re reading this, you have to understand that girls do look up to you, whether you want them to or not. I’m 20 years old and I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who consider you two little short of their “feminist heroes.” And that’s what happens when you write for a massively popular blog; you have to be willing to take the admiration in stride - whether it comes at you through a positive lens or in the vein of “disappointment.”


Winstead did accuse me of “backpedaling” my criticism, which is totally true to some extent. Originally I was absolutely thrilled that Tracie and Moe took the time to comment on a piece of mine - I mean, I'm a 20 year old unknown NYU student who writes a blog almost no one reads. I fully admit that I did incorporate some of what they pointed out in the comments into my post, and while it did have to do with an element of starstruckedness, it was also mostly just to entertain this notion of fairness. Unlike many Gawker or Jezebel writers, I actually care about pissing people off, as in, I don't really want to do it. At all. But I guess that's the trouble with honesty.

It's mostly just that I am so fucking confused about who I agree with at this point: I don't mean it in terms of this one argument, but instead concerning Old Guard philosophies vs. New Wave ones in general. I think that my beliefs borrow from both ideologies instead of fully agreeing with a specific one, but this is obviously something I need to work on figuring out. I just hate that it has become this sided thing, women with feminism on the brain splintering off into different factions to squabble about the fine print.

When I boil this down to the simplest of facts, what I do know is that I have always been a strong-willed advocate of honesty. I appreciate Moe and Tracie and Lizz for being honest about their beliefs on the state of women today. I am attracted to Moe and Tracie’s writing because it is no holds barred, in your face, a big Fuck You to furtive secrecy. I grew up on secrets, and so I’ve always rebelled with honesty, even strangely so, even to the point where it might hurt. We might not agree with each other on various feminist premises, but at least we are being honest. And to me, that’s the most important thing.

-Jess

Here are the videos of the discussion Lizz posted:


29 comments:

Duncan said...

lets get together and talk about feminism! I live down the street! (We don't have to talk to anarchists if you don't want to!)

-Duncan

`nk said...

Really enjoyed this, Jess. I think it's one of your best posts.

Here are some readings i'd recommend:

Donna Haraway - Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (Ch. 7: 'Gender' for a Marxist Dictionary')

Teresa De Lauretis - Technologies of Gender (Ch. 1: Technology of Gender)

Judith Butler - Gender Trouble (Ch. 1: Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire)

The chapters in parentheses are the only ones i've read. If you want, i can email you pdf's of those chapters; that way, you can print them out and scribble all over them. If you'd like them, just let me know on here, and i'll email them to your NYU account.

Jess and Josh said...

nk - I would looove that. My roommate is doing a lot of gender and communications study so she sent me a lot of her readings from Steinhardt classes, but I'd love to have as many as I can get. jessicaroy@nyu.edu ; thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

Ah, Donna Harraway! I love her, but that shit is hardcore.

If you want the basics: Backlash (Faludi) is still incredibly relevant, I can't even read the style section of the NYTimes without being all "cyclical anti-female backlash bullshit anecdotal non-story" every two seconds.

A Room of One's Own is great, The Second Sex is amazing, if you're interested in specifically sex-positive feminism Susie Bright is always good.

To be honest, a lot of what I think of as my "feminist consciousness" came from reading biographies, esp. "Zelda" and Anne Sexton's biography.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Listen, you're clearly bright and articulate though the writing is a little valley girlish.....maybe you are trying to "dumb it down".

In any case, your laundry list of basic things about feminism and sex" are based on a singularly naive point of view and a selfish one.

The world is more layered and complex and guess what? It's not just about having a sexual filter to view this world. The bottomline is that men and women are different, and that difference is reflected in our power structure and in our interaction, for better or worse...and the difference cannot be legislated, or culturally altered just because you and the Jezebel gals want to have unlimited sex. So deal with the fallout of your actions, but forget the pie in the sky "women should".

Jess and Josh said...

Anonymous:

I fully admit the world is more layered, which is why I wrote this post acknowledging that I'm trying to learn more beyond the basic things I believe in now. If you read it all the way through, you'll see that I am NOT a girl trying to have unlimited sex. (i.e. "I can count the number of people I’ve had sex with on one hand." and saying I don't look up to the Jezebels because of their risque lifestyle) I believe in sexual freedom, but saying that I personally want to view the world in a certain way so that I can fuck whoever I want is just not accurate. I agree with you that the way I see things now completely lacks nuance, which is why this post was meant to serve as a flagpost navigating my own personal discovery concerning feminist issues.

As for the fallout of my actions, well, I'm not really sure to which actions you're referring, since all I did was write in my personal blog about my personal feelings, however selfish those may be.

Jess

Anonymous said...

Jess,

I love your blog. Don't put yourself down as "just a student" because you're a fantastic writer and your blog has more to offer than a lot of big name blogs.

For some good texts, I'd recommend Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy if you haven't read it yet. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolfe is a bit dated but still relevant. Bitch by Elizabeth Wurtzel really needed an editor but still goes some valuable places. I second Susan Faludi and also would add Katha Pollit and bell hooks. In terms of bloggers, I really like Bitchy Jones; even though her blog is specifically tailored toward dominant women, she has some fresh things to say about feminism and sex in general.

Anonymous said...

Before you label yourself as a feminist, I would urge to carefully consider and explore the historical roots of the feminist movement. At times, feminism has gained momentum in ways that have been incredibly antagonistic; towards men, towards the working class, towards racial and ethnic minorities and towards other women. I am not trying to belittle the importance of the cause or in some way insinuate that women don't deserve equal rights with men, but, I cannot deny the fact that throughout America's history, feminism has been synonymous with middle class, Christian white women. What significance does this bear on the credibility of modern day feminism? That is for you to decide.

Additionally, as one of your interests concerning feminism involves sexual liberation, I would urge you to consider this in a more sexually neutral lens. You believe that "women should be able to enjoy sex in the same way a man does," but what does that mean for a lesbian? Can women as an entity be equal to men while gay marriage is still being debated and contested throughout our nation? Can women be considered equal to men if the sexual relations of lesbians are still considered taboo?

Again, my words are not meant to be scornful, and if you have already familiarized yourself with feminism's trajectory in the United States, than I suppose they have been rendered useless. But either way, I think that before anyone decides to label themselves as anything, they have to consider the weight of the word.

Anonymous said...

Jess,

You hit it out of the ball park with this one. I wish I was able to be as coherent about these things when I was twenty as you are here.

Don't feel weird about being confused on really complicated issues. I still am often, and I've had fifteen more years to figure things out. If you are creating a patchwork quilt of beliefs from a bunch of different ideologies, you are learning in the richest, most flexible, most independent and most open-ended way possible. So kudos.

I've cooled quite a bit on Jezebel. My disappointment comes from the increasing shrillness of the commenters as well as from the fact that the site's stars make a point to write "honestly," yet seem so dishonest with themselves about their own cynicism and low self worth.

Have you ever read http://www.feministe.us/blog ? You might like it. Discussion there is a lot smarter and a lot more civil. The content there is also less slickly capitalistic than Jezebel's. I don't have any connections whatsoever to the site, just wanted to pass on a tip since others had some good book suggestions.

Cheers

Sara Benincasa said...

Jess, from one evolving feminist to another, I think you're the bee's knees (well, I think your writing is the bee's knees. You may be an axe murderer in which case you are not in fact the bee's knees, but I am assuming you aren't.)

Comedy is complicated; blogging is complicated; figuring out how to represent oneself in the world, whether onstage, in writing, on radio, on television, or in person, is fucking complicated. You're thinking about great stuff, and prove with every post that you're anything but stupid.

Glad Nate from the Apiary linked to you. I'll be checking out your stuff from now on.

Best,
Sara Benincasa

Linda said...

Hey I came across your site while fishing around for some commentary on the Tracie and Moe incident. Your writing is kind of like looking in a mirror, and I respect a lot of the things you have to say. My advice since you asked about other feminist reading: I also went to NYU and I took Gender & Sexuality courses for a minor and it definitely gave me the tools to talk about the things that matter so much to me. I'm not sure if you've done this already, but even basic courses will cover all the big thinkers of feminism and give you a good background in feminist theory. While you're in school, you might as well study the things that actually really interest you. If I could go back, I'd double major in order to take more Gender classes.

Anastasia said...

I've been reading a few blogs, commenting on this particular incident.

Jess, you might want to check out what this woman has to say about it. I thought she had some good points. http://coletteslovebytes.blogspot.com/2008/07/night-feminism-died.html

It seems like there are a lot of disappointed people out there. I wonder if Jezebel will lose any readers.

What do you think?

elaine said...

Hi Jess,

Just wanted to say that you are a fantastic writer and that I really appreciated your recap on the night's events. I unfortunately couldn't attend, but a friend of mine who invited me said it was probably for the better anyhow.

I guess the only thing I can take away from this, after watching the recaps and being absolutely aghast at both their behavior on the show and their behavior on this blog, is that they're still figuring stuff out for themselves too. It's a little tragic that it had to happen in such a public forum, but I guess it's good to remind ourselves that no matter how smart and put together these women sound on the blog, they are people. And people do shitty things like get rip roaring drunk and blab about experiences they haven't fully accepted or worked out for themselves in their own minds.

Anyhow, you're in good company. Company being "I really like Moe and Tracy's writing, but this was pretty scary to watch, but I still like Moe and Tracy's writing."

Rebecca said...

Hi Jess - First off, I really don't think you need to apologize to anyone for calling yourself a feminist or for writing anything that you have. None of us have all the knowledge, so don't discount yourself just because you have more left to learn.

As for books, I would avoid Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Bitch." It's a mess, and if you read her following book, she admits to writing it while drugged out of her mind. If you're interested in gender v. sexuality / biology v. psychology, I recommend "Sexing the Body" by Anne Fausto-Sterling. She's a biologist who writes about feminism.

Anonymous said...

It may make you feel better (or not) to remember that there is always squabbling amidst powerful movements. Don't feel as though you have to place yourself in a particular camp--you're saying Old Guard vs. New Guard, when really, depending on whose math you're doing, you're part of the third or the fourth wave of feminists. And there's always been discord within those movements. But don't worry about it. Aligning yourself with the "right" movement isn't important; what's important is that you continue to do what you're doing--stay open minded, keep a critical eye out. And read, read, read, read, read. Anything you can get your hands on. Your instinct to go beyond the blogs is a good one. A feminist friend of mine never quits her reading--her favorite text, in case you want to give it a go, is THE MERMAID AND THE MINOTAUR, by Dorothy Dinnerstein. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Jess,
I just happened upon your blog and its totally great. Don't worry about being young and still figuring stuff out....thats the only way to actually figure it out. Its fine to feel bummed occasionally by your "heroes", it means your still making your own decisions. I would also recommend Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth". Theres a part where she talks about the whole "using your sexuality to get places" thing and it kind of comes down to the fact that some women will and some won't but tearing other women down for it isn't going to help anyone. Its a rule that can be applied to a lot of aspects of feminism.
Keep on writing!
-Caitlin

Anonymous said...

The great thing about this experience (for you) is that you now have our attention. I am a 29 year old who lives in Mississippi. Random, no? Now you have an audience. I linked here from huffingtonpost, like many. I viewed the videos of the controversy before reading your original comments and edited remarks (that seemed to backpedal your criticism of the Jezzies). Never edit yourself, especially to please another. Trust your instincts. Admire the Jezzies if you want, but there is far more to admire about yourself than anything I see in them. Those ladies were ridiculous and did nothing to progress the conversation. You, on the other hand, should stop to people less articulate than yourself. Soon, you will be calling them dinosaurs. - Jen

salty sea said...

Jess,

"Backlash" by Susan Faludi is such an important book. while i think it's best to move past the anger of oppression, her writing on the world's failure of women is beyond insightful. she also debunks many myths that shockingly are still running around strong today. (myths that continue to harm women in very real ways.)

also think it's equally important to read the book Faludi wrote directly after "Backlash," called "Stiffed." it's about the male experience. faludi's equally wise in her writing on men.

encouraging men to examine their lives and collective experience the way feminism has encouraged women to feels key to creating the kind of society we (feminists) want. sometimes feels like the feminism-haters don't realize that the principles of feminism, while they were articulated for women, benefit EVERYONE.

ps- i'm another one whose visiting your blog for the first time due to the huff link. keep writing. it's very inspiring!

Shanna said...

This was very insightful. We're all still working it out even your feminist "heroes" and I'll admit I admire Tracie's honesty more than any particular subject she writes about.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jess,

I highly highly highly recommend that you look into Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde if you're interested in feminism as it relates to racism, and the interlocking oppressions related to difference, privilege, abuse and resistance.

I majored in women's studies in university and this collection of speeches and letters was assigned reading for my feminist theories class.

And kudos to you for your thoughtful and articulate writing. Keep it up.

audrey said...

Hi Jess,

I came to your blog from the HuffPo and was going to comment on the Gloria Steinem post.

...I'm glad I waited to read this clarification.

The backpedalling in your original post really bothered me, but I entirely understand why it happened.

One of the great downsides of online media expansion and the ability of 'ordinary' people to be launched into celebrity is the breakdown of the fourth wall and how it suddenly changes the relationship between writer and critical reader.

All of a sudden, writers can be engaged with in recurring discussion. I see this as mostly a good thing, but it does create an illusory relationship between writer and reader that can lead to dishonesty and sycophantic behaviour, especially when what is essentially an internet forum suddenly starts to feel like a friendship.

You yourself described the HOLY SHIT factor that occurred when Traci and Moe commented here, and I bet you felt awkward that they'd think you were being mean or something. When people feel that previously inaccessible idols or what not are suddenly in reach, the only natural desire is to try and form some kind of tenable relationship with them even if only as mutually respectful writers.

But mostly (as I think your backpedalling demonstrated) what actually ends up occurring is the death of accurate criticism because suddenly you don't want your idol (whose, like, in the next room having tea!) to pack up their bowling and go home because you said something they didn't like. The Royal You, btw.

I don't know how many of Traci's commentors are known to her, but there's an awful lot of smoke blowing going on over there. Even if it's warranted, the desire by some to eradicate anyone who dares disagree with her is pathetic at best.

I really like the considered way you've reapproached this issue. You say you admire Traci's honesty, but you have it in spades. I really don't want this to sound patronising, so please don't take it that way, but I really hope you'll stick to your guns next time and remember that honest and fair criticism (which your post was - you were a witness to the entire event, you wrote what you felt at the time) should in no way be diminished or later edited because it's being seen by the people you're writing about.

By all means, change your mind later about the way you feel but please don't let it be because you're a little starstruck. Your writing and honesty is too good for that. You can love Traci and Moe all you like and still be critical of them. It's not going to kill them, and if they're half the people you think they are they'll take respectfully worded reactions like yours as they're intended - even if they disagree.

As for books, for something different I recommend Persepolis. It's a memoir rather than a feminist text but it's rather elegant in the way it portrays kick ass Iranian women and men bucking the system in their own subtle ways - as well as showing the reader that very few things as we've been raised to believe are true.

PS Sorry for the epic comment..
PPS Oh look at my word veri. "jrgon". There's something in that for all of us I think.

audrey said...

Also, it's worth mentioning that internet anonymosity can be a huge reason why people backpedal as well, especially if they had no idea their post would be read by those it concerned.

Commentors have a huge responsibility not to act in reactionary pacts. Some people would rather pack up and go home than have to duke it out with rabid self appointed bodyguards out for a pat on the head by their idol.

If their arguments are utterly brainless then say so - but it's probably not necessary to call them 'cunts' and 'whores' while doing it.

Anonymous said...

here's the thing...as you get older and more confident, you won't care if you hurt someone with your honesty. it's not being bitchy, it's claiming your voice. many years ago, women weren't allowed voices. don't think small- it's nice that someone read your blog and commented on it. you're still the same writer you were before you got the attention. if you work on finding your voice, using it when you feel it's important and never(ever) back down because you feel you should be quiet or nice- you will then understand what being a woman is all about. each woman defines feminism in her own way...let your voice be your definition.

cv said...

Hi Jess-- I haven't seen/read everything about this controversy, but I have read your pieces, and I wanted to reiterate what a few other commenters have said-- your writing is great...not only is it fluent and expressive, but also it lets readers see you learning, questioning and coming to new understanding(s). I appreciate your view of things, your dismay, your efforts to give people the benefit of the doubt, and your efforts to figure out what they should be held accountable for. So good for you. And your readers.
Also, just wanted to add that Lizz Winstead is one of *my* feminist heros. She defended me and other victims of rape by being incredulous at her guests' comments and attitude. And I have seen several shows of hers/with her in the cast over the past 10 years or so, and she has always been 'out there', pushing about sexism, racism and classism, before these topics were cool to address. What I think is interesting about Winstead is that she presents herself as a comic/comedy writer, when in fact she is more a political analyst and critic. She is actually really knowledgeable-- a bit of a policy wonk even. It's always seemed to me that under the jokes there was a genuine sense of horror, and yes anger, at people who either refuse to 'get it' or who squander their privilege by taking it all too lightly.
Thanks for not taking it lightly, and for sharing with your readers.

Anonymous said...

Jess,
Are you seriously only 20 years old? Because if that's true, then the person who criticized you for being "naive" and for writing in a "valley girlish" style needs to shut up. I'm 26 years old and only started university a year ago, and I don't think that I would be able to articulate my beliefs as well as you have here. You're impressive.
:)

Anonymous said...

You back-pedaled your back-pedal, which is kind of impressive.

I don't know--I am with you on this. I love Jezebel and Tracie's blog for very similar reasons--mostly because Tracie is a fantastic and honest writer.

However, wouldn't it have been cool to fuck the naysayers--and instead of fixating on the drunken let-down that was Tracie and Moe, we maybe looked at why people are so freaked out by this fiasco and why many people think they can beat on Moe for making a choice that works for her?

One shouldn't have to apologize for their ireverance and you shoudln't have to apologize for what and who you like to read.

Anonymous said...

The level of irresponsibility and inanity propagated by your heroes is, for many, nothing short of depressing. Wise-cracking about sex and tv does not make you an intelligent participant in culture. It.just.doesn't. Entertaining, maybe, like TMZ or some other such tripe, but nothing more than that. And, honestly, Tracie can't write. She strings together words, but that doesn't qualify as writing.

Anonymous said...

Jess, I just wanted to say good for you for struggling with these issues, goood for you for writing about them, and good for you for knowing that your beliefs don't and don't have to line up with anyone else's. Keep thinking and writing; don't be deterred by the strong reactions that you get. These are hard topics, and being willing to listen to what others say and really consider it is something that all too often gets lost. I struggle with the same issues (at 33) and am often saddened by the hardness of the dialogue, so it touched me to see the honesty in your struggle.

mew

donmiguel said...

I'm late to the party -- but allow me to join the chorus. You're a great writer. I just spent the last hour inside your words and it was grand. To echo another commenter -- you're 20 years old. You're ahead of schedule, really, in terms of figuring things out. Please keep writing.