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May 21, 2007

Jessica Valenti on "Full Frontal Feminism"


Triumph, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

An interview with Jessica Valenti, founder of the popular feminist blog feministing, in which she talks about her new book Full Frontal Feminism.

I haven't read 3F yet, but I'm already shocked at the avalanche of highly personal criticism that has been directed towards Jessica and her book during its first few weeks in print.

Jessica has been a good friend and colleague of mine for several years. So, the attacks are really getting my back up.

People who haven't even read the book are attacking Jessica because of who she is (white, college educated, attractive), rather than what she actually says in her book.

Yes, there are inequities in the world. Yes, white, college educated, conventionally attractive people have unfair advantages.

It's still unfair and counterproductive to attack anyone for stuff they can't control--like race or physical appearance. If someone is leveraging their societal privilege for the greater good, it's unreasonable to detract from their substantive efforts by harping on their biography.

Reviewers I trust assure me that Jessica does address issues of race, class, and sexual orientation. Which is what I'd expect, based on her work at feministing, and that of her co-bloggers.

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Comments

I've only read one or two reviews and haven't read the book. Do you have any examples of problematic reviews (or keywords I could add to a google search to get them, etc)?

I'm talking about blogospheric sniping, not published critical reviews. Some of the nastiest stuff is in the comments at Feministing on 3F-related threads.

I wish I could find the link. The blogger formerly known as Bitch|Lab, now QueerDude had a great roundup of 3F criticism. If anyone can post the link to that, I'd be much obliged.

Jill of Feministe has a more extensive discussion, which she undertakes with the benefit of having also read the book.

The established media write-ups I've read have been fair.

OK, I'll be the fall guy and remark on the fact that the picture doesn't depict Jessica Valenti below the neck....

Unreasonable, yet entirely predictable.

I've been cursed with the ability to do the math since, well, college. And it's always, every damn time always, a handicap in persuading self-styled progressives of my argument that I'm skinny and white. Oh, and the kind of objectively good-looking that makes the internet my favorite place to have an argument because it's the only environment in which I can debate what I think, not how I look.

Once I put myself through college, it became a problem that I'm class privileged as well. As in, What could you possibly have to say about ________________? Aren't you benefitting from that inequity?

Well, yes, which increases my obligation to address the issue rather than eliminating that obligation.

FWIW, I don't and won't read 3F or the blog. I don't read things by people when I already know what they're going to say, whether it's Paul Krugman or Bob Novak.

But as a white guy who was married to a black woman, I can tell you that many black women feel the same way about the feminist movement as they do about the Democratic party: as long as they let whites run everything, no problem. So while I would never hammer anyone for their race or education, I would most definitely hammer someone for paying lip service to a group which has historically gotten nothing but lip service. If that's what's happening here.

My guess, though, is that most people hammering her just don't like her and are using this as an excuse. What do you expect? Opinions bring criticism; strident opinions bring strident criticism. If you don't like the rules, don't play the game.

It just makes me sad to see progressives sniping against each other for no good reason.

When we get drawn into these vicious internal disputes over personal ephemera, we're fighting for the scraps, just like the establishment wants us to do.

PhoenixRising: I wasn't aware that there was such a thing as "objectively good-looking." I would've thought of that as a more or less incoherent concept, actually.

The first post you link to is funny, Lindsay, although it's cheap and unfair, I guess. The second one doesn't seem to make a particularly good argument, to the extent that it makes an argument at all.

Still, though, I can't help but get the impression, over and over again, that people are misunderstanding what the book is supposed to be. It doesn't appear to be for twentysomethings (or anythingsomethings) who are already well-versed in feminism or used to reading formal academic writing. Yet I see nothing but people complaining that this isn't The Groundbreaking Book that Puts Everything Right. Well, no shit. It's a pop intro book, right?

It just makes me sad to see progressives sniping against each other for no good reason.

When we get drawn into these vicious internal disputes over personal ephemera, we're fighting for the scraps, just like the establishment wants us to do.

I'm glad you take this position when it's not Amanda doing the unwarranted, unfair brow-beating, by the way. I think it's close to the right idea, but it ought to apply to everyone, not just the circle of established bloggers in your social network.

Just saying.

I think "objectively good looking" is a way of saying "unequivocally conventionally attractive." I don't know if Scarlett Johanssen is objectively beautiful, but any objective observer would admit that she meets most the physical criteria for being considered attractive by the average American in 2007--shiny hair, clear skin, big eyes, curves, etc, etc...

OK, so "objectively good-lucking" in the way that Dancing with the Stars is objectively an excellent television program. Got it.

typo, looking

Thank you lIndsey once again for taking a deeply complex and nuanced issue especially since you haven't read the book and turning it into your own perzsonal playground to be a condescending instigator.

Especially since you haven't read the book but there is no way no way peopel who have could have a proper and valid problem with it BEcaus eyou know exactly what all progressives need.

Stuff is usually easier to find when there are links, so I'll just mention that piny's post at feministe has links to a number of the critiques as well as some commentary.

From there, there are no doubt links to other things, but that one post has about 10, so that's a good place to start.

Yes, there are inequities in the world.

It's so fascinating that you can just compare the injustices in the 'world' together with FFF. As though those two things are equally important.

Yes, white, college educated, conventionally attractive people have unfair advantages.

So then, it is WOC critiques that you are referring to right? Tell me have you ever read a critical race reading of feminism????? Wait a second, you haven't even read FFF - so it's easy why you'd indirectly spew forth the idea that these WOC are just JEALOUS of the 'unfair advantages' that JV has... Without reading the book itself and then reading the criticisms of people who've actually read the dang thing! What a concept huh?

It's unfair and counterproductive to attack anyone for stuff they can't control--like race or physical appearance.

I guess we can all stop critiquing Rush limbaugh, bill gates, paul wolfowitz, george bush, cheney etc... Hey, it's only an "unfair" attack on old white guys with money?

If someone is leveraging their societal privilege for the greater good, it's unreasonable to detract from their good works by harping on their biography.

After colonizing my parent's country the good Christian missionaries assumed they were doing the same when they provided us with an edumacation, a GOD (instead of the 2000 or so we have), and medicine (after their diseases killed us!).

Go figure... Stop critiquing all the good ppl of the world.

What the hell is going on? Was just over at Lance Mannion's, some commenters are sure some kind of touchy. Does no one have a sense of balance or perspective, much less a sense of humor anymore?

It just makes me sad to see progressives sniping against each other for no good reason.

You know, after reading this post, I thought the exact same thing.

The second one doesn't seem to make a particularly good argument, to the extent that it makes an argument at all.

My argument was (and I can't believe I'm even going to try to advance this again) no matter what approach is used within that context -- theory laden academia or pop culture chic -- how the story is laid out and how it introduces women of color will affect how people perceive feminism and it will recreate the same problems established, theory whoring feminisms have in a new group of allegedly "oblivious" folk. A lot of what Jessica said in her book about marginalized groups of women and their experiences were either highly soundbyted or used as a one-sided illustration for a larger point with heavy remarks about solutions that wouldn't solve the overall problems of the construct she discussed. And when she did get to some substantive areas, it turned largely into the heavy history and theory whoring people are accusing her critics of introducing in their critiques.

My post also said that the way the book was constructed and presented illustrated more about what Jessica and her publishers think of her target audience than what some people within that audience would probably like to hear. And considering the book was targeted to a teenager to early-twenties demographic, and I am in my early twenties and know other women around that demographic who don't identify with feminism, I don't feel my remarks were far off or skeletal sniping at Jessica herself. She is the AUTHOR of the book. If any criticisms of the book get lumped in with her name, it's likely because she is the AUTHOR of the book. Not because I saw her eat sushi and omg fish are stinky, not because she gets her nails done every week, not because she's omg so hawt. People keep projecting their bullshit on other people's words.

And if you look at Petit Poussin's thread, you'll see why she did what she did. Especially if you take it in stride with the quote she placed under the photo. I honestly don't see how people can find problems with her satirical presentation of the book cover and uphold the actual one as a great choice without any problematic undertones.

This is all I'm going to say here. You decided to come link to my shit instead of just going to my blog and speaking to me there, so I don't see any reason why I should oblige any discussion beyond defending myself here. So snipe away at this shit; that's my take.

Thank you for responding further, Sylvia! I am not the most skilled reader of the type of writing in your initial post, and this made it much clearer. Sorry if I judged it too quickly.

I've repeatedly said that I'm not particularly qualified to judge the book because I'm a) not a young woman and b) at least nominally conversant with feminism already. So I really have no idea what would meet the concerns of her target audience, or if it will seem condescending or not.

The thing about Jill's post is, she's basically engaging in boundary maintenance. She doesn't link to all negative reviews of FFF, but does link to all of those the Feministe echo chamber will find unpalatable. It doesn't matter that Ama Lee of Feminist Review has a serious point to make about Jessica's fear-based rhetoric, or that I have a serious point to make about the book's failure to address the issues its target audience has with feminism. Ama and I both use terms that are anti-shibboleths for the left, so we can be vilified as insubstantial. At the same time, she left out other critiques, many of which are written in ways that could start a real discussion on the feminist blogosphere rather than in the mainstream.

Jill's not stupid. She knows that criticizing people who write to a non-blogospheric audience will never get her in trouble. My style of writing isn't one that develops big echo chambers willing to go to other blogs and trash their authors. Neither is the style on Feminist Review (or, I suspect, on Liberal Debutante; Katie and Ama both discussed the book with each other before reviewing it). However, criticizing Sylvia or Donna or BlackAmazon will get a significant part of the Feministe base riled up, and she knows it. So she tried sidestepping that problem by ignoring what they said.

At least, that's one angle.

On another note, I don't know what you mean when you say there are personal attacks. The closest I've seen is that Ilyka said Jill's sounding like Kos, with his "sanctimonious women's studies set" comment. In my review I deliberately avoided all the personal background; the only personal things about her I mentioned come from other publicly available pieces by her, which are way better than the book.

Alon Levy -

Can you give us a link to your review?

Alon, to be fair, Jill does seem to have at least somewhat acknowledged that.

That said, this strikes me as more or less a blogospheric version of what you see in traditional punditry all the time. Highly influential people in any media structure are going to tend to know each other, and a lot of them are going to like each other and/or feel like they owe or can gain from each other's loyalty. It's only natural, in that situation, to circle the wagons, give your friends the benefit of the doubt, and try to highlight the information that sheds the most positive light on them. I tend to think that there's a non-trivial argument that when you set yourself up as a public commentator receiving a lot of attention, you should forfeit any right to seriously following those impulses. But realistically, it's going to happen a lot, and it's not a deadly sin, at least to me as a reader. People should just be alert to it, criticize it when they see it, and always try to circumvent the back-scratching network when they want real insight on a member.

Eric: The Next Wave Will Have to Wait.

Aeroman: yeah, she did, after Sylvia et al forced her to. Giving her credit for that is like giving Nixon credit for withdrawing from Vietnam. The clique thing isn't any worse than in the mainstream, it's true, which is why I didn't criticize it until I read the book. I reasoned that stuff like Jessica's chronic inability to deal with criticism wouldn't matter if the book could reach out to her target audience. That's why I focused on Amanda and PZ in the echo chamber thread, even though my most precise examples come from Feministing. Then I got the book, saw it's crap, and started catching up for more than a month of muting my criticism of her.

The thing about Jill's post is, she's basically engaging in boundary maintenance. She doesn't link to all negative reviews of FFF, but does link to all of those the Feministe echo chamber will find unpalatable.

That's true Alon, but that observation undercuts your central point. Jill isn't complaining that people have substantive disagreements with Jessica, she's complaining about the really vicious personal tone of the criticism from some of Jessica's movement allies.

Of all the radical pathologies, infighting is probably the most pernicious.

Huh.

The interesting part of all of this for me is hearing everyone's opinions on why young women allegedly don't care about feminism.

For myself, I always thought the reason was:

1) Young women already believe they deserve equal rights, so they don't see feminism as adding anything ideologically on that ground.
2) Within the big tent of all intellectual trends that claim the label "feminism," some are really obnoxious, and really noisy. I'd go as far as to say really offensive and ridiculous.
3) The political right effectively trumpets point 2.

This combines to make feminism look like an intellectual movement for kooks, with mainstream culture as a viable alternative for women who simply want to go to college, get a job, and live a peaceful life.

There's also something in the mix about the Theory influenced style of argumentation, but I'm not sure I can put that into words well enough.

Jill isn't complaining that people have substantive disagreements with Jessica, she's complaining about the really vicious personal tone of the criticism from some of Jessica's movement allies.

But when Jill complained about the personal tone of some of the criticism, and seemed to ignore or dismiss the substantive disagreements, she further personalized and trivialized --- and inflamed --- the dispute, and this post of yours takes pretty much the same tack.

You're saying that the substance of FFF is being ignored, and that people are making unworthy ad hominem attacks on Jessica. I'm hearing a lot of people saying that the substantive criticisms of FFF are being ignored, and that people are making unworthy ad hominem attacks on the book's critics.

If the one is an example of pathological infighting, isn't the other as well?

In America, opportunism, like publicity, is neither bad opportunism or good opportunism-but it is opportunism. It is so deeply imbricated in the American ethos as a kind of neutral 'given' that even its most benign exponents cannot avoid the perversity of the appellation. It is the very essence of America where both hideous and good things can be rationalized as their opposites and it is omnipresent. As such, it is bound to make people of both good and bad conscience uneasy, or what is worse, easily overlook it for being simply the way things are: It is the American way of death.

You forgot to mention that Scarlett Johannsen has extraordinarily sensuous
lips and looks wondrous in a white blouse.

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