A cleansing fire
Jessa Crispin’s ‘Why I Am Not a Feminist’ demands a dismantling of mainstream feminism … and the system itself
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The figure is old news: 53% of white female voters in the US opted for Donald Trump, many of them self-declared feminists, asserting that it was their choice, as feminists, to cast their vote where they wanted. This ought to be a self-cancelling scenario, a trigger for system collapse: how does a feminist vote for a misogynist? And what is the value of the term “feminist” if this is what it does?
The potential redundancy of the term, its double standards and ineffectiveness, has provoked Jessa Crispin to reject the label. In her new book, Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (Black Inc.; $24.99), the author of The Dead Ladies Project and founder of the literary magazines Bookslut and Spolia delivers a scorching polemic against the limitations of the dominant feminist attitude. Her rebuke heralds the revival of a radical position: “the feminism I support is a full-on revolution”, “a cleansing fire”.
Mainstream feminism, Crispin argues, is in crisis. It fails to address the everyday concerns of women. It has become so diluted and forgetful of its own radical history, so preoccupied with presenting a non-threatening image, that the assertion of consumer or voter choice is taken as a major feminist act, even if that choice is Trump.
Crispin’s manifesto is not a helpful guide or a how-to book. Rather, through a series of declarative and often incendiary arguments, it presents a case against mainstream feminism. This is a feminism that is associated with the white middle class, and fails to speak to, or on behalf of, anyone outside that category. Her overarching argument is that mainstream feminism, in its effort to become “universal” and appeal to a broad audience, has become banal: a simplified movement without a strong political or philosophical foundation, one that belongs to the self-declared “bad feminists”, the kind that wonder whether you can “be a feminist and still have a bikini wax”. It is a feminism that belongs to the corporate woman focused on breaking through that glass ceiling. It is a feminism that despite isolated moments of outrage ensures women present themselves as “harmless … toothless”, “lovable” and “fuckable”, a feminism that seeks to deliberately distance itself from the vision of the hairy, man-hating ogre of the second wave. This universal feminism is ineffective in achieving any kind of real social change. Crispin takes it by the jugular and shakes it for all it’s worth.
Her role here is that of the myth-buster, and her leading target is feminism’s misguided goal of self-empowerment. The pursuit of this goal, Crispin argues, places feminism within the anxieties of self-help culture: the drive for self-empowerment demands a focus on the individual, removes the person from their social context and sidesteps the challenge of interrogating a patriarchal system. It’s not only the goal that is the problem here but also the way in which it is attained.
Self-empowerment is closely aligned with independence: the achievement of one heralds the success of the other. But the attainment of each is relative to one’s capacity to make choices. Having a choice therefore becomes a feminist aim. The real limitation, Crispin argues, is that choice tends to be celebrated primarily in relation to consumer power. The logic underlying “choice feminism” is that not so long ago women didn’t have choices, because decisions were made by men, so to simply assert their decision-making power is a feminist act, irrespective of what they’re choosing.
Choice feminism raises the issue of women in the workforce. Employment for women meant (and can still mean) an escape from the domestic realm, “an expanded life”. It was hailed by the second wave as a guarantee of independence. Yet Crispin argues that women succeed within a patriarchal system only by adopting the role of the patriarchs themselves. For Crispin, the limitations of the mainstream feminist project are closely linked to the idea that women triumph in a patriarchal system only through mimicking the patriarchy that was once despised. This is a feminism that “springs from self-interest, that is embraced because it more easily gives access to power”. Once inside the systems of power, Crispin argues, women (and men) rarely attempt to undermine it. Instead their presence alone is seen as progress, and the focus remains metrical: how are women doing in the marketplace?
The fallout of self-empowerment choice feminism runs deeper, with the very language of contemporary feminism relying on the language of power: “Girls need to be ‘empowered’, women need to fight for ‘self-empowerment’.” But, Crispin asks, what is this power supposed to be “used for”? The question is not often asked, because the answer is assumed: the power will be used for “whatever the girl wants”, with that choice taken as an inherent good in and of itself. The problem here is that if we are raised in a culture that privileges money and power and a certain kind of beauty above all else, and if feminism offers no real alternative to this, then money and power and beauty – namely, fundamental values in a patriarchy – will be what the girl chooses.
Little good appears to come from the drive for self-empowerment and independence. In Crispin’s narrative the quest for this particular kind of freedom has led to profound isolation and the decimation of support systems. It has caused us to break away from communities, and from large families in search of nuclear families, only to break away from nuclear families “to become individuals”. In the process, essential networks have been lost, and the good feminist, forced to go it alone, has nevertheless managed, because, you know, she is so damned strong she doesn’t need men or family. Now she has the maverick independence to “go bankrupt, to be socially isolated, to be homeless”, too. The resulting society is a “consumerist mindfuck” where the free (and moneyed) independent woman can now plug “the holes in her heart and soul with shoes and limited edition crop tops from Topshop”.
Another of Crispin’s concerns is the misidentification of the enemy. In mainstream feminism, misogyny is always the villain – a simple and external target. Pointing the gun in this direction means you don’t have to hold up a mirror. But Crispin argues that in the frenzy of outrage culture we too often fail to recognise the role women play in internalising misogyny, and overlook the ways in which women support the continuity of patriarchal systems. Women “don’t have to think about our rage or our capacity for violence” because we isolate those problems and attribute them to men. Targeting individual acts of misogyny is to mistake the symptom for the cause, and that cause is the very “system we live in, a system that rewards competition and violence, a system that devalues compassion and care”. Feminism is mistaken in thinking men are the enemy: what’s at fault here is the larger system itself and feminism’s inability (so far) to come up with a viable alternative.
If women voted for Trump, Crispin has argued elsewhere, it is partly because feminism has failed them. This is not a disenfranchised vote, but one that signals feminism’s uselessness, its failure to change mindsets. Nowhere is this failure more apparent than in its lack of moral imagination: what vision does mainstream feminism offer, Crispin asks, of how to live outside the systems of money, employment and romantic love? If feminism’s real mission is to “transform culture, not just respond to it”, any real change must “begin in the imagination; you have to give people the chance to imagine a better way of living”.
And so, we might well ask, what alternative vision does Crispin offer us? Crispin’s assertion of such all-out failure must be understood relative to her goal. What she aspires to is nothing short of a total overthrow of capitalist and patriarchal culture. Her aims in this sense are utopian (if admirable) and rather vague: if we want to make a better world, the very foundations need to shift. She states that we need to move away from a culture premised on competition, that “rewards inhumanity, encourages disconnection and isolation”. We must “stop telling each other stories that equate money with value”, we must “stop going up to the patriarchy and asking it to value us”, we must “lay claim to the culture, occupy it”, we must “reclaim our imaginations”. What’s at stake, Crispin argues, is the overhaul of the whole order.
Crispin only makes statements that aim to bring the whole edifice down in flames. Such zeal comes with the territory of the manifesto, and the book’s title gives licence to elaborate on this revolutionary intent, critiquing universal feminism in order to dismantle it. In keeping with the history of the manifesto, Crispin’s remonstrative rhetoric defines itself against the establishment, though it’s harder to say what, exactly, she’s for. This is partly the riddle of the title, which reads as a contradiction in terms – a feminist manifesto about why she is not a feminist. Yet precisely because of the mainstream disavowal of the radical, it’s unlikely that Crispin would have found a mainstream readership to challenge and incense had she called the book ‘Why I Am a Radical Feminist’.
It’s also the case that, in the absence of a clear vision for the future of feminism, a turn to the negative reflects the present reality: we know what we oppose, but don’t yet know what a radical fourth wave might look like in its fullest manifestation. This is what Crispin wants us to imagine.
Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is The Other Side of the World.