Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Feminist With Eight Toes And Other Fun Tales

I woke up today to Ana Marie Cox's review of Katha Pollitt's new book in the New York Times. Otherwise it has been a wonderful day.

Cox doesn't like Virginity or Death:

Strident feminism can seem out of place — even tacky — in a world where women have come so demonstrably far. With Katie Couric at the anchor desk, Condoleezza Rice leading the State Department and Hillary Clinton aiming for the top of the ticket, many of the young, educated and otherwise liberal women who might, in another era, have found themselves burning bras and raising their consciousness would rather be fitted for the right bra (like on "Oprah") and raising their credit limit. Katha Pollitt is the skunk at this "Desperate Housewives" watching party. Her new collection of essays, "Virginity or Death!," culled from her columns for The Nation over the past five years, shows her to be stubbornly unapologetic in championing access to abortion and fixated on the depressingly slow evolution of women's rights in the Middle East. In the midst of our celebration of Katie's last day, Pollitt is the one who would drown out the clinking of cosmo glasses with a loud condemnation of the surgery available to those women who would sacrifice their little toes the better to fit their Jimmy Choos.

I've called myself a feminist for years. I've elbowed my way into more boys' clubs than I care to remember and I once participated in a piece of street theater in support of Anita Hill — something else I'd just as well forget, actually. But the first thing I thought when I read Pollitt deride the false consciousness of pink-ectomy patients (O.K., maybe not the first) was "Does it really work?" While I hesitate to consider myself representative (and no, I would never actually do it), the ability to hold a predilection for stilettos and support for abortion rights in one's head simultaneously seems suggestive of today's compromised, complicated feminist mind-set.

Let's unpack this post-feminist pink little purse. Strident feminism is "tacky" because we have token women in high places? Would it be ever so tacky and depressing of me to remind all of us that the number of women in politics and in the leadership positions in the media is indeed very tiny, small enough to fit into the most expensive Jimmy Choos? It's so boring and unfashionable to "stubbornly" try to defend the vanishing abortion rights? Sure. Why not go with the flow and start a firm designing really fab maternity clothes for all the pregnant mothers who didn't really want to become pregnant. Yeah, that's the ticket. They can wear tiny shoes, too. Choice is good, ladies. And to talk about all those poor women in the Middle East: such a downer. We can't help them so why bother our beautiful minds with all that shit (to paraphraze Barbara Bush the Elder). It's not fun.

The big problem with Pollitt's writing for Cox seems to be that Pollitt is b-o-o-o-ring. She's all serious in her wittiness and righteously angry and not willing to entertain the great appeals of anal sex. She's so 1970s, you know, and we don't want to burn bras anymore. We prefer bras that make our breasts the vanguard of the new feminism. Which is whatever we decide it might be. Oops. I forgot in this revelry of nasty writing that nobody actually ever burned any bras in that distant and evil-smelling unfashionable era, and that someone writing about feminism really should be aware of that. And about the meaning of the term "Ladies Who Lunch":

I'm sure Pollitt doesn't care if she's welcome at the next gathering of the Ladies Who Lunch but Still Protest Getting Paid Only 73 Cents on the Dollar. If self-described feminists choose to wear "excruciatingly high heels" and submit to Botox, Pollitt sees a charade: "Women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about."

This may be the book's most cogent statement, though a headline in The Onion put it better: "Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does." But there's a world of difference between choosing to wear heels that require foot-soaking and choosing to cut your toe to fit your shoe. When women dress up damaging choices as empowerment, it weakens feminist argument. But when feminists start lecturing about wrong choices, it lessens their numbers. I wish I had an easy answer about how to navigate between stridency and submission. Then again, I wish Katha Pollitt did too.

Do you notice that odd switch in these quotes? In the first one Cox argues vehemently that all her choices are ok as feminist choices, that Pollitt should write funny stuff which doesn't grate on women who hold two opposite ideas in their heads about what feminism means. But in the second quote she laments this very same fact. So what is she actually trying to say with this review? I'm not sure. Or rather, it would be most evil of me to write out in longhand what I think both provoked this review and got it accepted. Heh.

Are there any grains of wisdom to be had by a careful pecking of this review? Perhaps. We need to have an information campaign that teaches people what feminism actually entails. We need to encourage people to read some older books on feminism so that they can find out what those horrible hairy-armpits actually said. We need to stop thinking that anyone equipped with a vagina somehow automatically knows the history of feminism and all its possible definitions. We have already stopped thinking this about those equipped with penises, by the way.

A good start would be to point out that the idea of feminism as choice should be interpreted to mean that women ought to have the same range of societal choices available to them as men do. It does not mean that anything a woman chooses to do is a feminist act. Just think if a woman chose to start wars against countries without any excuses. Now that wouldn't be a feminist act at all.

Or take the example Cox discussed in some detail, the one about women who are willing to have toes cut out in order to fit into sexy shoes. My take on feminism is not to condemn the women who do this, but to ask why such an act would seem like a good idea in this society. What is it about the society that makes some women willing to have amputations for the sake of shoes? Is it something similar to what caused the footbinding in ancient China? And if it is, what can we learn about the way the societal norms work on women?

Which is a long way of saying that I heartily welcome my eight-toed feminist sisters. But I will still discuss the wider issues involved in how they turned out that way.