October 2, 2007

Driving (and writing) while feminist

Posted in Books, Feminism at 2:39 pm by The Lizard Queen

Katha Pollitt has a new book out, entitled Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories.  It’s a collection of essays that covers a variety of subjects, from literally learning to drive, to googling an ex, to being cheated on, and much more.  I’m looking forward to reading it.  The New York Times Review of Books, on the other hand, published a review — written by a woman — that was not merely negative but anti-feminist, featuring some classic anti-feminist vocabulary (“shrill”) as well as old phrases given a new twist (the author identifies Pollitt as the species “Vagina dentata intellectualis,” which simultaneously horrifies me (how could one woman say that about another?) and makes me want to kneel down and learn at Pollitt’s feet so that someday I might be worthy of a similar epithet).

The book is being discussed this week at the TPM Cafe Book Club, and Pollitt herself kicked the week off with a response to the NYTRB review (emphasis added):

This, as I see it, is the pass to which we have come. Women can write about shooting heroin and being sex workers and spending years zoned out on prozac and having nervous breakdowns and hating other women and lord knows what else and that’s okay by feminism, as indeed it should be. But writing that you didn’t learn to drive for years and years out of technophobia and overreliance on men? Loving a man unwisely and feeling terrible for more than a long weekend when he left? Writing about how another person really got to you and how you even, OMG, googled him and the other women in his life rather a lot for a while, which is basically all that happens in “Webstalker”? Oh, that is so unfeminist–and from a longtime feminist political columnist too! That really undermines all our progress. Now we’ll never get the ERA.

Has feminism really become such a brittle, defensive, live-for-your-resume, never-let-them-see-you-cry kind of thing? If that’s true, and I hope it isn’t, the backlashers have truly won. They’ve gotten women to censor themselves to save society the trouble. Feminism, after all, was supposed to enlarge our sense of women’s humanity, in all its messiness and contradiction and individual truth; it was supposed to connect women to each other, and to men, in more honest ways. It wasn’t supposed to be yet another standard of perfection, a mask. Because look where that leads: In one way or another, every woman will inevitably fall short of the feminist-stalwart ideal, as every man falls short of the winner-take-all competitive capitalist ideal that is masculinity. If a writer censors herself to keep up the good name of womanhood, it is most unlikely people with a low opinion of women will be impressed. All that will happen is that other women think that they are alone in what are, in fact, common experiences.  This is the roundabout the women’s movement was supposed to help us get out of!

Indeed.  The full post is well worth the read.



  1. DavidD said,

    Are you sure Toni Bentley is anti-feminist? Based on what? It’s true, “shrill” is a cliche. I wonder if she thought of an alternative adjective regarding, “Men are rats,” rather than using such a cliche. Maybe she didn’t think about it, since it’s that quote that is the star of that paragraph, not “shrill”. Different people find that different words jump out at them from a paragraph like that.

    Might one say using any nonjudgmental words that, “Men are rats,” is an unhelpful hyperbole and overgeneralization without being judged sexist by Jessica Valenti? It’s too late to find out now. The moment has passed. Those involved are already talking past each other, bringing up old resentments that shoot down any chance for listening to each other. I learned a lot when my parents yelled at each other that way late at night. In the same spirit of combative speech, I just learned from Jessica’s blog that Toni Bentley wrote something about anal sex that some think disqualifies her from being feminist. I don’t care to track down this dispute more than that. But beyond those who are so judgmental about what is acceptable feminist sexuality and what isn’t, are you sure this is anti-feminist?

    It is an intriguing quote you highlighted about what feminism was supposed to be. One could make a stab at answering this objectively with what Betty Friedan had in mind with Feminine Mystique or any other milestone. I’m not sure that anyone has had a clear vision of how feminism and humanism fit together, however. I find it easy to be for women’s rights under the law, but no one would call me feminist. I don’t have a feminist agenda. I have a humanist agenda and a scientific agenda. I want women to prosper under these just as much as men, but that’s not enough to be a feminist, is it?

    Is feminism about equality? Is it about certain women or certain ideas being protected from criticism, even just harsh criticism? As a humanist, I don’t see Toni Bentley’s review to be harsh to an offensive degree, not in the way I find many things in the media and blogosphere to be offensively harsh, even if true. It’s harsher than is my taste, regardless of the gender of the target. Yet after the opening salvo, it’s mostly just describing the content of the stories, sometimes negatively as aimless and obsessive, sometimes with words of praise. Do you really think a hatred of feminism is the reason for this being less than 100% praise?

    Human beings have unrealistic expectations, regardless of gender, both for themselves and for others. Because of that I can sympathize with a woman exactly my age, as Katha Pollitt is, who has had to come to grips with her one true love having been unfaithful throughout their relationship plus realizing that she cannot cope with her feelings about this in a way that makes her proud. These sound like human truths to me, not just female ones. That might not be true of other stories like not learning to drive, though maybe that was partly a New York City issue, not just female.

    It’s also very human to talk about our emotional pain with cognitive distortions that come naturally to us, oversimplification, overgeneralization, black-and-white thinking, the sort of thinking that comes up with “Men are rats” and sees that as profound. Some people know better. People from my subculture wouldn’t call that “shrill”. They’d call that “delusional”, not in a mean way, but simply as a description of a metaphor that isn’t even true as metaphor. It’s a verbal expression of anger, in which many people say many delusional things. When expressed artfully, many people might be fans of that. I wish I could write like that. Yet anyone who is sufficiently past such a task in our psychological development might see such emotional exploration as juvenile, even aimless and obsessive. I don’t know that Toni Bentley is coming from such an enlightened place. Maybe she’s just the opposite and never has explored her emotions. Somehow from her accomplishments at ballet and her pictures that I checked to make sure she wasn’t a man, I doubt that she is blocked in her emotions. Katha Pollitt is guessing the problem is with her writing out of a weakness unfit for feminism, yet someone may see that weakness as “been there, done that” without such dispproval having anything to do with her being a woman, must less a feminist. People of both genders are forever seeing their problems as something more important than the simple complication of the human condition that their problem likely is. We all have emotional pain. We all find different ways to cover it up as well as occasionally express it. I admire those who can make money expressing theirs, but such popularity doesn’t mean someone understands the biology, culture, and maybe even spirituality behind their pain.

    I wish everyone understood that, “Men are rats,” is delusional in the Buddhist sense, even if it is more metaphor than psychotic in the clinical sense. There are problems with all these beliefs people think are so important, attachments, to use another Buddhist idea. So many people want their beliefs to be more than delusions and attachments, yet forever demonstrate that their beliefs are no more than that when they fight over them.

    My definition of “feminist” is whoever wants to call themselves “feminist”, much as my definition of “Christian” is whoever wants to call themselves “Christian”. Many find one or the other definition unacceptable. I can find a little common ground with them. It makes sense to say a Christian should have something to do with the historical Jesus. It makes sense to say that a feminist should have something to do with equality and freeing women from restricted cultural roles. There are some limitations to words meaning absolutely anything. But can’t a feminist still find Katha Pollitt’s writing aimless and obsessive, even worse? If not, then what line do you propose? Is such a proposal any better than Bible-believing Christians saying their way is the only way to be a Christian?

  2. DavidD said,

    I was reading more from your last link. I came across where Katha Pollitt demures that, “Men are rats,” was just a joke. Ah yes, I don’t think Freud got a lot right, but even he knew that nothing is just a joke.

    It is amazing to me that it keeps being repeated that Katha Pollitt is being criticized for not being stereotypically feminist enough in her writing. Where? Amanda Marcotte writes that Toni Bentley’s review says that, but it doesn’t at all to my reading. I went through again sentence by sentence. Amanda either read something else or she’s making her perception fit what she’d like to write. It wouldn’t be the first time.

    It’s like listening to the recent defense of Rush Limbaugh by various Republicans. They all absolve Rush with the exact same story, a story that doesn’t hold up if one goes to Media Matters and reads through the transcripts in question. How many people do that vs. just repeating the party line? I don’t know, but if few people bother to read the words that are actually written, that would explain a lot.

    I doubt that I would have exactly the same response to Katha Pollitt’s book as Toni Bentley had. I’m not sure where Toni Bentley is coming from. Maybe she calls herself “anti-feminist”, though I bet she doesn’t. Whatever the reality is, though, what is so terrible about calling a book aimless and obsessive? Why do these words morph into a claim that the author was attacked for not being feminist enough or for being feminist? I know the answers to that are a matter of human nature and of psychopathology on the part of those who distort reality into something their ego likes better, but I suppose even an assertion like that would be judged more on who says it first than in trying to understand the truth of it. That’s human nature, too. We are such different creatures than our cultural myths about ourselves. Sometimes we learn that about ourselves before learning everyone else is just as flawed. I suppose it’s more often the other way around, that we see the problems in others before we see our own failings. Everyone’s human. None of us are rats. Toni Bentley has her way of coming back to that quote. I have mine. It’s not to be anti-feminist. It’s to be human as we each understand that to be.

  3. j.b. said,

    I was shocked that the New York Times would publish something so misogynistic as Toni Bentley’s review of Learning to Drive, but I see the venerable gray lady used her usual strategy — she had a woman write it. Bentley’s anti-woman invective would never be tolerated if it came from a man, but supposedly the fact that a woman wrote it makes it somehow misogyny-proof. Apparently, Toni Bentley’s idea of good writing, at least what she displayed in her own book, runs along the lines of “Bliss, I learned from being sodomized, is an experience of eternity in a moment of real time.” Oh. I see. That’s what the female intellectual SHOULD be expressing: sodomy as a gateway to enlightenment. No complaints, or “shrill” whining. Just stick it in me baby, nothing could make me happier. Please don’t hurt me. Gotcha.

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