Friday, May 04, 2007

The Problem with Condescending to Young Women Is That They Might Figure out You're Condescending to Young Women

I have really, really tried to hold my virtual tongue about this, but I can't take it anymore:

What’s with the cover, the title printed across a woman’s bare torso?

I’ve taken a lot of shit about the cover—somebody called me a patriarchal whore. But let’s face it, no young woman is going to pick up a book with the woman’s symbol with a fist on it.


I bought this book at the relatively tender age of 22. And while I've written tangentially about that purchasing decision here, I think I should fill you in on some details I left out.

As many of you know, I was brought up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormon church. For instilling patriarchy in young women, it's a tough church to beat, though certainly there are plenty of contenders. A conversation I had with my Seminary instructor at the age of 16 will suffice to illustrate my point, however:

Me: Brother Searle, can I ask you a question?

That smug asshole, Brother Searle: Shoot!

Me: You said that in the Celestial Kingdom men will have multiple wives.

TSABS: Now, hold on--that's not official Church doctrine. It's just what many elders of the church think likely.

Me: Do you?

TSABS: It seems like this is bothering you, Ilyka. Does it seem unfair to you, perhaps?

Me: Heck yes it does.

TSABS: Well, let me ask you a question: If you're trying to raise chickens, how many roosters do you need?

Me: One.

Me: [stunned horror at realization that Seminary teacher is comparing people to fucking chickens]

TSABS: [smirk to end all smirks]

TSABS: So, you see.

But the thing was, I didn't see. I didn't immediately walk out of the Seminary building vowing never to set foot in it again. I didn't tell That Smug Asshole, Brother Searle, that his analogy was perfect only in the sense that indeed, he WAS a worthless cock.

Even though I left the church not too long after that conversation, a lot of Bad Ideas about how women are, how men are, and how women should be (but never how men should be) stayed in my system for YEARS afterwards as a result of my religious upbringing. You don't shed that skin all at once or overnight. It all bleeds out slowly. Especially if you're me and you're a little dumb-n-naive to begin with.

By 22, I hadn't been a Mormon for years. But I still felt that women should be gentle, kind, nurturing, and all that happy horseshit. I still felt that my relationship problems, which included a fractured nose and a black eye or two for lucky winner me, were 90% my fault.

I still endeavored to be: Pretty, gay (in the lighthearted and jovial sense), accommodating, gracious, generous, empathetic, cheerful, sparkly, fun, and, yes, sexy. I was as in the game as a young woman could be.

And I remember the first time I saw this cover in the bookstore.

--except it didn't say "Search Inside!" on top of it, BUT ANYWAY, MY POINT.

Yes. I saw that cover and I thought something like, "Holy shit, that's harsh. War? There's a war on us? It seems so extreme."

So naturally I had to pick it up to see what this crazy shit was about an undeclared war against American women. I mean, A WAR! Fantastic! Unbelievable! Preposterous!

And I read:

To be a woman in America at the close of the 20th century--what good fortune. That's what we keep hearing, anyway. The barricades have fallen, politicians assure us. Women have "made it," Madison Avenue cheers. Women's fight for equality has "largely been won," Time magazine announces. Enroll at any university, join any law firm, apply for credit at any bank. Women have so many opportunities now, corporate leaders say, that we don't really need equal opportunity policies. Women are so equal now, lawmakers say, that we no longer need an Equal Rights Amendment. Women have "so much," former President Ronald Reagan says, that the White House no longer needs to appoint them to higher office. Even American Express ads are saluting a woman's freedom to charge it. At last, women have received their full citizenship papers.

And yet . . .

Behind this celebration of the American Woman's victory, behind the news, cheerfully and endlessly repeated, that the struggle for women's rights is won, another message flashes. You may be free and equal now, it says to women, but you have never been more miserable.

Holy shit, I thought, that's true. That's what they say, in the women's magazines, on the news, in the movies--

And I kept reading for a couple more pages and then I motherfucking bought that book, me the beat-up ex-Mormon girl, me the mousy little codependent.

And I can tell you that I have changed a great deal since I was 22, and I can cheerfully admit that society also has changed a great deal since I was 22, and I can freely confess as well that I don't hang out with young people, that I'm 37 going on 38 and I spend more time kvetching that I don't get the kids these days than I do asking them what they think, what matters to them, what do they love, what do they hate. I am a grumpy old lady, that's certain. I am out of touch.

But I'm also dead certain that I would have recoiled from the cover of Full Frontal Feminism with a sneer of disgust and a pang of anxiety (my body doesn't look like that!) at 22. Unconsciously, I was searching for something that would help me make sense of my sex, and the last, I mean THE last thing I needed, was the cover of Cosmopolitan and the implied sexual availability in the title. I was already trying to look good for The Man, I was already making myself sexually available to The Man, I was trying so hard, and I was failing, and I was miserable, and I blamed myself, and I didn't know why, if women were so free, life seemed so fucking hard.

I respect Jessica Valenti--no, I admire her. Hugely. And I've got a link on the front page of Feministing, and I couldn't be more humbled-but-proud to have it. She's tons sharper at 28 than I was. Feministing is an invaluable feminist resource, and Jessica doubtless knows her audience better than I do.

But I hate, hate, hate that cover. And I find that defense of it--that young women need to be marketed to in the very same way women's magazines do it--offensive.

By the way, here's the last feminist book I bought, even though it clearly wasn't intended for my generation either. Gosh, I sure hope that defiant-looking young woman on the cover didn't scare off any of her peers.

Grumpy old lady OUT.

UPDATE: Recuerda, las mujeres jóvenes no les gusta el símbolo femenino con un puño:

First off this is my tattoo (Click here) I’m assuming all of you shall know what it is but for those few who read this and don’t It is the symbol for being a feminist.

I knew I wanted a tattoo, I’ve wanted one since I was a child even before I really knew what a tattoo was, I knew that having stuff drawn on my skin intrigued me and I always saw it as having a work of art on you forever. So I basically started counting down the days tell I would turn 18 and finally the day came.

I turned 18 on April 9th [this year--ed.]. Getting my tattoo was one of the bonuses of finally being legal besides being able to vote. (which had me completely giddy with joy and I sent out for my voters registration card a week before my birthday so I would have it as soon as possible) But anyway the tattoo was what I was looking forward to on my birthday.

I won't hotlink the photo of Elizabeth's tattoo--how rude would that be?--but I hope she doesn't mind if I reproduce it here:

Anyway the kids don't like it, that symbol, because it is so old-fashioned and ugly. They would never buy it.

WHAT'S THIS? ANOTHER UPDATE?: Yeah. So, it's like this: What I'd like to tell you, I can't really tell you, because it'd be betraying a confidence and I'm kind of big on my policy of not doing that.

But it's like this: You know how sometimes something will get buzz and media play, and then the person it was about, they are like, "Hey, I was quoted out of context?" And then, if you hold that person in low esteem, you sneer and go, "Sure you were, buddy--sure you were." But if you hold that person in high esteem--well, nowadays, you go search up the complete transcript on the internet and see for yourself. But if you can't do that, you probably think, "Yeah, that does happen," and you believe that person.

Have I mentioned that I hold Jessica Valenti in high esteem?

And there's another factor in this purely hypothetical situation, which is that feminists get this treatment from the media all the time. "Andrea Dworkin (or Catharine Mackinnon) said all sex is rape." "Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood to promote eugenics." You know the drill.

But I have to say, I'm pretty overall pleased with the comments, because the people who come here and drop me a line, they get it. This hasn't turned into a down-with-Jessica referendum. It's turned instead to what I think is the big question: How do we turn this around? How do we fix it so the next blogging feminist to publish a book doesn't get shoved between a rock and a hard place?

That's a discussion worth having.


arielladrake said...

Thank you. This recently-turned 23-year-old woman who bought The Beauty Myth at 16, is sick and tired of being told I and my contemporaries are so fucking clueless that they need to be tricked into feminism. I mean shit, yeah, I get cranky with women my age who buy into stupid anti-feminist shit, but there are women a chunk older than me who buy into stupid anti-feminist shit, and selling them books with naked bodies on them don't fix that problem.

Okay, so maybe there are some women, young and old, who are going to be better disposed to the book because of the cover. I'm not going to deny that, though there's questions there over whether that's the only image such folk would respond to, and whether there are better alternatives. Strangely enough, I'm okay with the idea that young women are diverse, the same way older women are diverse, the same way women in general are diverse. It's the 'no young woman does X' shit that pisses me off.

I mean shit, I'm not that damned special. Sure, it's a nice ego-stroke to pretend that I'm one of the special enlightened young women - just because it makes me feel special, doesn't make it true, and it certainly doesn't make it NOT condescending drivel.

Chris said...

You are on fire these last days, metaphorical sister o' mine.

Joie said...

I -completely- agree. As a 22 year old who does not look like the torso on the cover (or more accurately, whose torso does not resemble the one on the cover) I'm really wondering here.

I mean the first thing that jumps out (when I first looked at the cover) is that feminism is just another one of those things that is going to make you feel bad about yourself for being inadequate - which, I gather is the total opposite of what feminism is supposed to be doing for young women.

I love Jessica Valenti. I love that her writing can convey complex arguments and yet be incredibly accessible. I'm with you on the book cover hate.

ms. jared said...

thank you.

also, i was LDS too! and now i'm this hardcore radical feminist! take THAT bishop what's your butt. the backlash against mormonism is that when women finally snap out of it we go the whole other direction and THEN they've got trouble.


gennimcmahon said...

Taken separately, the elements of the book cover include a disembodied, unclothed female torso, writing meant to imitate lipstick or magic marker (in the way young women get athletes to sign their bodies, perhaps?), and the words "full frontal" in the title.

Anywhere else, that's the cover on a porn movie (VHS or DVD....).

When a movement, or the leaders/spokespeople of a movement, begins to cater to those things it decries, ground is inevitably lost. It's akin to writing a book explaining why racism is wrong, but putting a picture on the dust jacket of Aunt Jemimah and Uncle Ben dancing a jig in the cotton field.

ilyka said...

Hey, that reminds me--check out this slideshow at Slate I found linked at Slant Truth. It's trainwrecky, horrible but you can't look away stuff. And of course you shouldn't look away; that's our history, that's what some people want to roll us back to.

[wrestles ADD to the ground and choke-holds it for a second]

But, the cover: The depressing part is that Jessica was given several covers to choose from and this was the best of the lot (wouldn't you love to see the worst? In the way that you'd love to pull out your own fingernails, i mean), which tells me that getting a feminist title published in this country is no easier than it's ever been.

Like I said: Depressing.

Amanda Marcotte said...

For what it's worth, Jessica resisted that cover strongly, and the publisher overruled her. Basically, it's aimed at young women who don't think they're feminists, and that's the publisher's thinking---calm their nerves by having a little upfront patriarchal genuflecting.

gennimcmahon said...

So the real issue that I see here is that in order to publish a feminist text, we have to sleep with the enemy. The degree to which we have to do that is frightening, and takes us beyond the discussion of What Should Jessica Have Done and into the realm of placing bets as to how soon the Western version of the Taliban will come into full power.

How much of Jessica's message, then, has been diluted by the publisher? Do we buy into the idea that it's a shiny lure to draw in the elusive youthful feminist, or do we suggest that a deliberate decision was made to undercut feminism while appearing to offer it a (patriarchal) helping hand?

Anonymous said...

My read on the cover is that it would probably be about how porn is empowering and that the new wave of feminism is all about embracing your inner slut. It is fairly common in the publishing world to focus their efforts on attracting the male gaze, even if no "real" male would be caught dead with a book like that.

KMTBERRY said...

Wow, I am an old and wrinkled 46 year old, and I thought it was ME! (No, not that the Torso was mine!) I mean, I thought, "Huh. Is that really the cover? I can't IMAGINE Jessica picked that cover, or even APPROVED it....but I guess she knows her audience bettter than I do....what do I know about young people today! They are a mystery to me."

But it's TRUE! Jessica DIDN'T like that cover. It's the old, "We'll sign you to a big record deal, but you have to fire your band and dress like a slut and sing about sexy stuff" thing. (well maybe not quite that bad. I assume they left her TEXT alone).(Was this said to me in my rock star days? yes. Did I do it? No. Have I been relegated to obscurity? Yes.)

Well, I just wanna say I don't like it either, and I PARTICULARLY don't like the "Empower yerself with pR0n" aspect.

ilyka said...

Jessica DIDN'T like that cover. It's the old, "We'll sign you to a big record deal, but you have to fire your band and dress like a slut and sing about sexy stuff" thing.

Kathy, you are my hero, even more so now that I learn you were a rock star.

(well maybe not quite that bad. I assume they left her TEXT alone)

Oh yeah, I'm pretty sure any attempt to fuck with her text would have brought out the Queens girl in her.

Shinobi said...

Y'know, I see how some people (myself included) could be turned off by this cover.

The thing is, I think my little sister (19) would really like it. And if anyone needs to read about feminism it is her. She's young and attractive (looks like the photo, she got all the good genes)and when she tells me that a woman should never be president because women are too irrational I know she really believes it. I know she doesn't see a woman posing naked as some kind of bow to the patriarchy because she doesn't even know what the patriarchy is.

In fact it probably would help their cause that the book looks like Cosmo is marketing it, because any attempt to discuss anything serious with my 19 year old sister results in the response "Whatever, i don't wanna talk about this. I just don't wanna talk about it." So maybe having the book look like it is about as deep as a puddle will really work.

I know it seems condescending, and I know I wouldn't buy it if I didn't know who Jessica was but there are women who I guess need to be condescended to. If anything just because they are young and don't really want to deal with serious things. Coming at this book from the perspective of someone who is an adult and who knows about feminism it does seem kindof trite, but if I weren't me I might like it. I don't know, just a thought from a slightly younger feminist.

gennimcmahon said...

Shinobi--that's an interesting point. In email, Ilyka mentioned curiousity as to how my 15 year old daughter would respond to the book. Because she hears about feminism 24/7, I can imagine her response would be, "Omigawd, feminism AGAIN?" But, I think she wouldn't pick it up no matter what was on the cover since she hasn't yet moved past her need to reject what I stand for as she develops her own self identity.

However, I can think of several of her and my teenage son's friends who would read it based on *my* recommendation--irregardless of the cover. There's a point where no one can bear to listen to their family; but they do seek other adult role models.

I disagree with what I surmise to be the publisher's stance that the cover will bring anyone into the fold who is resistant to the word "feminism," and I think it more likely to drive away those who are conversant with feminist ideals and who would therefore find the image a turn off.

Lauredhel said...

I love that tatto, and elizabeth's post about it, and this post.

Quick question on the hotlinking: are myspace charging for bandwidth on image hosting? I hotlinked to that image in a post in my very low traffic personal journal, only because it was hosted at myspace hence (I assumed) not bandwidth-charged; and also because it gave elizabeth the option of later removing the photo, if she chose, and having her decision respected. And with appropriate credit, of course.

But if myspace is charging for traffic, I'll rethink that.

Heraclitus said...

Actually, I've never quite understood what hotlinking is. Is it just linking to an image on someone else's page (which doesn't seem any different from linking to their post, unless I'm missing something), or is it more complicated?

ilyka said...

Is it just linking to an image on someone else's page

Yes, but--

(which doesn't seem any different from linking to their post, unless I'm missing something)

--the difference is, image files tend towards the large in size. Larger file = more bandwidth usage everytime someone requests that file from the server--which is what you're doing when you click a direct image link--and that's a big problem if the author is paying for her own bandwidth.

If, say, punkassmarc has an image hosted at, and I hotlink it, I'm adding to his bandwidth costs without even giving people a chance to see the image in the context he chose for it. It's better/more respectful to link the html page on which the image appears.

Lauredhel's comment about whether MySpace charges for image hosting gives you a clue to the problem here. She is right that if they don't, hotlinking MySpace images is no problem. (Likewise, hotlinking any of my images is no problem--Blogger doesn't charge me for, uh, anything actually, including image hosting.)

I just don't hotlink images as a rule of thumb; that is, I figure I'm better off safe than sorry. Plus, I seldom want the image without the context. Like in this case, I wanted people to read what Elizabeth had to say as much as I wanted them to see the tattoo.

But let's say I did just want the image and that it was okay, copyright-wise, for me to use it: The thing to do then is to save the image file to your own drive and upload it somewhere where YOU are responsible for the hosting of it, so you're using your own bandwidth instead of leeching off someone else's.

Flickr's made a lot of this worrying unnecessary, which is why I use Flickr images 99% of the time when I need an image over at Pandagon. As long as you follow Flickr's rule about linking to the original Flickr page and don't violate anyone's copyright, you're cool.

Heraclitus said...

Okay, so linking to the person's post is okay (I don't think I actually know enough about computers to understand what the other, hotlinky and disrespectful option is).

ilyka said...

You got it. Here's the difference:

URL to this post, which uses Elizabeth's picture:

URL directly to Elizabeth's picture as hosted on Blogger, i.e. "hotlink:"

Like I said, in my case it doesn't matter; Blogger don't charge me nothing. But you see the difference? One link is taking you to a post which contains the picture while the other's taking you straight to just the picture.