Why I am not a feminist: ‘A toothless . . . movement’
Jessa Crispin goes out on a limb in her call to dump the feebleness of ‘empowerment’
Jessa Crispin: The author wants to return to a feminism that is spiky and full-hearted. Photograph: Chuck Kua
The last days of feminism? Among white American women, more voted for Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto
Jessa Crispin is unafraid to puncture the dream of feminism. In Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, she argues that feminism has moved from a radical philosophy to a marketing campaign of almost catatonic self-regard.
In her convincing but occasionally frustrating book, Crispin insists that feminism has become as toothless and discomfiting as a cute Super Bowl ad, a movement completely commodified to sell women items ranging from the banal to the bizarre. But women are freer, more liberated and successful than ever before, so what’s Crispin’s problem, exactly?
It’s a timely question: 53 per cent of white American women who voted in the US presidential election gave their vote to Donald Trump, known sexual predator, beauty-pageant owner and orange-skinned embodiment of everything feminism is against. According to Crispin, this is the result of a gutless and deficient philosophy that encourages women to be “empowered” but disregards conversations about what they should do with that power.
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Modern feminism, Crispin says, allows us to claim all our choices as feminist, to use feminism to forward our personal brands and, crucially, to speak for other women rather than listening to them. It’s a general lack of understanding, or refusal to work towards understanding, that is her main gripe.
She asks: what does feminism offer women without ambition, women content in the family home? She rightly disregards sympathy as the default position: “It’s always going to be easier to pity someone for making different choices than you than to try and understand why they made the choices they did.” She wants to return to a feminism that is spiky, full-hearted and less individually focused, a feminism characterised by unfashionable women whom the current wave have distanced themselves from.
Most frequently, Crispin longs for empathy, lack of judgement and an ability to identify with people who don’t resemble you because “surrounding yourself only with people who agree with you leads to degraded thought”.
Unlike some contemporaries, Crispin is under no illusions about women’s individual achievements and what that means for our place in society. According to her, we still work under the patriarchal definitions of what success is; without an alternative framework, we still have that system’s values.
It is easy to look at predominantly male environments and declare that the twin dangers of greed and power would be alleviated by a heavier female presence, but it’s simply not the case. Women have risen to top positions in Silicon Valley, not by defeating capitalism and decrying sexism, but by sleeping under their desks and cutting their own workers’ maternity leave – then justifying their selfish behaviour by writing snappy books extolling the virtues of “girl power”.
Crispin is at her most persuasive when she highlights this disparity, urging us not to admire women who conduct themselves as badly as their male colleagues. These women are not our heroes.
She also criticises the surface, sorority-like aspects of this feminism that discards individuals freely and easily if they don’t obey or unify. If you agree with a certain agenda and use certain language, suddenly you’re in. One wrong word and you’re out again. Goodbye and take your problems with you – you are no longer worthy of our support. It is all part of an online outrage culture that permits no mistakes or misjudgments.
Crispin seems uneasy and, at times, disgusted by the denigration of men on the internet, pointing out that they are similarly burdened by the idea of who we want them to be. “With revenge,” she advises, “nothing will ever be enough.” You only have to take a quick glance through history to learn what happens when one group’s pain demands the pain of others in retaliation. Instead, she suggests, we should use our energies to build something more constructive.
The problem with Why I Am Not a Feminist is that the author has so few ideas about how to go about building a new feminist framework in a consumerist society. And she is undoubtedly wary on the subject of misogyny-motivated crime. Still, having worked for several years at Planned Parenthood, she knows that helping vulnerable women isn’t slogan-based but hard, thankless and, often, private work.
Crispin brings the same level of thoughtfulness and conviction to her writing. She acknowledges that it’s all more complicated than we are willing to admit. And offers sound advice: never listen to anyone who sells you an easy narrative.