Thursday’s lesson: how progressive historical change happens, plus Lena Dunham.

elvgrenlibraryFirst, Lena Dunham!  As usual, Rebecca Traister explains it all:

There are American presidents who have come in for less scrutiny than Lena Dunham. There are heads of major banks whose work to erode the possibility of middle and working class stability in the United States has drawn less criticism thanGirls. There are sitting Supreme Court justices, men who have recently disemboweled the Voting Rights Act, whose intelligence has been insulted less sharply than that of a 28-year-old woman who created and stars in a show on HBO.

This degree of pressure is unsustainable. Not just for Dunham, whose thick skin—and willingness to engage the valid critiques—does earn her my full-throated, unequivocal admiration. But also for all the exceptions to male rules—from Beyoncé to Hillary, Shonda to Sheryl—who get pulled and pushed and combed and raked over with equivalent ardor. This craziness is depleting and, I worry, ultimately defeating for all the other women out there with big ambitions: ambitions to write or sing or pass legislation, to lead or create, and to make money, win elections, earn recognition for their work.

Cherchez les femmes, mes amis!  Cherchez les femmes.  How messed up is it that Traister doesn’t even have to use last names when she writes the first names “Beyoncé to Hillary, Shonda to Sheryl.”  We can fill in the blanks because tragically, there’s only one of each, right?  If you missed it, Terri Gross did a fantastic interview with Lena Dunham this week.  It’s a model for how feminists of very different generations can communicate and learn from one another, a subject relevant to my next item.  (This will take a while, so get comfortable.)

I opened my newspaper this morning to see that Megan Daum telling Millennial feminists that they’re doin’ it all rong and to get off her lawn with their “hashtags” and “blogs” and “mattresses.”  Where’s the real change, she writes?

No longer confined to marches, living room rap sessions or fusty news magazine cover stories asking “Is Feminism Dead?,” the cause has become as viral as the videos and Internet memes that purport to speak for it. The go-to celebrity interview now: “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” (Miley Cyrus is a “yes”; Lady Gaga a “no.” OK, then.)

Throughout it all, the “cause” tends to sound more like the atonal, sometimes headache-inducing drone of cicadas than the harmonizing singalong that Beyoncé and movements like “He for She” seem to be pushing for. Even as the mainstream media praised Watson for the inclusive spirit of her remarks — Vanity Fair called the speech a “game changer” — many edgier and often younger feminists accused her campaign of being too “heteronormative,” too heavily invested in the patriarchal status quo and in men who’ve had their chance and blown it. In a post called “Feminism Shouldn’t Make Men Comfortable,” a male blogger for the website Feministing wrote, “It isn’t that men haven’t been called to the conversation but rather that they’ve constantly rejected the invitation.”

Got it?  “Younger feminists” aren’t allowed to generate debate within the movement, but LA Times columnists are permitted to rebuke at will and condescend to the “headache-inducing drone” of younger feminists.  As Daum writes, “OK, then.”  

If you’re rolling your eyes right now, chances are you, like me, are Of A Certain Age. While I’m not old enough to have marched for “women’s lib” in the 1970s, I remember enough about 1990s-era political correctness (its benefits as well as its exasperations) that I sometimes grow cranky and impatient when I see it revived in a way that can seem more reactionary than responsive.

I’m also wary of “movements” that don’t go much further than slogans, whether it’s Lean In-style corporate ladder climbing or hashtag activism. In other words, I am horrified that women are demonstrably unsafe on college campuses, but I’m not sure that lugging a mattress around is the best way to effect change.

I thought the use of scare quotes around “movements” was delightfully imperious, don’t you?

To her credit, Daum admits that “I’m also willing to admit I don’t know what I don’t know. Maybe millennial feminists are reacting to manifestations of sexism that Gen-Xers and baby boomers were less affected by (for instance, the ubiquity of pornography via the Internet). Maybe blogs like Feministing are poised to replace fusty news magazines. Maybe people who came of age before it was possible to pilfer nude photos from private accounts and share them globally have no business judging what younger people need from the world.”  

Maybe?  And here I thought I was the old crank.  I should send Daum a thank-you note for making me look positively youthful by comparison, “blog,” “hashtag,” and all.

What bothered me most about Daum’s column weren’t the specific complaints (although I think they’re trivial), but rather Daum’s apparent expectation that feminism among all social justice movements needs to be something that’s over already.  Can’t you feminists just get your acts together to agree on everything?  Can’t you just make it happen already?  Instead of seeing social justice as a process, she sees it as something that’s either fait accompli or it’s trivial and dead.  

But that’s not how historical change works, and more specifically, it’s not at all how other American social justice movements work.  The abolition of slavery was just one small step towards racial justice in the United States because social justice is resisted at every step and every achievement is subject to a dismantling backlash.  Was everything sunshine and rainbows after the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution?  No.  Does that make the abolitionist movement and all of its work worthless because it didn’t fix everything for all time?  Of course not.  After that we had the “Redemptioners,” the Klan, what African Americans call “the Nadir” from 1880 to 1920, Ida B. Wells and the anti-lynching movement, the Great Migration, and the Civil Rights Movement, and so on.  Things are better than they were in 1955, 1925, or 1875, but are they perfect now?  Hardly.

The women’s movement–which grew out of and was affiliated with nineteenth-century abolition, by the way–has a similar trajectory of incremental wins and long decades of backlash.  Progressive historical change is neither inevitable nor irreversible, and it’s certainly not linear.  (Insert military and campus sexual assault, internet misogyny, and threats to expose your naked selfies here!)

To hold feminists and feminism at fault because they and it are still necessary is ridiculous.  And “rolling your eyes right now” and accusing younger feminists that they’re engaged in “1990s-era political correctness” is a terribly immature and ad-hominem attack on what they’re up to.  What we’re up to.  We need either to get it all done NOW or our engagement with feminism is worthless?  

I have only six terribly immature ad-hominem words for this demand:  Lena Dunham Lena Dunham Lena Dunham. What’s the matter with her voice?  

8 thoughts on “Thursday’s lesson: how progressive historical change happens, plus Lena Dunham.

  1. It’s all about the patriarchal equilibrium, isn’t it? *sigh*

    I don’t watch her show and I don’t know much about her but darned if I am not sick of all the naysayers taking down every woman who gets even a momentary media profile.


  2. Amen, H! I know there are legitimate critiques to be made of hashtag activism, but none of those de-legitimize social justice movements. Moreover, young feminists have brought really important issue to the table, like intersectionality, kyriarchy, trans issues, etc. This is an important corrective to older feminisms, and one which we older feminists (am I that name?!) need to pay attention to. Furthermore, I wouldn’t know about any of those things without feminism’s presence on the internet. Asking Miley Cyrus whether or not she’s a feminist is hardly the same thing as a Feministing article! “Lean In” is only a vapid slogan if you refuse to engage with the ideas Sandberg articulates. Of course any article that rails about “political correctness” (in lieu of honest engagement) is one that gets an immediately finger “W” from me.


  3. I think Daum wants to be the slightly less clueless and cranky (but just barely) Margaret Wente of the U.S.

    For those of you who are not Janice: Margaret Wente regularly writes clickbait articles for the Toronto Globe & Mail that ding young feminists, old feminists, campus feminists, or anything feminist, really. Her pose is a similar “oh, please, you North American feminists STFU because everything is great for you (no thanks to actual feminists, who have always been hairy, dirty man-haters of course) but look, Afghanistan needs you zzzzzzzmmmm.”

    Yes, “hashtag activism” can be a shallow exercise, but only if it’s disconnected from active activism. Just look at what those kids in Colorado are doing to the Jefferson County School Board with the help of social media like FB and Twitter to help organize their protests.


  4. “Instead of seeing social justice as a process, she sees it as something that’s either fait accompli or it’s trivial and dead”

    this. You hear the same reaction with Occupy and other liberal social movements. “But what’s the goal? When is it over?” It’s over when the last heart and mind is changed. So, never.

    This is a very American thing, to want stuff to have well defined beginnings and endings. My last, best therapist was a Brit. Towards the end of our first session, I started asking questions about goals and measurements and such, which are very important to American therapists. His response was, “oh, you want an outcome? How American! I don’t do outcomes.” A lot of things (education, relationships, social movements) don’t have proper outcomes; they’re open ended processes that go until all parties are exhausted or dead. This is not something that the measureable outcome oriented American brain handles well (which is probably one reason why we have issues that are unique in the developed world.)


  5. “A lot of things (education, relationships, social movements) don’t have proper outcomes; they’re open ended processes that go until all parties are exhausted or dead.”

    I like this. I need to be reminded of this. Its oddly comforting. Thanks.


  6. I watched a season of Dunham’s show and found it mildly entertaining, but the point is this: *she is not making this show for me or those over 30, and that is just fine.* Here’s a pro tip for the haters: you have a remote with an off button. Use it.

    The one thing I know for sure about feminism, besides that it’s a good thing, is that random opinion-spouters like Daum only have two speeds: haters and “feminism: you are doing it wrong.” I sometimes think the only ones who really get it are the humor writers over at The Toast.


  7. HA-ha. The Toast! I just discovered that this summer, courtesy of Dr. Crazy I think.

    Another pro tip, for those who have taken a high-school or college literature course: Just as authors frequently write characters who are not admirable, or who are even sociopathic, and we get that their writing these characters is not an endorsement of sociopathy or whatever bad behavior they’re writing about (see Rabbit, Run, Lolita, Macbeth so too even characters closely based on the person playing them ARE NOT IN FACT THAT PERSON. Hannah Horvath is intentionally shown to be a spoiled, shallow, selfish person ON PURPOSE, and it’s LENA DUNHAM who writes her that way. Duh.

    When I watched the first episode of Girls a few years ago, which opened with a scene in which Hannah’s parents inform her that after two post-collegiate years they’re no longer going to pay her rent for her and she gets angry with them, I turned to my husband and said, “This probably means that I’m not the show’s target demographic because I identify with the parents.” But I kept watching and grew to love the show for its willingness to tell the stories of post-collegiate life that are grim, gritty, and sexually humiliating. (At least, that’s my memory of ages 21-24.) And then I figured out that Lena Dunham has more sympathy for the parents in that pilot than she does for the character she plays.

    But, whatever. I like and admire both Mary Tyler Moore and Sex and the City and can appreciate the ways in which those shows were pathbreaking for the 1970s and the turn of the century, respectively, but I’m glad to see some unpleasant women portrayed on television in a way that doesn’t relegate them to stereotypical “bitch”/villain roles. I don’t have to admire a show’s protagonist to enjoy it. (Mad Men,, or Breaking Bad/Metastasis anyone???)


  8. “more sympathy for the parents…” On this last point, c.f. Ross Douthat’s op-ed column in the NYT today (Sunday), “I Love Lena,” somewhat curiously claiming the show for his side because it “by being realistic, sharp-edge, complicated, almost gives cultural conservatism its due.” I don’t know, hard to say, don’t watch (much) t.v.


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