First, 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?